My grandmother, Frances Ellen Marshall was born in 1894 to single mother, Elizabeth Marshall, an inmate of Wokingham workhouse, situated in Barkham Road. Two other children were born to Elizabeth in the workhouse, Ida Elizabeth born 1891 and Walter (Wally) Edwin born 1900. For all these three children no father names are entered on their birth certificates. Sadly, Ida Elizabeth died in 1895. There are few records existing from Wokingham workhouse but from what we have seen we think Elizabeth lived at the workhouse almost continually from 1891 to 1930 when it closed. With no obvious answer in the records to explain why Elizabeth should spend so long in the workhouse we had to look at what we did know to build up a picture of her situation.

Frances Ellen Marshall, aged about 18

Her only sister Martha was in service in London, her mother Ellen Marshall (of Hurst, Berks) had died aged 29 years of a lung disease and her grandparents (Richard and Sarah Marshall of Hurst), who had taken her and Martha in after their mothers death, had both passed away. So Elizabeth was alone in the days when there was no social care and none of the wider family seemed to have stepped up. It is also my suspicion that she may have had a thyroid disorder, we know this disorder has passed down through the family from the Marshall line and untreated, as it could have been at that time, she would have long-term illness and possibly be prone to symptoms of ‘madness’. Elizabeth passed away in 1935 soon after the workhouse closed; she was residing at 41 Barkham Road, so she hadn’t moved far!

In the 1901 census we find that Frances Ellen has been taken from the workhouse and her mother and placed in a school for paupers, she is aged six. At this time it was considered better for children to be removed from the workhouse wherever possible so that they were not exposed to the bad influences of some of the other inmates. Imagine having no proper roots and then being taken from your mother at six years old to be placed in the paupers’ school, a building which was the old workhouse and was now deemed too dilapidated to serve as a workhouse anymore. Wally, still a baby is listed with his mother. It was noted in the workhouse records of 1901 that Frances Ellen was an orphan.

Soon after 1901 Frances Ellen and Wally were fostered by Granny Keen. The problem here is that we didn’t know who Granny Keen was or where she lived. This was a huge brick wall for us until my Dad suddenly remembered that Granny Keen’s son worked at Broadmoor Hospital. We soon learned from the archivist at Broadmoor that William Gordon Keen and his sister Twissie Grace Keen had both worked at Broadmoor hospital and lived in Reading. We were then able to look at the 1911 census to find Wally living with Mary Ann Keen his foster mother, now aged 10 years and listed as ‘adopted’. Meanwhile, Frances Ellen was 16 years old and a housemaid working for a Mr Alfred Jones in Finchampstead, Berks.

Still curious about the circumstances whereby Frances Ellen and Wally should be taken into foster care when they had a living mother, I spoke to Peter Higginbotham who specialises in workhouse history. He explained to me that the authorities at this time actively sought out foster parents for children with no prospects in the workhouses, the foster parents would be paid a small sum on a regular basis for their keep. 

It would seem that any living parent would be asked for their consent, however it does make you wonder if in reality this really happened. From what I know Frances Ellen and Wally did not know that their mother was still alive and genuinely thought they were orphans, however by all accounts Granny Keen was a kind and loving guardian to both children. My father is named Gordon after Granny Keen’s son and he can remember visiting Granny Keen as a small child so I feel that the relationship between my grandmother and Granny Keen was a good one. It is so sad that Frances Ellen and Wally had a living mother with whom they could have had a relationship.

Frances Ellen in later life
Frances Ellen in later life

Frances Ellen met and married my grandfather, Thomas Edward Humphrey, in 1916 at Lingfield, Surrey where Frances was still working in service. At this time Thomas was serving in the army but after the war they moved to Handcross in Sussex where they raised five children. Frances Ellen died aged 47 after years of poor health and is buried in Coulsdon, Surrey. Wally joined the Royal Navy and served during the WW1 and died soon after from tuberculosis.

This is a part of family history which saddened my whole family to the core, my father didn’t have a good relationship with his mother (Frances Ellen), he left home to join the Royal Marines when he was fifteen because of his unhappy life at home. As a child he spent every possible moment with his beloved paternal grandparents on their farm, it’s only since we have found out more about his mother’s early life that he has been able to reflect and understand why she was so difficult.

I would just like to ask that if anyone can add any information or has any comments about my story to please contact me via I would just like to ask that if anyone can add any information or has any comments about my story to please contact me via ed****@be******.uk

Berkshire Family History Society

Berkshire Family History Society