In memory of my Great-Great-Grandmother:
Elizabeth Jane Sinclair Simpson
Aug 26, 1847 – June 6, 1876
Our trip to Liverpool was short, only two nights, but it had a special purpose – we were going to find out more about the life of my GG-Grandmother, Elizabeth Sinclair and her family, before she left Liverpool on a bride ship in 1870. Only 22 years old, Elizabeth made the six month journey to Fort Victoria with a matron and 22 other young women, where she had agreed to work as a servant for at least one year, and then hoped to marry one of the many single men who had settled in this new country. Although Elizabeth did manage to do both, as well as give birth to four children – her life was short and sad, and she died only six years after arriving in Victoria. This is her story.
Elizabeth was born in 1847 to John Sinclair and Mary Davies in the village of Sefton, just west of Liverpool. My plan was to visit some of the places that John and his family lived between 1818-1871.
Elizabeth’s father was actually born John “Shingler”, in the village of Prees, about an hour east of Liverpool. The youngest son of a tailor, John had at least ten siblings that I’ve been able to track down. At least two of his older brothers were tailors like their father and so John likely had to look further to find his fortune, possibly explaining how he eventually ended up as a gardener in Liverpool. The earliest census data available, 1841, indicated he was a labourer, age 20, living near Prees, with his widowed mother, age 65.
And so we found ourselves making our first stop to visit the villages of Wem and Prees. We left Cheltenham early and drove for about an hour along the busy M5 before we turned off to the quieter roads of rural Shropshire, and began to wind our way through the countryside where my ancestors had once lived, several hundred years earlier.
We stopped first in the small town of Wem, where John’s father, Thomas Shingler, had died and was buried in 1823. There was only one church that seemed likely so we stopped and took a few minutes to look at the gravestones, but couldn’t find his name. Many of the 1700 and early 1800 stones are so weathered they are illegible, and of course, many have disappeared over the years so I hadn’t been too optimistic.
Next we drove to Prees, only a few minutes further, and found the lovely church of St Chad’s. Erik found a side door that opened and so we were able to go inside and see the old font where many of my ancestors, including John, were baptised, and then have a wander through the old graveyard. I knew that John’s mother, Elizabeth Done Shingler, had died in 1855, and was buried at St Chad’s, but again, there was no grave marker remaining. However, I did find one stone belonging to John’s cousin’s, Joseph Shingler, and so I knew I was in the right place. We continued our drive to Liverpool and over the next two days, visited a number of places where the Sinclair family had lived.
Mary Davies and John Shingler(Sinclair) were married on Oct 13, 1846, at St Philip’s Church, in downtown Liverpool. The church is now gone but I found a photo of it online from the late 1800’s. Mary was illiterate, signing her name as X on the marriage certificate. John could write, but just barely, and he spelled his name differently on every document. On the marriage certificate, he wrote his last name “Sinkler”, and you can see where he had written over top of some of the letters to try to correct it. Finding his Shingler birth records wasn’t easy, but with the help of some people on a Shropshire genealogy forum, we were able to figure out his name was originally Shingler. His daughter Elizabeth’s birth was registered as Sinckler, but the next generation eventually changed the last name to Sinclair and maintained consistency from then on.
The certificate also shows that John was living downtown on Finch St at the time, and that he worked as a gardener. HIs bride, Mary, was born in Denbigh, Wales, and was the daughter of a labourer, David Davies. Unfortunately, there are so many “Davies” families in Wales, it’s almost impossible to find Mary’s birth certificate with any certainty, but I believe she was born about 1823. Erik and drove to Blackburne Street to see the area where Mary had been living when she married John. Interestingly enough, as we walked down the street, we found ourselves at the Liverpool School of Art where John Lennon had attended.
John Sinclair worked as a gardener for most of his life and it seems that he moved his family around a lot. I have census data for 1851, 1861, and 1871 and each decade, they were living in a different area in and around Liverpool. It looks like John worked for some wealthy families, sometimes living in terraced housing nearby, and other times, living in a gardener’s cottage on site.
Elizabeth was the eldest of five children. She had a brother, George, born in 1850, in Cheshire, across the Mersey River (and the 1851 census puts the family near Rock Point.) Two more brothers – Joseph (1854) and John (1856) – were born in Wem, Shropshire, where their father had been brought up. John’s mother died in 1855 so it’s possible the family had moved back to the area to look after her in her declining years.
Elizabeth’s youngest sibling was her sister Mary, who was born in 1859, near Ruthin, Wales, not far from where her mother had grown up. I guess it’s possible that the family was living near Mary’s parents while she waited to give birth again.
Anyway, we finally find the whole family together on the 1861 census, in Gerrard’s Cottages on Victoria Road, in Aigburth, a suburb of eastern Liverpool. I’ve learned that there were a number of terraced streets in the area and a lot of gardeners and other tradesmen lived there, working for local estates. This census shows John Sinclair as a gardener and servant, living with his wife Mary, and their children Elizabeth age 13, John, 10, Joseph 6, John 4, and Mary 2. Erik and I drove to Victoria Road and I walked down the street and took some photos of the current buildings, although very likely none of the row houses from the 1860’s are still standing. Still, I enjoyed standing quietly in the places where my family had lived so long ago – it gave me goosebumps.
