51.58 – Frederick, Sarah Ann, Ann, Helen and Alice Lee

These striking sidestones were tumbled over and half-buried when we arrived, and the grave itself recorded but not fully; we’ve put it back together as best we can for now, and despite its humble appearance it holds one of the town’s storytellers: Frederick Lee, of the Todmorden Advertiser and protegee of Richard and Thomas Chambers.

But first let’s start with Sarah Ann, so she isn’t forgotten in all this. Sarah was born in 1850 to John and Emma (Barker) Wrigley. Fans of Christ Church and of organ music may recognise the surname as an important one in church musical history. Sarah and her brother James were the only children of Emma Wrigley before she died, somewhere between 1853 (when James was born) and 1856, when John remarried and continued to expand his family. James was a chorister and well-regarded in the community but tragically died rather young, only 18 years old, in January 1871. Sarah Ann had in the meantime trained as a teacher and on the 1871 Census gave her occupation as “schoolmistress (unemployed)”. We wish we had information about where she was employed but sadly were unable to find out. She was an educated young woman though, and capable of achieving something that in those days was one of the few independent careers available to young women that wasn’t manual labour. What a shame that her unemployment was due to a common clause in the employment contracts of female schoolteachers: you had to resign if you were getting married. And married she was, in July 1871, to Frederick Lee.

Frederick was also born in 1850 and, along with his brother John, would grow up to look further than weaving. His father John was a fervent Unitarian and non-conformist, in contrast to the Anglican Wrigleys, and he instilled a love of learning and letters in his children. John Jr. and Frederick became newspaper reporters and print shop assistants quite young, and both flourished in this environment. Frederick went to work for Richard Chambers of the Todmorden Advertiser and quickly rose in the ranks to become the foreman of the printers by the age of 22. The couple moved to Eagle Street and between 1873 and 1887 had eight children. Three are buried here, the infants mentioned on the stone: Ann, Helen and Alice. Ann was born and died in 1874, Helen in 1878, and Alice has no birth registration or death certificate or burial register entry. Ann was only 23 days old but that was enough to officially exist. Alice was likely stillborn, and wasn’t counted on the 1911 Census as a child who had died when the Lees were asked to account for those numbers, but was still given a name; still mattered to Frederick and Sarah enough for her existence to be immortalised on their gravestones.

The Lees prospered and moved to Vale Cottage by 1891, and Frederick had become the superintendent of the Unitarian Sunday School as well as becoming involved at Roomfield Board School in the arts and sciences departments. He had previously been active with the Mechanics Institute, along with his brother Elliott, and he also became a Freemason. Meanwhile Sarah did the best she could as an educated woman who was now “only” a housewife, ensuring that her children (and particularly her daughters) were educated as fully as was possible between school and home so that they could have the same opportunities she had…even if she had given them up for love. Daughter Emma in particular was encouraged to excel in her education and would eventually choose to become a nurse, and her obituary many many years later threw a mild curveball through mentioning the specific detail that Emma had albinism. It will have been difficult to be a young woman during this time with such a marked physical difference to those around them (and those in her own family!) and education provided a way to distinguish herself and perhaps gain acceptance. Sarah will certainly have believed that.

In 1891 the Lees left Todmorden for the Isle of Wight so Frederick could pursue a business of his own which we haven’t been able to determine the nature of. They returned in 1899 when he and brother John (who had gone to work for the Bacup Times in the interim) bought the Advertiser from Richard and Thomas Chambers on their retirement. Finally they were no longer reporters but editors and owners. Now the family lived at 12 Woodlands, and son Walter became a subeditor at the paper. Daughter Bertha became an elementary school teacher, and in 1911 the family were joined by Sarah’s niece Elsie Stansfield, also a teacher (but at a private school). Bertha wasn’t content to only teach, either – in 1909 she organised the Ladies Bureau to become essentially a trade union for “lady teachers” as they were called at the time. Sarah will have been proud.

Todmorden District News, July 30th 1926

Frederick died in 1926, but not here; he died in Faversham, Kent. He and Sarah had moved there in 1919 when he retired from the Advertiser and sold it onwards to a new proprietor and Emma (“Nurse Lee” as she’s referred to many times throughout the years in the newspaper) came along later in order to help care for her elderly parents. His obituary states that his funeral service was held at the Unitarian (not surprising) and his burial here at Christ Church (also not surprising), but his name is absent from the surviving burial registers. Sarah came back to Todmorden after his death to live with Bertha at Langroyd, Ferney Lee, and she died two years later in 1928.

Todmorden Advertiser, July 13th 1928

Frederick and Sarah’s love of learning lived on in their children. Bertha eventually became the head of the Open-Air School at Stile and Emma’s obituary mentioned that she was highly respected in Todmorden for her work in maternity and sick nursing. And that’s just the children who made the bulk of their careers in Todmorden – the others weren’t too shabby either. Quite the legacy to leave behind.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *