I am grateful to Ian for bringing to my attention the case of Patience Kershaw, a girl whose testimony to the Antony Ashley-Cooper's Children's Employment Commission (Mines) has been adapted and set to music, performed by many including The Unthanks:
It’s good of you to ask me, Sir, to tell you how I spend my days
Down in a coal black tunnel, Sir, I hurry corves to earn my pay.
The corves are full of coal, kind Sir, I push them with my hands and head.
It isn’t lady-like, but Sir, you’ve got to earn your daily bread.
I push them with my hands and head, and so my hair gets worn away.
You see this baldy patch I’ve got, it shames me like I just can’t say.
A lady’s hands are lily white, but mine are full of cuts and segs.
And since I’m pushing all the time, I’ve got great big muscles on my legs.
I try to be respectable, but sir, the shame, God save my soul.
I work with naked, sweating men who curse and swear and hew the coal.
The sights, the sounds, the smells, kind Sir, not even God could know my pain.
I say my prayers, but what’s the use? Tomorrow will be just the same.
Now, sometimes, Sir, I don’t feel well, my stomach’s sick, my head it aches.
I’ve got to hurry best I can. My knees are weak, my back near breaks.
And then I’m slow, and then I’m scared these naked men will batter me.
But they’re not to blame, for if I’m slow, their families will starve, you see.
Now all the lads, they laugh at me, and Sir, the mirror tells me why.
Pale and dirty can’t look nice. It doesn’t matter how hard I try.
Great big muscles on my legs, a baldy patch upon my head.
A lady, Sir? Oh, no, not me! I should’ve been a boy instead.
I praise your good intentions, Sir, I love your kind and gentle heart
But now it’s 1842, and you and I, we’re miles apart.
A hundred years and more will pass before we’re standing side by side
But please accept my grateful thanks. God bless you Sir, at least you tried.
The original testimony is gripping.
My father has been dead about a year; my mother is living and has ten children, five lads and five lasses; the oldest is about thirty, the youngest is four; three lasses go to mill; all the lads are colliers, two getters and three hurriers; one lives at home and does nothing; mother does nought but look after home.
All my sisters have been hurriers, but three went to the mill. Alice went because her legs swelled from hurrying in cold water when she was hot. I never went to day-school; I go to Sunday-school, but I cannot read or write; I go to pit at five o'clock in the morning and come out at five in the evening; I get my breakfast of porridge and milk first; I take my dinner with me, a cake, and eat it as I go; I do not stop or rest any time for the purpose; I get nothing else until I get home, and then have potatoes and meat, not every day meat. I hurry in the clothes I have now got on, trousers and ragged jacket; the bald place upon my head is made by thrusting the corves; my legs have never swelled, but sisters' did when they went to mill; I hurry the corves a mile and more under ground and back; they weigh 300 cwt.; I hurry 11 a-day; I wear a belt and chain at the workings, to get the corves out; the getters that I work for are naked except their caps; they pull off all their clothes; I see them at work when I go up; sometimes they beat me, if I am not quick enough, with their hands; they strike me upon my back; the boys take liberties with me sometimes they pull me about; I am the only girl in the pit; there are about 20 boys and 15 men; all the men are naked; I would rather work in mill than in coal-pit.
(The Commission comments: This girl is an ignorant, filthy, ragged, and deplorable-looking object, and such an one as the uncivilized natives of the prairies would be shocked to look upon.)
The Ashley Commission reported in 1842 so presumably took evidence in late 1841 and early 1842. The 1841 census records a 15-year-old Patience Kershaw living with her mother and eight siblings in Plough Croft Lane, Northowram, near Halifax, Yorkshire. The oldest of the boys is 20 rather than 30, but one of the sisters is named Alice and the youngest is four. All of the children except the youngest are recorded as working. So I think we have her; given other evidence that we will come to, I think the 1841 census got her age wrong, the Commission got the age of her oldest brother wrong, and one of her five brothers was staying elsewhere on census night.
The 1851 census records her age as 26. Now she is living in Ovenden, 6 km from Northowram, with 35-year-old William Horsfall. Both of their professions are given as wool combers.
In the 1861 census her age is given as 37. Now her profession is given as House Servant and her status as Lodger, still living in Ovenden but now with 42-year-old Henry Shaw, a saddle cover weaver, and his three children; the 14-year-old boy and 11-year-old girl are working, the 5-year-old is not. We can make our own guesses about Patience's relationship with Shaw.
Edited to add: Over on Facebook, Carmen Chaproniere points out that the household listed immediately before William Horsfall and Patience Kershaw in 1851 is a Henry Shaw, with his wife 25-year-old Ellen, 11-year-old sister-in-law Alice Horsefield, and three small children. However, I find this same family a bit further north in Denholme in the 1861 census, with a few more children in the meantime. There’s another Henry Shaw, aged 32, living in Ovenden in 1851 with his wife Maria, brother Edward, and children Sam (4) and Sarah Jane (1), which exactly fits the chap living with Patience ten years later. And there are unfortunately lots of Maria Shaws born around 1826 who died in and around Halifax between 1851 and 1861.
On 15 March 1869, Patience Kershaw, age given as 43, is buried in the graveyard at Stanley, near Wakefield, about 30 km east of Ovenden and Northowram. She had been an inmate of the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum when she died.
It's not a long story, but it is a sad one.
There's another Patience Kershaw in Lancahire, who lived from 1825 to 1889, but Kershaw was her married name so I don't think she can be a viable option.
Edited to add: These documents are not difficult to find, and unsurprisingly I am not the first or even the third person to hunt them down. Denise Bates has one extra data point: Patience was admitted to the Halifax workhouse in 1867, two years before she died in the asylum near Wakefield. She also has another line about her from the Secretary of the Commission:
A deplorable object, barely removed from idiocy. Her family receiving £2 19s 6d a week.
It’s entirely possible that Patience had a learning disability, but was clearly able to express herself well.
Edited to add, again: Digging a bit deeper, William Horsfall died in 1858 and is buried in St. Mary’s Churchyard in Halifax. As for Henry Shaw, he married Hannah Snowden in 1864, three years after he was recorded living with Patience, and three years before she went to the Halifax workhouse.