Mary Jane (Polly) Woodward was one of 12 children and born in the pit town of Brandon colliery in 1866.
There is much to still research on her parents but here is what we know…Mary Jane’s mother was Jane Gibson born in South Shields, Durham. Her father Thomas was a Yorkshire born coal miner. Thomas seems to have been the first in his family to head up to Durham to try his hand at coal mining. His ancestors before him are all from North Yorkshire and from either a farming or lead mining background. His children’s various birthplaces show us that he moved around the different collieries year to year under the bonding scheme.
By the terms of the bond, under pain of a substantial penalty, miners were obliged to submit to various fines and conditions and to work continuously at one colliery for a whole year. The annual Bond was usually entered on/about April 5 when a colliery official read out the rate of pay and the conditions available at the pit to the assembled workers and would-be workers. Every year the annual bonding triggered a gigantic game of ‘Musical Houses’ and even ‘Musical Villages’ across the Great Northern Coalfield. The old bond expired, the music began and anything up to a quarter of the mining population of the three counties went on the march to a new start, a new life, elsewhere.
As a child, Mary Jane also lived at East Hetton Colliery as did her future husband William Harrison Hill.
Mary Jane’s sad end
Mary Jane’s untimely death made national newspaper headlines. She died the year before her estranged husband William. She died at home with family aged 53 and a coronial inquiry was launched following concerns raised by Dr McBrearty upon visiting the home about 30 minutes after her death.
Note: Dr McBrearty would have known the family very well. He was also the doctor that had committed WHH to Seaview all those years ago. Mary Jane was in a very emaciated state and it so concerned the doctor that a coronal inquiry was launched. Mary Jane appeared to have been suffering from undiagnosed cancer. By all accounts she knew she had cancer as her sister Rachel from Blackball, had also passed away from this condition. Mary Jane had not sought medical help as she was known to be sensitive regarding seeing doctors. In fact, her children stated that she never saw doctors for any reason. The reason her death made headlines is that she had starved to death on what Newspapers describe as the “freakish advice’ of her eldest son, Thomas William Harrison Hill. He had become a member of the Christadelphinian faith right around the time of being drafted to WW1. He had also tried Church of England, Salvation Army, Seventh Day Adventists and other sects before choosing this religion just as war broke out. He avoided going to war because he appealed on religious grounds. He believed through his understanding of the teachings of Jesus Christ that fasting could be used to treat a range of medical conditions. He claimed in court that he had once cured himself of a serious illness by fasting. By her symptoms he thought she had rheumatism rather than cancer.
Depending which son’s account is correct, she had been fasting for between 20-38 days with a preparatory period leading up to this of about 18 days where only one meal a day was consumed.
Thomas stated that he did not call a doctor as his mother appeared to be managing well with the fasting and was still able to go about her housework as usual until the 27 or 28th day when she felt tired and went to her bed. After going to bed she seemed strong and only complained of pain in her lower back in the last two days of her life and was still quite cheerful the evening before passing away.
Several of her children gave evidence at the inquiry. In the end it was determined she died from natural causes as her cancer would have killed her within weeks anyway. Thomas was cautioned against giving anyone else advice to fast in future and the matter was left to rest.
A poignant line from the great poet, Alfred Lloyd Tennyson and also those same ones written on Nan (Mary Patricia Kemp nee Hill) and Mary Jane’s headstone. The two are buried together at Stillwater cemetery on the West Coast, South Island, New Zealand.
“So sad, so strange, the days that are no more”