On 5th July 1879, my great grand-father John William Kirby was born.
The social divide in Victorian Britain was incredibly wide; the upper classes enjoyed a life of almost unthinkable luxury whereas those at the other end of the scale suffered poverty beyond my imagination. In some towns, families endured squalid living conditions, basic sanitation was far from guaranteed and with large numbers of children often sharing the cramped rooms, disease was rife. Yet all this was happening just over 130 years ago...
John Kirby was born into poverty. His mother Jane was a single parent and she gave birth to her son in York’s Workhouse... the absolutely final option... almost certainly because the social stigma of being an unmarried mother would have seen her cast out of her home by her own family.
Jane did find a place to live... in Wrightson’s Yard, one of fifty-or-so yards that were situated off the main streets in the Walmgate area of the city. This part of York was one of the poorest; it was home to many Irish immigrants who had fled the potato famine of the mid-1840s in search of a “better life” working the land in numerous parts of the British mainland. This part of York was home to slaughterhouses, factories and mills and the crude nature of what could be termed “Second Industrial Revolution” manufacturing at this time meant that the air above these homes would have been literally black with acrid smoke and fumes.
But this was Jane’s life; she had a son and needed to provide for him... and herself. She did so by working from home, making matchboxes. It was incredibly hard work, especially for a mother trying to raise an infant on her own. Raw materials had to be purchased and a solid thirteen hour working day would yield between 9d and one shilling (at a rate of 2d per gross). Out of this, Jane would need to buy the material for the next batch of boxes as well as pay for rent and food. Things we take for granted today, like clothes for example, must have been almost impossible to afford...
The above picture is of a half crown, issued in the year John was born. This single silver coin represented the equivalent of nearly three weeks work for Jane Kirby... I wonder if she even knew what a half crown looked like..?
John Kirby eventually became a railway blacksmith and lived in Darlington; his son Eric was a boilersmith and engineer; then came David, a school teacher... and then me.
I’m sitting here typing on a computer in a nice home with a relatively comfortable life; none of which could or would have been possible without the remarkably selfless Jane Kirby. I may not know much about her and she may have been right on the bottom end of the social ladder, but that just makes me all the more proud that she is my great great grandmother and that I carry her surname...
All my own work... almost.