Mary Jane Pearson and Edith Anne Featherstone: Henry Norrisí Two Wives

Last updated: February 2009




Mary Jane was born in 1867 in Brighton, into a Ďrailwayí family.Her grandfather George Pearson had been born in Derbyshire but had left it to move to the industrial north-west to work building locomotives.In 1861 he was living in Gorton Lancashire and had risen to be an inspector in the factory.His son William was already a foreman, probably in the same factory, but he left the area shortly afterwards to work for another railway company; perhaps he got a promotion that way.


Moving to the south-east, William Pearson married a local woman, Sarah Wimsett, in 1864.They had two daughters, Sarah and Mary Jane.In 1871 the Pearsons were living in Brighton.I think William Pearson was almost certainly employed on the London to Brighton line, because by 1881 the family had moved to the lineís other end and were living near Clapham Junction. William had been promoted into railway worldís aristocracy - he had become an engine driver.The Pearsons were able to afford a house, at 8 St Georgeís Road Battersea, but they did take in lodgers: four young men were living in the household on the day of the 1881 census, all of them working on the railways.


As I donít know when the Pearsons moved to London, I canít tell where Mary Jane and her elder sister went to school.They probably started school in Brighton and finished it in Battersea.They will have been amongst the first children to benefit from the Education Act of 1870 which financed a nationwide programme of education for all children from age 5 to age 13.


In 1881 Mary Jane and her sister Sarah were working, probably in the same establishment; and I want to make a point here about womenís work in the 19th century.In 1881 Sarah was a dressmaker and Mary Jane, a mantle-maker.Mary Jane would have been 14, and not long out of school.Mantle-making was perhaps an early part of her training as a professional needle-worker.The girlsí employer would probably have been a local one, either a wholesale factory or a shop with work-rooms above it making and then selling its own designs.By the 1880s Sarah and Mary Jane Pearson could have been using the sewing machines being made by Singer and other firms (mass production in the USA of Singerís patented design began in 1856); but they could have still been having to sew by hand.Sewing was just the sort of work that Victorian society thought was suitable for young working-class girls.However, the kind of small establishment that the sisters were almost certainly employed in was badly regulated, and exploitation in the form of poor pay rates, long hours without overtime and unsafe working conditions was common.The sweatshop system of the East End was particularly notorious.Letís hope that the Pearson sisters worked for a kindly employer.


With both daughters working, by 1891 the Pearson family had been able to reduce to one the number of lodgers they took in.In 1891 Mary Jane described herself as a dressmaker rather than a mantle-maker, so she had finished her period of training.The Pearsons had moved - itís amazing to modern eyes how often everybody moved in Norrisí time - they were living at 107 New Road Battersea.


I donít know how Mary Jane Pearson first met Henry Norris.Iíve suggested in my files on Allen and Norris that Henry Norris might have been working in Battersea in the early 1890s though even if that guess is correct, it doesnít explain how he came to meet a young woman who made womenís dresses for a living.There were various ways in which young people could meet in late Victorian England: church and church social activities was an obvious one, being introduced by mutual acquaintances was another.However, the Norrises were living in Camberwell, which would have had possibly overlapping but more likely quite separate social circles from Battersea.Itís a puzzle.


Henry Norris was a good catch.A job as a clerk was seen as genteel and less liable to be eliminated during economic downturns - perceptions which might have been quite erroneous.However, there was no doubt that being a clerk was less dangerous than manual or semi-manual work, so less likely to shorten your life.In addition, Henry Norrisís management qualities seem to have made him an exception to the general rule that promotion for clerks came only after many years.Although Norris was only in his mid-twenties by 1891, he had already been promoted to a senior position at his work: he described himself as ďmanaging clerkĒ to the census taker.†† Iím sure Henry Norris impressed Mary Jane Pearson; and his prospects would have weighed with her parents when they were asked (as they will have been) to give their consent to a marriage.Henry Norris and Mary Jane Pearson may have been engaged by the date of the 1891 census: they married in St Barnabasí Church Kennington on 2 June 1892 and started their married life at 29 Rutland Street.


