52 Ancestors – Week 33 – Tragedy

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.

Featured image: Photo by Amador Loureiro on Unsplash.

52 Ancestors – Week 32 – In the City

Surprisingly few of my ancestors left the rural lives for life in the city, looking at the prompt for week 32 from Amy Johnson Crow https://www.amyjohnsoncrow.com/52-ancestors-in-52-weeks/. However, one exception was Abraham Fisher, my 4x great grandfather who spent many years of his life in two of Britain’s largest cities.

It is unclear exactly when and where Abraham was born. The most likely baptism for him, based on his age and place of birth in the 1851 census, is on the 13th September 1793 at Mark in Somerset. This Abraham’s parents were Walter Fisher and Jane Pim. There are no other children of the couple baptised in the area, so maybe they moved or one of them passed away.

The first definite appearance for Abraham in the records is in London. He married Elizabeth Sarah Milward Walker on the 7th November 1814 at Christ Church, Greyfriars, Newgate in Central London. Their first child, Esther, was born on the 19th August 1817 and baptised on the 2nd May 1818 at St Andrew’s Church, Holborn (although it is possible that they had earlier children who did not survive). This record revealed that the family lived on Shoe Lane and that Abraham was a shoemaker. Two sons were also born to the couple: Isaac on the 21st September 1819 and Abraham on the 21st January 1822. Both were also baptised in St Andrew’s Church, Holborn; Isaac on the 24th March 1820 and Abraham on the 30th May 1822. In 1820, the couple were living on Laystall Street, further to the north from Shoe Lane and by 1822 the family had moved to nearby Mount Pleasant.

The evidence from these church records suggests that Abraham most probably arrived in the city some time around the early 1810s as either an apprentice shoemaker or as a shoemaker who had just completed his apprenticeship in another town or city. Many shoemakers were based on Shoe Lane near Fleet Market in the early nineteenth century. It would have been a very different place to the Shoe Lane of today with its global banking companies. Shoe Lane had been home to cordwainers, another term for shoemakers for several hundred years using leather that was produced in tanneries south of the River Thames.

A PhD thesis by Giorgio Riello who researched “The Boot and Shoe Trades in London and Paris in the Long Eighteenth Century,” https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/1317575/1/252007.pdf provides details of the trade.

“The shoemaking trade was considered unattractive because of its low profit margins and cordwainers – that is to say shoemakers that were members of a livery company – were often not distinguished from the artisans who simply exercised the shoemaking trade in unregulated parts of town.”

The shoemaking trade in London had declined since the seventeenth century. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, cordwainers who were members of the company were the only people able to afford to purchase whole hides to make into shoes. By the early nineteenth century, journeymen were able to buy enough leather for one pair of shoes with two shillings. The profit from a couple of pairs of shoes was enough to sustain a family and purchase enough leather for further pairs of shoes. This meant that there were more shoes available at cheaper prices.

Despite the fact that the cordwainers’ trade was in decline, there were still around two hundred apprentices learning the trade in London in the early 1800s. Abraham may have been among them as apprentices were drawn into the city from the southern counties of England. However, Abraham may have learnt his trade and then moved to London at the age of twenty one in order to find work.

Riello describes the changes that took place in shoemaking. Originally, shoemakers would have been apprenticed for seven years and learned to make a complete pair of shoes. However, in the early nineteenth century, in order to keep up with demand and lower costs, masters would employ journeymen to complete the easier parts of shoe production. Whilst the master or an experienced apprentice would cut the leather, a key stage in the process, the “sewing of the uppers, lasting and closing” were done by journeymen before the heeling and finishing was completed by the master tradesman. This allowed for the simpler parts of the trade to be done at home leading to the decentralisation of shoe production. Therefore, some masters realised that they could make more money if they employed immigrants, women and children to complete some of the tasks. Cost saving was also important as London shoe producers found that they were now competing with traders who sold shoes made in Northampton at cheaper prices.

The conditions met by John Brown, a shoemaker from Cambridge, who moved to London in the early 1800s are cited in Riello’s thesis:

“John Brown worked in a garret nine feet by six feet, and barely high enough for a mand to stand upright in. He worked on a piece rate of nine shillings for six pairs of shoes and only after months of practice was he able to produce a sample boot with which to ‘occasion’ that is to say look for a job in a shop.”

Hopefully, Abraham did not face a similar situation as a young shoemaker in London. He may have been more fortunate and found work in a shop or even worked for himself. At the end of the Nepolionic Wars in 1815, Riello states that there was a higher demand for shoes and the Northampton shoemakers could not keep up with demand. This meant that London shoemakers were once again in demand and it is probable that Abraham’s fortunes changed for the better, as there would have been plenty of work available to him.

However, this situation was short-lived. London shoemakers began to face increasing competition from French and Belgian shoemakers. Paris had been an exporter of fashionable shoes for the upper classes of London for some time, with French shoe makers opening shops in fashionable areas of London. Nevertheless, centres of shoe production were now established in Dieppe, Le Havre, Boulogne and Calais which were only a short distance from London by sea. The large quantities of shoes arriving in London damaged trade for the smaller shoe makers. Riello notes that from 1826 to 1828 the number of shoemakers in the Workhouse of St James in London increased from three to one hundred and twenty seven, showing that life was becoming increasingly difficult for the shoemakers of the city.

It was under the situation of increased competition that Abraham and his family left London for the city of Bristol. It is uncertain as to when the family arrived in Bristol. Another daughter Elizabeth was born to the couple around 1823 but the first record of their presence in Bristol is the baptism of their daughter Hannah. She was baptised in St Andrew’s Church in Clifton, a fairly affluent area on the outskirts of the city on the 2nd October 1825. It is interesting to note that Abraham’s profession is noted for the first time as a cordwainer.

The term cordwainer suggests that Abraham was in fact apprenticed to a member of the Cordwainers’ Company and that he had significant skills which could be used to create complete shoes suitable for the members of the middle classes in the area in which he now resided. However, it may have been the case that he had developed great skills and, with a little bit of exaggeration, was now able to pass himself off as a London Cordwainer despite only training as a shoemaker.

Abraham and his family lived on Granby Hill, close to the River Avon for several years. This address was noted as their place of residence on the baptismal records for their children Grace (baptised 19th September 1830), Sarah (baptised 9th December 1832), Abraham (baptised 30 May 1835) and Samuel Walter (baptised 26th November 1837). Abraham continued to work as a cordwainer and was listed in Pigot’s Trade Directory (1830) as a Boot and Shoe Maker of Granby Hill, Clifton, Bristol. Although the homes here were not as large as those in the large Georgian Terraced houses in the surrounding area, it would have been a pleasant place to live with plenty of open spaces nearby.

Unfortunately for the family, Elizabeth died at the age of forty four and was buried on the 12th July 1840 at St James’ Church, Clifton. Surprisingly, the family seemed to have then moved to a cottage on Richmond Hill, close to the grand houses of Park Place and Meridian Place. This is where the family were found on the 1841 census. Abraham is living with his daughters Esther, Elizabeth, Hannah and Grace along with Samuel Walter who was still just three years old. Unlike many widowers at the time with young children, Abraham did not quickly remarry. Esther was twenty three and now capable of running the home with the assistance of her three sisters, who would not have attended school at this time. There were many affluent people living nearby, whose families had built a fortune during years of the slave trade, so he was well placed to be producing shoes for these clients and earning enough money that his daughters did not have to work, although it is a possibility that they assisted with some aspects of the shoe making.

By 1842, Abraham had relocated his business once again. Pigot’s Directory of 1842 lists Abraham as a shoemaker of Wellington Place, Clifton. Wellington Place was a newly constructed street adjacent to Whiteladies Road. At the time, Whiteladies Road was under development and soon became a fashionable shopping street during middle part of the nineteenth century. Abraham remained here for several years and was regularly recorded in the Pigot’s Directory. One by one, his daughters married during the 1840s and set up homes of their own, with Sarah the last to leave home, marrying on the 16th December 1849.

On the 11th June 1850, Abraham married once again. His bride was a widow named Julia Marks. Julia’s first husband was also a London shoemaker, who had worked on Milford Place, near The Strand. Abraham and Julia married at St Thomas’s Church in the Redcliffe area, closer to the centre of Bristol. Interestingly, Abraham’s father is named as Walter Fisher, a cordwainer, suggesting that his family had indeed followed the tradition that cordwainers often undertook that same profession as their fathers, although sometimes they were apprenticed to other cordwainers in order to develop a range of skills and techniques.

The address of both parties was recorded as Thomas Lane, Redcliffe, closer to the centre of Bristol. It is surprising that Abraham left the more affluent area of Clifton and moved to a more crowded area which was becoming more industrialised. Perhaps the shoe trade was not as lucrative now that imported shoes from the continent were also finding their way to Bristol?

The couple’s time in Redcliffe was brief as by the time of the 1851 they had left city life behind them. Abraham, Julia and his son Samuel Walter relocated to Northam, a village on the outskirts of Southampton. As far as I can see, the couple had no links to the village, as Julia was born in London. They most likely travelled there by boat as there was no direct railway link from Bristol to Southampton at the time. However, there was a train from Southampton to London, so it is possible that they travelled via London. Abraham was working as a shoemaker while Samuel Walter was his apprentice.

It is difficult to decide whether Abraham is making shoes on his own account or working for someone else. There are other people whose occupation is shoebinder living nearby, suggesting that they were different workers who completed various parts of the shoemaking process in the area. Abraham as a skilled worker may have been completing the more technical parts of the process or he could possibly have been employing others now that his daughters were no longer with him. The area in which the family lived was an industrial area with an iron foundry and shipbuilding taking place nearby, which differed greatly from the grand houses of Clifton. I suspect that Abraham was now down on his luck and having to make shoes and boots for the working classes.

Things continued to be difficult for Abraham. His wife of almost two years died in early 1852 and it is unclear exactly what happened to him after that. Samuel moved to London, where he married in 1859 and can be found working as a cordwainer in Marylebone in 1861. It is most likely that Abraham returned to either Bristol or Somerset as his daughters had remained in this area. A possible death was recorded for an Abraham of the correct age (sixty two) in Dulverton, Somerset in the first quarter of 1855. This parish was adjacent to the parish of Williton where his eldest daughter had settled with her husband Robert Stenner. Hopefully, a certificate will provide enough information to ascertain whether, after a lifetime of shoemaking, he finished his days in the countryside rather than the city.

Cover image from https://www.british-history.ac.uk/old-new-london/vol2/pp526-542

52 Ancestors – Week 31 – Favourite Name

This week I have been considering my favourite name, a prompt from Amy Johnson Crow, https://www.amyjohnsoncrow.com/52-ancestors-in-52-weeks/. Many ancestors were named William, Thomas, John, James, Elizabeth, Mary or Ann. However, I have always been drawn to the rather exotic sounding name, Ferdinando Jago.

Ferdinando was my 5x great grandfather, on the Stenner side of the family. He was baptised on the 4th August 1782 at the church of St Nicholas and St Faith in the Cornish border town of Saltash, just a few hundred metres from the River Tamar. Saltash was an ancient town, created in the twelfth century and a route used to travel over the River Tamar into Devon. In fact, there was a ferry across the river from Saltash to Plymouth for over seven hundred years, until the opening of the Tamar Bridge in 1961, as described on the website https://saltash.org/saltash-history/saltash-ferry.html. The Church of St Nicholas and St Faith was originally built in Norman times. Much of the building is over eight hundred years old and it stands in the shadow of the Tamar Road Bridge and the Royal Albert Bridge, built by Brunel in 1859 to carry trains in and out of Cornwall. Unknowingly, I have looked down over the place where Ferdinando lived on many occasions.

Ferdinando’s parents were John and Ann Jago. I had wondered whether they had come from Portugal or Spain, but it seems the family had been in the Saltash area for some time as his father, John, was baptised in Saltash. Another Ferdinando Jago was born around the 1711 in the area and was most likely to have been either his grandfather or great uncle. Therefore, it seems more likely that his name was a family name. In fact, Ferdinando was not that unusual a name as there are records for the baptisms of ninety-three babies named Ferdinando in Cornwall between 1700 and 1800, with thirteen of them in Saltash.

Ferdinando crossed the River Tamar at some point in his teenage years and made his way to Plymouth, where he became a mariner. He married Sarah Harris in Stoke Damerel, just north of Plymouth, on the 22nd February 1803. Ferdinando is described as “Mariner in the Ordinary” suggesting that he had undertaken a career at sea with the merchant service. Interestingly, he was able to sign his name with some flourish, suggesting that he had received some sort of basic education, as seen below:

(Image of the Parish Register for Stoke Damerel from https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:939N-Q73Q-1W?i=228&cc=1804330&personaUrl=%2Fark%3A%2F61903%2F1%3A1%3AKC9Q-PS6.)

The couple settled in Saltash and went on to have seven children:

  • John, baptised on the 11th March 1804 in St Stephens by Saltash
  • Sarah, baptised on the 2nd Mar 1806 at St Nicholas and St Faith’s Church, Saltash
  • Catherine, baptised on the 28th February 1808 at St Nicholas and St Faith’s Church, Saltash
  • Richard, baptised on the 28th December 1809 at St Nicholas and St Faith’s Church, Saltash
  • Mary, baptised on the 17th November 1811 at St Nicholas and St Faith’s Church, Saltash
  • Elizabeth, baptised on the 29th Mary 1814 at St Nicholas and St Faith’s Church, Saltash
  • Ann, baptised on the 23rd November 1817 at St Nicholas and St Faith’s Church, Saltash.

Interestingly, the baptismal records show that by 1814 Ferdinando had left the Merchant Service and was working in Saltash as a Bread Baker. The same occupation appears on Ann’s baptismal record in 1817 and is also record on his wife’s death certificate in 1850. Perhaps he did not enjoy the harsh life of a mariner and thought it would be easier to stay at home with his family and, despite the early mornings, work as a baker instead.

Ferdinando’s work as a baker did not last long as he sadly died and was buried in Saltash on the 25th January 1818, at the age of thirty seven. However, there is one further document which reveals a little more about Ferdinando. His will was proved on the 15th May 1818. Unusually at the time for someone of a lower social class, he had left a will. Rather than leaving his possessions to his sons, he left everything to his wife Sarah. This may have been due to the young age of his children because the eldest was fourteen and the youngest just a few months old.

Sarah was left on her own with seven children and unfortunately, Ann was buried a few months later on the 15th September 1818 at the age of ten months. Eventually, both boys were accepted into the Navy and went to sea as “boys” at the age of around fourteen. Sarah continued to live in Saltash and was described on the 1841 as “Ind” or Independent, suggesting that she was left enough money by her husband to sustain herself and look after the family. I believe Ferdinando tried to do the best he could for them.

52 Ancestors – Week 30 – Health

When considering Amy Johnson Crow’s prompt Health, from https://www.amyjohnsoncrow.com/52-ancestors-in-52-weeks/ it seems that for most of the family good health may well have been mainly down to luck. Most branches of the tree show families who were living in situations where food was likely to have been scarce for at least some of the time and child mortality was a fact that sadly affected many of them. One ancestor who survived until adulthood but died at a relatively young age was John Brownlee. He came from the coastal town of Hartlepool but intriguing died in London due to ill-health.

It is unclear exactly where John Brownlee was born as I have yet to find a baptismal record for him. His parents appear to have been James Brownlee and Ann Walker who, according to the Bishop’s Transcripts of Northumberland Parish Records, were married at All Saint’s Church, Newcastle Upon Tyne on the 6th July 1823. Their older children, Hudson (born 1824) and Barbara (born 1829), were both baptised in Newcastle, however, the birthplace of Isabella, another older sister born in 1826, is also ambiguous. The 1841 census suggests that John was born around 1831 and reveals that he was born in County Durham. His younger siblings Rebecca (born 1835), James Walker (born 1837) and Alexander (born 1842) were baptised in Hartlepool, so it is feasible that he was baptised there. Nevertheless, he states on the 1861 census that he was born in South Shields, which at this time was in County Durham and does tie in with what was record in the 1841 census.

One things that is certain is that by 1841, John was living in Hartlepool. It is slightly surprising that the family left the much larger town of Newcastle for the smaller town of Hartlepool. However, the new docks opened in 1835 in order to export the coal from the South Durham mines, so it is possible that James thought he would be likely to get more labouring work in a developing town. In addition, the Stockton to Hartlepool railway was completed in 1839, so is is feasible that James may have worked as a labourer during the construction of the railway.

The family lived on Chapman street, in the old town which was getting increasingly overcrowded. The website https://www.visionofbritain.org.uk/unit/10142702/cube/TOT_POP reveals that the population of the parish of Hartlepool had increased from 4,695 in 1831 to 7,608 in 1841, however few houses had been built and workers were crammed into the crowded streets of Hartlepool’s Old Town. Conditions were unsanitary as there was no running water and these conditions allowed diseases to spread. It is not remarkable that in these circumstances, John’s younger brother James Walker Brownlee, who was only four, died and was buried on the 11th May 1841. His sister Jane, aged two, also died the following year and was buried on the 12th Jan 1842.

Hartlepool was also subjected to outbreaks of cholera in 1832 and again in 1847, which is not surprising as the was waste everywhere and many of the population had little choice but to drink dirty water. A public notice written by the Mayor of Hartlepool in August 1948, shown on the site http://www.hhtandn.org/relatedimages/7564/publicnotice,-1848-cholera, suggests that despite the outbreak in 1847 conditions had not improved. It ordered the removal of “Pigsties, Dunghills, Muscle-heaps, Impure Drains, or Channels or Privies, from which any deleterious effluvia may emanate” at the owner’s expense.

There was a further outbreak of cholera in the town in 1849. Unfortunately, John’s mother Ann succumbed to the disease on the 11th September at her home on Tweddle Street, in Hartlepool’s Old Town. She was buried the next day at St Hilda’s Churchyard.

What happened to the family next is unknown, as they do not seem to have been recorded on the 1851 census. It is likely that they were simply omitted from the census, especially as John gave his address as Tweddle Street, Hartlepool when he married Jane Wilson at Stockton on Tees Register Office on the 22nd Jun 1851. There was still labouring work available in Hartlepool as the Jackson Dock was being built and the railway connecting Hartlepool with Leeds and Manchester was under construction, with both opening in 1852. However, there seems to be no further trace of his father James and sister Rebecca so it is possible that some of the family left Hartlepool, possibly emigrating in search of a better life.

A month following the marriage of John and Jane, Jane gave birth to a daughter Mary Ann who was baptised in Stockton on Tees, Jane’s home town, on the 23rd July 1851. The couple then had four sons: James (born 1852), Frederick (born 1855), Jason (born 1857) and John (born 1859). Whilst the births were registered in Stockton on Tees, they are likely to have been born in Hartlepool as the town did not have its own Register Office until the registration districts were reorganised in 1859.

Interestingly, the next appearance in the records for John is in Australia. His sister, Isabella, had married John Nicholls on the 11th February 1849 and they had a daughter Mary Ann in early 1850. John had travelled to Australia to the mining town of Ballarat and in January 1854, Isabella and Mary Ann arrived in Melbourne to join him. Isabella was accompanied by John. Having survived the crowded below deck conditions of the ship to get to Australia, John seems to have almost immediately returned to Hartlepool. For all we know, he may have been considering becoming a miner and seeking his fortune on the gold fields of Ballarat but then having assessed the situation thought better of it and undertook another dangerous journey to return home.

During the mid 1850s, the family moved to the newly constructed terraced houses of ever expanding West Hartlepool. Despite living in a slightly less overcrowded area, unfortunately the young children were not in good health. Mary Ann was buried on the 14th December 1857, in Stranton, West Hartlepool at the age of six. James also died before reaching his second birthday and there is no other trace of Frederick apart from his birth certificate. Interestingly, Jason was baptised on the 20th June 1861 at the age of four, in a private baptism. Perhaps he was also ill, and the family feared the worst, but hemanaged to pull through and eventually live to the age of seventy five.

By the time of the 1861 census, there were just two children in the family, Jason and John, although a few months later another daughter, Barbara, was born. John was working as a labourer at the docks and his youngest brother, Alexander, was also living with the family. They probably appreciated their hurriedly built “two-up, two-down” as it would have provided more space than the slum housing of Old Hartlepool. Hartlepool had become a very different place from the one John would have known as a young boy, with the population now standing at almost 30,000 people.

Shipbuilding was a relatively new industry in Hartlepool, which grew around the new docks built at West Hartlepool. In addition, the larger docks meant that many more ships were now arriving in the port. Sometime in the mid 1860s, John had a change of career and became a stoker on a steam boat. This was a role that involved shovelling coal into the furnaces of the steamship in order to keep the ship moving. The stoker would work in the dark, dirty engine room for up to eight hours at a time. He may have been a member of the merchant service, like his older brother Hudson, although he is noted as a stoker on a steam boat rather than a ship which suggests he worked on a smaller vessel. This was John’s occupation recorded on the birth certificate of his son Alic on the 27th August 1864.

Interestingly, Alic was born at Bromehead Street, Mile End Old Town, Middlesex, which is now part of London. Alic’s birth location suggests that John was on a ship that travelled from Hartlepool to London, but what is most interesting is that Jane Brownlee was also on board. It is difficult to establish whether this was a regular occurrence or if Jane just accompanied her husband occasionally. However, Jane seems to have remained in Hartlepool, at least some of the time, as this was where their youngest child, Lucy, was born on the 3rd February 1867.

Nevertheless, all was not well with John’s health. Years of hard work and living in poverty had taken their toll. John died on the 12th June 1868 in London with the place of his death given as 54 Berners Street, Marylebone. A little research revealed that Berners Street was home to the St Peter’s Hospital for Stone. Unusually for a working class person at this time, he had been taken to hospital.

The website https://ezitis.myzen.co.uk/stpeters.html, Lost Hospitals of London notes that by 1860 London was home to thirty two specialist charitable hospitals, many of whom provided some care for patients from less affluent backgrounds. However, at the time, there was no hospital for treating “the stone” known today as bladder or kidney stones. A meeting was held and a property was found at 42 Great Marylebone Street to establish a hospital. The hospital specialised in developing techniques to remove the stones by lithotrity, a process of crushing or dissolving the stones rather than the more risky process of lithotomy which was an open operation.

John’s cause of death was “pyaemia after perinial section” which suggests that he was indeed a patient at the hospital. Although less risky that an open operation, the removal of stones by lithotrity was not easy and John seems to have been one of the 15.2% of patients who did not survive the procedure. Even when patients survived their stay in hospital was up to one hundred days long. John died of pyaemia which is a form of septicemia caused by bacteria from an abscess spreading into the bloodstream.

Cuthbert E. Dukes wrote a more detailed history The History of St Peter’s Hospital for Stone, London, (1957) in which he reports that the General Registrar’s report showed that the number of deaths from stones in the urinary organs had almost doubled between 1850 and 1860. Cuthbert cites J S. Jolly’s (1940) hypothesis that this was due to malnutrition during the “hungry forties”, with a similar effect occurring after World War One. “The incidence of calculous disease has always been one of the most delicate indicators of dietary deficiency.”

Considering John’s background of growing up in the slums of Hartlepool, where work may not have been regular and the family may not have been able to afford to eat some of the time, this is not surprising. He also made two voyages, from Britain to Australia and back again, another situation where fresh, nutritious food would not have been available. This may well have been compounded by then working at sea and having to live with limited food for much of the time. Kidney stones can also be exacerbated by dehydration which would have been common amongst stokers working in the hot conditions below deck. At the age of thirty seven, John must have reached a point where he was in so much pain that he entered St Peter’s Hospital in the hope of finding a cure. Sadly, the procedure may have eliminated the stone but the subsequent infection, at a time without antibiotics, led to his death. John was buried a St Marylebone Cemetery on the 18th June 1868.

It is unknown how his wife Jane discovered the news. Was she with him at the time or did she receive a message many days later which explained what happened? Jane was left on her own with five children aged between one and eleven. The family moved to Stockton on Tees, where Jane’s relatives lived. Eventually, all of her sons gained a trade and worked in the shipyards of Stockton and all five remaining children seemed to have had more fortune with their health, living well into the twentieth century.

52 Ancestors – Week 29 – Fashion

This week’s prompt from Amy Johnson Crow, https://www.amyjohnsoncrow.com/52-ancestors-in-52-weeks/ is fashion. I started to think about one particular item that was in the bottom drawer of the chest of drawers in the spare bedroom at my Nana and Grandpa’s house on St Fagans Court, Cardiff. Many happy hours were spent dressing up using the contents of the drawer – old net curtains made perfect capes or wedding dresses and there was a wig and some glasses. However, the object I recall most vividly had a head and four feet. It was my Great Nana’s fox fur. This was an item that when purchased would have been very fashionable, but nowadays many people would be repulsed by simply looking at it.

My Great Nana is the oldest relative that I can remember. She lived with my Nana and Grandpa and had the small bedroom, which was above the garage at the front of the house. Origianlly, she was called Elizabeth Maud Brownlee and was born on the 6th August 1890, at 18 Garbutt Street, Stockton on Tees. She was the second child of Alic Brownlee and his wife Hannah Mary and at the time she had one older brother, Jack. Nobody ever seemed to have called her by the name Elizabeth. This was thanks to Jack – he could not say her name – so he called her Cissie and it stuck. There are even certificates awarded to her at the local show, which bear the name of Mrs C Stenner (following her marriage to Robert Stenner) and the descendants of her relatives in Suffolk still refer to her as Aunt Cissie.

Coming from a different age, born when Queen Victoria was still on the throne, she would have had a very different view about wearing animal fur to people today. As a child, my Great Nana may well have seen many ladies walking around the town wearing furs, whilst many stars of the stage and screen at the time would also have been seen as glamorous in their fur stoles or coats.

Elizabeth Maud Brownlee – Cissie

The photograph above shows my Great Nana with a fur stole and muff. I believe that this photo was taken around 1910, quite possibly on the occasion of her twenty first birthday in 1911. The hairstyle and wide brimmed hat are definitely of the Edwardian era. However, it is unclear whether these fur items belonged to my Great Nana. She had been working for some time, so may have saved enough money to buy them but on the other hand she may have borrowed them for the photograph. This fur stole differs from the one I remember as it is lighter in colour and does not seem to have a head and legs.

The fox fur from the drawer was almost definitely purchased date during a later decade, perhaps when money allowed or the first fur was worn out. Fox furs continued to be fashionable up until the 1950s so it is difficult to be sure. Nevertheless, there is a photograph which I believe shows the fox fur in question, dated the 27th January 1944. The occasion was the wedding of my grandparents, William John Charles Simpkins and Dilys Margaret Stenner.

The wedding of William John Charles Simpkins and Dilys Margaret Stenner, 27th January 1944

A closer look seems to reveal the fox I remember, complete with head. At the time, I’m sure that my Great Nana felt very smart, dressed in her best clothes, but as a child I always found the head very creepy. Given that this was a “War Wedding”, I doubt that the fox fur was brand new leading me to the conclusion that it most likely was purchased at some point during the 1930s.

This piece confirms the notion that fashion and values do indeed change vastly as time passes. Almost eighty years on from this photograph, virtually all of the population would no longer wish to wear such an item. For my Great Nana, I suspect it would have seemed a bit of a luxury and it was certainly well looked after to survive for forty or fifty years. But what became of it? I have no idea.

52 Ancestors – Week 28 – Transportation

One ancestor springs to mind on the theme of Transportation from Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 ancestors in 52 weeks https://www.amyjohnsoncrow.com/52-ancestors-in-52-weeks/, my 3x great grandfather, Captain Thomas Marley. Captain Marley was a Master Mariner working as the captain of a schooner transporting goods around the coast of Britain and Ireland.

Thomas was the son of John Marley and Betsey Collins and was baptised in Porlock, Somerset on the 29th March 1835. Unusually for the time, it is doubtful whether his parents ever married, as this was noted by the rector of Porlock, H M Passmore, at the baptism of his elder brothers Robert Collins (baptised 2nd September 1823) and William Collins (baptised 26th September 1826) as well has his sister Elizabeth Collins’ baptism on the 22nd May 1830. Robert’s record notes, ” Elizabeth Collins has a husband living at Exmouth or elsewhere, but had this child by John Marley a Sailor at Porlock Weir with whom she cohabits.”

Indeed, Thomas was the only one of the four children of John and Betsy to have been baptised with his/her father’s surname, although it is worth noting that by this point the rector of Porlock was now A F Clarke. Obviously, the couple had been living together for over twelve years and no-one thought to let him know they were unmarried. However, all the brothers along with their sister took their father’s surname, as did Betsey.

Thomas came from a seafaring family. John was a Master Mariner, so Betsey would have been responsible for the family most of the time. Robert’s baptismal record notes that she was a school mistress in nearby Luccombe, so Betsey may have left her husband and found work in Luccombe where she met John Marley. However, given that he was a sailor, it it equally likely that they met in Exmouth or possibly another south westerly port and that she came to Porlock from there. However they met, the family settled on the “Turkey” in Porlock Weir where Betsey remained with the children whilst John was away at sea.

The central cottage on the Turkey, Porlock Weir, home to John Marley and his family.

The 1841 census shows Thomas was five years old at the time and living with his mother, listed as Betsey Marley, wife, and his brother Robert, who by this time had begun his career as a Mariner. From his Mate Certificate, it seems likely that Robert went to see at the age of around eleven, quite possibly on the same ship as his father. Therefore, it seems likely that Thomas also went to see as a boy. By 1851, neither Robert nor Thomas were at home on the night of the census, but both can be found on the crew list of the Camilla based at St Ives in Cornwall in that year. Robert was the Mate of this ship, whilst Thomas was listed as a Boy. On ships of this size, the Boy would be a servant to the Master (Captain) and would have been in charge of cooking meals and a bottlewasher as well as gaining experience of being at sea.

The Camilla was one of the large number of ships in the coasting fleet of the Merchant Service. Prior to the development of the railways, the easiest way to transport goods was by sea and many small vessels took short journeys around the coast transporting all manner of goods. Their time on the Camilla was short-lived. Newspaper reports reveal that Camilla undertook short voyages for example from Penzance to St Ives and also went further afield to cities such as Newcastle. However, there was an unfortunate accident on the 21st September 1851. The vessel along with another ship, the Venus, became trapped in the gates of Bute Dock in Cardiff. The Venus was freed by cutting some of the beams and was towed onto Penarth Beach. The Camilla sunk and was raised the next day and also towed to the beach. Fortunately,all of the crew members survived. However, due to the damage, the goods and stores as well as the broken hull of the ship were auctioned on Bute Dock on the 19th December and the ship never sailed again.

It is unclear as to which ship employed the brothers next. However, both Robert and Thomas eventually became Masters in charge of their own ships. Robert took charge of the ship Fanny in the 1850s, which frequently sailed from Porlock to Minehead and also to Newport to bring coal from South Wales. Thomas is likely to have worked on board until the point he became a Master Mariner in the late 1850s, whilst still in his early twenties.

It can be assumed that, whichever ship he was sailing upon, Thomas was a regular visitor to Plymouth as this was where he met his wife, Elizabeth Margaret Brown. Samuel Brown, Elizabeth’s father, was also a mariner, in addition to holding the licence of the Jersey Packet Inn situated on Sutton Wharf in Plymouth, although I suspect that the Inn was run by his wife and daughters most of the time. Therefore, there are two possibilities regarding how Thomas and Elizabeth first met. Thomas may have known her father through his work or Thomas could have been a regular customer at the Inn. The couple married in the Parish Church of St Charles, Plymouth on the 10th June 1859, when Thomas was twenty four and his bride slightly younger at the age of twenty.

