The 3 Wives of Joseph Blee

My 4 x Great-Grandmother, Emma Spicer was born in about 1828 and christened on 18 April 1830 in Baldock, Hertfordshire. She was the 3rd child, and one of 11 children born to, John Spicer and Anne Ellis.

Emma Spicer baptism 1830

Emma Spicer christening 18 April 1830, Baldock Hertford parish register, page 111, item 887. Retrieved from Find My Past

Emma’s father was a waggoner, and it’s likely that his occupation led to her meeting with her future husband, Joseph Blee – whose father, Edward Blee, was also a waggoner. Perhaps Joseph accompanied his father Edward on some of his jobs as a waggoner, and this way traveled the approximate 14 miles between his village of Little Wymondley and Emma’s home in Clothall, Baldock.

Every found instance of Emma and Joseph’s signatures has taken the form of an X, indicating they were illiterate. It’s therefore highly unlikely they were communicating via letter! This relationship must have been conducted face to face.

Emma was about 20 years old when she married Joseph Blee on 20 Jan 1849. Unusually, Emma married Joseph, not in her own parish, but in his – with the wedding taking place at St Mary’s, Little Wymondley, Hertfordshire.

St Mary, Little Wymondley

St Mary’s, Little Wymondley, Hertfordshire

Emma would stay in Little Wymondley for the rest of her life, leaving her parents and siblings behind in Clothall. She embarked on a new life, one in very close proximity to her husband’s family. For many years Emma lived next door to her widowed mother-in-law (Martha Blee nee Prime), and she probably worked cheek-to-jowl with her as both women were straw plaiters. This cottage industry was prolific in Herfordshire.

Straw Plaiting St Albans 1853

Happy Times – Straw Plaiting near St Albans from Illustrated London News, May 14th 1853 by artist William Lee. Retrieved from:

Whilst Joseph was out working as a plate layer on the railway, the two women (and possibly other female relatives or friends) worked at home. They kept each other company as they split and plaited straw to make bonnets and hats. Emma’s children would have assisted too, their small nimble fingers ideal for plaiting straw.

Straw Bonnet c. 1840

American or European Bonnet, c. 1840’s; Metropolitan Museum of Art [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

The plaits or completed hats, would then be sold, either to a middle man, or by the women directly, at large markets and fairs in the surrounding towns. Emma’s earnings would have contributed significantly to the family income:

“Despite periodic slumps when wages fell sharply, such as in 1832-4 and 1843, contemporary testimony indicates they remained substantial into the 1860s at least. The most comprehensive report was that of A.J. Tansley, a prominent Luton hat manufacturer, published in 1860. Tansley’s view was that from plaiting straw ‘a well ordered family will obtain as much or more than the husband who is at work on the neighbouring farm’ ”

Goose, N , 2006 , ‘ How Saucy did it Make the Poor The Straw Plait and Hat Trades, Illegitimate Fertility and the Family in Nineteenth-Century Hertfordshire ‘ History , vol 91 , no. 304 , pp. 530-556 . Retrieved from:

Along with straw plaiting Emma fulfilled her ‘marital duties’, looking after the family home, and providing Joseph with numerous children. The couple’s eldest child, Martha Blee (named after Emma’s mother-in-law) was christened on 19 May 1850. Remarkably (for the time) none of Emma’s first 8 children died in infancy, but life for the Blee family would not be without it’s tragedies. Despite surviving the most dangerous five years of life, Martha, would not reach adulthood. She died aged ten. Ordering her death certificate is top of my to do list!

Update 12/05/2018: Martha Blee’s death certificate received. She died of ‘mesenteric disease’. A google search showed that this involves a swelling of the intestines and potentially linked to cholera. More investigation is needed.

Martha Blee burial 1860

Martha Blee burial 5 June 1860 Little Wymondley, Hertford parish register, page 25, item 195. Retrieved from Find My Past

By the time of Martha’s death, Emma had four other young children to care for. A further four would follow, with the youngest, Mary Blee being christened on 21 September 1870. Emma and Joseph had been married for 20 years and life seems to have treated them fairly well. There’s no mention of them in the newspapers, or criminal records. They appear to have lived in the same set of cottages for a lengthy period. Joseph was never noted in the census as ‘out of work’. Indeed, their lives appear to have been stable, maybe even happy or dare I say it – perhaps boring?

