In 1851, the village of Naunton was home to Sarah Charles and her sister-in-law Elizabeth. They were both widows, and had taken on the running of their late husbands’ farms – together with the employment of live-in farm servants.
They seem to have been determined women who continued to earn money and maintain their homes. Yet widowhood could cause both economic and emotional trauma for women. The desire of parishes to keep their costs down and reduce the amount of poor relief they had to give inhabitants meant that widowed women had to sink or swim. If they sank, they had to seek help from family – not an option for poor families – or poor relief.
Widows who got into financial difficulties might find themselves forced into desperate measures to even feed themselves. Elizabeth Lewis, 58, was found guilty of stealing a seed cake in 1855 and given three months’ hard labour.
For those not quite at Elizabeth Lewis’ level, who were struggling financially but still had accommodation, getting a lodger was another option; or relatives might move in, offering a few pence towards the household costs as well as company.
In 1850s Naunton, again, 71-year-old Hannah Rowlands was a head of household, proprietor of houses, and sharing her home with her grocer son-in-law, her daughter and her five-year-old grandson.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth Smith, an 83-year-old widow, worked as a grocer in the village, supporting her 21-year-old grandson – who did not have a job – and her 19-year-old granddaughter, who worked as her grandmother’s housekeeper.
Sharing your house with your grandchildren, though, was not restricted to the more affluent members of society; one 76-year-old female agricultural worker in Naunton lived with her 21-year-old granddaughter.
Presumably, the granddaughter, who had left school, helped around the house and was company for her relative. In addition, the parents may not have had room for their daughter if, as was common, they had a large family, and so her grandmother may have taken her in.
Even in a small place such as Naunton, there was no such thing as a typical widow. These women had found themselves without a husband at different ages, and found different ways to maintain themselves. They may have struggled, but the loss of their main income-earner didn’t necessarily spell disaster.