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  • Chrissy Hamlin

Lilian Tisdall: Draper's Apprentice and World War One Widow.

Updated: Oct 11, 2021

Lilian Tisdall was my Great Grandmother. She was born in the Victorian era, she lived into her late nineties, she survived two world wars, and she experienced many of the significant & historic changes in the way that women lived their lives, during the 20th Century. She lived an ordinary life in what were extra-ordinary times in history, and her experiences are a valuable part of everyday social history, as well as my own family history.

Lilian Maud Bunclark was born on 28th September 1883 at 145 Elderfield Road in Clapton, Hackney. Her father, Joseph Henry Bunclark, was the Manager of a Draper’s shop. Her 23 year old mother, Eliza Bunclark (nee Watts), had been working as a domestic servant in Norwich, back in her home county of Norfolk, before moving to East London and then marrying Joseph Bunclark on Christmas Eve, 1882. Lilian must have been conceived in the first few days of their newly married life, as she arrived exactly 9 months later!

Lillian’s mother, Eliza, had two more children whilst she was in her twenties; Charles Joseph Bunclark was born in 1886 and Reginald William was born two years later in 1888. The expanding family then moved from Clapton in East London, to Finchley, in North London, where in October 1890, Eliza gave birth to her fourth child, Grace Charlotte Bunclark.

Whilst Joseph worked in the Draper’s Shop as a Manager in order to provide financially for his growing family, Eliza would be at home, looking after the children and undertaking a whole range of domestic duties, including, cooking, cleaning, mending, sewing, and laundry.

Lilian’s parents were living above the Draper’s Shop where Joseph was the Manager, in Commercial House, Bulls Lane, Finchley in 1891, as the census for that year records. At that time, Joseph’s widowed mother, Charlotte Bunclark who was 70 years old, was also living with them in the last few months of her life. She had been a lace maker, and was originally from Woodbastwick, in Norfolk, the same County where her daughter-in-law, Eliza’s family came from. Both women had the same maiden name of Watts, so Lillian’s parents may well have been related, as distant cousins possibly, and they may have met and married through their shared family connections.

In 1891, 35 year old Joseph Bunclark was earning enough money to employ a “live out” domestic servant named Sarah Tuthill, to help his wife around the home. There was also a 14 year old apprentice, called Edith H. Woung from Colchester in Essex, who lived with the Bunclark family and worked in the Draper's shop.

Lillian’s mother Eliza, went on to have two more children whilst she was in her thirties; Cyril George Watts Bunclark was born in 1894 and Gladys Marguerite Bunclark was born in 1897. Eliza gave birth to a total of 6 children within the first 13 years of her marriage. Due to the lack of effective birth control methods that were available for women at that time, many Victorian wives found themselves pregnant for almost every other year of their marriage. Eliza may have also had miscarriages that we don't anything know about, because they were never recorded.

My Great Grandmother Lillian, like many working class girls at the turn of the century, left school at 14 equipped for life with just a very basic education. She would be expected by her family to work and support herself financially, until such times as she found herself a suitable husband and had her own family.

In 1901, 18 year old Lilian was working as a live-in Draper’s apprentice at 79 Blackfriar’s Road, Southwark. The shop was owned by George Mason and his wife Isabel, who cared for their nine year old granddaughter, Marguerite Young. Working alongside Lilian, in the shop, was 21 year old Nelly M. King. The Mason’s also employed 23 year old, Elizabeth Nicolls as a general domestic servant.

Lilian "lived in" and shared a small bedroom with the other girls she worked with. She'd have give some of her wages straight back to Mrs. Mason, to cover the cost of her accommodation and meals every week.

Shop work was seen as respectable employment for unmarried young women from the working classes and lower middle classes, at the turn of the century. Many young women preferred it to the alternative option of going into domestic service, which many saw as a "life of drudgery".

Lillian’s family had moved south of the river to Tooting Graveny, Wandsworth by 1901. Her father was no longer a manager of a Drapers Shop – he’d gone back, at the age of 43, to being a Drapers assistant again, so maybe finances were tight and it’s possible Lillian may have had to send money home from her own wage packet in order to help support her family. Lilian’s 14 year old brother Charles was working as an office boy and porter, but the Bunclark family also had Lillian’s 77 year old widowed maternal grandmother, Matilda Watts, living with them at this time - although she died later that year.

Lillian’s parent’s cared for both their widowed mothers at the end of their lives, and this is something that was a far more common 100 years ago, than it is today. Working Class families often took in and nursed their sick and aged relatives until they died, as the only alternative would have been for them to go into the workhouse, which was regarded as a terrible place, and one to be avoided at all costs.

I have no idea how, where or when my grandmother met him, but Lilian married Frederick Tisdall, in 1908 in Edmonton, North London when he was 24 years old

Fred's family were an interesting bunch of people. A distant American second cousin of mine wrote a book about them in the 1970's which I have a copy of. Many of the photographs of Frederick's family, from that treasured publication, are included here in this blog post.

Frederick Tisdall was a master clock maker and watch maker who had studied as an apprentice under a German man named Mr Hepting. Mr Hepting was descended from a long line of German Master Clock Makers, who had come to make England their new home in the 19th Century. For quite a few years, Mr Hepting’s father and his family, had lived and worked next door to Frederick’s parents, Sidney McBriar Tisdall and his wife, Emily, who ran a very successful Dyer’s and Furriers Business at 32 Goldhawk Road, Shepherd’s Bush. The German Hepting's and the English Tisdall's remained good friends and neighbours for many years, right up until WW1.

