Review: Explore The Past (a brand new guide to family history)

The front cover of the new Explore The Past guide.

Lately, Worcestershire seems to be cropping up in my “genealogical life” more than usual. Not only have I just become a member of the Malvern Family History Society (thanks to whom I think I may have cracked an old brick-wall and gone back a further generation!), but also because I was recently invited to review the new guide to family history which the Worcestershire Archive & Archaeology Service have created.

I was recently contacted by a member of Explore The Past, a part of Worcestershire Archive, announcing the creation of a 70-page comprehensive guide designed to provide advice to anyone researching their family history. In fact, this guide is so complete, you don’t need to have Worcestershiremen in your ancestry to find it interesting and useful. In my particular case, it just so happens that my grandmother’s grandmother Jane Allen (née Davis) was half Malvernian, with roots in Kempsey and Hanley Castle. Many members of my extended family branched off into various parts of Worcestershire, so I immediately leaped at the chance to write this review.

What is it?

Any genealogist will appreciate that, no matter how often and how well acquainted we are with the resources we use on a regular basis, there are always new discoveries out there which enrich and facilitate our research. The guide published by Explore The Past is proof of this. Its 70 pages cover a vast range of topics useful for any researcher, amateur and professional. Obviously it includes not only what I call the basics (census returns, civil registration and church records), but goes on to delve into other equally fascinating and useful resources: newspapers, trade directories, prints and engravings, school directories, archaeology and historic buildings, etc… It is truly a goldmine of information presented in a very clear and compact way.

Who is it for?

For someone such as myself, who tends to rely excessively on online records, I must confess I didn’t quite know what to expect from a guide of this kind. As I don’t live in the UK at the moment, you might say I’m a bit on an unseasoned user of British archive material. After all, most of us tend to think “Oh well, I’ve seen it all by know anyway”, don’t we? Actually, reading through the pages, I realised just how much information there is out there which I am simply not consulting (or I’m not using properly). The fact that this guide was conceived as a resource for those unable to make the long journey to The Hive, where Worcestershire Archive is located, is in itself innovative. Of course not all holdings are available online, but thanks to their top-notch digitisation and translation/transcription services, the Archive offers you the chance to access documents without moving from the comfort of your home!

OK, but what does it contain?

Although Worcestershire is a county, it is in fact an array of smaller, tightly-knit communities. The Archive contains some 20,000 books which will enable researchers to understand the finer historical details which defined the lives of our forebears, from military history to transport, manufacture, leisure and of course biographies of notable historical residents. The Archive also holds a wide range of maps -from tithe maps to building footprints- which will enable you to comprehend the geography of the land in which your ancestors lived.

If it’s ancient history you’re interested in, this will definitely whet your appetite: the guide offers information about the over 32,000 records of Worcestershire’s above- and below-ground archaeology, more than 17,000 records about historical buildings and ancient landscapes, over 8,000 records of archaeological investigations and over 23,000 records of references to archaeological reports, articles, books and even photographs.

Worcestershire Archive contains thousands of maps for Worcestershire.

The England and Wales census, which as you probably know was taken every ten years from 1841 to 1911, can also be accessed onsite at Worcestershire Archive and, as explained in the guide, enables users to research individuals, tracking down their movements from one population to another, understanding the social make-up of a specific area, and of course discovering more information about family units. The census is also complemented by the existence of over 85,000 photographs (including engravings and aerial photographs) which will give an added visual dimension to your research. To this we should add photographs of local events as well as images of soldiers who went to war between 1914 and 1918. I wonder if I can find any of my many Worcestershire relatives who sadly fought and died in the Great War?

Church records are complemented by the existence of vestry minutes (which give information about poor relief, church accounts and even bastardy cases), as are Bishops’ transcripts. Be warned, though, that the office of Bishop was abolished during the Commonwealth, so there are no transcripts for the period 1646-1660. Ecclesiastical records also include other denominations, including Roman Catholics, Baptists, Quakers, and Methodists. Wills and probate records will add extra flesh to your family history skeleton – and Worcestershire Archive holds records dating as far back as the 15th century!

How can I learn more?

The list of records one can access in Worcestershire Archive seems endless. It is little surprise they receive user queries from all over the world, from Sydney to New York (and now Brussels too!). For those just getting started with their research or are not well acquainted with Worcestershire Archive, I advise them to read the FAQ section (which I confess I have found invaluable).

