My Bucks Posse

I don’t think you can use ‘Bucks’ as an adjective, but if you could, I would say I am VERY Bucks! At least, my DNA is! I wasn’t born in Buckinghamshire (England) and have never lived there, but my parents were born and raised there, and met and married there. Three of my grandparents were born in Bucks, as were six of my great grandparents, 13 of my 2x great grandparents, and at least 21 of my 3x great grandparents – that’s ⅔ Bucks! (And most of the rest were born in neighbouring counties!)

When I first started researching my family history at the age of 10, my mum would take me and my sister to the Bucks Archives in the school holidays, and that’s when I first learned about a wonderful document in their collection: the returns of the Buckinghamshire Posse Comitatus of 1798. Back then, I could only trace a few of my Bucks lines – my grandparents’ names – but I recently revisited the posse comitatus armed with a long list of names to see how many of my ancestors I could find. This project uncovered some potential ‘new’ ancestors but also prompted me to re-examine some of my prior research.

What is the posse comitatus?

A transcription of the document published by the Buckinghamshire Record Society is available online as a free PDF download, and the extensive introduction by Ian F. W. Beckett (1985) is the best way to learn about the detailed history and contents of this document. However, here’s my very potted overview: 

In 1798, Britain was five years into a war with revolutionary France, and was facing increasing challenges to sufficiently staff both the cavalries and the domestic militias who were deployed to maintain peace and order at home. By 1797 there were calls throughout the country to raise a ‘posse comitatus’ (‘force of the county’) – a group of private citizens who could defend their county from lawlessness. In February of 1798, instructions were issued to Bucks bailiffs,  constables and other keepers of the peace to take a register of all able-bodied men between the ages of 15 and 60 who were not already serving with the military, and also to provide data on the numbers of wagons, carts, horses and mills. Clergymen were enlisted to assist with the returns (completed surveys), which were due back to the Sheriff within a month. Although many other English and Welsh counties also took registers for a posse comitatus, and a few partial records have survived (see Appendix 1 in the PDF), Bucks is the only county to preserve the returns in full. Original copies are now held at the British Library and Buckinghamshire Archives.

What’s its value for genealogists?

Though created as a military record, the beauty of this resource for family historians is that more than 23,000 individual names were recorded with occupation and other social information. The result is ‘the nearest available to an occupational census of the county as a whole until the official census returns of 1841.’ 

The men listed in the p.c. (I’ll call it that from now on to be concise) were born between about 1737-1783. For me, this takes me back to my 4x and 5x great grandfathers, of whom dozens were born in Buckinghamshire, and their brothers and cousins would be included as well. Ages are not included, nor any stated relationships, but if two men lived in the same place, with the same occupation and the same name you may well see one listed as ‘Senior’ and one ‘Junior’.

The transcription provides alphabetical indexes of places and surnames, and the PDF is searchable, so it’s quite easy to find specific places and people. For people researching a particular town or village, the register provides a fantastic sense of place.

However, even if you have no Bucks ancestors that you know of, it’s a fascinating document for any family or social historian, as it provides a snapshot of society on the brink of industrialisation. Though the vast majority of men were farmers or farm employees, and many others worked in ancient trades such as blacksmithing and carpentry, towns could also support teachers, transport workers, wine merchants, tea dealers, watchmakers, and even dance instructors. Apprentices are noted – presumably since they were tied to their employers. Scanning the pages, you’ll find many long-obsolete but evocative occupations, such as a ratcatcher, a cake man, a perukemaker, a sieve bottomer, 35 higlers, and a pig poker. 

The register also notes the religion of Jews, Quakers and other ‘dissenters’, some of whom would not have been willing or perhaps permitted to serve in the military.

Physical and mental health problems are also recorded. The proportion of men with missing eyes, limbs and fingers, or who were lame, infirm or ‘subject to fits’, highlights the danger of their work as well as the lack of medicine and surgical interventions available to manage injuries and chronic diseases. Other men are recorded as ‘insane’, ‘idiot’, or ‘nervous’. I’m not sure how many of those with health problems would nevertheless have been considered fit to serve. One who probably was not, is William Weaver in St Leonard’s (one of my ancestral villages); one of two ‘quack doctors’ in the county (according to himself or others?), William was noted to be ‘lame dead’!!

Of course, this is far from a complete census. We have only a few exceptions included under the age of 15 or over 60 (such as John Barnett, ‘Now in his 78th Year, but desirous of being enrolled as a Man able and willing to serve’), and existing soldiers were excluded. Women, who drove the county’s lace and straw cottage industries, only feature as owners of horses and carts. However, I’m really spoiled to have this additional resource for so many of my ancestors. Unlike baptisms, marriages and burials, which are mere milestones, the posse comitatus shows my ancestors in the real act of living in a place and time, among their family, neighbours and friends. I can imagine them literally standing up to be counted.

My own Bucks posse

This article isn’t intended to be a definitive guide to this record or how to use it. However, to give you a taste of what is possible, here are some of the things I’ve learned from the document about my own ancestors – my Bucks posse!

Occupations

The majority of my Bucks ancestors were agricultural labourers in the Victorian censuses, and I assumed that would also have been the case with previous generations. Although some 18th century baptismal records include the father’s occupation, most do not, and we may never know what jobs our ancestors did. However, the p.c. confirmed to me that many of my ancestors were indeed labourers – the largest and poorest sector of rural society – such as Thomas Crockett in Monks Risborough (5x), Joseph Osborn in St Leonard (5x), and Joseph Munday Snr and Jnr in Wendover (5x & 4x). Another large segment of working men – ‘Servants’ – would also have primarily been farm servants/labourers – like William Wyatt in Ellesborough (4x), who would have been about 17-18 years of age. However, there must have been some kind of division between servants and labourers, since they are listed separately in every village. 

Three_farm_labourers_waiting_to_be_hired_for_work.

In addition to the expected prominence in my tree of men who worked the land, I found a few with specific trades – a surprise to me. John and Charles Radwell (Rodwell), father and son (5x & 4x) were the only weavers in East Claydon. They may have lived in one or more weavers’ cottages, with a well-lit loom shop on the ground floor and sleeping room above. The power loom had been invented in 1785, so this really was the end of an era for hand weavers.

Thomas Philbey (6x) came from Aston Clinton, but he was probably too old to be counted in the p.c., or already deceased. However, the five Philbeys in the village were all tailors, as were four Philbeys in nearby villages. The Philbeys were clearly a tailoring family, and my ancestor Thomas was probably a tailor too.

I was also surprised to find that a couple of my ancestors may have been farmers, not only farm employees. Of course, the term ‘farmer’ could span a wide range in scale and status.

Health

My direct ancestors did not have any health issues recorded, but my 7x great uncle John Underwood, a farmer in Whaddon, was said to be ‘Deformed’. John does not seem to have married, and left his possessions and money to nieces and nephews. Fourteen men in the p.c. were ‘deformed’, ‘deformed in body’, or ‘rather deformed’. However, John was a farmer, so presumably able to do manual work. Indeed, John was also approximately 65 years old – above the age limit for the p.c., but was considered eligible for inclusion – so perhaps was in general fit for his age? What kind of deformity did he have? Was John’s physical appearance the reason for his not marrying? Having done some initial research in the newspaper archives on meanings of ‘deformed’ in this period, I don’t yet have a theory, but I am certainly planning a future blog post on this fascinating topic!

Potential ancestors

One of the most valuable aspects of the p.c. is that it has helped me to find possible ancestors where I had reached a dead end with the online records available to me.

Some of my ancestors were children in 1798, so do not show up in the p.c., but possible candidates for their fathers are listed in or near the place they were born. William Woodroffe (4x), was born in Marsworth before 1795 but I have been unable, to date, to find a baptism for him. He was probably too young to appear on the p.c. himself. However, there was one candidate for a father in Marsworth in 1798 – Joseph Woodderowffe (because one ‘o’, one ‘d’ and one ‘f’ is never enough (enoowffe?)!) – a farmer with two horses and one cart. William Goodchild, a sawyer in Monks Risborough, was a likely father of William Goodchild (4x), born in the same village, who grew up to be a carpenter. John Paine Snr and Jnr, farmers in St Leonards, were likely to be the grandfather and father of William Payne (4x), born 3 miles away in Aston Clinton. I knew from censuses that Olliff Foster (4x) was born in Weston Turville in 1790. There were no Fosters in that village (though a Folster is a possible candidate), but an ‘Off Foster’, too old to be listed as a potential posse member, owned horses and carts in another village 7 miles away. A search in Ancestry showed that he was also an ‘Olliffe’, and so this points me to a possible ancestor and a place to search for the link between two Olliffs.

As well as helping me find some possible new ancestors or at least give me research leads, the p.c. has also made me question the validity of some relationships I had already accepted into my tree. 

For example, when looking for the baptism of Ann Verney (5x), who married in Wendover in 1798, I found just one that fitted – Ann Varney b. 1777 in Berkhamstead, 17 miles away. I had accepted the hint, as even though my ancestors rarely moved beyond 5 miles in this period, it seemed possible. However, the p.c. showed that a Thomas Verney was living in Great Missenden, just five miles away from Wendover – a much more likely candidate to be her father, even in the absence of a digitised baptism record. 

One significant disappointment was the discovery of the true origins of my 5x great grandmother, Martha Dean. Martha was the wife of Joseph Munday Snr, the labourer mentioned above. As with Ann Verney, I had only found one viable baptism for her online, to a Daniel Dean of Hambleden, 14 miles away. I had not explored the line any further, though I knew that Daniel had died in 1769 and would not be in the p.c. However, looking at Hambleden, I was surprised to see that several Deans were farmers there. In fact, five Deans in Hambleden were registered in the 1784 poll for the Knights of the Shire. I was not aware of any of my ancestors being sufficiently affluent to have been able to vote in that election. I was excited to find wealthy ancestors with the prospect of more genealogical records, and I started to delve deeper. I established that some of the Deans listed in the p.c. were sons of Daniel. I then found Daniel’s will. He was a yeoman, and left large sums of money to many family members, including £400 to his youngest daughter Martha, with another £400 to come when she either turned 21 or married, whichever happened first. £800 in 1798 is worth more than £35,000 today! And yet, according to my tentative paper trail, Martha married a labourer, and her sons were also labourers. I briefly entertained the romantic notion that since Martha had married below her station, it must have been a love match. But then, what had happened to the money? Something didn’t seem right. I next reviewed the will of one of Daniel’s sons, Abraham, who died later in 1798. This will showed that his now-married sister Martha had the surname Fastnidge, not Munday. Sadly, this was clearly not my family after all. So who was Martha’s father? I found several Deans living within 5 miles of Wendover who are possible candidates – a farmer, and 4 labourers. A labourer is much more likely.

It’s been a very good reminder that even when an online database only returns one viable match, it’s not necessarily the right one!

Surnames

It has been really interesting to see where my ancestral surnames showed up throughout the county in 1798. Some were well distributed, while others only appeared in a single village or very small area. In some cases, a surname location provided a clue as to where my ancestors might have come from. For example, I could not find my Mackerneys ancestor in Buckingham, a possible place of origin, but found two ‘Mackerness’ entries elsewhere, which I can now follow up on. 

Surname variations have been cross-referenced in the index. Of course, the majority of these would simply have been the chosen spelling of the literate (or semi-literate) person who wrote them down. Inconsistencies even appear in the same village. My 5x and 6x great grandfathers Thomas Tamer and Thomas Tarmer were labourers in The Lee.

Thanks to the surname index and ability to quickly review names in nearby villages, I’ve identified possible ancestors with variant spellings. For example, I was unable to find John Wilden (6x) in Great Horwood, where his daughter was baptised, but found John Wilding in a neighbouring village. Mary Langstone was born in Wendover, and a Thomas Lankstone is recorded there. I don’t yet know the name of the parents of Eliza Plaster (4x), and the only other Plasters in the p.c. lived far from her home village, The Lee. But near to The Lee, there were two Plaisteds, one of whom was lame, and the other the owner of 3 horses and a cart. Was one of these Eliza’s father?

Missing!

However, a few ancestors proved elusive. My 5x, Robert Dewet, b. c1765, married in Whaddon in 1789 and baptised his son, my 4x, in 1794. Yet there’s no sign of him in the county, or of his 4 older brothers. Only one man with a surname variant appears, 18 miles from Whaddon. Where were the Dewets? Could they have been in the military already, and hence exempt from the p.c. register? Likewise, my 6x, William Maultby, married in Wingrave in 1783 and his son, my 5x, was probably born there in the same year. Yet there are no Maultbys or Maltbys in the entire county. William had property just over the border in Herts when he died. Was he counted there?

Found!

Nevertheless, in many cases, an ancestor I knew to be alive in 1798 was registered right where I expected him to be. I knew that my 5x, Richard Smith, was baptised in Monks Risborough in 1756, and buried there in 1832. His son, my 4x, also Richard Smith, was born in the same village in 1779 and would have been about 18 years old in 1798. In the p.c., two Richard Smiths were listed as labourers at Monks Risborough. These working class men with common names were suddenly more real and three-dimensional – a father and son working, perhaps side by side, in the same village where my parents were married 175 years later.

Monks Risborough, User:Waysider1925 / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Please, sir, I want some more.

Much as the posse comitatus is really a bonus resource, and I am extremely lucky to have so many ancestors recorded in it, it makes me greedy for even more information. The women, largely invisible in this record, were in fact right there with their menfolk. Censuses showed that many of my female Bucks ancestors were lace makers and straw plaiters, and I’m sure that in 1798, many of my woman ancestors would have supplemented their family’s income with the same skills. I wonder which of my older ancestors were still alive, and how were they cared for? How were the men listed related to each other. How old were they? What deformity afflicted John Underwood? Above all, I wish it were possible to know for sure that the names recorded are my own flesh and blood. But still, how lucky I am to have this colourful window into the past.

Very … Aylesbury!

After looking for nearly 40 surnames in the posse comitatus, I have a much clearer picture of my Buckinghamshire ancestry at the turn of the 19th century. Not only were most of my ancestors living in Bucks, most of those were also concentrated in one area in the centre of the county – Aylesbury Hundred (highlighted yellow below). In fact, almost all of them lived within a 5 mile radius of Wendover. And it’s probable that most of their ancestors (and mine) had lived in this part of the Chilterns for hundreds of years.

Although most of my Bucks ancestors 222 years ago were labourers who left very few traces of their lives, the posse comitatus shows them as integral members of a local community and men who were able to serve their county. For me, it’s really helped put them on the map.

Carys Map of Buckinghamshire, 1787 (Centre for Bucks Studies)
The three hundreds of Aylesbury: Introduction | British History Online
The three hundreds of Aylesbury (British History Online)

Appendix: My Bucks Names in 1798 (& definite or most likely places)

CHAPMAN – Wendover, Ellesborough
CLARK – Waddesdon
CROCKETT – Monks Risborough
CROFT – ?
CROOK – Waddesdon
DARVILL/DARVIL – Monks Risborough, Lee, Wendover
DAWSON – ?
DEAN – Great Missenden, Princes Risborough
DEWETT – ?
DYER – Aston Clinton
EAST – ?
FOSTER – Weston Turville, Whitchurch
GOODCHILD – Monks Risborough, Princes Risborough
HOMAN – Waddesdon
HILL – Aylesbury
JAMES – Little Missenden
LANGSTONE/LANKSTONE – Wendover
MACKERNESS/MACKERNEYS – Whaddon
MAULTBY – ?
MEERS – Waddesdon
MESSER – ?
MUNDAY – Wendover
OSBORN – St Leonard’s
PAYNE/PAINE – St Leonard’s
PEARCE – The Lee, Great Missenden
PHILBEY/PHILBY – Aston Clinton, Weston Turville
PLAISTED/PLASTER – St Leonard’s
PRIEST – Little Missenden
RADWELL/RODWELL – East Claydon
SHARP – The Lee
SMITH – Monks Risborough, Marsworth
TAMER/TARMER (TALMER) – The Lee
UNDERWOOD – Whaddon
VERNEY/VARNEY – Great Missenden
WOODRUFF/WOODDEROWFFE – Marsworth
WYATT/WEYATT – Ellesborough, Monks Risborough
WILDING/WILDEN – Calverton

From Suffolk to Scotland Yard

The Life & Career of George Read,
a Victorian Thames River Policeman

In December 1888, Detective-Inspector George Read of the Metropolitan Police Thames Division (CID) retired after 33 years of service. So considerable was the respect for him in the local business community that a committee – which included everyone from shipping merchants to barge and tugboat owners (and some barristers and solictors to keep everything above board) organised a testimonial fund for him. When inviting voluntary contributions (not to exceed 1 guinea) the committee reminded people of the many times Inspector Read had been commended by judges, juries, and magistrates.

And yet, like so many early recruits to the Met, George Read had very humble origins.

According to his grandson, George’s father had died ‘a victim of liquor’ soon after he was born, and George had been sent to a farm, where he lived barefoot and illiterate, for an abusive master, until one day, he ran away and became a sailor. In truth, George’s father didn’t die when he was young, but his childhood was certainly not easy.

Born in the village of Bedfield, Suffolk on 1 September 1832, George was the seventh of ten children of James Read, an agricultural labourer, and Charlotte Brightan. When George was a few years old, his father was a husbandman, so must have farmed his own small plot of land to help feed his large family. However, by 1841 James was once again described as an Ag Lab, and times seem to have been really hard for the family. Although the eldest son, Fred, was apprenticed to a shoemaker, a skilled trade did not seem to be on the cards for the other children. Half of them were scattered around the village living with employers. Frances (16), a servant, and James (14), an Ag Lab, lived on a farm. John was the youngest to have left his family; at the age of just 11 (my daughter’s age now), he was an Ag Lab living at Bedfield Hall (pictured below). The lives of many of the family would continue to be gruelling. One still worked as a labourer at 80, while another died in the workhouse. After George’s father died, his mother became a pauper.

Bedfield Hall – an idyllic view, though life there in the 1840s was tough for the Reads
Photo by UltraPanavision on flickr

Whether there is any truth in the story that George was sent to work on a farm, like his brothers, and ill-treated by his boss, I don’t know. However, he did depart from his rural upbringing in Suffolk by 1851; that year he was working as a labourer in Dovercourt, Harwich, and living with his big brother Fred, now a skilled shoemaker with a wife and baby. Their next-door neighbours were the Death family (!), headed by Henry Death, a gardener. That same year, Martha Death, a widow and annuitant in St Nicholas, Harwich (about a mile away), had a domestic servant called Emma Elizabeth Pearl (born in Harwich to Henry Pearl, a baker from Suffolk). I imagine that Emma was accompanying Mrs Death on a visit to Henry Death, when she met George Read. The elderly Martha Death met her Death in June 1853, and George and Emma were married in Q3! 

Family stories and police registers state that George was a mariner before joining the force, and though I have no marine records for him I assume this to be true. His brother Fred’s wife was the daughter of a Coast Guard, and that may have created an opportunity for George. However, he can’t have spent many years at sea, because at the age of 22, two years after marrying, he applied for the position of Police Constable with the Metropolitan Police Force in London, and was recommended by three Harwich men, two of whom were grocers – one originally from Bedfield. His application was accepted and on 15 July 1855, George signed on at Scotland Yard, and was assigned to ‘M’ Division (Southwark). George was about to embark on a new and exciting career!

George Read’s referees, Alphabetical Registers of Joiners, MEPO 4/334, The National Archives, downloaded 25 June 2020

The Metropolitan Police had been established in 1829 by an Act of Parliament that recognised the need for a professional police force in London. Throughout the 1800s a large proportion of recruits came from rural locations and the majority had low-skilled backgrounds. Some had served with the Army or Navy. Candidates needed to be under 35, fit, and a minimum of 5’7 tall (George was 5′ 10). They had to be of ‘good character’ (hence the references). They were also expected to be able to read and write, so George must have had an elementary education (whereas his sisters, who could not sign their name on official documents, likely had none at all).

The job of Police Constable had many attractions, including the potential for long-term steady work, sick pay and medical care, and subsidised housing. Unlike most working class jobs at the time, it also offered the opportunity of career advancement and social mobility. George would have been provided with some training, a uniform – including a blue swallowtail coat and black stovepipe leather hat (all of which he had to wear at all times, including when off-duty), truncheon, rattle and a rule book.

1850s ‘Peeler’ (not a portrait of George Read)

George did not take his wife Emma with him to London, perhaps because she was heavily pregnant. It must have been a wrench for him to leave her behind in Harwich. Just a month later, his daughter Emma was born in Harwich, but tragically, soon after the birth, new mother Emma developed rheumatic fever, and after two weeks of fever she died on 5th September, aged 25, with her father by her side. For George, in a new job, far from home and any family, this must have been a huge blow. I wonder if he was able to take leave to return to Harwich for his wife’s funeral, and to see his infant daughter. Certainly, it would have been impossible for him to work and also care for a child, so I assume that baby Emma stayed in Harwich with her grandparents.

Later that month, George was transferred to the Thames Division, commonly known by the name of its predecessor, the Thames River Police. The River Police had been formed in 1798 to combat theft and smuggling, and had been incorporated into the Met as the Thames Division in 1839. The division’s jurisdiction was primarily the tidal section of the river, from Teddington in the West to the Dartford Creek in the East, with a moored cutter as a station at the latter. This translated to more than 50 miles of river and navigable creeks, though Edward Smith of the MPS Heritage Centre tells me that ‘the westernmost Thames Division station in Read’s time was a naval hulk anchored by Waterloo Bridge, meaning that in practice they would have limited range on the western Thames’ and that ‘their range [at that time] would effectively be dictated by how far they could row’. Throughout this region of the Thames they were responsible for policing ‘below the high water mark’. Rob Jeffries of the Thames River Police Museum gave me an example: ‘If a dead body is reported at the Victoria Embankment … If the body is floating in the river or discovered on the foreshore Thames Division would be responsible for dealing with it. If the body was discovered on the pavement of Victoria Embankment, then it would be dealt with by the City Police or ‘A’ Dist. Officers depending on its location.’ As a Met policeman, George had the same powers of arrest as an officer in any other division, but he was primarily dealing with crimes unique to the river. His grandson later wrote: ‘In those days the Thames police had rowing boats rowed by 3 or 4 pairs of oars. They dealt with pirates and smugglers in the riverside warehouses which frequently held valuable cargo such as ivory.’ Most officers in the division had a maritime background, and the experience would have prepared George well for the physical effort and skills needed to navigate the Thames, though he could not have been prepared for the many crimes and criminals he would encounter.

The Investigator, a Thames Police floating police station 1836-1856
Image from London Docklands Museum

Charles Dickens spent an evening with Thames Division, and published an account of his experience in 1853, Down With the Tide. He writes:

We were in a four-oared Thames Police Galley, lying on our oars in the deep shadow of Southwark Bridge – under the corner arch on the Surrey side – having come down with the tide from Vauxhall. We were fain to hold on pretty tight, though close in shore, for the river was swollen and the tide running down very strong. We were watching certain water-rats of human growth, and lay in the deep shade as quiet as mice; our light hidden and our scraps of conversation carried on in whispers. Above us, the massive iron girders of the arch were faintly visible, and below us its ponderous shadow seemed to sink down to the bottom of the stream. We had been lying here some half an hour. With our backs to the wind, it is true; but the wind being in a determined temper blew straight through us, and would not take the trouble to go round. I would have boarded a fireship to get into action, and mildly suggested as much to my friend Pea. ‘No doubt,’ says he as patiently as possible; ‘but shore-going tactics wouldn’t do with us. River-thieves can always get rid of stolen property in a moment by dropping it overboard. We want to take them WITH the property, so we lurk about and come out upon ’em sharp. If they see us or hear us, over it goes.’

Dickens’ policeman companion, who he nicknames ‘Pea’, explains that they dealt with four kinds of water-thieves: tier-rangers – who board vessels in the night and steal personal possessions, lumpers – who conceal goods in extra-large pockets ‘like clowns in pantomimes’, truckers – who smuggled larger volumes, and dredgermen, who sank stolen items into the river for retrieval later. It’s a very atmospheric piece and well worth a read (though, trigger warning: there’s a very descriptive section about suicides).

In 1858, George remarried to his cousin, Mary Ann Knights, daughter of a Mile End grocer, who came from Hoxne, just eight miles from Bedfield. He now had a mother for his young daughter, and would have been eligible for a married officer’s lodging allowance. The marriage certificate said that George was a ‘Waterman’ rather than a police officer. Perhaps that is how he saw his job at the time. However, after five years of service he was evidently an experienced and capable policeman. The first insight I have into his work is an 1860 newspaper report about a robbery. Two Scottish soldiers, William Beattie and William Reid, newly discharged from service in India, had arrived in London and were staying there en route to Scotland. After an afternoon of heavy drinking, Beattie went to bed rather ill, and while he was sleeping, Reid stole his money. The following night …

‘the prosecutor and a Police Constable named George Read, 190H, went on board a steam-ship bound to Leith and found the prisoner on board. He had provided for his passage to Scotland. The prosecutor asked the prisoner for his money, on which he assumed a bold air, and said, “I have got no money, I have been robbed myself.” The police constable said, “Come, no nonsense; you have got your comrade’s money.” The prisoner insisted he had not got a farthing. The constable immediately searched him, and found upon him 15 sovereigns, and among them one of the reign of George the Fourth, which Beattie had previously described to the policeman, a rupee, a quarter rupee, and some silver English coin.’ (Morning Advertiser, 27 Jan 1860)

Later that year, George and Mary Ann had their first child, Agnes. In 1861 the family (including George’s five-year-old daughter Emma) lived in Tower Hamlets. Mary Ann, though caring for a baby, was supplementing the family’s income with work as a bookbinder. Sadly, baby Agnes, nine months old, died just 10 days after the census. She had been suffering from hydrocephalus (fluid on the brain) for three weeks, so she was already seriously ill when the census was taken. Their neighbour Mary Ann Smith was present at Agnes’s death. She was a Derbyshire shoemaker and the wife of another Thames police officer, Thomas Smith.

In 1863, the year in which George would have replaced his top hat with the iconic policeman’s helmet, George & Mary Ann had another child, George James. They would go on to have five more children after that, and two of their sons, including George Jr., would also become Metropolitan policemen.

Thames Police HQ, a sketch by Whistler, 1859

At this time, the MPF had still not developed into a thoroughly professional, disciplined force, and large numbers of PCs were dismissed for drunkenness; in 1863, 215 officers were arrested for being intoxicated while on duty! Mary Ann supposedly helped George turn away from drink, and his career progression indicates that he was performing his duties effectively. In 1865, George became one of the minority of policemen during this period to progress beyond Constable, when he was promoted to Inspector (Third Class), a position he held for eight years. This rank was unique to Thames Division, and was equivalent to the Station Sergeant (the senior sergeant) in other divisions. It was created rather sneakily to give Thames policemen more power to search and detain. All Thames Division inspectors were also Customs and Excise Officers, so the more inspectors there were on the river, the more warrants could be carried.

The first trial in which ‘Inspector Read’ appears in the news came soon after his promotion, but was rather mundane; From George’s police galley off Battersea he witnessed a 16-year-old throwing rubbish from a barge into the river. He even brought samples of the rubbish to court – saying it was ‘very bad stuff’! The littering onto the mud was prosecutable under the ‘Thames Conservancy Act’. (London Evening Standard, 6 Oct 1865)

Although much of Inspector Read’s work was undramatic, the river police and the emerging field of detective work captured the imagination of writers such as Dickens and Conan Doyle. Like Dickens, Conan Doyle knew Thames police officers personally, and either of them may have met George Read! From 1864-1865, Dickens serialised Our Mutual Friend, which featured a calm, authoritative and analytical Thames inspector, simply called ‘Mr Inspector’. His character has been described as ‘imperturbable, omnicompetent, firm but genial’. (Philip Collins, Dickens and Crime) In one scene, he shows his strength and technical skill when recovering a boat containing ‘Gaffer’ Hexam’s body. If you’re not familiar with the story, Gaffer makes a dubious living out of robbing items from bodies he fishes out of the river. Now, it is Mr. Inspector’s turn to retrieve Gaffer’s remains: ‘It was an awful sort of fishing, but it no more disconcerted Mr. Inspector than if he has been fishing in a punt on a summer evening by some soothing weir high up the peaceful river.’ He then examines the body, making insightful observations about Gaffer’s appearance and cause of death – by the very rope he had used to pull corpses from the river. I haven’t found any evidence that George Read recovered any bodies, or investigated any deaths, but I believe he must have encountered cases of accidental drowning, suicide, and even murder in his long career.

Mr Inspector examining the body of Gaffer Hexam (the ‘bird of prey’); illustration by Marcus Stone (my own copy).

In the 1860s, George’s youngest brother Alfred also left work as a labourer and joined the Metropolitan Police, working as a Constable in ‘K’ (Stepney) Division. Sadly, Alfred died of TB in 1874 and his son was admitted to the Metropolitan Police Orphanage. Read my post about this.

In 1867, George dealt with a coal theft from a barge by three boys. He stated in court that ‘the banks of the river were infested with young thieves, who plundered the coal barges to a great extent.’ Two of the boys had been convicted before and were ‘most notorious young thieves.’ The judge said they ought to have been at school, and that if they were brought before him again, and convicted, ‘he should send them to a reformatory’. He clearly felt that a warning alone wasn’t enough, however, and sentenced all the boys to hard labour. (Shipping and Mercantile Gazette, 27 Jun 1867)

George’s cases in 1870 included a conviction for selling beer and liquor without a license, which showcased George’s growing skills as a detective. Two Thames constables were accosted after midnight by two prostitutes who said they knew where they could get a drink (outside legal hours), and took them to Ann Gilligan’s house (which the judge called ‘a nursery of crime and dissipation’), where gin and beer was available. Later, George Read entered the property and seized beer, rum, and gin. An Inspector from another division explained how George Read had cracked the case:

Inspector Rouse, of the K Division, said the prisoner had been in custody for every offence on the statute-book, not even excepting murder, and had been convicted many times. She had recently come out of prison after a nine months’ sentence, for an offence under the Habitual Criminals Act. He had received innumerable complaints of the prisoner carrying on an illegal traffic in beer and spirits, but could not detect her. Sailors had been inveigled into her infamous house made drunk, and stripped of all they had. At last, he had consulted with the Thames police, and a ruse suggested by Inspector Read proved successful. (Morning Advertiser, 13 Sep 1870)

Inspector Read was also involved in a dramatic and dangerous smuggling case that year, as reported in the Morning Advertiser on 5 Sep 1870, and even in the Glasgow Evening Post!

Smuggling On the River

John Smith and John Fleet, Belgian labourers, were brought before Mr Paget, charged with obstructing George Read, a Thames police inspector and Custom house officer. The inspector and his boat’s crew were on duty in a police galley that morning at eight o’ clock off St Katharine’s Dock wharf, and saw the prisoners leave the Belgian steamship Baron Osy, trading between London and Antwerp, and get into a boat. They had not rowed far when Inspector Read and his men boarded the boat, and demanded the tobacco they had about them. Smith immediately took two parcels of tobacco from under his waistcoat, and threw them overboard. Fleet took four large parcels of tobacco from under his dress, and threw them overboard. The Thames police endeavoured in vain to save the tobacco, but could not succeed, in consequence of Smith taking up a large boat-hook and breaking the parcels as they floated down the river. All the tobacco sank. A violent struggle took place in the boat, and all the parties were immersed in the water, and narrowly escaped being drowned.

Thames Division rowing galley in the Upper Pool, below Tower Bridge. http://www.thamespolicemuseum.org.uk/gallery.html

Throughout the 1870s, Inspector Read appeared in newspapers numerous times. At Thames Police Court (where almost all of his cases were heard), in 1871, he reported having seen the prisoner ‘landing some sugar in Wapping’. As well as the unlawful possession of 4 cwt 1 qt raw sugar, the prisoner had 5 cwt copper, a tarpaulin, an elephant’s tusk, 5 sling chains, 24 lbs of rapeseed, dog and cow hides [dog?!], a large quantity of old iron, and other property belonging to persons known and unknown. That year he also worked on cases of theft of apparel, silk, French ladies’ boots, rope, brandy, shells, and the ‘extensive robbery of wool’ – in which it was ‘Inspector Read, an active officer of the Thames Police, who has had charge of the case throughout, and by whose exertions the prisoners have been brought to justice’. (Morning Advertiser, 25 Dec 1871) The following year, George caught someone in unlawful possession of a canvas bag filled with 28 lbs tobacco and apprehended a principal member of the ‘Long Firm’ – ‘a notorious gang of swindlers’ that ‘infest London and prey on credulous tradespeople.’ (East London Observer, 22 Jun 1872)

On 12 June 1873 Police Orders stated ‘Inspector Reed [sic] is appointed Divisional Detective [on Thames Division] with the rank of Serjeant … with pay from 4th [June]’. George’s pension record also shows that his rank was changed from Third Class Inspector to Detective Sergeant. Per Edward Smith of the MPS Heritage Centre, ‘though 3rd Class Inspector to Detective Sergeant would nominally be a demotion, it’s not quite as dramatic as it sounds. Indeed, there may even have been a requirement or expectation to work one’s way up through CID ranks rather than simply leapfrog across from one uniform rank to its CID equivalent, albeit without dropping all the way back down from (for instance) Station Sergeant to Detective Constable.’ My take on this unusual change of title is that at this time George Read became a plain-clothes detective. According to the Metropolitan Police Heritage Centre’s website, only three detectives were attached to Thames Division in 1875, and I like to think this means George was one of them. George continues to be referred to as ‘Inspector Read’ in newspapers throughout this period.

In 1874, George dealt with another coal theft from a barge, and this time, the defendants were a man and a little boy. ‘Inspector Read said there was a vast quantity of coal stolen from craft on the river, and no less than five or six tons had been stolen from the barge Mary alone.’ The judge said that the prisoner ‘not only only stole the coal, but was bringing the boy up to be a thief.’ The boy was discharged but the adult was sentenced to two months’ imprisonment with hard labour. The article doesn’t say whether the boy was his son, or what was to become of him while the adult served time. (Shipping and Mercantile Gazette, 2 Feb 1874)

In 1877, George was still on the beat, and while on duty on the High St, Wapping, he caught a thief red-handed when he noticed someone whose clothing was ‘rather bulky.’ The man turned out to be concealing ’16lb lump sugar’. He was one of the ‘lumpers’ described by Dickens. (Shipping and Mercantile Gazette, 6 Feb 1877)

George had more than earned his stripes when he was promoted for the final time. The Detective Branch was reorganised into the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) on 8 April 1878, and that very same day George was made an Inspector CID attached to the Thames Division.

A few months after his promotion, the Princess Alice paddle steamer sank in the Thames at Gallions Reach near Woolwich with the greatest loss of life of any British inland waterway shipping accident. Up to 700 people were drowned or died later from the noxious water. Thames policemen were deployed to control crowds and deal with remains and belongings from the disaster. One outcome of the resulting inquest was the replacement of the rowing boats used by river police with steam launches, the first two boats coming into service in the 1880s. These powered launches inspired a storyline in the Sherlock Holmes mystery, The Sign of Four, set in 1888, in which Holmes pursues a criminal from a police launch.

However, it seems that as a Detective Inspector, George now spent much more time on land, and could instruct constables to board a suspicious vessel rather than doing it himself. For example, in 1878, working on one of several cases of tobacco smuggling and illicit liquor sales, he ‘issued instructions to two Thames constables, who went on board the Bruce’. It seems that only after being certain of illegal operations, he boarded the vessel himself.

Shipping and Mercantile Gazette, 9 Nov 1878, BritishNewspaperArchive.com

George’s last child was born at the end of 1878. Unfortunately baby Frederick only lived for 23 days. He died of atrophy, with his father present. An archaeological study of a Victorian East End cemetery found that ‘young infants were dying from convulsions, pneumonia, diarrhoea and atrophy. These deaths may have been related to underlying nutritional deficiencies as vitamin C and D deficiencies were noted on skeletons within this age group.’ One particular child, aged 17 months, who reportedly died from atrophy in 1851, was found to have had the bones of a 1-3-month-old due to vitamin D deficiency and rickets. For a newborn to be deficient in vitamins, of course, his mother would have had to have been as well. It indicates that in spite of George’s senior position in the police force, his family suffered from the poor living conditions of the East End.

In 1879, George’s detective skills enabled him to gather evidence against Mr Stitch, who had stolen 54 cans of lobster from Mr Pink! (How Dickensian!)

