Caroline’s parents and siblings
Caroline, the youngest child of David and Martha Ann (nee Harley) Duncombe, was born in 1844 in Bethnal Green. Her parents had married on 29 February 1824 in Saint Dunstan’s Church, Stepney, London, and had seven known children:
David (1827-1890), Martha Elizabeth (1829-1903), Mary Ann (1834-1899), Jane (1837-1880), Eliza (1839-1867), John (1841-1905) and Caroline (1844-1902).
A silk-weaving family
Before Caroline was born her family had lived in New Inn Yard in Shoreditch, but when the 1841 Census was taken, her parents and older siblings were living in Tent Street, Bethnal Green. As her brother John was just one month old, and three of her other siblings were under 10-years of age, her mother was not listed as working. Her husband David, however, was a silk weaver.
Bethnal Green and its surrounding area had become the home of many immigrant Huguenot silk weavers who had fled from France due to religious persecution in the 1680’s. The Duncombe family continued to live in Tent Street for at least the next twenty years.
The 1851 Census recorded that Caroline’s father, mother and eldest brother David were all hand loom silk weavers, while her sister Martha was a milliner, and her sister Jane was a ‘trimming maker’.
The 1860s and 1870s
Despite the Cobden free trade treaty made with France in 1860, which allowed cheaper French silks to be imported into England without any duty, the 1861 census recorded that Caroline’s father, mother, and brother David were still working as silk weavers. While Caroline had no occupation recorded, her sisters Mary Ann, Jane, and Eliza were all working as ‘fancy trimming makers’, and her brother John was a clerk. Their father was aged 63 when he died in 1863.
In 1867, Caroline’s sister Eliza died. Four years later, the 1871 census recorded that Caroline’s mother was no longer working but her sisters Mary Ann, Jane and herself were working as ‘fancy trimming makers’. Her 10-year-old niece Elizabeth Duncombe (Clifton) was also living with them at 4 Vivian Road, Bethnal Green. Caroline’s mother was aged 70 when she died in 1874.
The 1880s and 1890s
Six years later, in 1880, Caroline’s sister Jane died. Caroline, her sister Mary Ann, and their niece Elizabeth Clifton were all still working as ‘fancy trimming makers’ and were living at 5 St James Road, Bethnal Green. Their brother David died in 1890. The following year when the 1891 census was taken, Mary Ann and Caroline, who were both still unmarried, were living with their married sister Martha Clifton and her family in 98 Old Ford Road, Bethnal Green. Only Caroline and her niece Elizabeth Clifton were working as ‘fancy trimming workers’. Mary Ann died in 1899.
Caroline’s mental health problems and death
The Bethnal Green Lunatic Asylum Admission records show that Caroline was admitted there on 9 January 1901, and when the 1901 census was taken on the evening of 31 March, Caroline was recorded as a lunatic patient. She was (mis-) recorded as being a widow without any previous occupation.
On 21 April 1902, Caroline was transferred to Horton Asylum in Epsom, Surrey, where she died, aged 58, on 18 December 1902; she was buried on Christmas Eve 1902 in grave 98 in the Horton Estate Cemetery.
Further reading: Kean, Hilda and Bruce Wheeler. “Making History in Bethnal Green: Different Stories of Nineteenth-Century Silk Weavers.” History Workshop Journal 56, no. 1 (2003). 217-230.