So, whether you’re researching your Worcestershire ancestry, or are doing some research in the area, or just want to compare notes and see what resources you may have missed out on in your own corner of the world, I heartily encourage you to download the Explore The Past guide compiled by the Worcestershire Archive & Archaeology Service. To do so, or for more information, please visit their website: https://www.explorethepast.co.uk/.

I wouldn’t want to end this review without conveying my sincere thanks to Rebecca Meekings, from Explore The Past, who has very graciously invited me to write this review, and who has provided invaluable information about the guide and Worcestershire Archive.

 

“We’re thrilled to release what we think is an interesting and informative guide, and we hope it will be useful for anyone researching their ancestors. Whilst the guide focuses specifically on our Worcestershire collections, it would also be of use to those researching in any English county archive. The team believes that this is the only resources guide of its type.”
– – – Dr Lisa Snook, User Services Manager at Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service

 

Contact sheet for Explore The Past.

Advertisements
Posted in Archives, Genealogy, Worcestershire | Leave a comment

Looking for Edwin

In 2014 I decided to take advantage of my Ancestry.co.uk subscription and expand my research area beyond my own blood-relatives to collateral lines and families who intermarried with my own. By doing so I knew I would probably hit a lot of blanks and, more often than not, uninteresting or irrelevant stories – you can’t invent an interesting story out of a few names, a couple of census entries and a couple of records here and there… Or can you?

Among the targets of my broader research field was my grandmother’s brother-in-law. The man, whom I shall refer to only as Uncle Billy to protect his real identity, died in his mid-50’s over six decades ago, leaving my great-aunt Phyllis to care for their only son – who happens to be my father’s first cousin. Phyllis would later remarry, but had no more children.

From the little information I had about Uncle Billy (my father, being a small child at the time, remembers him only vaguely) I was able to draw up a picture of a man who was born in the mid 1890s in rural Herefordshire. His mother Fanny was unmarried, and therefore both Billy and his only, elder brother James were born “illegitimate”. The identity of both James and Billy’s father (or fathers!) remains a mystery; all I know is that their mother later remarried and had four sons. As Billy and James did not adopt their stepfather’s surname, I can only deduce that he was not their biological father.

Upon the outbreak of WWI, both Billy (19) and James (21) were called up, as so many other young men were in 1914. It has transpired that on 3 November 1918, just eight days before the Armistice was signed in the forest of Compiègne, bringing the Great War officially to a close, Billy’s 25 year-old brother was killed on active duty in northern France.

In view of his huge personal loss, for Billy death in the Great War was probably a very narrow escape. To escape from the horrors of the trenches and the battlefield, Billy would have received occasional permission to go on leave, and thus would have been able to hop across the Channel and visit his mother and her family. His surviving war record, which by itself recounts his experience at the front, also sheds light on a very intriguing fact which to my knowledge has been kept secret for the best part of the last century: in 1917, by order of the Magistrate’s Court, Billy was ordered to pay two shillings and sixpence per week for the upkeep of his illegitimate child!

The incriminating evidence, showing Uncle Billy fathered an illegitimate child during WWI.

Upon making such a fascinating discovery, I immediately sought out the child’s name on the war record. Oddly, Billy’s file fails to mention the child by name, or even to disclose its sex, and therefore it is impossible to know who the child was. There are, however, some very fortunate clues which make the research more promising: the child’s date of birth (26 February 1917) and place of birth (Little Dilwyn, Herefordshire) are mentioned. Perhaps even more helpfully, the name of the child’s mother is also included: Edith Jane Brown.

I duly looked up Edith Jane on the 1911 census, only to discover she had been born in or around 1898, and would therefore have been of a very similar age to Uncle Billy (and considerably older than Billy’s future wife, my Auntie Phyllis, who was born in 1911). Edith Jane was the daughter of a farm labourer called Alfred Brown and his wife Jane, who were originally from Bishop Frome and Ivington, respectively. By 1911 the couple had had nine children, one of whom had died by then, and of whom Edith Jane was the eldest.

Unfortunately I haven’t found any documents which would indicate that Uncle Billy and Edith Jane were ever married, or that their child was legitimised. In fact, I was able to find a marriage for Edith J Brown to a Thomas Chambers in 1920 – why, if they have a child together, were she and Uncle Billy never married to each other? Whatever the reason, Edith Jane seems to have led a long life (she died aged 87 in 1983), leaving a son called Thomas Joseph Chambers and her sole (legitimate) son.