“In consequence of information which reached Inspector George Read, of the Criminal Investigation Department, he watched Stitch for several days, and he found that he had been systematically robbing his employer. He traced a portion of the stolen goods to the possession of the other prisoner …” (Aldershot Military Gazette – 1 February 1879)

Another interesting case from 1879 involved Mary Jones, a ‘tall, masculine-looking woman’ of 50, who was charged with carrying and conveying a type of foreign compressed tobacco that was subject to duty. Her clothing had caught the attention of some policemen, though she ‘professed to be very indignant’ at their questioning. She had hidden the cakes of tobacco in ‘a heavy quilted petticoat she was wearing’, which ‘had evidently been made for the purpose of conveying smuggled goods’. Inspector Read gave evidence that he knew the prisoner as a ‘regular old smuggler’. She was fined, with the default if not paid – a month in gaol. She ‘said she would not pay it, and was removed.’ She sounds like quite a character! (Morning Post, 30 Aug 1879)

Another woman prisoner charged with smuggling that year was Miss Marguerite Schmythe, a popular tobacconist with a business on West India Dock Rd. Detective-Inspector Read visited her premises, in company with Detective-Sergeant Horlock, and found foreign tobacco and cigars. A report of the trial shows his extensive expertise in his field, and could certainly provide inspiration for Sherlock Holmes!

Mr Young cross-examined Inspector Read at considerable length, especially with regard to the fact of the tobacco being of foreign manufacture. – The Inspector said he had no doubt at all about the matter. The tobacco he seized had the “knotty” appearance which tobacco that had been compressed and packed in small parcels always had; besides, when he seized it, the tobacco was moist and warm, this evidently being due to the fact of its having been “steamed”, a process that tobacco of that class was generally subjected to, so as to loosen it after packing, before it was sold.

Miss Schmythe’s defense pleaded that as she was German, she was probably unfamiliar with English laws. Furthermore, she was a ‘femme sole, and merely in a small way of business.’ His advocacy paid off and she was ‘merely’ fined £25 (about £1700 today). (East London Observer, 17 May 1879)

George’s partner on that case, Detective-Sergeant Horlock, was also his brother in law. William Horlock, who came from Dover, had joined the Thames Division six months after George. He left the force in 1881 after 24 years in the Thames Division, and later worked as an Estate Agent and a Caretaker. In 1890 he remarried to George’s daughter Emma. It seems that policing could be a close-knit family business.

In spite of George’s senior status, he was still in direct danger in the line of duty. In August 1879, a prisoner was charged with robbery of apparel and attempting to stab Inspector Read! George tried to apprehend him, but he ‘resisted most violently, bit Read’s finger and wrist, drew a knife, and attempted to stab him in the stomach.’ Thankfully, a constable and watchman came to help and ‘with their assistance the prisoner was taken to the station’.

Shipping and Mercantile Gazette, 23 Apr 1879, BritishNewspaperArchive.com

As George Read reached the zenith of his career, was he aware that two of his cousins back in the Suffolk countryside were frequently getting into trouble with the law for their thuggish behaviour? In January 1879, David Read, a miller, quarrelled and fought with another miller until Read ‘struck [him] on the head with his whipstalk and cut his skull open.’ In 1890, David’s brother John was charged with ‘furious driving’ and David was convicted, for the 11th time, for being ‘drunk, stripped, his face covered in blood, and in a fighting attitude’. Perhaps if George had stayed in Bedfield, he would have ended up on the wrong side of the law.

Inspector Read appeared in the papers five times in the first half of 1883. In January, several papers reported on ‘Alleged Cruelty to a Lad at Sea’. The ‘lad’ was one of three men on a ship from Hull to Woolwich, and the ship’s mate had robbed and beaten him several times. The master simply said that ‘it served him right’! At one point, the mate had beaten him with a rope until he was ‘nearly insensible’. Eventually, the lad jumped ship and was rescued by a passing vessel and taken to hospital. The mate was brought to court on a warrant from Inspector Read, but the judge was not convinced of one man’s word over the other, and requested evidence from the captain. (Illustrated Police News, 27 Jan 1883)

The same month, William Colmey, a 30-year-old labourer, was indicted for the theft of tobacco from a barge. Inspector Read succeeded in tracing the stolen property to Colmey’s house. The prisoner’s defense called the prisoner’s daughter, ‘an intelligent little girl, about ten years old’, who claimed that someone else had brought the tobacco to the house. But the judge was not falling for it, and in passing the sentence he said the prisoner had ‘greatly aggravated his offence by causing his daughter – a child of such tender years – to be brought forward to give false testimony on his behalf. Such conduct was most disgraceful, and after the bad character he had received, the Court had but one course, and that was to sentence him to a term of five year’s penal servitude.’ The judge was sympathetic towards this girl, but it would have been extremely hard on her and her family to have her father incarcerated. (London Evening Standard, 6 Jan 1883). Although George is my focus, I’ve been drawn to learn more about some of the criminals he encountered as well. For example, William Colmey features in a number of criminal records, and I know from census records that his little girl was probably Helena. By 1891, they were living together again in a family of ten, but Colmey later went into the workhouse.

The same month we learn that George intercepted another tobacco smuggling, in which he recognised the packages to have come from Hamburg, and in March he investigated the theft of a large amount of wool from the barge Petrel – a case that involved horses and the railway as well as the Thames. A search of the thieves’ premises revealed other stolen goods including four American cheeses! A more exotic case followed in June – ‘The Serious Charge of Receiving at Poplar’. Two men were ‘charged on remand with feloniously receiving a quantity of ivory, well knowing it to have been stolen’. Since the first charge of receiving, Inspector Read had also intercepted a parcel sent by the prisoner, which contained ‘a quantity of French silk boots – very expensive articles.’ (East London Observer, 16 Jun 1883)

In 1884, George and Mary Ann’s son George James Read joined the Met, beginning in the Thames Division and then moving to ‘A’ (Whitehall) in 1887. He was only 5’ 6 ¼, and the requirement for Thames Division was 5’7 (5’8 for other divisions) – so perhaps his dad helped him circumvent the height requirement.

In the autumn of 1888, George and Mary Ann were living at St Ann’s Rd, Mile End, when ‘Jack the Ripper’ was terrifying East Enders. The murders were primarily investigated by Metropolitan Police ‘H’ Division. However, during George’s last months of service, the river police were briefly involved in the investigation, searching boats.

One of George’s last reported cases, in September 1888, showcased the range of exotic imports coming into London. A man was charged with removing what he claimed were mere ‘sweepings’ of sago, gum, tapioca, ivory nuts and coffee from the floor of a business and taking them away for resale (Morning Post, 10 Sep 1888).

On 28 December 1888, Inspector George Read retired at the age of 56. His pension record shows that he was 5’10 with hazel eyes and a fresh complexion, and fair hair, turning grey. The fingers of both his hands were contracted and he had a birth mark on the knuckles of his left hand. 

I don’t know how much money was donated to his testimonial fund, but from Christmas Day, 1888, George was entitled to a pension of £130 per annum – about £10K in today’s money. It was a comfortable allowance – equivalent to a full year’s wages for a skilled tradesman. 

George and Mary Ann were photographed in 1890 seated with some of their family standing around them, and their dog at George’s feet. The couple on the right holding a baby are their daughter Jennie and her husband James – my husband’s great grandparents. The man on the left behind Mary Ann is policeman George James Read.

Between 1891 and 1901 George and Mary Ann left Mile End and moved to the Essex seaside, living in Home Leigh, Hadleigh, near Southend-on-Sea. Almost every home there had an individual name, and the Reads’ home was sandwiched by properties both called ‘Sea View’. In the 1891 census they had a visitor – their grandson Frederick – whose father George James was still a policeman living in West Ham. Perhaps Frederick was there for the health benefits of the fresh air.

Then, after 1901, George purchased two new houses next door to each other in nearby Prittlewell. He named his own house ‘Alpha Villa’. I can imagine him surveying his new property and nodding his head in satisfaction at his achievement. He had left behind extreme poverty in Suffolk, had a distinguished policing career, and could now enjoy his golden years by the sea, perhaps spending more time with his 22 grandchildren. However, he never forgot his Suffolk roots; he named the house next door, which was home to his daughter Jennie’s family, ‘Saxted Villa’, after a village near Bedfield and Hoxne (the reasons for ‘Saxted’, in particular, are a mystery, but Jennie took the name with her to her next house, where she lived until her death in 1959 – keeping the family’s origins front of mind for generations to come).

Alpha Villa and Saxted were at number 51 and 53 Bournemouth Park Road – and here they are today (from Google Maps).

In 1898, George & Mary Ann’s youngest son, William (Will), also joined the ‘family business’, becoming an Inspector in ‘C’ (St James’). Unfortunately, I have found out very little about George James & Will’s careers. However, in 1894, Detective-Sergeant George Read of K Division gave evidence at the trial of John Hardie, a carriage cleaner, who was indicted for stealing and receiving from his employers, the Great Eastern Railway Company (GER). The stolen property was traced by the GER’s own Detective-Inspector C.R. Campbell by a few grains of sawdust left at the crime scene! Hardie was found guilty but received a lenient sentence. ‘Mr Elliott, for the defence, said that he could not do otherwise than compliment both Campbell and Read upon the fair manner in which they had conducted the case and given their evidence.’ (East Anglian Daily Times, 16 Jun 1894)

George James and Will both retired from the Met in 1912, after serving for 27 and 26 years respectively. George’s pension record reveals that he had a blue tattoo on his right forearm.

Although George has been the focus of this post, I have no doubt that Mary Ann, of whom very few records survive, played a critical role in supporting George and their family throughout his career, and I hope that after George’s retirement they enjoyed some peaceful time together. In their older years, George & Mary Ann apparently became very religious, and this may explain why they were photographed with what I assume to be a bible on their laps (whether their own or a studio prop).

In 1919, George and Mary Ann Read died at home in Alpha Villa exactly one week apart from each other, Mary Ann on the 19th (aged 82) and George on the 26th (aged 86). I had suspected the Spanish Flu, but according to their death certificates they both died of ‘Senile Decay’ and ‘Cardiac failure no P.M.’ with their children at their side. They were interred six days apart in the same grave in Sutton Road Cemetery, Southend-on-Sea.


Note: The relationships between the letters and areas for MPF divisions changed over time and differ in various online sources; I have included the letters from original records, and referred to this TNA Guide for corresponding locations.

Learn More:

Metropolitan Police Heritage Centre

Thames River Police Museum

I’m very grateful to Rob Jeffries (Hon. Curator., Thames Police Museum, Wapping) and Edward Smith (Curatorial Assistant, MPS Heritage Centre) for helping me make sense of some of the records and articles about George Read’s life, and for putting his service into a broader context.

https://insidetime.org/the-thames-river-police/
https://insidetime.org/the-thames-river-police-2/
https://insidetime.org/the-thames-river-police-3/
https://insidetime.org/the-thames-river-police-4/

The Thames River Police (Canal & River Trust)

Victorian Crime & Punishment (Pharos Course)

Note: Newspaper sources have been provided where I have included any quote(s) from the article. All have been referenced via BritishNewspaperArchive.com. Updated 5 Sep 2020 to include additional information from the MPS Heritage Centre.

Who Was Harriet Horlock? Part 2: The Skeleton in the Cupboard

In Part 1 of this story, I shared a genealogy journey that began years ago with a letter from my husband’s late grandfather, which included some very juicy stories about an elusive ancestor called Harriet … and finally led this year to the discovery of her place within the family tree. Harriet turned out to be the cousin of my husband’s great grandmother, Jennie Saword (nee Read), but she was also the step-daughter of Jennie’s half-sister!!

In this blog, we’ll look at Harriet’s life to discover if there is any truth behind these intriguing claims:

  • Harriet was a nurse who worked with Frederick Treves and for the royal family.
  • Harriet had an illegitimate daughter called Violet, and possibly another called Dorothy (Dolly) – and the father was Edward VII!
  • Harriet and Violet went to America, where Violet became a silent movie star called Violet Vale, married and had a baby, but died soon after.
  • Harriet returned to England, where she lived as a wealthy woman until her death.

I’ll also be investigating a mysterious letter connected to Harriet and Violet, which is in the collection of the British Library.

Don’t have enough time to read her life story? Skip to the end of the post to see the final Facts vs Fiction conclusions!

Childhood

Harriet was born Harriet Eliza Knights in Bow, 1863, the illegitimate daughter of Eliza Knights – father unknown. Before Harriet, Eliza had three other illegitimate children. Sadly, one of them died when Harriet was only two. In 1871, Eliza, Harriet, and her older sister Emma lived together in Mile End in the same house as Harriet’s aunt Harriet, after who she must have been named. Eliza worked as a flower maker, and Emma a book folder. Harriet, aged 7, was a scholar. The Elementary Education Act had passed a few months before, so she would have been eligible for six more years of schooling, probably surpassing Eliza and Emma’s level of education.

In 1875, Eliza married widower PC William John Wilstead Horlock, a friend and colleague of her brother-in-law Detective George Read, and Harriet, aged about 12, took on her step-father’s name. She was now Harriet Horlock, the name she would use for the rest of her life. William and Eliza may have been in love (one of the things family historians almost never know) but they also needed each other; he was a widower with three young children to care for (aged about 9, 6 and 2), and Eliza was a self-employed unmarried mother, with two dependent daughters, all of whom would have benefited from greater financial security and a more socially acceptable family situation.

In spite of Eliza’s unconventional past, William appears to have embraced the responsibility of being a stepfather to 12-year old Harriet as well as her 20-year-old sister Emma, who witnessed their marriage. Nevertheless, the girls’ background must have been kept hush-hush, since the next generation were extremely confused about how these women – who they called ‘auntie’ or ‘cousin’ – fitted into the family tree.

Harriet was now part of a respectable family, but she had been raised by an independent and unorthodox woman, and she seems to have chosen a similar life for herself …

Nursing Career & Motherhood

Harriet’s sister Emma, aged 26, was living with her mother and step-father in 1881, still single and working as a bookfolder. Their household also included two of William’s children from his first marriage, and William and Eliza’s 2-year old daughter, Eliza. However, Harriet had left home to become an Assistant Nurse at the Poplar & Stepney Sick Asylum in Bow, where she was living and working.

1881 England Census, Class: RG11; Piece: 504; Folio: 89; Page: 3; GSU roll: 1341112, Ancestry.co.uk 30/6/20

The hospital had opened in 1871, with just one doctor and no trained nurses. However, in 1875, a school of nursing was established and nurses trained for three years in nursing care and sick cookery. As an Asst. Nurse, Harriet may well have been in training to become a certified nurse at the institution.

The following year, she was a ‘Nurse, Sick Asylum of Bow’ when she registered the birth of her illegitimate son, John William Horlock (John’s existence was a surprise to me and the key that finally unlocked Harriet’s identity). The identity of John’s father is unknown, though my imagination conjures up an affair with a doctor, possibly named John. I like to think that the name ‘William’ was chosen in honour of Harriet’s step-father. Presumably, Harriet would have been relieved of her duties at the asylum once her pregnancy was impossible to hide. John was born at Queen Charlotte’s hospital, a maternity or ‘lying in’ hospital founded in the 1700s. We may think of Victorian women giving birth at home, and so might assume (as I did) that hospital births were only for the middle class, but in fact it was the other way around. Lying-in-hospitals were used by poorer mothers and had a poor reputation for hygiene. Queen Charlotte’s was unusual in allowing unmarried mothers to use its facilities, though only once! Queen Charlotte’s and Chelsea Hospital is still a maternity hospital today – one of the oldest in Europe.

After Harriet become a mother, I don’t know if she went back to work or stayed home to raise her son. William and Eliza may have been especially willing to help care for John, because their little daughter Eliza had died just two months earlier. If Harriet did return to work, she may have needed to leave her position again after a few years, as she probably had another illegitimate child in the mid 1880s (we’ll come back to this a bit later), and her mother, a potential carer for her children, died in 1889.

Nevertheless, by 1891, she was again working as a nurse, this time at the St Mary’s (Guardians) Workhouse in Islington. The workhouse, including its infirmary, had been rebuilt in 1891, and the hospital wards benefitted from improved lighting, ventilation and heating, with the aim of not only improving health but also ‘cheerfulness’. Each ward held 32 beds, and a nurse’s room with inspection window, as well as two stoves for heating, and a scullery. Nurses’ bedrooms were at the top of a central administration building.

The National Archives of the UK (TNA); Kew, Surrey, England; Census Returns of England and Wales, 1891; Class: RG12; Piece: 150; Folio: 62; Page: 23; GSU roll: 6095260, via Ancestry.co.uk 30/6/20

Of course, nurses could not have children living with them on site, so John, aged 9, was living with his great grandparents (Eliza’s parents) James & Jane Knights in Bromley, which was also right next door to their son-in-law William Horlock. William had remarried a few months earlier to Emma Read, the daughter of his brother-in-law George Read (not a blood relation, but certainly unusual!). After Jane Knights died in 1892, John probably moved in with his step-grandparents William & Emma Horlock.

(Hang in there! We’re getting to the royal rumour really soon!)

In 1892, Harriet must have changed jobs again because she requested a testimonial (work reference) from the Islington Guardians Workhouse, which was granted.

Islington Gazette, 8 July 1892, britishnewspaperarchive.com

In 1900, Harriet had another illegitimate child, named Violet Horlock. The birth registration stated that Harriet was a Hospital Nurse, and gave her home address as 26, Perring Street, Bromley – the home address of William & Emma Horlock. However, she gave birth at a house on Lansdowne Place, Hove, Sussex. It was quite an upmarket street, with no indications that it may have been a discreet mother and baby home. The following year, the house was occupied by the family of George Deveson, a whiskey dealer, with their cook, housemaid and nurse. I’ve found no connections between Harriet, Hove, or the Devesons.

For the second or third time, Harriet must have had to leave her employment to have a baby, which surely would have threatened her financial independence. However, by 1901 Harriet had moved to Camberwell, where she was living with her sister Emma, and Emma’s husband Frederick Horlock – a nephew of William. Harriet was a Sick Nurse, single, and the youngest person in the home, and yet she was recorded as the Head of the household. Her position in the household is unusual, especially so soon after having a baby. However, she was now working on her ‘own account’. Private nursing, which she may have done since leaving the Islington Workhouse, may have given her increased income and the flexibility to combine a career and motherhood (how modern!). But wait! Where’s Violet? She would only have been a few months old, but she was not recorded on the census with her mother, nor have I been able to find her anywhere. Was she simply forgotten when the census was completed, was she hidden from the prying eye of the enumerator, or was she being cared for elsewhere?

1901 England Census, Class: RG13; Piece: 508; Folio: 60; Page: 4, via Ancestry.co.uk 30/6/20

Meanwhile, Harriet’s son John, now 18, was still living with William & Emma Horlock, who now also had their own young son. It’s testament to William’s commitment to his step-daughter Harriet that he gave a home to her illegitimate son so long after her mother had died.

We now come to the time when Harriet was supposedly working with Frederick Treves. According to family lore, “Harriet became a well qualified nurse working with Sir Frederick Treves, the foremost surgeon of his day in England. He operated on the king for appendicitis in 1902 and Harriet stayed with him during his convalescence and with the family for some years after. She travelled with the Royal family to their various castles and estates in England and Scotland, and when they entertained parties for pheasant or grouse shoots, their retinue would send unwanted birds to relatives and friends. I can remember a decorative display of pheasant tail feathers on the wall of our house at Southend-on-Sea which came from that source.

Sir Treves was indeed one of the most famous physicians and surgeons of his time, celebrated for his emergency appendectomy on King Edward VII two days before his coronation, which delayed the coronation for several months but saved the King’s life, and respected for his study and friendship of Joseph Merrick aka The Elephant Man.

Just who was Sir Frederick Treves? | Dorset Life - The Dorset Magazine
Sir Frederick Treves (c) Mary Evans Picture Library 2008

Unfortunately, I have no evidence to place Harriet with Sir Treves or in the royal household in or after 1902. I contacted the Royal Archives years ago regarding Harriet, and was told: ‘Our records relating to the King’s appendectomy in 1902, including Sir Frederick Treves’ own account of the operation and recuperation, show clearly that the nurses who attended the King were Nurses Haines, Fletcher and Tarr.’ Nurse Alice Tarr was Treves’ own assistant, who had been at the front with Treves in the Boer War, while the other nurses were chosen for their expertise with abdominal surgery. Treves retired in 1903.

However, Annie Fletcher’s conduct while caring for the King led to her becoming a resident nurse to the royal family for 20 years, even traveling with the family to Europe and staying on the royal yacht. ‘King Edward’s slight accident at Windsor brought out a fact not generally known, that for some time past there has been a trained hospital nurse in constant attendance on his Majesty’s family and Household. The lady selected for this enviable position is one of two nurses who attended the King in his “Coronation” illness after his operation, the other nurse, Miss Haine, an Irish lady, being now matron of the Convalescent Home for Officers of the King’s Services at Osborne. Miss Fletcher, who is on permanent Royal duty, travels with the Queen and Princess Victoria, the rather delicate health of the Princess being possibly the reason for this arrangement. In having a nurse always at hand in case of sudden illness or accident, the King and Queen are following the example of the late Queen Victoria, who, for some time before her death, was accompanied by a trained nurse, as a sudden summons to a hospital or home for such an attendant might have caused great anxiety to the nation.’ Annie’s story was featured in newspapers and could certainly have been the basis for the story about Harriet.

Nevertheless, Harriet certainly lived much nearer to the royal family during this period than she had before. From at least 1906, electoral Rolls list Miss or Mrs Horlock at Scarsdale Terrace in Kensington, between Holland and Hyde Parks and less than a mile from Kensington Palace. It was right next door to the Kensington Workhouse, which might have given her employment, but in the 1911 census, she was living with Violet and was a self-employed masseuse. This occupation was tarnished with the same unprofessional connotations then as now, and in 1894, the BMA had investigated massage workers in London and found that many were involved in prostitution. In response to the ‘Massage Scandals of 1894’, four nurses set up the Society of Trained Masseuses in 1904 with an emphasis on high academic standards and a medical model for massage training.

Scarsdale Villas (Terrace) highlighted on a 1901 map of central London by Edward Stanford Ltd, David Rumsey Historical Map Collection

In 1911 in London, 145 people had the occupation of masseuse, and for those providing legitimate massages the work seems to have ranged from what we would recognise as physiotherapy or sports massage to beauty therapy. One surgeon had nurses and a masseuse in his property. A respectable-looking family included sisters who were a governess and a masseuse. Boarders at another property in Kensington included a ‘professional nurse’ and a ‘masseuse’. One woman was a ‘facial masseuse’, one a ‘certified gymnastics masseuse’ and another a ‘sick nurse masseuse’. Also in Kensington were two Anglo-Indian sisters – a ‘secretary to a private gentleman’ and a masseuse. Numerous newspaper ads promoted massage skills as a way for women to make more money, like these from the Daily Mirror (23/6/1916) and The Suffragette (21/3/1913) (via BritishNewspaperArchive.com).

Unfortunately, Harriet does not appear in the Masseuses registers, which begin 1895 and are searchable in Ancestry.com, so it seems she was not a member of the Society of Trained Masseuses. However, given her decades of nursing work, I’m inclined to believe she was providing some kind of medical care.

Could this be Harriet’s ad?
The Suffragette, 15 November 1912 via BritishNewspaperArchive.com

Harriet’s location makes it possible that she could have provided services to the King, helping him recover from his surgery – work which would be unlikely to be included in any official accounts of his recuperation. A royal client may help explain how she could afford to live in Kensington. It is also easy to imagine how rumours of an affair could spring from this intimate type of work, whether legitimate or not.

During this period, Harriet’s son John married and had three children, two of whom died in infancy. In 1911 he was living next door to/opposite William & Emma Horlock, working as a general labourer in the biscuit trade. His surviving son, John William Horlock, aged 5, was a patient in the Chest Hospital in Bethnal Green. A few months after the census, William Horlock, who had been like a father to John and to Harriet, passed away, leaving just £203 to his widow Emma. Sadly, little John, Harriet’s grandson, did not get better; he died in 1914, aged 8. 

Emigration to America

According to the original family story, “After Sir Frederick Treves retired Harriet emigrated to the U.S.A., married, and had one child (Violet) who grew up to be a film actress in the days of silent films. Her ‘stage name’ was Violet Vale. Violet died early from tuberculosis …”

We already know that Harriet wasn’t married when she had Violet. But she did go to the United States, taking her daughter with her. In 1915, Harriet and Violet traveled from Liverpool on the Philadelphia (second class), arriving in New York in August. Harriet, who states she had paid her own way and had $150 with her, was listed as a 48-year old married housewife. Violet was 14. They were both 5’3 with fair complexion, brown hair and brown eyes. Their last address was Westcliff, England (so they must have moved from Kensington to Southend), and closest relative in England was given as Emma Horlock, Bournemouth Park Rd, Southend, ‘sister in law’. (In Part 1, I explained that Harriet had two relations called Emma Horlock, the exact same age, who at this time lived just 1/2 mile apart from each other. One was her sister, so it’s surprising that she nominates the other Emma, widow of William Horlock; her choice of relation and use of ‘sister-in-law’ to describe the more complicated relationship show how closely-knit this blended family was.)

New York, Passenger and Crew Lists (including Castle Garden and Ellis Island), 1820-1957, Year: 1915; Arrival: New York, New York, USA; Microfilm Serial: T715, 1897-1957; Line: 2; Page Number: 128 via Familysearch.org

What took them to the USA?

It was nearly a year into the war that people had said would be over by Christmas 1914. Harriet and Violet may have left London for greater safety in Southend, but both London and Southend were bombed by zeppelin raids starting in May 1915. They may have then wished, understandably, to escape the conflict altogether.

In 1912, a half-brother of Frederick Horlock (Harriet’s brother-in-law, with whom she had lived in 1901) called William Wilsted Horlock after his uncle, emigrated with his wife and daughters to Canada. One of William’s daughters (he had at least six) was called Violet Horlock, and she was born in Camberwell just two years after Harriet’s daughter Violet. These Horlocks stayed in Canada and have many descendants. Their existence was yet one more cause for confusion in my research, but their emigration could have inspired Harriet and Violet to go west as well.

However, Harriet had another very strong reason to move to the United States, as she already had another daughter living there!

Many years after I first heard Harriet and Violet’s story, I received another version:

” … Now there is a “Skeleton in the Cupboard”, Harriet was sent to America with two daughters Violet & Dorothy (Dolly) where she lived until mid-’20s returning to London & died during early war years. My father had to finalise her estate and contact Dorothy in Chicago who was now married. Violet had died in her early 20’s having married a Mr Katz in America. She was an actress in Silent Films & a very good swimmer. Her stage name was “Violet Vale”. She died of TB soon after childbirth (baby didn’t live as far as we know but may have been stillborn). You make what you like about her being sent to America. Who paid her passage etc? A nurse didn’t earn much in those days. The story is that she had the girls by the king who financed her & when she came back to London she was quite rich & was known as “Mrs Horlock” but as far as I know she never married! She had a flat in Cambridge Terrace Paddington & I remember going there with some of my family to watch the funeral cortege of King George V in 1936. We watched from her balcony. Edward VII had a penchant for lovely ladies (Lillie Langtrey!)”

Letter from Violet Read (daughter of Harriet’s cousin)

The plot now considerably thickens! Harriet and Violet’s immigration records show that they were headed to Chicago to stay with Harriet’s daughter, ‘Mrs O. H. Sampson’.

New York Passenger Arrival Lists (Ellis Island), 1892-1924 via familysearch.org

O.H. Sampson turned out to be Orville Herbert Sampson, an aircraft inspector. In 1918, Orville’s military record shows that his next of kin was Dora Sampson. In 1920, they lived together in Chicago, where ‘Dollie’ was a dance teacher. Clearly, this was the Dorothy/Dolly referred to in the family letter. However, her background is far from clear.

Hello, Dolly!

The earliest record I have for Dolly Horlock is in 1904, when she entered the United States on her own via Ellis Island, NY. Her age is given as 17, and she was an ‘artiste’ entering the country with $200. Her arrival contact was WF Keller (to whom she was discharged), of 235 E 12th St in the East Village (interesting trivia: 234 E 12th St was a boarding house in 1901, when Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid stayed there!). However, she did not give the name Dorothy or Dolly; rather, she used the name Violet Horlock! This was certainly not Harriet’s daughter Violet b. 1900, as she was only 3 at the time. Nor was it the Violet who emigrated to Canada in 1912. The only reason I know that this was in fact Dolly is that she uses the name in later records as well. To minimise confusion I will call her Dolly throughout.

New York Passenger Arrival Lists (Ellis Island), 1892-1924 via familysearch.org

The name Violet Horlock appears in the billing for the Fay Foster Burlesque in Pittsburgh (see ad below) in 1904. You can see that ‘England’s most charming misses’ are appearing in Capt. Keller’s Royal Zuave Girls – the same Keller who had met Violet when she arrived in New York. It was a very athletic show, and Dolly must have had performing experience already. A researcher into the life of Lizzie Beckwith, another troupe member, says that all of the girls had come from the Alhambra Theatre in London.

1906 advertisement for Capt. Keller’s Zouave Girls
Could one of these girls be Dolly?
The Minneapolis Journal – 3rd December 1904

In 1907, Dolly married Orville Herbert Sampson, an optician, in Philadelphia. Her marriage record has her name as Violet Horlock, so she was using it in a legal context.

There’s no sign of Dolly and Orville in the 1910 US census, but from 1912, a chorus member called Violet Horlock appeared in the cast of The Lady of the Slipper; Or, A Modern Cinderella, which ran at the Globe Theatre: 28 Oct 1912- 17 May 1913 (232 performances). Listen to a song from the show. Top-billed stars in that production included dancer Vernon Castle, whom Fred Astaire portrayed in 1939, and singer Elsie Janis, who later became famous for entertaining WWI troops. I assume it would have been unusual for Dolly, a married woman, to work as a professional performer (and to continue using her maiden name).

For the next four decades, records of Dolly, thankfully identifiable by her husband’s name, are extremely inconsistent. In 1920, she was ‘Dolly’ and gave her age as 36. In 1923, she was Dora when she travelled to England with her husband, arriving aged 26 and returning weeks later aged 34! In 1930, Dolly and her husband still lived in Chicago and she was still a dance teacher. However, she had apparently only aged three years in the past decade! In 1940, she was Violet and was only five years older again. It’s possible that, as a performer, she was simply determined to stay forever young. Another interpretation is that she was doing her best to sabotage any official documents that might identify her. Assuming that Dolly would not give an older age than her real age as an adult, I think the earliest birth date she gives of about 1884 is most likely to be correct. As for her using the name ‘Violet’, like her sister, we’ll come back to this shortly …


Violet Vale

I have been unable to find Harriet or Violet in the States in 1920. However, in 1925 Harriet and Violet Horlock were living in New York, where Harriet claimed to be the ‘widow of William Horlock’ and Violet, 24, was a dancer, like Dolly. It’s quite possible that Harriet and Violet had come to the US with the goal of Violet following in Dolly’s dancing footsteps.

In 1927, Violet married Richard Katz, a chemical engineer (son of Israel Richard Katz, a German merchant) in Manhattan, New York. Violet named her father as William, but left the surname blank (whereas Richard gave his father’s full name). If she was referring to her stepfather, William Horlock, surely she would have provided his surname as well. Could this therefore be a clue that her biological father was a William too? Her mother’s maiden name was recorded as ‘Harriet Vale’. This is also odd – if Violet did not want to give the name Horlock for fear that it would reveal her illegitimacy, why did she not give the name Knights? Perhaps she had no idea that her mother had been born with that name. Anyway, this shows that the name ‘Vale’ clearly was connected to Violet and/or Harriet in some way.

So, was Violet an actress known as ‘Violet Vale’? Well, between 1921 and 1925, a Violet Vale appeared in five shows on Broadway. In two, she had a principal dancer or named role. If this woman was my Violet (and I think she was), she had a steady and successful career, which presumably would have enabled her to support herself and her mother.

Source: IBDB (Internet Broadway Database)

The Complete Book of 1920s Broadway Musicals by Dan Deitz tells us which numbers Violet performed in outside of the Ensemble. For example, in Poppy, she was featured in ‘The Girl I’ve Never Met’, ‘When Men Are Alone’, ‘The Dancing lesson’, ‘Whaddye Do Sundays, Whaddye Do Mondays, Mary?’ and ‘A Picnic Party With You.’ The show For Goodness’ Sake starred Fred & Adele Astaire and included music by George Gershwin, who also contributed numbers to the revue Snapshots of 1921.

Violet and Richard Katz had a son, Richard, in October 1927, but he died in December. Violet then died in New York in 1929. Her widower went on to remarry, fight in WW2 and change his name legally to Kotts. However, this was not the end of Violet’s story. In 1932, there was an anonymous donation to the British Museum of a 1904 letter from President Roosevelt to Edward Lauterbach ‘in memory of Violet Horlock Katz.’ Lauterbach (1844-1923) was the Chairman of the Republican County Committee in New York and the defense attorney for David Lamar, the “Wolf of Wall Street”. Who donated this letter and why? The letter (which I have viewed in the British Library but was not allowed to photograph) has no mention of Violet or Richard Katz, but mentions other prominent New York Jewish men, who perhaps were connected to the Katzes. The British Library unfortunately could not shed any more light on the acquisition. However, I found that Richard Katz, Jr. travelled to England in December 1931, and I believe he may have hand-delivered this letter to the British Museum.

The British Museum Quarterly, Vol. 7, No. 2 (1932)

Harriet’s Return to England

Harriet’s sister Emma died in 1933 (but disappointingly did not leave a will, which could have provided more clues). Harriet returned to England in time for George V’s funeral in 1936. Electoral registers for her also start that year, with an address at 28 Cambridge Terrace, Paddington (later renamed 28 Sussex Gardens). In 1938, Harriet’s son John died in Poplar, without probate. In 1939 Harriet, a retired nurse, lived at 6 Sussex Gardens (presumably the same house, renumbered). The house had nine residents and may have been a boarding house. One story had said she had lived in a hotel and died with few possessions, while the other said she was rich and ‘had a flat’. I’m not sure which was true.

Harriet Horlock died 13 June 1945 with registered age 86 (but actual age 82), recorded as the ‘Widow of — Horlock’. Her death was registered by Jennie Saword, Harriet’s cousin. However, there is no probate record, so to whom did she leave her estate? Was it indeed the case that she just left instructions to disperse a few possessions, including her daughter’s ashes? Harriet was cremated and interred in Kensington/Chelsea.

Who Was Dolly?

In 1947 ‘Dolly Violet Sampson’ died in Chicago. Her death record claimed she was the daughter of George Horlock and Harriet. It also gave an exact birth date for her in 1895, but other records suggest she was born about a decade earlier. Unfortunately I have not been able to find any birth record, or any sign of her childhood.

Although the family story stated that Dolly was Harriet’s daughter, which is supported by some records, it is very odd to have two sisters both called ‘Violet’, and I have a possible alternative theory: Harriet’s sister Emma and brother in law Frederick were, as far as I know, childless. However, in the 1911 census, in the columns that report the number of children born and died, ‘one’ appears in the ‘born alive’ row next to Emma’s name, and Emma’s only. Emma married late, when she was 44. Is it possible that Dolly was her illegitimate baby, and not Harriet’s? Either way, Dolly’s identity remains a mystery for now.

1911 England Census, Class: RG14; Piece: 10141; Schedule Number: 14, via Ancestry.co.uk 1/7/20

Conclusions: Fact or Fiction

Q. Was Harriet a nurse who worked for Sir Treves & the royal family?

A. Harriet was a nurse, but there is no evidence that she worked with Frederick Treves or for the royal family. The royal archives confirmed that they had no record of her. It’s unlikely that Harriet could have been a regular or resident nurse to the royal family with a young daughter, and without leaving any records. Nevertheless, she was based in Kensington from at least 1906-1911 so it’s possible, purely based on her location, that she could have had royal clients.

Q. Did Harriet have an illegitimate daughter, or two, with a royal? And was she supported financially?

A. We don’t know the identity of the father of John, Violet, or Dolly and we have absolutely no evidence that any of them had a royal father. Rumours of royal parentage may have been a popular way to cover up a less romantic reality. Pheasant feathers on a wall could easily have been spun into a fairy tale story or thrilling rumour of a nurse who joined a royal hunt. In fact, since posting Part 1, I have heard from a descendant of William Horlock’s daughter Emma (Harriet’s step-sister). Emma married in Q4 1893, had a baby in Q1 1894, and her husband died the same quarter. She remarried in 1900 and her young son, William, was then raised to adulthood by his grandparents William & Emma Horlock (William truly was a generous man). I now know that William’s descendants believed for a long time that he was the result of his mother (Emma Horlock) having a royal affair! Was this another version of our family legend, due to so many Emma Horlocks? I’m curious to know how many families have these stories! (Please comment if you do!)

Nevertheless, Edward VII was a notorious womaniser. It’s also striking how extremely inconsistent, and often false, the official records are for Harriet, Violet and Dolly. And if there had been an affair and a child, records of her employment at the palace could have been concealed. Unfortunately, none of Harriet’s children had any surviving children, so a DNA test of a descendant is impossible.

