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Closer than sisters

Helen Headington and Sarah Ann Piercy

My grandmother, Ellen Jane Razzell, had always been aware of being treated differently from her younger brother and sister. On her wedding day someone told her why: the woman she had believed to be her mother was in fact her step mother.

Ellen Razzell as a babyOur oldest family photograph, on the right, is of Ellen as a baby - perhaps about 6 months of age. The photograph has been edited to clean up the damage of over a century.

For a long time we believed that the woman in the photograph was the baby's mother, Helen Razzell (nee Headington). But when we looked at Ellen's birth and Helen's death certificates, we realised that Helen had died when Ellen was only 18 days old. Robert Razzell registered his wife's death and his daughter's birth at the same time.

Robert Razzell married his second wife, Lizzie Hiller, in 1892 when Ellen was just over two years old. So perhaps Lizzie was the woman in the photograph? The 1891 census suggested a different solution.

In April 1891 Robert Razzell was living with his oldest brother Caleb, Caleb's wife, Ann, and their daughter, Ann Elizabeth, aged 13. Baby Ellen (then 15 months old) was some six miles away living with her uncle Alfred, his wife Sarah Ann, and their three children Eleanor (7), Robert Alfred (5) and Caleb John (3).

Why were Robert and Ellen were not together? Perhaps Caleb, the eldest, was the only one with space to put Robert up, but was unable to supply the wet-nurse needed for Ellen? Alfred was only a year older than Robert and had a child of 3. If his wife Sarah had looked after Ellen since her mother died, then she would probably have been able to suckle Ellen as well as her own child.

Helen's early life brings to light further reasons to believe that Sarah Ann Razzell is the woman in the photograph.

Helen was born in 1854 at Peckham in London. She was the second daughter of Harry Headington and Sarah Cox. So far I've not been able to trace Jane after 1861. I've have also been unable to trace Harry Headington for certain as he does not appear in any of the censuses with his wife and daughters. From Helen's birth and marriage certificates he was a stonemason and, at some time, a soldier.

The 1861 census shows that, as well as her own two girls, Sarah was looking after a nurse child*, Sarah Ann Piercey aged 4, born in Peckham. This census gave Helen's name as 'Eleanor'.

The 1871 census, surprisingly, shows that Sarah Ann Piercey was still in the household as a 'nurse child'. Her age was given as 12, and her birthplace as Troy Town, Surrey. Helen would now have been about 17.

By the 1881 census, Helen was the head of the household, her mother having died in 1879. Sarah A 'Pearcey', aged 22, was now described as a boarder. At the end of the following year Sarah married Alfred Razzell. One of the witnesses to their marriage was Helen Headington, and they named their first child Eleanor, a variant of Helen.

Six years later, on 18th March 1889, Helen married Alfred's younger brother Robert. She gave birth to her daughter Ellen on 12th December 1889 and died on 30th December 1889.

* The nurse child

Sarah Ann Piercy was born 9th January 1858 (birth certificate). Her mother died 7 months later on 9th August 1858 (death certificate). I haven't yet acquired a death certificate for her father, but it looks as if he died later the same year. The few months between the deaths probably account for Sarah being 'fostered' by Sarah Headington whilst her older siblings were to end up in District Schools.

By 1861 the eldest of Sarah's siblings, George, was at the Central London District School, Hanwell. The others: Walter, Mary Ann and Abigail, were at the South Metropolitan District School, Sutton. District Schools were a relatively new development to provide accommodation and education for poor, abandoned or orphaned children away from the harsh environment of the Workhouse. (see: