Elizabeth Martin

Subject Name :  Elizabeth Martin née Slyfield (b ca 1800 – d 1883)

Researchers : Jean Libaert and Mike Brock

Despite widowed Elizabeth Martin successfully raising her family for many years on her own, her eldest son refused to pay for her keep when she was an inmate of the Guildford Union Workhouse, saying he ‘would rather rot in gaol than do so’.

Elizabeth was born in Chobham, Surrey in about 1800, the third child of John and Jane Slyfield (Slifield) née Elliot, who had married on 5th March 1794 in nearby Horsell. 

Elizabeth most probably spent her early years in Chobham as she married bachelor Richard Martyn sic at the St Lawrence Church on 2nd July 1826.   Both ‘made their mark’ on the register, meaning they could not read or write.  Elizabeth’s elder brother James Slyfield was one of the witnesses.

Elizabeth and Richard set up home in East Clandon, about 10 miles (16km) south-east of Chobham where Mary, the first of their five children, was born.  She was baptised at the St Thomas and Canterbury Church on 23rd March 1828, with Richard noted as a labourer.

Jane was their second child, baptised in August 1830, followed by Robert in 1833, Caroline in 1835 and William in 1839.  Sadly, Jane passed away age 5 in 1835. Caroline was also 5 when she died from consumption in 1841.  Life expectancy of children born in the United Kingdom around this time showed that over a quarter would not reach their fifth birthdays. 

Not only had Elizabeth lost two children, but her husband Richard had also passed away, on 14th February 1840 age 51, leaving her a widow at the time of the 1841 Census with no apparent source of income.  She was living in Clandon Street, now known as The Street, East Clandon, with her children Mary (12), Robert (7) and William (2). 

Elizabeth would clearly have needed to work to keep the family out of the workhouse.  The 1851 Census showed her to be a charwoman, so she had probably been doing that for some time.  Age 52, Elizabeth was living East Clandon ‘village’ with son Robert (18) and William (12), both agricultural labourers, so they would have brought in a small income.  Her daughter Mary was a 23-year-old unmarried house servant living and working at Woodcote Farm, West Horsley, the adjacent village to East Clandon.

Getting by, though, would still have been difficult for Elizabeth, and in December 1856, she was brought before the County Bench for allegedly stealing a bundle of twigs known as a ‘faggot’ from Colonel Sumner at his nearby Hatchlands Park home.  Elizabeth claimed to the Guildford Bench that she had found the ‘faggot’ lying in the road, so the chairman instructed that without further evidence, Elizabeth should be released without charge.

Elizabeth, 63, was lodging in West Clandon with widow Sarah Styles but still working as a charwoman at the time of the 1861 Census.  Her sons were both lodging elsewhere – Robert, 28, was a groom in East Horsley while 22-year-old William, a farm labourer, was in Stoke-next-Guildford.  Daughter Mary, 30, was a house servant at the Ship Inn in Guildford.  None of them were married.

Elizabeth’s health around this time must have been in decline, as the 1864-1871 Guildford Union Poor Law Accounts Book showed her to be ‘infirm’ throughout the eight years recorded.  This meant that she received money and ‘in kind’ donations (for example bread, clothing) from the Guildford Union which helped ensure that she did not have to go into the Workhouse during this time.

The 1871 Census noted Elizabeth as 67, still lodging with Sarah Styles in West Clandon.  Elizabeth’s son Robert was also lodging there.  Labourer Robert had married in 1864, but his wife and children were not with him in West Clandon.  Instead, they were with Eliza’s parents in Morden, Surrey, about 20 miles (32km) away.  Elizabeth’s other son William had married Ann Ricketts in West Clandon in May 1870 and they had settled close by in Merrow. Daughter Mary was still an unmarried domestic servant, now in Stoke-next-Guildford.

Elizabeth had remained independent until now, but by 1875, she was an inmate of the Guildford Union Workhouse.   The shocking circumstances behind this was revealed when her son Robert was summoned to the Guildford Bench in February 1875 for ‘allowing his mother to become chargeable to the Guildford Union’.  Robert was told by the Relieving Officer of the Union, Mr Higgins, that he ‘received good wages’ and ‘ had no one to support but himself’ – clearly, Mr Higgins did not know about Robert’s wife and children – so Robert was ordered to pay 2 shillings a week for Elizabeth’s keep in the workhouse.  Robert’s reply was that he would not pay the amount and ‘would sooner rot in gaol than do so’.

Unfortunately, there are no records to show what happened as a result of Robert’s reply, but it seems that very shortly afterwards, he moved away to Rudgwick, Sussex, where just a year later, he had become a father again with a new partner.

Elizabeth, therefore, would almost certainly have remained in the Workhouse.  The details for her on the 1881 Census were somewhat inaccurate, putting her age as 96 – she was probably just a little over 80 – and said that she was a domestic servant.  Her birthplace of Chobham was correct, though. 

Elizabeth passed away in the Guildford Union Workhouse on 6th June 1883 from ‘decay of age’, aged 88, with the death certificate noting her to be the ‘widow of William Martin, labourer of East Clandon’.  William, of course, was the name of her youngest son who was living with his family nearby.  He may well have provided the information for the death certificate, but may not have known that Richard was his father’s name as William was only a year old when his father had died.  It is also likely that William did not know his mother’s true age either. 

Elizabeth was buried on 9th June at St Thomas of Canterbury church in East Clandon, where her children had been baptised, and two daughters and her husband laid to rest. She had the honour of being the ‘First burial in new Burial Ground’.

It certainly would have been interesting to know what Elizabeth had thought of her treatment by her own son as she passed her final years in the Guildford Union Workhouse.

October 2022, updated March 2024


      FindMyPast / British Newspaper Archive
      Surrey History Centre, Woking    SurreyCC.gov.uk

For a full list of references click here