Harriet was a self employed nurse and it’s perfectly plausible that she could afford to pay for her and her daughter’s passage to America. If her younger daughter was performing every night for many years on Broadway, they would not have needed additional support during their years in the States. When Harriet returned to London, she could have managed on money she had saved or received from her daughter(s). Her cousin’s daughter, who watched the king’s funeral from Harriet’s rooftop, had the impression that Harriet was wealthy, but she was a child at the time. It could simply have been a smart but moderately priced hotel. Harriet left no will, and so may have died penniless or simply settled her inheritance with family in other ways.

Family rumours are very strange things! Perhaps the feathers were indeed a gift to Harriet from the King. Unfortunately I can only speculate on the origins of this tall tale.

Q. Was Violet a silent movie star known as Violet Vale?

A. Dolly and Violet were both professional dancers, and there is evidence to suggest both worked in long-running shows on Broadway. If Dolly used the name Violet Horlock, this could explain why Violet had to choose a different stage name – Violet Vale. Further investigation (a trip to New York?!) might be needed to find out more. I have not found any evidence of Violet Horlock or Violet Vale starring in a movie. However, there was a silent movie actress called Vola Vale (real name: Violet Smith), who may have inspired the name Violet Vale. Still, I’m thrilled to have some Broadway performers in my family tree.

Q. What else do I still not know?

A. I don’t know when, where or to whom Dolly was born or where she grew up. I don’t know what took Harriet to Hove to have baby Violet, or where baby Violet was in 1901. I don’t know how Dolly and Violet became dancers. And I don’t know why a letter to the President was donated to the British Museum in Violet’s memory. All I need is a few more years to solve these questions!! Or perhaps, I should just spin my own fictional tale around them …

—————————

Blog updated 1 Sep 20 with addition of Violet Horlock & Richard Katz’s marriage certificate and associated interpretation. With thanks to Caitlin Hollander of Hollander-Waas Jewish Heritage Services in NYC for obtaining this image.

Who Was Harriet Horlock? Part 1: A Genealogical Puzzle

I have a tantalising family legend I’ve wanted to tell, which includes generations of independent women, rumours of royal affairs, emigration to America, a letter to the President, and even the birth of the movie industry. However, the relationships between members of this family are so confusing that I have been hesitant to share it.

A recent blog post by David Annal of Lifelines Research – ‘Don’t Believe the Hints‘ – gives an account of the meticulous research he did to trace a female ancestor for whom records were inconsistent and elusive. Ultimately, this painstaking work and creative problem-solving avoided him ending up ‘with someone else’s ancestors!’ It inspired me to tackle my story in two parts; in Part 1, I’ve challenged myself to explain the work I have done to find the true origins of my most enigmatic and intriguing ancestor. As in David’s excellent example, shortcuts such as Ancestry Hints were not equipped to the task of unpicking the complex threads of her family. For anyone with a brick wall, I hope that this might give you both some ideas of new places to look, and hope that a stroke of luck may be all it takes to finally find answers! In Part 2, I’ll investigate the legends and stories that were passed down about the mysterious Harriet.

My interest in (obsession with?) Harriet started several years ago, when I started researching my husband’s ancestry. My mother in law gave me copies of a tree and some letters about her family, both written by her father, Alfred ‘Alf’ Saword. Sadly, I never had the chance to meet my husband’s grandpa, so I am very grateful that he wrote so much down for future generations.

Alf’s tree revealed that his parents were first cousins. However, I’ve since discovered that they were (probably) also second cousins. His parents were James Saword & Mary Jane Read – who always went by ‘Jennie’. James was the son of Charles Saword & Emma Read, while Jennie was the daughter of George Read & Mary Ann Knights. Emma and George Read were siblings, and Mary Ann Knights was first cousin to both of them!

James Saword & Jennie Read – first cousins & probably second cousins (I have not found baptisms for Charlotte & Jane Brightan)

In Alf’s letter, he addresses some errors he has noticed in an autobiography that had been written by his brother in 1975, and tells a very intriguing story:

‘He refers to my mother being Grandpa [George] Read’s only daughter, but my chart shows two others, Emma and Harriet. … These were children from an earlier marriage. Soon after Harriet was born his first wife died, leaving him with 2 young children so he re-married. I do not know the name of his first wife but my mother told me this and I did know Emma and Harriet.

When they grew up and left home, Harriet became a well qualified nurse working with Sir Frederick Treves, the foremost surgeon of his day in England. He operated on the king for appendicitis in 1902 and Harriet stayed with him during his convalescence and with the family for some years after. She travelled with the Royal family to their various castles and estates in England and Scotland, and when they entertained parties for pheasant or grouse shoots, their retinue would send unwanted birds to relatives and friends. I can remember a decorative display of pheasant tail feathers on the wall of our house at Southend-on-Sea which came from that source.

After Sir Frederick Treves retired Harriet emigrated to the U.S.A., married, and had one child (Violet) who grew up to be a film actress in the days of silent films. Her ‘stage name’ was Violet Vale. Violet died early from tuberculosis and soon after her death her mother returned to London and lived in a hotel for a short while and died from a heart attack. My mother and Uncle Jim Read arranged for her funeral and disposed of her few possessions in accordance with her Will. My mother brought back a few mementoes to Ramsgate, including Violet’s cremated ashes in a small urn. She sprinkled the ashes over our rosebed. Aunt Emma left home and married Mr. Horlick but he died after a few years and she was left a widow, without children, …’ He ends by explaining that Emma had cared for his grandparents George & Mary Ann Read in their old age.

On Alf’s tree, Harriet and Emma Read were squiggly names floating sideways next to a confident row of George & Mary Ann’s children. I had to find out more!

I got to work and soon learned that the name of George Read’s first wife was Emma Elizabeth Pearl. George and Emma married in 1853, and in 1855 they had a daughter, Emma Jane Read. So far, so good. However, Emma (George’s wife) died less than a month after her giving birth to baby Emma, and there were no records of Emma and George having a daughter called Harriet. I searched for Reed and Reid as well as Read. I looked at records back several years before they married. I looked at Harriet Reads with a different mother’s maiden name, and traced each possible candidate forward either on censuses or by infant death records, to rule them all out. And I drew a blank. I also looked for an adult Harriet Read on censuses, as well as any records for her daughter Violet. Finally, I searched for Harriet Read’s death. Again, just crickets.

Next, I turned my attention to George and Emma’s daughter Emma. I found that Emma Read had married William Horlock (not Horlick) in 1890, when she was 35. He was 56 and a widower. Emma’s father, George Read, was an Inspector with the Metropolitan Police, and William Horlock was a Police Sergeant. There is an oddity on the marriage certificate. You can see that Emma has signed her name ‘Emma Jane Read’. However, the witnesses are George Read and Emma Horlock. However, the handwriting was not dissimilar and initially I put this down to a clerical error.

William Horlock & Emma Read’s marriage, showing Emma Jane Read and Emma Horlock’s signatures
London Metropolitan Archives; London, England; Reference Number: p93/pau1/036

William Horlock and George Read were work colleagues, and, I imagine, good friends, but they had also been family long before William married George’s daughter. William Horlock had in fact been married twice before. His first wife, Emma Priest, had died in 1875. William and Emma Priest had three chidren, the oldest named Emma. By 1890 she was 26, and this was the Emma Horlock who had witnessed her father’s third marriage. In other words, William’s daughter and his new wife now had the same name (which is not uncommon). William’s second wife was Eliza Knights, who he had married in 1876. She had died just the previous year (1889), having given William only one child, who didn’t survive. Eliza Knights, William’s second wife, was the sister of George’s wife Mary Ann. So, William had been George’s brother in law, and was now his son in law. This also meant that his daughter Emma was marrying her step-uncle!

Multiple connections between the Reads, Knights and Horlocks

I was able to follow Emma and William Horlock’s story beyond 1890. Alf had said they were childless, and that William died after a few years of marriage. In fact they had three children, and though two died as infants, one lived to be 70. They also enjoyed more than 20 years of marriage, until William died in 1911. So, it seemed that I had found Emma and disproved some of Alf’s story while uncovering another complex family branch. Meanwhile, Harriet, with her fascinating life story, was still a complete mystery.

Then, in 2018, I connected online with someone else trying to answer the question ‘Who Was Harriet’! Julia was the wife of another descendant of Charles Saword and Emma Read. Although our families had had no recent contact, she had been in touch with Alf back in the 1990s, and had recieved another much shorter version of Harriet’s story from him, with the added detail that Harriet was nurse to both King Edward & Queen Alexandra. Like me, Julia was determined to find out more. Most excitingly, she also had a version of the Harriet story from another relation – Alf’s cousin. Just to confuse things, the cousin’s name was Violet Read. However, she was a granddaughter of George & Mary Ann Read, born in the 1900s. It was in fact Violet’s father, Jim Read, who had arranged Harriet’s funeral.

Violet’s letter provided a lot of additional details. She reveals that Harriet in fact had two children – Violet and Dorothy (Dolly) (and to add even more confusion, letter-writer Violet also had a sister called Dorothy!) According to Violet Read, Harriet was known to her as ‘Aunt Harriet Horlock’, but was referred to by her father as ‘Cousin Harriet’, though Violet believed that Harriet was in fact her father’s half-sister; clearly there was much confusion and a sense of secrecy regarding the exact relationships. Violet Read stated that when Harriet died in England, her father, Jim, had to contact Dorothy in Chicago – now a married woman. She also stated that Violet, who as well as being an actress was a ‘very good swimmer’, married a Mr Katz but then died in her early 20s of TB, shortly after childbirth (the child didn’t survive). 

There were even family rumours that Harriet’s daughter Violet was the illegitimate daughter of a member of the royal family. Violet Read referred to it as a ‘skeleton in the cupboard’. ‘The story is that she [Harriet] had the girls by the King who financed her and when she came back to London she was quite rich and was known as ‘Mrs Horlock’ but as far as I know she never married! She had a flat in Cambridge Terrace Paddington and I remember going there with some of my family to watch the Funeral Cortage of King George V in 1936. We watched from her balcony. Edward VII had a penchant for lovely ladies! (Lily Langtree!)’

As you can see, Violet’s version of the story was much more colourful but also had a very significant difference from Alf’s – the Harriet in her story was not Harriet Read, but Harriet HORLOCK.

With this piece of information, Julia had made significant progress in finding actual recorded evidence of Harriet’s life in England and America, including census records and her daughter Violet’s birth certificate. In Part 2, we’ll look at Harriet’s unusual life – but here, I’ve simply summarised her name, estimated year of birth, marital status and place of birth in ten records:

Throughout these 65 years of records, Harriet consistently gave the name Harriet Horlock, both as a single and married/widowed woman. We know she was an unmarried mother, so it is likely that she went by ‘Mrs Horlock’ later in life for appearances’ sake. Harriet was inconsistent with her age. However, the occupation of nurse gives confidence that we have the right woman. And earlier records consistently place her birth at around 1863 in Bow (which has fallen within Stepney and Tower Hamlets)- which seemed likely to be her true time and place of birth.

However, before 1881 the trail was cold. There was no sign of Harriet Horlock in the 1871 census, when she would have been a child. And I still had no idea how she fitted into the family. She was not a Read like her sister, Emma. However, since Emma Read had married William Horlock, was Emma her sister in law?

The records gave some additional clues that suggested I was on the right track:

When Violet was born, Harriet gave her home address as the address of William & Emma Horlock. She clearly was closely related to them.

In 1901, Harriet lived with Frederick Alfred Horlock – her ‘brother’ – and his wife Emma Rebecca Horlock – her ‘sister’. I theorised that Frederick must be a brother of Harriet (and Emma her sister in law) – a lead at last!

Harriet, Emma Rebecca and Frederick Alfred Horlock at 20, Ivydale Rd, Camberwell
Class: RG13; Piece: 508; Folio: 60; Page: 4, Ancestry.com. 1901 England Census, 19/6/20

With a bit of research I found that Frederick was the son of Richard Horlock – a brother of William. In other words, he was William Horlock’s nephew. Aha! Harriet must be Frederick’s sister & William’s niece! Adding weight to this theory, Frederick’s mother was called Harriet, and there was a gap among Richard & Harriet’s children where our Harriet fitted nicely. But alas – she was not with the family in 1871, and no birth or baptism (for Harriet Horlock or any name variant) could be found anywhere!

I started to resign myself to Harriet’s identity being a mystery forever.

I decided to put the Reads and the Horlocks on ice for a while and research the Knights family. When looking for Jane & James Knights, the parents of Mary Ann (George Read’s wife) and Eliza (William Horlock’s second wife), I found that in 1891 they had a 9-year-old grandson living with them called John Knights.

I had previously noticed that in 1901, William and Emma Horlock had an 18-year-old son with them – John Horlock – who had not lived with them in 1891. I had assumed he was a son of William & Eliza (and most other researchers on Ancestry have made the same assumption), but I had not been able to find him in 1891. I now felt that this could be the same John who was with his Knights grandparents in 1891. But why had they given him the name Knights? I knew that his birth had been registered as John William Horlock but I now looked carefully at his birth registration at GRO.gov and saw that the mother’s maiden name was blank. This was odd. Next, I searched for more records about John, and fortuitously discovered his baptism. Rather than being the son of William and Eliza, he was the illegitimate son of Harriet Eliza Horlock!

John William Horlock’s birth certificate
Certificate ordered via GRO.gov.uk, 2020

If John was the son of Harriet, and he was the grandson of James & Jane Knights, was Harriet the daughter of James & Jane Knights? That just didn’t add up; Jane was born in about 1813, which would have made her at least 50 by the time Harriet was born. It also still didn’t explain why Harriet had the name Horlock. However, I now knew that Harriet’s middle name was Eliza, and I knew that Eliza Knights, James & Jane’s daughter, was married to a Horlock. Therefore, could Harriet be Eliza’s daughter (making her son John the great grandson, rather than grandson, of James & Jane)?

I realised I had never looked for records of Eliza Knights before she married William Horlock. I found her in 1871, living in Mile End. She claimed to be a widow, and there were two daughters living with her; one was Emma Knights, born about 1855, and the other, a 7-year old girl with the surname Knights, who would have been born in about 1863. Yahoo! But wait, her first name was … Thompson!!?

Eliza, Emma and Thompson Knights – close-up (source reference below)
Eliza, Emma and ‘Thompson’ Knights at 59 Jubillee St. Mile End. Her sister Harriet is listed next to her in the same house.
The National Archives; Kew, London, England; 1871 England Census; Class: RG10; Piece: 556; Folio: 95; Page: 11; GSU roll: 823398, ancestry.co.uk 19/6/20

Since Thompson is not a commonn name for a little Victorian girl I was convinced this was in fact Harriet, and it was very much a EUREKA moment! Sure enough, I found a birth record for Harriet Eliza Knights, which proved that Harriet was born illegitimately to Eliza in Bow, in 1863.

Harriet Eliza Knights’ birth certificate
Certificate ordered via GRO.gov.uk, 2020

Harriet had taken the name Horlock when her mother married William Horlock in 1876, and she used her step-father’s surname for the rest of her life. I had finally identified Harriet Horlock!

Harriet’s name and birth certificate give no clue to her father’s identity, though the odd name ‘Thompson’, found only in the 1871 census, may be a clue. Interestingly, though possibly coincidentally, Eliza’s sister Harriet, who lived in the same house as her in 1871, had married a Thomas Thompson in 1861, but he seems to have died in 1870.

Although Harriet’s father was unknown, I could finally place Harriet in the family tree. I could also verify and dimiss some of the information from Alf & Violet. She was not George Read’s daughter from a previous marriage. This meant that Jennie Read was indeed George’s only daughter. And she was the cousin of Violet Read’s father Jim, as Jim had said. She was also the cousin of Alf’s mother Jennie, as per Harriet’s death certificate. ‘Cousin’ had not just been used loosely in these cases.

Simplified family tree showing that Harriet and Jennie were first cousins

However, no sooner had I solved one puzzle, than another emerged:-

I had already found Harriet’s ‘sister’ Emma, so I thought – and just as Alf had described, she was the daughter of George Read & his first wife, and she married a Mr Horlock. I had therefore already assumed that Alf had therefore been wrong about Harriet and Emma being sisters, thinking they meant sisters in law. So who was this Emma Knights, apparently a real sister to Harriet?

I couldn’t find the birth of Emma Knights. But then, a lightbulb illuminated over my head! Now that I knew Harriet was not the sister of Frederick Horlock, she MUST be the sister, not sister in law, of his wife Emma Rebecca. However, I had already located Frederick and Emma’s marriage record, and knew that she was the daughter of George Jones. On a hunch, I decided to search for an Emma Jones with mother’s maiden name Knights; BINGO! Emma Rebecca Jones was another daughter of Eliza Knights, b. 1855, making her the sister, or more likely half sister, of Harriet.

Her first names now also had extra meaning – Eliza’s younger sisters Emma and Rebecca had died just five weeks apart in 1853 (aged 12 and 10), so it makes perfect sense that she would name her daughter in their honour. Although Emma’s birth was purportedly legitimate, there is no marriage record for Eliza and George Jones, she does not use the surname Jones on the 1871 census, and when she married William Horlock she stated she was a spinster. However, it is likely that Eliza had a real relationship with George Jones, because while looking in vain for a marriage, I discovered that they had had another child together in 1853 – a boy also called George Jones – whose birth was registered in Wingfield, in Eliza’s home country of Suffolk. In both of these birth certificates, George Jones’s occupation was Butler. I have been unable to find a convincing candidate for him in the census records.

In 1861, Eliza Knights was working as a servant, using her maiden name, and the census states she was unmarried. Meanwhile, her children George and Emma Jones lived with their grandparents James and Jane Knights in Mile End, but, like John in 1881, were recorded with the surname Knights. A third grandchild of James and Jane, Eliza Knight aged 1, also lived there. This turned about to be yet another illegitimate child of Eliza! Eliza Jane Drew Knights was born in Mile End in 1859. Sadly, she died in 1865, aged 5, when Harriet was still a toddler. I have found no records of a Mr Drew in Mile End.

Knights family with three of Eliza’s children
1861 England census, Class: RG 9; Piece: 296; Folio: 88; Page: 4; GSU roll: 542609, accessed via ancestry.co.uk 23/6/20

So, Eliza had four illegitimate children. It seems that her first two children, George & Emma, had the same father, George Jones. Her third child, Eliza, may have been the daughter of a Mr Drew, and finally, Harriet’s father may have been a Mr Thompson. It’s noteworthy that Eliza went from being a servant in St Pancras 1861, and living separately from her children, to being a flower maker living with her daughters Emma and Harriet in 1871. In between, Harriet had been born at Bellevue Place – a pretty row of Victorian terraces that still exists today, hidden behind a wall (see picture below). According to one website, these were cottages for employees of Charrington Brewery. It seems likely that the father of at least one child was helping to fund her improved circumstances. It is less likely that her parents – East End grocers – were in a position to support the family.

