(Re)Discovering Women’s History: ‘Cockle Sarah’ Laycock

As this month (March) is Women’s History Month, Assistant Curator of Collections Dr Lauren Padgett wanted to share some research she undertook of a Bradford woman, Sarah Laycock, known as ‘Cockle Sarah’, documenting the research process that discovered, or rediscovered as the case is, aspects of Sarah’s life.  

‘Cockle Sarah’ is a well-known Victorian Bradford street character. John Sowden, a Bradford artist, painted ‘Cockle Sarah’ in 1889 as part of a series of portraits of Bradfordians – the portraits are now in the Bradford Museums and Galleries’ collection. Bradford Museums’ also has Sowden’s notebooks containing biographies of some individuals he painted. People that Sowden painted tend to be categorised as either a ‘Bradford worthy’ or ‘street character’. ‘Cockle Sarah’ was the latter. The notebooks only have biographical details of the ‘worthies’; he wrote brief notes about his interactions with the ‘street characters’ in his diaries, held by West Yorkshire Archive Service.

Portrait of Cockle Sarah by John Sowden. In Bradford Museums and Galleries’ collection.

I wanted to (re)discover Sarah for myself. What I thought I knew, as it had been previously published about her, is that she was born in 1834 and married her first husband, John Laycock, in 1873 when she was 39 years old and that he died shortly after their marriage and she took over his business of being a cockle hawker. Some sources say she then had a short-lived ill-fated marriage to another gentleman, but it ended in a bigamy scandal. At least one source has attributed the bigamy to her marriage to John Laycock. She then married William Garth in 1893, and she died in 1909 after a tragic accident. In Bradford Museums’ collection is a photographic postcard of Sarah with a gentleman, identified as her first husband. But my research would rewrite this history.

The primary sources I set out to use were census records and newspaper articles. Bradford Libraries give library users access to nineteenth-century and twentieth-century newspapers databases and genealogy websites which are great tools for historical research.1 I decided to start my research with her marriage to William Garth in 1893 as I had a full name and marriage year to help narrow down a search. I searched a genealogy database for a Sarah Laycock marrying in Bradford in 1893. I found a marriage record for a Sarah Laycock and William Gath, not Garth as previously published, on 5th June 1893.2 Often on these records there are name variations. Names verbally given were spelt how the recorder thought they were spelt. If people were illiterate, they might not know how their name is conventionally spelt or not be able to correct misspellings on records. People gave preferred names, like nicknames or diminutives of their names, rather than ‘legal’ names, so records for the same person can be inconsistent. The same for ages as people would knock a few years off or on their age so ages given for marriage or census records might be several years off when compared to birth registrations or baptism records. This record confirming the marriage of Sarah and William Gath gave some other interesting information. William Gath is noted to be a 52-year-old widower and brickyard labourer. Sarah is noted to be a 59-year-old widow and cockle vendor (a clue that I had the right record for her), both were living at Carpenter Street. They had both signed it with a X as their mark, suggesting that they were illiterate.

I found the 1901 census record where Sarah and William Gath are living at 26 Carpenter Street, Bowling.3 William is recorded as a 60-year-old coal hawker. Sarah is 66 years old with no occupation listed. As Sarah passed away in 1909, she wouldn’t appear in the next census of 1911, so I turned to newspapers to fill in her final years and searched for ‘Cockle Sarah’. An article appeared in the Daily Bradford Telegraph on 17 May 1909 with the headline ‘Death of “Cockle Sarah” Well-known Bradford Character Falls Down Cellar Steps’.4 It explained how Sarah Gatt (another variation of Garth / Gath), aged 74, the widow of William Gatt, outdoor labourer, aged 47, was the subject of a coroner’s inquiry. I noted how they had shaved a quite few years off William as he was noted to be 60 years old in 1891. Sarah had been staying at a house on Birkshall Lane when she fell down the cellar steps, breaking her neck and later dying that day. The verdict was ‘accidental death’.

My search had brought up another article in the Leeds Times on 10th June 1893 describing ‘An Amusing Marriage Scene’ of when ‘Jane Laycock, known as “Cockle Sarah”’ married William Gath.5 Intriguingly it says “Cockle Sarah first appeared at the altar of Holy Trinity twenty years ago with John Laycock, who did not live very long. About five years since she went through the marriage ceremony with a man named Foster, with whom she lived until recently, when she discovered that the union was not legal, as he had a wife living’. It describes how 2,000 people turned out for the wedding causing a disruption. This article had lots of things to follow up. It refers to her as Jane for some reason – I haven’t found other records with this as her name, such as her middle name (which would be recorded elsewhere as Ann), or double barrelled first name (for example Sarah-Jane). It also revealed more about her marital history. She was first married to a John Laycock (20 years before William Gath), and then to a bigamous gentleman with the surname of Foster in the late 1880s (5 years before Gath), and then William Gath in 1893.