But what of her first child, the one fathered by Uncle Billy in 1917? As I didn’t have a name to follow up on, my first port of call was FreeBMD, where I first tried to find a birth for a child of unknown sex with Uncle Billy’s surname and Brown as its mother’s maiden name: zero matches.

I then turned to a more likely scenario, given that Uncle Billy and Edith Jane Brown were not married at the time of the child’s birth, I searched for a birth of [blank] Brown, registered probably in the first quarter of 1917 (remember that the child was born on 26 February 1917), with both its surname and that of his mother listed as Brown. The results seemed quite promising: Edwin C J Brown’s birth was registered in the March quarter of 1917 in Weobley registration district. This seemed to be the only candidate who seemed to fit the bill: he was born in the right time-frame and in the right area, and a possible illegitimate birth at that. Surely these were too many coincidences!

My search for a baptism in Little Dilwyn around the right time proved inconclusive, but at least I now had one option open before me: to order a PDF copy of Edwin’s birth certificate. I logged into the General Records Office and searched for the right birth – I seemed to be going in the right direction: unlike FReeBMD; illegitimate births on the GRO index indicate “-” under the mother’s maiden name column. Edwin’s mother had no maiden name at the time his birth was recorded.

Today, at length, the birth certificate arrived: Edwin Charles John Brown, son of “blank” and Edith Jane Brown, a servant, was born in Little Dilwyn on 26 February 1917, and the birth was recorded by his mother about a month later. Jackpot! I had found the true identity of Uncle Billy’s illegitimate son!

Copy of Edwin Charles John Brown’s birth certificate.

Before contacting my dad’s cousin (i.e. Uncle Billy’s second, legitimate son) I wanted to make one last attempt at locating Edwin in subsequent sources. The 1939 UK Register proved useless, in that his mother is recorded with her husband (Thomas Chambers) and two other individuals who, having been born within the last century, are redacted from the page. Could these possibly be Edwin himself, and his mother’s son from her second marriage to Mr Chambers?

Subsequent searches for an Edwin, Charles or John Brown born on the said date in 1917 have either proved fruitless or too generic to make an educated guess as to what may have happened to him. I think it is unlikely that Edwin was given up for adoption, as his mother would have received maintenance for his upbringing (until the age of 14), and furthermore, it was she personally who registered his birth at the Registry Office.

Edwin’s younger half-brother Thomas Joseph Chambers seems to have been easier to track down: an online death notice published in June 2010 sadly confirms that he passed away in the city of Hereford aged 89, leaving two sons called Gerald and Colin Chambers. Would they, if they ever read this, have any idea about what became of their father’s older half-brother Edwin? Time will tell, I suppose!

Death notice for Thomas Joseph Chambers, who is very likely to have been Edwin’s younger half-brother.

Posted in 1911 Census, 1939 UK Register, Adoption, Ancestry.com, Birth, Civil Registration, England, Genealogy, Herefordshire, Illegitimacy, Killed In Action, War, World War I | 1 Comment

Winifred’s Story

A view of Upper Colwall, the idyllic setting where Winifred spent the first twenty-odd years of her life.

Years ago, when researching my great-grandfather’s family tree, I found an uncle who through his marriage fathered no less than nine children over a period of seventeen years. Most of them eventually married and began families of their own, but one particular case remained mysterious for years to come. It was only recently that I was able to uncover more information about her life (and death).

Winifred  Rose Allen was born at the start of 1881, her parents’ sixth child and second daughter. The subsequent birth of two more daughters and one son (who sadly died aged four months) would complete the family tree. Little Winifred made her first appearance on the census the same year of her birth, when she was recorded (aged one month) living with her family at Portland Cottage, in the rural setting of Upper Colwall, Herefordshire. Something must have appeared to be amiss fairly soon afterwards, however, as it gradually became evident that Winifred showed signs of being physically handicapped. There are no records to show what exactly was the problem with her, but her health condition was serious enough to make it to the census, as we’ll see.

Ten years later, ten-year-old Winifred was against recorded again on the census living with her parents and siblings – only this time the column referring to being “deaf-and-dumb”, “blind” or “lunatic, imbecile or idiot” is sadly filled in with the following description: Spinal complaint from childhood. It is painfully evident, therefore, that young Winifred was physically disabled, and may well have been unable to walk altogether. Thus far there is no reason to suppose that her problems affected her learning capacity, but a glance at the column destined to each person’s occupation reveals that, unlike her siblings (both older and younger) she was not attending school. Was she indeed suffering from some kind of mental handicap, or was her physical condition an obstacle towards her going to school and receiving a normal, formal education?