Whether happy or monotonous, this stability was to be shattered when less than a year after Mary’s birth, Emma died (6 April 1871) from “abscess pus absorption”. Perhaps she had been battling this infection since the birth of Mary? The death certificate does not specify the circumstances, but a woman named Elizabeth Payne was present at the death. The only adult Elizabeth Payne living in Little Wymondley at the time was the local midwife. Of course, it’s likely Elizabeth also doubled up as a sort of make shift nurse, but the fact she’s attending Emma is curious.

Emma Blee nee Spicer Death Certificate crop

Cropped image of Emma Blee (nee Spicer) Death Certificate

Whether related to the birth of her daughter some months earlier, or not, Emma’s death was most likely a deeply unpleasant one. The symptoms of sepsis are horrifying (including fever, delirium, shivering, a fast heartbeat and rapid breathing). Sepsis can kill at a terrifyingly quick speed if left untreated, which in 1871 it undoubtedly would have been – this was well before antibiotics. Abscesses themselves can be painful and poor Emma had potentially endured attempts to drain the infection – which again can be agonising.

A modern day Emma would most likely have had a minor operation to remove the abscess and all infected tissue. The wound would be packed with sterilised gorse and left to heal, the packing redone on a regular basis. Antibiotics would be administered. Death was unlikely. But Emma lived in a world before antibiotics, when the understanding of the need for cleanliness to avoid infection was not fully understood. She died at home in Company Cottage, aged 43 years old. She was buried at Little Wymondley, returning to the same church that had witnessed her marriage and the christenings of all her children.

Emma left behind her husband, Joseph (a widower at the age of 42) and 8 surviving children, including 8 month old baby Mary. Emma’s youngest would not survive much past her mother’s death, perishing two weeks later due to “low vitality”. Mary died at home, and her death certificate notes that, just like at Emma’s death, Elizabeth Payne was present at her demise.

Emma Blee burial 1871

Above: Burial of Emma Blee at bottom of page 34 and Below: Burial of Mary Blee at top of page 35 (both images Little Wymondley burials, Hertfordshire, 1871)

Mary Blee burial 1871

Poor bereaved Joseph was left facing an impossible situation. How could he work and ensure his children were looked after? He may have been able to claim some out relief for the cost of Emma’s burial, but the only ‘sustainable’ state care available to his family was the dreaded workhouse.

Joseph probably looked to his family for practical help. But, he was (in some respect’s) unfortunate in this regard. By the time of Emma’s death in 1871, Joseph’s own parent’s were both deceased. His eldest surviving child, Emma (named after her mother), was working away from home as a servant. His next eldest child, Edward, was 16 and was working as a labourer. No doubt his wage helped contribute to the family income, but he couldn’t work and look after the children any more than Joseph could.

It’s most likely the task of ‘childcare’ fell to the next eldest sibling, a daughter (and my 3 x Great-Grandmother), Sarah Blee (later Hill), aged 14 in 1871. Sarah probably received help from her maternal grandmother, Anne Spicer, nee Ellis. Anne, a widow, by the time of her daughter Emma’s death, was living with the family in 1871. However, Anne was entering her elderly years and there were 4 children under the age of 8 to contend with (including the poor baby Mary that did not survive).

Joseph had to look for another wife and he didn’t have to look too far to find one. In 1868, three years before Emma’s death, Joseph’s nephew, Edward Blee married Eliza Ann Paul. She was the daughter of Caroline Paul, and Caroline became Joseph’s second wife in 1872 – a year after the death of his first wife, Emma. The couple married in the same church in which Joseph had wed Emma – the same church that had witnessed the couple’s children’s christenings, Emma’s burial and that of two of their children.

Marriage between Joseph Blee and Caroline Paul

Like Joseph, Caroline was a widow, her husband George Paul had died in 1864. Caroline was born Caroline Willey, her father’s surname was mis-recorded on her marriage record to Joseph – likely a consequence of both bride and groom’s illiteracy.