Thomas became the captain of the schooner Friendship, another sail powered, coasting vessel which could carry 67 tons and later took ownership of the ship which was registered at nearly Bridgwater in 1863. On the evening of the 1861 census, Thomas was away at sea, however, on this occasion the crew of ships docked around the country were enumerated. Thomas and his crew of three were recorded on board the Friendship, which was in the Cornish port of St Ives. Newspapers reveal the routes of the Friendship. Some of the journeys were a short trip across the Bristol Channel. The ship called frequently in Newport, where the cargo loaded onboard seems to have been either iron ore or coal. In turn, the ship took timber, bricks or agricultural goods from the Somerset and Bristol area to other parts of the country.

Thomas was also a frequent visitor to Ireland, often loading the ship with coal from South Wales and transporting it to ports such as Cork, Waterford, Limerick, Youghal and Kingstown. With the building of the railways and the development of steam ships, coal was certainly in demand around the coast of Britain and Ireland. He also travelled from the Bristol Channel ports to the Southern coast of England via the coast of Cornwall calling at places such as the Cornish ports of Falmouth, Penryn, Truro and Penzance as well as Plymouth, Salcombe, Weymouth, Poole, Teignmouth further along the South Coast.

Whilst sailing across the Bristol Channel and around the Atlantic coast of the South West must have seemed fairly routine for Thomas and his crew, the sea could be an extremely dangerous place. Shipwrecks were common and one such incident was the sinking of the Waterwitch, a large steam vessel from Belfast on the 6th November 1861. The steamer was travelling from Glasgow, Scotland to Porto, Portugal when it got into difficulties in the St George’s Channel, which joins the Irish Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. The heavy seas broke the rudder in two places and then the engine room suffered a leak. Disastrously, the crew failed to stem the leak and the hold was filled with nine feet of water leading to the ship becoming unmanageable. Fortunately, the Friendship happened to be passing and, despite the stormy conditions, Thomas Marley succeeded in steered his ship alongside the Waterwitch and remained there long enough to rescue all eighteen crew members, before the ship sank. He even returned to the ship to rescue the Captain’s four dogs which had been left onboard.

The incident was widely reported in the newspapers and Thomas Marley was noted for his kindness in giving up his cabin for the shipwrecked sailors and ensuring that they arrived safely in the port of Watchet. From there, the crew were returned to their home port by the Shipwrecked Seamen and Fishermen’s Society. However, this was not the end of the matter, a few months later a special presentation was held in Watchet where Thomas was rewarded for his gallant actions and presented with a telescope inscribed:

“Presented by Her Majesty’s Government to Captain Thomas Marley, master of the schooner Friendship, of Watchet in recognition of his humanity and kindness to the master and crew of the steamer Waterwitch, of Belsfast, whom he rescued from thier waterlogged and disabled vessel on 6th November 1861.”

He was also given £5 and a flag awarded by the Shipwrecked Seamen and Fishermen’s Society, along with a purse of gold collected in Belfast.

Thomas and Elizabeth went on to have a family: Elizabeth Sarah (born 1860), Thomas (born 1863), John Brown (born 1864), Samuel Brown (born 1866), Robert (born 1869) and Annie Maria Brown (born 1870). The family continued to live in Porlock Weir and can be found there on the 1871 census. John Marley, Thomas’ father is still living in the house on the “Turkey”, however, Elizabeth is recorded as the head of household. Thomas seems to be away at sea as he is not recorded on this census, however, he could also have been docked in one of the ports of Southern Ireland.

In 1878, Thomas purchased another ship, the Thomas Edwin, a 64 ton schooner. On this ship, he seems to have travelled further afield. He began to sail to ports such as Antwerp in Belguim, Gravesend in Kent and Dieppe in France. Once again, he was a frequent visitor to South Wales and this is where the Thomas Edwin was found on the night of the 1881 census in Briton Ferry. Also onboard the ship was his son, Thomas, who at the age of eighteen was the Mate.

The five other children are at home with Elizabeth in Porlock. Interestingly, John Brown Marley had decided not to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfathers, but instead had become an apprentice watchmaker. Samuel Brown Marley trained as a cabinetmaker, although both became builders later in life.

Thomas continued to sail the Thomas Edwin until his retirement around 1890, however, in the time preceding the death of his wife in 1891, his base became the home of his son John, in Minehead. Initally, John still had a watchmaking businees, but he then began a brick and tile manufacturing business and by 1901 had purchased Cartref, a large house with fourteen rooms and a magnificent view of Minehead. Thomas retired to this house, unfortunately becoming quite ill in his late sixties. He eventually moved to Cardiff, where his daughter Elizabeth Sarah looked after him until he died on the 25th October 1905. Thomas’ body was returned by train to Minehead, where he was buried in the same grave as his wife, Elizabeth Margaret Marley.

52 Ancestors – Week 27 – Free

Amy Johnson Crow has this week suggested the theme of free for the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks challenge https://www.amyjohnsoncrow.com/52-ancestors-in-52-weeks/. Here I attempt to explain how I traced the family of my 4x great grandfather James Allen, a fisherman who later worked as a fish seller in Porthleven.

Using census records, it was possible to trace the family back to 1841. James Allen (spelt Allin on this census), a fisherman, was living in Porthleven with his wife Mary and his children: James (my 3x great grandfather), his son’s wife Susan, Eliza aged 10, Richard aged 7 and Emily aged 5 along with Mary his one year old granddaughter. As all of James and Mary’s children who were listed were born before the advent of civil registration in 1837, it became necessary to find baptismal records for these people.

Fortunately, many transcriptions of parish records for Cornwall are available on the free website https://www.cornwall-opc-database.org/. Using this database, it was straightforward to establish that the only possible marriage for the couple was on the 26th September 1819. There were only two other instances of a James Allen marrying a Mary within twenty years of this date, one in 1811 and one in 1840 and as neither were in Sithney or Breage, it is certain that our James married Mary Richards in Sithney Parish Church.

It is also possible to search for baptisms using the Cornwall Online Parish Chest. In total the couple had ten children:

  • James Allen, baptised 23rd April 1820
  • William Allen, baptised 16th June 1822
  • William Allen, baptised 24th February 1824
  • Mary Allen, baptised 13th February 1825
  • Eliza Allen, baptised 13th July 1828
  • William Allen, baptised 20th June 1830
  • Richard Allen, baptised 17th November 1833
  • Emily Allen, baptised 22nd May 1836
  • Jane Eddy Allen, baptised 1 May 1838
  • William Henry Allen, baptised 29th February 1840

All of the children were baptised at Sithney Church, however it is noted on each record that the place of residence of the family was Porthleven and that their father was James Allen, a fisherman except in the case of William Henry, where James’ occupation was a Labourer. Perhaps the weather conditions were not suitable for fishing at that time and he had taken some temporary labouring work in the short term. Although the harbour at Porthleven was now complete, fishing could bring great catches one week but no catches for weeks at a time also.

It may seem strange today that four of the ten children were named William. Nevertheless, it was common practice to name children after a sibling who had sadly passed away. The transcriptions of burial records, also freely available on the Cornwall Online Parish Clerk website, reveal the harsh reality of child mortality rates in the early nineteenth century. Six of the children were buried before the age of three, leaving only the four children who appeared on the 1841 census to reach adulthood. William (born 1822) was buried on the 24th March 1823 aged one year and William (born 1824) was buried on the 25th June 1824 at around four months of age. Mary died of smallpox and was around three years old when she was buried on the 16th September 1828. William (born 1830) was buried on the 7th November 1830 aged about five months and his sister Jane Eddy was also a similar age when she was buried on the 7th October 1838. Finally, William Henry was nine months old when he was buried on the 2nd December 1840.

