MD Series: Chasing historic records

Today we take social media for granted. Generally, somewhere a person has left a digital trail so you can see how your classmate from first school is doing now and vise versa. But, in the 1850s social media didn’t exist. Heck, the internet wasn’t even a pipe dream. You only have to watch a few episodes of ‘Who Do You Think You Are‘ to see how easy it is for people to disappear, re-marry, emigrate, change their name etc. So, how am I going to trace one person through the historic records to find her?

bootham2 school for the blind sign 1880

Entrance on Bootham Road taken c.1880

It would probably be easy if the Wilberforce Memorial School for the Blind records for the 1850s were held at the Borthwick Institute of Archives (no such luck! The pupil records only exist from 1887). So far all I have to go on is one record from J W Knowles written in 1924.  This resource is invaluable. Maria Wilson’s entry is as follows:

A native of Hull and received her education at the Wilberforce School for the Blind at York. Afterwards became a leading professional singer in Hull and sang the leading parts at St Stephen’s Church. Her very sweet voice, neat execution and great taste will never be forgotten by those who frequently heard her sing in the Leeds Old Music Hall.
Although totally blind her love for coloured ribbons and garments was strong in her and [she] invariably appeared on the concert platform in fashionable garments, but bright colours. She kept up her connection with the School at York and often had her old companions to visit her. She became afflicted with cancer and suffered a long and painful illness from which she died at the age of 46.
At her funeral Messrs Plowman, Hird, Hudson and others of the York School attended. She was buried in Hull Cemetery, August 28th, 1875.

leeds city variety hall

Leeds City Varieties

The description makes her appear such a wonderful woman and obviously well loved by the school she attended which is why I chose her as the centrepiece for my second soundscape. I feel far more pressure though than the first soundscape to get this right, to do this sympathetically. To attempt this half-heartedly would be an insult to Maria’s memory and so I just can’t do that.


I would love to find a record of her performances at Leeds City Varieties or her singing at St Stephen’s Church. A preliminary search of the Leeds archives shows no surviving historic records from the Leeds City Varieties of the period (1850-1875). It also appears that St Stephen’s Church in Hull disappears all together in between the historic maps of 1830 and 1850 so I assume it was another victim of the Hull Blitz (the site is now the St Stephen’s Shopping Centre, which is quite a different institution). If anyone knows where I can find more information on any of these places or local historians to contact, please let me know!

Further hunting will take place. Make sure to tune in next Wedensday at 12pm GMT for further updates on the life of Maria Wilson.

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