some observations

Little is known of the first five generations of Smithson women (1500s to mid1700s). While the names of Smithson daughters can be obtained from parish baptismal registers in the Smithson heartland – Harewood, Bardsey and Adel, the names of their mothers were not recorded until around the mid18th century. Parish records of the marriages of the first five generations of Smithson men have not yet been located, so Smithson wives are often named only when they were buried or when they were identified in wills and property records.

The first Smithson women identified in records created around the late 16th and early 17th century were: Alice, wife of John Smithson of Burden Head; and Katherine, wife of Francis Smithson, son of Marmaduke Smithson. John Smithson’s 1602 will identifies his sisters: Joan (Jenet) who married Thomas Parker; Margaret who married Richard Dighton; and an unnamed sister who married George Kent. John and Marmaduke Smithson are believed to be the brothers of William Smithson of Weardley. William Smithson’s will, dated 1597, identifies another early Smithson woman: his granddaughter, Ann Smithson. Ann, daughter of William’s son Richard, is also known from her marriage settlement of 1603 which has survived in West Yorkshire archives. Richard’s wife Agnes’ name is known from the record of her burial in 1626 and confirmed by a letter of administration.

Farmers’ Daughters

We cannot know what sort of life was led by Richard Smithson’s daughter, Ann, prior to her marriage in 1603. Even a generalised picture of her rural contemporaries’ lives is difficult to construct. As Alice Clark remarked in her pioneering study, ‘Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century’:

their history was unnoticed by their contemporaries … They themselves were too busy, too much absorbed in the lives of others, to keep journals and they were not sufficiently important to have their memoirs written by other people.1

It is almost certain that the women in Ann Smithson’s circle were illiterate and so even less likely to be keeping journals. The invisibility of early Smithson women in records can easily lead us to undervalue their social and economic importance. In the previous century, Sir Anthony Fitzherbert (1470-1538) confronted the danger of this bias in his ‘Boke of Husbandry’:

Now thou husbande that hast done thy diligence and laboure that longeth to a husband to get thy liuing, thy wyues, thy children, and thy seruauntes, yet is there other thynges to be doen that nedes must be done, or els thou shalt not thryue. For there is an olde common saying, that seldom doth ye husbande thriue without leue of his wyf.2

Knowing as little as we do about Smithson women in Weardley in these early years, some general observations of the life led by rural women in Ann Smithson’s time are useful. As Richard Smithson, her father, was a husbandman and his father, William Smithson, was a yeoman, and both held farms around Weardley, Ann’s position in society probably lay in that grey borderland between the two rural classes. Ann’s younger years would have essentially been spent training for the life she was destined to lead as a wife in a modest yeoman’s or well-off husbandman’s establishment. As such, she may have played a more integral role in her family’s affairs than we might expect. A passing reference in the journal of the Rev. Ralph Josselin (1617-1683) in 1650 to the wife and daughter of Farmer Day cautions us against assuming a subordinate role for rural women in important financial and business matters:

April. 9. This day was goodwife Day with mee; I perceive shee is resolved to give mee my price for my farme of Mallories, and I intend to lett it goe…

April. 30. This day I surrendered Mallories and the appurtenances to Day of Halsted and his daughter.3

One certainly gets the impression from John Smithson of Burden Head’s 1602 will that he had firm trust in his wife Alice’s grasp of their financial affairs and that she was capable of managing them after his death.

Ann would be expected to develop the ability to take charge of the dairy, poultry, garden and orchard – the particular domain of a mistress. These were capable of generating family income and she would be expected to learn the ways of the local market and to master the art of buying and selling. While a husband may be the master of the farm, Ann may have been expected to manage the financial side of the farm’s operations.4 Indeed, as will be discussed in detail below, a wife had a legal and binding interest in a husband’s freehold in this period. The kitchen could also generate income. It is suggested that the kitchen of Ann’s nephew, Richard Smithson of Alwoodley, in the late 17th century seemed capable of producing a surplus supply of bread.

The Lowkers, women field workers, from The Costume of Yorkshire by George Walker, 1814. From the New York Public Library, < >.

It could also be expected that young Ann’s assistance would be needed on the family farm, especially at important times of the year, such as during harvest. Many of these farm tasks would have been mundane and certainly not as idyllic as those romantically described by Dorothy Osborne, Lady Temple (1627–1695) in 1653:

I walk out into a common that lies hard by the house, where a great many young wenches keep sheep and cows, and sit in the shade singing of ballads…  I talk to them and find they want nothing to make them the happiest people in the world but the knowledge that they are so. Most commonly, when we are in the midst of our discourse, one looks about her, and spies her cows going into the corn, and then away they all run as if they had wings at their heels. I, that am not so nimble, stay behind, and when I see them driving home their cattle, I think ’tis time for me to retire too.5

Paid and Unpaid Work

How much of the drudgery of farming and household work Ann would have shouldered would have been determined by the prosperity or otherwise of her father, Richard. Richard’s prosperity would have also determined how much of that drudgery was performed off the family farm. Alice Clark provides a succinct assessment of the realities of the rural society in which Ann lived: ‘The more prosperous the family, the less the mother went outside to work … The more she was obliged to work for wages, the poorer was her family’.6 We can add to this with the observation: the more a family was obliged to send its daughters out to paid employment, the poorer was the family and the lower was its social status.

