By Dan Waddell
Last updated 2011-02-17
Jane Horrocks was eighteen when she left the small Lancashire town of Rawtenstall to work as an actress in London.
Now an unassuming northern backwater, Rawtenstall once lay at the very heart of the British textile industry, a thriving cog in the industrial revolution that transformed the landscape of the county and the lives of the people who lived and worked there.
Jane focused her research on the women of her family. She wanted to know more about the long line of strong, working-class women who preceded her, and in particular her great-grandmother, Sarah Cunliffe.
Sarah's parents Jane and John Cunliffe both died of unrelated illnesses within eighteen months of each other, and Sarah became head of the family - at the age of 32. Her age interested Jane. Surely it was strange for a woman to remain unmarried into her 30s in mid-19th century England?
However, much like today, the fashion for many women at that time was not to get married until later, and Sarah continued to work, supporting the family as a cotton weaver, a tough job characterised by long hours and low pay.
Now that Jane had an outline of Sarah Cunliffe's life, she was itching to find out more. When did Sarah eventually marry? Back on the paper trail, Jane found she wed John Taylor, a postman and son of the local postmaster, at the age of 37.
The Taylors were strict Methodists, devout and unwavering in their faith. Sarah's marriage to John lifted her out of a life of manual work, enabling her to swap the grind of life in the cotton mills for the relative comforts of the postal industry.
Sarah had had her first and only child - Jane's grandmother, Doris - when she was 42, which would have carried with it tremendous health risks to both mother and baby in Victorian Britain.
During her researches, Jane learned of a mysterious, 'forgotten' sibling of her great-grandmother Sarah - a brother named Ernest, who had somehow ended up in Australia and who had, so the story went, sent a precious opal to Doris on her 21st birthday.
Jane discovered that in 1910, Ernest Cunliffe had left England for Australia, one of some 10 million people to have emigrated to the colonies between 1870 and 1913. He died in 1937 at the age of 63 in Toowomba, a centre for the opal-mining trade.
That seemed to solve the mystery of where he had found such a precious stone, but it came no nearer to answering why he had sent the gem to the other side of the world as a gift to his niece.
Ernest turned out to be that archetype of family history, the black sheep. He had been living with Sarah, his elder sister, but when she married the local postman, a strict Methodist, the regime changed.
Perhaps Ernest, who is recorded as working as a billiard marker in Australia, at a time when the game was generally played for money, may not have thought much of his new life and after living with the couple for a short while decided it wasn't for him.
Despite getting married he needed to escape, and finally made for the long voyage to Australia, his wife following a year later.
And the opal that Doris received on her twenty-first birthday from a man she barely knew? Perhaps he had grown close to young Doris before he left? Maybe the gift was an effort at reconciliation after the breakdown of his relationship with his sister Sarah? Who knows?
But at least Jane now knows she was not the first member of her family to feel they had outgrown their hometown, and that, in order to grow, knew they had to leave.
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