The 1901 census is striking, in that it offers no reference whatsoever to Winifred’s health problems, which could initially suggest she was no longer ill. Rather tellingly, if we pay close attention to other details on the form reveals this is not so. Winifred was still living at home, residing with her parents and unmarried sisters, all of whom were school teachers. Not coincidentally, Winifred is the only member of the family whose occupation is left unanswered.

By 1911 things for the Allen family had changed dramatically. Susannah, Winifred’s mother, had died the previous year, and all of her brothers were married by then, leading lives of their own. With her father nearing his seventieth year, Winifred’s family seems to have decided to send her to an institution where she could be looked after. Thus, in the 1911 census she appears as a patient in Weymouth Street Hospital, in Marylebone (London). Now, one hundred years ago, treatment for the physically (and mentally) impaired was far less evolved and understood than what it has become today, and treatment of certain illnesses and conditions was considerably limited. It is therefore possible that, to all intenst and purposes, Winifred was locked away for good.

Images showing how some institutions treated mentally handicapped patients in the 1860’s. Treatment had advanced somewhat by the time Winifred was institutionalised in the 1900’s.

As the 1921 census is not yet available to the public, it is difficult to say where Winifred spent the next decade of her life, or even if she was cared for by her family (all of her siblings were alive at the time), but all facts indicate that she was institutionalised for the remainder of her life.

The 1939 UK Register, which was produced just after the outbreak of Wold War II, records Winifred once again, and once more, in an institution: she is a patient in Harperbury Hospital, a part of the Middlesex Colony (also known as Kingsley Green), in St Albans, Hertfordshire. This was a mental health and learning disability hospital which, for sixty-one years, was known as Harperbury Hospital. At the start of the war, there were over 1,190 patients, but the institution continued to work with normality throughout the conflict.

At some later stage, Winifred seems to have been transferred to Napsbury Hospital (which was featured in the Who Do You Think You Are? episode starring Julian Clary). Winifred never left Napsbury again, as it was there that the sixty-two-year-old passed away on 16 November 1944. The cause of death was recorded as lobar pneumonia and arteriosclerosis. A small anotation, “P.M.”, which I presume means post-mortem, might suggest that Winifred passed away without a medical attendant at hand, and therefore a thorough medical examination was needed following death. The death was registered two weeks later the hospital’s chief resident officer, suggesting no relative of Winifred’s was close by when she breathed her las. It was a particularly sad and anonymous passing for someone who I have the feeling was, to all intents and purposes, forgotten by everyone who had known her in her youth. Through no fault of her own, her biography was obliterated from the pages of my family history, and I am very proud to rescue her life through this article. After all, this is probably the first time in over seventy years that anyone has told her story.

Napsbury Hospital, where Winifred passed away.

A rather sinister view of Napsbury Hospital, where Winifred died in 1944.

Posted in 1881 Census, 1891 Census, 1901 Census, 1911 Census, 1939 UK Register, Colwall, Death, England, Genealogy, Herefordshire, Who Do You Think You Are?, World War II | 1 Comment

Dear Cousin, Will You Marry Me?

Like any genealogist, I get a strange thrill when I find two cousins in my family tree who married each other. I suspect it is because it feels like finding two missing links in one stroke, like two pieces of the same puzzle matching together perfectly. Moreover, it makes the history of those two particular branches seem more interesting, confirming two relatives were on more than intimate terms.

If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you will remember how excited I was when I found out that my Colwallian great-great-grandmother Ann’s maiden surname was Rodway. The name was very familiar, and no wonder, since my great-grandfather’s cousin (Ann Rodway’s grandson) had married a Rodway – who turned out to be his second cousin.

Overall, my research into my English family history has yielded few cousin marriages. You will understand my excitement, therefore, when I found not one but four cousin marriages in one single day!

My first find came when trying to find out what had become of my great-grandfather’s first cousin May Myrtle Allen. She was one of several brothers and sisters, and like them, she grew up in Colwall (Herefordshire) in the late 1800’s. Most of her brothers had married and settled in the area, but the daughters were proving harder to find. In my ignorance, given the lack of references, I assumed that May Myrtle had died a spinster at some point during the 20th century. But then I had something of an epiphany: if I could track her down on the 1911 census, I may have some inkling as to where she may have ended up. Sure enough, there she was, working as an elementary school teacher in Birmingham, where she shared a flat with another young woman and fellow teacher.

