Light a Candle!
In this blog post, I am taking poetic license with the topic and showcasing how I used AI tools to enhance my ancestral story of Alfred Wright, my paternal great-grandfather. The use of Chat GPT 4 was like lighting a candle in the darkness and getting a glimpse of what is to come in the genre of ancestral storytelling. Usually, it would take me several days to craft a readable story for my blog posts like this one. Today it was achieved in minutes.
My research into the Wright family has been quite extensive and I have a plethora of facts about the family members, but I wanted to paint a more vivid picture of what it was like to live in the county of Essex, England from 1840 to 1930 time period. In particular, I was interested in the occupation of my great-grandfather, that of a laborer in a bone factory.
Getting historical facts from Google was one choice; and enlisting the help of the latest Artificial Intelligence language model, Chat GPT was another. Below are the results of my exploration with the tool to rewrite my ancestor’s history first in the style of a journalist and second as an autobiographical account.
In both cases, I edited the style, grammar, tone, and language using Quillbot, another AI tool to improve writing.
1. The Life of a Bone Factory Laborer
Amid the bustling 1880s, the industrial core of East London, Stratford, and West Ham, experienced a swift metamorphosis. The once-sleepy district burgeoned as industries flooded in, attracting a rising populace. Among the laboring class, residents resided Alfred Wright, an industrious bone factory worker, sharing a humble abode with his family in the heart of Stratford.
The bone factory, a linchpin of the local economy, manufactured bone meal—essential for agricultural fertilization—and bone charcoal, a key component in sugar refining. Alfred’s laborious days consisted of processing animal bones, the factory’s noxious odor of mortality and decomposition contrasting sharply with the lively Stratford community beyond its confines.
The 1880s Stratford life was an amalgam of exhilaration and adversity. The Royal Docks’ inauguration and the Great Eastern Railway’s advent had morphed the area into a nexus of trade and industry. Conversely, accelerated expansion led to issues such as overpopulation and substandard living conditions. Alfred and his family, like their working-class counterparts, grappled with the quotidian challenge of financial survival.
Eliza, Alfred’s wife, nurtured their seven offspring, ensuring their nourishment, clothing, and education. Ellen, the eldest daughter, supported the family as a working girl, and despite the Wrights’ limited resources, the younger children attended school, underscoring the family’s commitment to education.
During this era, Stratford witnessed critical political and social events that altered its communal trajectory. The 1886 Great Eastern Railway strike erupted, severely disrupting rail services. Workers protested against diminished wages and deplorable working conditions, a plight likely empathized by Alfred, given his own laborer status. (Note: this was one factual error in the story as the 1886 Great Easter Railway strike took place in St Louis, Illinois, USA.)
A watershed moment in the 1880s was the Matchgirls’ Strike of 1888, a trailblazing labor protest spearheaded by women employed at the Bryant and May match factory. The workers revolted against exploitation and hazardous employment. The strike’s triumph heralded the genesis of the modern labor movement in Britain, eventually giving rise to trade unions and enhanced worker rights. While not directly involved, the strike’s repercussions likely reverberated through Alfred’s life, signaling a paradigm shift in the dynamics between laborers and employers. It is also entirely possible that Alfred, like many men working long hours in the bone factory, would also have suffered physically from breathing in the bone dust every day.
In the whirlwind of these historical occurrences, the Wright family soldiered on, leaning on their affection and unity to confront the challenges of a rapidly evolving world. As Alfred labored in the bone factory, he took pride in providing for his loved ones and belonging to a community in the throes of dramatic growth and transformation. The narrative of Alfred Wright and his kin epitomizes the fortitude and resolve of the working class during this critical juncture in Stratford’s chronicles.
2. Alfred’s Story
I was not a rich man, at least not in terms of monetary wealth. I was rich in my family life and I am grateful for that.
As I look back on my childhood growing up in Halstead, I am filled with fond memories of my loving family and the strong sense of community that enveloped our daily lives. My father, Benjamin, was a brickmaker by trade, and my mother, Lydia, was a devoted housekeeper. Their work ethic and dedication to our family left a lasting impression on me, shaping the person I would become.
I was the fifth of six siblings: Benjamin Jr., Isaac, Ellen, Harriot, and Priscilla. Our home was a lively place, filled with laughter and love. My older brother, Benjamin Jr., followed in our father’s footsteps, becoming a brickmaker himself. Isaac, on the other hand, pursued a different trade, learning the skills of a wheelwright. My sister Ellen found her calling in the art of straw bonnet manufacturing, a popular and fashionable trade during that time.
