Sarah Piper, Hawker of Photographs at Carisbrooke Castle.

Sarah Piper (Nee Parsons).
1840 – 1895

Sarah Piper
Sarah offers her photographs at the gate of Carisbrooke Castle.

When Sarah Parsons was born, like many daughters of the soil her future would not have looked bright. Her father, James Parsons was a Somerset farm labourer and her mother’s name may have been Ann but any other details have long been swallowed up in the old Parish records. The year of her birth was 1839/40 and like her parents, Sarah never learned to read or write.

As a child, the family may have regularly moved around the county for men like James were often hired by the year and then forced to move on. By 1860 however, Sarah had left Somerset altogether and on October 3rd in Winchester, she gave birth to a daughter whom she called Kate. It was Sarah who registered the birth and she was unmarried.

The father of Kate was William Rowlands an umbrella maker. He had already been married and whether at this time his first wife was still alive isn’t clear but he stood by Sarah. Another daughter, Anne, was baptised in the City of Wells seemingly born in 1862, although whichever child came first is uncertain for in future documents the children’s ages fluctuated, as did Sarah’s own.

Sarah and William moved to the Isle of Wight and on October 3, 1863, they married at the Roman Catholic Church of St Mary at Ryde. Sarah was listed as a 31-year-old spinster, although she was nearer to twenty-four. William was by then a 36-year-old widower. Like his wife, he was illiterate. The following year, a female child was born to them but did not survive.

Being unable to read or write and no doubt, having a strong rural accent, Sarah’s surname was then variously recorded as Rawlins, Rawlings, Rollands, Rollings and Rowlands. No doubt the spellings were transcribed through the ears of various clerks. When it came to arithmetic her calculations were also, at best, unreliable.

One wonders what they did for money. Umbrella making was both a factory and a cottage industry, each process often undertaken by different workers, male and female. If he worked alone, William would have to rely on buying material for the frames, mostly wooden at that time, plus spokes often made from whalebone and silk for the covers.

By 1865 the pair were living in Orchard St at Newport, an area of pokey cottages and hovels, their property backing onto the overcrowded Church Litten Cemetery. Not far away at Scarrots Lane, six slaughterhouses operated along with a fish store. On June 3, 1865, Sarah gave birth to another child a son named William for his father. He was baptised a year later at Newport’s Catholic Church.

For Sarah, things were about to change. Perhaps faced with a wife and three children, William decided he had had enough. Whatever passed between them, at around this time he disappeared from Sarah’s life and by 1870 she had moved to 17, Upper Field Place in Newport. In the census of the following year, she appears as the head of this household, although still listed as a married woman. Living with her was her daughter Annie aged 9 and a new baby son born on August 14, called Thomas William, now six months old. Although he was registered as Rawlings, his father did not appear on the birth certificate. A fourth person had also moved in, a 39-year-old boarder named William Piper. No doubt necessity had driven her to take in boarders but subsequent events show that this William was much more, for he was almost certainly the father of baby Thomas. (Neither Kate (now 11) nor young William (aged 6) appears to have lived with Sarah at this time).

William Piper was a local man, the youngest son of George Piper who had been in service with the East India Company. Somewhere along the line, George had met Island girl Ann Midlane and in 1813, married her at Carisbrooke. For George it was a second marriage, his older children having been born at Chatham. Only William, his youngest, was born on the Island in 1832.

George and Ann died in 1843 and 1846 respectively and the 1851 Census found William and his older brother James living with their sister Charlotte Adams at Royal Exchange in Newport. This new part of Barton Village was a Victorian development to house the growing population that served Newport Harbour and its industries. William found employment as a cooper making barrels while James was a general labourer. Ten years later the brothers were still living together, now in Bedford Row, Newport and working in the same occupations.

Nasty shock

n 1846, the year that his mother died, 13-year-old, William had had a brush with the law. When hanging around Carisbrooke Castle – a pastime that would later fill much of his adult life, he was accused of attacking old Mary Collins. The Hampshire Advertiser of July 4 reported how there had been a complaint that he and a friend had assaulted the said lady, an old woman in the habit of begging at the Castle. The Chairman, however, felt it was his duty to report that ”if that which had been reported to him was true, her conduct in the vicinity of the Castle was most disgraceful. There was a person in court who could swear that she had exposed her person before the boys, for money.” William was let off with a caution.