I then turned my attention to records in Birmingham, supposing that it was there that May Myrtle had lived after 1911. I searched on Ancestry.co.uk for possible marriages and deaths of a May M Allen in Birmingham, and instantly seemed to hit upon something. According to FreeBMD, in the last quarter of 1911 May M Allen was married to a Frederick Hooper or to a William A Smith. Well, my prayers so that it would not be the latter (how many Smiths could there be in Birmingham in the 1910s?) were answered when I found something rather promising, this time on the 1939 Register, which I was able to access on FindMyPast. There they were, Frederick Hooper and May Myrtle Hooper, birth year 1882, living in Cardiff. OK, so Birmingham was only temporary.

While I was busy churning out records about May Myrtle, something began to click in my mind. Her husband’s surname, Hooper, seemed rather familiar, and little wonder, as I knew that one of Allen relatives (my great-great-grandfather’s sister Sarah, to be precise) had married a local farmer called Hooper. The couple had only had one son, but he in turn had four children whose destinies (like that of May Myrtle and some of her siblings) were a mystery. My mind raced as I jumped up a few generations and back down again, only to have my theory confirmed: May Myrtle Allen and Frederick Hooper, were not just husband and wife, but second cousins through their shared descent from my Allen ancestors. Frederick Hooper, turns out to have been a tourist agent (a fact confirmed by the 1911 census and the 1939 Register). He died in Wales in 1943, but his widow still have twenty years of life ahead of her, and so she duly married a Albert E. Thompson in 1945. No children seem to have been born from either union, and May Myrtle passed away in 1963.

As already mentioned, it was one of May Myrtle’s brothers, Henry William Allen, who had married a second cousin on the Rodway side. Seeing as May Myrtle had also looked among her family tree from a partner, could any of their other brothers or sisters have followed suit and married a distant relative?

I knew that one of their brothers, Wilfred Allen, had married a schoolteacher (a profession which seems to have been somewhat recurrent among female members of my family on that part of the tree!) called Beatrice Martin. Beatrice was herself the daughter of a labourer from Uley, in Gloucestershire. I had little reason to suspect there may be any blood connections on that side; but her mother’s family seemed to be a bit more interesting.

Beatrice’s mother was a Christiana Wilkins, a wonderfully unusual name which should make researching her story relatively straightforward. If only! Christiana appeared to have been born in about 1834 in Malvern Wells, just over the other side of the Malvern Hills, but I could find nothing about her birth or baptism, in or around the correct year. Her surname, however, once again sounded familiar, and I soon found myself looking at the family of Charlotte Rodway (the sister of my ancestor Anne Rodway, later Allen), who married a Richard Wilkins in Worcester in 1819. Could they have been the parents of Christiana Wilkins? Alas, no hard proof has been found to corroborate beyond a show of a doubt that Christiana was Richard and Charlotte’s daughter, but circumstantial evidence certainly points in the right direction. Firstly, the fact that a daughter Hannah appears to be living with the couple in the 1841 census – and we all know how mangled some names can become on the census! Secondly, Richard and Charlotte were still churning out children in the early 1830’s, when Christiana would have been born – and even more fittingly, Christiana’s marriage entry confirms her father was called Richard. These are far too many coincidences to ignore, surely. I am 99% certain that Christiana’s daughter Beatrice married a second cousin on the Rodway side.

But that’s not all that these Martins, Wikinses, Rodways and Allens had to hide. Beatrice’s brother Walter had a very prolific marriage (13 children in all). One of them died young, and another died in the Great War, but the remaining did live relatively long lives. Interestingly, one of them, Cyril Gordon Martin, married Ivy Veronica Rodway in 1937 – they being third cousins through their common descent from James Rodway, who lived in the late 1700’s.

This union was forged likely not on the basis of the couple’s known relationship as distant relatives, but because they were, at the same time, brother and sister-in-law. In 1926 Cyril’s sister Irene Agnes Martin had married George Henry Rodway, thus establishing a new bond between descendants of the first Rodways of Colwall.

The Rodways seem to have been keen on marriages between relations, or at least between people who already shared a common family link. Anne Wilkins (1825-1909), herself a Rodway on her mother’s side, had married a Mr Henry Tomkins, and had an impressive twelve sons and daughters. Curiously, their son William Tomkins married Jane Baldwin, while their daughter Sophia married Charles Baldwin (yes, you go it – her sister-in-law’s brother).

I very much suspect, however, that the more I delve into the tree on this side of the family, the more connections between relatives I will discover. I suppose that, as a genealogist my fascination with the Rodways is more than justified, am I right?

Charles Darwin was the son of Susannah Wedgwood, of the famous pottery family. In 1839 he married his first cousin, Emma Wedgwood.

Posted in 1911 Census, 1939 UK Register, Colwall, Genealogy, Marriage | Leave a comment

My great-great-great-grandmother, Ann Rodway

On 5 May 1790, James and Elizabeth Rodway attended the burial of their first-born child, who three days earlier had been christened and given the name Ann. Twenty years, four sons and three daughters later, Elizabeth gave birth to her ninth and last child, another daughter, who was named Ann in memory of the girl her parents had lost two decades earlier.

The girl grew up in the Wyche, a narrow pass that even today separates -and connects- the counties of Herefordshire and Worcestershire. At one foot of the hills was the fashionable spa resort of Malvern, while on the other side was the sleepy village of Colwall, with its old church dedicated to Saint James dominating the rural skyline.

As she became a young woman, Ann remained at home while her siblings left to marry and started families of their own. In 1835 it became Ann’s turn to marry, which she did in the parish of Claines, Worcestershire – where she may have gone into service, albeit very briefly. Her husband was Edward Allen, a local farmer from Colwall whom she had probably known for a considerable amount of time. The family, wishing to be close to Ann’s parents, remained living in Upper Colwall near the Wyche. It was there, two years later, that Ann’s mother died at the age of 71, leaving her youngest daughter to take care of her ailing father.

In 1838, at the age of twenty-eight, Ann gave birth to her first daughter, who was given the same name as her mother. Four years later the Allens welcomed their first son, my great-great-grandfather John, who would lead a long life and who died the same year his granddaughter (my grandmother) was born.

But their happiness was not to last. In May 1843 Ann registered the death of her father in the local registry office; he had died “of old age” just weeks after his seventy-eighth birthday. Worse was to come only months later when Edward and Ann’s eldest child, five year-old Ann, succumbed to scarlet fever, an illness which miraculously spared their infant son John.

In 1845 Edward and Ann had another son, William, followed by a daughter, Clara, four years later. The gaps between the births of Edward and Ann’s children could well imply other pregnancies and miscarriages in between. The fact that it was Ann, and not Edward who registered their daughter’s untimely death in 1843, could also suggest that Edward spent parts of the year away from the family home, possibly working on other people’s land.

The Allens were not poor. They had come into some property when Ann’s father had died in 1843, and it was they who would build the cottages and houses along Beacon Road, in Upper Colwall. Ann supplemented their wages, which could not have been high, by working as an upholsterer, as confirmed in the 1861 census (you may well imagine my pride at having a female ancestor who could claim to have a paid job as far back as the 1860’s!).

Alas, Ann’s life was not to be as long as that of her parents’. In July 1867 her son John married my great-great-grandmother Jane Davies. It must have been a happy day for the couple; little did the groom know that his happiness was to be short-lived, as only three days later his mother Ann died of apoplexy (what today we would call a stroke) aged just fifty-seven. Her widowed husband mourned her death and survived her for a further twenty-two years, while her three surviving children would go on to marry and have families of their own (her son John’s first-born daughter would be given the name Ann in memory of her grandmother).

The cottages built by the Allens – the property on which they stand were probably inherited by Ann Rodway upon the death of her father.

Posted in 1861 Census, Colwall, Genealogy, Herefordshire, Worcestershire | Leave a comment

The curious private life of Mary Willoughby

The grounds of Colwall church, where Thomas Eacock married my relative Mary Willoughby in 1880. Photo: private collection.

On 23rd December 1880, a wedding took place in the church of Saint James the Great, Colwall, at the foot of the Malvern Hills which separate Herefordshire from Worcestershire. The bride was twenty-five-year-old Mary Willoughby, my great-grandfather’s third cousin and contemporary (both grew up in Colwall, and therefore it is very likely that they knew each other). The groom was Thomas Eacock, a fellow Colwallian general labourer who had recently turned forty.

The couple must have known each other for a long time. Mary’s aunt Elizabeth had married Thomas’s uncle John in 1840, and as they were both alive in 1880, it could be supposed that they may have had some hand in bringing the couple together, particularly as John and Elizabeth’s marriage had remained childless.

Both the Eacock and the Willoughby families were modest, well-established, prosperous members of the tightly-knit Colwallian community and a long-time part of the fabric of the local society – their presence in the village went back several generations. The match would have seemed, therefore, as a logical step toward cementing ties between families of equal standing.

