One of the most fascinating members of my extended family is, in my opinion, my “aunt” Judith – the second wife of my great-great-great-grandfather’s youngest brother. Although there are very few sources which shed light on her life, what we do know about her existence tells us a story of perseverance, resourcefulness and kindness. This is her life.
Judith Cooke was born in Longdon, Worcestershire in 1795, although it would be two years before she was christened in Upton-upon-Severn. She would spend the rest of her life living within a ten-mile radius. She was named Judith after her mother, Judith Cooke (née Clarke), who came from the village of Pendock. Baby Judith’s father was Thomas Cooke, a native of Upton-upon-Severn. The Cookes had at least four other children, in addition to Judith.
Shortly after she turned eighteen, Judith married a local pub landlord called William Bond – who happens to be my third cousin five times removed through his maternal grandfather, George Allen. The couple first lived in Mathon before settling in nearby Colwall, a village on the slopes on the Malvern hills closely associated with several branches of my own family. It was there that their two sons, John and William (born in 1816 and 1817, respectively) were raised.
The family’s existence seems to have been relatively uneventful over the next two decades (at least, as far as we can interpret from the records). The Bonds appear living together, as one close-knit family unit, on the 1841 census. They lived in Colwall Stone (a part of Colwall) surrounded by other families, most of them earning a living as agricultural labourers and blacksmiths. The only exception was the next-door family, the Voyces, who also ran a public house. In fact, not long after the census was taken, Judith’s youngest son, William, married Jane Voyce. Their joy must have been significantly increased by the arrival of a baby son less than two years later.
Sadly, William Jr. was not destined to enjoy fatherhood for long, because in January 1844 he died aged only 26. His widow was left to care for their infant son (named William Edward according to the baptism register, and William Henry according to the GRO index), but only weeks later the boy also died without having reached his first birthday.
Judith, her husband William and her eldest son John must have been devastated by the loss of a son and grandson in such quick succession, but they were happy to keep Jane under their roof until she was able to land on her feet again. One can only imagine that, with her experience as the daughter of a local publican, she may have been willing to give a helping hand to William in his own running of his own pub.
In 1847, Judith became a widow herself, when her 52-year-old husband William died, leaving her to run the family business. She may have come rely heavily on her widowed daughter-in-law Jane, as well as her unmarried eldest son John, who was by then in mid-thirties.
Things may have worked out very differently for the three of them had John lived longer, but sadly he too passed away in early 1851 aged only 35. The census for that year, which was taken only days after his funeral was held at Saint James’s Church, Colwall, reveals Judith (a “beer shop keeper”) living with Jane (now listed as a dressmaker) and a visitor named Caroline Hartland. The latter was in fact a distant niece of Judith’s; her full name was Caroline Hartland Gladwin, and she was in fact the unmarried mother of a ten-year-old boy at the time. It is tempting to fantasise as to the boy’s paternity – could the father have been a close relation of Judith’s?- but whatever the case may be, the fact that she was staying with her recently-bereaved aunt at the time also show’s Judith’s kindheartedness towards a relative who would otherwise could well have faced social ostracism for bringing an illegitimate child into the world.
By the mid-1850’s, and within the space of a few years, Judith had not only lost her husband, but also her two sons and her only grandson. Before long she was also to lose her daughter-in-law Jane, albeit under very different circumstances. After the loss of her child and husband, Jane Bond decided to move to London, where she was employed as the housekeeper of a Mr R. Martin, of 21 Eaton Square. In 1858 the Hereford Chronicle reported how she was soon to become the wife of a Thomas Brotheridge, a farmer from Bredon’s Norton, Worcestershire; the marriage took place on 10 November 1858 at St Peter’s Church, Pimlico.
With Jane married off and with few relations close at hand, Judith may have begun to wonder what the future had in store for her, and so, ever practical, ever resourceful, she did something which I believe to be as unusual then as it is now: she married a man about half her age! The groom was none other than my great-grandfather’s great-uncle Robert Allen, himself a widower and a distant kinsman of her ate husband’s – and to all intents and purposes as lonely as Judith was. Given the age difference (he was 37, she was 63), and the fact that Robert was even younger than Judith’s own sons would have been at the time had they been alive, it is questionable whether their marriage was in fact a love match. To my mind, it was very much a practical arrangement from where both parties would ultimately benefit: both had been married before, and both had lost spouses; neither had any dependent children or anyone else to take care of them in their old age – they may well have decided to become husband and wife on paper so as to give each other some sort of security in the years to come. I doubt there was any financial motive behind the marriage on either side – Judith would not have amassed a great fortune through her public house business, and Robert worked as a humble coal haulier.
The pair married in May 1858; the fact that one of Robert’s sisters, Anne Spilsbury, was a witness at the wedding shows there was certainly a degree of approval and support from his family’s side. The marriage evidently remained childless, and there is little evidence to suggest that they lived in any other way other than as adoptive mother and son. If Robert entertained any notions about becoming a widower any time soon, his dreams would have been dashed, for Judith appears in the census again in 1861, 1871, 1881 and 1891, when she is listed as being 95! Robert worked intermittently as an agricultural labourer but also as a publican – he obviously had Judith to tell him what to do!
Judith not only had very good innings, but she seems to have been a very capable, strong-willed woman. Her arrangement to spend the rest of her life with my “uncle” Robert paid off, as she died in his care in 1893, at the whopping age of 97. Robert’s own demise followed not long after – he must have been of a feebler constitution than his second wife, for he passed away at the relatively advanced age of 78. With him died not only the last surviving member of his generation, but also the last member of Judith’s immediate and astonishing family.