As most of my ancestral lines are deeply rooted in rural Herefordshire and some of the surrounding counties, I rarely associate the North of England with my own family tree. The Yorkshire moors, and the industrial landscapes of Lancashire, are just not in my family’s DNA. Or so I thought.
My five-times great-grandfather William Vickress, of Hope-under-Dinmore, was married twice in his lifetime. His first, short-lived marriage, to Sarah Williams, produced twin daughters. His second wedding, to a much younger woman, took place when William would have been in his mid-fifties and it produced three further children: Herbert, Sophia and William, who happens to be my direct ancestor. While Herbert and William Jr remained and, as far as I can tell, spent their entire lives in the county of their birth, their sister Sophia seems to have been a bit more adventurous.
On 9 September 1810 Sophia Vickress married Welsh-born Arthur Rice, who was roughly the same age as Sophia. Arthur’s profession was working leather, and he is variously described as a skinner or as a currier. Their wedding took place in the church of Saint Nicholas, in the city of Hereford. The church, a medieval structure, was later demolished in the mid-19th century, being replaced by the current building which stands on the same site today. It was there where their eldest daughter Rebecca would be christened in February 1812.
In December 1813 Sophia gave birth to her second daughter, whom she and Arthur named Elizabeth. The child was baptised on 14 January of the following year, but not according to the rites of the Established Church, but in a ceremony conducted by one Samuel Franklin, a minister in the religious denomination known as the Countess of Huntingdon. The church is in fact a society of small evangelical churches founded during the Evangelical Revival in the 1780s by Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon. The church, which is closely associated with the Calvinist Methodist teachings of George Whitefield, founded a Methodist College in the Welsh town of Trevecca. The college later moved to Cheshunt, in Hertfordshire, thanks to the Countess’s support, and it was there that Samuel Franklin, who baptised my relative in 1814, had been introduced to his ministry. As Arthur Rice was himself Welsh, it is quite possible that he introduced Sophia to the modern teachings of this religious group.
Some time around 1814-1816 the Rice family decided to pack their bags and moved north, settling down temporarily in Walsall, Staffordshire (now a part of the greater urban conglomerate around Birmingham, Dudley and Wolverhampton). Whether they had relations or friends in the area who may have convinced them to leave Hereford is unknown, but they remained in Walsall long enough to welcome their third daughter, whom they named Sophia in honour of her mother. Like her elder sister Elizabeth, little Sophia was not baptised in a Church of England church, but in the modest Bridge Street Chapel, a United Reformed Church temple which had been erected in 1791 given the growing number of parishioners it was forced to host every week. The founders of the church had seceded from Walsall’s Presbyterian community allegedly due to the minister’s Unitarianism, in the broader context of general evangelicalism which swept England – particularly the North – in the 1700s and 1800s. Sophia Rice and her family may well have been attracted to the church’s teachings and its sense of community, which they surely would have welcomed given their recent move to a largely unknown area.
If the Rice family had hoped to remain in Staffordshire indefinitely, they were to be disappointed, because by the end of the decade they had moved again, this time over one hundred miles north, to Colne, near the Lancashire-Yorkshire border. The couple’s first-born son, John, was born there in 1819. John’s baptism also took place in the town’s Congregational (or Independent) Church on Dockray Square, which had been built less than ten years before. Colne was at the time a hub of reformed religious fervour, with chapels for Methodists and Baptists also in existence. Even the English cleric and theologian John Wesley had visited Colne in 1777, a fateful visit for many of those who had turned out to hear him preach, because the timbers of the Methodist Chapel collapsed under the heavy weight of the people, leaving many of them severely injured.
