Working on the records of my great-grandfather’s siblings I discovered that at least two of his sisters could not write – on marriage documents they ‘made their mark’. These are marriages in the 1880s and 1890s, several decades after some level of compulsory education existed. Maria Crossland, born in 1861, married in 1887 to a labourer called Joshua Hartley – neither could sign their names. Her sister Sarah Crossland and Joah Micklethwaite (who would marry Sarah) were both witnesses and could sign with a good signature.
Earlier, in rural Norfolk Martha Gathercoole who married Robert Flatt, my grandfather’s great-grandfather, in 1851 was illiterate although he was not. Born in 1823 and living to be over a hundred, he was proud of the education that he acquired. But it seems less surprising that a woman, born illegitimately and into rural poverty was illiterate than women born decades later.