Friday, August 21, 2009

A Family Six Pack : Part 3 - Harriet Ellen Maxfield

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 :


  1. Anonymous1:16 PM

    "Harriet the Resolute"...nice! the title dates are a bit off, wot?

    'Tis kinda neat the census started letting folks fill out the forms, themselves. To see hand-writing of ones ancestors..truly remarkable...but to have snaps...even better!

  2. Oh my goodness!!! The 1911 records are up. Are they on the British Registry Office or Is there a backlog? I've been waiting 9 years for this.

    Anyway you can tell I love family history.

    I find that the top picture of your ancestors is sort of strange - like a collage of pictures glued together from other sources. Especially the soldier on the left. He just doesn't seem to belong to that picture at all. Very Interesting Stuff.

  3. Subby : Thanks for the comments and for pointing out my typo. Now corrected.
    Clever Pup : Yes they are all on-line at If you check back to the first post in the series you will get an explanation for the "collage"
    Thanks for calling by.

  4. Anonymous2:37 PM

    Alan, sorry just happened to notice it.

    I'd like to research my Grandmum's side( on Father's side ), but not sure if any records survived the Bolshevik Revolution. And it's getting harder for remaining family to open up their memory banks, wot?

  5. Subby : I really did mean thanks. Interesting question about Russian records - it's an area I know nothing about. But I am sure that the Bolshevik's will have kept very complete records. Good luck mate.

  6. Anonymous3:29 PM

    Alan, oh I realise that, no worries! And I'd imagine they did keep records, tho' as that came during the Great War, I don't hold out much promise. I may have to make inquiries at Ellis Island, where a lot of the European immigration took place. 'Tis a daunting task, it is. Cheers!

  7. For someone who has no real stories about your grandmother, you weave quite an engaging tale. Have really enjoyed this series so far.

  8. Alan - sometimes the photo is enough. Harriet the Resolute is owning that doorway.
    From knowing so little, you have unveiled a lot - as usual :o)

  9. wonderful and there sure is a lot here for not knowing much!! I can get so lost in looking at old photos - I look forward to reading the earlier installments and look forward to future family stories.

    I hope you do discover the mystery of the years of loss if for nothing more than to satisfy your own curious cat!

    unfortunately since antibiotics weren't around, I'm surprised the overall mortality rate for syphilis wasn't higher - from what we now know the victorian era was much more randy then the revisionist reputation

  10. Alan, I will start following this one. I'm fascinated by the old soldiers, do you know anything of their war service, I'm assuming they were sent off to France. My grandfather was in the Yorks and Lancs and I have a fair sized website on some of the battalions my grandfather served in;

  11. you have taken a simple picture and weaved a tale so deep. this series continues to amaze me. i need to look back into my fam history...

  12. I've not been commenting on these, but I find them fascinating. There's an obvious sadness in discovering one's history, but it's also liberating in its revelation.

    Then again, that might just be me.

  13. Thanks, as usual for all the comments.
    Kimy : I know what you mean, I too get lost in old photographs.
    John D : Glad you like the series. My grandfather was in the Durham Light Infantry Labour Corp. Uncle John was, I think, in the Duke of Wellingtons Regiment but hopefully I will have more information about this before next week when it is his turn to come under the spotlight. I've had a quick look at your Yorks and Lancs website, it looks very good indeed. I suspect I will be a regular visitor there during the coming week.

  14. It's a shame you can't find out more about her. And I agree completely about childhood memories of grandparents and whether they are true or imagined. I left my grandparents when I was 11 to travel 12,000 miles. Fortunately, I was able to visit both twice before they died and revisit some of my past as well. Interesting stuff Alan, you're doing an amazing job of picking through their stories.

    Wouldn't childhood diseases such as diptheria be an issue at that time too? My dad remembered the diptheria ambulances picking up children in Great Harwood, not that far from Bradford.

  15. Anonymous12:51 AM

    @JeffScape, it's not just you; I've a similar thought. Everbody has a skeleton or two in their closet. The discovery can bring both surprise and admonishment, yes?

  16. Baino : Thanks for the kind words. It is a good point about diptheria and other childhood diseases. I have started the lengthy process of trying to track down the three dead children - hopefully this will eventually lead me to a death certificate and further evidence of what happened.

  17. Anonymous10:57 AM

    Alan, I remember studying the U.S. as having bouts of typhoid, smallpox, and TB round this era, as well as the syphillus. And every now and then, a spot of the plague pops up! But given what the medical field now knows, 'tis a mite better treating and containing it all, yes? Much luck in your search :)

  18. Brilliant weaving of the stories and the pics are just fantastic..really well done.Look forward to more !

  19. Fascinating, and I have to say that I've never heard of an Enoch - other than the Biblical one that is.


Black Friar

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