If I couldn’t find something shocking like a murder, one of my adult sons wanted me to keep our genealogy facts to myself. All I ever tell him is that we’re Canadian, once English, law-abiding citizens from a long way back, poor but out of trouble. The worst information of a criminal sort to surface was a conviction for larceny in 1732, with a prison sentence of two months. However, if we can call harshness of life a crime in its own way, we do have a story.
My great grandfather’s sister Sarah Ann Argyle who was born in 1863 in Abingdon, Berkshire, England, bore three, maybe four children, all girls, out of wedlock. In the 1881 UK Census under the heading Occupation, the seventeen-year old was described as ‘domestic – ill’. Was she pregnant? In light of what unfolded later, this is a possibility.
In time she became mother of three other babies, all girls. The first, named May, born in 1883, was mercifully taken in by a brother of Sarah Ann but her other two little ones were placed in the Abingdon Workhouse. Nellie died there aged four of a ‘mesenteric abscess’ according to her death certificate. Elsie, who was born in 1887 eventually was removed from the Workhouse as an eight-year old by an organization once run by a Maria Rye. Miss Rye had worked for years to find a better life overseas for destitute children. Although she had already retired when Elsie was taken in, her widely known programme was still running. It was managed by the Church of England Waifs and Strays Society.
Elsie and many others were herded aboard the passenger ship Mongolian in October 8 1896, voyaging from Liverpool across the Atlantic Ocean to Quebec City in Canada. On arrival in Quebec City nine days later, at least ten children were reported on the ship passenger list to have stayed overnight in a shed. The troupe then traveled by train to Toronto and south from Toronto across Lake Ontario by paddle steamer to Niagara-On-The-Lake. The destination was Miss Rye’s reception house, a place which she called ‘our Western Home’. ‘Our Western Home’ was located in Niagara-On-The-Lake’s Old Court House. That building on the main street is now used for Shaw Festival productions but in Elsie Argyle’s time children were housed there and the girls were trained for domestic service. Most would go to farms.
It is possible that Elsie was well treated if the praise for Maria Rye by a woman who had worked with her at Niagara is justified. In earlier years Maria’s programme was highly regarded. She was described as very careful in placing each child with the most suitable family, putting timid girls with kind, more gentle people. However, a critical report in 1875 by an inspector from Britain’s Poor Law Board noted unsatisfactory training of the girls at the Western Home and rare supervision in placements. Better conditions may have existed by 1896 when Elsie was among those brought to a strange land. I like to think that she was better off on a farm than in a Workhouse.
In Canada’s 1901 Census she was recorded as fourteen, name Elice Argyle, a domestic servant living with a farming family in Haldimand County, Ontario. The farm people, John and Annie Hux, had three children. John was a Methodist born in Germany and Annie was a Tunker born in Ontario. Tunkers were probably a sect of Mennonites.
In 1904 when Elsie was eighteen she died of pneumonia. The death certificate indicates a doctor rather than any ‘family’ member, was present at her death. She must have moved away from the Hux family between the 1901 Census and the day of her passing because she died near St. George, South Dumfries, Brant County, at a definite concession and lot number. The Huxes were further south – some are buried in Greenwood Cemetery in the town of Springvale which was in Haldimand County. Her remains were not buried there in the Hux family plot. Her burial location is unknown.
Victorian scruples must have silenced my grandmother who was a first cousin of Elsie. Grandma claimed in very old age that there had been no illegitimately born relatives back in England. She certainly never told this tragic tale to her children who are my uncle and aunts. It was as if Elsie had never been on this earth. In 1913, when my grandparents immigrated to Toronto newly married and full of hope, Elsie Argyle alias Elsie A. Argyle alias Elice Argyle alias Elsie Argyl had already been in the ground nine years, buried not so far away but who knows exactly where.
Meanwhile, in England, Elsie’s mother Sarah Ann had left Abingdon and moved to London where she wed a much older man named Edward Hackert and thereby became stepmother to a boy. She gave birth to another child, again a girl. Did her husband ever know of May, Nellie and Elsie? Perhaps not. He might not have married her otherwise. That was just one mystery. Sarah Ann left numerous questions.
Was she in fact pregnant at age seventeen when she was described as a domestic servant but ill? And if so, what happened to that first baby? Why did she leave the three daughters she is known to have had? Through the years, did she keep tabs on them? And on her marriage to Edward Hackert, why did the marriage certificate dated 8 March 1901, declare that her father’s name was Joseph, not John and that he was dead when he was alive? Did she just wish him dead?
Sarah Ann’s father was a cruel alcoholic, to use my grandmother’s words. Did he father that child when Sarah Ann was seventeen and ‘ill’? Did she then become promiscuous out of a sense of self-loathing that is understood today to be a common result of sexual abuse? Several Censuses call him John. So does my family’s original genealogical tree for Argyles.
It was John’s brother whose name was Joseph, Uncle Joseph to Sarah Ann. He was a Baptist pastor, an apparently caring man if I believe his journal writings. Perhaps she had always wished her uncle was her father.
Sarah Ann reinvented herself further. In the 1901 English Census for London she was Frances, not Sarah Ann. Nobody in Abingdon would know a Frances Hackert nee Argyle who married and lived in London and whose father was Joseph Argyle.
Nine years prior to that Census, back in 1891, Sarah Ann and Edward Hackert had a daughter named Florence Maud. Mrs. Hackert seemed settled in London with Edward, except for one hint supplied by that revealing 1901 Census. It had been eighteen years or thereabouts since she escaped to the Hackney area of London. Nevertheless, clinging regret, sadness or guilt, even longing must have chained her to Abingdon because in the year when her Uncle Joseph died, the year of that same Census, she gave birth to yet another daughter and what did she name her but Elsie May – she gave her the names of her two older ‘Abingdon’ daughters. The first May was by then a working girl and the second, Elsie, had been moved thousands of miles off, across the sea. Did Sarah Ann, now Frances, even know? Did husband Edward know the heartbreaking significance of their newborn daughter’s Christian names?
Puzzle pieces continue to lie scattered with their many plausible answers: Had Frances/Sarah Ann left May, Nellie and Elsie because she couldn’t support them on her own? Could her siblings not afford to help her out? They did live humble lives: servants, seamstresses, a baker, a tinsmith. Their families were already large. What about my own great grandfather? He was an ambitious milk purveyor. Was it pride that kept him from taking in at least one niece? It was Victorian times, after all and perhaps he had not wanted his reputation marred by his sister’s bastard offspring. The young woman could have moved to London out of shame or just out of desire to gain an acceptable lifestyle which a husband might provide.
Sarah Ann. What was she all about? And her first Elsie: Where is she buried? In an official cemetery’s unmarked grave reserved for the destitute or forgotten? In a farmer’s field?