BY TONY BERRY
An edited extract from my recently published memoir, Celtic Skeletons, that delves (with a mix of fact and fiction) into my paternal ancestors from Pembrokeshire
WHEN my great-great aunt Mary Anne Berry stood before the Haverfordwest Poor Law Union’s receiving officer, Mr Joseph John, on Monday, 25 July 1890, her life had reached its lowest ebb. She and her six children, who stood meekly at her side, were destitute.
‘We have nothing, sir,’ she said. ‘I cannot feed them. No one will take us in.’
Joseph John considered the forlorn faces before him – four boys and two girls, the oldest a scrawny lad of twelve and the youngest a babe in arms, still at her mother’s breast. He noted the desperation on the woman’s face and how the children gathered close to her. Their old clothes were ragged yet neatness and showing an attempt at cleanliness. He detected pride and determination beneath the despair; this was a mother who cared.
But he had his duty to perform; questions had to be asked before incurring costs to the parish.
‘And where is Mr Berry, your husband?’
‘I wish I knew, sir,’ whispered Mary in her broad Cockney accent, wondering how she had ever fallen for the bright young man from Pembrokeshire who had breezed into her life twenty years ago and whisked her away from family and friends.
‘He can’t earn enough to support us,’ she added.
The hopes and promises of their early days together in Shoreditch had soon faded as he moved from job to job, and from town to town, while keeping her in an almost permanent state of pregnancy with seven kids in fourteen years and their first-born dying when only five years old.
As the youngest brother of my great-grandfather, Alfred Jabez Berry, George Weymouth Berry had started out all right in a solid Welsh working class home, at first in Coombs and then in Steynton and Milford. He did as his brothers and father had done and learned the trade of joiner and shipwright. It was an essential and worthwhile skill in a dockyard town, especially as workers could move between Admiralty ports if work was slack in one yard and tradesmen were needed in another.
But while older brother Alfred progressed steadily through life with gainful employment, marriage to a local girl and eventual recognition as a pillar of the Pembroke community, George had other ideas. He decided the grass was greener, and more lucrative, far from solid family life in the Berrys’ house in Marine Gardens, Milford, with its view out over the Haven and the expanding dockyard on the facing shore at Pembroke. As his father and brothers kept hammering into him, a man with a trade would never be short of work. Theirs was a trade that could be applied almost anywhere and especially in the big cities upcountry where, George reasoned, better money was surely to be made than he would ever earn in Pembroke Dock.
So he headed for London, the River Thames and the shipyards around Woolwich and Greenwich. He found temporary lodgings with his elder brother, Joseph, now living in Woolwich with wife Sophie after bucking the family tradition and opting for life as a grocer.
It was here that George’s path crossed that of Mary Anne Green, a true Cockney and a domestic servant in the home of John Hart, a baker running a booming business in the bustling heart of Hackney at 167 Hoxton Street. While George made good-hearted fun of Mary’s Cockney whine, she quickly fell for his lilting Welsh brogue and devil-may-care ways.
When George found work harder to come by than he had ever dreamed would be the case, Mary yielded to his plea to return with him to Wales, where he believed his family’s contacts would surely help him find a job and – this was the icing on the cake for Mary ? they could get married.
As she stood defeated and patiently waiting for Mr John to decide her fate, Mary thought ruefully back to that day on 17 March 1875 when she and George said their vows in Steynton Parish Church in front of the vicar, the Rev M B Thomas. There was little point in dwelling on the past but she had long known marrying my great-uncle George had been the biggest mistake of her young life. From then on, everything went downhill.
When George’s hopes of work in Pembroke Dock came to nothing he decided they should move all the way back across the country to the Admiralty dockyard at Chatham, in Kent. They obtained lodgings at 8 Woodland Terrace, Gillingham – coincidentally a short walk from where my grandfather, George’s nephew, Alfred Berkeley Berry, would settle half a century later ? in time for Mary to give birth on 18 September 1876 to a daughter they grandly named Adelaide Lavinia. Within months Mary was pregnant again and in July 1878 the couple welcomed their first son, John Edwin.
