Subject Names :
Jane Mitchell née Chalcraft (b1852 – d?)
Priscilla Mitchell (1873-1881)
Susan Mitchell (1878-1881)

Researcher :  Carol Gomm

Jane Mitchell’s hopes of raising a family were in ruins after she was struck with one of the most feared infections of any era – syphilis. 

Jane was born in the Guildford Union Workhouse on the 3rd September 1852, the illegitimate daughter of Elizabeth Chalcraft.  No father was named on Jane’s birth certificate and no baptism record has been traced.  Elizabeth, according to the previous year’s Census, was age 21, living with her parents, five siblings and nephew in Ockford Road, Godalming and worked at a paper mill.

On Jane’s 7th birthday, her mother Elizabeth married labourer James Ticknor (Tickner) at the St Peter and St Paul Church, Godalming.  George and Sarah Jane Chalcraft, Elizabeth’s brother and sister, were the witnesses.

In 1861 8-year-old Jane, under the surname Tickner, was living in London Road, Godalming.  Her stepfather James was a 27-year-old labourer and mother Elizabeth was 30.  Jane now had a half-brother, George, aged 9 months.

Shortly after this, the family moved to Ockford Lane, Godalming, the address noted on the baptism records for two more half-brothers for Jane, James born in 1862 and Alfred in 1866.

The family had a setback around the time of Alfred’s birth when his father James suffered an accident which required the family, living in Ockford Road, to seek outdoor relief from the Guildford Union.  This funding, although small, would have enabled them to remain out of the Workhouse, and paid for medical help for James.

The family was still in Ockford Road at the time of the 1871 Census.  Jane’s stepfather James, 38, was a labourer with her half-brothers George (10), James (8) and Alfred (5) all of school age but not necessarily at school because education did not become compulsory for children of their age in England until 1880.  Jane, 18, and mother Elizabeth, 40, were both employed as rag cutters at a paper mill.  This could have been Catteshall Mill to the north-east of Godalming, or Eashing Mill to the west of Godalming, both situated on the River Wey Navigation.  Godalming’s third paper mill, Westbrook, had closed in 1842.  Paper at the time was made from rags as well as wood pulp.  The rags varied in quality, often including the cast-off clothing from the poorest in society, presenting a health hazard for the women who sorted and cut them as they could contain all manner of filth including infectious diseases. 

The following year on 7th January 1872, Jane age 20, using her birth name of Chalcraft, married 25-year-old labourer William Mitchel (sic) at Shackleford, both giving their residence as Hurtmore Bottom, just to the east of Shackleford and north of Eashing.  Jane recorded her father as ‘James Chalcraft’ – a combination of her birthname and her stepfather’s first name, probably wishing to disguise her illegitimate birth.

Three months later, Jane’s mother Elizabeth gave birth to Walter, who died after just three weeks at Ockford Road of ‘immaturity and debility’.  He was buried at Godalming’s Nightingale Cemetery on 26th April 1872. 

Sadly, the day after the funeral, Elizabeth herself passed away from tuberculosis age 42 and was buried at the same cemetery.  This left her husband James with Jane’s half-brothers George, James and Alfred to care for.  Did Jane, as a newly married young woman, find herself helping her stepfather with their care so he could continue working?

It was not long, however, before Jane and husband William had a child of their own, a daughter named Priscilla Mary, born on 27th August 1873.  She was baptised privately three days later at the St Peter & St Paul Church, Godalming.  Baptisms that were private and conducted so soon after a birth often indicated that there were concerns for a child’s condition.  Although nothing was noted about Priscilla’s health at the time, a series of tragic events that were soon to follow showed that all had not been well with her.  

A second daughter Edith was baptised on the 3rd October 1875 at Wonersh, although this time it was not a private ceremony. 

Jane and William’s first son, William, was born in early 1877.  He sadly died age only ten months at the family home in Bell Passage, Godalming on the 1st November 1877 from acute bronchitis and ‘dentition’, and was buried in the Nightingale Cemetery.  William had clearly been having severe problems with the development of his teeth, an indication of a possible birth defect.

