I’ve always found it frustrating that women can become subsumed, for the purposes of historical research, by their husband’s surname. It probably explains why I’ll never been known as Mrs Mansell despite my grandmother’s protestations! This has really been brought to the fore for me recently because for the last four months I’ve been on the hunt for the illusive ‘Mrs Edward Lewis’ who, with her husband, received a number of letters from soldiers who had been members of the Cardiff University Settlement Lads Club. What’s interesting to me is that most of these letters were aimed at ‘Mrs Lewis’. With my paper on this topic at Leeds Beckett fast approaching, I felt the need to discover who she was. She clearly played an integral role in these boys’ lives before they left for the Front. But I didn’t want her to be just ‘Mrs Lewis’, the wife of the settlement’s arithmetic tutor. I needed her name. She had to become real to me!
And then something interesting happened. I noticed that the settlement annual reports started to talk of an Amy Francis Hughes, who had arrived to work at the settlement in 1908. The settlement loved her. She had come at a moment when they crucially needed help. Overwhelmed by boys, they had found that the settlement descended into chaos without enough workers. Boys were cheeky, happy to run rings around you if they wanted to. Amy Hughes- together with another female settlement worker Bertha Lewis- arrived to bring order, and the ‘personal touch’. Was Amy ‘Mrs Lewis’? Was Cardiff’s Settlement Hall the location of a settlement love story?
I probably wouldn’t have thought of her had I not consulted the 1911 census, where I discovered that she lived with Bertha Lewis on Habershon Street in Splott. She was 22. Her occupation was listed as ‘settlement worker’. Edward was 10 years her senior at 32 and a solicitor. Frustratingly, the annual reports end in 1910-11.
It took a field trip to the National Archives with some of our third year students for my hunch to be confirmed. With no census for 1921, I wasn’t sure where to start. Google had been no help. There were quite a lot of men named ‘Edward Lewis’ in Cardiff. Oh the frustration of a popular name! I simply typed in ‘Amy Francis Hughes’ into Find My Past. Amazingly, the second search brought up her wedding notice from Cheltham Chronicle. She had married Edward in her village church. Afterwards, they moved to 2 University Place right next door to the settlement.
To the students who surrounded me I gave a shout of glee. I probably confirmed my rather eccentric nature. But I also incorporated them into the fun of research. For me, months of head scratching had ended. I was caught in the fun of research. I had turned social historian and discovered the one person I didn’t want to be nameless any more. ‘Mrs Lewis’ was no longer just ‘Mrs Lewis’ but ‘Amy Francis Lewis’ and that was, well amazing!