SARAH ANN ELLIOTT didn’t start out as a series of books. It began with my own family history research on Ancestry.com. I’ve become the family historian and have uncovered a wealth of information and stories, including some secrets that were never meant to be known by the family. Murder, lunacy, alcoholism, abuse, theft, prison, illegitimacy, divorce, bigamy, suicide. Just the usual stuff that happens in every family. I’ve also discovered love, great courage, endurance, survival, intelligence, talent, ambition and good will. Again, like any normal family.
What I did uncover was one particular story which resonated with my own life over and over until I felt I had to write about it. My great-great-great grandmother, Sarah Ann Elliott, was born in the north of England in 1823 and died in 1912 aged 88. Her parents and siblings all died in their 40’s and 50’s from diseases easily treatable today, or from the effects of poverty, overwork and pollution in the Northern England towns of the Industrial Revolution. Only she lived to that grand old age and that was because she escaped the grim mill town of her birth.
Her life was not typical for women of her class or era. She moved around a lot. I found her birthing and burying children all over England at a time when working class women mostly spent their lives in the towns where they were born. She had thirteen children and buried eight of them in her lifetime. How does a woman survive that? I have birth and death certificates for eleven of those children. The origins and fate of the other two is something I’ve had to work around the facts I do have about her life.
Her personal life was complex and I still don’t have all the answers for it, but I do know that she did not always accept her lot in life. Here are some of the documented facts I do know.
Sarah Ann married at 16, but there was clearly something terribly wrong with that marriage, for eleven months later she was pregnant to another man and had fled with him from Manchester to Hull in Yorkshire. They lived under assumed names for a few years. Hiding was the only protection a woman of that era had from an abusive husband as, under church and state law, a wife was the property of the husband and he could pretty much do what he liked with her, including beating and raping her. There were no laws protecting a married woman against her own husband back then. She made bold decisions and left bad situations.
In the midst of all Sarah Ann’s hardship, I found an unlikely and enduring love story which spanned forty years. I now believe the man she fled with was my great-great-great grandfather, William Hocking, a career Royal Navy sailor with many years of service behind him when he met young Sarah Ann. He was twenty years her senior. An unlikely match from the outset, for how does a teenage mill girl from Stockport, Cheshire meet a thirty-six year old sailor from Bideford, Devon at a time when working class girls only met and married local boys? I will never know for sure how they met, those family stories have been lost, but using the facts I uncovered I was able to make some sense of it.
Sarah Ann and William lived together under an assumed name for three years, losing one child and having another who became my great-great grandfather. Then William went back to sea for three years in order to complete the mandatory twenty years of service after the age of twenty-one that was later required to be eligible for the Royal Navy sailor’s pension, which was being pushed through Parliament at the time. While he was away, something happened, she became pregnant to her legal husband and I found her fleeing again, this time on her own, giving birth to a baby girl in a small village in South Devon. Less than a week later she was on the move yet again when she registered the birth in a nearby market town, naming her legal husband as the father. In 1845 women had a two week “lying-in” period where they stayed in bed after a birth. It was unheard of for a mother to register a birth herself less than a fortnight later or to travel while she was still bleeding and establishing breastfeeding. She also had a three year old toddler in tow. Something was driving her on.
I next found her in William Hocking’s home town of Bideford in North Devon in 1848 where she gave birth to William’s son Henry. She had reunited with William after his time at sea and he accepted the baby girl as his own, raising her with his name. That daughter was with William when he died and registered the death herself.
Sarah Ann and William went on to have more children together in a life that was constantly challenging and changing. Her union with William Hocking could have ended at so many stages in the relationship, but they overcame a lot and stayed together until his death in 1884. Sarah Ann was 60 by then and you might think that the dramas slowed down a bit, but not at all. Her family continued to lead complicated lives until her 80’s when it seemed she was settled quietly in Sheffield and could enjoy a little peace and quiet. Then just when I was wondering how I would make the last decade of her life interesting in the books, I found a newspaper story about her at the age of 83 hoarding a stash of gold in her pauper’s house. What was that all about? She was a conundrum.
Parts of Sarah Ann’s life paralleled my own weird and wonderful life so much that I began to feel as if I had been channelling Granny Sarah in some of the decisions I’d made over the years. The more I researched her, the more mysteries and questions I found. As I endeavoured to find answers to those questions, I realised that it wasn’t only Sarah Ann’s life I was writing about, but the lives of those around her, for no-one lives in isolation and our lives are greatly affected by the people we interact with. I had to find out more about these other people.
So my research became more intense – and also an addiction. Just ask my Hubby. At least he always knew where I was. Attached to my computer or iPad, oohing and aahing over my latest thrilling bit of research. Lucky for me, Hubby is well housetrained and kept me fed, clothed and clean whilst I was immersed in my research. After two years I was finally able to put all my research into some sort of order (called a Timeline) and proceed with actually writing the book.
I began the first draft, but found I needed to write non-chronologically at times as new research came to light, which is not how I normally write. First draft is usually a stream-of-consciousness writing session beginning at the beginning and not stopping until “the end”. Then I go back and begin the tidying up, usually taking 4-5 drafts until it’s ready to publish. But SAE is based on documented facts about her life, and I found myself writing around those facts as I put them together. So the birth of her fourth child was written about before her own birth. Basically writing the “dots” as I find them. Then I had to join the dots together and fill in the gaps with my own imagination, based on what was happening at the time of that event in the location that person was living in.
There was certainly a lot happening in England between 1823 and 1912. Great wealth lived cheek by jowl with abject poverty. The rise of the new Middle Class began. The most revered person in the country had always been a man, until 1837 when an 18 year old girl called Victoria came to the British throne. Sarah Ann was 14 years old at the time. Both were young teenage girls, but the differences between their lives could not have been more extreme. They represented opposite ends of the spectrum for girls and women back then. One had power, wealth and privilege. The other had trouble, strife and suffering. But the one whom I admire the most is Sarah Ann. The British Empire was built on the backs of people like Sarah Ann Elliott and they get little credit for it in literature. What she overcame takes my breath away and, despite the incredible hardship, she outlived most of her generation, including plump, pampered Queen Victoria.
There are many popular books written about the women of that era whose main object in life seems to be finding a good husband. Regency romances like Pride and Prejudice are wonderful, but most girls back then did not grow up in nice houses with pretty clothes and an education. Most of them worked from early childhood in the fields or the textiles mills or at home making things like matchboxes just to survive. Poverty was so common that laws were passed to manage it and buildings erected called Workhouses to contain it.
Expectations and opportunities in the 19th Century for women were limited. There was a lot of alcoholism, domestic violence, illegitimacy and abandonment. There was also love, hope and a strength that drove poor women to fight for better things for their families. Sarah Ann Elliott was one of those women – tough, spirited and a compelling subject for a book. Or books. Yes, it became a series as I wrote it. This is one character I cannot short change by editing her life. Too much story to tell. And the research goes on…..
(First published 3 May 2015; updated August 2018)