Subject Name :  Rhoda Jane Parsons (b 1837 – d 1899)

Researcher :  Lesley Hall

Rhoda Jane Parsons was born into a military family and was raised by her parents in London and Guildford.  Although it is unlikely that she was able to live independently, Rhoda Jane spent part of her adult life in employment as a kitchen maid before being subjected to Victorian red tape which saw her being moved from one workhouse to another.

Rhoda Jane was born on 29th November 1837 in Dublin, Ireland, the third child of William and Rhoda Parsons née Eames.  She was born most probably in one of the British Army garrisons, as her father was in the 1st Battalion Scots Fusilier Regiment of Guards. She was baptised in Dublin on 22nd December 1837.

When Rhoda Jane was a year old, her father left the Army at his own request on 24th April 1839 after completing more than 21 years of service.  Originally from Atherton, Lancashire, William had joined the 3rd Regiment of Foot Guards (known as the Scots Fusilier Guards from 1831) at the age of 23 in January 1818, having previously served in the Royal East Middlesex Militia since 1810. He had a successful career, progressing through the ranks to Corporal in 1823 and Serjeant in 1829. When he left the army in 1839 he was a ‘pay-Serjeant’, a quite senior and responsible NCO role, and was intending to live in London.  His record described him as ‘very good, efficient, trustworthy, faithful and sober’.  He was age 44,
5’ 9 ¾ ” (1.77m) tall, with black hair, a dark complexion and hazel eyes. No reason is given in his record as to why he had decided to leave the Army. 

The family were now back in Westminster, London where Rhoda Jane’s siblings, William Robert in 1834 and Sarah Mary in 1835  had been born in ‘Barracks’ (probably Wellington Barracks).  A fourth child, Thomas Henry, was born in 1840 – his baptism record on 13th November showed the family to be living now at 8 Spencer’s Terrace, Westminster.  This record noted William as a soldier, despite him having left the Army over 18 months prior.  He was, however, receiving a pension from the Army.

The family was at the same address for the 1841 Census.  With three-year-old Rhoda Jane were her father William, mistakenly noted as age 65, employed as a ‘hall porter’, mother Rhoda (39), and siblings William (7), Sarah (5) and Thomas (6 months).

By 1851 the family had moved some 30 miles (48km) southwest to Friary Street, Guildford St. Mary.  It is not known why they made this move, but it was to prove to be key over 25 years later in determining Rhoda Jane‘s fate.

Now age 13, Rhoda Jane was a ‘scholar’, with her father William (54), a ‘Chelsea Pensioner’, mother Rhoda (50), and siblings Sarah (15), a dressmaker, and Thomas (10), also a scholar.  Friary Street is still there today, and although the Parsons’ home no longer stands, part of the front of the Bear Inn remains which was just a few doors along from where they had lived. 

Military life was clearly in the family blood, as, soon after the Census, both Rhoda Jane’s brothers followed their father into the Scots Fusilier Guards.  Thomas Henry was the first to sign up, age just 12, on 9th November 1852.  William Robert, followed the same path on 2nd March 1853, age 19.  Like their father, they both proved to be good, efficient, trustworthy, sober soldiers.

Two years later, on 7th January 1855, Rhoda Jane’s sister Sarah Mary married Peter Koch, a baker, at the Parish Church of St. Mary, Whitechapel.  Both were noted as living in Goulston Square, Whitechapel, and it seems possible that Rhoda Jane and her parents may have been living there too.  This is borne out by a sad incident suffered by Rhoda Jane’s youngest brother, Thomas Henry.  In March 1855, at the age of 15, a stroke had left him deaf in both ears.  He was deemed unfit for further military service, with his record noting ‘50 Goulston Square, Whitechapel’ as his intended future residence. 

In March 1857, Rhoda Jane’s father’s Army pension records showed that William moved from East London to Wales.  He passed away there in March 1859, having been working as a ‘lodge porter’ at Cardiff Castle.  His pension ceased on his death.

It’s not known if Rhoda Jane, or her mother, went with William to Wales. No records have been found regarding her general health, occupation or whereabouts around this time.

Two years later, however, the 1861 Census showed that Rhoda Jane, age 23, unmarried, was in London, working as a kitchen maid at the Union Club, Trafalgar Square.

The Union Club was a gentleman’s club, ‘chiefly composed of merchants, lawyers, members of parliament, and …. of “gentlemen at large”’. It   was noted in 1865 as having ‘1000 members of all classes and professions, and boast of the largest stock of good wine of any London club’ and was also famed for its cuisine.