We cannot know, given the lack of documents such as private letters and diaries, whether Mary Willoughby entered the marriage willingly, or whether she was in any way forced into connubial life. The fact that she became pregnant almost immediately, and welcomed a son a mere year after the wedding, may suggest the couple were content enough with each other at first.

However, within three years, the situation began to change. In 1881 uncle John passed away, followed by aunt Elizabeth the following year. Within months, the two individuals who may well have been instrumental in bringing about the marriage and supporting the couple through a plausibly rocky start, were out of the picture. In 1884, twenty-nine year-old Mary gave birth to another son, Gilbert.

In light of the circumstances, we would expect Thomas and Mary to appear living together on the 1891 census. And yet, this is not the case. Fifty-year-old Thomas is shown living with his widowed mother at The Terrace, near Yew Tree Cottage, in Colwall. His marital status, surprisingly, is given as S (single). And what of Mary and the children?

A search for Mary Eacock, or even a Mary Willoughby, yields no results, but by searching for Gilbert -the couple’s second-born son- we find her living in Evendine, in Colwall, listed as the wife of Adam Clarke, a local seventy-year-old grocer. It would appear that by then Mary had rebuilt her life in the company of another, much older man, and while there is no trace of a marriage between her and Mr Clarke -whose own wife had died in 1887 after providing him with five children- they do appear to have been genuinely fond of each other.

By 1891 Mary and her new “husband” had become the parents of two children, Leonora and John. What is striking is that the children were born within close distance of where Mary’s first husband Thomas Eacock lived. The fact that a marriage for the couple cannot be found may explain why neither Leonora nor baby John seem to have been recorded in the local registry office in Ledbury – at least, not under the surname of Clarke, Willoughby or even Eacock. But in time this rather unusual -and, dare one presume scandalous?- set-up may have become too much to bear for the local inhabitants of Colwall, and Adam Clarke packed his family and his bags, moving them all to Pershore, in neighbouring Worcestershire. They arrived just in time for the birth of their next child, Francis James Clarke – who, perhaps not coincidentally, was registered in the registry office, with his mother’s maiden name as Willinghby (sic). It seems likely that, without close acquaintances living nearby, the couple were able to start afresh and pose as a married couple, churning out children every couple of years, possibly under the cover of the mother’s assumed maiden name.

And that seems to be precisely what they did. By the mid-1890s the family had settled in Alderminster, and in 1894 and 1896 the couple welcomed two more sons, Reginald Edward Clarke and Edwin (in the first case, the mother’s maiden name is recorded as Willoughby, while in Edwin’s case it appears once again as Willinghby). The family’s somewhat impermanent existence continued until the end of the decade, when in Northamptonshire Mary gave birth to her and Adam’s sixth -and last- child, Wallace Evelyn Clarke.

In 1901 Mary Clarke and her second family were recorded living in Darton, West Yorkshire. While Adam continued to work as a grocer/shopkeeper, their children attended a local school. Happily, Mary was able to continue living with her children from her marriage to Thomas Eacock, who in turn was listed as a boarder living in Barton Villa, in Colwall – and, curiously, gave his marital status as married!

The Clarkes’ constant movements from county to county, first into Worcestershire, then Northamptonshire, and finally to Yorkshire, leads one to wonder if perhaps stories of Mary’s private affairs had caught up with them. Whatever their motives, the family seems to have found some sort of respite in the North. In 1904 news must have reached them that Mary’s first husband, Thomas Eacock, had died, having spent the remainder of his life tending to his ageing mother.

In 1909 Adam Clarke himself died in Belper, Derbyshire – what motives had taken him there remain unknown. Mary remained in Yorkshire, settling in Huddersfield with most of her children – including her son by her first marriage, who now went by the name of Harry Clarke, and not Harry Eacock.

1916.11.08 (PRESS) Reginald Clarke, Leeds Mercury

Notice published in the Leeds Mercury in November 1916, reporting the death of Mary’s son Reginald. Simultaneously, her other son, Edwin, was reported wounded.

In 1914, the inevitable Great War broke out, and like many other millions, several of Mary’s sons were called up by a needful nation. Her twenty-two year-old son Reginald joined the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, and was sent overseas to France, where he saw action in one of the bloodiest battles of WWI: the battle of the Somme. There, on 15 September 1916, during the battle of Flers-Courcelette, Reginald was killed in action. His name is today remembered on the Thiepval Memorial.

