Esther Bushnell was born in the final quarter of 1856 in Rugby, Warwickshire and named after her mother, Esther Hearnden, the daughter of a Maidstone ‘Hardware Man’. Her father, John Bushnell, was the Blacksmithing son of an Ironmonger, a trade that he too would enter in his own right after taking the family to live in Clapham, London. It may have been the growth of the railway that took the family to Rugby from their roots in Kent and it was certainly near to, what remains to this day, the busiest junction in the whole of the British rail network that the family were to move. It may also have been because John’s father, Joseph, had been born in Lambeth and the family may be connected to an earlier London Blacksmith called Bushnell. Esther had an older brother, John, whose birth had been recorded exactly a year before her own and a third child, Lucy, was to follow in the Spring of 1861.
In 1861 the family were living in Clapham Old Town in the now-obliterated Terry’s Lane. The first house in the lane was home to a 53 year-old widowed Charwoman, Jane Barrett, and next came her fellow widow, the 78 year-old Butcher, Fanny Terry, after whose late husband’s family the lane might well have gained its name? The Bushnells were next and finally Henry Blanche, a 43 year-old Greengrocer, and his family. Just four households suggesting, perhaps, either a short row or two-pairs of opposing buildings? A few years ago I did my best to walk in the steps of the Enumerator but, whilst I believe that I located where the lane once stood, I could not discern any structures extant from the 1860s.
Come 1871, mother Esther is in service in the Vicarage in Great Limber, Lincolnshire under the employ of the vicar, Thomas Ffoster Chamberlain who is as uncertain as to whether ‘Hester’ is married or not as he is as regards the spelling of her name which is particularly odd given his calling.
The children, meanwhile, have been separated with 15 year-old John learning the craft of the Blacksmith under the watchful eye of his widower grandfather in Maidstone whilst the two girls are ‘Enderd’ or inmates at the North Surrey District School in Penge, details of which can be seen by searching for ‘North Surrey’ – http://www.workhouses.org.uk/
. It must have been a miserable existence for the two girls, separated from their mother by an untraversable distance and from their father by his apparent disappearance from the Earth.
Worse was to come for in the Spring of 1878 that mother, still all those unaffordable miles away in Lincolnshire, died at the age of 42.
Things took their own brief upturn by 1881 when Esther was under the wing of her Uncle, Frederick William Luffingham, a Master Draper living at 104 Hoxton Street in Shoreditch. As an aside, little or nothing is known of this unusual family name and only slightly more of that of the Hearnden family that connected Esther to it. There may be some distant, in both time and space, religious persecution that led to the appearance of these names in the South-Eastern corner of the Country, and they certainly appear to have associated with other immigrant families in the ‘rag trade’.
In addition to her own security, Esther had the satisfaction of knowing that her sister was at the Home and Colonial School Society’s Training College for Mistresses in Gray’s Inn Road training to be a teacher. Also at this time, their brother John was in Cornwall where he appears twice in the Census of that year! Whether or not he was in Calstock or nearby Higher Dimson, he most certainly was an ‘Engineer’ or ‘Engine (Driver)’ and one of many such men responsible for running the steam engines at the mines that employed them.
John married in Maidstone 1883 before returning to Cornwall and starting a family, the first two children being born in that part of the World in 1885 and 1887 but Esther would never see her nephew and nieces for in the Spring of 1884, at the age of 27, she died, the death being registered at Tavistock, Devon, Cornwall. What was she doing in Cornwall? Had she found work there, was she just visiting her brother, or was there some other, perhaps romantic reason for her presence there?
Of course, ordering her death certificate might help answer the question, perhaps she fell ill but I prefer to let my imagination roam and see this most unfortunate young lady being as unlicky in love as she had been in life and, in a grand gesture redolent of late 19thC literature set in the wilds of the West Country, falling not under the ravages of TB but into a disused mine-shaft in despair at her lover’s rejection…
Although Esther’s life was over, there is one more thing to relate. Lucy did indeed become a teacher and is found in 1891 living with John, his wife and three children in the village of Sandling just a couple of miles North of Maidstone. However, by 1901 the 37 year-old is an Inmate of the London County Asylum, The Heath, Dartford
and her occupation reads ‘Schoolmistress’, with the word ‘Ret’ added as an afterthought. I have been unable to discover any further record relating to her, whether it be a marriage, an entry in the 1911 Census or her death.
Maybe I should have called this piece ‘Two Lives Full of Tragedy’?
On a somewhat happier note, John and his wife had celebrated 55 years of marriage before she died aged 80 in 1938 and he then followed her a year later when aged 84, the pair having lived for half a century in an idyllic spot near the archaeologically active chalk ridge known as the North Downs and the very attractive village of Boxley.
But that is another story…