Resident staff in 1861 were one head waiter, nine waiters, four pages, one housekeeper, two barmaids, five housemaids, and five kitchen maids including Rhoda Jane. How she came to be working at such an illustrious establishment is not known, but as a kitchen maid, Rhoda was unlikely to rub shoulders with any of the well-heeled guests!

How long Rhoda Jane was employed at the Union Club is also not known, and she has not been traced on the 1871 Census.  She does not reappear in records until 7th December 1877, when the Creed Register for the St Marylebone Workhouse, Northumberland Street, recorded her admission on that date from 203 Great Portland Street. 

205 Great Portland Street housed a servants’ home and lodgings for about 30 individuals run by the ‘Female Servants’ Home Society’. It could well be that this was where Rhoda Jane had been living, as by now it seems she had no family to lend her any support.  Her mother, not traced in the 1861 Census, had passed away in January 1867 in Liss, Hampshire close to her birthplace of Trotton, after suffering for five years with tuberculosis. Her sister Sarah had passed away in Spring 1871.  Brother William had left the Army in March 1874, and died in May 1878 in Penge, Bromley, Kent. By 1871 youngest brother Thomas, noted as ‘deaf’ had found a position in Regent’s Park as an apprentice to a boot maker who was also deaf, but he has not been traced since.

Rhoda Jane was not to remain in the St Marylebone Workhouse for long, as on the 24th September 1878, it was confirmed that Rhoda Jane Parsons, a 40-year-old pauper, single, an inmate of the Workhouse and suffering from a ‘permanent disability’, was the subject of a removal order from the parish of St Marylebone to St Mary Guildford.  The nature of her disability was not spelt out.

The reason for this move was that she had no ‘legal settlement’ in St Marylebone. ‘Diligent Enquiry’ made by the St Marylebone ‘Settlement Clerk’’ found that Rhoda ‘is a single woman and has acquired no legal settlement in her own right’. 

Rhoda’s ‘last legal settlement’ was deemed to be St Mary, Guildford.  The detailed justification for this was that in about July 1851, Rhoda Jane’s father William had ‘hired by the year a separate and distinct dwelling house situate and being in Friary Street in the Parish of St Mary Guildford, in the Guildford Poor Law Union, in the County of Surrey, at a yearly rent of £10 per annum and upwards to wit £12 10sh …. And he occupied the same continuously for one year and above to wit four years, and was rated and charged with and actually paid his share of the public parochial rates and levies of the said parish …’.  

So as a result of her father living in Friary Street and paying his parochial rates for four years in the early 1850s, Guildford became Rhoda’s legal place of settlement, as established in the Settlement Act of 1662.  This Act allowed for the removal from a parish back to their place of settlement of a person deemed by the local Justice ‘likely to be chargeable’ to the parish poor rates.  As Rhoda required relief ‘made necessary by sickness or accident’, and was therefore likely to need long term care, the parish of St Marylebone was clearly keen to move her on.  We know from the 1851 Census that Rhoda and the family were indeed living in Guildford at that time.

The Guildford Union Board of Guardians considered the Order of Removal on 5th October 1878, noting enquiries were directed to be made in the matter. Rhoda Jane’s move to Guildford finally took place on 13th November 1878.

There are no records of admissions and departures for the Guildford Union Workhouse, but it seems very likely that Rhoda Jane would have spent the rest of her life there.  The 1881 Census showed her as an inmate, aged 42, unmarried and a ‘Domestic Servant’, with her birthplace incorrectly noted as Guildford.  No mention is made of any disability referred to by the St Marylebone Workhouse.

Ten years later, the 1891 Census listed her as ‘Jane Parsons’, a 52-year-old pauper, single, with no profession or occupation, born in St. Mary, Guildford, Surrey.  This Census also said, in the stark language of the Victorian age, that Rhoda Jane was an ‘imbecile’.  This brutal word is difficult to translate into modern-day terms as Rhoda Jane clearly had been able to work for some part of her life.  There is also no record of her condition causing her to be moved from the Guildford Union to the nearby Brookwood Asylum, where so many other inmates had been transferred when life in the Workhouse became too difficult.

Rhoda Jane passed away in the Workhouse on 25th January 1899, age 61, and was buried at St Mary’s Church, Guildford 3 days later.  Her death certificate said that she had died from ‘general decay’ and had been an ‘imbecile and epileptic from birth’.  This is the only mention of epilepsy in any records found for Rhoda Jane but it may shed some light on what her condition had actually been and the effect that it had on her daily life.


December 2022, updated August 2023


      Ancestry.co.uk   /   Fold3.com      
      General Register Office    GRO.gov.uk
      Google Books    books.google.co.uk
      London Metropolitan Archives
      Surrey History Centre, Woking    Surreycc.gov.uk
      The National Archives, Kew    NationalArchives.gov.uk

For a full list of references click here