Sidney and Emily Tisdall often put business adverts in the local newspapers, and from these we can clearly see that Sidney prided himself on the whiteness of his net curtains, and Emily took an active role in running her side of the business, which was to personally fit customers with their new or altered furs. She also had a good head for figures and handled the accounts and book keeping.

Sidney Tisdall died of Pneumonia in 1900, at the age of 60 after catching a chill. Fred was only 15 years old at the time, and had just begun his clockmaking apprenticeship. His mother and his unmarried sister Kate, took over the general running of the family dyers and furriers business in the beginning of the 20th century, and continued to do so, through WW1, right up until the late 1920's, when finally Emily sold up due to ill health, and went to live with her daughter Madge and her son-in-law Billy Canning.

The Tisdall family was a typically large Victorian / Edwardian family, and Fred was the youngest son. His older sister Madge had been a music hall dancer and actress before getting married to her husband Billy Canning. His adventurous older brother Bill had been a merchant sailor who had travelled all over the world before jumping ship in San Francisco at the turn of the century, and making a brand new life for himself out in America.

Frederick also had a handsome older brother, who was a bartender called Percy, He died of TB at the age of 24, in a sanatorium in Christchurch, Hampshire.

TB or "Consumption" was one of the most common and deadly killers in the Victorian & Edwardian period. Before vaccines and antibiotics were available, TB was difficult to control and treat. As it affected so many famous writers, poets, composers and artists of the period, it became a popular misconception that having TB somehow heightened your sensitivity and artistic talent. As a result, some people started referring to consumption as a “romantic” disease & absurdly it became a "fashionable" way to die.

Fred's older brother Harry, who was also a bartender, ended up in the Southwark workhouse, with his wife and three children in 1907, possibly due to chronic alcoholism, or some other drink related illness that made him unable to work. Harry died in the workhouse, aged 32 in 1908.

Frederick’s elder sister Ella had become a widow at the tender age of 23 in 1889 - the very same year that she gave birth to her eldest Clarissa. Ella remarried in 1901 and had another daughter called Barbara, but then she became ill, possibly with breast cancer. Ella died aged 35, surrounded by flowers and the people she loved, in her home in Croydon in 1910.

Another older brother, of Fred's called Francis, died aged 17, when Fred was only 4 years old.

Only seven out of the twelve children that Sidney and Emily had, would go on to live beyond middle age. Many of them suffered from what we consider today as common health problems associated with lifestyle, such as asthma and diabetes. Today they can be treated and managed with modern medicine. However, at the turn of the century these illnesses could be potentially life threatening, and with antibiotics not being discovered until 1928, even a simple cold could turn into pneumonia and be a potential killer - as it was in Sidney's case.


(Click in individual images to enlarge)

Lilian and Fred Tisdall's eldest child, Constance Emily Tisdall ( my paternal grandmother) was born in April 1909. In 1911, Lilian gave birth to a second daughter, who was named Winifred, but who was always known throughout her entire life as “Betty”, which was her middle name.

The Tisdall Family were living in a red brick terraced house at 9 Woodside Avenue in the leafy suburbs of Kingston-Upon-Thames not far from the river. in 1911 Their Edwardian semi detached family home had a living room, dining room and kitchen downstairs and 3 bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs. Lilian had given up working in Drapery shops when she got married and Fred could easily support his family on the money he earned working as a clock and watch mender for a local Jewelers’ firm. It was rumored that he once serviced all the time pieces at nearby Hampton Court Palace.

Lilian’s parents had moved to Seymour Avenue in Tottenham, North London, by 1911. Her father, Joseph, who was in his mid-fifties, was still working as a Drapers Assistant in a shop. Out of his and Eliza’s remaining five children who were living at home, four were employed and bringing in a regular wage. Lilian’s 25 year old brother, Charles, was working as a clerk in a furniture shop, her 22 year old brother Reginald, was working as a messenger boy for a bank, 20 year old Grace was working as a draper’s shop assistant, and 19 year old Cyril was a clerk in a stockbrokers. Lilian’s youngest sister, Gladys, was aged 14 and she was just about to leave school. Nobody could have predicted in 1911, what huge impact the Great War would have upon Lilian and all her family when it began 3 years later in 1914.

On 2nd September 1914, Lilian’s 20 year old brother, Cyril, Enlisted in the Army for 3 years as a Private in Norfolk Regiment 8th Battalion. In his army records it describes him as 5ft 7 with a sallow complexion and brown eyes & hair. His religion was described as Baptist.

The 8th Battalion, The Norfolk Regiment was raised at Norwich in September 1914 as part of Kitchener's Second New Army. The Division initially concentrated in the Colchester area but moved to Salisbury Plain in May 1915. They proceeded to France, landing at Boulogne on the 25th of July 1915, the division concentrated near Flesselles.

The 8th Battalion was present on the first day of the Battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916. They got beyond their initial target and had by 5.00pm reached the German trenches known as "Montauban Alley". Over one hundred men and three officers had been killed. Cyril Bunclark was killed in action a few weeks later, aged 22, on 19 July 1916 and is remembered at The Thiepval Memorial in France.