Updated: Dec 1, 2020
Eliza Turner was my husband Peter’s great great grandmother, and she was born in Ipswich in the summer of 1837, the oldest of four surviving children to James and Eliza Turner.
I didn’t realise how notorious she was until I stumbled on a paragraph about her under the heading “The Feckless” in a book about the social history of St Clements, a poor working-class area of Ipswich ("Rags and Bones" by Frank Grace). This is what the author wrote:
“Some who entered the workhouse would have provided the Victorian moralist with stock examples of immorality and fecklessness. Eliza Turner was one such, if a rather extreme case. A single woman, 41, she was living in Albion Street in the autumn of 1879 with three illegitimate children and was destitute. She was also in late pregnancy and was taken into the workhouse infirmary for the birth. In fact, for the proceeding sixteen years she had on five occasions – in 1863, 1865, 1868, 1871 and 1876 – entered the workhouse to be delivered of illegitimate children. She was obviously notorious. The workhouse baptism registers actually noted the number of times Eliza had come pregnant to the house. The first entry in the book referring to her, in 1863, includes a note by the clerk that this was her third “base” child, so that the occasion in 1879 was the eighth. Such wayward immorality suggests a lack of intelligence and possibly prostitution…the workhouse registers list other such women frequently but none quite with Eliza’s dissolute record”.
I don’t know, I think “dissolute” is harsh. When I found her a couple of years ago, I felt sick and very sad for her that she was in and out of the Ipswich Union workhouse all her adult life, as was her widowed father, and her children. Five of her eight children made it to adulthood, and one of her daughters lived to the age of 98. No one wanted to go in a workhouse, it was the last resort of the totally destitute. Peter’s great grandmother Jane Alice Turner was born in the workhouse and appears to have spent at least 10 years of her childhood in the workhouse with her mother Eliza. Some interesting additional facts I found out about Eliza’s five surviving children:
On the 1861 census Eliza is 24, a “housekeeper” for a foundry labourer called John Robinson who is twice her age, and John Robinson states he is father of Eliza’s two oldest children, Walter, 5, and Martha, 1, and I believe “housekeeper” was often a euphemism on census returns for something like “friends with benefits”.
Eliza’s middle surviving child, Josiah Turner was deaf and dumb from birth but was a boot maker, but also spent a lot of his adult life in and out of the workhouse.
Eliza’s two youngest surviving daughters, Jane Alice (Peter’s great grandmother), and Agnes Emma Turner married two brothers, Harry Everett and Frederick Everett, who were both brickmakers. Agnes Emma lived until she was 98.
The last record of Eliza is at the age of 54 at Little Gibson street in Ipswich where she stated she was a “widow”, a laundress living with her daughters Jane Alice, age 20 and Agnes Emma, age 14 and also her grandson Frederick age 8. Many women took in laundry to scrape a living. Frederick was the illegitimate child of Eliza’s oldest daughter Martha, who married shortly after and several more children with her husband, whilst poor Frederick seems to have passed from pillar to post around the family.
Eliza died in Ipswich at the age of 56.
Obviously, there is no photo of Eliza, so the photo above is what she might have looked like in days when she was better fed, and a photo of Albert Street in Ipswich which was typical of the streets in the St Clements district when Eliza was living there.