I then tried to find the bigamous second husband, Foster, but I was unable to find a marriage record for a Sarah Laycock and a man named Foster, and the 1891 census record shows a widowed Sarah Laycock, hawker, aged 56, living on own her in Bradford Moor.6 I turned her first husband instead – this newspaper article and other sources suggested he was called John Laycock and they married in 1873. I did not find a marriage record with a man of this name for this date, but I did find a marriage record for a Sarah Ann Hartley, aged 22, and Joshua Laycock, aged 25, on 19th August 1860 at St Peter’s Church (Bradford Cathedral).7 Both signed it with a X. John is not a usual diminutive of Joshua and his occupation is listed as a ‘carter’. I needed to check that this was right record for Sarah’s first marriage given the discrepancies. I noted that Sarah’s father is named Henry Hartley. I went back to the 1893 marriage record for her and William Gath in 1893 and Sarah’s father is named as Henry Hartley there. The more I thought about it, carter was a catch-all description for any hawker or vendor who sold goods from a horse and cart so it fitted with the cockle hawker occupation that was attributed to Laycock. I was more confident now that I was looking at the correct record despite the date (1860, not 1873) and name (Joshua, not John) discrepancies to other sources.

I wanted to get an idea of how long Sarah and Joshua were married for, as sources had said he died shortly after. A search for a Sarah and Joshua Laycock brought up the 1871 census record.8 They are listed as Joshua Laycock, a 34-year-old hawker, and Sarah Laycock, 31 years old, and although it doesn’t say the word ‘hawker’ explicitly for Sarah, it has the symbol ~ which was used to indicate that it’s the same as written above where it states hawker for Joshua. And then something in the final column, about health, catches my eye. This is where it states if the individual is ‘deaf and dumb’, ‘blind’, an ‘imbecile or idiot’, or a ‘lunatic’. It says ‘imbecile’ for Joshua, and then ‘do’ underneath for Sarah. ‘Do’ was an abbreviation for ditto, as above. This took me back a bit. As the Xs for signatures on the marriage record suggests they were illiterate, an enumerator probably filled in their census record on their behalf. Why would the enumerator identify or categorise both of them as an ‘imbecile’? Had they responded in the affirmative when asked if they fitted into any of the health categories? What was the definition of ‘imbecile’ and what reasons might someone be identified as such? Historic England’s Disability Glossary says that in the 19th century ‘imbecile was used to denote the medium rank of intelligence and functional ability amongst people with learning disabilities . . . could also be used to describe a person with mental illness’. 9 Edward Higgs in Making Sense of the Census Revisited explained how the health information collected from 1871 was subjectively interpreted and responded to therefore the subsequent data is inconsistent and unreliable.10 (Thank you Dr Vicky Holmes for providing copies of the relevant sections of the book). I wanted to find out more about why Sarah was identified as an ‘imbecile’.

I tracked her down on the 1861 census record.11 This is a year after her marriage to Joshua Laycock; she is at her family home on Friederick Street with her widowed mother Mary and siblings, and recorded as Sarah Hartley. It provides a piece of this puzzle as under occupation it says ‘At home (subject to fits)’. Could she have suffered from epilepsy or another condition that induced fits or convulsions? Rather than physical fits, could fits be describing a psychological condition?

Now Sarah had been placed in the family home, I want to trace her back through her early years. In 1851, she is in the family home aged 16 and under occupation it says ‘Pauper. Imbecile’.12 As now three census records had referred to her as this, it indicates that the condition she had which induced fits was something chronic from her early years. The 1841 census record shows the family at George Street and a 7-year-old Sarah living there.13

The genealogy database had also brought up a baptism record for a Sarah Ann Hartley. She was baptised as an adult, aged 21, on 21 October 1857.14 It gives her date of birth as 20 May 1836, which is two years later than 1834 which is often referred to as her birth year. It is her record as again Henry Hartley is listed as the father, and Mary as her mother. High infant mortality rates of the nineteenth century meant that most parents would baptise their children as infants in case anything happened to them. Sarah may have been baptised later in life in preparation of being married as some vicars insisted people were brought into the church (baptised if not already) before being allowed to marry. Had she started courting a gentleman or was she engaged to be married in 1857? To Joshua Laycock or to someone else who she later broke up with before her marriage to Joshua? Or maybe her health deteriorated and she was baptised in case the worse happened?

