Sunday, 16 February 2014

52 Ancestors: Week 7: Alfred (Robert) Fairbairn (1860-1937)

My nan would have been 17 years old (I repeat, 17 years old!) when her maternal grandfather, Alfred Fairbairn, died and yet she did not even know his name or that he existed. Nan had lost her father before she was three and her mother when she was ten. It is not surprising, then, that family information had not been preserved. It took me a long time to unravel the Fairbairn family tree and it was only possible due to the information provided to me by my nan's cousin. Discoveries are still being made and I'm still finding surprises.

This week I had another surprise. A while back I had found the following newspaper article on

Birmingham Daily Post

Issue 131600

Thursday, 16 August 1900

THREE MONTHS FOR NEGLECT – Yesterday, at Smethwick, Alfred Fairbairn (39) and Selina Fairbairn (36), husband and wife, of no fixed abode, were charged with neglecting their six children. - Mr. Norton (instructed by Mr. P. Baker) prosecuted, and explained that the ages of the children ranged from fourteen years to three months. For some months past both prisoners had been addicted to drink, and had failed to provide their children with the barest necessaries of life. - Mr. Heaton said prisoners had treated their children with barbarity. -They were both sent to gaol for three months, with hard labour.

That was a shock in itself! And also explained why my great grandmother and her siblings could be found at Kings Norton Union Cottage Homes, Shenley Fields, Worcestershire during the night of the 1901 census. I had not got around to looking into this any further and then I saw three separate references to Cottage Homes. One was a missed talk at the Birmingham and Midland Society for Genealogy, another was a mention on Twitter and the third was when I was looking through back issues of Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine at the local library. I took it as a sign.

A quick search of the Birmingham Archives catalogue showed that there were quite a few records remaining of the Shenley Fields Cottage Homes although most are closed. There were two records that were open to me – the register of deaths (1900-1945) and the Superintendent's journal (1887-1912).

So on Friday I had my first visit to Birmingham Archives at the new Library of Birmingham and very nice it was too.

I was given the Superintendent's journal covering the dates August 1900 onwards and got searching. Within a minute or two I had found a reference to five of the children being admitted to the homes prior to 18 September 1900 – just a list of their names and ages and that they had come from the workhouse.

Keziah Fairbairn aged 14 )
Emma           Do            12 )
Sam.             Do            10 ) All from workhouse
Jas.               Do              7 )
Albert           Do               5 )

I searched every page, thereafter, to see if there was an individual comment about them as there appeared to be quite a few write ups for different children and reasons particularly when the children left the home to be placed with someone. 

Then I noticed the sixth child (Ethel) being admitted, prior to 30 April 1901, again from the workhouse. She was just two years old and I need to understand why she hadn't been admitted at the same time as the rest of her brothers and sisters. Interestingly, there were another five children also admitted during that period who were only two and three years old so it may be that they were kept in the workhouse until they were this age?

On the same page it showed that all six children were discharged from the Cottage Homes. I had gone with the assumption that once they were in the Cottage Homes they would have remained there until old enough to leave but just over six months after being admitted they were taken out of the home – by their parents! Not at all what I had expected.

Sadly, Selina died in the Workhouse Infirmary, Selly Oak in October 1903 and Alfred died years later in September 1937 at 1a Raddlebarn Road, Selly Oak (a euphemism for the hospital). 

And now I am left with even more questions.


Update having just taken out a month's subscription with Find My Past I now have more meat for the bones - the family 'had been sleeping in fields and outhouses for months'.

Worcestershire Chronicle

Saturday 18 August 1900

BARBAROUS CONDUCT OF PARENTS. The Smethwick Magistrates, on Wednesday, imposed sentences of three months' hard labour each upon Alfred Fairbairn and his wife, Seline Fairbairn of no fixed abode, for neglect of their six children. The parents were addicted to drink and had failed to supply the children with even the barest necessaries.  They had been sleeping in fields and outhouses for months, and when the police took charge of them they were wet through, and in a famishing condition.  The Bench considered there was not one redeeming feature, and characterised the parents' conduct as barbarous.

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