Just five years later, Eliza, a four-times unmarried mother, became the wife of a police sergeant. Earlier, I mentioned that Eliza and William Horlock had just one child, who didn’t survive childhood. It’s particularly sad that she named this child Eliza Jane, like her daughter who had died aged 5, and this Eliza Jane also died, aged 3 1/2.

Children of Eliza Knights

Returning to Harriet’s sister Emma, when she witnessed her mother Eliza’s marriage to William Horlock in 1876, she signed her name Emma Rebecca Knights (I only viewed this record online for the first time this week – showing that evidence can be right under our noses). In 1881, Emma lived with her mother and stepfather, and gave the name Emma Horlock. Given that she was an adult when her mother married, and William already had a daughter called Emma Horlock, it’s surprising that she (or whoever filled out the census return) used the name Horlock, though using the name of her legitimately married mother and step father would have provided some respectability and prevented questions about Eliza’s previous relationships. Emma’s whereabouts and choice of surname in 1891 are unknown, but in 1898 Emma used the name Jones when she married her step father’s nephew Frederick Horlock, and through their union she became once again … Emma Horlock! Frederick and Emma Horlock did not have children together – so this may have been the Emma Alf was thinking of when he said Emma and Mr Horlick [sic] were childless.

After William Horlock died in 1911, his widow Emma Horlock nee Read moved to Southend to care for her father and stepmother George & Mary Ann Read at 53 Bournemouth Park Road. Confusing matters once again, Emma Horlock nee Jones/Knights, and her husband Frederick, had also moved to Southend (17 Guildford Road) by 1911, and the two Emma Horlocks, exactly the same age, now lived less than a mile from each other! They were step-cousins, as well as Emma Read being, technically, Emma Jones’s step-mother. I would love to think that they were also best friends and met up several times a week for tea.

Thankfully, in 1893, William’s daughter from his first marriage, also Emma Horlock, married, becoming Emma Fiveash, and taking one of three Emma Horlocks out of the equation. Still, Alf and Violet had clearly fused the other two Emma Horlocks – Harriet’s sister and George’s daughter – into one. Although they may have known both Emma Horlocks personally, their letters were written many decades later, and it’s easy to see why they were confused.

If you’ve read this far, thank you, and I welcome feedback about whether I have effectively explained the relationships in this very complicated family. In Part 2, many of these names will resurface, so this detailed background information will be useful as we investigate the tantalising stories about Harriet and continue to unravel a very tangled and secretive web of relationships, which, I’m afraid to say, continues into the next generation!

Was Harriet a nurse for Sir Frederick Treves and the King?

Did she have two, or three illegitimate children?

And was her daughter Violet a silent movie star?

Some answers are coming soon!

This blog is dedicated to Julia Greenwood, a wonderful partner in sleuthing who passed away in 2018 before we were able to solve the puzzle.

James Benwell – a Humble Son of Science

201 years ago, when James Benwell died at the good old age of 84, he was a well-known character in Oxford. He’s since been almost entirely forgotten, but he deserves to be remembered.

I’m going to start my story in 1817, when James was nearing the end of his life. That year, an extraordinary letter appeared in Jackson’s Oxford Journal, providing a biography and character description of James. The whole piece is so delightful that I transcribe it below in full (It’s long, but don’t miss the story about him stripping off, jumping into a marsh, and emerging covered in leeches!)

To the Editor of the Oxford Journal

MR EDITOR, – Your well-known humanity will, I am sure, induce you to give a ready insertion to the following hasty sketch in behalf of an individual of acknowledged worth, who is at length, by age and infirmity, rendered incapable of providing for himself. I have been personally acquainted with him for half a century, and can, in common with many Gentlemen of the first respectability in this place, bear ample testimony to his character.

James Benwell, now 82 years of age, was born at Bayworth, a hamlet of the parish of Sunningwell, in 1735, and, during the early part of his life, worked as a common labourer in husbandry. Having married, he and his wife (who is still living) were servants with Mr Wyckham [Wickham], an eminent mercer of this city, by whom they were much befriended, and, shortly after his death, Benwell obtained a situation, more congenial to his habits, in the Botanical Garden, where he continued til age and infirmity prevented him from every species of labour.

From the commencement of his employment in the fields may be dated his admiration of the Vegetable and Animal Kingdom, till his own accurate habit of observation, assisted by the volumes of Old Gerarde, and other authors, brought him to a correct knowledge of nearly the whole of our indigenous plants, with their places of growth, and modes of observation; and, as an ornithologist, it is well known that there are very few birds with which he is not well acquainted, as to their song, their modes of building, and the art of rearing even those which are accustomed to migrate.

His strength and agility, combined with his keenness in tracing the haunts of all the wilder animals, made him a very successful follower of the chace in all its branches; though he has never been known to have thereby been induced to associate with poachers, in any of their nefarious schemes of depredation. He was, moreover, noted with giving the loudest and shrillest view-hollow of any fox hunter that ever took the field.

A vast many anecdotes of this singular man, characteristic of his favourire pursuits, are in circulation among his friends, from among which I will entreat your acceptanceof the following:- When Sir George Staunton, Bart, and Secretary to Lord Macartney in his Embassy to China, was in Oxford, he applied to me for some person well acquainted with our native plants and animals. No person was so fit to be presented as James Benwell. Accordingly, the two naturalists set out together for Otmure [Otmoor], in quest of the Hirudo Medicinalis, or Common Leach of the Shops, which was supposed to be an inhabitant of that marsh. After some fruitless search, Benwell of a sudden threw off his lower apparel, and, jumping into a deep ditch, waded about for some time, and then as suddenly exclaimed, “Sir George, I’ve got ’em!” He sprung upon terra firma, and, to Sir George’s great delight and surprise, there hung to his legs and thighs above an hundred of these animals! – Upon quitting Oxford, Sir George thanked me much for having made him acquainted with our untaught naturalist, adding, “he has opened widely the book of nature, and his consummate modesty and unaffected knowledge have ever endeared him to me.”

These days of activity and robust health are, indeed, now over; but not so his love of nature, or his gratitude to those friends who have administered to his wants at the close of life. His sense of their kindness was indeed strongly testified in a conversation which I had with him a very few days ago. In order to procure some trifling addition to his comfort and support during the remainder of his days, Messrs. Burt & Skelton, two eminent artists now resident in this city, have kindly and gratuitously contributed their assistance, the former by furnishing a most correct and characteristic likeness of the old naturalist, and the latter by executing an engraving from it, with all his well-known taste. A specimen of the engraving is now to be seen at the house of Mr. Wyatt, carver & guilder, in the High-street, where subscriptions will be very thankfully received on the following very moderate terms:- Proofs, 5s.; and Common, 3s. 6d.

I beg pardon for occupying so much of your valuable space, but I feel convinced that the merits of this old man only require to be generally known, in order that they may be generally rewarded. I am, Mr. Editor, Your very constant admirer and most sincere friend, JOHN IRELAND. Pembroke-street, Oxford, Nov. 26, 1817.(1)

This wonderful letter was in fact the last piece of evidence I found about James Benwell; it was referenced in a later article and I eventually found it after some considerable hunting! The first evidence I discovered was in fact the fundraising portrait announced in the letter. In the engraving, James Benwell, aged 82, of the Physic Garden, Oxford, is carrying a sack of leaves hanging from a hoe. In the distance, we can see the classical Danby Gate, which is still the garden’s main entrance today. It struck me as so unusual to see such a dignified image of one working man, and so charming, that I was determined to discover as much about him as I could.

One of two prints in the British Library’s collection, this one one acquired in 1850.
Danby Gate
Detail of the Danby Gate from a painting by A. Pugin, 1816, http://www.oxfordhistory.org.uk/high/tour/south/botanic_garden.html

Before the Botanic Garden (1735-1780)

James was the son of John and Mary Benwell, sometimes spelled Bennell or Bennel, and he was baptised in St Leonard’s, Sunningwell, in 1735. Sunningwell was just two miles from Littlemore, the home of my direct Benwell ancestors, and I believe that James was a first cousin of a direct ancestor, though I have yet to prove it.

It’s a shame that James Benwell’s wife isn’t named in the published letter, but she was probably Elizabeth. James Benwell and Elizabeth Wisdom (possibly daughter of the keeper of Oxford Gaol) married in St Peter-in-the-East  (now St Edmund’s Hall Library) in 1756. They then baptised two children in Sandford-on-Thames (where my Littlemore ancestors, having no church in their village, were also baptised): Anne in 1762 and Susanna in 1764. 1764 must have been a very difficult year for the family, as five months after Susanna’s baptism they buried a son, James, at Sandford-on-Thames and four months later their daughter Anne was buried at St Peter-in-the-East.

In 1769, James & Elizabeth baptised another James at St Peter-in-the-East. That same year, the family moved to St Ebbe’s parish (now the site of the Westgate Shopping Centre), prompting a settlement certificate to determine which parish was responsibility should they require poor relief (financial support). In this case, the parish of St Peter in the East declared that they were still responsible for James Benwell’s family. Joseph Benwell was one of the St Peter’s church wardens who signed the certificate, and was probably James’s older brother, who was baptised in 1732. Sadly, their second James was buried in St Ebbe’s in 1770. Of their four known children, the only child who may have survived is Susanna, though I have found no adult records for her.

James Benwell was still a servant of Mr Wickham in December 1780, when his employer died. William Wickham, mercer of St Peter-in-the-East, was twice Mayor of Oxford, in 1755/6 and 1769/70. In his will, he left a legacy to James Benwell and two other servants (there is no mention of Elizabeth, but she probably left his employment when she became a mother). Each servant who was still in his employment when he died was to receive two shillings and sixpence per week for life. 

‘And I do hereby give and bequeath to my servants Joanna Adams Ann Jones and James Benwell or such of them as shall continue to live with me at the time of my decease the sum of two shillings and sixpence each a week for and during the term of their respective lives And I direct the said weekly sum to be paid by my executor and executrix out of my personal estate and that the first payment of the said weekly sum shall commence on the first day of August next after my decease’ (Will of William Wickham, proved 10 Jan 1781, England & Wales, Prerogative Court of Canterbury Wills, 1384-1858, PROB 11: Will Registers, Piece 1074: Webster, Quire Numbers 48-94 (1781), accessed via ancestry.co.uk 10/6/20)

A New Career

James Benwell must therefore have started working at the Physic Garden in 1781 when he was already about 45. At that time, the Sherardian Professor of Botany, who oversaw the garden, was Dr. Humphry Sibthorp. Apparently, Dr. Sibthorp gave “one not very successful lecture … and every scientific object slept during the 40 years he held the post”’. Prior to Humphry Sibthorp, the post had been held by Johann Dillenius, who ‘was of a retired disposition, and recluse habits. His corpulency, combined with his close application to study, probably brought on an attack of apoplexy, which terminated his existence in the sixtieth year of his age.’! (2)

In 1783, Humphry Sibthorp stepped down and was succeeded by his son Dr. John Sibthorp, who was much more productive than his father had been.

As an interesting aside, during the first few years of James’s tenure, several pioneering hot air balloon ascents were made from the Physic Garden by James Sadler, a daring and ingenious Oxford pastry chef! John Sibthorp was a key ally of Sadler’s, and in February 1784, Sadler launched a hydrogen balloon from Dr. Sibthorp’s land adjacent to the Physick Garden. In May, he launched a balloon with an animal in it from the Physic Garden. In October, he ascended in a balloon himself, probably from the garden. Finally, on 12 November, Sadler made a highly publicised ascent from the Physic Garden watched by crowds of spectators, and travelled 20 miles. It must have astonished James Benwell to see these incredible first British balloon flights.

A view of the balloon of Mr. Sadler’s ascending. Print illustrating Sadler’s ascent on 12 August 1811. From the V&A Museum.

Dr. Sibthorp was an avid collector of species – many collected on his trips to Greek islands as well as around Oxfordshire. According to Timothy Walker, a former Director of the gardens, ‘John Sibthorp (1758 – 96) who held the Chair of Botany travelled extensively abroad and once sent the Head Gardener, James Benwell, 600 packets of seeds with the instruction they were to be planted.’ (2a)

John Sibthorp02.jpg
John Sibthorp, painter unknown (Wikipedia)

Although Walker calls James Benwell ‘Head Gardener’, his exact position, as per Prof. Stephen A. Harris, author of Oxford Botanic Garden & Arboretum: A Brief History (2017), is unknown. Last year I visited the Sherardian Library in Oxford to view their archival materials, which included the Records of the Committee of the Physic Garden. This fascinating book showed all appointments of a Head Gardener from 1735-1790, as well as the Head Gardener’s oath and salary (£50/year, with no increase for many decades). However, frustratingly, there was a gap from 1790-1812 and no mention of James Benwell anywhere! Nevertheless, I had a fantastic surprise when I took my seat at a bench in the tiny library; above my head were several large portraits of distinguished Sherardian professors in gilt frames, but just to my right was none other than the engraving of James Benwell!

In spite of the lack of records from the Botanic Gardens’ archive, Benwell’s legacy can be seen in the entries for several plants in the 1833 guide to The flora of Oxfordshire and its contiguous counties … by Richard Walker, a Fellow of Magdalen (3):

Anthemis Arvensis (Corn Chamomile)
Orchis Ustulata
Viola Palustris (Marsh Violet)

According to one source, Benwell was the planter of a very famous tree. In about 1790, Sibthorp collected the seed of the black pine in Austria. He sent the seed to his head gardener, John Foreman. ‘The resulting sapling was planted out in 1800 by James Benwell making it the oldest specimen of this species in Britain. It has grown into a magnificent tree. It was the favourite tree of J.R.R. Tolkien and more recently it provided inspiration for Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy.’ (4)

Sadly, the tree had to be cut down in 2014, though efforts were quickly underway to propagate cuttings ….

However, Dr. Harris has informed me that when the Black Pine was removed it was dated using tree rings which gave a planting date of 1834-1836. This means that James Benwell could not have planted this tree. Harris’s entry for the Black Pine on the Oxford Herbaria website provides more detail on this discovery.

One tree to rule them all: JRR Tolkien with the black pine, Oxford Botanic Garden (The Tolkien Trust)

John Sibthorp died in 1796, aged only 37, having developed consumption (TB) on his second journey to Greece. His successor, and presumably James’s next boss, was George Williams. The garden also had a Curator from 1813, William Baxter. Baxter remembered James Benwell fondly in his work British Phaenogamous Botany (1843):

The Green Polype, Hydra viridus … is often to be found on the stems and leaves of this plant, under water. This extraordinary little aquatic animal was first shown to me, many years ago, by the late Mr. JAMES BENWELL*.

*MR JAMES BENWELL was, for more than forty years, employed in the Oxford Botanic Garden. He was, although uneducated, a very intelligent man, and his accurate knowledge of British Plants, and of their localities in the vicinity of Oxford, and a singular talent for observation in every branch of Natural History, rendered his services highly valuable. He attended the late Dr. JOHN SIBTHORP, Professor or Botany, in his botannical excursions in Oxfordshire, when collecting materials for his “Flora Oxoniensis,” published in 1794, and was the first who discovered the station for Paris quadrifolia, and one or two other rare plants, in the county. His integrity, and industry, and natural propriety, and civility of manners, gained him the respect and esteem of all who knew him. He died on the 7th of October, 1819, aged 84 years. A print of him, a very striking and characteristic likeness, engraved by Mr SKELTON, of Oxford, from a drawing by that excellent artist, Mr A. R. BURT, was published about two years before his death. I shall always remember, with the most sincere gratitude and respect, the kind and disinterested assistance I received from this honest and kind-hearted man.

Hydra Viridus

Prof. Clare Hickman highlights Baxter’s praise of Benwell, and Benwell’s assistance with herborizations (the collection of botanic specimens in the field), citing him as an example of a Georgian gardener who provided scientific knowledge : ‘Thus we have a member of the garden network whose role extended beyond the garden and who was credited with expert knowledge despite being employed in a role below that of head gardener.'(5)

Retirement

James Benwell retired from his job at the Physic Garden before 1817, when his friend John Ireland penned the letter to the Oxford Journal. Although some sources state that he worked there for more than 40 years, he could in fact have only worked a maximum of 37 years (from 1780-1817). That’s still quite an achievement!

Dr. John Ireland, who organised the sale of James’s portrait and penned the letter to the Oxford Journal, also wrote James Benwell’s obituary. Dr. Ireland was an apothecary, matriculated at the university. It is just a guess, but perhaps Benwell’s knowledge of plants and herbs was helpful to Dr. Ireland, and that is how they met. As well as his support for James Benwell, Ireland also championed a gifted servant, Abram Robertson, who became Savilian Professor of Geometry!

Albin Roberts Burt and Joseph Skelton, the Oxford printmakers who produced James’s portrait, were very accomplished, and many of their works are in the collection of the British Museum. James Wyatt, whose shop on the High St displayed and sold the portrait, had started selling prints in 1811. James was Mayor of Oxford from 1842-3 and his shop became a favourite haunt of pre-raphaelite artists, such as Millais.

In 1819, at the age of 84, James was buried at St. Aldate’s. ‘John Ireland, M.D. liberally honoured his memory with a respectable funeral: some of the principal scientific persons, in Oxford, attended his remains, at the Doctor’s request; carrying in their hands sprigs of rosemary, to throw into the grave of this humble son of science.’ (6)

James Benwell’s contribution to the Botanic Garden and to science was further acknowledged and praised posthumously in the Oxford Journal, who compared Benwell to Willisel, a Cromwellian soldier-turned-botanist who had supported leading naturalists, including John Ray and William Sherard:

Though in an humble station, his merits, like those of Willisel, the companion of Ray, deserve commemoration.’ (7)

Although I can’t be sure that James Benwell belongs in my tree, I have been captivated by his life and personality. His charisma and passion for the natural world burst from the pages. He had humble beginnings and no formal education, yet his hard work and knowledge earned the respect and trust of academics and townspeople who must have been fond enough of him to be interested in owning his portrait and supporting him in his retirement. And in spite of him being a working class man, I am able to see his face, and hear his words, 201 years after his death.

_______________________________________________________

(1) Jackson’s Oxford Journal, Saturday 29 November 1817.

(2) I have not been able to locate my exact source of these quotes. However, the information is paraphrased in other publications.

(2a) & (4) Sourced from an article that is no longer available online: http://kidlingtonhistory.org.uk/our-latest-newsletter-4th-quarter-2017/

(3) Images of The flora of Oxfordshire and its contiguous counties … retrieved via Google books.