There is no evidence that establishes whether or not Smithson women were put out to work for wages on district farms during the first seven generations. In the seventh generation, three main branches of the Smithson family emerged: that of Richard Smithson (c.1711-1779) at Weardley; Peter Smithson (1718-1800) at Arthington Bank; and James Smithson (1722-1798) at Bardsey-cum-Rigton. These were all sons of William Smithson of East Rigton (1674-1746). Our picture of their female descendants is clearer by the 10th generation after the institution of national censuses from 1841 that provided information on named individuals.

Only one of Richard Smithson’s sons had managed to maintain his life as a farmer at Weardley and the next – the 9th – generation of Smithson men mostly sought work as agricultural labourers. In the mid19th century, Richard’s young female descendants obtained employment as domestic servants before they married. By the next (11th) generation, some obtained employment as woollen mill workers.

Woman spinning, from The Costume of Yorkshire by George Walker, 1814. Spinning and weaving were common cottage industries in Yorkshire for cottagers and small farmers prior to the second half of the 19th century. From the mid to late 19th century, some single and married Smithson women worked at dressmaking from home. From the New York Public Library, <>.

Most of the female descendants of James Smithson of East Rigton did not seek paid work. The daughters of Miles and Thomas Smithson engaged in unpaid work within the family when their families entered the tobacco trade. These tenth generation young Smithson women were trained as tobacconists alongside their brothers. After their marriages, several brought their husbands into the trade.

The female descendants of Peter Smithson did not seek paid work nor, it would seem, any training in the family business. Peter Smithson’s son, Peter (1750-1831), left Arthington Bank and established a family of clothiers at Bramley. One of Peter’s grandsons, Thomas (b.1807), obtained a comfortable living as a cloth manufacturer, then merchant. His daughters never sought employment. His sole unmarried daughter, Mary Sophia (1839-1918), lived on her own means into her old age. Thomas’ son, James Peter (1832-1903), had a more tumultuous business life and faced bankruptcy twice. Nonetheless, he was able to continue as a merchant and provide a comfortable life for his family. His daughters did not need to seek employment and two were able to continue as scholars into their late teens. Other family members were not so lucky. After a financial reverse around the mid19th century, a few Bramley Smithson women sought employment as servants and one found employment as a school teacher. It must have served for the men of the family as proof of the practical value of education for girls.

Literacy and Education

The growing demand for education during the 18th century, which paralleled the economic transformation of English agriculture and industry, resulted in increased levels of literacy amongst Smithson individuals. Marriage records provide evidence of this. Although the ability to sign one’s name in the parish register may not indicate an ability to effectively read and write, it  is a useful marker in tracking the transformation of illiterate 17th and 18th century Smithson farming families into the literate workers and professionals of the 20th century. The question of literacy among the Smithsons is also dealt with in Smithson Story – Joining the Revolution: The Smithsons and the Industrial Revolution. Using the evidence from parish registers, a disparity between the education of Smithson men and Smithson women becomes apparent.

Although Richard Smithson of Alwoodley (5th Smithson generation) was literate, most Smithson men became literate by the 8th generation (around the late 18th century). Generally speaking, Smithson women lagged behind, except in the Rigton branch of the family where women were also literate from the 8th generation. The 9th generation daughters of Peter Smithson of Bramley were all illiterate, but his female descendants in the following generations were invariably literate.

The class photo – a symbol of the emergence of state-instituted education. Photograph of a mixed-sex class and its woman teacher, Mornington Road, Bingley, Yorkshire. theirhistory, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

There is an interesting pattern of literacy among the young women descendants of Richard Smithson of Weardley. In the 8th generation, Richard’s eldest daughter, Mary, was illiterate, while their youngest, Elizabeth, was literate. This pattern was repeated in the 9th generation. Dinah, the eldest daughter of Richard of Weardley’s son, Michael Smithson (1754-1811), was illiterate, but Michael’s youngest, Mary, was literate. Phoebe, the youngest daughter of Richard of Weardley’s son, Thomas Smithson (1759-1846) was literate, while her elder sisters were illiterate. This pattern of illiterate elder daughters and a literate youngest daughter continued into the next (10th) generation families of Thomas Smithson (1793-1859), John (1799-1881) and James (1806-1854). What appears to have happened was that the education of older daughters was neglected in favour of marriage or paid employment. The household, freed of dependant daughters and in receipt of their income, could retain the youngest daughter to assist now-ageing parents, which provided greater opportunities for education.

By the 11th generation – children of the latter half of the 19th century, state intervention in education ensured that virtually all Smithsons were literate with only a very few Smithson families remaining illiterate until the late 19th century.

A Marriageable Age

Ann Smithson, granddaughter of William and daughter of Richard Smithson, was married around 1603. It is not known how old she was when she married. The only other Smithson daughter of the first five generations whose marriage details are known was Ann’s niece, Anne Smithson of the 5th generation, who married Anthony Leatham in 1668. The average age for women to marry during the 16th and 17th centuries has been calculated by historians as between 20 and 30 years, so Anne was a little older than the average when she married at 32 years of age.7 Unfortunately, the sample of Smithson women from which data could be obtained in these early generations is very small. More is known about women after the eighth generation.

From the eighth generation, a steady decline can be observed in the age at which a female Smithson married for the first time. The median age at first marriage amongst Smithson women dropped from above 30, prior to the eighth generation, to 25 years in the eighth generation (late 18th century) and to 23 years by the 11th generation (late 19th century). This decline was in line with the trend for the wider English population. The mean age of English people at first marriage from 1700 to 1749 was 27.5 years, but it had declined to 25.3 years between 1800 and 1849.8 In the case of the Smithsons, the younger age at marriage appears to have been a consequence of their abandonment of the farming life where marriage could be delayed until men could find the means of taking-up land or had inherited land. Now, what was preferable was a good job. Interestingly, the median age at first marriage amongst Smithson women rose to 26 years in the early 20th century, possibly in consequence of delays in marrying during World War One.

