What happened to the children?

Newsham Park Orphanage

We then decided to look at what had happened to Allan's family. Death of the breadwinner in Victorian England could mean a rapid descent into poverty for the family so at the suggestion of Museum staff, I wrote to The Royal Liverpool Seamen's Orphan Institution.

They replied quickly with news that the charity had helped two of my grandmother's sisters, Janet and Jane Wylie, by taking them into the orphanage. The letter included a brief register entry giving the girls' dates of birth, date of entry and why they were there; there were 5 children dependent on their mother. Isabella told the orphanage her husband had died at sea while "Chief Engineer on board SS Virago." The Virago - didn't he die on the Bertha? Had we been following the wrong ship? We put it to one side for now.

Orphanage records, held at the Maritime Museum, could hold sensitive information but the letter from the Seamen's Institution gave me permission to access Janet and Jane's details. The Register gave an outline of each child's stay but the individual record which could conceivably hold much more personal information, was missing for both children. However, we found some details. In February 1874, six year-old Jane was admitted to the orphanage, followed after eight months by her sister. Janet and Jane's orphanage records In Victorian England, the parents were judged as to whether help should be given to their children. In this case, the testimony about my great-grandmother by the Reverend Thomas Macpherson, the Presbyterian minister from Everton Valley, was enough to persuade the trustees of the Seamen's Institution to care for the little girls. Janet, the older child, was at the orphanage from the age of eleven until she was fifteen. She then entered the service of Mr David MacIver at Spital near Berwick-upon-Tweed. Jane stayed much longer. After nine years she went into service at Bedford. Both girls had presumably been trained in domestic service by the orphanage to give them a start in life.

It seems odd that the children only entered the orphanage between one and two years after the death of their father; their older brother and sister would probably have started work so their wages would have been helping the family finances. I wonder whether this delay shows a slow slide into poverty rather than a sudden descent. Allan would have received fairly good pay as Chief Engineer - £18 per month, £9 advanced to Isabella, (his stokers got only 4 guineas) - so maybe there were some savings or a life insurance that eked out the family's existence for a year or so. I know that my great-grandmother was a fine dressmaker who made clothes for shops in Bold Street, Liverpool but even making expensive clothes was very poorly paid. I like to think that she didn't want to part from her children so clung on to them for as long as possible until it was either this newly opened orphanage for two or, the workhouse for all.

Now to investigate the SS Virago!

Next: Allan's career