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Thursday, February 16, 2012

Remembering Jessie Tucker 1908-1927


The charity Barnardo’s served as the backdrop to my father Bob Tucker’s life.  His sisters were sent to Australia by Barnardo’s in 1924 and their mother and brother emigrated the following year. In 2006, I obtained my aunt Jessie’s records from Barnardo’s After Care Service in Barking, Essex.  I eventually received records for my aunt for the period 1922-1927, together with a phone call asking whether my 92 year old father was aware of his sister’s tragic death.  Using this material, public records of the incident and genealogical records, I have been able to reconstruct much of Jessie Agnes Tucker’s life.

The records included:
  • Admission record and history of Jessie Agnes Tucker, born 18th July, 1908
  • Record Book entry, Book 5, page 244.
  • Correspondence between Barnardo’s and Jessie’s mother Mrs E.A.Tucker regarding permission to emigrate to Australia, dated 21st, 28th and 29th November 1923;  later asking whether mother would be prepared to migrate (September 26th 1924)
  • Certificate of character (intelligence, cleanliness of body and mind very good; quick temper, special likes and dislikes – netball, animals, flowers) - and recommendation for occupation – kitchen hand.
  • Correspondence with an aunt who wished them to stay for two weeks over Christmas (refused for health reasons, but given a visitors’ pass for 4 people)
  • Correspondence to Barnardos UK from Jessie & her sister Cecily
  • Regular visitor’s reports by Barnardo’s Sydney office outlining Jessie’s domestic work and relationship with her two employers
  • A report by Barnardo Sydney’s welfare officer on the circumstances surrounding Jessie Tucker’s tragic death in her place of employment, the investigation and funeral; together with correspondence between the Sydney and UK offices of Dr Barnardo’s Homes.
Dr Barnardo’s Homes, a well-known English charity set up a branch in Sydney in 1921, specifically to support the immigration of the sons of British Servicemen who had died in World War 1 and place them in farm work.  The first batch of Barnardos Boys arrived in September 1921, and the first girls in 1923.  Girls were placed in domestic service.

Charitable organisations such as Barnardo’s had been sending children to Canada and Australia since the 1860s[1].  “Orphan” children included those whose remaining parent could not provide for them. Under the White Australia policy, English children helped populate the nation, whilst England was considered crowded with dependent children.

Jessie Agnes Tucker was the oldest child of Sydney George Tucker (1882-1919) and his wife Edith Annie Reed (1884-1973).  Both came from well-established upwardly mobile families of small tradesmen in Southampton.  Their life was comfortable prior to World War 1.  Siblings Cecily Mary and Robert Sydney George Tucker were born in 1910 and 1914. 

Their father Sydney worked for his father for low wages and free housing. However, three events changed their fortunes: Jessie’s maternal grandfather died suddenly in 1915, and the bank foreclosed on his three bakeries.  His wife and three daughters spent the next 10 years trading out of debt with their remaining tearooms.  Secondly, Jessie’s paternal grandfather, a widower, married a 22 year old woman who forced him to change his will. Finally, her father was severely injured and shell-shocked in France and took his own life in hospital in 1919[2].  Probate was just £294/11/6[3].

For a long while, his widow, Edith Annie was ineligible for a war widow’s pension, and the civilian pension was based on his small wage, not his in-kind wages.  Edith sought assistance from the parish of All Saint’s, Southampton and was advised by the vicar, Rev. James Kyrke Watkins to send her girls to St Pauls Church Home at 63 Sydney Street[4], Chelsea in London on the grounds of destitution.
It is unclear when Jessie and her sister Cecily were admitted to the Chelsea Home.  However, it must have been prior to October 1921, when Rev Watkins was replaced.[5]  St Paul’s closed in 1922, with the girls transferred to Barnardo’s Homes in Barkingside, where Jessie, aged 15, was approved for emigration, subject to her mother’s approval.  She would not go without Cecily. 

On 4th January 1924, they boarded the SS Euripides bound for Australia, where they settled happily into service together outside Sydney.  They missed their mother and brother however, persuading them to migrate the following year.  Barnardos enabled that by admitting my father as an “outsider” the day before he sailed, and asking Edith to chaperone a group of Barnardo’s boys.
In January 1926, Jessie was employed by a Mrs Bone at Abbotsford, Sydney.  Cecily was working elsewhere.  Jessie was considered a reliable and good worker, although by July 1927 she was reported as insolent by her mistress[6].

On 14th November 1927 she was found in the master’s bedroom with either one[7] or two[8] bullet holes in the head.  An unaddressed vague note was found in her bedroom. Her belongings were immediately given to her mother. There was no autopsy.  Edith explained that her father had committed suicide, so despite Barnardo’s bewilderment, the death was put down to suicide, wholly at her own hand.  She had saved £76 from her wages of 15/- to £1 per week.

We shall never know whether Jessie was murdered or committed suicide.  Was she pregnant to the master of the house?  That might explain the insolence.  She was reported as coming back from a short holiday depressed and unhappy just two weeks before.

I am grateful to Barnardo’s Homes for providing me with Jessie’s records.  Undoubtedly this was as a result of a policy change after the social worker Margaret Humphrey’s highlighted the shameful history of the migration schemes in her book /film Oranges and Sunshine[9].

NOTE:  This story about Jessie Tucker was written this week as an assignment for a Pharos course called The Poor, the Parish and the Workhouse.  Pharos Teaching and Tutoring is at http://www.pharostutors.com/ 


[2] Death certificate, Sydney George Tucker, Southampton Military Hospital, 3rd April 1919.
[3] England and Wales, National Probate Calendar  (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1861-1941 Record for Sydney George Tucker
[4] London Metropolitan Archives, St Paul’s Church Home: Receipt for proceeds for sale of 63 Sydney Street, Chelsea in accordance with the agreement between Dr. Barnado’s Homes and the Trustees of the above Church Home P84/PAU/41 23 June 1923
[5] Hampshire Records Office: Archdeaconry of Winchester: induction mandates: 35M48/6/2854
[6] Ms Wedlock’s supervisor’s report (Barnardo Homes,  Australian Branch), July 1927
[7] New South Wales, Australia, Registers of Coroners' Inquests, 1796-1942, Record for Jessie Agnes Tucker, dated 21st November 1927
[8] Daily Telegraph, Sydney , 22nd November 1927

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