Finding a Partner

Determining precisely where the husbands of Smithson daughters came from is difficult to ascertain in the first seven generations of the family. Indeed, Richard Speight, who married Ann Smithson around 1603, is the only husband who has been traced satisfactorily. Richard came from Westgate Hill, Tong, about 21 kilometres southwest of Weardley. Yet, if the marriages of Smithson men during the same period can be used as a guide, most marriage partners tended to be local – from Harewood or adjoining parishes.

The marriage of Herbert Craven Smithson, descendant of the East Rigton Smithsons, and May Cleary in 1912 at St Michael’s church, Hurstville, Australia. Hurstville City Council Library.

The net for Smithson husbands and wives began to be cast further during the 8th generation (late 18th century), although local partners still predominated. In 1789 Sarah Smithson (b.1769) of East Rigton married Richard Hague of York, over 30 kms away. The marriage of Sarah’s brother, John Smithson (b.1769) of Rigton, to Mary (Molly) Jackson in 1787 would suggest a long-distance courtship – Mary Jackson was baptised in Aberford, some 10 kilometres direct from Rigton, the daughter of Miles Jackson, the miller of Hillam Mill, which was located between Barwick and Aberford. However, the families may not have kept their distance. Molly’s father, Miles, took up land on the Manor of Bardsey in 1776.

The greater geographic mobility of Smithson men and women in subsequent generations was a factor in casting an even wider net for husbands and wives. While Smithson daughters who were employed as domestic servants generally worked close to home, Elizabeth Smithson (b.c.August 1866) was an exception. She was probably the illegitimate daughter of Ann Smithson (1832-1875) of Weardley who later married William Hainsworth of Eccup. After the death of her mother and the breakup of the Hainsworth household, Elizabeth sought employment as a servant at Clifton in Halifax, Yorkshire. She married Jonas Edmondson of Bradford at Bradford in 1887. Smithson men ventured further afield. The relocation of the Rigton Smithsons to York during their entry into the tobacconist trade in the first half of the 19th century resulted in three marriages between Smithson men and brides from York. Another Smithson, Zachariah (1790-1869) of Weardley, left Yorkshire for Lancashire after the death of his wife and child and remarried there. Migration into Yorkshire also broadened the range of husbands and wives chosen by Smithsons. Yorkshire was a favoured destination for Irish immigrants in the mid to late 19th century and two of the Rigton Smithson daughters, Harriet Smithson (1826-1861) and Mary Ann Dunwell Smithson (b.1820) married Irishmen.

Not only were husbands and wives obtained within the geographic community, they could also be sought within an economic community. A prime example is found in the family of Peter Smithson (1750-1831) of Bramley. Peter Smithson established a family that operated for three, perhaps four generations as clothiers, that is: cloth manufacturers and merchants. Peter’s daughters all married clothiers. Two daughters of Peter’s eldest son, James (1775-1819), married into families of business associates and one and possibly another of James’ sons married the daughters of clothiers. In the next generation, James Peter Smithson (1832-1903) married Elizabeth Jane Taylor in 1859. Elizabeth was the daughter of Edward Taylor of Edward Taylor and Co., woollen cloth finishers who operated Oatlands Mill on Meanwood Road, Leeds. The occasion was celebrated by Taylor who treated his mill workers to a supper at the Globe Inn, Meanwood Road.  In 1864, James Peter’s brother, Thomas Henry Smithson, married Harriet Holliday, who lived with and was related by marriage to George Dixon, a master dyer.

Marriage, Status and Property

The economic and the social went hand-in-hand when marriage was considered. Male descendants of Richard Smithson at Weardley struggled to maintain their lives as farmers and by the 9th generation could be clearly classed as belonging to the working class, mainly agricultural labourers, carters and carriers or mill workers. Working class Smithson men invariably married the daughters of other working class men. Smithson daughters managed some degree of upward mobility and quite a number who worked as servants married men with trades or small businesses.

Portrait of English Servants: The Acland family’s servants, Oxford, 1897, photographed by Sarah Angelina Acland.

The nearest thing to a Cinderella story among Smithson daughters was the marriage of Phoebe Smithson (1835-1885). Phoebe Smithson obtained work as a house servant in the household of William Lawson at Otley, probably as a 14 year old. Lawson was a Wesleyan preacher and a leather dresser, sometimes employing twelve men. More than fourteen years later, in 1865, Phoebe married Lawson’s son, John, who was ten years her senior. One suspects that the match was not popular with the Lawson family. Prior to their marriage, Phoebe was living, presumably working, in Chapeltown and the marriage was conducted in St Peters, Leeds, with both witnesses being Smithsons. In 1867, John’s father died and, in the census of 1871, John and Phoebe were living in Otley where John was engaged in tanning, leather dressing and farming (40 acres).