My younger sisters, Harriot, Priscilla, and I, along with our cousin Arthur, attended school together as scholars. We would spend our days learning and growing, which would help us learn more and be more interested in things. Our education not only provided us with the tools to navigate the world but also allowed us to form strong bonds with our peers and teachers.
Our parents instilled in us the importance of hard work and perseverance. They guided us through life’s challenges and celebrated our achievements. We often gathered around the dinner table, sharing stories of our days and discussing our dreams for the future. It was in these moments that I truly understood the significance of family and the unbreakable bond we shared. Their influence has stayed with me all through my life, shaping my relationships and how I see the world.
As the years passed, we each set off on our individual journeys, carrying with us the values and lessons of our childhood. No matter where life took us, we remained connected to our roots in Halstead and to the family that shaped us. I will always be grateful to my parents and siblings for the love, support, and guidance they gave me when I was growing up.
Further Research on the Occupations in Royal Docks in London
In my search for more information about the occupation of a laborer in a bone factory, I was drawn to this article from the Stories and People in the Royal Docks. In this article, another Alfred Wright provided his memories of the particularly pungent smells of the area in the late 1890s.
Factories brought employment into the neighbourhood, and with them came the smell. Journalist and historian Colin Grainger asked people who lived and worked around the Royal Docks for their memories of its malodorous manufacturing heyday and other exotic aromas.https://www.royaldocks.london/articles/the-smells-of-silvertown
The Royal Primrose Soap Works pictured above also made candles. So that ties in with this blog post theme. However it was not the smell of soap or candles that led to these quotes, but the smell from an ancient and well-used urinal, the Rotunda. Or, as most of the locals knew it and still know it, the Iron Lung.
I couldn’t get rid of that smell for three days. Alfred Wright
Further Research with the assistance of Chat GPT
Prompt: please tell me more about life as a laborer in a bone factory in Stratford, Essex in the 1880s. Describe the process, the smells, and the products.
In the 1880s, life as a laborer in a bone factory in Stratford, Essex, was characterized by toil, adversity, and an unrelenting work ethic. The bone factory, a vital cog in the local economy, employed numerous workers like Alfred Wright, who were tasked with processing animal bones into valuable products.
The bone processing procedure was grueling, demanding a significant degree of physical strength and endurance. Laborers, often clad in coarse, soiled clothing, spent long hours sorting, cleaning, and boiling bones. These bones, sourced from slaughterhouses and butchers, were then crushed, ground, or charred to produce the desired end products.
Bone meal, a crucial agricultural fertilizer, was obtained by grinding the bones into a fine powder. This substance provided essential nutrients, such as phosphorous and calcium, to enrich the soil and stimulate plant growth. Another product, bone charcoal, was made by charring the animal bones in a specialized furnace. This charcoal, known for its superior adsorption properties, played an indispensable role in sugar refining, where it helped remove impurities and discoloration.
Working in a bone factory was far from a pleasant experience. The atmosphere was permeated with an overwhelming, putrid stench—an inescapable amalgam of decaying animal remains, boiling bones, and burnt organic matter. The factory’s malodorous air, paired with the cacophony of grinding machines and bone-crushing equipment, created a harsh and disquieting environment.
Laborers were also exposed to a myriad of health hazards, such as respiratory issues from inhaling bone dust and infections from handling contaminated materials. Despite these challenges, the working class persevered in their roles, driven by the need to provide for their families and contribute to their communities.
The bone factory’s products were indispensable to various industries in Stratford and beyond. The production of bone meal and bone charcoal not only bolstered the agricultural and sugar refining sectors but also generated employment opportunities for the local population. However, the strenuous labor, abhorrent smells, and potentially harmful working conditions paint a vivid picture of the sacrifices made by those who toiled away in such establishments during the 1880s.
Further Research from British History Online
The earliest firm specializing in fertilizers was Odams Chemical Manure Co., North Woolwich Road, Silvertown. This was established in 1855 by James Odams, originally to make manure from liquid blood. Odams ensured a supply of raw materials by opening a slaughterhouse, adjoining his factory, for cattle imported through the Victoria Docks. This was a possible employer for Alfred, given that it was just a 30-minute journey via public transport from Stratford.
3 thoughts on “Great Grandfather Alfred Thomas Wright”
As a farmer’s daughter the smell of fertiliser is part of my childhood memories. I recall my dad crushing the bones of animals that had died on the farm. Who knew there was a bone factory! And my garden loves blood and bone. Now I’ll remember your ancestor who worked in the bone factory each time I use it. 🙂
That is interesting! Now that you mention ‘blood and bone’ the modern fertiliser this old occupation makes more sense to me!
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