Mary reflected the pain of her loss in a touching poem she wrote in memory of Reginald. Several family trees online state that another of her sons, John Clarke, died on 1 August 1917, but the soldier with that name who died on the said date is another man altogether. However, one of her younger sons, Edwin, did fight in WWI and was reported wounded at the end of 1916 (at the same time when the local newspapers reported his brother Reginald’s death). What became of Edwin remains, at least for now, a mystery.

What we do know is that Mary did not live much beyond the end of the war itself – her death was registered in Huddersfield in late 1919 -, and she may well have been a victim of the Spanish Flu epidemic which raged across Europe at the time.

Thus drew to a close the life of an unusual, seemingly headstrong and by the look of it courageous woman. I would love to see a photo of her, and to get in touch with any possible living descendants. If anyone out there is related to Mary Willoughby Eacock Clarke and wishes to contact me, feel free to do so by leaving a comment below.

Poem written by Mary Eacock “Clarke” (née Willoughby) in memory of her son Reginald James Clarke, who was killed in action in 1916.

Posted in 1881 Census, 1891 Census, 1901 Census, Birth, Colwall, Colwall Soldiers, Divorce, France, Genealogy, Herefordshire, Marriage, Worcestershire, World War I, Yorkshire | Leave a comment

A Tale of Two Sisters

Drusilla and Milborough Vickress were not the only daughters that my great-great-great-great-grandparents William and Elizabeth had in the course of their 41 year-long marriage. However, the bond between the two girls seems to have been close, if one analyses their lives in detail.

Drusilla was born, as her parents’ fifth child, in the year 1817, at a time when it was not uncommon for women, rich and poor, to die in childhood. For instance, that same year, Britain’s Princess Charlotte of Wales died after a long and protracted labour. Drusilla’s mother may well have gone through some difficulties during the birth, and the problems could have left the child physically, perhaps even mentally handicapped.

The little girl joined a nursery already crammed by two brothers and two sisters. The fact that no children were welcomed in the Vickress household for another three years could suggest her mother would not or could not become pregnant as quickly as before. It could also be, of course, that Elizabeth became pregnant after Drusilla’s birth, and either miscarried the child, or lost it shortly after the unrecorded birth.

Whatever the situation, in 1820 young Drusilla was joined by a new sister, whom her parents gave the unusual name of Milborough. She was to be followed by two more girls in quick succession – ultimately, William and Elizabeth Vickress went on to have twelve children.

Drusilla and Milborough grew up together in the family’s home in Hope-under-Dinmore, a rural parish in the English county of Herefordshire. The area is today very much as it would have been two centuries ago, so it easy to imagine the tranquil circumstances in which they spent the first years of their lives. The happiness of their earlier years came to an end when in 1849 their twenty-eight year-old sister Caroline died of unknown causes, followed by their other sister Diana, who succumbed to consumption after years of medical treatment. Only a year after, their beloved father William died of a kidney ailment.

Hope-under-Dinmore, from the Francis Firth collection.

Drusilla and Milborough lived in the company of their widowed mother until the latter’s death in 1875. They worked as dressmakers, a modest but nevertheless respectable profession for women whose only real alternative to earn a living would have been to work the land. Drusilla’s physical problems may well have interfered with her work, however, since in three consecutive census entries (1861, 1871 and 1881) she has no occupation listed other than “at home”.

It is difficult to know why neither sister ever married. It is tempting to suppose that Drusilla’s handicap may have limited her options to find a life partner, but in truth, only two of her sisters ever made it to the altar, and of them, only one married a local boy. It is likelier that potential husbands were in short supply, and the sisters slowly drifted into spinsterhood as the years went by. At any rate, Milborough, devoted from the first to her elder sister, may have wished to nurse Drusilla as long as she could. By 1891 the sisters continued to live, by themselves, next to the vicarage in a cottage called Codling Hall.

In 1894 Milborough died at the age of 74, leaving her elder invalid sister Drusilla to fend for herself. Unable to continue living alone in Hope-under-Dinmore, she was admitted into the Leominster Union Workhouse, where she died aged 84 on 20 January 1901, just two days before the death of Queen Victoria herself. Thus came to an end the life of two quiet, discreet and perhaps otherwise unremarkable sisters who mercifully remained devoted to each other’s care and company until the very end.

Hope-under-Dinmore, from the Francis Firth collection.

Posted in 1861 Census, 1871 Census, 1881 Census, Birth, Death, England, Genealogy, Herefordshire, Hope-under-Dinmore | 1 Comment