Among Smithson men, Thomas Smithson (1897-1870) of the Rigton Smithsons appears to have obtained some advantage from marrying Phoebe Rayson. Thomas had been a maltser and farmer until it seems that financial problems in his extended family forced him to sell up. After a sojourn in Leeds, where his first wife died, Thomas married Phoebe, the widow of a builder, Thomas Rayson junior, at York in 1830. Phoebe brought a daughter and, it would appear, some property and capital to the marriage. The latter  certainly would have aided Thomas’ entry into business as a tobacco manufacturer. Thomas brought some of his extended family into the tobacconist trade, became a councillor in the York City Council, hunted and generally ‘kept up a first rate appearance’ until he reduced himself to bankruptcy. In the aftermath, Thomas and Phoebe separated. Notwithstanding these reverses, Thomas kept himself in business by various unscrupulous means, including setting up a tobacco manufactory in the name of his neighbour, Elizabeth Ellis. Ellis joined Thomas’ household in Phoebe’s absence and he married her in 1856, a year after Phoebe’s death. Phoebe was one Smithson wife who fared poorly in marriage.

Smithson daughters and wives were subject to the legal and social presumption that they were dependants of their husbands. This presumption operated among Smithson families to the extent that marriage put an end to most Smithson women’s paid employment – or, at least, to admitting to paid employment at census time. Those few Smithson married women who admitted to paid employment belonged to families that seem to have been in challenging financial circumstances. One such may have been the family of Thomas Smithson (1822-1895). Thomas was working as a labourer at the time of his marriage to Hannah Jowett in 1846. Neither was literate and Thomas’ family was living with Hannah’s parents four years later. By 1861, Thomas and his family occupied their own residence in Shipley. Thomas worked as a power loom weaver while Hannah worked as a dressmaker and their son, John, attended school as well as working as a worsted yarn spinner.

On the other hand, some Smithson women, particularly among the Rigton Smithsons, scorned the idea of dependency and were quite open in the census about their role in their husbands’ financial affairs. Sarah Smithson (1824-c.1862) had been brought up in the tobacconist trade and in the 1851 census, less than a year after her marriage, she gave her occupation as tobacconist alongside her husband, James Walsh, a stationer who had now moved into the tobacconist trade. Elizabeth Mary Smithson (b.1863), daughter of Sarah’s brother, the tobacco manufacturer Miles Smithson, was married to a tobacco cutter turned grocer. She gave her occupation as assisting in the business.

The presumption of a married woman’s dependence operated to ensure that a woman’s wealth passed into the control of her husband, as did any income she earned after marriage. While largely irrelevant for most Smithson women who possessed limited wealth or property, it would have been very important to Thomas Smithson’s wife, Phoebe Rayson. It was also important to two Smithson women in earlier generations: Alice Smithson, wife of John Smithson, and Katherine Smithson, wife of Francis Smithson. Their names appear in Feet of Fines from around the late 16th and early 17th century. At that time, a wife had a legal and binding interest in her husband’s freehold property. This was termed dower (not to be confused with dowry) and allowed her a life interest in one third of her husband’s estate, a right that would come into play for her maintenance in the event of her husband’s death. This right survived any disposal of land by the husband and required the wife’s interest to be transferred to a purchaser by means of a judicial proceeding known as a fine. The fine was recorded in triplicate on a parchment. The parchment was then cut: two parts or copies went to the interested parties (plaintiffs and deforciants) and the third part was filed in the treasury. The treasury copy was that written at the foot of the parchment and so became known as the “foot of fine”.

Ann Smithson brought no dowry, either in land or money, to her marriage with Richard Speight. Their marriage settlement of 1603 consisted of the enfeoffment or transfer to Richard, Ann and their ‘heirs of the body … lawfully begotten or to be begotten’ by Richard’s father, William, of

one house with appurtenances situate lying and being within the township of Tonge aforesaid next to a certain plot there called Wiskerdhill and now in the tenure or occupation of Thomas Collinson or his assigns, and also one close or croft of land with appurtenances adjoining the said house…

It was a simple document that sought to ensure that Ann and any children would have the security of house and land during her marriage and in the event of her widowhood. It also secured the rights of her children in the property should she remarry.

Single Women

From medieval through to Elizabethan times and beyond, women who did not marry suffered some prejudice in England.9 Male commentators in the Victorian age, such as William Rathbone Greg writing in 1869, believed that the growing numbers of single women of marriageable age in England constituted a social crisis:

there is an enormous and increasing number of single women in the nation, a number quite disproportionate and quite abnormal; a number which, positively and relatively, is indicative of an unwholesome social state …There are hundreds of thousands of women — not to speak more largely still — scattered through all ranks, but proportionally most numerous in the middle and upper classes, — who have to earn their own living …10

For Greg, women who remained single faced a miserable life of “celibacy, struggle and privation”.11

Greg would have found no such crisis in Smithson families. It can probably be safely said that most Smithson daughters who reached marriageable age did marry. Some did not, but it is difficult to establish precisely how many. It has not been possible to explore all the life stories of Smithson daughters who remained single and many individuals simply disappear from the records, probably deceased. Of those Smithson daughters who remained single, one cannot generalise. They came from a variety of family backgrounds and lived quite different lives, as three examples serve to illustrate.

Untold Stories #1 – Pearl Gawthorpe Smithson (1888-1953), Australian descendant of the East Rigton Smithsons. Pearl never married. She and her sister Essie Amy nursed their father before his death. Both worked to support their mother and, after Essie’s marriage, Pearl became her mother’s sole carer. Essie supported them financially and finally nursed both before their deaths. Essie and her husband, Charles Challis, were able to assist two of her brothers, unemployed during the Great Depression.

