The GREGORY family of Salem Court

The mound-unmarked and common graves.
Photo by Leslee Barron

Life story retold by Jan Clark

The Wargrave District School was established for the pauper children of Reading and Wokingham workhouses. By 1870 groups of children from English workhouses were being sent to Canada where, it was believed, they would have better opportunities than if they stayed in the workhouse schools. Although the Boards of Guardians would be responsible for the cost of sending them they would make savings in the long term by not having to support the children.The children had to give their consent in front of two JPs. The superintendent of the Wargrave school provided a list of 10 girls aged from 9 to 13 to the Board of Guardians for inclusion in the scheme. (There’s a fuller description of the process in ‘Battle Workhouse and Hospital 1867-2005’ by Margaret Railton and Marshall Barr.)

Three of the girls refused to go. One was Matilda Gregory, who said that she wanted to live with her sister and learn to make bonnets. The Board of Guardians agreed and provided her with some clothes for her life outside the workhouse.

So how did Matilda come to be a pupil at the Wargrave School and what happened to her? The 1861 Census was taken when Matilda was 4 and living with her family in Salem Place, off Minster Street. Her father George was a fitter and may have worked on assembling agricultural machinery at Barrett, Exall and Andrewes Reading Ironworks which was nearby in Katesgrove Lane. (His younger brother John certainly did as records show). He was 43. Her mother Mary Ann was 44. There were six children of whom Matilda was the youngest. Her brothers were Edward, 19 working as a labourer, Frederick, 17 and also a labourer and William who was 9. She had two sisters, Mary Ann, 15 who was a servant and Emily who was 13.

Two years later, Mary Ann, the children’s mother died. She was buried in the cemetery on 5 July 1863. There is no inscription for her so she probably lies in a common grave in the unconsecrated section of the cemetery. Presumably, their father was unable to care for the two youngest children and so they would have been sent to the Wargrave School.

In 1870 Matilda was faced with emigration to Canada. It’s not difficult to imagine her desperation at the prospect of being sent to another country, far away from her family and all she knew. She must have convinced the Guardians somehow to release her from the scheme. However, she didn’t live with her sister or learn to make bonnets – the 1871 census records her as living in the household of George Bishop the Chaplain to the Royal Berks Hospital at 3 Eldon Square. Meanwhile, her sister Emily was living with Mary Hodgson at 24 Oxford Street as a general servant. Mary Hodgson was a straw bonnet maker. Matilda was now 14 and working as a servant. The house in Eldon Square, even for a servant, must have been more congenial than the school and certainly than a long voyage on a ship bound for an uncertain future.

George Bishop and his wife later moved to Folkestone where he died in 1873. Meanwhile Matilda’s youngest brother William, who had also been a pupil at the Wargrave School, was now working as a journeyman baker in Ebury Street in Belgravia. So that may have motivated Matilda to seek work in London. The next record of her is that in 1877 Matilda married David Head on 5 August at St Andrew’s Church in Haverstock Hill in London. She was now 21 and David was 23 and a wine cooper making barrels. George her father is recorded as an iron founder. The couple went on to have one daughter, Ada. Matilda lived in North London until the end of her life, dying at the age of 79 in 1936.

Her sister Emily also married and she worked as a bonnet maker for thirty years or more, living first in Oxford Street and then in Alfred Street. Her husband worked at Huntley and Palmers. Her only son was killed in Belgium during WW1. Eventually in 1911, Emily, now a widow, was living with her older sister Mary Ann in Norton Road in Newtown. She was working as a seed sorter for a nursery, possibly Suttons.

Mary Ann had remained single and worked for more than 20 years for Eliza Bland, a woman of independent means, living first at Burghfield and eventually at 14 Erleigh Road before she went to live with her sister.

Their little sister Matilda was one of the fortunate pauper children from Wargrave District School who went on to live a long life and have a family of her own.

Buried in a unmarked grave, mound