The marriages of the four remaining children also give further information about James. His eldest son, James, married Susanna Kemp in Sithney, before Porthleven church was completed, on the 28th April 1839. At this time James senior was still working as a fisherman. By the time Eliza married Richard Laity on the 28th March 1852, James was a fishmonger. Indeed, he remained a fish seller for many years and was recorded as such on two further marriage certificates: the marriage of Emily to Philip Orchard on the 2nd March 1857 and finally the marriage of Richard to Elizabeth Jewell on the 24th May 1857.

The free transcriptions of the burial records also provide a records of where James and Mary ended their days. Both were buried in Porthleven, James on the 4th March 1875 and Mary on the 9th December 1879. Although the ages recorded do not seem to be accurate, these seem to be the most likely burials.

James’ birth was a bit of a mystery. He claimed on the 1851 census that he was born in Marazion, however there are no baptisms recorded for him in that parish, not in St Hilary which was the mother church for Marazion at the time. The most likely baptism for him is in Towednack a parish on the northern coast of Cornwall. This may seem unlikely, however, details of the life of Mary Ann Allen (1804-1885) my 4x great grandmother who was married to Thomas Kitchen, coincidentally, helped with the search.

Whilst looking for details of Mary Ann’s parents and siblings, the records revealed some interesting discoveries. Her parents were yet another James Allen and Susanna. Marriage records reveal that there was only one possible marriage for a James Allen and Susanna Eddy at this time, which took place in Sithney on the 4th June 1896. Baptism records for the couple’s possible children reveal that they moved through several parishes with their children being baptised in several different places:

  • James, baptised 6th August 1797, Towednack
  • Susannah, baptised 12th April 1799, Marazion
  • Susannah, baptised 30th March 1800, Towednack
  • Richard, baptised 1st November 1801, Towednack
  • Mary Ann, baptised 8th April 1804, Breage
  • Elizabeth, baptised 12th July 1807, Sithney
  • Susanna, baptised 17th December 1809, Sithney
  • Oliver, baptised 1st March 1812, Sithney
  • Jane, baptised 25st September 1814, Sithney

Jane’s baptism notes that the family’s place of residence was Melangoos and that her father was a miner. This explained why the family travelled around, as many miners moved to where they could find the best opportunities for work and higher pay.

As Mary Ann ended up living in Porthleven and one of her sisters, Susannah, was baptised in Marazion, this suggested to me that James Allen, the fisherman from Porthleven, could well be the James from this family. He might have believed he had been born in Marazion and the family may have moved a few weeks later to Towednack where he was baptised. Susannah may have given birth at the home of another relative in Marazion despite living in Towednack. Another clue was the name of James’ youngest daughter, Jane Eddy. There seems to be no other family member with the surname Eddy, so this name could well have been from his mother’s maiden name. Currently, this is the most plausible hypothesis and these freely available transcriptions of the parish records have been invaluable in attempting to find out more about my 4x great grandfather, James Allen.

52 Ancestors – Week 26 – Conflict

This week’s theme from Amy Johnson Crow https://www.amyjohnsoncrow.com/52-ancestors-in-52-weeks/ is conflict. Many of my ancestors found themselves involved in the conflicts of the twentieth century. All four of my great grandfathers joined the armed forces during World War One, with three of them serving in the army in France and Flanders. A generation later, like their fathers, my grandfathers both found themselves going to war. When you consider what might have happened, it seems that it is simply good fortune they survived. This is certainly true of one of my great grandfathers, who found himself involved in some of the most dangerous battles of the First World War.

Robert Stenner (1891-1971) left Wales in 1909 for a new life farming in Canada. I suspect that he had not planned to return home quite so quickly, but he arrived back in Britain on the White Star Dominion which arrived in Liverpool from Monteral on the 22nd June 1914. This was due to the fact that his father was suffering with lung cancer. Just a few days later, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated and by the 28th July 1914, Britain was at war.

Robert initially returned to Cardiff, where his father died on the 22nd March 1915. He was named as the informant on the death certificate and most probably worked by assisting his brother in continuing with the family yeast business. A few months later, he met his future wife, Elizabeth Maud Brownlee (Cissie) when she came to Cardiff with her father who was repairing ships in Cardiff Docks. Cissie decided to move to London and got a job in a pub in Fulham. Robert soon followed her and worked as a Hotel Waiter at The Swan Hotel in Waltham Green. The couple married on the 4th November 1915 in the Registry Office in Fulham. As far as I know, no family members were present and the witnesses were two ladies they met in the street.

A few weeks later, the couple found themselves in Great Yarmouth, the home of Cissie’s brother Jack and his wife Lucy. This is where Robert decided to enlist in the Army. On the 27th November 1915, he enlisted in the Royal Fusiliers and found himself in the 29th Battalion, which was known as the “University and Public School” Reserve Battalion. Robert had not attended university, but had been a pupil at The Howardian School, a higher grade school in Cardiff, so perhaps that is why he was assigned to this unit. Following his basic training, his army record notes that Robert requested to join the Army Service Corps.

The Army, however, had other ideas. It was noted that he was of “A1” fitness and had perfect eye sight. Robert was assigned to the Machine Gun Corps and ordered to go to Grantham for Machine Gun Training. A Regimental Conduct Sheet in his record notes that he did not arrive as expected on the 18th March 1916 and he did not appear in Grantham for a further three days. There is no reference as to why he was three days late. Perhaps he considered not appearing at all and swiftly returning to Canada, after all the Machine Gun Corps would have been far more perilous than working for the Army Service Corps behind the lines. I suspect he may well have gone back to Great Yarmouth to see Cissie before he went to his new unit and then on to France. Whatever the events, he was deducted six days wages for this misdemeanour.

Trevor Yorke, in his book The Trench, Oxford, 2014, pp. 65-66, provides information about the development of the machine gun as a weapon during the First World War:

“The Germans were more appreciative of the potential of the machine gun and had three times as many per battalion than the British. It was not until the high cost of the Vickers was lowered that it became widely available. Part of the army’s reluctance in adopting it was that it was heavy, took time to set up and required a team of eight men to carry the weapon and ammunition around. This made it of limited use for the predicted fast moving warfare. However, once the Western Front became established these heavy machine guns came into their own. Positions were dug where they could cover the area in front of the trenches while later techniques were developed to provide indirect fire where it could be effective from up to 4000 metres. The Machine Gun Corps was established in October 1915 so they could be better utilised and soldiers trained in their use while the lighter Lewis gun provided a more mobile alternative to the Vickers.”

After a month’s training in using a machine gun, Robert was sent to France. He embarked at Folkestone on the 20th April 1916 and arrived in Boulogne later that day. Following a few days at the base in Camiers, just south of Boulogne, he was assigned to the 15th Company of the Machine Gun Corps which he joined on the 26th April.

The movements of the 15th Company are briefly outlined on the website https://www.wartimememoriesproject.com/greatwar/allied/mgcompany.php?pid=10615 It seems that Robert was thrust into action at the battle of the Somme. Trevor Yorke states:

“Machine guns were one of the most lethal weapons of the First World War, most notably at the Battle of the Somme where soldiers coming forward or caught in barbed wire entanglements were mown down by their rapid fire.”

Yorke, T., The Trench, (2014) p. 65.

Robert had spent five years farming in Saskatchewan, Canada, establishing a farm on his piece of land and building his own simple home. He was used to hard manual work and harsh winter conditions but nothing could have prepared him for the horrors he was about to face. The 15th Company took part in several of the major battles on the Somme. They were in action at High Wood from the 20th to the 25th July 1916. Following a brief period behind the lines, the soldiers spent much of September fighting at the Battle of Guillemont (3rd-6th September), the Battle of Flers-Corcelette (15th-22nd September) and the Battle of Morval (25th-28th September). The men then moved on to serve during the Battle of Le Transloy (1st-18th October). By the time the Battle of the Somme ended there were over 600,000 Allied casualties with almost 150,000 soldiers killed making them witnesses to one of the bloodiest battles in history.

The company travelled northwards again to Festubertand towards the end of October, where they spent the winter. In early 1917, the soldiers were moved again in preparation for the Battle of Arras which took place from the 9th April until the 16th May 1917. Whilst the 15th Company were at Arras, tens of thousands of men were employed building roads and railways and digging tunnels around Ypres, whilst the Germans’ attention had been diverted.