The English census provides glimpses of the life of one single Smithson woman, Mary Sophia Smithson (1839-1918), daughter of Thomas Smithson of Bramley, woollen cloth manufacturer and merchant. Thomas was born into a family of reasonably well-off clothiers and was able to maintain a quite comfortable lifestyle. Mary Sophia was Thomas’ only unmarried child. One gets the impression that she had lived a sheltered life, finding it difficult to deal or communicate with officials. Mary Sophia was left in charge of the household in her parents’ absence during the 1881 census, during which time her nephew was staying with her. The census data collected from her on this occasion was confused at best. In the 1891 census, she was recorded as a visitor at the home of a retired Wesleyan minister at Burslem, Staffordshire. Once again, she confused the census collector. Far clearer data was obtained in the censuses taken in the new century when Mary Sophia was living on her own means at St Peters Mount, Bramley. On that occasion, Mary Sophia may have been assisted with the census by Emily Dixon, Mary Sophia’s sister-in-law. Emily was a widow living on her own means and was listed in the 1901 and 1911 censuses as a visitor, but was probably more a companion, considering that her visit lasted over a decade at least.

Zachariah Smithson (1844-1927), unlike Thomas Smithson of Bramley, was more a self-made man, having begun his working life as a ploughman and retiring as a brewer’s agent. By 1911, the family had moved from working-class Armley to a more middle-class address at Roundhay View, Potternewton. Upon his death in 1927, Zachariah left effects valued at almost 2,800 pounds. He and his second wife, Agnes Plows had six surviving children: two boys and four girls. While all the boys married, only one of his four surviving daughters, Clara Eliza, married. Clara Eliza worked as a typist before marrying relatively late at 35 years.  Unlike Mary Sophia Smithson, most of Zachariah’s unmarried daughters could not be maintained in gentle inactivity. Ethel Annie worked as a teacher and Phoebe Alice worked briefly as a tailoress. Their sister Hilda Agnes would have found it difficult to find work having been blind from her teenage years.

A far different life was led by a third single woman, Ellen Smithson (1860-1921), the only child of George Smithson (1826-1893). George was a carter and horseman and the family lived in Sheepscar, Leeds: on Roundhay Street in 1871 and in Strasburg Terrace from about 1881. In 1881, George and his wife, Hannah, had taken in boarders and Ellen was working as a domestic servant. Ellen never ceased working and never married. By 1891, about four years after the death of his wife, George had retired and Ellen was working as a laundress. After her father’s death in 1893, Ellen continued to live at Strasburg Terrace and for at least the next two decades she worked as a charwoman.


Far more prejudice was suffered by single women who bore children out of wedlock. These births were recorded scrupulously in the Harewood parish registers with such phrases as: ‘the putified sonne’; ‘a base childe’; ‘Base Born’; or ‘ye bastard daughter’. It was not unknown for Smithson women to bear illegitimate children. The first known instance was recorded in the Harewood parish registers on 10 June 1632, being the baptism of ‘Robert the base childe of Anne Smithson and Will’m Thompson’. The family connections of this Anne Smithson are not certain, but she may have been a daughter of Michael Smithson (d.1622/23).

Sometimes the barest evidence hints strongly at Smithson women finding themselves in sad situations. Juliana Smithson (b.1766) was the daughter of William Smithson and Juliana Robinson of Alwoodley. William was the grandson of Richard Smithson (d.1704/5) who is believed to be the unrecorded son of Richard and Ann Smithson of Weardley. William was described as one of the principal inhabitants of the parish of Harewood and signed a terrier (a written survey of the church’s possessions) in 1764.12 William married relatively late at 46 years of age and he and Juliana had two children: Juliana and William. Young William was one year old when he died and his mother died five months later, leaving William to care for his five year old daughter, Juliana. William was 69 years of age and Juliana was 20 when ‘William Bastard son of Juliana Smithson of Allwoodley’ was born and baptised in 1786. Three years later ‘John, Bastard son of Judith [sic] Smithson of Alwoodley’ was born and baptised. John Smithson died at two years of age; nothing is known of William Smithson. Juliana disappears from the records for ten years. It is possible that she was the Juliana Smithson of Leeds who married William Scurrow, a farmer, in 1799. William Smithson of Alwoodley died in 1802 bringing the Alwoodley Smithson line to an end.

Houses at Low Weardley. Low Weardley is the northern part of Weardley village. It was the location of a cottage leased by the Smithsons who remained in the village until the 1900s.

Sarah Smithson (1789-1853) faced a more complex situation. Sarah married Mark Smith, a labourer of Meanwood Side, parish of Adel, in 1809. They had three children baptised: Thomas (1809), Hannah (1812) and Mark (1815). Mark never saw his youngest son and namesake because he died in November 1814, two months before young Mark was born. Sarah returned to Weardley, but it is unclear what happened to her children (although her son Mark was working in Adel-cum-Eccup in 1841). In 1817, Sarah had another child, Frederick William, born out of wedlock at Weardley. At this time, illegitimate children were spared censure in Harewood parish’s register of baptisms. However, despite Sarah being a widow named Smith, Frederick William was registered under Sarah’s maiden name: ‘Frederick William Son of Sarah Smithson’. No father was identified in the baptism record, but he was when Frederick William married in 1844. Frederick, who now used the surname ‘Smith’, named James Womersley, a schoolmaster, as his father. Sarah remarried in 1819 and moved to Garforth, the home town of her second husband, Joshua Vince. Joshua had several occupations: butcher (1820), labourer (1825), publican (1828) and innkeeper (1830). After Joshua’s death in 1836, Sarah continued keeping the inn for a time (according to the 1851 English census) but was recorded as having independent means in the 1841 census. Frederick William remained in the parish of Harewood.