From then on Mary felt her life was spinning out of control. In his endless pursuit of work, George dictated a move back to Milford.
‘But why, George, why?’ pleaded Mary, pregnant yet again, with second son William James who was born in July 1880.
‘It’s the job,’ replied George. ‘We go where the Admiralty tells us to. There’s nothing I can do about it.’
Mary suspected there was more to it than that was sometimes wondered if the fault lay more with George than with the Admiralty. Other men seemed to settle into the yard’s workforce and not be continually uprooting their family in the search for jobs. His own father and brothers, well settled in Pembroke and Milford, were solid proof of that.
She had scarcely recovered from giving birth to William than they were packing up their meagre belongings yet again. George, ever optimistic, assured her it was all for the best; a good move.
‘Where to this time?’ asked a weary Mary.
‘Portsea Island,’ was George’s gruff reply.
Mary had never heard of it and pressed him for more information.
‘It’s the place to be,’ he tried to assure her. ‘It’s Britain’s biggest island, on the south coast in Hampshire, right on the shores of the Solent and the English Channel. Plenty of good sea air for you and the kids.’
He explained it was at the heart of the massive naval base at Portsmouth, one-time home of Nelson’s fleet that fought the Spanish Armada and where the admiral’s flagship, the Victory, now rested. It was in the dockyard here that he expected to find work.
One thing George certainly didn’t mention was that although the booming city was blessed in part by streetlights, piped water and mains sewers, much of Portsea’s housing was squalid and badly built with damp dilapidated cellars. Despite a burgeoning middle class in its outer suburbs, this was still a rough and ready naval town where crime was a part of daily life and the under-policed streets were rife with drunks, prostitutes, pickpockets, vagrants and beggars.
Nor did he mention, nor probably even knew, that the local death rate of children under five was well above the national average, caused by malnutrition and lack of clothing.
It was a statistic that might have caused Mary to have second thoughts as they moved into 6 Unicorn Street, Portsea, in the dirtiest, most overcrowded part of town, bordering the high forbidding walls of the naval dockyard. Within a year they had moved to equally depressing accommodation at nearby Wingfield Street where the eldest of her growing brood, Adelaide Lavinia, died at the age of five from a combination of measles and bronchitis – and Mary was pregnant yet again.
Within months of Adelaide’s death on 20 March 1882, she gave birth, in 1883, to Lillian Elizabeth and became ever more fearful for the welfare of herself and her family in Wingfield Street’s squalid surroundings. Outbreaks of cholera and other epidemics were frequent and the house was damp and cold. Few of the small terraced houses where George and Mary lived exist today, although there is a small enclave of grander dwellings on its fringes that ironically includes the beautifully preserved grand Regency house where the chronicler of the poor and oppressed, Charles Dickens, was born.
Maybe it was here, with such squalor almost on his doorstep, that he was first inspired to document so vividly the living conditions of Britain’s underclass. The maze of narrow streets of Mary’s time still exist and, sadly, still exude an air of hopelessness and poverty from the modern tenements built to replace the slums of a century ago.
Mary pleaded frequently with George for them to return to Milford where the air was cleaner and there was little of Portsea’s slum-like overcrowding.
‘It’s not so much for me, but at least think of the children,’ she urged.
Her pleading failed to move him. He had become stubborn and morose. Too often he came home with the heavy smell of beer on his breath and scant money left from his wages to pay for their food. It was as if the responsibilities of being a wage-earner and father were all too much. Yet that didn’t stop him demanding his conjugal rights and once again Mary found herself pregnant. It was the final straw.
‘I’m not going to bury another child here,’ she snapped at him. ‘You’ll take us back to Milford or me and the kids will make our own way there.’
Living conditions in Robert Street, Milford’s busy commercial hub one block back from the cliff-top harbour front, were little better. Mary, with five children under 10 and a husband who lacked the drive and commitment she noted in the rest of the Berry clan, was still burdened with drudgery and worry. She was grateful for what money George so grudgingly gave her and reluctantly tolerated his surly insistent presence to the extent that even though it had become a loveless marriage she again found herself pregnant within a year of Ada’s birth.
