Rachel Castles (1834-1914)

Ruth Mathewson, UK

Why Rachel?

In the course of researching your family history you may come across someone whose life is revealed to you in stages and whom you keep returning to, wishing you could just find out that little bit more. You find yourself wishing that you could step into the proverbial Tardis and go back in time to meet them and hear their story first hand with all those gaps filled in. You find yourself thinking how extraordinary their life seems to have played out and how they dealt with some of the tragedies that came their way. Most of all you think of how you might be very directly connected that person and how proud you are of that connection. Step forward my great great grandmother Rachel Castles whom fate took from Co. Wicklow to Victorian India and thence to the Midlands of England.

Irish Beginnings

Rachel Castles was baptised in the Roman Catholic Parish of Kilbride in Co. Wicklow, Ireland on the 18th March 1834, one of 9 siblings born to the magnificently and I think somewhat “piratically” named Morgan Castles and his wife, Rachel Hughes. By the time of her death, this year of birth would have been stretched through most of the intervening years, right up to 1841, as she reserved a women’s prerogative to shave years off her age as she grew older. Or perhaps she was conscious of the fact that her first husband, Thomas Kayes, of Ashford, Co. Wicklow, was probably at least 7 years younger than her and there may have been times when it was prudent for her to be thought of as a little younger?

I have learned nothing of Rachel’s early life in Co. Wicklow when she was growing up through the famine years. Thomas had signed up to the local militia, the Wicklow Rifles, by 1858, so perhaps this brought him into Wicklow town where he met Rachel? I would dearly love to know what precipitated the beginning of the next chapter of their lives together – perhaps their families did not approve of their union as Thomas and Rachel did not marry in Co. Wicklow. Instead I found them marrying in the John St. RC chapel in the parish of St. Nicholas Without in Dublin on 12th August 1859, barely 4 days after Thomas had enlisted with the East India Company armies as a private in the Bengal Cavalry Corps. Were they eloping and running away?!

Newly wed Rachel and Thomas left Ireland, for what turned out to be the last time for both of them I think, and travelled to Warley Barracks near Brentwood in Essex to join the other new recruits in his regiment, ready to embark for India.

Indian Adventures

Rachel and Thomas left Warley Barracks on the 27th October 1859 and sailed on the “Dartmouth” for India. Thomas was probably quite unusual for having brought a new wife along as the majority of the men were single. As she was “on the strength” of the regiment, she would probably have had to contribute her labour as perhaps a cook, nurse or laundry woman. I wonder what that must have been like for Rachel on-board ship with probably very little privacy for the months of voyage to India?

4 months after leaving England, Rachel and Thomas arrived in India and travelled north to the Bengal Residency. It was here in Barrochpore, north of what is now called Kolkata, that Rachel gave birth to her first child sometime between 1860 and 1861, a daughter named Rose Mary Kayes – Rose I believe being Thomas’s mother’s name. Rose Mary was joined by a brother called Thomas Kayes, my great grandfather, sometime between 1861 and 1862 when the regiment had moved to Cawnpore. However, because I have been unable to locate either sibling’s baptism, I cannot say whether baby Thomas actually knew his father’s touch as, given later evidence, tragically Rachel’s husband had died by March 1862. I have not found any record of his death to learn whether he died in action but according to his eldest daughter, my great aunt Eva, family lore has it that he probably succumbed to one of the many diseases that were rife in camp at the time.

Newly widowed Rachel, possibly still pregnant with Thomas would have been given very little time to grieve. In fact, her choices were limited – she either returned home or she married again to another soldier to remain in India. Potential wives were in such short supply that there is a famous joke of one widow hastily accepting a marriage proposal from within the ranks at the graveside only to be proposed to at the gate by an officer and regretting her first choice! Rachel did indeed accept a proposal from another Thomas – Leicester man Thomas Waterfield, a Rough Riding Serjeant Major in the same regiment, now renamed the 19th Hussars and part of the British Army. They married in the Lucknow Cantonments in March 1862 with Rachel claiming to be a (more) youthful 22!

Rachel Waterfield now followed her new husband around the military towns of the Bengal Residency in Northern India for at least the next 6 years. Rose Mary and Thomas were joined by several half-siblings, namely Elizabeth Rebecca Waterfield born almost exactly a year after her parents’ marriage in Lucknow in 1863. 2 further little girls also came along in successive years when the regiment was stationed in Meerut – Priscilla Waterfield in 1864 and Rachel Waterfield, the latter named for both her mother and maternal grandmother in 1865. Sadly little Rachel survived barely a year and died in Meerut in 1866. Can you imagine how Rachel must have felt burying her daughter whilst 6 months pregnant with her son Robert John Waterfield who came along in Meerut in 1867? However, exactly the same tragedy was to play out a year and a half later with this little boy – Robert John died in Cawnpore in August 1868, mourned by Rachel, heavily pregnant again with another daughter whom she was determined would carry on her name – a second named Rachel Waterfield being born in Cawnpore in November 1868.

Returning Home

Sometime between 1868 and 1871, Rachel and Thomas Waterfield, their surviving children plus Rose Mary and Thomas Kayes make their way back to England as they appeared on the 1871 census at Canterbury Barracks in Kent where Thomas’s regiment must have been stationed. Rachel had also had another child, another boy named Robert Waterfield who had been born in the city the previous year.