Breaking the Rules

When searching the Harewood parish registers for members of the Smithson family, one is confronted by one baptismal entry: ‘1789… Aug. …7  George, incestuous s. James & Elizabeth Wilson of Bongate’. Surprisingly, another two records follow, in 1791 and 1793, of the birth and baptism of an incestuous daughter and son to the same couple. Any assumption that this was a case of sexual relations between very closely related individuals is actually wide of the mark. The fact is that the definition of incest has shifted over time as the laws relating to degree of consanguinity (blood relatedness) between persons who may legally marry have changed.

Early canon law forbade the marriage of couples within four degrees of consanguinity – for example: between parent-child; siblings; uncle/aunt-niece/nephew; or first cousins. This was increased to seven degrees of consanguinity – for example: marriage to anyone up to and including a sixth cousin. Later, it was reduced again to four. Following the Reformation, Henry VIII legalised cousin marriage in England. Other regulations remained which appear strange to modern researchers: for example, a widower could not marry his deceased wife’s sister or a widow marry her deceased husband’s brother.13 The latter was almost certainly James and Elizabeth Wilson of Bongate’s transgression. It appears that James Wilson of Bongate married Mary Wright of Lofthouse at Harewood in 1773. Mary died in 1779. James married Mary’s sister, Elizabeth, in Leeds in 1788 and went back to live in the Harewood parish, braving the ire of the Harewood’s clergyman. Some Smithsons, along with many other English couples, also ignored the law. They were aided by the anonymity of living in the new and expanding Yorkshire cities where people no longer lived in relatively small communities under the eye of strict parish clergy.

Two Smithson men married their dead wives’ sisters contrary to both Anglican and Catholic canon law. Miles Smithson (1820-1894) of the Rigton branch of the Smithsons married his first wife, Martha Hansom, in a Catholic church in York in 1844. Miles and Martha moved to Bradford, where Miles set up as a tobacconist, and the couple had four children. In 1857 and 1858, two of the children died and then Martha died in 1859. Miles was left with two children and married Martha’s sister, Anna, also a Catholic, in 1860. They went on to have four children. William Smithson (b.c.1855) of Richard Smithson of Weardley’s branch of the family married Martha Stead in 1876. Martha died, childless, in 1878 in Leeds. Just over a year later, William and Priscilla Stead, Martha’s sister, had a child, Ada. The three were living together when the census was taken in 1881, but Priscilla was listed as a lodger.  Ada was not baptised until 1884 and William and Priscilla did not marry until 1889. Marriage to a dead wife’s sister was only sanctioned with the passing of the Deceased Wife’s Sister’s Marriage Act in 1907 – a Deceased Brother’s Widow’s Marriage Act was not passed until 1921.

Cousin marriage was not common amongst Smithsons. The only example located to date was that of Thomas Smithson (b.1782) who married Eleanor Smithson, his first cousin, in 1812. The marriage took place two years after the death of Thomas’ first wife, Elizabeth Newsome.


The death of a spouse could impose real hardship on a Smithson wife and family. Social security for widows in England existed only in a most rudimentary form prior to the 20th century when the passing of the Old-Age Pensions Act of 1908 and the Widows’, Orphans and Old Age Contributory Pensions Act of 1925 marked important first steps in the development of the Welfare State. At the heart of this problem lay the social presumption that women were dependants of their husbands. Upon marriage, any property a woman possessed was placed into her husband’s hands. If widowed, in theory at least, she was not legally entitled to anything from her husband’s estate. It was the responsibility of husbands to provide for their wives in the event of their deaths. It was an expectation that, in practice, could be realised in very few Smithson families.

A husband with sufficient means and practical foresight ensured that his widow would be well-cared for. Some husbands ignored legal theory and made their wives sole or substantial beneficiaries in their wills. In his 1602 will, John Smithson of Burden Head made his wife, Alice, his sole executor and placed all his land, goods and most of his funds in her possession. The family settlement contained in his will appears designed to provide her with strong financial protection during her lifetime. Richard Smithson (1711-1779) of Weardley’s wife, Frances Bradley, inherited his farm and was one of several farming widows recognised in the books of the Harewood manor. Admittedly, she did have sons who could be expected to work and inherit the farm. In perhaps similar circumstances in 1744, William Smithson (1674-1746) of Rigton bequeathed all his ‘Goods, Cattle and Chattells and Personall Estate’ to his wife, Jane Easby and youngest son, James. A more typical arrangement was made by the Reverend John Smithson (1793-1868) of the Rigton branch of the family for the support of his widow, Ann Bates. She remained in their hometown of Hinckley, Leicestershire, as an annuitant. Upon her death in 1888, Ann left an estate worth contesting by several parties. Peter Smithson of Arthington Bank (1718-1800), directed in his 1797 will that Peter and his brother Richard be bound to provide an annuity to their mother during her lifetime.

Receipt of an annuity did not ensure comfort into old age. In 1849, William Farr, Superintendent of the Registrar-General’s Statistical Department, reported on the pensions offered to widows and orphans of civil service employees and commented upon the fate of many widows and their children in the middle and higher classes: ‘they are practically thrown upon the hands of their relatives – of the charitable – and, in some rare instances, of the parish.”14 In his 1831 will, Peter Smithson of Bramley, established a trust to ensure an annuity of four pounds a year was paid to his wife, Isabella. This annuity, plus a bequest of £20 and her personal effects, must have been inadequate for Isabella to lead an independent life. Peter must have assumed that his sons would care for their step-mother, just as he had once supported his own widowed mother. The fate of one Smithson widow, Francis Bucktrout, wife of Thomas Smithson (1793-1859), who was certainly not of the middle or higher classes, is illustrative of the circumstances of many annuitants.  Francis was a widow for just over twenty years and was listed in the census of 1891 as an annuitant. Yet, it is telling that, a decade earlier, the census recorded Francis as a pauper. She, like many aged widows (as well as aged fathers), found a home with relatives: in 1861 with her brother and in 1871 with her grandson, Thomas Smithson (1857-1932).

