In which local historian Chris Sams digs into the past to find a parallel with the present..
Exactly a century before I was born, Mary Ann Ellen Williams was born in September 1880 in what is now Chatham but was then New Brompton (Gillingham) in the Hards Town estate.
Hards Town, also known as Best Town, was set just below the Great lines near where Go Outdoors is now.
She did not come from a wealthy family but neither were they destitute. Her father, Richard Williams was a sergeant and musician in the Royal Engineers and had previously been in Victoria, Australia during the withdrawal process, her eldest sister, Rebecca, was born there and had to make the perilous journey back across the world as a very tiny infant. Mary’s maternal grandfather, Thomas Ayerst, ran the Prince of Wales public house on Birdcage Walk in Hards Town.
The only real prospect open to her was to marry well and escape the slums that the area was becoming into as well as escape the rapidly filling household as by 1895 she was one of ten children! Her father had retired by 1891 and was serving as a librarian at the Royal Engineers Barracks library at Brompton.
It was possibly through her connection to the Corp and the sheer number of Royal Engineers in Brompton that she met her future husband George William Bone (born 1871), a tall fair haired athlete who having been part of the Army’s winning Catch weight tug of war teams in Ireland 1897-8. George was a wheelwright by trade and had grown up in Prinsted, Sussex before escaping rural life for the Engineers. They married in St Mary’s Church Chatham on the 22nd March 1898 when Mary was 17 years old.
As tensions grew in South Africa between the British and the Boer settlers the army began making preparations to go to war and the 7th Field Company of Royal Engineers transferred to the Curragh, Ireland and Mary accompanied her husband. On the 25th January 1899 their son Richard was born. Not long after George boarded a boat for the Cape leaving his wife and infant son behind. That November he was involved in the battles of Belmont, Modder river, Magersfontein and then took part in the Canadian advance on the Boer positions Paardeberg digging trenches through the night of 26/7 February 1900 giving the British the commanding view of the Boer position and forcing their surrender.
Mary could do little but wait and watch from the other side of the world hoping that her husband would come back home to her. She must have been shaken to hear the news of massacres like Magersfontein and the disasters at Spion Kop. George managed to stay out of any further military engagements though served in the relief of Bloemfontein and occupation of Wittbergen.
The hastily occupied town of Bloemfontein could not support the army and the sanitation system collapsed with Typhoid becoming rife. George succumbed to the illness on 18th February 1901, two weeks after his son’s second birthday. His last entry in his diary was “Feeling better today.”
Mary was heartbroken. Not only had she lost her husband but she would soon lose her home in Ireland as the accommodation was only for Army wives. She returned to Chatham and her mother as she had nowhere else to go. With no source of income beyond a widow’s army pension, she became a charwoman, as her now widowed mother had and would clean other people’s houses so that she could afford to keep a roof over the Williams clan’s head. Her eldest brother had likewise joined the Army as an engineer and her elder sister was married but the youngest, Daisy, was only six years old.
Mary would have seen Chatham develop over time including the New Road bridge being built and growing developments across the Barracks. The Great Liberal government between 1906-1914 brought in sweeping changes that tried to tackle poverty in urban areas and old age pensions but still she laboured until eventually remarrying a dock worker, George Grimwade (born 1881) on 20th February 1909. George was very tight with money and mean spirited but he provided for Mary and her son Richard in their home on 65 Longfellow Road, Gillingham.
The First World War saw further anguish for Mary as her son, Richard, left to fight in France as part of the artillery. Thankfully for her he returned, despite being wounded and then rostered into the infantry by mistake.
She became a grandmother on 30th April 1921 when Richard and his wife Sarah had Audrey Bone.
Mary lived to see her husband retire in 1943 where he also gained the Imperial Service medal for twenty five years continual service in His Majesty’s Dockyard.
She died on 23 September 1948 aged 68 years and was buried in Woodland’s Road cemetery. George Grimwade outlived her by twenty four years.
So what has this biography to do with Medway politics and women in general?
Mary Williams, was a girl born into a working class family in Chatham, whose life was full of struggle and heartbreak. She had to battle to create a life as a single mother and avoid poverty with basic education and with little or no opportunities with no support from the state that took her first husband.
A century on and these same issues are still being faced by citizens in Medway where opportunity is often lacking and poverty and personal debt are still quite high. Since the 2010 austerity policies of the Conservative-led coalition which have been continued up to the current Conservative government have seen the institution of food banks for those who cannot afford food, a rise in Homelessness and rough sleeping through the towns, and people having to take second jobs to afford rents. We have had massive problems with personal debt and pay day loan companies and credit cards leaving some of Medway’s poorest in spiralling debt and nationally one in three children is growing up in poverty. In 2018 26.1% of children in Medway were deemed to be living in poverty which is obviously down on the 1901 levels but still shockingly high.
Education is also still comparatively poor and although better than it was a century ago, the Medway towns have ten of the worst primary schools in the country. On the flip side there is now a record number of women going to university compared to men now, something Mary Bone could have only dreamed of.
Sure Start Centres provided a great boon to mothers giving them parenting and medical advice, somewhere to go and meet other mothers and a focal point for the community but with them closing down due to withdrawal of funds mothers are having to rely more and more on family as Mary did.
Even in the 21st Century we still have a country where women are still not paid equally to men and in March 2015 the average gap was 19.1% – Europe’s worst. Although women have the vote they are massively under-represented in Parliament and even on the local council. On Medway Council we have fifteen women to thirty-nine men and Cabinet meetings are all male affairs, allowing them to dismiss Cllr McDonald’s “Period Poverty” campaign as something that is a “gross exaggeration”.
We believe that times have changed and they are better than they were a century ago with our sensibilities and priorities evolving from the Victorian and Edwardian time, but for many women they are still facing these same challenges especially the beast of poverty.