Elizabeth ‘Bessie’ Shayler – a tale of social mobility

Elizabeth was my great great aunt and was known as Bessie in the family. She was born in 1863 in the village of North Moreton, Berkshire, England to Henry and Elizabeth Shayler (nee Stickley), the third of their six children, 4 boys and 2 girls.

As a young woman Bessie left home to work in domestic service, first as a housemaid in Surrey and later as a lady’s maid in Dorset. By 1901 she was living in Maida Vale, London and was working as ‘Attendant’ to a widow, Mrs Emma Perkins. I’m not sure exactly what an Attendant was, but my best guess is that it combined some aspects of domestic work with some nursing or personal care.

In 1909, Emma Perkins died and the probate record shows that she left her assets to ‘Hugh Knox physician and Elizabeth Shayler spinster’. Presumably she didn’t have any family and was grateful for the care she had received from her doctor and Bessie. We don’t know exactly how Bessie and Hugh Knox divided the assets between them, but the house was clearly part of Bessie’s inheritance as she continued to live there for some years. In the 1911 census, Bessie is described as the head of the household, with no occupation. She has a cook and a housemaid to look after her and we also learn from the census that the Maida Vale house had 14 rooms, so was clearly a sizeable property. This kind of social mobility was not easy to achieve so Bessie had done pretty well for herself!

In January 1912 Bessie married James Wylie Palmer who was 35 years old to Bessie’s 47. Her brother Frederick (my great grandfather) and her sister Mary were witnesses at the wedding. Following their marriage Bessie and James continued to live in Maida Vale. James served with the army during the first world war and when I have time I will try to find out more about his early life and his war service.

In 1935 James died and by 1939 Bessie was living back in Berkshire with her family. The 1939 register (taken at the start of the 2nd world war) shows her living in the family home in Didcot with her sister Mary, her nephew Arthur and niece Jean. By this time all four of Bessie’s brothers had died.

In 1948 Mary died, leaving Bessie as the last surviving sibling. She lived to the grand old age of 90, passing away in 1954. Only one of Bessie’s five siblings had had children of their own and they formed the next generation of Shaylers. My grandad Henry Frederick Shayler was the oldest of these four children.


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