The tunnels around Ypres could hold around 25,000 men and the plan was for them to emerge into No Man’s Land in a surprise attack. Other tunnels were dug under the German lines and filled with explosives. Initially, the attack went well, however, August 1917 was incredibly wet and the land had originally been a swamp. In addition, the shelling has destroyed much of the drainage system. Robert was at home on leave for ten days in August 1917, but by the time he returned to the front line, the entire area was a sea of mud. Little ground was made as soldiers on both sides were forced into the quagmire only to be attacked by their enemies. The 15th Company were involved in the final stages of the Battle of Ypres at Passchendaele, known today as a futile battle in which the British suffered 275,000 casualties.

Robert appears to have been one of the casualties. His records reveal that he was taken to A1 Casualty Clearing Station at Chocques on the 8th October 1917 due to being “buried”. I am unsure as to what happened, perhaps a tunnel collapsed or he could have been stuck in the mud of the battle field. The following day, Robert was then transported on to the 64 Field Hospital, suggesting that his injuries were not life threatening. This is where Robert remained for a month before rejoining his unit on the 9th November 1917, the penultimate day of the Battle of Ypres.

In January 1918, the 15th Company of the Machine Gun Corps moved to Italy where they were based on the River Piave. They did not witness any major battles and it seems that they were quickly recalled to France in March in order to fight once again at Ypres at the Battle of the Lys from the 7th to the 29th April. It is during this time that the 15th Company was amalgamated with other companies to form the larger 5th Battalion of the Machine Gun Corps.

Officers of the Machine Gun Corps, 1918. Robert Stenner standing in the centre of the back row.

It was during the reorganisation that Robert was promoted to Lance Corporal, finding himself in charge of a small group of men and their machine guns. Once again he was back on the Western Front and the men found themselves moving in and out of the lines continuously for several months. They were reassigned once again to the Somme and found themselves in the thick of the battles on the Hindenburg line and the final advance on Picardy.

Having been in France continuously for fourteen months, Robert was able to return home briefly via Boulogne from the 7th until the 21st of October 1918. He returned to his unit on the 24th October who by now were in the Le Quesnoy area of France, where they remained until the war was finally over. In the weeks that followed, the battalion were transported into Belgium before the men returned to Chiseldon to be demobilised in February 1919.

Following the war, Robert returned to Cardiff with his wife Cissie, initially settling at Ovington Terrace in the Canton area of the city where he grew up. Amazingly, he had survived some of the most dangerous battles of the First World War. In total, Robert spent two years and three hundred days in some of the most treacherous areas of France.

52 Ancestors – Week 25 – Groups

Historically, people have always formed groups and my ancestors can be found in many photographs of sports teams or with groups of fellow workers. However, small communities were groups within themselves, where everyone seemed to know everyone else and the village which was the home of my grandparents, Jack and Betty Kitchen, was no exception. There were many activities and events held within the small community and the focus of this week’s blog is one of them: the St Laudus Players.

St Laudus Players, early 1950s.

In Cornwall, during the post war period, amateur dramatics was a common pastime for many people. The St Laudus Players from the village of Mabe would stage productions once or twice a year for an audience of vistors from other nearby villages. In turn, the Mabe villagers would hire a coach and be entertained the performances of others.

Several members of the family were involved in this pastime. The earliest members of the group were Uncle Sid and Auntie Cora. Sidney James Matthews (1900-1983) lived in Mabe almost all his life and was the younger brother of my great grandmother Lilian Collins (nee Matthews) who also lived in the village. He was a mason by trade, like his father, and spent several years working in Plymouth after the Second World War. Sid married Cora Kempe (1907-1875) in 1930 and the couple initially lived in Longdowns, around a mile outside the centre of Mabe, before settling in the village itself sometime after the war. Interestingly, Cora was born in the USA, in Milford, Massachusetts (famous for its pink granite) but the family seem to have only lived there very briefly as her older and younger sisters were all born in Cornwall.

The couple both seem to have been active members of the St Laudus Players from the beginning and newspaper reports reveal that the group were staging two comic plays per year from the 1950s. While Cora preferred to act, Sid took a back-stage role as a stage manager and was often the prompter too. In April 1951, the St Laudus Players staged a version of the Noel Coward play “Blithe Spirit” with Cora undertaking the role of Mrs Bradman and Sid was a stage manager. Cora was also commended for her character part in “Nothing But The Truth” in April 1953. By April 1955, the group were putting on four performances of their latest play, “The Late Edwina Black”, at the parish hall, this time with both Cora and Sid working behind the scenes. The number of performances was partly due to the small size of the hall, which would be filled several times, as the audiences from the nearby villages could not be accommodated at once.

Preparing costumes for the plays

There is also evidence that my great grandmother, Lilian Collins (nee Mathews) was also involved in making the costumes as she is seen in the above photograph behind the sewing machine. Judging by the tea cups, it was also an excuse to meet up and have a cup of tea and a chat with fellow villagers, which by all accounts she would have enjoyed.

In the late 1950s, my grandparents Jack and Betty Kitchen also joined the St Laudus Players. Betty acquired a leading role whilst Jack worked as the stage manager alongside Betty’s uncle, Sid Matthews. There was also an acting debut by their brother in law George Clews, who was married to Betty’s sister Joan. Several photographs and newspaper cuttings regarding the 1956 play “The Paper Chain” by Falkland L. Carey and Ivan Butler are held in “the archive”.

Newspaper review from 1956
Newspaper cutting from 1956

The highlight for Uncle George was being shot by Granny in the opening act. My dad, of course, recognises that it is fact his toy gun that was used and several of the props including the armchair came from his grandmother’s house at Carnsew Crescent.

George Clews as Maurice Spencer and Betty Kitchen as Jean Cassel in The Paper Chain

Villagers from all backgrounds and age groups were involved, the producer Russell Dunstan was the headmaster of Mabe School, whilst Grace Pascoe, who was a regular member of the cast, also worked at the school, cooking the dinners. Valerie Collins was the daughter of Albert and Lilian Collins who had lived next door to Lilian Collins on Trenoweth Terrace. The two Lilians were great friends but their names must have caused some confusion. The youngest members of the cast were Marie Brewer, who must have just left school, and Ann Rapson who had a small part alongside her father, Rex.

The Cast – standing (left to right) Rex Rapson, Wilfred Francies, Grace Pascoe, Marie Brewer; seated Valerie Collins, Sussette Camfield, George Clews, Betty Collins, Cora Matthews

Unusually, there is also a photograph of the back stage team, which shows Jack Kitchen and Sid Matthews (stage managers) along with the team who dealt with the box office, sold the programmes, made the set, acted as make up artists and made the teas.

The back stage team, including Jack Kitchen and Sid Matthews standing on the left.
The final act of the play The Paper Chain.

The following year, The Women’s Institute was the venue for a production of “Dangerous Corner” by J.B. Priestly. Betty took on a leading role, this time acting with Reg Pascoe, who was the Church warden, a good friend of the family and godfather to my father. Once again, props were borrowed from local houses, with the coffee table belonging to my great grandmother Lilian Collins. My dad still keeps his cufflinks in the wooden, musical, cigarette box chosen for one of the scenes because it closed with a audible smack. Jack and Sid teamed up as stage managers but now Jack also worked as a prompter. Yet again, local headmaster Russell Dunstan was the producer and another local teacher John Crate played the role of the villain.

Newspaper reviews of “Dangerous Corner” from 1957.
Left to right: John Crate, Eileen Stratton, Reg Pascoe, Cyril Playle, Betty Kitchen (seated), Heather Hall
Left to right: Reg Pascoe, Betty Kitchen, Eileen Stratton, Cyril Playle, John Crate
Left to right: Reg Pascoe, Susette Camfield, Betty Kitchen (holding the box), Eileen Stratton, John Crate.

