Harriet Ellen Maxfield 1870 - 1955
I have not been looking forward to writing this section of my exploration of the 1917 family photograph, for the simple reason that I seem to know so little about Harriet, my grandmother. Although she was still alive when I was small and I have a vague memory of meeting her on a few occasions, those memories are so fleeting and so inexact, I sometimes wonder whether I have made them up to fill an inconvenient gap. I have no memory of meeting her husband, Enoch, but for him there are a store of family stories and anecdotes. My brother and I, when we were younger, would compete to see who could be most like our image of Enoch : adventurous, daring, unconventional (my brother always won). There were no competitions to see who could be most like Harriet for we had no idea what Harriet was like, and I'm not sure that we cared.
There are, of course, ways of getting close to Harriet, not least of all the genealogist's touchstone, census records. Most of those records tell us little more than dates and places. She was born in 1870 in the Little Horton area of Bradford, the youngest of six girls. Her father had started life as a mill labourer but eventually became a woolcomber. His six girls would all eventually follow him into the ever-expanding nineteenth century Bradford textile trade. She married Enoch in 1898 when he was 20 and she was 28. Four children followed : John Arthur in 1899, Miriam in 1901, Annie in 1903, and my father, Albert, in 1911. Census records are long on dates, but sadly short on stories.
The story doesn't end there however. The 1911 census records have just been published in Britain and they provide more facts and the beginnings of the story. The 1911 census differed from previous census exercises in a number of ways. For the first time the census returns will filled in by the subjects of the survey rather than third party enumerators. When you look at the written records you are looking at the handwriting of your ancestors. There is also additional information about the size of the property being inhabited : we know, for example, that in 1911 Enoch and Harriet and their three children and the soon-to-arrive Albert were living in just two rooms in Town End in Great Horton, Bradford. But the beginnings of the story is provided by a further "new" question in the survey which asks the head of the family to state how many children had been born from the marriage and how many were alive at the time of the census return. Enoch had written that there were six children born alive, of which three (John, Miriam, and Annie) were alive in 1911.
So the years between Annie and Albert were years of loss. Why did almost half of their children die in childhood at a time when infant mortality - even amongst the industrial working class - was nearer 10% than 50%? By one of those strange coincidences, as I pondered this question last night I watched the latest episode of the TV documentary "Who Do You Think You Are?". For those unfamiliar with the show it traces the family background of a "celebrity" and provides an entertaining and informative introduction to family history research. This week the actor, Martin Freeman, went in search of his great grandfather and grandmother and came up against a situation where half of the children of the marriage had died in infancy. The explanation, it turned out, was that the family was infected with syphilis, something that was remarkably common in the late Victorian period (10% of all families was the figure that was quoted) and which led to high rates of infant mortality. I am not suggesting that this was the cause of the loss in Enoch and Harriet's family but it has made me determined to intensify my research into this aspect of the family history.
But at this time I have little real information about Harriet. I have the dates and the names. And I have two photographs. But there comes a time when you have to leave the facts behind and simply look at those photographic images and get a feel for the person concerned. Look at the photograph of Harriet standing at the doorway to the family home in Great Horton in the 1920s. Yes she looks worn-down by work and care but she also looks strong and resolute. In ancient times it was usual to give descriptive names to family members : Pipin the Brave, Ethelred the Unready, that kind of thing. I'd like to revive the tradition for this is Harriet the Resolute. I hope I can be just a little like her.
You can read previous posts in this mini series at :