We have ample evidence of the development of the workhouse itself, the buildings that became the original Farnborough Hospital at Locksbottom.  But what of the people who lived there, because they had nowhere else to go? 

This article was published in the December 2018 issue of the magazine of the Bromley Borough Local History Society, It is reproduced here by permission.

Bromley workhouse: the buildings, pictured here in the 1990s, were still in use as part of Farnborough Hospital until the site was redeveloped as Princess Royal University Hospital in 2003.

We often imagine that people went into the workhouse in the 19th century and stayed there for the rest of their lives. Although a few did, this was not the general pattern: most inmates went in for a short period – a few days, a few weeks — and then left again.

Amelia Dolding was one of these. She was a pauper, of that there is no doubt. However, some of the documented “facts” about her life are dubious, to say the least, and resolving a few of the mysteries surrounding Amelia Dolding is a task that occupied me for several years.

That she was a pauper is documented on the 1881 census when she was in the Bromley Union Workhouse at Farnborough. The fact that she was in and out of the workhouse on a regular basis is also not in doubt.

I first “met” Amelia Dolding, in a manner of speaking, on 25 October 1889 as I was indexing the Creed Registers of the Workhouse. These registers, introduced in 1868, obliged workhouse authorities to give the creed, or religious affiliation, of all the inmates. The creed registers existed to allow the local clergy of whatever denomination to know which of their flock was in the workhouse and enable them to offer pastoral care.

These registers in Bromley Central Library showed that between 1889 and 1894, Amelia entered and left the workhouse no fewer than 24 times. Amelia was thus part of a pattern, but the sheer number of entries and exits intrigued me. As a family historian, I wanted to know more.

And then came the first surprise. And its sheer unexpectedness led me on a trail that lasted for years. The 1881 census described her as a widow and a pauper, in the workhouse, and also gave her place of birth as Goa! What on earth was someone born in Goa, a Portuguese – not British – colony on the Indian sub-continent, doing in Bromley Workhouse?

Moving backwards from the known to the unknown (as all family historians should) I next looked at the 1871 census and the mystery deepened. At that time she was living with her husband Isaac (born in Farnborough, Kent) in London Road, Wrotham. His occupation is listed as Pensioner Quartermaster Sgt and boot maker. Amelia is 16 years his junior but here (according to information presumably given by Isaac) Amelia was born in “East India”, not Goa. So, too was her eldest child, Harriett, 12. Her second child, John aged eight, was born “at sea” and the other four children all born in Wrotham. So the story begins to emerge: Isaac had been a soldier in India, met and married Amelia there, had a child, retired and came back to England (sometime around 1862/3) where he became a boot maker.

However, this census casts doubt on her claim in 1881 that she was born in Goa. So, what’s the truth? Help was at hand. The family history site findmypast has records of the India Office online. These clearly show that she was born Amelia Bastian on 7 July 1839, the daughter of an apothecary, Andrew, and his wife Mary, and was baptised at Honore, Madras, on 28 August 1839. Without doubt, therefore, Amelia was born in British India in the Madras Presidency — not in Goa at all.

So where did the idea of being born in Goa come from? It is my view that most family legends, however wrong, have a kernel of truth somewhere. The Madras Presidency covered a large swathe of Southern India from the east to the west coast and Honore is close to the west coast and about 100 miles or so south of Goa. Amelia’s mother is referred to elsewhere in the India Office records not as Mary but Maria. Could it be that her mother was born in Portuguese Goa and that Amelia used this recollection, either by accident or deliberately, to say in 1881 (and in subsequent censuses) that she herself had been born there? No records have come to light to prove or disprove this theory, so for the moment it will have to remain a plausible speculation.

But back to Isaac and Amelia. Further records in India show that they married in 1855: he was 32 and Amelia was 16. He had been twice widowed. In the marriage record Amelia’s age is given as 14 but this is clearly a mistake – she was born in 1839 and was therefore 16. Amelia’s marriage at that age was not unusual for brides in India at that time.

Isaac (or John in some records) Dolding was discharged from the army in July 1862, aged 39. The records show that he had been in the army for almost 23 years. This means he enrolled at about the age of 16 and his service would have been mostly in the army of the East India Company, the private company which had in effect “ruled” India up to 1857 when the country was brought under official British government rule following the Indian Mutiny of 1857, an uprising in which he may have fought. With Amelia and his daughter Harriett he sailed home on the ship “Trafalgar”. A son, John, was born on the voyage home and given the name John Trafalgar (Dolding).

Although the couple eventually had seven children, the marriage was not always a peaceful one. In 1867 Amelia appeared in court charged with assaulting Isaac by throwing a fire shovel at him. He alleged she was impossible to live with while witnesses said he had ill-treated her. The case was dismissed but the judge recommended that the couple separate. This does not appear to have been a permanent separation, however, as three more children were born over the next 10 years!

Amelia’s fortunes took a rapid downturn after her husband died in 1878 and she was left with six children to look after (her eldest daughter having married). At this point she appears to have entered the workhouse for the first time, sometimes on her own, sometimes with one or more of her children.

The last years of her life were clearly not happy ones — in and out of the workhouse many times and recorded there in the censuses of 1881, 1891 and 1901. In 1911, however, she was living with a second married daughter at Edenbridge station, where her son-in-law was station master. Thereafter there are no further traces of her in the Bromley workhouse records. She may therefore have continued to live with her son-in-law and her daughter in Edenbridge but she did live until 1918, when she died on 21 November at 2 The Villas, St Paul’s Cray, of influenza, pneumonia and heart failure at the age of 79.

Some of her children died young but others lived to ripe old ages. Harriett, the eldest, lived to 92, dying in 1951. Luke, the youngest, died in 1957 aged 79. John Trafalgar (born at sea) emigrated to Canada in 1910.

From a simple entry in the Bromley Workhouse Creed Registers (and an insatiable curiosity) we now have the story of a woman, not as we had initially thought a native of Goa, but who may have been at least partly Asian of Anglo-Indian background, married at 16 as the third wife of a British soldier, travelling to England which she had almost certainly never seen, and spending much of her later life in poverty and in and out of the workhouse.

She could never have imagined that

Stuart Valentine

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