A visit to Handsworth
The landlady of the Cross Keys throws open the back door of the pub for me and I am confronted by a green green view of trees and grass and gravestones – the latter of which are jutting up like a snaggletoothed smile. Behind me I can hear the laughter of the customers and the music on the cd player. Ahead of me I can make out the leaves rustling and bird song.
I stand on this threshold where she that came before me, must have stood so many times and I suddenly resent all the noise getting in the way of me wanting to reach across to her, 135 years or more away. But then I remember Janie resented the noise and clatter too. The endless stream of guests who wanted waiting on and entertaining with piano playing. The many nights when she would try and rest while drunken customers would set to on the piano and sing raucously out of tune. Jane Warburton grew up in this pub and came to loathe the inn-keeping trade.
The Cross Keys at Handsworth is set in consecrated ground so on three sides the ‘garden’ is the graveyard. Looming above is the church of St Mary’s where Jane was baptised and later where she married Fred. Mother church is an oppressive building so close to this doorway. Maria Warburton (nee Carnall), the then landlady of the Cross Keys, and Janie’s mother loomed heavily also as she dictated nearly every spare moment of Janie’s life.
Many of Janie’s letters to Fred have scrawled across the top left hand corner “in haste” often with a qualifying remark such as “Have to help Mother with the waiting” or “Had to do the dinners”. Over the course of reading them, I’ve learned that Janie finds it difficult to find private time to write – and when I read Fred’s constant pleas for Janie to send him longer letters, I get a bit cross with him as he doesn’t seem to grasp that’s she doing her best.
As I read more and more of the letters I can see how much she was entirely co-opted by the inn-keeping business – not just for the Cross Keys but also for the Wellington in Darnall where she helps her cousin Janie Reckless do the ironing every week.
A tale of two sisters
This week I got a wonderful bit of context when I visited the Handsworth Museum. It is a tiny room in the Rectory presided over by local historian and writer Sandra Gillot. I’d written ahead and when I got there she had already reached out for me a pile of documents that she thought I might be interested in. Among these was a book called Sicklesmiths and Spear Carriers by Rosamund Du Cane about the Staniforths of Darnall; a large local family of some note. It included details of the time that Jane was going down to help at the Wellington in Darnall which at the time was run by Mary Staniforth – also nee Carnall.
It is clear, confirmed by both the records and Jane’s letters that Mary is Maria’s older sister. So we have two sisters running both the The Wellington in Darnall and The Cross Keys in Handsworth. A large part of the shared workforce is supplied by their respective daughters and in Mary’s case, also granddaughters. This explains why Janie Reckless (Mary’s granddaughter) and Janie Warburton are forever walking back and forth between Darnall and Handsworth together. Jane also often stays over mid-week, which she mentions in letters that are addressed from Darnall rather than Handsworth. I might need to check this, but the Darnall letters often seem longer so I get the impression she gets to pause a little longer.
Mary’s husband, John Staniforth, had originally bought The George in Woodhouse – the next village after Handsworth but observing the massive development going on in Darnall, cannily sold it in 1861 for £800 and bought The Wellington. He died in 1870 and Mary kept it on until she retired in 1901. After the sad death of Jane’s father in 1883, Maria also became the sole inn-keeper for the Cross Keys and the matriarchy that had clearly run both businesses for many years became recognised in name. The heart of the family dynamic here is the links between all the women – which of course doesn’t usually get revealled through the traditionally patriarchal recording of family history.
The book also gave me the name of Mary’s mother – Jane Staniforth (who married John Carnall in 1810) – and doing a bit of record sifting I eventually managed to connect her as Maria’s mother too (up until now our family trail had gone cold on Maria’s mother). The research in the book makes claim for cousins marrying several times here which I won’t go into because it is complicated but what it means for our story is that Maria knew herself to be descended from the prestigious Staniforths as well as having her sister marrying back into them. Bringing this back to Jane, I think it might provide an explanation as to why Maria was so anti-Fred – she may well have believed that Fred was beneath Jane. It definitely provides more context for that awful start to the relationship when she so publicly struck Jane, in the street, for walking out with him. I think it also makes it more clear how far from hope Fred felt about ever being able to marry Jane.
Up until now I suppose I thought Jane’s background was more humble than it actually was. Prior to the 1820s the Staniforths were landed gentry going back into Tudor times and while I don’t think the Warburtons were particularly rich, I’m starting to understand that they were probably getting by fine.
Jane however definitely seems to be a little exploited. Maria only employs one servant, the rest of the work is done by herself, occasionally Jane’s older sister Emma (when she can be persuaded) Janie Reckless and Jane. I know that Jane does the washing, the dinners for pub guests, the ironing for both pubs, dress making and mending, waiting on tables, playing requests on the piano in between times and helping care for Emma’s two youngest children. Emma is not very nice to Jane and causes her a lot of misery but Emma deserves to have her story told in detail so I will get to her in another post.
On Sundays Jane teaches in the Sunday School which was in the school room across the road opposite the Cross Keys. She seems to love teaching the little children in particular and often refers to them as “my little family”. When she gets time to herself she likes to visit friends, go into Sheffield to do “Shop Window Gazing”, take lessons in new needlecrafts, and play the piano. She seems to try and get involved in anything that gets her out of the pub.
Janie had a quick wit about her, she could always rouse Fred from his depressed mood, she had a fondness for inventing daft new words – she refers to Fred’s melancholy as his ‘Lemonkolly’ (we still do this in our family – it’s dangerously close to a dialect of our own), she comes across as cheerful and kind to people.
I can see that part of falling in love with Fred, over the years becomes falling in love with the idea of making her own home and family, away from the unhappiness at home. When I stood in the doorway at the back of the Cross Keys I wondered how many times she must have stood there longing to get away. And then I know enough now to be confident that she would have shaken the sad moment off, pinned on a big smile and gone back inside to whatever demand was being made.
Many thanks to the current landlord and landlady of The Cross Keys at Handsworth for letting me wander about and take pictures. They even gave me a photograph.
Many thanks to Sandra Gillot of the Handsworth Historical Society who was a wonderful mine of information and incredibly helpful.