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Lillian Hodgkiss lived in a time without any state support. Her story shows how families, including children, had to stick together to make sure there was food on the table.

On the 10th February, 1904, tragedy befell the Hodgkiss family. At 57 years old, James Hodgkiss, a coal miner and the family’s soul earner, passed away. That left Ann and her six children to fend for themselves with just £70 (around £4000 in today’s money) that he left them.

So shortly after, at 8 years old, Lilian Hodgkiss and her family are forced to move into a cheap rental house on the outskirts of Sedgley, a building we refer to at the Museum as the ‘Toll House’. Now a rental property charging just £2.50 per week in rent, the ‘Toll House’ was previously used to charge travellers a toll for using the newly built Sedgley to Tividale turnpike. When it stopped being used for this purpose, it was converted. In 1904, Lilian shared this three-roomed house with four family members (the rest of her siblings lived away from home at this point).

The house had no gas, indoor toilet, electricity or running water. Their supply of drinking water came from a stream running through the garden. When it froze over in the winter, they were in real trouble unless they could beg some water from the neighbours who had a pump or a well in their backyard.

Thankfully, Lilian’s older bother William, began working as a railway porter, making him the main wage earner at just 16 years old. This means that they at least would not starve, but his wage was far from what was required to live comfortably. We know that the family had to supplement their diet by growing their own vegetables, something we still do in the garden today, and they even kept a few chickens. The family also owned a pet dog who would occasionally catch a rabbit, which the family would use to make meals.

The Hodgkiss family also supplemented their income by brewing herbal remedies to sell to passers by. They also collected and sold firewood, something Lilian would have helped out with from a young age.

 

 

This is the smaller bedroom of the two. You can see that the bed is covered by patchwork quilts made from old clothes and heated by stone hot water. The rag rug, a common feature of any working class home of the period, is on the floor. You can also see some basic toys, such as a teddy bear, around the room. One of the most treasured items in our collection is a small book that belonged to Lillian, which contains ribbon and century-old pressed flowers within its pages. This was a popular past-time for girls in the Victorian period.

We know that Lilian went to school, as we have her now one-hundred year old school certificate hanging in here. Education beyond this basic certificate simply wouldn’t have been an option for someone like Lilian, and by the time she was 15 years old, she was in full time work in a factory.

Lilian also had another brother, John, who worked in the nearby mines. Census records show that by 1911, 15 year old Lillian and her two brothers William and John, were all working and contributing to the house. Sadly, just a year later, tragedy would strike again when William was hit by an express train in his job as a passenger guard at the local station. As one of the children that stayed onto the support her, Ann took his death very badly and never truly recovered.

Lillian continued to support her mother, and records show that she lived at the house until she was 31, even for a few years after she got married.

This story tells us so much about the role of children in the Black Country. Many families weren’t all that far away from starvation and would work any job that allow them to make ends meet. Lillian would have been at school, but she also would have helped her mother collect firewood and sell herbal remedies to make a living. That was simply what was expected.

Even at the turn of the century, higher education still wasn’t really an option for women, especially a working class woman. And besides, Ann needed all the help she could get to pay the rent and put food on the table. Can you imagine how Ann would have coped before state support was available, and without the support of her children? It’s through stories like these that we can really see, in many ways, just how much of an ‘investment’ children were, and how much parents relied on them in some circumstances.

Another defining characteristic of childhood in the nineteenth century is that death was never too far away. Ann witnessed the tragic death of her son and brother but the 1911 census shows that Lillian’s mom, Ann, gave birth to 14 children, of which only 9 survived. This is something Lilian would have witnessed her mother go through, and, on the flipside, it highlights the reality of motherhood for so many before the advances in medicine we know today.

When we’re back open to the public, you’ll be able to come and step inside the Toll House for yourself. You’ll be able to see every detail of the house – from Lillian’s school certificate to original family photos, and perhaps reflect upon what it might have been like to be a Black Country child over one hundred years ago.

We’ll be bringing you snippets of the real lives and real stories of the people who once lived and worked in the Black Country. For those hungry to learn more, we’ve also covered the life of a coal miner and the rise of canals in the Black Country.

  

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