The brave Sunderland widow who rowed out to sea to get fish for her business

The poverty-stricken Malings Rigg area of Sunderland. Picture: Sunderland Antiquarian Society
The poverty-stricken Malings Rigg area of Sunderland. Picture: Sunderland Antiquarian Society

A Sunderland researcher has told of her immense pride at uncovering a hugely inspirational figure in her family tree.

Beverley Taylor has shared the story of Rebecca Samuel – a woman who repeatedly turned her hand to business to keep supporting her family.

Rebecca Samuel. Picture: Ian Charlton

Rebecca Samuel. Picture: Ian Charlton

She did it even when it meant rowing out to sea to get the best fish directly from fishermen.

Beverley – a recent recruit to the Sunderland Antiquarian Society – shares the tale in her first contribution to Wearside Echoes.

The Year of the Woman is now being celebrated across the UK in recognition of the inspirational suffragettes who won the right for women to vote in 1918. Throughout history there have been many women, like Emmeline Pankhurst, who have stood out as being strong and independent.

But one woman, whose roots can be traced back to the very first Jews to make Sunderland their home, is virtually unknown, except for those who have come across her name whilst tracing their own ancestry.

Burleigh Street, Sunderland. Picture: Sunderland Antiquarian Society

Burleigh Street, Sunderland. Picture: Sunderland Antiquarian Society

Now, local historian Beverley Taylor, is shining a light on the woman she can proudly trace her own ancestry back to.

“Rebecca’s name stood out in my family tree the moment I discovered her,” Beverley told us. “I knew there was something special about her, and when newly-discovered relatives shared their stories of her I could see that my inkling was right.”

Rebecca, one of 12 children, was born in Burleigh Street, Sunderland, in November 1808, to Isaac, a silversmith, and Martha.

Isaac’s father Hart, Rebecca’s grandfather, and his brother Abraham, left Holland in around 1768 and settled in Sunderland where they set up a silversmith business on the corner of High Street and Burleigh Street. They are considered to be the first Jewish settlers in the whole of the north of England.

“As a child of the east end, Rebecca lived through the times of the Napoleonic wars,” Beverley said. “And by all accounts she is recorded as having said that one of her most vivid childhood memories was the bonfire on the Town Moor to celebrate victory at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Rebecca was just seven-years-old at that time.”

When Rebecca was 23 she married Henry Burnham, a potter possibly working at the Sunderland ‘Garrison’ Pottery.

“Records show that Rebecca renounced the Jewish faith in order to marry,” Beverley added.

“She married Henry at Holy Trinity Church on June 1, 1831, and this was followed by a second ceremony at Flag Lane Methodist Chapel two months later, likely to be as new members of the Methodist church.

“They went on to have five children and lived in Hope Street in the Malings Rigg area of town, which was known for its deprivation. Sadly Henry died of typhus fever in 1842, leaving Rebecca a widow at the age of just 34.”

With five small mouths to feed she had no choice but to find work.”

Rebecca is believed to have become a fishmonger, but not content with buying fish from the fish quay, she got a small boat and rowed offshore to the cobles on their way back to harbour and bought direct from the fishermen. She would then return and carry the fish in large baskets to the marketplace.

“It was a dangerous occupation – on one occasion she almost drowned when her boat overturned,” said Beverley.

Two years after Henry’s death, Rebecca married again, this time to blacksmith John Bennett. The couple had a son together but sadly Rebecca was widowed again and had to return to work once more. Still very independent and determined to fend for herself and her young family, she is recorded in the 1881 as a seller of old clothes from a property in Hinds Bridge.

“Rebecca was a survivor,” Beverley said. “She did all she could to raise her children, struggling on despite the devastating heartache that life threw at her.”

Rebecca lived to the ripe old age of 97, dying on February 2, 1906.

She is buried in Grangetown cemetery.

Beverley added: “I am very proud to be able to say that I am descended from such an incredible and inspirational woman.

“And I have a feeling those genes have been passed on through the other strong women in my family.”

Our thanks go to Beverley for such an inspirational story.