We should beware of judging individuals too quickly. Some people today might have preconceived ideas about an unmarried woman with five children living on social security. Some would judge her as a wanton hussy with loose morality. This judgment would be common among our Victorian ancestors but is not always the view in the 21st century. Today we should regard the story as a tale of triumph over adversity ...
Leah Priscilla Oatley was born in Box in March 1856, the ninth of 12 children of James Oatley and his first wife, Sarah Poulson, who came from Atworth. James was a Quarry master and baker. He appears to have worked hard and he owned a dwelling house at Quarry Hill, but the size of the family must have been a huge burden.
We might imagine that Leah Priscilla was often overlooked in the family. We know that she was illiterate and could only make her mark. Her situation worsened, particularly when James married again around 1876 and had three more children with his second wife, Rebecca Beer Bond (1840Ė1909).
In 1878 Leah Priscilla gave birth to a child, Albert Edward Oatley, whilst living at 5, Gas Lane, Cirencester. The fatherís name is given as John Oatley, masonís labourer. It has not been possible to define absolutely who the father was; the only identified John Oatley was Leahís grandfather, a weaver, but possibly a false name had been given.
Raising a Family
Leah Priscilla moved back to Box and more children followed: Percy George Oatley, Sydney Wallace Wait Oatley, Oliver Alic Oatley and Elsie (sometimes called Elizabeth) Kathleen Oatley. No fatherís name was given on the birth certificates for any of these children.
Without a husbandís income, Leah Priscilla struggled to survive. In 1881 she lived with her sister, Sarah, and brother-in-law, Henry Chandler, a baker and grocer, in Box. Her first two children were put out to board with Esther and James Bull, aged 50, a farm labourer, at Folly Farm, Box. She survived as best she could and she seems to have had her fatherís support. When James died in 1882, he left £10 to each of the three youngest of Sarahís children and a valuable feather bed to Leah Priscilla and her younger sister.
We donít know Leahís reason for her illegitimate children. She might have been the village harlot of easy virtue, as the Victorian code of morality might have us believe. But I think that is wrong. Jamesí gift to her of his bed was a valuable item to leave to her, an indication that he, her father, accepted that she deserved reward, not blame. Perhaps there was some element of family guilt which required restitution if it was her grandfather who was named as the father of her child in the first birth certificate. The bulk of Jamesí estate went to his second family, particularly the eldest of those children, Charles William Bond Oatley, auctioneer and chairman of Box Parish Council.
Into the Workhouse, 1887
By 1887, circumstances had clearly deteriorated for Leah Priscilla and she is recorded as living in the Chippenham Union Workhouse (now St Andrewís Hospital) as one of the indoor poor. The old Box Poorhouse, under the paternal care of the local parish Overseers, had closed 50 years before and conditions were tough in the Chippenham Union workhouse.
By 1887 all five of her children, aged between 9 years and the baby, Elsie Kathleen just a few months old, had been admitted into the workhouse. We might imagine that all help had deserted the family, along with her family and friends, and their survival depended on submitting themselves to the shameful workhouse, to which only the destitute went.
Marriage in 1892
Finally, at the age of 37, in October 1892, Leah Priscilla married Alfred Smith, a clerk, from Lowden, Chippenham. They lived in Parliament Street, Chippenham. We hope that her life stabilised at this point and there is great credit to Alfred for taking on such a family commitment.
We might imagine that Leah Priscilla had brought up her children to be god-fearing despite their poverty. Elsie Kathleen married James Edward Milsom, a Primitive Methodist who worked for a quarry company for most of his life.
Leah Priscilla is remembered by her grandchild, Peggy Martin, as a person of great fun who chased her round the kitchen table. She was a fine needlewoman and the maker of most beautiful crochet. She died, aged 92, in 1947 whilst living with Elsie and James after a long period of being confined to her room with bad legs.
So, before we rush into making conclusions about people and their lifestyles, perhaps we should remember Leah Priscilla Oatley and her indomitable strength of character. It isnít the status that people are born into that matters; it is how they handle the lot they are dealt. There are several families in the local area who are descended from Leah Priscilla Oatley and they should celebrate that they come from such a strong, determined woman.