Recently I posted the first one in the series ‘The Trail of the Wildmen’ outlining an overview of my great-grandfather Sidney Levi Wildman (1872-1951). The next step in this line of research was to find out more about his wife, Alice Davis (1874-1921).
Alice was born in 1874 in Sittingbourne, Kent. There is evidence of the town’s history stretching back to the Roman period, with its location sitting on the legendary Roman road of Watling Street. Sittingbourne developed during the industrial revolution, particularly after the opening of the railway station in the 1850s. The industry that was especially profitable was that of brick-making: in 1870 it is stated that up to 2,628 men were working in the brick and tile industry. Much of this product was used to supply London during its boom years of construction. Alice’s father – Thomas Davis – worked in this industry, with his job in the 1881 census labelled as ‘Foreman at Brickfield’. A brickfield was a field in which the topsoil was removed in order to strip away the clay beneath to aid the creation of bricks.
By the time of the early 1880s the family lived at 8 Mill Road in Sittingbourne. At the 1881 census the house was filled with family members, including her father and mother, as well as a raft of siblings: Caroline (20); Cordeila – a milliner (18); Frances – a domestic assistant (16); Charles – a labourer (13); Elizabeth – a scholar (10); Edward – a scholar (4); and little Rhoda (2). Like her younger siblings, Alice is listed as a scholar, meaning that she must have attended the local elementary school to obtain a basic education.
At the age of 17 (1891) Alice worked as a draper’s assistant in the village of Newnham in Kent, where she lived with her uncle, Alfred Davis, a builder. A draper’s shop specialised in the selling of cloth, silk, linen, and other cotton piece goods, and it is likely that Alice moved to Newnham because of the opportunity to work. This small village developed to a point where it could sustain profitable shops – such as a draper’s, a butcher’s, baker’s, and blacksmith’s; this was due to a key road being upgraded in the Victorian era to make it passable during the winter.
It was during this period that Alice met her future husband, Sidney Levi Wildman. Sidney had recently left the army and for some reason was either living in or passing through the vicinity of Newnham and Kent. Because Sidney’s family were located in Bedfordshire, it is possible that he was travelling through the area, perhaps after returning from his time in Egypt with the army.
Alice married Sidney in 1895 at Eastry, a small village in Kent. This settlement is associated with various legends, with one stretching back to an old Saxon palace that once stood there. It is supposed that the ruler of the Kent kingdom murdered his young cousins here in order to secure his own hold on the throne, a similar act that would horrifically befall later royal princes in England, notably those of the “Princes in the Tower” who were possibly murdered by Richard III in 1483. It is probable that Alice and Sidney married at the church St Mary the Virgin.
The location of the wedding does pose a question: why didn’t Alice and Sidney marry in Sittingbourne? It was customary for a marriage to take place in the bride’s home parish, and although Eastry wasn’t a million miles away from Sittingbourne (actually, only 30 miles), it does throw up an unsolvable puzzle. However, the village of Eastry itself – along with the nearby seaside town of Deal – would both figure highly in the life of Alice, particularly as a place of residence where many of her children were born.
In the previous post about Alice’s husband Sidney, I outlined how the pair had two sons – Claude (born 1892) and George (born 1894) – before they married in 1895. However, further research has placed question marks over this. No record of the birth of Claude as early as 1892 can be found, however, the 1911 census does show Claude with his mother; the age of Claude in 1911 was 13, placing his debate of birth around 1897/98. Further research revealed that Claude was born in 1898, meaning that he was not their first born. Whilst regarding George, it has been impossible – so far – to find any further records. All of which suggests that Alice married Sidney in 1895 and started having children after this marriage. After all, this would have been the much more common process during this time period, with historian Rebecca Probert believing that:
For the Victorians, relationships outside marriage tended to be surreptitious rather than openly acknowledged. The poor, dependent upon landlords, employers, and occasionally charity, needed to maintain a good reputation just as much as the wealthy, if not more so. The diarist and clergyman Francis Kilvert wrote of one couple being evicted from their home simply because they were unmarried… This was a society that drew a sharp distinction between the married and the unmarried.
So, if Claude and George were not the first children, it is much more probable that their first child and son was Sidney Thomas Wildman, born in 1896. This makes more sense when we consider his name: Sidney (after his father) and Thomas (after his maternal grandfather). It was customary to name the first born son after the father, which makes this Sidney Thomas the most likely first born. However, Alice’s son was face tragedy and not live to see the entire first year of life, due to ‘convulsions’. The death of Sidney Thomas was of curiosity enough to reach the local newspapers in Cheltenham, where Alice and Sidney Levi were living.
The first newspaper article noted how an inquest was to be held to determine the cause of death of the six month old child. The second one notes the coroner’s report, stating that the child had suffered from ‘a cold and teething trouble such as were familiar to child life’. The coroner ruled on the verdict on the convulsions, noting that ‘it was a well nourished child, and showed no signs of neglect’. In the previous post about Sidney Levi Wildman, I suggested that perhaps the reason for an inquest and use of jury was due to the prevalence of insurance scams in late Victorian Britain, in which familial murders occurred in order to obtain a pay-out.