Caroline had four children from her previous marriage, but her youngest (a son) was already 16 years old by the time she married Joseph. In many ways she was an ideal second wife; aged 52 by the time she married Joseph she was too old to have further offspring, but had the benefit of experience of raising her own children, all of which were fully grown. She came with no ‘baggage’. Joseph gained a step-mother to his children, and Caroline benefited from the financial stability of Joseph’s income as a railway worker.

Caroline had previously worked as a staw plaiter and she probably continued that trade, again working at home with other female relatives. She would not have made as much money as her predecessor Emma, by the 1870s the trade was already beginning to decline. Still, Joseph and Emma’s surviving children, looked after by their step-mother, seemed to be on an even keel again.

The peace did not last long. On 18 February 1878, after only 6 years of marriage, Caroline died of “heart disease and asthma (5 days)”. Only a few days before Joseph and Caroline had witnessed the marriage of Joseph’s daughter Sarah. Surely Caroline’s death came as a shock?

Caroline Blee nee Paul nee Willey Death Certificate 1878

Cropped image of Death Certificate of Caroline Blee (nee Paul, nee Willey) 1878

Joseph was left widowed again. This time there was less urgency to find a new wife. His youngest child, William, was thirteen years old. He was probably already working by the time of his step-mother’s death.

Surprisingly though, Joseph did not wait long before remarrying. A mere 7 months later on 9 September 1878, Joseph married his third wife, a widow named Mary Roberts (nee Hankin or Hawkin). Mary was about 8 years older than Joseph and was born in West Mill, Herfordshire. I have discovered fairly little about her life, having been unable to find her marriage to Mr Roberts. I do not know if she’d had children, or even how long she had been widowed.

There are some curiosities to this marriage. Joseph’s sister, Jane Blee, married a James Hawkins in 1858. I believe James and Jane may well be the ‘Atkins’ that witnessed Joseph’s marriage to Caroline. Mary Roberts parents are named James and Jane Hankin or Hawkins. Is there some connection or is this just coincidence? The surname crops up numerous times in the lives of several members of the Blee family but I’ve yet to fully fathom a connection. It would make sense, to me, if Mary Roberts were some sort of distant relative or close family friend. It might explain the sudden marriage between her and Joseph – it could be they were simply looking out for each other as kin.

Not long after his re-marriage, Joseph was once again bereaved, although not widowed. His youngest surviving child died. Her name was Jane Blee, and like her eldest sister Martha, she was 10 years old at the time of her death. Jane’s death, just like Joseph’s second wife Caroline’s, was from heart disease. However, whereas Caroline died at home, little Jane perished at Hitchin Infirmary. Clearly medical help had been sought, although it was to no avail. Joseph was present at her death and three days after Jane died, he made the journey back to St Mary’s church, Little Wymondley to bury her.

Burial of Caroline Blee and Jane Blee 1878

Burial record, Little Wymondley, Hertfordshire (page 40).

In the above image Joseph’s second wife and his daughter occupy the same page of the Little Wymondley parish burial record. Although only a few week’s before Jane’s death, Joseph had married Mary Roberts.

Joseph and his 3rd wife Mary moved a short distance away from Little Wymondley towards the nearby hamlet of Corey’s Mill. Joseph left behind the parish that had seen the death of two of his wives and three of his children.

Along with a new wife, Joseph gained a new mother-in-law, and by 1881 she was living with Joseph and Mary. It seem’s that although this last marriage came with no children to care for, Joseph still took on the responsibility of looking after Mary’s family.

By 1891 Joseph’s mother-in-law had died, and Joseph and Mary were living alone. They remained in Corey’s Mill and Joseph continued his work as a railway labourer. He remained in this tiny railway-line hamlet for the rest of his life. He died on 25 June 1893, of asthma and bronchitis. His last wife, Mary, outlived him by 10 years, dying in 1904.

Joseph Blee Death Certificate 1893

Cropped image of Joseph Blee’s Death Certificate 1893

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