Probably an unfair title, as she wasnít homeless, though she may have given that impression. However, it was in a wheelbarrow, or cart that she wheeled her wares to and fro through the streets broad and narrow from Sutton Courtenany through Abingdon into Oxford and back, a round trip of some 20 miles.

In 1874 she married WILLIAM IRONS an elderly widower, they subsequently moved to Sutton Courtenay where WILLIAM set up business as a butcher. All was well for a while and the business prospered but WILLIAM died shortly after in 1879 leaving his recent wife CAROLINE now aged 53 to fend for herself. She was ineligible for an almshouse in the village or any form of pension, so for the next 20 years she supported herself by taking in washing and needlework. However, she strove to continue with the remains of her late husbandís meat business.

She took orders for meat on a weekly basis and pushed her cart the 10 miles into Oxford and 10 miles back once a week. The business originally had its meat supplied in hampers which came by train from Oxford but after WILLIAMís death the business had declined so it was uneconomical to pay for transport. His astute widow decided that the only way was to walk to avoid any expenses. It is said that the cart when empty was 58 lbs and the meat purchases sometimes exceeded 1 cwt. A formidable task. Yet it has been calculated that in the succeeding 20 years this determined lady walked a distance of some 20,000 miles. The picture appended shows her as she was in 1898 at the age of 72.

 

So who was this once genteel lady to whom this tale refers? She said that she had fallen on hard times and was the daughter of General Henry Shrapnel, that fine British Officer, but this was not so. Yet another more likely report says that she was his great niece.

 

Her name was CAROLINE AMELIA IRONS and yes, she was born SHRAPNELL, in reality daughter of JAMES SHRAPNELL, a distinguished Lieutenant in the Royal Navy from Wiltshire who had served on many ships including the Victory at Trafalgar. She had a twin sister SARAH, also a younger sister ANGELINA and three brothers. The twin sisters and one brother had been born at Calais in France, but they were subsequently christened at the family home church in Hilperton, Wiltshire.

 

CAROLINE and her twin sister SARAH died in 1901 just one day apart. They were buried together in the churchyard of ALL SAINTS at Sutton Courtenay in an unmarked grave. Sadly there were no children to mourn their passing but the last of their line was their brother PETER JOHN who died a bachelor at Southwark in 1916.

 

A remarkable tale of the plight and determination of some of our Victorian ancestors. The story of CAROLINE was recounted in 1898 by a Mr W J S Bayliss and published in booklet form in 1898 in order to raise funds to alleviate her predicament. It has been reprinted by the Friends of the All Saints Church. The original of the photograph came from the collection of the late Mr Derek Steptoe whose wife gave me permission to use the copy above.

 

 

She wheeled her wheelbarrow!
Ode to the bag lady of Oxford!