Having traced her life, I returned to the photographic postcard in Bradford Museums’ collection. A pencilled note on the back says ‘Cockle Sarah, Sarah Laycock, and her first husband. . .’. That would make this man Joshua Laycock. I studied it. It looks like a carte de viste (a photograph mounted on a piece of card) from the front with the photograph but it has printed postcard components on the back indicating where the stamp and address goes. Carte de viste were popular from the 1860s while postcards were introduced at the turn of the twentieth century. I look closer at Sarah and Joshua. Sarah is wearing a bonnet and dress made from course material, typical of a working women. Her left hand is resting on the man’s shoulder and a ring is visible on her wedding finger. The fact they are touching and the deliberate posing of the left hand to show a ring often indicates that the photograph was taken to mark the couple’s marriage rather than engagement as it was not respectable for an engaged couple to touch in their engagement photograph. Joshua is wearing a large overcoat with a jacket or waistcoat underneath and an long apron covering his legs. He is wearing a billycock hat with a pipe between his teeth. His hands are on a box resting on his lap. Our record for this says they are possibly ‘plastering tools’. It was common for people to pose with tools pertaining to their profession or with prized possessions. I start doubting whether this is Joshua Laycock. If it’s a marriage photograph, it could be for her 1860 marriage to Joshua, or the alleged bigamous 1870s marriage to Foster or the 1893 marriage to William. Given the ‘plastering tools’, could this in fact by William Gath, the brickyard labourer, rather than Joshua? The photographic postcard was definitely printed in the twentieth-century but the photograph could be a mid-century photograph of Sarah and Joshua, or equally a later one of Sarah and William. Their stiff pose does fit in more with the style of mid-nineteenth century photography rather than the more relaxed photography of the late-nineteenth century and early twentieth century. It is possible that Sarah and Joshua had retrospective marriage-style photographs taken later in their marriage, rather than in 1860 immediately after their wedding, when photography was more affordable to the lower classes. Without being able to compare this to a known photograph of Joshua Laycock or William Gath, or finding out about the original source for this photograph, I cannot say for certain which husband it is.

Photographic postcard of Sarah Laycock and gentleman. In Bradford Museums and Galleries’ collection (H.127/1997)


Note on back of photographic postcard of Sarah Laycock.

This piece of research has been incredibly fruitful as it has rewritten or revised the hi/story of Sarah Laycock. I can update our records about her, and include this information alongside her Sowden portrait which is digitised and available for people to browse, so we can start sharing a more accurate and detailed biography of Sarah.15 I am acutely aware that I am fortunate in 2021 to have access to a broad range of digitised records, such as census records and newspaper articles, which now allow a richer exploration of women’s history and this exploration can often highlight inaccuracies that have previously been accepted as official history and bring to light new information.


1 Bradford Libraries, Digital Library, https://www.bradford.gov.uk/libraries/library-services-online/digital-library/
2 Ancestry.com. West Yorkshire, England, Church of England Marriages and Banns, 1813-1935: Holy Trinity, Bradford, 1893, p. 174 (William Gath and Sarah Laycock)
3 Ancestry.com. 1901 England Census: Class: RG13; Piece: 4149; Folio: 123; Page: 13 (William and Sarah Gath)
4 ‘Death of “Cockle Sarah” Well-known Bradford Character Falls Down Cellar Steps’, Daily Bradford Telegraph, 17 May 1909, p. 3.
5 ‘An Amusing Marriage Scene’ of when ‘Jane Laycock, known as “Cockle Sarah”’, Leeds Times, 10 June 1893, p. 8.
6 Ancestry.com. 1891 England Census: Class: RG12; Piece: 3622; Folio: 79; Page: 26; GSU roll: 6098732 (Sarah Laycock).
7 Ancestry.com. West Yorkshire, England, Church of England Marriages and Banns, 1813-1935: St Peter’s Church, Bradford, 1860, p. 51 (Joshua Laycock and Sarah Ann Hartley)
8 Ancestry.com. 1871 England Census: Class: RG10; Piece: 4451; Folio: 75; Page: 22; GSU roll: 848460 (Joshua and Sarah Laycock)
9 Historic England, Disability History Glossary, https://historicengland.org.uk/research/inclusive-heritage/disability-history/about-the-project/glossary/#cat_I
10 Edward Higgs, Making Sense of the Census Revisited (Institute of Historical Research, 2005), pp. 21, 92 – 94.
11 Ancestry.com. 1861 England Census: Class: RG 9; Piece: 3317; Folio: 10; Page: 20; GSU roll: 543112
12 Ancestry.com. 1851 England Census: Class: HO107; Piece: 2306; Folio: 250; Page: 18; GSU roll: 87517
13 Ancestry.com. 1841 England Census: Class: HO107; Piece: 1293; Book: 10; Civil Parish: Bradford; County: Yorkshire; Enumeration District: 27; Folio: 40; Page: 10; Line: 4; GSU roll: 464253
14 Ancestry.com. West Yorkshire, England, Church of England Births and Baptisms, 1813-1910: St Peter’s Church, 1857 (Sarah Hartley).
15 Bradford Museums and Galleries’ Photo Archive, ‘Cockle Sarah’, https://photos.bradfordmuseums.org/view-item?i=227984

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *