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Sister Elizabeth Sarah

It is the 23rd December 1856; the day Sarah Maria Watts married Samuel Howes at the parish of St John Timberhill with All Saints and St Michael-at-Thorn, Norwich; both lived in the All Saints parish. Samuel worked as a shoe maker, a trade common in Norwich, and by 1871, Samuel and Sarah have 4 children, or, at least, 4 still alive and with them during the census. Eleanor, the eldest, is working as a factory hand, age 13. Samuel, age 10, and Charles, age 6, are both scholars and the youngest, Arthur, is only one. At least 2 more children were born subsequently: William in 1872 and Sarah Elizabeth in 1874, when Eleanor would have been 16 or 17. The differences in ages between these sisters may well have impacted their subsequent lives.

Eleanor, the eldest child, born the year after her parents married, grew up in a home with both parents, and they lived on Mill Hill in Norwich in both the 1871 and 1881 censuses. However, by 1881 conditions had changed. Eleanor was the first child to leave home, it seems, getting married in 1879 to James Sadd. Later that year, her father Samuel died aged only 44. Sarah was left a widow, with several young children. Samuel, the oldest son, was registered with Eleanor and James in 1881, leaving Charles, Arthur, William and Sarah at home; Sarah is aged only 7, and she would have grown up with her mother a single parent. Both girls would have had a working mother: Sarah is described as a Havel Maker in both 1871 and 1881. (A Havel is used in weaving). The other main difference between the two girls is made clear by Eleanor’s marriage certificate. James Sadd signs his name; Eleanor makes only her mark. It seems she was illiterate, and possibly never had any schooling. While at 13, it wasn’t unusual for a child to be working, she may have started in the factory much earlier, as would have been quite common among poorer households; the fact that both parents had an occupation implies that the Howes family were quite poor. Of the boys, both Samuel and Charles are both down as scholars in the 1871 census; it is possible that Sarah made Havels in order to enable her sons to have some schooling; I have no proof that Eleanor had none, except her inability to sign her name. I came across a reference to the 1833 Factory Act on line, which made provision for employers to provide some education for employees aged under 13, but this was apparently often ignored in practice.

By 1881, Eleanor and James were living in Heigham Street, Norwich; James was a Tinman and they had a daughter, Sarah, with Eleanor’s brother, Samuel also living there, working as a shoe maker; in the other household, Sarah is still working as a Havel maker, even more necessary now that she was a widow; Charles, aged 16, was a boot maker; Arthur, aged 11, William, aged 9, and Sarah, aged 7 were all scholars. The family would have had less choice about when to send their children to work, by this stage. Legislation had made elementary schooling compulsory in 1880; Sarah, the youngest child, had been born late enough to take advantage of this, and I assume (although I have seen no evidence either way) that she would have been literate.

By 1891, the family have moved to Waterloo Road in Norwich, where the older Sarah, now aged 55, is no longer working; whether she was no longer able to, or whether having four working children at home meant she no longer needed to, I don’t know. All are employed in the shoe trade: Charles, aged 26, is a shoemaker; Arthur, aged 21, is a shoe finisher; William, aged 19, is a clicker [cutting out the tops and uppers for shoes] and Sarah, aged 17, is a boot machinist, a trade needing a certain amount of training. Elizabeth Watts, widowed mother and grandmother of the family, is also living with them. By 1901, only William and Sarah are still at home, both still working in the shoe trade. Their mother died later that year, being buried with her husband in Earlham old cemetery in Norwich. Tragically, Eleanor had already died by then, aged only 40, in 1897.

Although Eleanor had left home while some of her siblings were still young, there is evidence that she was still involved in the family; she and James acted as witnesses at Arthur’s wedding in 1891; Eleanor, again, made her mark. How much her inability to write (and, presumably, read) made to her life, I do not know. It may not have been uncommon among women of her age; but, barely a generation later, all children were taught, and literacy rates presumably improved. Assuming her younger sister was literate, she would have been able to do so much more; I have no idea whether it made a difference the work she did on leaving school, but it would have enabled her to read books, newspapers, the bible and prayer books. The latter may well have been important to Sarah, as (this will no doubt be unsurprising to regular readers) she joined our Community, around 1909, as a lay Sister. Lay Sisters did not need as much education as choir Sisters, but they did join in some of the Offices; and an ability to read both Bible and prayer books, must have been an advantage, even prior to joining.

Sarah joined the Community as Sr Elizabeth Sarah, changing her two baptismal names around, as happened with a couple of other Sisters. She may well have been known as Elizabeth anyway, to avoid confusion with her mother. She seems to have been in the Community House for most of her time in CAH, before she, too, died young, aged 48 in 1923, after 13 years in the Community; another thing both sisters had in common. Whether there were other similarities is now lost to history. I can’t be certain of the impact the differences in their upbringing made in their lives; how different was Eleanor’s role as a factory hand, to Sarah’s as a boot machinist? Did Sarah’s ability to read make a difference to her joining the Community?

Even nowadays, there are differences in levels of education based on where a child is born, and how good their school is; differences that impact upon lives, however much we believe in equality of opportunity; worldwide differences, as well as those within the UK. Differences which affect not just individuals, but the society in which they exist. Differences which may well exclude a person. There may or may not be anything we can do about this, except pray. But we can also be aware of those differences, and not condemn people whose standards are different, and whose level of education may be limited. Just as Eleanor and Sarah’s age meant their educations were different, others may well have had fewer opportunities than us. We can also give thanks for what we have received, and how we benefitted from our own educations, however limited, or otherwise. For if you are reading this blog, you have at least had the opportunity to learn to read. Maybe we could pause, just briefly, to give thanks whenever we start to read anything – and pray for those who can’t?

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