The clearing of her name would have been of small consolidation to Alice, with the much bigger loss being the death of her first born son. However, she was soon pregnant again, this time with Claude, who was born in late 1897. Alice would regularly be pregnant over the next two decades, ranging from Claude to Kathleen (in 1913), and possibly with a final son – Hugh – being born in 1919.
Sidney made a career as a musician, and it is probably for this reason as to why the family appeared to move frequently over the following fifteen years. For example, in the late 1890s they moved from Kent to Hampstead in London, where Sidney Thomas was born. By the time of the baby’s death six months later they lived in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. Claude appears to have been baptised in Gloucestershire (in the Clifton region, closer to Bristol), but yet was born back in Kent. It is entirely possible that Alice returned home to family in Kent for the birth of Claude, especially after the heart-break of the loss of Sidney Thomas, before then returning back to live in Gloucestershire. On the whole, the majority of the children were born in Kent, but yet there are a few oddities along the way. The most significant, for myself (because he was a grandfather of mine) was that of son Leslie, born in 1904.
Further research has caused a re-assessment of the dates of birth of many of Alice’s children. As stated earlier, at first I assumed that Claude and George were the oldest children, but yet that doesn’t seem to be the case. However, by looking at the birth records and matching the various dates these children can be (roughly!) confirmed:
- Sidney Thomas (1896-1897)
- Claude (1897-1976)
- Phyllis (1899-1961)
- Winifred (1900 or 1901-1979)
- Una (1902-1982)
- Leslie (1904-1979)
- Rhoda May (1906-1994)
- Ivy (1908-1908)
- Myrtle (1908-1908)
- Hazel (1908-1911)
- Margery (1911-1911)
- Kathleen (1913-1930)
- Thomas (1917-?)
- Hugh (1919-1920)
In 1908 Alice gave birth to triplet girls: Hazel, Ivy, and Myrtle. The names have a connection, being all types of green plant or tree; each of the names became popular during the Victorian period. Triplets were just as rare in this period as they are today, so much so that during Queen Victoria’s reign a custom developed of a royal donation to the parents of those who had three or more babies. To qualify for the donation, the babies had to be born alive and their parents had to be British subjects and married. After Victoria’s death the custom was continued with Edward VII, being renamed the King’s Bounty. The grants continued until 1957, when it then became the norm for parents to receive a congratulatory letter (before this was ended in 1995). It is not known whether Alice received the King’s Bounty, but it does offer an opportunity to research into further to find out more.
All three girls were baptised at Minster, Kent on 9th October 1908. However, only one would survive to see in 1909, with both Ivy and Myrtle dying by the end of the year. The third girl, Hazel, would only live until 1911. The records show that childbirth was dangerous in the past, particularly when the mother had multiple children at one birth. In terms of triplets, hardly any survived babyhood or childhood. Alice’s three girls, then, did not beat the odds at surviving their early years; if they had been born decades later in the 20th Century it is possible that all three could have survived.
After the early deaths of Ivy and Myrtle in 1908, at some point Hazel was taken to Paddington Green Children’s Hospital for treatment. She is listed there in the 1911 census, where she died later in the same year. The tragedy of this period did not end with the death of the final triplet: in 1911 Alice gave birth (for the first time since 1908) to Margery. However, like her deceased elder sisters, Margery also died in babyhood.
After this point, it is possible that Alice gave birth on three more occasions: to Kathleen in 1913, to Thomas in 1917, and possibly Hugh in 1919 (when Alice was 44 years old). But the records become cold toward the end of Alice’s life, meaning that there are plenty of black holes of information that cannot be fully verified. Perhaps the release of the 1921 census records (in 2021, due to the 100 year rule) will provide more information.
Because the records on Alice are scant I was initially excited when I came across a document for an Alice Wildman as part of the London Poor Law Hospital Admissions and Discharges. It notes how an Alice Wildman was admitted to Islington Poor Law Union on December 1899, remaining there until being discharged in the new year on 2 February 1900. This immediately brought lots of question marks to my mind: why was Alice admitted, and what did this mean regarding her marriage to Sidney. In many ways, I thought it might solve the riddle as to why we couldn’t find any records for her as part of the 1901 census; perhaps she lived a nomadic lifestyle during this period. However, closer inspection of the record revealed this to not be our Alice: despite being almost the same age, this Alice had a birthday in-between being admitted and leaving the institution, making the birthday at some point between December and February, whereas our Alice’s birthday was 21st July in the summer.
The final mystery centres on the circumstances of Alice’s death in 1921. She died at the relatively young age of 47 and as of yet, it is not known why. Perhaps it was related to health complications from having children in her forties, or perhaps from the pain of dealing with so much heartbreak with the premature deaths of many of her children (the final born child, Hugh, died in 1920). Another theory is that Alice was one of the many victims of the post-war Spanish flu: this virus killed between 50-100 million worldwide, wiping out around 3-5% of the planet’s population. Although the worst of the virus was over by 1920, it is possible that Alice was one of the final victims in the early months of 1921. The only way of knowing will be in ordering an accurate death certificate.
On the whole, Alice’s life was one of great pain and sadness. She may have given birth to 15 children, and around half of these died in childhood. She moved around regularly, due to her husband’s occupation as a musician, however, it is clear that her heart belonged to the land of Kent. It was here that she was raised, where she lived the majority of her life, and where she ultimately passed away in 1921. Hopefully future research will help us to fill in more of the details of her life.