Mary Ann Bancroft....The Sheffield Undertakeress!



Mary Ann Bancroft....in later life

I wrote an article some time ago about a Mary Ann Bancroft [nee Pollard] who lead an interesting life as someone who was accused of poisoning children in the Sheffield area in 1875 by making and selling a home-made ‘cordial’ for curing various ailments. The original story can be read here, and I have been contacted by here Great-Great-Grandson with more interesting details of her life.
Mary Ann’s story begins with her birth around 10th January 1802, the daughter of James and Elizabeth Pollard. The place of her birth is a bit of a mystery as various census records show it as either Thorncliffe, Ecclesfield or Attercliffe in the Sheffield area. The Attercliffe register records the baptism on Jan 10th 1802 of a Mary Ann, daughter of James Pollard, carpenter (and a labourer by 1811), and his wife Elizabeth. The Mormon site has her christened on the same date at S Peter’s, Sheffield (Cathedral). Why there should be two entries is unclear unless St Peter’s, later Sheffield Cathedral, was a central collecting point for baptism details.

According to uncorroborated family folklore, Mary was the daughter of a relatively affluent Methodist family but married her father's gardener.  It is said that either the family owned, or her father managed, a scythe and sickle works at Renishaw…..[neither story being able to be confirmed for certain by her descendants.]

Robert & Mary [Ann's] marriage record.

However we do know that Mary Ann married Robert Bancroft on 12th November 1821 at St Peter’s Church, Sheffield, [later to become the Cathedral] and he became a gravedigger at St. John's cemetery in the town. Robert was born in 1802 and in his younger days was a coal miner before becoming a grave digger.

Interestingly, the family were listed as 'Banery' on the 1841 census for some reason, possibly the person taking down the details misheard the occupants or could not read their writing? 

1841 census



Robert died at their home at 155 Duke Street, Sheffield on 20th October 1868 aged 66 years.

The couple had at least 12 children, of which 6 died in infancy. She named one child Robert, after his father, but all of the other children had biblical names and she was said to have been religious and to have read the bible to the family in the evenings.

Her son Robert survived into adulthood and she is said to have made him dress well, carry a silver-topped cane and wear kid gloves: but he was already a coal miner at the age of 11 and that kind of foppishness would surely have brought real problems in a mining community, although this may be just family hearsay.


Robert & Mary Ann Bancroft

Mary rented a room in her house at Duke Street to a Dr. Martin [which might explain where she picked up the knowledge of how to make up potions to allow her to sell them from home in her later life]
 She worked for an undertaker, to a Mr Reed, as a shroud maker and used metal pinking tools to make broderie anglaise patterns on the shrouds and she kept coffin boards in the cellar of her house (then 37 Duke Street.)  She also kept and washed the white silk sashes (sometimes lavender coloured for children) worn by the pall bearers.

As part of her work for funerals she made flowers out of material to decorate the shrouds and her grand-daughter Susannah and other children would help her.  Allegedly her husband Robert didn't like her doing any work and she wore lace gloves to protect her hands. She bought her fabrics in Sheffield, especially at Walshes where the floor manager is said to have escorted her round the shop.

Here is a copy of the 1871 census, where Mary Ann describes herself as an ‘Undertakeress’ !

1871 census


 It is said that she became a little senile before she died and used to unpick the patchwork quilts that she had made, and her son Robert would then rap her knuckles with his silver-topped cane and was quite cruel to her.

When she lay dying in late 1880, her sisters, having been told by her daughter Martha that she did not have long to live, went to see her, but she is alleged to have told them that they had come too late and that she could manage without them after all that time. They were said to have been very upset by that response.

Mr Reed, who she had worked for, arranged her funeral, which was very lavish. She had made her own shroud in preparation for her funeral.

 A wreath from her sisters hung on the back of her hearse and they attended, so it is said, with their footmen and coaches, which sounds as though it was a fairly grand affair!
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