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Chapter 1
The Harrisons 1837–98

Lying in her wooden and gilt bateau lit in her opulent bedroom below the state apartments at Kensington Palace, four weeks after her 18th birthday, Princess Victoria was woken by her mother, the Duchess of Kent, to be told that she was Queen of England. It was 6 a.m. on 20 June 1837 and her uncle King William IV – who had no legitimate children – had died of heart failure and pneumonia at the age of 71, leaving Prince William’s great-great-great-great-grandmother to inherit the throne.

Queen Victoria went on to become the longest-reigning monarch in British history and head of a vast empire, marrying her cousin Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and bearing nine children, from whom both Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip are descended. The family split their time between Buckingham Palace (Victoria was the first monarch to live there), Windsor Castle, where heads of state were entertained, and their holiday homes, osborne House on the Isle of Wight and Balmoral Castle in Aberdeenshire, both of which Victoria and Albert bought after their marriage.

At the other end of England, 290 miles from the royal court, in a cramped cottage in the Newcastle suburb of Byker Hill, life could not have been more different for Kate Middleton’s great-great-great-great-grandmother Jane Harrison, a miner’s wife.

While Queen Victoria was mistress of all she surveyed (and a great many parts of the world she had never even seen), Jane’s husband James, 41 in the year of Victoria’s accession, enjoyed a considerably narrower view. He earned a pittance working down the mines, while Jane juggled the demands of running a large household on a straitened income, bringing up four children and nursing a fifth. The eldest daughter, also Jane, sixteen, helped with her younger brothers (Thomas, nine, James, seven, two-year-old John and the baby, Septimus), but their mother would not have had any time for relaxation and the news of the King’s death – which she would have learned about through word of mouth, because Jane, like so many of her peers, could not read or write – would have had little impact on her world.

By piecing together historical documents and records, it is possible to construct a picture of Jane’s life during the early Victorian era. Her whole world would have revolved around the shift patterns of her husband, who worked as a shifter, or maintenance worker, repairing the horseways and other passages in the mine at Byker Colliery, then owned by Sir Henry Lawson.

James was employed under a bond by Sir Henry, which meant that he had been given two shillings and sixpence (about one hundred pounds in today’s money) for promising not to work for another colliery. Despite this, he was not guaranteed employment, but at 41 years old he would have been considered well beyond his prime and would not have complained. He was lucky to have work at all, especially with so many mouths to feed.

Thomas followed his father into the mine as a trapper. Working for up to 18 hours a day, in solitude and complete darkness, he was responsible for opening and shutting the mine traps, or doors, when the underground trams passed, in order to maintain ventilation. Later, Thomas became a driver, steering the horses that pulled the sledges and wagons from the crane to the shaft of the pit, and his younger brother James followed him into the mine. Despite the hardships – men and boys worked round the clock, except on Sundays, Christmas and Easter, and were liable for arrest, trial and imprisonment if they broke their bond – the family must have counted its blessings.

Life down the pit was brutal and dangerous, and in those days there was no sick pay or compensation for death or injury. While the owners supplied the pit ponies, the miners had to provide their own equipment, including picks, shovels, candles, ropes and explosives. The miners worked in gangs in order to protect themselves from thieving, and fights regularly broke out between rival groups.

Such skirmishes aside, the daily danger of mine working tended to unite the communities. Any report of an accident would mean that the women in the area would gather at the pithead, anxious for information about their men. It was a tradition that would last well into the twentieth century, when pit disasters, although much rarer, were by no means eradicated.

In James Harrison’s time, though, the dangers of working underground were ever present. Records indicate that there were more than 30 mining disasters in Durham and Northumberland in the nineteenth century, in which 1,500 men and boys were killed. Of course, these were only the major incidents. Individual deaths were commonplace but are more difficult to quantify, as the death of a single collier barely merited an inquest. Not only were there fires, rockfalls and explosions in the mines, but many pitmen were crushed to death by the trams (four-wheel carriages that carried corves, or tubs, of coal), kicked to death by ponies, fell down shafts or were drowned.