(5) ‘‘The want of a proper Gardiner’: late Georgian Scottish botanic gardeners as intermediaries of medical and scientific knowledge’, Clare Hickman, The British Journal for the History of ScienceVolume 52Issue 4, December 2019 , pp. 543-567.

(6) The flora of Oxfordshire and its contiguous counties, Richard Walker, 1833.

(7) Jackson’s Oxford Journal, 9 Oct 1819.

Updated on 14/6/20 to include new information kindly provided by Dr. Harris.

Mabel Maultby – a WW2 Nurse and Civilian Casualty

In honour of Nurses Day yesterday and the 75th anniversary of VE Day last week I would like to pay my respects to my ancestor, Mabel Annie Maultby. Though not a close relation, Mabel’s story particularly touched me.

Mabel’s father Sidney Skinner Maultby, an Inspector of Weights and Measures, was the first cousin of my 2xG grandmother Eliza Ann Maultby, but he was estranged from his parents and raised by my direct ancestors. Mabel’s mother, Mary Jane Turner, somehow managed to have 9 children (7 surviving) and also run her own business as a confectioner and tobacconist. Sidney and Mary Jane had married in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1897 but returned to England after the birth of their first child. Mabel Annie Maultby was born in Edmonton in 1903.

In 1919, Mabel was working as a telephonist for the postal service. When war broke out in 1939 she was living in shared accommodation in Lewisham and working as a ledger clerk. Her three younger sisters were still living at home in 1939 but they all had jobs as well, two as typists and one as a comptometrist (mechanical calculator) operator. This was a family of educated and independent women, and in fact, none of the four ever married.

Sometime between 1939 and 1944 Mabel became a nurse. Mabel’s older brother had served in WW1 and her two younger brothers, both railway clerks, may have been deployed in WW2. Although it’s possible Mabel had lost her job as a clerk, I believe that as an independently-minded, single young woman, she wanted to do her bit for the war effort.

Mabel was a member of the British Red Cross. The BRCS helped people affected by the Blitz. Volunteers drove ambulances, carried stretchers and rescued people from buildings that had been demolished by bombs. They ran first aid posts in the London Underground stations used as air raid shelters, and much more.

Mabel became friends with another new nurse, Edna May Shooter, who was a few years younger than Mabel, and had previously worked as a bank clerk. Mabel lived in Pimlico, whereas Edna worked at King’s College Hospital in Camberwell, so perhaps they had met during training. Together, they often attended services at the Guards’ Chapel in Westminster, near Buckingham Palace and 2 miles from Mabel’s address, sitting in the pews that were reserved for nurses.

On 18 June 1944, Mabel and Edna were both killed in an attack on the Guards’ Chapel. The following description of the event is taken from westendatwar.org.uk, which features photographs of the aftermath as well.

‘At 11.20am, 18 June 1944, a V1 flying bomb hit the Guards’ Chapel on Birdcage Walk SW1, not far from Buckingham Palace.The blast demolished most of the building and caused large loss of life. The Chapel – built in 1838 and also known as the Royal Military Chapel, St James’s Park – formed part of Wellington Barracks, home to the Brigade of Guards. Parts of Wellington Barracks had been badly damaged four years earlier, after the rear of the building facing Petty France was hit by a high explosive bomb on 16 November 1940.

On Sunday, 18 June 1944, a mixed military and civilian congregation had gathered at the Guards’ Chapel for morning worship. The choir had just started the Sung Eucharist when a V1 flying bomb cut out and nosedived onto the Chapel roof. The direct hit completely destroyed the roof, its supporting walls and concrete pillars and the portico of the Chapel’s western door.

Tons of rubble fell onto the congregation. 121 soldiers and civilians were killed and 141 others were seriously injured. The high death toll included the officiating Chaplain, Revd Ralph Whitrow, several senior British Army officers and a US Army Colonel. The Bishop of Maidstone, senior cleric present at this morning service, was one of the few left uninjured.

As the clouds of dust subsided, first aid teams and heavy rescue crews arrived to find a scene of utter devastation. An initial City of Westminster ARP assessment put the number of casualties at 400-500. At first, the debris appeared impenetrable; the smashed remains of walls and the collapsed roof had trapped dozens. The doors to the Chapel were blocked; the only access point for the rescue teams lay behind the altar. Doctors and nurses were obliged to scramble in between the concrete walls to administer morphine and first aid. Several rescuers and survivors later recalled that the silver altar cross had been untouched by the blast and candles continued to burn. The rescue services and Guardsmen from the Barracks immediately began freeing survivors from the wreckage and carrying them out. The operation to free them all took 48 hours. The Guards’ Chapel incident was the most serious V1 attack on London of the war. The flying bomb left only the apse of the Chapel intact. Nearby mansion flat blocks – among them Broadway Buildings and Queen Anne’s Mansions in Petty France – also suffered blast damage, including one used by US news correspondent Walter Cronkite.’

The Sphere, Saturday 15 July, 1944, accessed from britishnewspaperarchive.com 13/5/20

In 2017, historian Jan Gore published an excellent book about the tragedy: Send More Shrouds – The V1 Attack on the Guards’ Chapel 1944 (published by Pen & Sword Military). A description of the book is as follows:

‘On Sunday 18 June 1944 the congregation assembled for morning service in the Guards Chapel in Wellington Barracks, St James’s Park, central London. The service started at 11 am. Lord Hay had read the first lesson, and the Te Deum was about to begin, when the noise of a V1 was heard. The engine cut out. There was a brief silence, an intensive blue flash and an explosion and the roof collapsed, burying the congregation in ten feet of rubble. This was the most deadly V1 attack of the Second World War, and Jan Gore’s painstakingly researched, graphic and moving account of the bombing and the aftermath tells the whole story. In vivid detail she describes the rescue effort which went on, day and night, for two days, and she records the names, circumstances and lives of each of the victims, and explains why they happened to be there. Her minutely detailed reconstruction of this tragic episode in the V1 campaign against London commemorates the dead and wounded, and it gives us today an absorbing insight into the wartime experience of all those whose lives were affected by it.’

Jan did indeed painstakingly research every victim of the disaster, and included biographies of Mabel and Edna within her book. She kindly corresponded with my mum (who has been the main researcher of this branch of our family) about Mabel, and we were able to provide her with more details about Mabel’s life. Thanks to Jan, we know that Mabel and Edna were such close friends, that after the attack, Mabel’s family enquired after both of them (Edna had been orphaned since her teens, so she had no parents to search for her). We also know that Mabel had black hair and grey eyes, and her friend Edna had long ginger hair. I can’t help but be reminded of Patsy and Delia from Call the Midwife; however, it would be wrong to speculate about their relationship, and I simply take some comfort in the fact that such close friends died together. I’m very grateful to Jan Gore for helping to preserve their memories and their friendship.

I unfortunately don’t know where Mabel was buried, but Edna was laid to rest in the City of Westminster Cemetery (now Hanwell Cemetery), where a memorial commemorates all civilians killed in Westminster by enemy action in WW2. I’m very keen to visit and pay my respects in person, hopefully later this year. I am also working on contacting living descendants of Mabel’s siblings, in the hope of finding a photograph.

Although Mabel and Edna died as civilians, they had left desk jobs to provide the hands-on medical skills and care needed by Londoners in wartime. These women of action embody the courageous sentiment expressed by Florence Nightingale, born 200 years ago yesterday:

‘Rather, ten times, die in the surf, heralding the way to a new world, than stand idly on the shore.’

I am incredibly grateful to all of the nurses around the world who are currently putting their own lives at risk to help the rest of us in our time of need. Thank you.

UK, WWII Civilian Deaths, accessed from ancestry.co.uk, 13/5/20

A Double Murder Attempt in Drayton

This week I’ve been investigating an event that took place in my village in 1876 – a crime ‘so unparalleled in that neighbourhood that it occasioned quite a thrilling sensation’!

On 30 December, 1876, a ‘tragical occurrence’ took place in Drayton (now in Oxon but then in Berks), when a young man named Benjamin Marshall attacked a father and daughter, James and Elizabeth Beesley. Two days later he was charged with their two attempted murders. The story caused considerable ‘excitement’, especially as there had recently been other ‘horrible murders’ and an attempted murder in the county. The Berkshire Chronicle commented: ‘The year 1876 will be a memorable one for Berkshire in the annals of crime’.

To piece together the events that led to the attack, and the details of the attack itself, I’ve referred to six newspaper articles in three publications, which reported on the event over a two-month period. It’s been really interesting seeing how details changed over time, as more and more witnesses gave their accounts – a good reminder to search for more versions of a story wherever possible.

The Beesleys were an established local family. James Beesley was a grocer/fruiterer, born in Drayton in about 1825. He married Elizabeth Caladine, from Sutton Wick (a hamlet on the edge of Drayton) in 1848 and they had several children, including Elizabeth in 1860. In 1871 the family lived at their grocer’s shop on Abingdon Road, between the Wheatsheaf and the Red Lion – two pubs still located in the centre of the village. As well as being a shopkeeper, James was a potato and apple dealer.

Beesley family in Drayton, Berks, 1871 England Census; Class: RG10; Piece: 1266; Folio: 39; Page: 16; GSU roll: 827847, accessed on ancestry.co.uk 5/5/20

In 1876, his 16-year old daughter Elizabeth, who went by ‘Bessie’, had formed ‘an acquaintance of a more or less tender character’ with Benjamin Marshall, ten years older than Bessie, who came from London but had recently been spending time in Drayton. Benjamin was a relation of the late landlady of the Roebuck, an inn on Stert Street. He was described as a publican in one source, and of ‘no occupation’ in another. Bessie had known Benjamin for about a year and they had been ‘keeping company’ for about six months (one article said they were engaged). However, the day after Christmas, Bessie broke it off with him. Some said he was of ‘dissolute habits’. Bessie herself said her friends didn’t approve of him and that it was due to her father’s disapproval that she ended the relationship. Initially Benjamin seemed to accept her decision, and to stay on good terms with the family, but the following day, as he accompanied her father James on an errand, he asked James if Bessie would have ‘anyone else?’ James answered, “That is as the Almighty pleases to put into her head. What is to be will be.” Benjamin angrily responded that ‘if she did not have him she should not have anyone else.’ (Noone had coined the phrase ‘toxic masculinity’ in 1876 but Benjamin’s behaviour from this point on is a textbook example).

On 30 December Benjamin hired George Goodey, a local saddler, to take him into Oxford, where he purchased a six-chambered revolver. In fact, it was later revealed in court that Benjamin had attempted to purchase a firearm a month earlier. On the way back to Drayton, George noticed that Benjamin seemed ‘put out’. They talked about women and George joked: “I should not put myself out of the way about one woman; there [are] plenty about”, but Benjamin said he ‘loved the very ground [Bessie] walked upon.’ On their way back to Drayton Benjamin stopped off for drinks in three pubs. It’s no surprise then that when he returned to the Beesleys’ home that evening he had clearly been drinking. He entered and left their home several times. On the second time, Bessie was reading a newspaper story about a woman cutting her throat in Hagbourne (a nearby village). She commented “what a dreadful thing it is for them”, to which Benjamin replied, menacingly, “Perhaps you will hear of something as bad or worse before long”. On the third time he entered the home, Mr and Mrs Beesley and their two daughters, including Bessie, were in a small room leading out of the shop. Mrs Beesley went into the shop to serve a customer, with Bessie following, and Benjamin fired a shot at Bessie from behind. He then turned around and fired three shots at Mr James Beesley, one of which would have been fatal ‘had the bullet not struck his [silver fob] watch, glancing off and only occasioning a superficial wound.’ Later, the watch was observed to have stopped at a quarter past six. What happened next was described like a slow-motion action scene from a movie:

‘Beesley, who is a powerful man, must, we suppose, have been momentarily paralysed by the suddenness and ferocity of the murderous attack and finding himself shot, but he now closed with the ruffian and threw him on the sofa, and while struggling with him another shot was fired.’ James fought with Benjamin for twenty minutes, during which time his wife was able to take the revolver, until finally someone else came to their aid. Meanwhile, his injured daughter had run to Mrs Cornish’s cottage next door and fainted. Police and medical assistance were sent for, and George Goodey rushed to the next village and brought PC (Joseph) Walklett to Drayton in his trap. For a rural policeman, the violent event must have been quite a shock. Medical aid was provided by Dr Slade Innes Baker, a GP from Abingdon, 2.5 miles away, who found that a bullet had lodged in Bessie’s lungs. A week later, it was reported that ‘all attempts to extract [the bullet from Bessie’s body] have been unavailing, and … she is lying in a dangerous state.

British Army Mark III, Model of 1872 (the Mark II, a 6-chambered revolver, was available when Benjamin Marshall purchased his pistol), public domain (Wikipedia)

When PC Walklett took Benjamin into custody, the prisoner asked “Is Bessie hurt much?” PC Walklett responded (with deadpan delivery): “I should think she is. She has a bullet in her back.” There was ‘some commotion as Benjamin was conducted through the streets’ on the way to the lockup in Abingdon. On the way to Abingdon, Benjamin ‘smelt of brandy and appeared in a stupefied condition’. He staggered twice due to drink, and was found to be carrying two portraits of Bessie.

Family of Joseph Walklett, Rural Policeman, Steventon,  1871 England Census; Class: RG10; Piece: 1266; Folio: 77; Page: 3; GSU roll: 827847, accessed via ancestry.co.uk 5/5/20

Benjamin Marshall was brought before the magistrate in Abingdon two days later, and James Beesley then gave his own account of the events. Benjamin himself refused to make any statement and ‘looked and acted like a madman’. One newspaper said he ‘pretended to look idiotic’. On 15 January, Benjamin was examined again, and this time ‘listened to the proceedings with composure.’ He now knew that Bessie was expected to recover and that he would therefore not be facing possible execution. Mrs Beesley, Mrs Cornish and PC Walklett gave their statements. Finally, on the 18th, Bessie was well enough to attend and give her account. However, the ‘ball’ had not been extracted from her back, so unsurprisingly ‘she was very pale and still weak and allowed to give her evidence sitting.’ Other evidence was given that corroborated the witnesses’ accounts, including the locations of the bullets that had been fired in the home, which paint a vivid picture of the Beasleys’ domestic setting: One bullet had lodged in the piano, another had passed through a case of stuffed birds and struck a wall, and a third had struck an advertisement glass case, leaving a hole in it.

Reading Observer – Saturday 20 January 1877, accessed via BritishNewspaperArchives.com 5/5/20

Benjamin Marshall’s trial took place at the Lent Assizes, February 1877. He was charged with ‘feloniously and of malice aforethought shooting at Elizabeth Beesley and her father, James Beesley, with intent to murder them.’ He pleaded not guilty but was found guilty of wounding with attempt to do grievous bodily harm, and sentenced to ten years’ penal servitude. His sentence could have been more severe; ‘The Judge said the jury had taken a merciful view of the case, and he expressed his concurrence with it.’

The Verdict – Windsor and Eton Express – Saturday 24 February 1877, accessed via BritishNewspaperArchive.com 5/5/20
Return for the Lent Assizes, Reading, 16 February 1877, showing Benjamin Marshall’s offence and sentence.
England & Wales, Criminal Registers 1791-1892, ancestry.co.uk, accessed 6/6/20

In 1881 he was a convict in the Woking Invalid Prison, described as a ‘lunatic’. There is no evidence of him in any England censuses after that date.

1881 census, Woking, Class: RG11; Piece: 773; Folio: 86; Page: 12; GSU roll: 1341181, accessed via ancestry.co.uk 5/5/20

Bessie survived the attempt on her life. However, at the time that Benjamin was sentenced, the bullet had not been removed from her back. I find it hard to believe that she made a full physical or emotional recovery from her ordeal. Nevertheless, she went on to have a trade, a large family, and a long life. In 1881, aged 21, she lived alone in a cottage in Drayton, working as a slop worker – someone who made cheap clothing. A few weeks later she married William Prior, a labourer, who was a widower with a young son. Their second son was named James Beesley Prior after Bessie’s father. In 1891 Bessie (Elizabeth) had the occupation of ‘Tailoress’ (see below). The 1911 census shows that Elizabeth and William had 13 children born alive, seven of whom were still living. Bessie lived to the age of 71, passing away in 1931.

Prior family in Drayton, 1891, The National Archives of the UK (TNA); Kew, Surrey, England; Census Returns of England and Wales, 1891; Class: RG12; Piece: 981; Folio: 32; Page: 20; GSU roll: 6096091, accessed via ancestry.co.uk 5/5/20

Sources

Direct quotes (shown in inverted commas/speech marks) are taken from the Berkshire Chronicle – Saturday 06 January 1877, Saturday 13 January 1877, Saturday 20 January 1877, Saturday 24 February 1877, Reading Observer – Saturday 6 January 1877, Saturday 20 January 1877, Windsor & Eton Express – Saturday 24 February 1877 (accessed via britishnewspapers.com on 23/4/20), Ancestry.co.uk

Post updated on 11/5/20

One Wedding, One Fake Marriage, and No Funeral

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 …

Charles Edward Saword (family photo; the only photo we have, which seems to have been ripped from a larger one)

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.

Emma Saword (from family album)

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’!

Emma Saword, 1901 England Census, Class: RG13; Piece: 1251; Folio: 130; Page: 7, accessed from ancestry.co.uk 15/1/18
Charles and Jane Saword, 1901 England Census,Class: RG13; Piece: 497; Folio: 10; Page: 8, accessed from ancestry.co.uk 15/1/18

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.

Part of the 1898 marriage certificate for Florence Louisa Saword, Charles’s illegitimate daughter with Jane Stovell
London Metropolitan Archives; London, England; Reference Number: p73/gis/049, London, England, Church of England Marriages and Banns, 1754-1932, accessed from ancestry.co.uk 15/1/18

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.

Emma and Jane’s death certificates with identical information about their late husband, from GRO

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.

The Lightning Rod of Esculapius Wood

On Thursday night at 8 pm my son and husband played ukelele and my daughter and I sang in a family rendition of ‘Over the Rainbow‘ on our front porch, as neighbours all around us clapped for our NHS, healthcare and other essential workers. Throughout our village, and around the world, the rainbow has become a symbol of hope and appreciation for front-line workers in the COVID-19 pandemic. According to an article I saw online, the idea originated in Italy just last month, though I’m sure it will now be associated with brave caregivers for many years to come.