This was the final straw. Less than six months after delivering Albert Edward from her womb, Mary threw herself and her children on the mercy of the guardians of the grim Haverfordwest Poor Law Union workhouse.
As she watched Joseph John’s pen inscribe her details on to the forms in front of him she thought again about her response. Did she really wish she knew where George had gone; did she even care? All she was concerned about was caring for her family. George could take care of himself.
‘I don’t really know where he is, sir,’ she said. ‘He’s gone, and left us with nothing. Last I heard he was boarding with a widow lady up by Robert Street, in Manchester Square.’
The receiving officer’s face remained impassive. Every day he heard stories of neglect, desertion, sickness and abject poverty and of families who could not put food on the table, fuel on the fire or shoes on their children’s feet. He could not afford to display emotion or appear to favour one unfortunate over another, even though he knew some were more deserving than others; that there were those who made no attempt to improve themselves and others to whom the workhouse was a refuge of last resort and were almost too proud to depend on its charity.
Mr John sensed the woman standing before him was firmly in the latter category. She had been reduced to shedding the remnants of her pride and was here out of desperation for the welfare of her children. He signed the forms with a flourish.
‘You will be admitted and placed in the care of Mr Thomas,’ he said. ‘You will be a charge against the parish and your first meals will be supper.’
Mary took a deep breath of relief. Her shoulders relaxed as the tension ebbed. This was not where she wanted to be but it meant the children would be fed and have a roof over their heads.
‘Thank you, sir,’ she said. ‘I am truly grateful.’
Mary and the children filed slowly through the entrance door into the main workhouse block to be met by the institution’s master, John Thomas, and the matron, Martha Martin. Mr Thomas, a sombre-looking 51-year-old, had somewhat unusually been allowed to continue as master despite the recent death of his wife, Annie, who had previously served as the workhouse matron.
Rather than follow the usual procedure and seek a married couple following Annie Thomas’s death, the guardians had appointed Martha Martin, the 30-year-old daughter of the assistant overseer at the nearby St Thomas Green Infirmary to take her place, although John Thomas continued to hope that his eldest daughter, Maud, would eventually return from her training as a nurse at the vast and highly praised Crumpsall workhouse in Manchester with its infirmary and specialist wards and room for 1600 inmates.
John Thomas nodded a greeting at Mary and checked her name and those of the children against a large register spread out on a table in front of him. He folded the book shut, his duties done.
‘I’ll leave you with matron,’ he said. ‘Wait here and the doctor will be with you soon.’
There would be no admission into the grim rooms beyond until they had undergone the inevitable medical examination for lice, vermin and signs of disease or open sores. The children’s hair was cropped right back. Then came the humiliating experience of being stripped, bathed and issued with a workhouse uniform. Their clothes were taken to be washed, disinfected and stored until they were ready to return to the outside world. Finally came the worst moment of all – the heart wrenching separation as the children were removed from Mary’s close attention and the boys were divided from the girls.
Mary held on tight to baby Albert and kept her face averted to hide her tears as she wrapped her free arm in a tight hug around each of the other children in turn.
‘We’ll be together soon,’ she whispered in a brave attempt at reassurance as a young female assistant summoned by the matron led them off to their separate wards in different blocks of the workhouse.
It was an optimistic but forlorn promise. For the next four years, Mary and her children spent much of their lives in the small, dirty, poorly ventilated and badly heated wards enclosed by the thick stone walls of this gaunt institution. On several occasions she obtained permission to leave but inevitably she returned, sometimes merely for an overnight stay – in before supper and out after breakfast – and on other occasions to spend time with her children. Always her conduct was recorded as ‘good’ and her prime concern was the welfare of her children.
Years of deprivation, sub-standard housing and poor nutrition had, however, taken their toll. Much more so than was indicated by the single annotation that she was ‘unwell’ when she asked to be taken in for an overnight stay on Thursday 20 August 1891. With year-old Albert in her arms she sought a bed and a meal. She stayed for supper ? a greasy wooden bowl of weak gruel ? and breakfast, which was much the same but with the addition of a chunk of bread.