By the 1871 census, the family had moved again, this time to the gardener’s cottage at Oak Hall, a large home owned by local attorney and landowner, William Cooper. John and Mary Sinclair only had three children left at home – Joseph 17, John 15, and Mary 11. Their older son George was already living on this own, and their eldest daughter Elizabeth had left for Victoria the year before. Young Joseph and John were working as gardeners with their father, and Mary was in school. Erik and I were able to see the big house, and also the location of a small property called Oak Cottage that was originally part of the estate. Whether this was the gardener’s cottage is unclear, but it did give me an idea of where and how my family was living at the time Elizabeth left Liverpool.
So why did Elizabeth leave her family and board the bride ship, Alpha, in 1870 to travel halfway around the world? I can only imagine. Knowing that she was already 22, unmarried, and likely had few prospects, perhaps she and her family saw this as an opportunity and maybe even an adventure. Or perhaps, she had no other choice and was terrified. I guess I’ll never know. But as I stood on the Albert Docks in downtown Liverpool, and looked out along the Mersey River towards the sea, I felt a little choked up imagining her standing here and saying goodbye to her parents and siblings, knowing she would likely never see them again.
In the 1860’s, the London Female Emigration Society was working with a similar society in the new colony of British Columbia to find young women of “good character” to travel to BC to work as servants to the upper class families, and/or become wives to the many single miners, farmers, and fisherman. Wealthy families were in dire need of good “help”, and the Emigration Society believed that the uncivilized men of BC needed the more cultured influence of a British wife to recreate a society like the one back home. The Society encouraged young women to come to the new world and usually subsidized their travel costs in return for a minimum of a year of service to a family living in Fort Victoria.
And so, on January 10, 1870, my great-great-grandmother found herself on a ship sailing across the Atlantic Ocean, around Cape Horn, and up the coast of the Americas, landing in Victoria Harbour on June 14, a full six months later. What she thought when she landed, I cannot imagine, but I do know that the people of Victoria, in particular the single men, were very excited by the ship’s arrival. Luckily for Elizabeth, the crossing was a pleasant, and the Victoria Colonist newspaper reported that:
“…it was gratifying how that, although the passage was not a quick one, it was remarkably free from any disagreeable features. Not an accident; not a storm; not a case of sickness. The immigrants were all cleanly, healthy, and well behaved, and are unanimous in their praise of Captain Neilson.”
We can assume that Elizabeth had a position arranged once she arrived in order to fulfill her contract, but exactly one year later, on June 10, 1871, she married my great-great-grandfather, Elijah Simpson. Elijah, born in Essex, England, had lived in Fort Victoria from the age of seven. He and his family had come to work on one of the Hudson Bay Company farms near Victoria, in 1853. Elijah owned farmland and worked with his father, and supplemented his income with a job in town.
Elijah and Elizabeth had a daughter, Jennie Elizabeth, in 1872, and a son, William George (my great grandfather) in 1873. I like to think that Elijah wrote letters home to Elizabeth’s parents so she was able to let them know they had grandchildren.
Sadly, Elijah soon became ill, and in 1874, Elizabeth’s new life took a turn for the worse when her husband died of tuberculosis on Christmas Eve. She now found herself alone with two young children, and pregnant with a third. Baby John Elijah was born in March 1875 and Elizabeth married a local farmer, Richard Maltby a few months later, no doubt out of necessity. At least she now had a husband to support her young family, and he had a wife to take care of his home. But there was more sadness to come, as new baby John died of atrophy from vomiting that winter, and Elizabeth once again found herself pregnant.
By this time, Elizabeth herself was beginning to show signs of tuberculosis and no doubt struggled through a difficult fourth pregnancy with advanced TB, while trying to care for her two small children. Baby Frederick Maltby was born in April, and poor Elizabeth died of TB a few months later, in June of 1876. After only six years in the new country, at the age of 28, she was gone, leaving two small children orphaned, and a newborn son with her new husband, Richard.
Richard Maltby kept his son, but put Elizabeth’s children – little Jennie age 4, and William George, almost 3 – up for adoption. I’ve sometimes wondered why one of Elijah’s siblings didn’t take in the children, but most were still in their teens, and the one sister who might have been able, was newly married and perhaps her husband didn’t want the responsibility of her niece and nephew. Ultimately, a childless couple from New Westminster, Joseph and Martha Turnbull, adopted the two children and raised them as their own. I’m happy to say that my Grandmother (William’ George’s daughter) remembers them as kind and caring grandparents so the two children had a good life in the end.
Elizabeth Jane Sinclair Simpson is buried with her baby son, John, next to her husband Elijah, in an unmarked grave in Ross Bay cemetery, and I always go to visit them whenever I am in Victoria. I’ve always felt a special attachment to Elijah and Elizabeth and some day, I’d like to buy a marker for their grave. For many years, I have wanted to visit Liverpool to learn more about Elizabeth’s roots and this trip enabled me to come full circle and find some closure to this sad part of my family history.
Next up: Our Third Housesit in Rural Lincolnshire