Adeline Miriam Marham was born on the 19th of August 1887 in the Union Workhouse, Docking Norfolk. She was born to an unmarried 22-year-old mother named Harriet, a domestic worker from the neighbouring village of South Creake. Adeline was not Harriet’s first child, she had a son a few years earlier named Robert. Life in Norfolk was hard for the underprivileged during the late Victorian era, work was mostly seasonal with jobs few and far between. Whilst once considered an ‘economic powerhouse’ the area was facing swift decline in industry and the arable landscape was all that was left. As the mother of two young children, Harriet had no choice but to rely upon the harsh reality of the workhouse in order to provide for her family.
Adeline was baptised on the 23rd of September, along with three other children from the workhouse born out of wedlock. It seems the mothers and infants were taken down to St Mary’s Church together for a service of baptism. For unmarried mothers, life in Victorian England was anything but easy, and Adeline’s path was arguably mapped out already for her.
We first see an appearance of Adeline in the 1891 census when she is 3 years old, living in South Creake with her maternal grandmother Martha, uncles Walter and Arthur and her older brother Robert and cousin Mabel. South Creake was a small hamlet in the Victorian period, with the sole work available being agricultural labouring and domestic duties. For women in situations such as Harriet’s, it was common for elderly relatives to take in their younger children whilst they were away finding work. Martha had 13 children of her own, so was well trained in the art of child rearing, and with all but two having already left the nest she was able to find room in her modest home. From the limited records we have, we know Robert and Adeline’s mother, Harriet, was working as a servant in Hunstanton, a seaside town 14.5 miles away. However, Mabel Marham has become somewhat of a mystery, whilst she appears on the 1891 census, she does not appear in any other record, perhaps she married young with records lost or relocated.
In the 1901 census, when Adeline was 13 years old, she was still living with her grandmother, uncles and her older half-brother Robert in South Creake. However, as for their mother Harriet, it seems she had somewhat made a new beginning for herself in Heacham by marrying an agricultural labourer 8 years her junior. She had two children by George at the time but went on to have a further 9. From this point however, it appears she resolved to move on from her past life- deciding not to reference her two first children, Robert and Adeline, in any future records. For these two children, growing up with an absent mother and not knowing the identity of their father must have had a profound impact.
The trail of Adeline’s whereabouts goes cold until she appears in the Church baptisms of 1909 when she has given birth to a little girl called Alice May Marham. History repeated itself as little Alice was born in the same workhouse as Adeline and had no father listed on the documents. Adeline was just 22 years old when she had her daughter, a daunting age for any new mother but to be relying upon the workhouse to provide added an extra layer of hardship.
Adeline clearly tried hard to do the best for Alice, finding odd work here and there whilst caring for her new-born. Ultimately for the first nine months of Alice’s life, Adeline carried her to and from the workhouse every few days to get food but couldn’t sustain it long-term. Adeline made the heart-breaking decision to place Alice in the care of another local family whilst she travelled further afield to look for work.
Alice went to live with the Fox family of Sedgeford, Norfolk and was raised by Abraham and Jane Fox, a couple in their 40s with several children of their own. The story goes, that Jane was able to provide milk for Alice and Adeline would send money back once she secured work. Unfortunately, from the oral history we have learnt from Alice herself, it wasn’t long until the money stopped and she was left relying on the Fox’s charity. The relationship between the family and Alice wasn’t one built on love, more of convenience. This can be seen on the 1911 census when she was just 2 years old and they write her down as ‘border.’ Not adoptive daughter as some would have thought.
We see no further documentation regarding Adeline until her death in 1915 at the age of 27 years, at St Ebbas Hospital in Epsom. It is a mystery how she came to be here, in particular there is little information about the exact condition from which she suffered. The best explanation available for her admittance being that some sources indicate she may have been diagnosed with some form of epilepsy, somewhat of a ‘catchall’ term in that era. This is corroborated by the fact that St Ebbas itself was an epileptic colony suggesting that there was an overlap in symptoms. Unfortunately, the only concrete evidence available is her death certificate which indicates she was living in Morley Road, Lewisham before entering the Asylum after leaving Norfolk and her daughter behind to find work. She is recorded to have died on the 4th of May 1915, her death certificate states the cause of death to be pneumonia and hyperpyrexia which could have been the result of any number of illnesses.
Within the limited records held at the Surrey History Centre, the surviving ‘nurses notes’ from the day Adeline died were discovered, offering us a rare insight into the medical treatment conducted at the hospital. It was clear from the notes that Adeline was sick for several days, with the doctor recording her having a very weak pulse days before she finally succumbed to her illness. She was regularly given cold douches as a way to try and bring her extreme temperature down which indicates the presence of a strong fever.
Adeline was buried in a pauper grave at Horton Cemetery, with little being left to her memory. Her life was one filled with tragedy but one that was replicated time and time again through the lowest parts of society.
Perhaps the saddest aspect being the life this left her daughter; Alice was raised as a foundling and told by her adoptive family that her mother left her on the doorstep. As a child she was required to clean and cook for the Fox family, which later she described as being akin to the fairy-tale story of Cinderella. It wasn’t until Alice died, we discovered the truth of her mother Adeline, who fought so desperately hard to keep her.
*Unsourced material from the words of Alice Frost nee Marham, 1989.