18.39 – Fanny, Whittaker and Clara Mitchell

This story was originally told as part of our “Dead for the Holidays” 2023 tour.

We stand here before the grave of Fanny Mitchell, whose story is touching one. Starting at the beginning…

Fanny Steel was born in Buckinghamshire in 1866.  She was the youngest of the 11 children of John and Harriet, who hailed from London.  They’d moved around a bit—Fanny’s father was a gardener, so it seems likely that he moved to find employment.  By 1871, 5 year old Fanny and the family arrived in Todmorden and finally put down more permanent roots, moving into a house at Hanging Ditch. Her father is shown as unemployed in the 1871 census, so what brought them to Todmorden is unclear, and he continues to be unemployed in the 1881 census.  Fanny’s mum also didn’t work, so the only real option left is that the family lived off the earnings of Fanny and the three siblings who still lived at home—all cotton weavers.  In 1886, when Fanny was 20, her father John died, and he is buried here at Christ Church along with other members of the family.  In the 1891 census, Fanny was living at Temperance Street with her mother and one of her sisters.

The only thing we really know about Fanny’s life and interests is that she liked to sing and was a member of a Glee duo with Sarah Dearden, and our researcher was able to find a mention of her performing at a glee party at the Castle Street Liberal Club in the newspaper.  Glees were a type of secular music that were sung in harmony, usually two parts.  Whether Sarah was one of her sisters who was married, or merely a friend, I cannot answer.

On the 31st October 1896, at the age of 30, Fanny married Whitaker Mitchell, an iron dresser from Millwood.  Within a year, she was expecting their first (and only) child.

On the 23rd December 1897, Fanny gave birth to Thomas Mitchell at Queens Terrace, where the family were living.  Sadly, Fanny died only a few days later of puerperal septicemia on the 1st of January 1898.  Although the disease was becoming gradually less common as the country moved into the 20th century and began to learn the importance of cleanliness in medical treatment, it was still unfortunately far too common.  It was often introduced into the mother’s body by those who treated her, and Fanny will have developed a fever and increasingly severe abdominal pain before she died.  What a traumatic time for the young family, and I am sure Whitaker wondered how he would cope.  He moved back in with his parents and siblings on Halifax Road for help, and it must have been a comfort to him to be surrounded by family at this time. 

In 1903, when little Tom was 5, Whitaker married again, and we now arrive at the touching part of the story.  Clara Suthers must have become the mum that Tom had never really had.  In the 1911 census, 12 year old Tom was living with Clara at Commercial Street—Whitaker was not with them as he was in hospital in Southport.  I gather it was a prolonged illness, and on the 21st March 1912, Whitaker Mitchell died, leaving our 13 year old Tom an orphan.  Luckily, he still had Clara, and in the 1921 census, he is described as her son.  I feel that Fanny would have looked down on her precious little boy and been very grateful to Clara Suthers for loving him and caring for him when he was otherwise alone in the world, and might have been cast from his home and sent to live with whatever relative had room for him.

Tom grew up to marry and have his own child, who they named Annie…not a million miles from Fanny.  I wonder if that was in their mind.

It makes me sad to think that we don’t know anything else about our Fanny…only what we can assume.  Someone who is happy to perform in front of others may have been a lively, bubbly personality, and perhaps she was an extrovert who made friends wherever she went.  Or maybe she was a shy, quiet character who came alive in music, and had only a few treasured friends or family who really knew her.  I wonder if Whitaker was the love of her life, or if it was a marriage of convenience, as she’d have been considered somewhat ‘on the shelf’ by 30.  We may never know these things, but as the ancient Egyptians believed, you never really die while someone speaks your name.  So Fanny Mitchell, nee Steel…we remember you.

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