Fortunately for the Rices, Colne held no such sombre associations. In fact, it was there that they welcomed yet another son into their home, Edward, who was born in around 1825. However, the Rice family did not remain in Colne for long after the child’s birth, as their itinerant lifestyle again forced them to move – this time south – to a new location. Sophia and her family settled in Rochdale, now part of Greater Manchester, which was to become their permanent residence. By the late 1820s, when the Rice family moved to the area, Rochdale had a long history as a mill town. In the early 19th century, wool had almost surpassed cotton as the town’s main manufacture, although the industry gradually declined as the century wore on. Sophia Rice and her family would have been first-hand witnesses to many changes in the area, like the increase in commercial activity along the Manchester Bury & Bolton Canal, the arrival of the railway in East Lancashire, and the introduction of steam power in the woollen manufacture.
It was in Rochdale that Sophia gave birth to her last child, Edna, who was born on the last day of January 1828. As they settled down in Rochdale, and with the births of four daughters and two sons, the family was now complete. Sophia’s husband Arthur still made trips to Herefordshire, as witnessed by 1851 census, but in all other respects they seem to have formed a tight-knit family unit.
Little is known of Arthur and Sophia’s second daughter Elizabeth, who had been born shortly prior to their move to Walsall. It is possible that Elizabeth died unmarried as an adult, although there is little evidence of this, and while no record can be conclusively matched to her death in Herefordshire, Staffordshire or Lancashire, it is possible that her burial has gone unrecorded. Of course, she may well have married, and the marriage entry in Saint Chad’s Church, Rochdale, between an Elizabeth Rice and a William Holt in 1835 could support this theory. In any case, the absence of additional evidence, plus the fact that there is no shortage of women called Elizabeth Rice in the area, makes this assumption doubtful.
We do know that Arthur and Sophia’s other five children lived to adulthood. Their eldest child, Rebecca, became the wife of fellow weaver George Hill on 6 June 1837. The couple had two daughters, Sophia and Sarah Ann, in quick succession. In late 1844 Rebecca gave birth to a son, Henry Alfred, who sadly died a few weeks later after the New Year. Rebecca herself appears to have died shortly afterwards, as no other children appear to have been born to the couple in subsequent years, and no other references to her exist in the census. The 1845 entry of death in Rochdale of a Rebecca Hill would support this, although according to the GRO Index her age was 27 at the time, not 33 as one would expect to find – this difference of six years casts doubts as to the relevance of this entry in this story, but in all other respects fits the facts perfectly. George Hill also seems to disappear shortly after the birth of his son, as his two surviving daughters appear to have lived permanently in the company of their maternal grandmother Sophia until the latter’s death in 1869.
Arthur and Sophia’s third-born daughter, also named Sophia, who as we have seen was the couple’s only child to have been born during their sojourn in Staffordshire, also remained under her mother’s wing even as a grown woman. She and her youngest sister Edna both worked as woollen weavers by power, suggesting they would have been well acquainted with the latest technology of their day when it came to spinning wool. Sophia never married, and died at the age of 48 in 1864.
Her mother Sophia, the main character in this story, died at the advanced age of 80 in Rochdale in 1869. By then she had survived her parents, her two brothers, her husband (who had passed in 1860) and at least two of her six children. Had she lived another few months, she would have also survived her son Edward, who by then was living in the antipodes.
But despite her losses, Sophia was looked after by her remaining family in the winter years. Her son John had married in early 1846; his brother Edward in 1850, and their sister Edna in 1851. Of the three, John had the largest family, having had nine children in total (curiously, one of them was named Vickress to honour his mother’s family name). His brother Edward had fewer children, but like his parents, he did not remain put for long, and in the early 1860s he emigrated to New Zealand with his wife and four children; a fifth child would be born at sea during their long voyage.
As she died in 1906, Edna, the youngest of the family, appears to have been the only one of her siblings to have lived long enough to witness the start of a new century. Her marriage, celebrated according to the rites of the Church of England, to an iron moulder called Isaac Halstead produced four children and many descendants.
Today, the descendants of Sophia Rice (née Vickress) live in various parts of the North of England, as well as in New Zealand, perhaps ignoring the fact that, like me, they had roots that go deep into Herefordshire’s rural countryside which Sophia herself abandoned over two centuries ago.