There are a number of people for whom I have huge admiration and I would love to have met: Stan Laurel, Jean Harlow, Virgil Grissom, Muhammad Ali to name but four; but there is a huge difference between admiration and inspiration. If my readers each gave the name of the one person who inspires or has inspired them the most, I can guarantee that no one else’s choice would match mine.
Her name is Jane Kirby and she is my great great grandmother.
I know virtually nothing about Jane; when she was born, what she looked like, what she sounded like, but what I do know is that she must have been a remarkable, selfless and resilient woman.
Jane was a single mother (hence why my surname is Kirby), who gave birth to my great grandfather John in York’s workhouse in July 1879. The workhouse was the place where you went when there was literally no other option—but the social stigma of being an unmarried mother meant that Jane may well have been simply cast aside by her family.
Whilst the Victorian upper classes enjoyed a life filled with almost unimaginable luxury, those at the opposite end of the social scale often had to ensure squalid, insanitary and overcrowded living conditions—and it was into poverty that John was born. By the following year, Jane was living in Wrightson’s Yard in Walmgate. It was one of the poorest areas of York, home to slaughterhouses, factories and mills; and the crude nature of manufacturing at the time meant that the air above nearby 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....
I keep a coin in my wallet; a half crown issued in the year John was born. In decimal terms the half crown was worth 12½p, but to earn this single coin, Jane would have had to work for three weeks. I sometimes wonder if she ever even held a half crown….
The coin serves as a daily reminder of Jane and the amazing sacrifices she made to give her son a chance in life. John took his chance; he moved to Darlington (via Leeds) where he worked as a railway blacksmith. He named his eldest son Eric, whose only child David is my father. All my direct ancestors on both sides of my family have played a part in shaping the person I am and, to an extent, the life I have; but if ever I feel like I’m taking life for granted, I can hold this coin and think about Jane—my great great grandmother… and an inspiration.