Although I have no direct evidence, I can say with confidence that Mary Jane Pearson did no paid work after her marriage and no work outside the home.On the marriage certificate her occupation is left blank. Victorian society assumed that a married woman would not do paid work; and (in theory at least) a young man didnít marry until he had an income capable of supporting a wife who didnít work for money.Victorian society may have assumed, but of course there was a big difference between the ideal and the reality.I hope Iíve made clear in my files on the times of Henry Norris that married women did work - Iíve pointed out where women were working at home and helping the family finances: Mary Janeís own mother did all the work that was required when you took in lodgers to help pay the rent; it was an extension of her housework tasks.The income the lodgers paid her was a big contribution to the familyís budget.Even if you were able to manage without the income from lodgers, there was work to be done when you were married unless you had a large domestic staff: shopping (the fridge hadnít been invented yet so housewives had to shop nearly every day for perishable items like meat), cooking, cleaning and in due course child-care and nursing.Victorian families hired domestic staff as soon as they could afford it; partly because the employment of even the cheapest, most menial servant had a social cachť, it put you in the middle classes; and partly because household work was time consuming and involved a lot of heavy and back-breaking tasks.Nevertheless most women did do some work at home.


In Victorian England every married couple expected to have children.Most families were large, almost certainly larger than the parents would have liked.Trying to limit the number of your children was still a very contentious issue, and the means by which to do it very hard to come by (other than not having sex, of course!).Although, amongst the upper and middle classes at least, family size was falling by the end of the century, all the churches thundered against birth control, on the grounds that it was against Godís divine plan; and those who attempted to bring birth control to the attention of the wider public reaped the whirlwind.When Charles Bradlaugh published a book discussing the issue in 1877, he and his co-writer Annie Besant were convicted of obscene libel and sentenced to six months in prison.Itís not very likely, then, that Henry and Mary Jane Norris would have used any means of birth control to limit the number of their children and increase the gaps of years between them.In their case, though, any precautions would have been unnecessary: Henry and Mary Jane had no children.Both of them would have felt it, but itís likely Mary Jane would have felt it more personally: as the mechanics of conception were not well understood, blame for a coupleís infertility always landed squarely on the womanís shoulders; and in Victorian thinking, a married woman who was childless was an object of pity as she was not fulfilling her feminine destiny.


Henry Norris had children later in his life, so in this case of childlessness the blame, if you want to play that game, was properly Mary Janeís.However, Norrisí grand-children told me that Mary Jane Norris had died of a wasting disease.In that case, itís likely she became ill soon after she married.Although there were plenty of wasting diseases lying in wait in Victorian England, especially in the cities, tuberculosis (TB) is the most likely culprit.Called Ďconsumptioní at the time, for the way the illness destroyed the suffererís lungs, there was no cure for it in Mary Janeís lifetime.A diagnosis of TB was a death sentence.Death came slowly and it must have been harrowing for Henry Norris, watching his wife die by inches and in great pain, knowing that even the best doctors could do little to help.


In 1896, Mary Jane must have supported her husband in his decision to accept William Gilbert Allenís offer of a partnership in his building firm: otherwise I donít think so conscientious a man, so determined to carry out his duties, would have made such a big change in his life, a change that could have ended in personal bankruptcy.Mary Janeís support was justified, and I like to think of Hill Crest Thurleigh Road - built by the partnership for Henry Norris in 1897 - as a Ďthank youí gift to her.Hill Crest has french windows opening into the front garden: perhaps so that Mary Jane, possibly confined to the house or to a wheelchair by then, could be moved outside.Hill Crest is a large house and Henry Norris was in the process of making a fortune; he could afford servants and Iím sure he employed them.I wonder how Mary Jane coped with supervising any servants that she and Henry employed, having never been in a position to give orders in her life before.I wish I knew how many servants there were, but I canít think how I could find out.TB usually ended with the patient too weak to leave their bed.Even those as seriously ill as Mary Jane became were nursed at home in Victorian England and Iím sure Henry Norris paid for nursing in these final stages or asked a family member to do it: it may have been at this time that his unmarried sister Ada Patience went to live with him.

Mary Jane Norris died over Christmas-New Year 1899-1900.TB was such a hell for the patient and their family that Henry Norrisí desolation may have been tempered by relief that her suffering was finally over.Both her parents were still alive at their daughterís death though they both seem to have died within two or three years; not surprisingly.

Henry Norrisí grand-children tell me that Mary Jane was the great love of his life.Certainly, he seems not to have stayed living in the house that she had most likely died in: by the time of the 1901 Census he and Ada Patience were living elsewhere.However, within 18 months of his first wifeís death, he married for a second time.





Iíve had a hard time trying to locate Edith Featherstoneís family, for several reasons:


1) although her grandchildren have a family tree of Henry Norrisí side of the family, they havenít done so much work on Edithís side, for reasons which will become clear below


2) one of Edithís grandfathers was a man called McDonnell.If youíve done any work on your own family history youíll realise how very easily that surname can be mis-spelled or mis-transcribed


3) the McDonnells had a habit of giving their children two names and calling them by the second one: Bridget Agnes is Agnes; Edithís mother whom I think of as Margaret might be Ellen


4) I outline below my theory that there was an illegitimate child in Edithís ancestry.


