An Ancestor Who Vanished Into Thin Air
Two weeks ago, Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks challenge started a four-week theme series of Water, Fire, Air, and Land. Purely coincidentally, I wrote about drownings in the Thames in water week, and in fire week I wrote about an ancestor whose job was the prevention of lightning fires. This week I was determined to participate properly. But what could I write about Air? My grampy was a trainee airman in WW2, but I don’t currently have access to a portrait of him in his uniform, so I’ll save his story for another day. Instead, for Week 16 of #52Ancestors I present the story of an ancestor who vanished into thin air. We all have a few Houdini characters in our family trees, don’t we? – People who left a conventional paper trail of parish records, census returns, and other evidence, up to a point, and then suddenly seem to disappear in a puff of smoke. Charles Edward Saword, my husband’s 2xG grandfather, is one of those unsolved mysteries …
According to my husband’s late grandpa, Alfred Saword, his grandfather Charles emigrated later in life. He wrote that Charles ‘had income from the ownership of land and property. When the last of his children had grown up and left home, he gave one large plot of land to his son Fred, another plot to my father [James], left his house and other sources of income to his wife and sailed for Australia. Nothing further was heard from him.’
But let’s start at the very beginning:
Charles Edward Saword’s early years weren’t easy. Born in Liverpool in 1841 to Edward, a merchant, and Emma, who came from a family of distinguished potters, Charles was the eldest surviving son. Two baby brothers, including another Charles Edward, had died before he was born, and two baby sisters died in the years immediately after. In 1845 the family home caught on fire, and his father and older sister escaped through the roof of their house. The following year, another baby died. In 1848, Charles gained a second healthy sister, but within a year, their mother Emma died of TB. His father soon married again, and had nine more children, all of whom survived childhood.
In the 1851 census, Charles, age 9 and a ‘scholar’ was living in Birkenhead with his father, step-mother, two sisters and baby half-sister. However, just a couple of weeks later, the rest of his family emigrated to Boston without him! According to their U.S. immigration records, they intended to stay in America. However, the family had a change of heart, and returned to England in 1853. Charles’s whereabouts during their time in America are unknown. When the family returned, Charles, by then about 12, started working in the Audit Department of the London & North Western Railway at Euston Station, where he remained for three years. Next, in 1857 he was indentured into the Merchant Navy for a period of four years, to serve on the Gladiolus at Aberdeen. However, just months later Charles deserted his apprenticeship on pay day! From 1858-1860, Charles’s name appears in the New South Wales Government Gazette, in lists of unclaimed post. Was he living in Australia?
By 1861 Charles was back in England, working as an Insurance Clerk and living with his grandmother. That summer he married Emma Read. The illiterate daughter of a Suffolk labourer, Emma was a surprising choice, and the family apparently didn’t approve! However, Charles and Emma settled in London and started a family, producing eight children in their first decade of marriage, five of which survived infancy, including James, my husband’s great grandfather.
In 1869, Charles’s father Edward was a merchant with the East India Company and travelled to India, where he intended to get rich! As with his American dream, his plans for India were also cut short, and he soon returned to England, probably due to illness. There is no sign of Edward after 1876, when he registered the death of a teenage daughter. He possibly died in India or at sea. In fact, Edward’s father, also a merchant and mariner, had died far from home when Edward was just four. Travel, escape, and disappearance are themes that run through many generations of this family.
When I first heard about Charles giving away his property and emigrating to Australia late in life, while his wife was still alive, it struck me as an odd thing to do, and I was keen to find out more. When my husband’s grandpa did some genealogical research into his family in the 1980s and ’90s, it was extremely difficult to locate people in censuses and especially to trace people internationally. However, thanks to searchable online databases, it only took me a few minutes to discover the truth.
In 1871, 1881, and 1891, Charles and Emma lived together with their children in Hackney. In 1901, Emma was on her own and claimed to be a widow. However, in 1911 she said she was married. There was something fishy going on! A search for Charles in 1901 quickly revealed that he had neither moved to Australia nor died; rather, he had moved south of the Thames to Camberwell, where he was living with another ‘wife’!
