The prompt Tragedy from Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks https://www.amyjohnsoncrow.com/52-ancestors-in-52-weeks/ brings to mind the story of the tragic end to the life of my 4x great grandmother Elizabeth Wilson. Once again, I have my second cousin Nev to thank for this discovery as he found the correct death certificate which lead to a search of local newspapers and the revelation of this fateful tale.
It has been impossible to discover much about Elizabeth’s early life. The 1841 and 1851 census records suggests she was born in Stockton around 1784, which is supported by her age of seventy two, reported on her death certificate in 1855. She was married to William Wilson, a blacksmith, and her youngest daughter Jane, who was baptised on the 31st January 1833 in Yarm, Yorkshire was my 3x great grandmother. This suggests that Jane was born during the second half of 1832, making Elizabeth about forty eight at the time of her birth, so perhaps a birth year of 1786 to 1787 may be more likely.
I have been fortunate to find baptismal records for eight of Elizabeth and William’s children in the parish of Yarm, Yorkshire. All note that the couple lived in Yarm and that William was a blacksmith. The children were:
- Jeremiah, baptised 15th August 1817
- Ann Porteus, baptised 14th May 1819
- George, baptised 21st February 1821
- George, baptised 14th February 1823
- Elizabeth, baptised 22 April 1825
- John, baptised 4th October 1826
- Elizabeth, baptised 6th June 1828
- Jane, baptised 31 January 1833
Unfortunately, but not unusually for the times, three of the children George, George and Elizabeth seem to have died at a young age.
Towards the end of the 1830s, the couple left Yarm and decided to move to the town of Stockton-on-Tees around six miles to the north. The town was developing at a rapid rate following the opening of the Stockton to Darlington Railway in 1825. Coal was now being shipped from Stockton and several shipyards were constructing ships in the town. Blacksmiths like William and his son Jeremiah would have have found work with relative ease.
The couple settled in the town, living on Church Street in the centre of town and in 1841, the younger children John, Elizabeth and Jane were living with their parents, whilst their two eldest children had both married. Jeremiah had followed his father by becoming a blacksmith in Stockton-on-Tees and lived nearby on Brown’s Square, whilst Ann had married Thomas Gibbon and moved to Stranton near Hartlepool.
By 1851, William and Elizabeth had taken a house on Catholic Street and this is where the tragic accident occurred. The Durham County Advertiser of Friday, 5th October, 1855 (accessed on The British Newspaper Archive https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/BL/0000614/18551005/080/0005?browse=False) begins with the line: “Mysterious Death From Burning.”
On Monday, 1st October 1855, a neighbour, Joseph Ramsey, was on his way home when he smelt something burning and saw smoke coming from the home of the Brownlees. He knocked on the door and entered in the company of Robert Thompson, having received no answer. Inside, they discovered the body of an old woman in the smoke-filled room. Elizabeth Wilson was lying full length on the sofa, “her body blackened and burnt.” The men moved her body to the floor and found that the sofa was on fire, which they swiftly dealt with using a bucket of water.
A further article in the Durham Chronicle on Friday, 5th October, 1855 https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/BL/0001653/18551005/101/0005?browse=False revealed that an inquest was held by the coroner, John Settle, in the “Spotted Cow Tavern”. The inquest gave further details of the family. Elizabeth shared a house with her husband William who was now working as a watchman on the West Hartlepool Railway. Also living in the house was her daughter Jane, her son-in-law John Brownlee and two of their children, in addition to her son John Wilson. The accident had occurred shortly after eight o’clock. William was at work, while John and Jane Brownlee were at the theatre. They had left their two children asleep, along with Elizabeth. John Wilson left the house around eight o’clock to quickly go and buy some bread. Shockingly, he returned to find that Elizabeth had died, however, the children were unharmed.
The coroner reported that “the deceased’s mind had been affected for about a year, and she had a strange fancy for carrying lighted candles and matches about with her in the daytime when it was quite light.” The family had taken to hiding candles from her as she frequently got out of bed to light candles, often more than one at once, during the night. Elizabeth also had a habit of keeping matches with her. On the night of the incident, there had been a fire alight when the family left, so possibly she had got too close and the matches were set alight. Nevertheless, the coroner concluded that there was no direct evidence to show how Elizabeth came to her death.
The cause of death recorded on Elizabeth’s death certificate was, “found dead, death caused by burning.” She was buried on the 3rd October 1855, the day after the inquest, at St Thomas’ Church, Stockton-on-Tees. This was indeed a tragic death of a woman in her seventies, who had led a long life for the times and must have come as a terrible shock to the family.