That said, Iíll begin with the McDonnells for reasons which will also become clear below.One of the few things known about them by Edithís grandchildren is that the family came over to England from Ireland; as the name is Scottish itís reasonable to assume they were Protestants from Northern Ireland.Edithís grandfather James McDonnell came to London and married a local woman, Ann Marney, in 1845.They had the inevitable large family: Mary, Margaret, Agnes, James, Walter and Horace.††


One of Edithís grandchildren told me that James McDonnell worked in the royal stables. His address in 1861 and 1871 does lend some credence to that: it was the same house, which is remarkable enough in Victorian England, suggesting that it may have gone with job; and its address is near Buckingham Palace - 2 Catherine Place Westminster, not on my 1930s vintage A-Z but apparently off Catherine Street near Buckingham Gate.In 1861 James McDonnell said he was a porter; however in 1871 he told the census taker that he was an assistant smith which also tends to confirm the family story.By 1881 he had been promoted and was a white-smith.The third piece of indirect evidence is Ann McDonnellís life after her husband died (I think this was in 1887): she must have had a very comfortable pension because she moved out of crowded central London to pleasantly suburban Putney; so wherever her husband had worked, his employer was a good one with plenty of money to spend on their staff and their dependents.††††††††††††††††

Edithís other grandfather was William Edward Featherstone.My theory about his birth - it is just a theory - is based on an afternoon of finger-work, detective work and guesswork with freebmd and the censuses; and the absence of any knowledge of him amongst Edithís descendents.The theory is: that William Edward Featherstone was the illegitimate son of Susan Featherstone and either John or Alexander Ridpath, brothers in a family that lived at West Ham, a short distance away from the Featherstones.William Edward Featherstone always said to the census takers that he had been born in Woodford, Essex; his birth would then have been registered in West Ham.He also always gave the census takers an age that was consistent with having been born in 1850.There were no William Featherstones registered at West Ham in 1850; but there was a child registered as William Edward Ridpath.On the day of the 1851 Census a few months later, the family at 55 Monkham Lane Woodford was Charles Featherstone, a farm labourer, and his wife Sarah plus two daughters: Susan Featherstone aged 21 and Elizabeth Featherstone aged 14.Also in the household was a five-month-old infant whose surname was given to the census taker also as Featherstone.There was no one else living in the household and both the daughters were unmarried.


I suggest that the infant is the boy registered as William Edward Ridpath.There was no child of the right age called William Ridpath in the 1851 Census and yet there was no death registration of such a child between January 1850 and June 1951. Having been described to the census taker as Featherstone, Featherstone the boy seems to have remained.It wouldnít have mattered, in a bureaucratic way, unless heíd wanted to go abroad; then he might have had some explaining to do.


I couldnít find any evidence that either of Susan or Elizabeth Featherstone ever married a man called Ridpath.I believe that Susan may have married a few years later, but if she did she didnít take her son with her to her new relationship.Neither daughter was living with their parents in 1861 but William was still there.Charles Featherstone was dead by the 1871 census but William was still living with his grandmother Sarah, still in Woodford but by this time at 54 Inmanís Row.He was at work by this time and his wage was probably the major income in the household.He described himself as a ďLetter carrierĒ.Roger and I have discussed why he didnít say he was employed by the Post Office and have come to the conclusion that he may have been working in the City taking legal documents by hand between solicitorsí offices.


William Featherstone and Margaret McDonnell met somehow, and married in 1875.Edith Anne was their eldest child, born in 1876; she was followed by Arthur William in 1877, Mary Elizabeth in 1882 and James Horace in 1886.


Edith and Arthur were born in central London but by 1881 William had taken his family back to West Ham.They were living in 4 Frederick Street, where William Featherstone described himself to the census taker as a ďpaviourĒ.It seems that the man from the census didnít know quite what was meant by this and asked for further information; so William told him that he laid asphalt.I suppose he meant that he helped make road-ways, perhaps around the nearby Victoria Docks.I canít quite connect this with a previous job as a letter carrier - perhaps he was trying to say that he worked for an asphalt firm in a clerical capacity.In the 1891 census heís listed as a clerk, with no information about what his employer did.