This was to be the final play for Jack and Betty, as shortly afterwards they moved to set up a guest house in Falmouth. They both joined the Falmouth Theatre Club and Jack later appeared in another newspaper review praising his efforts as stage manager for the play “Boeing-Boeing” in October 1971. It reads:

“Congratulations to the stage manager, Jack Kitchen, and his assistants, E.J. Berryman. F. Johnson and J. Shutts. All his seven doors shut firmly and solidly, a thing not always achieved by amateurs.”

The comedy about a group of air hostesses required regular slamming of the doors and his training in carpentry had obviously come in handy.

Their time living in Mabe and being part of the St Laudus Players was not however forgotten. They named the bed and breakfast on Marlborough Road St Laudus.

Betty Kitchen outside “St Laudus”, Marlborough Road, Falmouth
Enlargement of the sign on 35 Marlbrouogh Road

This year, I am attempting to write about my ancestors every week following the themes suggested by Amy Johnson Crow https://www.amyjohnsoncrow.com/52-ancestors-in-52-weeks/.

52 Ancestors – Week 24 – Father’s Day

For this week’s post, on the theme of Father’s Day, (from Amy Johnson Crow, https://www.amyjohnsoncrow.com/52ancestors52weeks/) I am aiming to follow the line of my father, the Kitchen family back, as far as possible, rather than focus on one ancestor. Much of this work was done by my Grandpa Jack, John Eddy Kitchen, during the 1980s. He was a frequent visitor to the record office in Truro and began with the census returns for Porthleven, which at the time would have been on microfilm. Later, he studied the parish records and was able to successfully trace his roots back to the seventeenth century.

My father was the last of our line of Kitchens to be born in Cornwall. My grandpa had created a paper trail back to the late 1600s, however, my dad was still amazed when his Ancestry DNA ethnicity results were updated, showing that approximately 47% of his genes linked him not just to Cornwall, but very specifically to the Kerrier region. This region stretches from Falmouth in the East to Porthleven and Helston in the West and includes the Lizard peninsula in the South as well as the mining areas of Cambourne and Redruth to the North. Whilst these results are merely a guide, in our case they do seem to fit very well with the records available.

My Grandpa Jack was born in Porthleven, Cornwall on the 18th January 1921 at the home of his maternal grandparents, Cliff Cottage. He grew up in the hamlet of Herniss, along with his younger sister, Muriel. When he was fourteen, he was apprenticed to a funeral director to learn carpentry, which in this case involved making the coffins. This was a rather gruesome occupation for a young boy, but after several years he took on another apprenticeship to become a builder. On the outbreak of the Second World War, he signed up as an armourer in the RAF, which included looking after the stocks of ammunition for the planes. This meant that he spent the war in India. Following the war, he returned to Cornwall, settling in Mabe then Falmouth with his wife Betty (Lilian Betty Collins), whom he married on the 8th June 1946. He continued to work in the building and carpentry trade until he retired.

His father was William John Bawden Kitchen, who was born on the 10th June 1893 in Porthleven. He grew up in the town but unlike most of his family he chose to work as a horseman on a farm when he left school. In 1915, similar to many of his generation, he joined the army. Following the war, he returned to civilian life William and married Lizzie Hosking on the 13th September 1919 and had two children, Jack and Muriel. They moved from Porthleven to Herniss, to a smallholding – Hessole Villa – and he set up in business as a greengrocer with a delivery van. William continued in this business until the Second World War. However, rationing, especially of petrol put a sudden end to this line of work. Therefore, William took a position at Falmouth Docks which he continued until his retirement.

William was the son of yet another Porthleven resident, Thomas Kitchen, who was born on the 14th June 1867. He was the seventh of nine children. Upon leaving school, he went to sea as a fisherman and was noted in the 1881 census as a fisherman’s assistant. Eventually, he became a fisherman who owned a boat of his own. Thomas married Bessie Bawden on the 27 June 1888 and had a total of nine children. He remained in Porthleven and eventually retired, living to the grand old age of ninety five.

Thomas’ father was Peter Kitchen, who was baptised on the 11th December 1825, giving him an approximate date of birth of the later months of 1825. Despite being baptised in Sithney, later census returns describe Porthleven as his birthplace. This was due to the fact that Porthleven at this time remained quite small and did not have a church of its own. The parish boundaries divided the town and residents either lived on Breageside, part of the Breage Parish or Gravesend (named due to the fact that bodies of people who died in shipwrecks were buried on the cliff top here) which lay in the Parish of Sithney. Initially, Peter worked as a lead miner, but soon he too was working as a fisherman like his father before him. He married Frances Ann Dunn in Sithney on the 30th October 1852. However, unlike his descendants he did not have the good fortune of being able to retire as he died at the age of fifty two.

The fisherman who was Peter’s father was another Thomas Kitchen. Thomas was also baptised in Sithney, on the 30th January 1799. His occupation suggests that he too was a resident of Porthleven. This Thomas, my 4x great grandfather, married Mary Ann Allen on the 7th November 1824. His bride was baptised in Breage, however, due to the parish boundary, in reality they may well have both grown up in what was then a small village of a few hundred people. Like the next two generations of Kitchens, Thomas and Mary Ann also had nine children, of whom Peter was the eldest. Thomas continued to fish well into his sixties.

Robert Kitchen was the father of Thomas and like his son and grandson, Sithney church was the location of his baptism on the 19th June 1771. Before his marriage to Margaret Strike on the 13th October 1795, banns were called in both Sithney and Breage. This, coupled with the fact that his burial record from 1832 notes his place of residence as Porthleven, suggests that Robert spent a considerable amount of his life there. He was most probably one of the early fisherman who fished from the cove at Porthleven before the construction of the harbour or although it is possible that he arrived when labouring work was plentiful during the building of the harbour in the 1820s. Robert and Margaret had twelve children, nine daughters and three sons, all of whom were baptised in Sithney. Interestingly, Thomas was the only one to continue the family name as both his brothers perished during childhood.

Thomas (born 1799) was named after his grandfather Thomas Kitchen, who of course was Robert’s father. Thomas (who was my 6x great grandfather) was baptised in Germoe on the 23 February 1731. Unlike his descendants, it is unlikely that he was born in Porthleven, given that Germoe is a landlocked parish, further to the West. Thomas married Thomasin Symons on the 6th January 1753 in Breage. The couple had seven children, fours sons and three daughters. There does not seem to be a record of Thomas’ occupation. Given that he came from Germoe and then moved to Breage, it is reasonable to assume that he was a miner. Miners were employed in the china clay works at nearby Tregonning Hill. This was where Cornish China Clay was first discovered in Cornwall in 1746 and it lies less than a mile from Germoe. Meanwhile, there were many tin and lead mines in the area making mining was the most common occupation for workers in this area of Cornwall. Nevertheless, Thomas could also have been an agricultural labourer or may also have fished from Porthleven. Whatever his occupation, Thomas most probably moved for work more than once and may even have been the first of the Kitchens to live in Porthleven, given that he was buried in Sithney on the 11th May 1798.

Yet another Thomas was Thomas’ father. He was also from Germoe and baptised there on the 21st July 1695. He seems to have lived all his life in the parish, as he married his wife in the village church on the 18th February 1728. His wife was Catherine Wood, and as far as I know they had four children, two sons and two daughters. Thomas was buried there at the age of sixty nine years on the 21st May 1765. Again, it is likely that he worked in agriculture or mining but it is very difficult to be sure.

Thomas’ baptism record reveals that his father was Robert Kitchen and his mother’s name was Margaret. The only suitable candidates for my 8x great grandparents seem to be Robert Kitchen and Margaret Richards who married at Landewdnack Church, which is situated on the Lizard, Britain’s most southerly Peninsula, on the 20th November 1693. The record records the Latin form of their names: Robertus and Margareta a reminder that this was once the language of the church.

This is where the trail currently ends. However, I consider it quite an achievement that my paternal line could be traced back for ten generations. For several hundred years, these ‘fathers’ all lived in that same small area of Cornwall and were amongst the first residents of the place that is now the town of Porthleven, witnessing the construction of the harbour and the rise and decline of the fishing industry there.