William’s name again appeared in the press, this time on February 6, 1858, in the Isle of Wight Mercury. Under the heading: Temper and Repentance, he was charged with assaulting Eliza Watts with whom he lived. It appeared that he rented the house from Eliza, the pair had been out and when they returned home William had wanted to take his chairs away. Eliza objected and in consequence of her shouting: “You shall not take the chairs!” A policeman arrived to find them wrestling and Eliza with a bloody nose. Despite the fact that she swore she had a nosebleed and that William did not hit her, he was taken away. The case was later dismissed.

On Sept 15, 1869, his brother James, now working as a gardener, married at Newport Register Office. His bride was Sarah Kimber the daughter of a local labourer. They set up home at Miller’s Lane in Carisbrooke. When James married, William had to find somewhere else to live, which is how he appears as a lodger in Sarah Rawlings’ house.

 

At around this time, a new occupation began to appear in the Rowlands/Rawlings/Piper family. In 1871, Sarah Rawlings was listed as a “Licensed Hawker.” This implies that she had local council permission to sell items door to door. Most hawkers operated illegally and it was often the occupation of the desperate, trying to glean a few pence wherever they might. The fact that Sarah could afford the licence suggests that she was able to earn some sort of a living. At the same time, William, her boarder is listed as a “Hawker of Photographs” and they appear to have some joint enterprise.

By the 1870s photographs were becoming more widely available to the general public. Photographic studios sprang up and for sixpence or a shilling one might have one’s image captured in either of two sizes, as a “cabinet photo,” slightly larger than a postcard, or as a smaller “carte de visite.” Thanks to the ability to reproduce copies of an image, one could buy in bulk which is no doubt what Sarah and later, James and Sarah Piper also did. Before long, Sarah Rawlings was making regular visits to Carisbrooke Castle where, in all weathers she sat at the gate, offering souvenir pictures to the visitors.

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A decade of peace and harmony seems to have followed, William reverting to his old craft of coopering and Sarah becoming well known as the woman who sat at the castle gates. About 1875, a new boy, Henry, appeared as part of the household, presumably, a full brother to Thomas.

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In 1885, a long-awaited state of affairs was finally achieved. William Rawlings/Rowlands was dead and on August 13, William Piper a bachelor married Sarah Rawlings a widow at Newport Register Office. She was 45 and he was 53. Gone were the uncertainties. They were now a respectable married couple and for Sarah, it must have represented both security and proof of William’s commitment.

Unhappily, nothing lasts forever. On Dec 29 1894, William died at their home in Field place. Sarah was deeply distressed. In the following months, she shared her home with her daughter Anne who reported that her mother displayed frequent periods of depression.

Drowning

On December 29 1894, exactly one year after William’s death, Sarah got up early and went out, as was her habit, to fetch water from the pond. A few hours later a neighbour came and told Anne that her mother had been found drowned at Westminster Pond. Her shoes were neatly lined up on the bank and she had floated for about 100 yards before being discovered. The water was about 3 – 4 feet deep and there was no sign of foul play. Anne stated that her mother had been very strange in her mind for the past month and saying that she would put an end to herself. It would seem that Anne had not understood the devastating impact of her stepfather’s death or could not imagine why Sarah should think of suicide. There being no suspicious circumstances, a verdict recorded that at the time her drowning her mind had been overbalanced.

With Sarah’s death, the link with photographs was not over. By the time William’s son Thomas “Tommy” was 20, he was advertising himself as a photographer and appears to have had a shop in Carisbrooke High St, opposite the Eight Bells Pub that included a dark room. His wife Alice managed the shop, also selling other souvenirs. Tom seems to have traded in photographs from between 1906 and 1937 and plenty of copies from his array of local, Carisbrooke views remain. In the meantime, other mainland photographic companies came along and eventually eclipsed his trade with their new improved technology.

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