Among my husband’s great-grandmothers is a woman I find extremely interesting as her tale begins in a purely Dickensian vein and progresses to an American pioneer story.
|My view of Stonehenge, July 2012|
Eliza’s father, John Brown, was born December 13, 1816 in the tiny village of West Lavington, Wiltshire, England, on the Salisbury Plain not far from Stonehenge. He was a farm laborer, working for 25 years on the same farm for 8 shillings a week. Poor as he was, he managed to marry and have a family. His bride was Sarah Mundy, a girl from the same town who was his same age. They had six children, but only three of them lived past infancy: Harriet, born in 1838 when the young couple were both 21 years old; Sarah, born in 1844; and their fifth child, Eliza, born January 30, 1847. Just three years later little Eliza’s mother died, and the sixth baby died also. Nine-year-old Harriet took care of six-year-old Sarah as well as she could, and their father helped them take care of the house at night after he was through working. But they couldn’t manage the littlest sister.
Eliza was sent to the home of her maternal grandparents to live for a time. They were William and Elizabeth Mundy, and Eliza spoke in later years of their kindness to her and her happiness being with them. They lived right in the village, and Eliza remembered happy times playing in the street in front of the house. She remembered having a little red chair that her grandfather made just for her. She remembered playing with her cousins and other children of the neighborhood.
One year after Eliza’s mother’s death, her father married Jane Wilkins, a very kind woman who was good to Eliza and her sisters. Eliza started school in a thatched-roof building, learning to read, write, and spell in the mornings and to sew in the afternoons. She was able to go to school only two and a half years, however, because at this time in England, child labor was the norm and she was expected to contribute what she could to her own maintenance and that of the family.
|Main street through West Lavington, July 2012|
She began work in a silk factory when she was eight years old, working long days for ten pence a day. There were 3 silk factories in Wiltshire in 1850 employing 300 workers; there had been more silk factories in the county earlier in the century, but increasing regulation closed most of them. The work was backbreaking—probably Eliza was a piecer, as most young girls were. Piecers were in constant motion bending over the silk to tie broken threads for ten hours a day. The buildings that housed silk factories were frequently crowded and had inadequate ventilation. Supervisors could be brutal, lashing children who fell asleep, who worked too slowly, or who somehow wasted the silk. Eliza had to pay twelve pence (one shilling) a week for her bed, and because she was a Mormon, she paid sixpence tithing on her earnings, which left her just under 44 pence to feed and clothe herself. She worked at the silk factory for about nine months.
|Locks on the Kennet & Avon Canal, July 2012|
During her period of working there, in April 1856, as she was eight, she was eligible to be baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the church to which her parents belonged. She met with the people at night after her work was done, at the edge of one of the boat canals of that area, and there she was baptized. (If the silk factory was located in Devizes, the canal may have been the great Kennet & Avon Canal.) She nearly drowned though, because her small body slipped away from the elder’s hands and floated down the canal in the dark! The people raced after her and found her in the dark water and pulled her out. She always said it was only the faith and prayers of her family and friends that saved her.
|Main road through Pottern, July 2012|
In the late autumn of 1856 she went to Bristol, the biggest city in their area to the west, as a servant girl for her aunt Ann Dyer and then for two other households, but that did not work out long term and she returned home to West Lavington. She worked for a time in a bakery there, until her stepmother used her connections in the nearby town of Pottern to get her a job working for a grocer and his wife. She took care of their twin babies and their two other small children. But the grocer and his wife were hard taskmasters and stingy—they allowed Eliza only a meager diet of a small piece of bread and molasses a day, until she nearly starved to death. Jane and John found out about it and promptly brought Eliza home.
|Thatched-roof house in Pottern, July 2012|
It took some time to feed her up and restore her health and strength. In the summer of 1860 she got another job in another town, but we don’t know exactly what it was—it paid two shillings a week—and she worked six months at that job. Because there were no other Mormons near her, she attended a Baptist Sunday School every Sabbath day while working there. She would have worked longer at this job, but her stepmother had died and when in March 1861 her sister Sarah married, her father summoned her to come home and take over the household duties.
She was now fourteen years old, and she kept house for her father and young stepbrother (her other stepbrother had died as a toddler). Her sister Harriet had married a man named James Ward, and they had gone to America. It became Eliza’s and her father’s dream to go too, so every penny must be saved to make the journey. They were very committed to their religion, walking five miles to attend church every Sabbath, and five miles back. Her sister Sarah was not committed to their religion, and she had married a man who hated Mormons and had adopted her husband’s views, which was painful to Eliza and her father.
|The Amazon in the 1850s; Wikipedia.org|
In the spring of 1863 enough money had been saved up. Father Brown purchased tickets for himself, Eliza, and young George to go to America in a company of 882 Latter-day Saints.
In May 1863 after they boarded their ship, the Amazon, the famous author Charles Dickens was aboard inspecting and interviewing the Mormons, and it happened that Eliza’s father was the Mormon he interviewed for his article, which now appears in Chapter 22 of Dickens’ book The Uncommercial Traveler.
They were six weeks sailing. Eliza found the water ration, which was 1 pint per person per day, foul (because it was stored in new wood barrels, and as the wood aged, it tainted the taste and smell of the water so that the people had to hold their noses to drink it) and successfully managed to get one of the sailors to give her fresher water. She did not like eating raw food, but it was hard to get a turn at using the small cooking stoves. When they landed in New York, the travelers found to their dismay that the American Civil War had so disrupted travel that their arrangements were disregarded. There were soldiers everywhere, and soldiers had first rights to all available transport. They struggled up the Hudson River to Albany where they were shipped in cattle cars to St Joseph, Missouri, taking ten days to get there. Over one two-day period, the cars were so crowded that they all had to stand up; the conditions were filthy and horrible; there was little or nothing to eat and only a little dirty water to drink. The trip must have seemed interminable in those conditions.
At St Joseph they were able to get a boat going up the Missouri River to Florence, Nebraska. Here their overland wagon train was waiting. The Browns had not had enough money to purchase their own wagon; they had bought space for their luggage in someone else’s wagon and set out to walk the twelve-hundred-mile journey. It was now August and the journey began hot and muggy and dusty all at the same time. Their typical progress was about 18 to 20 miles a day, and the trail, well marked by the thousands who had traveled in the years before them, was dotted along the way with the graves of those who had succumbed to the illnesses of those days, cholera and typhoid and other fevers, accidents, and hardship. Amazingly, this company of 882 people had but one single death on the entire journey—when they reached the foothills of the Rocky Mountains one person died from cholera, though many came down with the disease.
Sixteen-year-old Eliza was an attractive young woman. She caught the eye of a fellow countryman, John White, who was from the same area of Wiltshire as she, who had emigrated a few years before this and was working as a teamster, ferrying emigrants across the Plains. They courted along the journey, and John let Eliza ride as much as was then proper for a courting couple in those days. Eliza remembered the journey fondly as a very, very happy time, with dancing and music every night, early risings and nearly every day having beautiful weather.
|Eliza in middle age, her classic bone structure |
still evident of her extreme good looks;
her expression evident of her generous nature