Thomas Waterfield was perhaps not exactly a model soldier as his army records reveal he was court martialled later in 1871 for what appears to be an unauthorised absence and the next year he was discharged from the army as unfit for further service. This change in circumstances undoubtedly prompted the family to return to his Leicester roots as the extended family can be found in the city in the 1881 census. By this time, Rachel had added 2 further sons to her large brood – Edward Waterfield born in 1873 and William Joseph Waterfield three years later in 1876. However, with no sign of the second named son Robert Waterfield who would have been aged 11, a hunt though the death registers found his short life ended sadly aged only 5 in 1875, registered in Blaby just to the south of the city.

Husband Thomas Waterfield was not with the family in 1881 but appeared to have had to travel north for work in the leather trade as he was lodging in Leeds. Thomas Kayes, Rachel’s eldest son was also working in the leather trade as a ‘boot top clicker’ – a very particular job that involved cutting the leather templates to form boot tops.

Thomas Kayes was very briefly married in 1886, where step-father Thomas Waterfield was one of the witnesses, before his young bride Sarah Ann Simpson died barely a year later. Family lore has it that Thomas Kayes was then “sent to the aunts in Ireland” – presumably sisters of either his father Thomas or Rachel – and by 1893 he had married Armagh born Margaret Corr in Dublin and would go on to have 6 children with her. Many years later, I would receive from my mother 2 small oddly inscribed brass vases which she told me had been her “Granny’s candlesticks” and indeed they did bear traces of wax. A relative of mine who saw them and knew something about antiques thought they might be Indian in origin and a quick peruse of the internet later did indeed reveal very similar vases that were described as Indian in origin and would actually have originally been painted. Did Rachel give these as a wedding gift to new daughter in law Margaret I wonder or were they something that Thomas took with him to Ireland because he liked them. I expect I’ll never know for sure but I would like to bet Rachel brought them back with her from India and so I will treasure them.

Leicester Ending

By the time of the 1891 census, Rachel had been widowed, although it has proven difficult to find a record of husband Thomas’s death – perhaps he was still working away from home and it was not registered properly? Rose Kayes and youngest sons Edward and William were the only children living with her by this time. Daughters Elizabeth and Rachel had both married, the former to John Henry White in 1888 and the latter to John Henry Edwin Crowhurst in February 1891. Daughter Priscilla must have been elsewhere, possibly in service and incorrectly recorded? Perhaps she too spent some time in Ireland?

The following year, Rachel walked another son to the grave when 18 year old Edward died having also been employed in the leather boot industry. She had now buried 4 of her 10 children.

By the time of the 1901 census, Rachel was living with her daughter Elizabeth White who was now also a widow herself, in Coventry Street in Leicester. Her eldest daughter, Rose Mary Kayes, had also remained in Leicester and had made a late marriage to Arthur Payne, quickly producing 4 more grandchildren for Rachel. Son Thomas Kayes had moved to Glasgow and was expanding his family. Youngest son William was living with his sister, Rachel and brother in law John Crowhurst, who had become a policeman in Aston in Birmingham. Perhaps maintaining a family home of Leicester had proved to be too expensive for Rachel? Daughter Priscilla was again missing in the censuses.

In 1906, she must have learned of the premature death of her eldest son, Thomas Kayes, in Scotland from tuberculosis. He was only 42 and left Margaret widowed with 6 children. Did Rachel never see him again once he left her to go to his Irish aunts and thence to Scotland for work and his early death?

Ten years later, Rachel was back in her own home in Leicester, this time in Upper Brown St., with youngest son William living with her, despite him having married in 1905 to Sarah Sole – was he visiting on census night or separated from his wife? Poignantly, this being the only census in England and Wales where we can see our ancestors’ actual handwriting, Rachel signed the household form with her mark. This suggests that she could not write and perhaps could not read either, which would perhaps explain some the discrepancies that have cropped up in the fragments of documentation that do survive for her? It also begs the question whether she were every able to write to my great grandfather Thomas in Glasgow or even read letters from him? Did she ever meet Thomas and Margaret’s children including my grandfather Francis?

Barely 3 years later, Rachel died allegedly aged 73 from influenza, her daughter Elizabeth by her bedside. Her place of burial has eluded me so far but I hope to find it one day.

Rachel’s Life and Legacy

Rachel was undoubtedly born into a relatively poor Irish Roman Catholic family and embarked upon an early life of what might initially have appeared to be a romantic adventure that I believe involved eloping to Dublin and being swept up into the life of an army wife. However, she was probably quickly disabused of that notion when she was quickly shipped halfway around the world to the unforgiving climate and sparse medical facilities of Victorian Empire India. There, she had to deal with not only losing her young husband but also having to marry again quickly and lose 2 children too. But equally, she must have had her eyes opened to so many new sights, sounds and smells that were so far removed from her Irish roots. Did she come to like spicy food I wonder?! Did she collect more things from India that might remain in other branches of the family?

Returning home meant Leicester not Ireland, where she eventually lost 2 more sons and finally learned of the death of a 3rd before she herself passed away. She had been born into the Victorian age but died an Edwardian. 2 further children barely survived her, Priscilla finally reappearing as the wife of Frederick Webb but dying barely 2 years after her 1913 marriage and youngest son William following her to the grave in 1916 aged only 40 – none of her sons made old bones.

But she did leave many descendants. Her daughters Rose Mary, Elizabeth and Rachel and son Thomas gave her 19 grand-children, all born before she passed away. At least 9 great-grand children feature on her family tree and descendants thereof. Have any of them been to India I wonder? Not me, I’m afraid. But I will make it to Leicester and try to hunt down where her bones now lie and spend some time reflecting on her life. Maybe one of her other descendants will see this story and be able to furnish me with the greatest genealogical treasure I could wish for – a photograph of Rachel Castles.


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