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Bradford's lady detective
Did Margaret Nelson take on the job to support her young son as a single mother?
The private detective who placed adverts in the Yorkshire, Lancashire and Lincolnshire newspapers in 1901 and 1902 made clear their experienced status and their skills, signing their name simply as 'Nelson'. It would be easy to assume that this was just another male detective of the Edwardian era, plying their trade around the local area whenever they were between jobs. Yet it was unusual to start your adverts with 'disengaged private detective'; the majority of private detectives did not highlight their availability so honestly, and it was more common to find this wording in theatrical adverts, for actors and actresses seeking their next engagement.
But there was much that was unusual about this detective. A look at the 1901 census for 95-96 Kirkgate, Bradford - the address given by Nelson in the newspaper adverts - does not help identify them, as at the time of the census, the building was home to a Gloucester born navvy and his family; none of whom was called Nelson. Perhaps, then, Nelson had the family's permission to use the address as their correspondence address, keeping business away from the family home.
So who could this private detective be? The final adverts for them appeared in the Leeds Mercury in November 1902, and changed tactic. Rather than advertising detective skills, they were now seeking work as a book-keeper; and they were a woman:
An advert from 27 November 1902, via British Newspaper Archive
So Nelson was a woman; and one who, after two years of advertising her private detective services, had given up and was now looking for accountancy work. She was clearly resourceful, literate and numerate: but who was she? Although I have no proof, I have my suspicions of who this woman was. I believe she may have been Margaret Nelson, the daughter of a rather entrepreneurial man, who she may have learned good business skills from. These would be put to the test when her marriage failed within a few years, leaving her a single mother with a young son to maintain.
Margaret was born Margaret Atkinson in Middlesbrough on 5 June 1865. She was brought up in the Bowling area of Bradford, with her parents George and Elizabeth, and eight siblings. Father George had various jobs, including that of cricket coach, and a dealer in athletic appliances (possible cricket supplies). On 22 May 1889, at St Peter's, Bradford, Margaret married a Manningham chemist named Joseph Lackland Nelson.
Their only child, a son named John Asquith Atkinson Nelson, was born in 1890 in Bispham, Blackpool, but by 1891, the marriage had ended. Her husband moved in with his unmarried sisters in Manningham, whereas George Atkinson had moved to Guiseley, and so Margaret and little John moved back in with her family there. She was described in the 1891 census as living on her own means; this may have been by means of maintenance from her husband, but she may also have been working from home, even if only the odd bit of work that she didn't feel the need to have reported officially.
The 1901 census was taken during the period when Margaret was advertising her private detective business. She was still living with the Atkinsons - they were now back in Bowling. Three of her brothers were still living at home and working as clerks, but Margaret had no occupation recorded for her. This fits with her desire in her adverts to not give her home address; she kept business and home strictly separate. The wife who was living at 95 Kirkgate at the same time - the address Margaret gave as her office address - was Emma Smith, who was only around a couple of years older than Margaret; perhaps the two were friends, and hence Emma agreed to let Margaret use her address for work.
From the Leeds Mercury of 31 July 1902, via British Newspaper Archive
Margaret may have been unable to earn enough to live independently; conversely, perhaps she liked the sociability and support she had from living with family members. By 1911, she was living with her three brothers in Bradford, with her now adult son, who was working as a clerk himself. Tragically, John Asquith Atkinson Nelson was killed in 1917 during World War 1, and is buried at Tyne Cot Cemetery. His mother had brought him up on her own since he was a baby, taking on various jobs to help bring an income in, supported by her father and brothers. She had then lost him, her only child.
By 1921, Margaret had relocated with her brother Walter and his family to Sale in Cheshire. She would remain living there until her death at the end of 1939. The Register of that year recorded her as a widow of private means; her husband, who she can only have lived with for about a year, had died back in 1909.
It seems likely that this single mother would try advertising locally for jobs she could do from home, with her son to look after. Book-keeping could be done from home, or at least locally, and private detective work did not involve regular hours. Many female detectives worked from their living room, firing out letters and placing adverts for their services; but in Bradford, Margaret was in competition with male detectives who could work more than her, who might come from police backgrounds and have the contacts to give them work.
She had to work twice as hard, and the fact that her adverts highlight that she is disengaged might suggest that she could not get enough work to persevere in the field. Although she may have tended to only advertise when she was free, and not when she was already on a job, the adverts were fairly frequent, and this, and the fact that she was seeking other work within two years, suggests that her plan to find a successful career in this arena did not succeed. The fact that she even tried to do so, however, is testament to a woman who was clearly determined to make her own way in life.