Charles’s new partner was Jane Stovell. Like Emma, Jane was working class – the daughter of a blacksmith. Also like Emma, she came from a small village; she had come to London to work as a servant. Charles and Jane didn’t marry, so he was not officially a bigamist. However, they had a long-term relationship that started in 1878 by the latest, when they had a daughter together: Florence Louisa Saword. Florence’s birth certificate stated that her father was Charles Edward Saword, and her mother, Jane Saword, formerly Stovell.
Jane had been married before her relationship with Charles, to Thomas Wright, a coachman. Jane & Thomas married in 1865 and had three sons together between 1865 and 1871, the first of which died as an infant. In the 1871 census Jane said she was married, but she was recorded on her own with her toddler and infant sons. There is no sign of her husband Thomas, whose name I only know about from her son’s baptism record. Also, she gave the surname ‘Wright Waterer’ for herself and her sons – the Waterer name is a mystery. In 1881 Jane also claimed to be married, but she and her three children (her sons by Thomas Wright and daughter by Charles Saword) were now using the surname Saword. It is curious that she would choose to apply Charles’s surname to her sons, who had been legitimate children. I have not been able to trace Thomas Wright on any records, due to his common name. Since I have no evidence of his death, it is possible that Jane and Thomas were still married when she claimed to be Charles Saword’s wife. Unfortunately Jane’s sons, whose records may yield some clues, have also proved elusive.
In 1898, Charles was a witness and recorded as the father at his illegitimate daughter’s wedding. Finally, in 1901, Jane and Charles lived together as husband and wife.
Charles and his legitimate wife Emma, though completing the census form together in previous years, had probably been estranged for a long time. After an eight-year gap without children they had a final child in 1882, named (interestingly) Jane, but she died the same day. By then, Emma was 42 years old.
I think that Emma must have known about Jane, and invented the story about Australia for appearances’ sake, possibly keeping the truth from everyone, even her own children. I assume Jane also knew about Charles’s other family, since she claimed to be married in spite of no actual marriage. The mind boggles thinking about how Charles maintained two families and how all of the people involved kept these secrets.
When Charles finally left Emma, he acted to ensure that she would be financially independent. Alf (Charles and Emma’s grandson and my husband’s grandpa) wrote ‘All I can say from my own knowledge is that [Charles] appeared to have left his wife well provided for. When she visited us … she had her own house, was well dressed and quite cheerful. Her husband had not left until all children had grown up and were self supporting.’ He also noted that Emma ‘had a reputation for being “difficult” and even her brother [who was a Detective Inspector] agreed with that.’
However, Charles did not don his slippers, pick up his pipe and live out his final years with Jane in newly found domestic bliss. Instead, between 1901 and 1911 he seems to have disappeared!
In the 1911 census, while Emma Saword claimed to be married, Jane (‘Mrs J Saword’) stated that she was a widow.
There is no sign of Charles in the 1911 census. However, in the summer of 1911, Jane attended her brother’s funeral in Canada, and on arriving back in England, the passenger manifest recorded her occupation as ‘Wife’.
Finally, when Emma passed away in 1920, and Jane in 1928, both claimed to be the ‘Widow of Charles Edward Saword, Shipping Clerk’! Jane had lived as Charles’s lawful wife for several decades, and her daughter, who registered the death, would have wanted to perpetuate this facade, or may have even believed her parents to have been legally married.
So, what on earth happened to Charles? Did he eventually emigrate to Australia after all? Perhaps he had always wanted to go to sea again, and to return to New South Wales. Did he travel with a false name, and if so, why?
After extensive searches, I have failed to find a death or burial record or a will/probate record for Charles anywhere in the world. Charles Edward Saword simply vanished into thin air.
Updated 19/5/20 to include details of Jane Stovell’s marriage.