She struggled on and began the new year by securing 12-year-old son John’s discharge so that he could stay with his uncle in London. But her own health was getting no better in the cold Welsh winter and on Saturday 23 April 1892, she was discharged by the workhouse to go into the Haverfordwest Infirmary for an unspecified operation. Several weeks later, on Thursday June 22, she and son John reappeared before receiving officer Joseph John seeking readmission to the workhouse. John had been sent back from his uncle in London as “unwell” and Mary was returning from the infirmary.
And so she battled on, seeking escape from the confines of the workhouse yet drawn back time and again to spend even a few moments with her children. Always her conduct was ‘good’ and she seemed to come and go almost at will despite the seemingly rigid conditions laid down by the Poor Law Act and by the local guardians.
Through it all there was never a mention or a record of husband George. As Mary had informed the workhouse receiving officer, on the night of the 1891 census George was listed as a shipwright boarding in the house of widow Albina Phillips and her son in Manchester Square, Steynton – now Milford Haven. After that he disappeared completely from official view until, on 8 January 1897, at the age of 43, Mary gave birth to Florence Sophia and George’s name appeared on the birth certificate as the girl’s father.
On Thursday 9 August 1892, Mary asked to be readmitted to the workhouse. Her reason was basic and enough to touch the hardest heart.
‘I can’t bear to be parted from my sons,’ she told the receiving officer.
She was given dinner and supper and left the next day after breakfast, taking sons John, now a hardened lad of 14, and William, 12, with her.
Sadly, no matter how much Mary tried, life on the outside could not be sustained and the family continued to rely on the workhouse for their food and lodgings. Her frail sick body didn’t help and she was sent from the workhouse to the infirmary on Tuesday May 2, 1893, for an operation on her face. A week later she was back with her children in the workhouse.
They remained throughout the summer, although Mary made occasional forays out into the town, keeping in touch with her few friends and alert for any news of her wayward husband. It was a sporadic and low-key version of what today would be labelled as networking – a finger on the weak pulse of opportunities, a street-wise eye open for any avenue of survival.
It meant she was again able to offer a special reason when pleading for a discharge from the workhouse on Monday 2 October. There was a gleam of pride in her eyes as she put her case.
‘I want to take my son John,’ she explained. ‘He has work. I am putting him to service as an errand boy.’
For John it meant the end of more than three years of sleeping on a chaff mattress laid on three wooden planks on an iron bedstead; of subsisting on monotonous meals of gruels, stews and bread; of being confined for exercise and fresh air to the courtyards between the accommodation blocks; of being cold in winter and almost suffocated in summer. Whatever employment, whatever master he was going to, would be better than this.
However, he soon decided a precarious existence pedalling around the streets of Haverfordwest as an errand boy was not for him. He enlisted in the Royal Navy as a boy second class and went on to serve right through the Great War until being demobbed on 18 November 1919, having risen no further than the lowly rank of able-bodied seaman. He was sent on his way with the Naval Medal, the Victory Star, a war gratuity and a naval pension.
John may have been off her hands, but Mary still had five other children in the workhouse to fret over. Their welfare was also her prime concern and on Saturday 4 November 1893, she asked permission to take 11-year-old Lillian away to Milford for a week.
‘It’s for the good of her health,’ Mary told the officer considering her application. ‘A bit of sea air and she has cousins there.’
She made no mention that it was also in Milford – in Manchester Square halfway along Robert Street where the cousins lived – that husband George had last been living.
The request was granted, as workhouse manager John Thomas duly noted in the register of admissions and discharges. Almost a month later, on Thursday, 30 November, he recorded Lillian’s return and that she was to receive the special Class 7 children’s diet. This tended to have a bit more meat and perhaps some milk or tea in addition to the staples of vegetable broth and bread served to the adults in greater measure, although it was hardly a sufficient barrier to the bone-chilling Welsh winter.
Branded as paupers and sustained by the workhouse, the family struggled on through Christmas and the new year. The one absentee, William, who had been on the outside for almost eighteen months, working in the grocery shop of his cousin Dundas Berry in Woolwich, was – in the terse words of Mr Thomas’s register – “returned to his mother” on 22 February 1894. London was not for him: the 14-year-old was destitute and hungry. The workhouse had become the only home he knew.