Smithson widows with children faced serious difficulties. Best off were those with teenage children, such as Jane Ann Robson, widow of John Smithson (1831-1884), who was able to rely on the earnings of her teenage children before her stepson, Thomas Smithson (1857-1932), organised the emigration of the whole family to the United States in the early 1890s. Harriet Hannah Hercock, widow of Alfred Smithson (1836-1886) of Bramley, also relied on the financial support of her sons: two accountants, a manager and a warehouse boy. Less fortunate were widows with small children. Percy Smithson (b.c.1867), one of the descendants of Peter Smithson of Bramley who had relocated to South Wales, was a ship’s engineer. In 1910, Percy died at Gulfport, Mississippi, USA., while a member of a ship’s crew. His family was forced to disperse. In 1911, his widow Elizabeth Mary Florence Clement was living in Newport; his son, John Kingsley Smithson, was living with his uncle, James Bernard Smithson’s family in Penarth, Wales; and his daughter, Elizabeth Jane Doris Smithson, was living in Leeds with her grandmother, Elizabeth Jane Smithson. Elizabeth Mary Florence Clement remarried in 1921.

Remarriage was an attractive alternative to financial struggle for Smithson widows – if it was possible. Chances for remarriage could depend on the circumstances of the widow; as Cynthia Curran has noted: ‘In the early modern period it was easier for a widow to remarry when she had a farm to offer…’15 So it was for Mary Moss, widow of the farmer William Smithson (1813-1851), who was left with two small children – Mary remarried four years later. Cynthia Curran has also observed that, in the Victorian period,

Even when a widow had been left a business or income-producing property, there was no guarantee that she would be allowed to continue to operate and … It seems likely that widows were never accepted in the business community, and records indicate a frequent willingness of these women to remarry, often to a journeyman or competitor who would take over their deceased husbands’ business affairs.16

Hansom Cab. Mary Smithson (1851-1936) operated her husband’s cab business after his death in 1898. The Hansom cab was designed by Joseph Aloysius Hansom, uncle of Martha and Anna Hansom, wives of Miles Smithson (1820-1895). Photo by Andrew Dunn – English Wikipedia, original upload 20 September 2004 by Solipsist, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Mary Smithson (1851-1936) was an exception. Mary was twice widowed. At 20 years of age, she married Silvester Thomas, a stonemason. Silvester died in 1885 and Mary was forced to go out to work as a laundress. Ten years later, Mary married John Maude, a cab and wagonette proprietor. John died less than three years later and the widowed Mary was left in possession of John’s cab business. In Mary’s case, she was able to hold the business and remarriage could be avoided because she had sons to support her possession. Nevertheless, it was very apparent who was running the business. When the census was taken in 1911, Mary was recorded as the cab proprietor and her three sons, William, Fred and Albert Thomas, were working as cab drivers.

For many Smithson widows, finding employment was crucial. Like Mary Smithson, several Smithson widows worked as laundresses or charwomen. In 1871, Hannah Smithson (b.1823), widow of Thomas Hudson, was working as a washer woman in Otley, but was assisted by her two teenage daughters who worked as worsted mill spinners. Hannah’s 69 year old father, John Smithson (1799-1881) was also living with them. He was a joiner/carpenter and probably assisted in making ends meet. Other Smithson widows, who might have considered themselves in the lower middle class, found higher status employment. Elizabeth Harriet Smithson (b.c.1850), a descendant of the Rigton Smithsons, found herself a widow when her husband, William Thomas Madden, an attorney’s clerk, died in 1900.  She was able to find employment as a theatrical dresser. Jane Farrer, widow of cloth manufacturer Joshua Smithson (1816-1861) of Bramley, found employment as a teacher.

A woman migrant disembarking from a ship in Australia, ca. 1885 from Cassell’s picturesque Australia Vol. 3 (E. E. Morris [ed], Melbourne, 1888). Public domain: copyright expired.

Smithson widows may have also considered emigration as the means to improve their situation. Cynthia Curran has noted that, although ‘emigration was often spoken of as a safety valve for needy gentlewomen … only three of the three hundred women assisted by the Female Middle Class Emigration Society during the years 1862-1882 were widows.’17 None of the three found the experience a positive one. However, emigration did prove a success for Elizabeth Colbeck Hall, widow of Frank Smithson (b.1869), a timber manager and Bramley Smithson descendant. The circumstances behind Elizabeth’s emigration are rather mysterious. Frank Smithson died in 1910 leaving Elizabeth and his son, Clarence Hall Smithson (1893-1976), an estate of £258. Clarence, a timber merchant’s clerk, married Maude Mary Hainsworth in January 1913. However, both Elizabeth and Clarence sailed from Liverpool to Albany, Western Australia, in February 1913. It has not been ascertained if Maude accompanied them or joined Clarence later (Clarence and Maude were together in Western Australia in November 1914 when the birth of their first child, Betty, was registered). Sometime in 1914, Elizabeth married Alfred Nelson at Katanning, north of Albany. Perhaps this marriage, or at least the meeting, had been prearranged; it is rather too coincidental that Elizabeth disembarked at Albany, rather than several larger and more common Australian destinations for English migrants, and married about a year after her arrival.

