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From Rags to Riches

 Arguably, the most interesting part of working in the Archives is carrying out research for members of the public. Occasionally what starts out as a simple piece of research develops into a fascinating and absorbing tale which involves looking beyond the basic genealogical sources.

St Peter Baptism Register

Frederick Houghton was baptised on 16 June 1861 at St Peter’s parish church, Bedford, along with four of his siblings, John, Elizabeth, Louisa and Thomas Alfred (above). Their story becomes more complicated because all five were illegitimate, and only their mother’s name, Sarah Houghton, was noted on the baptism entries. The baptism of an illegitimate child at St Peter’s parish church always arouses interest, as whilst it’s a fine church situated next to De Parys Avenue, one of the most attractive and prestigious addresses in Bedford, within its parish boundary also lay the Bedford Union Workhouse. The workhouse was one of the few places in the Victorian age where you could receive medical treatment and many unmarried mothers went there to give birth to their illegitimate children. The Workhouse officials would often insist that children born at the Workhouse should be baptised at the nearest church, so it is quite common to see the Union Workhouse or 3, Kimbolton Road (the official address) given as an abode in the St Peter’s baptism registers. 

Workhouse records make interesting reading and are fascinating social documents, detailing the more unfortunate members of society. Sadly, in the case of Bedford Union Workhouse there is a large gap in the admission and discharge registers for the 1860s and 1870s, just at the time when Frederick Houghton and his family would have resided there.  So we looked for other records to find out more about the family, where they originated, where they went to and how long they spent in the workhouse.

There was no-one under the name of Houghton who fitted the bill on the 1861 census. By the time of the 1871 census both Louisa aged 12 and Alfred aged 11 (baptised as Thomas Alfred) were still in the workhouse, being noted as deserted, so Sarah had obviously left her children in the care of the Board of Guardians, the workhouse officials responsible for children. Many orphaned and abandoned children were sent out from the workhouse to be apprentices – if they learnt a trade they could earn their own money and no longer be a burden to the Union. Our apprentice records have been indexed, so we quickly found that Frederick, Elizabeth and Alfred were all apprenticed out. Frederick was 13 when in August 1866 he was apprenticed out to Titus Tompkins, a hairdresser and perfumier of Silver Street, Bedford. Elizabeth was apprenticed out in October 1870 aged 13, to a Mrs Walker, a shopkeeper of Midland Road, Bedford, and Elizabeth is found with them in the 1871 census aged 14. Alfred was also 13 in March 1874, when he was apprenticed to John Willison, a tailor of Hockliffe.    However, we couldn’t find any trace of John, and although Frederick was in the workhouse in 1866, we couldn’t find him with Titus Tompkins in the 1871 census or anywhere else!

We searched through the census returns looking for the Houghtons, trying every possible spelling and permutation of surnames and Christian names but without knowing exactly when they were born and where, we weren’t having much luck. By June 1861 Sarah Houghton had baptised her children at St Peter’s church, but we couldn’t find them on the night of 30 March 1861 when the census took place. Eventually, by searching for forenames we found a family named Stanford, consisting of a mother named Sarah aged 35 and five children named John aged 9, Frederick aged 7, Elizabeth aged 4, Louisa aged 2 and Alfred aged 1. They were living in the parish of St Peter’s. Sarah stated that she was married, but there was no sign of a Mr Stanford. She also stated that she was born in Bolnhurst, as was her son Frederick, whilst her eldest son was born in Biggleswade, and her youngest three children in Bedford. This had to be them, but with no record at all of Sarah Houghton marrying a Mr Stanford, we realised that we were looking at a common-law marriage, more prevalent in the Victorian era than you might think, despite the rigid morals imposed by society. We now knew that we had to search for the Houghton children under the name of Stanford as well.

Sarah Houghton had also been born illegitimate in Bolnhurst in 1825. Her parents Martha Houghton and Samuel Fowkes did not marry until Sarah was 18, having had four children together by that time. The 1851 census shows that Sarah had another illegitimate child, Thomas Harris Houghton. We have found no trace of Sarah after 1861 when she assumed the name Stanford. Her children were registered in both names, Frederick Houghton in 1853, Elizabeth Stanford in 1856, Louisa Houghton Stanford in 1858 and Thomas Alfred Stanford in 1860.

Frederick had also assumed the surname Stanford, and despite his inauspicious beginnings, he had prospered. In 1879, Frederick Houghton Stanford married Edith Jane Nock in St George’s Hanover Square in London. They moved to Essex, where Frederick put his apprenticeship training to good use and opened his own hairdressing business. They later moved to the leafy suburbs of Bromley in Kent, by which time Frederick and Edith had raised six children, and they had their own domestic servant and a business which they ran from home and employed assistants. Frederick lived to the very good age of 86 and died on 22 December 1939. His will, proved in January 1940, left £4218 14s. 5d, which in today’s money is over £500,000.

We were unable to trace Frederick’s siblings, except for Alfred who continued with his apprenticeship training as a tailor and also moved to London, where he died unmarried in 1892. The remaining siblings, and their mother Sarah, may have tried to hide their illegitimate beginnings, assuming new names or lying on marriage certificates and census returns. Frederick’s story though, shows that despite illegitimacy, time served in the workhouse, desertion and very humble origins, it is possible to prosper and have a happy ending! 

This website has more information about reords of the Poor Law Unions. For those interested in learning more about advanced family history research and the variety of records we hold, there are a series of courses planned for 2010/2011.