I think itís here that I should say that one thing her descendents do know about about Edith Featherstoneís early life was that her mother had abandoned the family to run off with another man.Edithís grandchildren didnít know exactly when this happened; or if she had later come back.This information leaves me wondering quite what to make of the 1891 Census when William and Margaret Featherstone were both listed as living at 102 Rokeby Street West Ham, with their children Arthur, Mary and James and one elderly lodger.Perhaps Margaret hadnít left yet; or she had come back; or William told the census taker an untruth about where his wife was.†† You will notice I didnít list Edith at Rokeby Street.On the day of the 1891 Census she was living at 10 Stanbridge Terrace, Stanbridge Road Putney, in the household headed by her grandmother Ann McDonnell.Also living there were Edithís unmarried aunt Mary McDonnell, and her cousin Horace McDonnell.Her elder cousin Walter McDonnell, a civil servant, was living down the road at 2 Stanbridge Terrace with his wife Annie and their baby son, also Walter.Edith was still living with her grandmother ten years later; and her grandchildren tell me Edith went to school, or at least finished school, not in West Ham but in Pimlico.†† So Edith, like her father, was brought up more by grandparents than parents.


William Edward Featherstone died in 1893, aged only 42.And if Iíve got the correct person, Edithís mother may have died young too: in 1898 aged 43.I wonder what happened to Edithís younger siblings: if they didnít go to live with grandmother McDonnell, who took them in?Iíve tried looking for Edithís sister Mary in 1901 but Iíve had no luck.


Edith Featherstone was nearly a decade younger than Mary Jane Pearson and thus much better placed to get the best out of the 1870 Education Act, which was rolled out only gradually over the LCCís wide and heavily populated area.I think Edith got a much better education than Mary Jane: an education that was the difference between a job as a dressmaker and a job working for the General Post Office, with all the benefits of a large organisation - sick and holiday pay for example; promotion (not so likely for young women) and better working conditions.In addition, an article written during Edithís time as mayoress of Fulham indicates that her education hadnít stopped at the school gates.She could play the piano - possibly only to the extent of accompanying her daughterís song and dance act, but piano lessons were not part of the school curriculum in the LCC so someone in Edithís family had the money and the willingness to pay for private lessons.


On the day of the census in 1901, Ann McDonnell, her daughter Mary and grand-daughter Edith were still living together, although Horace had now left home.The three women were living at 72 Cromwell Road Wimbledon, next door to Walter and Annie McDonnell at number 74.Other neighbours included the inevitable clerks, and a mechanical engineer: a very respectable lower middle class neighbourhood.Ann McDonnell was described as ďof independent meansĒ.Both aunt Mary and Edith were listed as having no paid occupation.Itís possible that Edith was engaged to Henry Norris by this time and had given work; but itís much more likely that Mary and Edith were assumed not to be working by the census taker, who therefore didnít ask them if they had a job


Edith Featherstone met Henry Norris through her work: her grandchildren told me so.She worked on the counter at the PO, he was a customer with a lot of post for her to deal with.It was a more 20th century than 19th century way of meeting.I would suppose that the two of them knew each other in a professional way before Mary Jane Norris died.Romance blossomed once Henry Norris had been widowed.Although he was 12 years Edithís senior and had been married before with all the baggage that might bring to a new relationship, Henry Norris was still a good catch: rich, energetic and a strong personality; and childless.Edith Anne Featherstone married Henry Norris on 16 July 1901 at Holy Trinity Wimbledon.In the absence of her father, I should imagine Edithís uncle Walter gave away the bride.The witnesses were heavily slanted towards the Norris end of the new equation: his business partner (William Gilbert Allen) and his sister.Ada Patience Norris had been keeping house for Henry, at least during the 18 months he was a widower, probably for longer.She went to live with Henry and Edith when they began their married life at Woodborough Road Clapham and stayed with them, and then with Edith after Henry had died, until her own death in 1946.


Edith loved children - I shall describe some of her work with children in Fulham later.So she must have been thrilled to find herself pregnant; and Henry Norris more so, after remaining childless for so long.†† Edith and Henryís first child was born on 16 October 1902; christened Mary Joy, she was always called Joy.Margaret Audrey (Peggy) was born just 12 months later, on 21 October 1903.Then there was a pause - possibly miscarriages or possibly greater care - before Nanette Patience was born on 27 February 1907.All three were born at home as was standard practice at the time, the two eldest at Woodborough Road and Nanette in Alton Road Roehampton where the family had moved a few months before.Edith registered all the births herself as her husband was so busy.There is a hint in Edithís Will that she always regretted that she did not give her husband a son.These things happen though, and Edith enjoyed her daughters to the full.The first years of her married life, therefore, were taken up with household management and childcare that were every married womanís lot, albeit with several servants (I wish I knew how many).In late 1907, however, Edithís public career began.






Copyright Sally Davis January 2009