Enoch Williams was born in 1832 in Flintshire in North Wales. He was a coal miner, as was his father, Thomas. Mining was usually a family affair—all the males in a family worked in the mine, or none did. (I say males and not men because some of them were very young. Nearly seventy years later, in 1899, the half-nephew of Enoch’s brother went down a pit when he was only twelve years old and as late as 1920 the half-nephew’s son had to do the same. His first job was to sit by the hessian gates underground keeping the way clear for the tubs of coal and, when he got home at night, he would tell his sister how scared he had been, sitting in the black darkness while rats ran over his feet and legs).
On the 6th July 1863, Enoch married Eliza Higson in the parish church of Haigh near Wigan in Lancashire; their first child (Thomas) was born two months later. Eliza bore him two more children and then, on 11th June 1867, Enoch died in a roof fall underground at the Haigh Pit. (For those who don’t know, Haigh is pronounced “Hay”). Eliza got no compensation but, because she had three children under four and because her husband had died in their employ, the tender-hearted mine owners gave her seven days before she had to leave her company house.
On 29th June, 1868, Eliza gave birth to a daughter, Agnes, in a cottage in Aspull, near Wigan. We’ll never know who Agnes’s father was. Eliza was working as a charwoman, cleaning other people’s houses for what money she could get and taking in lodgers. She would have done what she had to do to keep a roof over her children’s heads and food in their stomachs. For all we know, Agnes may have been the result of a commercial transaction.
Not far away lived William Marsh, 28 and single. William married Eliza on the 15th May, 1871 in Wigan’s Church of All Saints. He took on all four children and gave her three more. Sometime during the 1870s, as mining in that part of Lancashire began to die, William moved the whole family across the Pennines and northwards to Durham. William was a good husband and father. He raised all the children as his own and, as well as working down the pit, he kept a smallholding where he raised vegetables and chickens.
Is there anything here for the reader? I think there is, once it’s been chopped up in the writer’s head and mixed with other stories, some true and some invented. To make a satisfactory story, though—to make a piece of fiction that people will read—you need to show human change, and you need an outcome. Agnes provides us with both. Her life was not a total bust. Okay, she was born a bastard to a woman who already had three children she lacked the financial resources to bring up. All right, when Enoch died things must have looked pretty bleak. But in 1886, three days before her eighteenth birthday (and probably already showing the child she would give birth to five months later) she married John Burnett. John was a miner (of course) and he became a Colliery Deputy. And them, as people in Durham mining villages would say, were the days when a Deputy was a Deputy. He’d have worn a bowler hat and carried a silver-topped cane and, when he walked through the village, men would have saluted politely and women would have bobbed a little curtsey.
Here’s a picture of Agnes, taken at the age of 80. She’s at home, in her sitting room. There’s a nice modern electric fire and she’s resting her toasty-warm slippers on a fitted carpet. There weren’t many of those in British working class homes in the late nineteen forties.
So Agnes did all right. She came through.
And she and John were ambitious. Their children didn’t get many years at school, but those they did get had to be used. “Work hard or you’ll end up down the pit.” It could be done. There’s going to be a Queen of England whose great grandparents came from the same sort of place and did the same sort of thing.
Agnes ended up having a far better life than could have been forecast at the start of it. She would have been happy. She was happy – you can see that from her expression in the photographs. Though smug might be a better word.
But she wouldn’t be happy today, because not enough people knew how her life had turned out and what hurdles she’d had to jump over to get there. The neighbours knew, some of it at least, and in Agnes’s time that would have been enough.
It isn’t enough today. Is it? Today she’d have wanted Hello writing up her eightieth birthday. Today she’d have wanted to be on television, with glassy eyed nonentities telling the audience how wonderful she was and people applauding. Today she’d have wanted Ready, Steady Cook, with Ainsley Harriot slobbering over her and gurning at the audience – “Eighty years old, ladies and gentlemen!” – like a shaven-headed black Frankie Howerd.
Is there a story there for the discerning reader? Oh, I think so. Half a dozen of them, in fact.
Read more Invisible Lives here.