Life was hard for women, too. In Victorian England, they were deemed chattels of their husbands and would have to behave as such. With no hope of contraception, Jane Harrison was almost constantly pregnant. Her sixth baby, a daughter Margaret, was born in 1839, the year after Victoria’s glittering coronation at Westminster Abbey. Jane and her eldest daughter would have spent their days cleaning their sparse home, a tiny single-room cottage with an open fire and a ladder to the loft, where the children slept. They drew water at a street pump, washed, darned and mended ragged clothing, cooked for the family on the open fire and heated water in a tin bath for James and his sons when they finished a shift. The little food they bought came from the local ‘tommy shop’, the name deriving from the coarse bread that eighteenth-century soldiers received in their rations. Tommy shops were run by the owners of mines. Workers were often given some of their pay in tokens that could be used only in the shop, and the prices were inflated. Thus, mine owners made even more profit out of their employees, who often fell into debt. The family sometimes supplemented their meagre income by working in the fields, picking fruit, potatoes or turnips.

It was an unrelentingly tough existence for the Harrisons. Never would they have considered that one of their descendants would marry into the royal family. Indeed, it is a near-miracle that their line survived at all. Many mining villages were decimated by epidemics of tuberculosis, cholera, polio, scarlet fever and diphtheria, which raced through the densely populated communities, fuelled by the insanitary outside latrines that were shared by scores of people.

While Queen Victoria lived to the ripe old age of 81 – dying at osborne House of a brain haemorrhage and being buried beside her beloved Albert at Windsor – Kate’s great-great-great-great-grandmother had a pauper’s death. Jane fell victim to consumption, an infection of the lungs more commonly known today as tuberculosis, at her home in Byker Hill on 23 April 1845, shortly after her 50th birthday, leaving her husband a widower with four young children.

After his wife’s death and the expiry of his bond, James joined thousands of families heading 20 miles south of Newcastle to the pit villages of County Durham. They may well have been amongst the first passengers on George Hudson’s new Newcastle to Durham Junction Railway, which opened amidst great acclaim in 1844. Certainly, by 1850 they were living in a miner’s cottage in Low Row, one of four streets in the tiny village of Low Moorsley, seven miles north-east of Durham.

There, Kate’s great-great-great-grandfather John and his younger brother Septimus joined their father down the pit at North Hetton Colliery, owned by the 2nd Earl of Durham, George Lambton, whose father had been a prominent Whig politician and whose great-grandmother had been mistress to the Prince of Wales, later George IV. The Earl, who was the great-grandfather of former prime minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home, made his money from mining on the lands around his Lambton Castle and proved equally as hard a taskmaster as Sir Henry Lawson.

Although the 1842 Mines Act prevented children under ten from working in the mines, the two boys would have joined the workforce the moment they reached double figures. There was a hierarchy down the mines and they would have begun as trappers and drivers before graduating at the age of 17 to become putters, pushing the corves of coal on trams from the coalface to the crane or shaft. The work was just as dangerous as it had always been. In 1853, one of John and Septimus’s colleagues, John Straughan, a 12-year-old driver, was killed when his head was crushed between two moving trams. At nearby Hetton Colliery, 23 stonemasons died in an underground explosion in 1860, and all the horses and pit ponies in the stables perished as flames rampaged through the mine.

At the age of 21, the Harrison boys reached their physical prime and became hewers, the men who actually cut the coal at the face, in tunnels so small they had to work on their hands and knees. Although the job was dangerous, it was sought after, as hewers were the best-paid workers. Perhaps the extra money (the family also took in two lodgers, joiner George Dixon, 33, and William Mitcheson, a 36-year-old labourer) allowed the Harrisons to move on, because soon they had a new home two miles down the road, a miner’s cottage in the village of Sherburn Hill.

John was by this time making his own way in the world: he had moved into a cottage just around the corner from his father’s. On 7 April 1860, he married his girlfriend Jane Liddle, a 20-year-old miner’s daughter from the village, who was already four months pregnant on their wedding day.

In August of the same year, Septimus, 23, wed a girl from the neighbouring village of Houghton-le-Spring, Elizabeth Jenkyns, 19, who was heavily pregnant, at the same church. Their son James was born the following month. They moved into another miner’s cottage in Sherburn Hill, meaning that the three families were all within walking distance of each other.

John and Jane’s first child, Jane Ann, was born in September, followed by a son, Anthony, in 1862, and another daughter, Margaret, in 1863. The family would have been far too busy to mourn the death of Queen Victoria’s beloved Prince Albert in 1861, celebrate the wedding of William’s great-great-great-grandfather the future Edward VII to Princess Alexandra in 1863 or follow his liaisons with society beauties such as actress Lillie Langtry or Camilla Parker Bowles’ great-grandmother Alice Keppel.

By the 1860s, Kate’s great-great-great-great-grandfather James had long since retired from the pit. It can be surmised that following his retirement he spent a good deal of time in the local pubs, for he died of liver failure in 1866 at the age of 70. His illiterate daughter Jane, who cared for her father during his final two weeks, signed his death certificate with a cross.