Mary remained undaunted, determined there would be a better life for her children. On May 30 she was allowed to take Ada out of the workhouse “to go to Mr Lewis” where the 10-year-old set out on the trail taken by so many working class girls, her mother included, and went “into service” as a domestic servant.
Mary returned to the workhouse with Lillian and Albert on Monday 27 August. They had dinner and supper and left after breakfast the next day – the last time there is any record of them in the Haverfordwest Poor Law Union’s workhouse register.
When she surprisingly gave birth on 8 January 1897, to Florence Sophia she was living in Grove Row, Haverfordwest, a laneway close to the Oak Inn on St Thomas Green. As mentioned, she named husband George, shipwright journeyman, as the father when registering the birth.
This raises more questions than it answers.
Where had he been all the time his wife and kids were living in the workhouse? Why was he living in relative comfort as a boarder while they were confined within the grim walls of an institution? The most charitable answer is that although he could not earn enough to pay for rent and food for the entire family, he could scrape by as a “single” man. As a journeyman (one who was paid by the day) he would have good days and bad days and sometimes have a run of employment enough to feed himself and Mary and maybe one or more of the children – which could explain her random comings and goings at the workhouse.
By the time of the 1901 census Mary’s workhouse days and life as a pauper appeared to be behind her. She was again living in St Thomas Green, listed as married but with no sign of husband George. Four of her children – Ada, Albert, Joseph and Florence ? were still with her. William was working for his grocer uncle in Woolwich and John was in the Royal Navy and there is no record of what Lily was doing at that time.
By 1911 Ada had met and married, on August 22, John James from Haverfordwest, a signalman with the Great Western Railway. She died in Haverfordwest in 1963 aged 78.
Lily reappeared in 1912 when she married William James, quite possibly the brother of Ada’s husband, in Haverfordwest.
Joseph, who found work as a boot and shoe salesman, hardly reached adulthood. He died from a dilated heart in the Haverfordwest infirmary on 30 April 1908, at the age of 20.
Mary, her body frail from years of childbirth, malnutrition, impoverishment and endless stress, died from heart disease on 16 February 1910, with son William at her side. But at least she had the consolation of knowing none of her surviving children, nor any of their offspring, were likely to again be labelled as destitute paupers.
After being pensioned out of the navy John eventually died of phthisis or tuberculosis of the lungs in Pontardwe, Glamorgan, in November 1934.
Albert married Edith Mary Davies in Haverfordwest in1921 and died there in 1963.
Despite trawling for him through every possible resource, seeking help in online forums and enlisting the services of skilled researchers, the elusive George remains a mystery that I still hope to resolve.
He was not present at the death of either wife Mary or their son Joseph and when Ada married John James in 1912 he was recorded as deceased. He may have gone to sea, as many shipwrights did, or even sought a new life overseas. A George W Berry entered the US after arriving in Montreal in May 1905 but he, too, disappears from records. The fact that Ada knew of his death suggests he remained in the Milford area and kept well away from his family and any form of officialdom – even to the extent of there being no record of his death.
Other researchers who have helped in my bid to track him down have suggested he emigrated or went to sea, where he could use his skills as a ship’s carpenter. But he appears on no shipping records, passenger lists or immigration files.
There are no clues as to how or why he was given the unusual second name of Weymouth. Maybe he was conceived in the resort of the same name during a holiday excursion by his parents, William and Ann. It gives him a defining tag of the sort that is usually so useful when trawling through lists and records and trying to separate one George from another.
Yet the only other George Weymouth Berry so far found in numerous global searches was married in Sydney in 1912 and proved to have no connection whatsoever with my Milford Haven George.
And so he remains my mysterious disappearing grand-uncle from Pembroke. Anyone got any information or clues?
Celtic Skeletons, an Englishman’s journey of discovery into his Welsh, Cornish and Scottish ancestry, is published by Highshore and available online in paperback or as an ebook at https://tinyurl.com/y2u83v8u