Jane and William’s fourth child Susan was born on 25th October 1878.  Soon afterwards, they suffered their second loss as on 3rd January 1879 Edith, aged three, died at Bell Passage from ‘intestinal irritation’ and ‘convulsions’.  She too was buried in the Nightingale Cemetery.

If it looked like things could not get any worse – they did.  On New Year’s Eve 1880, Jane’s husband William died age 34 at Bell Passage after suffering from tuberculosis for two years.  He also was buried at the Nightingale Cemetery.  He left Jane, 27, about two months pregnant, and their daughters Priscilla, 7 and Susan, 2. 

The 1881 Census four months later showed Jane and her daughters were now inmates of the Guildford Union Workhouse.  Jane’s occupation was a paper mill worker.  There was another familiar face there – Jane’s stepfather James Tickner, age 48, an agricultural labourer.

An awful truth about Jane’s predicament became clear several weeks after the Census when her daughter Susan, age 2, died in the Workhouse on 21st May 1881 from whooping cough and ‘congenital syphilis’.  This can be passed from mother to infant during pregnancy and the range of symptoms depend on when the infection occurred during the gestation period.  Some infants have symptoms at birth such as skeletal abnormalities, fever, lesions, nasal discharge, and rash while others develop symptoms later including abnormal tooth development, deafness, and eye problems.

Jane was still expecting her fifth child and gave birth to another daughter, Annie, on the 17th July 1881 in the Workhouse. 

This was overshadowed by Jane’s fourth loss, the death of seven-year-old Priscilla two months later on 17th September.  Priscilla had suffered from convulsions for a week and was also recorded as having a deformed spine.  This may have been what we now call spina bifida but it could also have resulted from congenital syphilis.  She was buried in the Nightingale Cemetery, like her siblings William, Edith and Susan, and their father William.

The deaths of William and Edith may also have been linked to congenital syphilis.  Treatment at that time was highly dangerous as mercurial creams were administered.  Whether Jane used this ‘cure’ is not known, but it is highly unlikely that she could have afforded to pay for it herself.

What happened to 28-year-old Jane after her daughter Priscilla’s death in 1881 has not been traced.

Jane’s only surviving child Annie appears to have remained in the Workhouse, as age six she was selected in 1887 by the Guildford Board of Guardians to be resettled in Canada, indicating that Jane had either passed away or was no longer able to care for Annie.

On 10th June 1887, Annie, along with other children from the Guildford Workhouse including Ellen and Eliza Hebburn , is on the passenger manifest for “Lake Ontario” from Liverpool arriving in Quebec.  Annie was part of a group of about 140 children from around the country being taken to the Guthrie Home in London, Ontario from where the children would be placed with families in the surrounding area.

No details have been found for Annie in Canada. Clearly she did not remain there very long, as in 1891 she was living in Surrey with one of her mother’s uncles, William Chalcraft, and his wife Mary, at Hare Lane, Godalming.

Unfortunately, no proven record has been found for Annie since then, thereby bringing to a premature close the desperately sad story of the seven members of the Mitchell family.

July 2023, updated November 2023


      Ancestry.co.uk / Ancestry.com
      British Home Children Regsistry    BritishHomeChildrenRegistry.com
      FindMyPast.co.uk / British Newspaper Archive
      General Register Office    GRO.gov.uk
      Godalming Nightingale Cemetery Records    Godalming-tc.gov.uk
      Ivybridge Heritage    Ivybridge-Heritage.org
      National Centre on Birth Defects and Developmental Disorders    CDC.gov/NCBDDD
      Oxfordshire Family History Society    OFHS.uk
      Science Museum     ScienceMuseumGroup.org.uk
      Surrey History Centre, Woking    Surreycc.gov.uk
      Surrey Industrial History Group
      The Wey Valley      WeyRiver.co.uk      
      UK Parliament    Parliament.uk