After James’s death, his family moved away from Sherburn Hill. While Septimus moved six miles down the road to the village of Brandon, John moved with Jane and their children to Hetton-le-Hole, four miles away. They were part of migration to the town: in 1801 there were just 212 people living in Hetton, but by 1861 the population had increased to 6,419. John worked at Hetton Colliery, once owned by former bankrupt and speculator Arthur Mowbray. In 1822, it had become the first colliery to have its own private railway, an eight-mile track from Hetton to the River Wear at Sunderland, designed by George Stephenson, the ‘Father of Railways’. This was the first line in the country not to use horsepower.

Life at the coalface was hard, but John and his family, who lived on Downs New Houses in one of the 1,318 stone cottages in the town, had a better lifestyle than their parents, as the town had chapels, schools, pubs and shops, as well as a wide range of tradesmen, including blacksmiths, tinsmiths, stonemasons and joiners, printers and publishers, even a physician. Above all, the town had something that previous generations of the Harrison family had never experienced: a school. At least one of the children was registered in the 1871 census as a scholar, a tiny sign that the forces of social reform that would eventually change Britain for ever were beginning to make their presence felt.

On 25 July 1874, Kate’s great-great-grandfather, named John like his father, was born. Within five years of his birth, the Harrisons’ family had swollen to ten children, forcing them to move to a new home in the town’s Lyons Street. Their happiness, however, was short-lived. On 23 December 1881, Jane died of tuberculosis at just 42. Her husband, who was by her bedside when she died in their home, was left a widower with ten children aged between two and twenty-one.

The following year, John’s eldest child, Jane Ann, left home, marrying a 21-year-old miner from the village, John Anderson, at the local parish church. Margaret, 19, became the woman of the home, caring for her father and younger siblings.

It was a hard life with very little reward for those on the bottom rung of the ladder, the antithesis of the luxurious lifestyle enjoyed by Queen Victoria and her children. In 1887, Victoria marked 50 years on the throne with a sumptuous banquet served on golden platters, a procession through London in a gilded carriage, a glittering ball and a thrilling firework display.

The following year, 18-year-old Isabella died of the same disease as her mother. There was still no treatment for tuberculosis and it cut a swathe through working-class homes. Once again, her father sat by the bedside of a dying loved one. He was grief-stricken at having lost his wife and a daughter within seven years of each other, and within five months he too was dead from the same disease, most probably caught at his daughter’s bedside. The date was 29 January 1889 and he was just 54 years old. Before a year had passed, his 17-year-old son James, who worked as a coal putter, would become the family’s fourth victim of tuberculosis within a decade.

Kate’s great-great-grandfather John was an orphan at the tender age of 14. He and his two unmarried sisters were forced into lodgings. But the family’s run of bad luck did not end there. At about 11.30 a.m. on 13 December 1895, John’s eldest brother, Anthony, was killed in a mining accident. The father of two, who was a hewer at Hetton Coal Company’s Eppleton Colliery, was hailed as a hero after trying to rescue two of his colleagues, deputy John Brown and putter Robert Lawns, but he paid with his life. He was commended in the 1895 Mines Inspection Report:

I should like here to say a word or two in appreciation of the courage and gallantry shown by the men who were amongst the rescuers. The three hewers, as well as the manager, under-manager, overman, and back-overman, all showed that they possessed the qualities which in the past made pitmen famous for heroism in the time of danger; such conduct as theirs should not go without commendation, and I am pleased to have the opportunity in this report, to show my appreciation of it, and I regret that one of them should have lost his life in the plucky attempt made to rescue Brown and Lawns.

Such a run of tragedy seems extraordinary by today’s standards and would be enough to destroy lesser men. But John Harrison had lived a tough life in which illness and death were by no means unusual.

At the age of 22, on 23 February 1897, John married domestic servant Jane Hill, 21, the daughter of a joiner at the colliery, at Houghton-le-Spring Register office. They moved into a miner’s cottage on Chapel Street in the suburb of Hetton Downs. Eleven months later, they celebrated the birth of their first child, Jane, named after her mother and grandmother. For the young couple, it marked a new beginning. Another generation of the Harrison family had been born and it was the end of the nineteenth century, the dawn of a new era. The next century would bring terrible wars and extraordinary advances that could never have been foreseen. The Harrisons could not possibly have realised, either, how much their personal fortunes would change and how close they would come to the gilded world of royalty.

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