One should balance this account of the dependency and the hardships of Smithson widows with the story of one rather forceful Smithson widow, Frances Bradley, wife of Richard Smithson of Weardley. Richard’s father, William Smithson of Rigton, had given Richard his portion prior to William making his will in 1744. This was probably the Smithson farm at Weardley bequeathed to William by his elder brother, Peter, in 1729. Richard died in 1779 and Frances subsequently held sway over his estate. Frances made her will in 1783 and ignored most of her children, bequeathing virtually all her estate to her youngest son, Thomas. Her daughter, Elizabeth (bp.1752) who married John Pickard in 1782, was left ten pounds. Frances reserved her full displeasure for her son, Richard (bp.1747; her eldest surviving son), who she bequeathed ‘one shilling and no more to be paid him at my funeral’. Bequests of one shilling were not uncommon and did not necessarily represent a rebuke. Frances’ husband had received a shilling from his father because Richard had already received his inheritance. However, there is little doubt that, in this case, Frances was being vindictive. Nevertheless, by 1785, Frances had relented and, with the assistance of her nephews, Richard and Peter Smithson (sons of her brother-in-law, Peter Smithson), drew up a codicil to her will that allowed Richard ten pounds; her daughter Mary one pound; and gave her son Michael ‘the bed whereon I commonly lay with the Bedstead, Bedding, and every thing belonging to the same…’.18 There was nothing of the dependent and destitute widow about Frances Smithson of Weardley.


Only the most general of observations can be made concerning the life expectancy of Smithson women and very little is yet known about the causes of death. It is difficult to establish their average life span due to the limited number of women for whom birth and death dates are known. The best data that can be obtained relates to the early 18th century and the 19th century. The table below summarises the available data.

From the data summarised in the table, it can be concluded that the average life span for Smithson women was roughly comparable with that of Smithson men in the seventh, eleventh and twelfth generations. It must be said, however, that the numbers of individuals for whom we have data in the seventh generation is small. Data on women in the eitghth generation is so limited that no valid average life span can be calculated. Thankfully, the numbers of men and women for whom we have data in the eleventh and twelfth generations allow a better idea of average life spans. What is plain is that average life spans were quite low – Smithsons in Yorkshire were, on average, living only into their 40s. The picture was quite different in the ninth and tenth generations.

In the ninth and tenth generations – the first half of the 19th century, the average life span for Smithson men was in the low 50s, but the average life span for women was significantly lower. A great deal of research is needed to discover why this should be the case and that requires examination of the causes of deaths among Smithson women. However, one can postulate that the lower average life span for Smithson women in this period was due to factors common in the period before the advent of modern medicine: deaths from childbirth and high childhood mortality, but these were exacerbated by appalling living conditions in industrial cities, especially in the first half of the 19th century.

Untold Stories

It is unfortunate that the voices of Smithson women could not be heard in the story told on this page. The reminiscences of a very few Smithson women of the past are known to the author, but they are brief and general. If journals and memoirs were written, they remain private in the hands of descendants. So, it seems that Alice Clark’s observation on the paucity of written accounts of seventeenth century working women’s lives could well be applied to all twelve generations of Smithson women.

  1. Alice Clark, Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century, Routledge and Sons, London, 1919, pp.43-44.
  2. Sir Anthony Fitzherbert, Boke of Husbandry, quoted in Alice Clark, ibid, p.46.
  3. E. Hockliffe (ed), The Diary of the Rev. Ralph Josselin I616-I683, Royal Historical Society, London, 1908, p.86.
  4. Alice Clark, Working Life of Women, pp.50-52.
  5. Dorothy Osborne, Letters, pp.103-4, 1652-1654, quoted in Alice Clark, ibid., p.57.
  6. Alice Clark, Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century, p.64.
  7. Alan Macfarlane, ‘The Informal Social Control of Marriage in Seventeenth Century England: Some Preliminary Notes’, in V. Fox and M. Quitt, Loving, Parenting and Dying: The Family Cycle in England and America, Past and Present, New York, 1980, p.110.
  8. Gerald Newman, Leslie Ellen Brown (eds.), Britain in the Hanoverian Age, 1714-1837: an Encyclopedia, Taylor & Francis, 1997, p.569
  9. Alan Macfarlane, ‘The Informal Social Control of Marriage in Seventeenth Century England, pp.110-111.
  10. William Rathbone Greg, Why Are Women Redundant?, London, Trübner, 1869, p.5.
  11. ibid., p.17.
  12. William Brigg (trans. and ed.), The Parish Registers of Harewood, Co. York, Pt. 1, preface.
  13. Joan Perkin, Women and Marriage in Nineteenth-Century England, Routledge, 2002, p.12.
  14. William Farr, “Statistics of the Civil Service of England, with Observations on the Constitution of Funds, to Provide for Fatherless Children and Widows,” Journal of the Royal Statistical Society of London 12 (1849): 134-35; quoted in Cynthia Curran, Private Women, Public Needs, Middle-Class Widows in Victorian England, Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies, Vol. 25, No. 2 (Summer, 1993), p.221.
  15. Cynthia Curran, Private Women, Public Needs, p.226.
  16. ibid., p.224.
  17. ibid., p.233.
  18. Will of Frances Smithson of Weardley, Harewood, February 1791, Borthwick Institute, York.