Another symbol long associated with medicine and healing is the Rod, or Staff, of Asclepius. If you don’t know the name, you’ll recognise the symbol of a serpent wrapped around a staff. One famous use is in the logo of the World Health Organisation. The Rod of Asclepius is sometimes used interchangeably with the Caduceus, which features two serpents around a staff. Both symbols come from ancient Greece via the Roman Empire. Asklepios (Asclepius) was the Greek god of medicine and healing, who became Aesculapius to the Romans, and is also associated with the Egyptian God Imhotep. The son of Apollo, Asklepios had many children associated with different aspects of the medical arts, including Hygieia, the goddess of cleanliness (hygiene) and Panacea, the Goddess of universal remedy. Asklepios was associated with snakes and a staff, which over time were intertwined in a single symbol of medicine and healing. The Caduceus was carried by Hermes in Greek mythology, and later by Mercury in Roman mythology, though it possibly had its origins in Mesopotamia 6000 years ago. As a symbol of Hermes/Mercury, the Caduceus originally represented trade and communication, not medicine. If you’re interested in this topic, Dr. Timothy Leigh Rogers has a detailed blog post about the confusion between the two symbols in the ‘Battle of the Snakes‘.

From The Battle of the Snakes – Staff of Aesculapius vs. Caduceus, by Timothy Leigh Rodgers, MD

Having worked in the U.S. healthcare industry for 15 years (in marketing, not as a healthcare professional) I can tell you that the Caduceus is the most commonly used medical symbol there. For many years I worked for a company called Epocrates, named after Hippocrates (during the time when all digital companies were adding an ‘e’ to the beginning of words, like ’email’). Hippocrates was a Greek physician who lived 2400 years ago, famous for his ‘Hippocratic Oath’ and often referred to as the father of Western medicine. The Hippocratic oath originally started: ‘I swear by Apollo the Physician and by Asclepius and by Hygieia and Panacea and by all the gods …’.

So, now you know your Rod of Asclepius from your Caduceus, allow me to introduce one of my favourite ancestors: Esculapius Simon Jude Wood.

Admittedly, Esculapius (occasionally spelled Æsculapius, and almost always mistranscribed as something nonsensical) wasn’t a blood relation. His only son, Richard Wood, an aptly but boringly named cabinet maker, married my husband’s 3x Great Aunt Florence Saword, in 1895. However, he has such a great name, and was such a great character, that I proudly claim him as one of my own.

Esculapius Wood was born in 1844 in Bradford to James Wood, an electrician and later ropemaker, and Hannah. His siblings had perfectly ordinary names – Frederick, Francis, Charles, Christopher, and Alice.

Many of us have rare and amusing names in our trees, which stand out in a sea of countless Johns and Marys. I must admit I have a habit of logging unusual and funny names that I come across, and often go down a rabbit warren to learn more about an individual just because of her striking name. It would be understandable to assume that these names are only amusing to us in 2020, and that in Esculapius’s lifetime, his classical name, albeit very unusual, would not have raised much of an eyebrow. However, even in his own era, his name was considered so ‘out there’ that it was lampooned in the news!

In 1868, various newspapers ran an article called ‘Queer Yorkshire Baptismal Names’! Poor Esculapius, already a family man by then, was included in this public name-shaming.

Excerpt from ‘Queer Baptismal Names’, Huddersfield Chronicle, Saturday 7 March 1868, p.3, accessed from BritishNewspaperArchive.co.uk 11/4/20

When Esculapius married Sarah Anderson in 1866 at age 21 he was a ‘whitesmith’, a metalworker who does finishing work on iron and steel. Later in life, Esclapius was a manufacturer and fixer of lightning conductors as well as a chimney repairer. The principle of a lightning conductor (US: lightning rod) was developed in the late 1700s. Made of conductive metals such as copper, conductors protected tall structures such as church spires from fires caused by lightning strikes, and and were increasingly in demand as buildings became taller. The term ‘lightning rod’ was also in use, and with my marketing hat on I must say I am disappointed that Esculapius didn’t advertise his business as ‘The Lightning Rods of Esculapius’! In 1864, the Newcastle Chronicle reported on the ‘extraordinary climbing and scaling exploits performed by a man belonging to Bradford, who rejoices in the possession of a string of extraordinary Christian names’. It makes for nail-biting reading!

‘”STEEPLE-JACK” OUTDONE’ . Newcastle Chronicle, Saturday 15 October 1864, p,.5, accessed from BritishNewspaperArchive.co.uk 11/4/20

In 1869 Esculapius, and his name, made the papers again, when he helped subdue a violent drunken thug who had attacked an old man and a policeman:

GROSS ASSAULTS IN WAKEFIELD ROAD. — At the Borough Court, on Monday, a man named Peter O’Connor was charged with having, early on Sunday morning, grossly assaulted an old man named Jonas Walmsley, of Bolton-place, Wakefield- road, and also with having immediately afterwards assaulted Sergeant Rushforth when in the execution of his duty. Walmsley, whose nose was plastered up, and his face partly discoloured, was on his way home, when he reached the place where the prisoner’s wife and another woman were earnestly advising him to go home, but he, having evidently been drinking and irritated at having had water thrown at him by some person, refused, and in struggling to get free from their grasp fell to the ground, upon which Walmsley remarked, “He will be quieter now.” This roused the prisoner, who started to his feet, knocked the old man down with his head against a wall, and cut him to the bone with a blow across the nose, the blow, the fall, and the effusion of blood for the time completely stunning him. Sergeant Rushforth, who was near, came up and endeavoured to take O’Connor into custody, but the irate Milesian* stoutly resisted his efforts, and they rolled twice on the road together before that could be effected, and then only with the help of a man bearing the classico-medical name of Æsculapius Wood. The case being clear, and the prisoner incapable of making any defence, he was fined 20s. and costs, or twenty-one days’ imprisonment for the assault on Walmsley, and 10s. and costs, or fourteen days’ imprisonment for the assault on Sergeant Rushforth.

(Leeds Times, Friday 24 December 1869 p. 8, accessed from BritishNewspaperArchive.co.uk 11/4/20) *Milesian seems to have denoted a native Irishman with a characteristically hot-headed temperament.

So why was Esculapius the bearer of a ‘classico-medical’ name? In 1806, Dr. Abernethy’s household medical book The Pocket Aesculapius was published. The book was advertised in newspapers nationwide throughout the 1800s. This may have made the name more widely known to the masses. As well as the medical association of his first name, he had a middle name ‘Jude’. Jude is the patron saint of lost causes. Did Esculapius Wood have a narrow escape as a baby, rescued from the jaws of death by a skilled doctor, nurse or midwife?

Google books, accessed 11/4/20

In 2018, I sang in an opera double-bill, which included The Zoo, a comic one-act operetta with music by Arthur Sullivan (later of Gilbert & Sullivan) with libretto by B.C. Stephenson, which premiered in London in 1875. One of the two romantic male lead characters was an apothecary (i.e., pharmacist) called Æsculapius Carboy. He’s a comic rather than heroic character, whose name complements both his profession and melodramatic behaviour. I like to think that Arthur Sullivan read about the bravery and exploits of Esculapius Wood in the papers and was inspired to use the name for his character!

Esculapius Simon Jude Wood died in 1899 and was buried in Undercliffe Cemetery in Bradford. His name may have caused mirth in his lifetime, but he was also admired for his courage, both in his work and for his willingness to put himself into danger for his neighbours’ sake. So, if anyone is looking for a baby name, I think Esculapius would be a very unusual but noble choice!

Photo provided by volunteers at Undercliffe Cemetery, Bradford

A Person Unknown Drowned In the Thames

Drownings & Burials in 18th Century Deptford

I’ve been spending quite a bit of time lately poring over the parish records for St Nicholas’ church in Deptford searching for the burial of an ancestor, shipwright William Saword (b. 1700). His wife Deborah was buried there in 1772 but I can’t find any burial for him. However, the burial records make for truly fascinating reading.

St Nicholas stands very close to what was once a royal dockyard. It was a hub of maritime industry, a major military & naval centre, and a connection point for international travel and trade. In 1730 its parish was split with the new St Paul’s; St Nicholas’ parish was smaller than St Paul’s, but with much higher population density.

St Nicholas, Deptford, c1750 showing the church’s proximity to the river.

This evocative passage from The Republic of Pirates (Colin Woodard, HMS Books, 2008) paints a colourful picture of the chaotic and industrious Thames of the early 1700s:

‘The city’s main artery, the Thames, was even more crowded than the streets. Upriver from London Bridge – under whose narrow arches the tides poured like waterfalls – hundreds of watermen rowed boats ferrying passengers and cargo up, down, and across the river, into which flowed the contents of a half million chamber pots; the blood and guts of thousands of slaughtered livestock; and the bodies of cats, dogs, horses, rats, and just about anything else wanting disposal. Downriver from the bridge, hundreds, sometimes thousands of seagoing vessels waited to load and unload their cargoes, often tying up three or four abreast, a floating forest of masts extending nearly a mile. Coastal trading sloops brought heaps of coal from Newcastle; two and three masted ships disgorged lumber from the Baltic, tobacco from Virginia, sugar from Jamaica and Barbados, and salt cod from New England and Newfoundland. Further downriver, on the outskirts of the metropolis at the naval yards of Deptford and Rotherhithe, the warships of the Royal Navy gathered for orders, repairs, or reinforcements.’

The church’s burial records give us a snapshot of this hectic melting pot. Although baptisms and marriages were primarily of parishioners, burials tell a much broader story. Among local residents, who were predominantly mariners, shipwrights, watermen, and lightermen, were people with ‘exotic’ names that suggest they or their parents had not been born in England. Some were named as palentines – refugees from the lower Rhine region of what is now Germany. Many people of colour are also mentioned. By the middle of the century, burials included scores of the unfortunate poor from the local workhouse, from ‘nurse children’ (infants) to adulthood. However, many of those buried had come from other parts of Britain, and the rest of the world. They included soldiers, mariners, traders and travellers. Some came from Sick Quarters, where men would go after being taken ill at sea. Some came from prison ships, which had been headed to America until prevented by war, and were now stuck in dock on the Thames. Some had presumably died at sea, and been brought to the nearest burial site as soon as the ship came into land. Strangers traveling on land were also found deceased in Deptford, often on the side of roads. For many out-of-towners, Deptford was the end of their journey, and they were to be buried far from home – some without even a name. 

Mike Quinn / Skull & crossbones on the gatepost at the entrance to St. Nicholas’ Church, Deptford Green, SE8 / CC BY-SA 2.0
Burial of A Man unknown from America, 1776
Burial of A Nubian Sailor, name unknown, from on board a Ship, 1777 (one of three buried that year)

The records also show how dangerous and precarious life could also be for people living in the town of Deptford at that time. On the very first page of the records, Robert Ford, a tailor, was buried 14 June 1718, after he had been ‘found dead in a ditch.’ Then on 20 June, we have a burial of four men – John Cosens, Edward Bickerfield, Thomas Bryant, and Richard Harris – who were ‘found killed accidentally in chalk pit in Deptford and all buried in one grave.’ Many other accidental deaths are documented, including falls on ships, men crushed by timber or scalded by fat. There are also suicides, and even a hanging at Tyburn. 

With the sheer number of burials, it’s not surprising that a charnel house was built for the church in 1697. This was a repository for bones that had been unearthed when new graves were dug, which must have been a very frequent occurrence. The charnel house at St Nicholas is still standing, a Grade II listed building, though it no longer contains any human remains.

© Copyright David Lunn and licensed for reuse

There are so many fascinating entries, but I noticed in particular a macabre trend: on almost every page there seemed to be a burial of someone who had drowned in the Thames.

From 1718 to 1786 (the span of one volume of church records), a total of 125 burials were reported as people who had drowned. The highest number in one year was ten in 1785.

Who were these unfortunate people, and why did so many of them lose their lives in this horrible way?

Gender and occupation provide some clues: the vast majority of bodies with an identified gender were male. Only seven of the drownings were noted to be women or girls. This must reflect the fact that many of the drownings were work-related accidents. 

20 of those drowned were stated to be mariners (i.e. seamen/sailors). This may be surprising, but in fact, very few people knew how to swim in this period, and this included people who worked near or on the water. Unless they grew up near a safe swimming area and had sufficient leisure time, there simply wasn’t the opportunity to learn. It’s ironic that some of these men, who had travelled hundreds or thousands of miles across the oceans, drowned so near to dry land. Others were employed in work that brought them regularly onto the Thames or to the water’s edge, including two shipwrights, a waterman (transported passengers across or along the river), a joiner (ship’s carpenter), a customs officer, a coal porter and a rigger. The very nature of their work made them more susceptible to a watery death. Leisure time was also hazardous; with so many inns located close to the water, a ‘drunken sailor’ could easily miss his step in the dark, with fatal consequences.

Nine of the victims were described as boys, and two girls, in most cases exact age unknown. Most boys were probably working alongside the men. However, all people who lived near the water were at higher risk of drowning, especially children. In some cases, the children who drowned may have fallen into the water when simply walking or playing nearby. I wonder if this is what happened on 5 June 1774, when James Buckley and John Sergent, both watchmakers, and John Williams, a boy, were all buried after having drowned in the Thames. It reminds me of a story I investigated in California; in 1906, a young cadet was struggling in the water in the San Francisco Bay, and two teachers rushed in to help him. All three died. (That tragic event turned out to have a fascinating back-story and a Hollywood ending – you can read it here). Did Buckley and Sergent attempt to rescue young John? Sadly, no newspapers from Greenwich for this period are available online to tell us what led to the tragedy,

I’ve found several newspaper articles reporting drowning incidents in the Deptford area during this period. Although the victims in these cases are gentlemen and ladies enjoying travel and leisure, and not reflective of most of the drownings that seem to have occurred, they do show how dangerous the Thames could be for passengers in small vessels:

Most chilling and puzzling of all is that the identity of more than half of the burials was unknown; many entries simply say ‘a person unknown drowned in the Thames.’ In a few cases, they were stated to be a man or boy, and in just one case a ‘woman unknown’. How was it possible for so many to drown anonymously? They must have been carried there by the river from further afield, and/or were unrecognisable after being in the water. Presumably, drowned corpses needed to be buried as quickly as possible, making it hard for loved ones or fellow workers to have a chance to identify them. It would also have been very difficult to determine the cause of their drowning. There were no police to make enquiries, and coroner inquests were rare. It is possible that inquests were opened into some of these deaths, both for known and unknown victims, but the burial records only reveal one – a coroner’s warrant had been issued for John Little, a mariner and Deptford resident who drowned in 1729, which allowed him to be buried. It’s shocking to think the discovery of an unidentified body was so commonplace that it probably attracted little attention.

In Peter Ackroyd’s Thames: Sacred River (Vintage, 2008), the chapter River of Death explores the river’s long association with drowning, with specific reference to Deptford: 

‘The Thames is in many respects the river of the dead. It has the power to hurt and to kill. … There were steps known as Dead Man’s Stairs at Wapping where, by some accident of tide and current, the corpses of the recently drowned tended to congregate. There is a U-Bend between the Isle of Dogs and Deptford, where the drowned may be delayed in their course towards the sea. It was once known as Deadman’s Dock, the name given because of the number of corpses that were found there when the dock was being constructed. If the body missed these fatal junctions, and drifted down in its decomposing state past Lower Hope Reach, then there was no hope. It would disappear for ever.’

Ackroyd provides examples of drownings recorded in the register of Henley Church, and states: ‘The registry of every church by the banks of the river will have similar testimony to the dangers of the Thames’. Indeed, the pages of the register of St Mary Magdalene in Woolwich (another ancestral church), four miles east of Deptford, are also filled with drownings; between July and October 1787, three ‘drownded’ men and one boy were buried there.

Very poignantly, Ackroyd explains that many people were drawn to the river because they wanted to exit the world anonymously. The treacherous waters made suicide ‘easy’. Afterwards, it was rarely possible to prove a motive of suicide, which was considered a sin. The river also made it easy for criminals to dispose of their murder victims. No wonder Ackroyd says that the Thames is ‘a river of the disappeared’. 

In fact, I have seen one record from St Nicholas of a murder victim – on 9 Jan 1798 there was the burial of ‘a drowned man unknown, murdered by a person unknown.’ Presumably, his injuries made it clear that there had been foul play. In July of that year, the Marine Police Force (Thames River Division) began operating, making them the oldest police force in England. Their chief concern was theft and smuggling rather than murders and drownings, however.

The burial of one unidentified person in 1784 was noted to be paid for by the parish. I assume all of these lost souls were buried as cheaply as possible in unmarked, probably mass graves.

All of these nameless victims (and presumably many more whose bodies were never found) must have had loved ones who never knew their fate. Perhaps one of them is someone whose burial you’ve never been able to find. Perhaps one of them is mine!

The Docks in this part of the Thames are still dangerous. In 2010, a 14-year-old youth tragically drowned in Rainbow Quay, the oldest of London’s riverside wet docks – in Rotherhithe. According to a news report, the water was ‘shockingly cold’, even on what was a hot day, and very murky. It was also an area ‘notorious for submerged objects’. I am sure that this was the same for the unfortunate men, women and children who fell into the black waters of the Thames 300 years ago.

In honour of the people who lost their lives in the Thames and were buried at Deptford, I’ve compiled a list of drowned people buried at St. Nicholas, Deptford, from the register covering the years 1718-1786 (viewed on ancestry.co.uk).

Drowning Burials at St Nicholas, Deptford 1718-1786

Notes:

  • Between 1735-1762 only six drownings were recorded. I assume this is due to different record-keeping, since from 1763-1786 there were 4.5 drownings per year, on average. About a dozen entries recorded a name or gender next to the term ‘accidental’, including two with a coroner’s warrant – these could possibly be drownings.
  • After 1786, drownings continued, of course. In the first four years of the next register, five burials of drowned people were recorded.
  • I have endeavoured to transcribe all relevant entries but it is possible that I have either missed or mistranscribed entries.

1719

20 Aug – John Headman, Smith a Drown’d man from Upper Towne

1721

1 Jan(?) – James Goodey a poor Drowned boy from the Upper Water Gate

1722

7 Jan – Eliza Heath found Dead in the Water by the Tide Mill

1723

3 Aug – a Drowned man from the ship Goyle? Charles Small Commander

14 Aug – Robert Anderson Riger [rigger] who was Drowned from the Green

1724

? Jun – Margt D. of Thomas Phinnis a Drowned Child from the Tidemill

? Jun – a Drowned Man being a Stranger from the Red House [the Red House was the victalling and supply centre]

1727

? Jul – A Boy about 13 or 14 years of age taken out of the River near the red House 

1729

17 July – a Drowned Man

18 July – a Drowned Man Grove St

27 Dec – Jno Little Marriner Grove Str Drowned w/ Cor[oner’s] Warrant

1735

? Nov – Charles Cook drowned

1744

24 Jul – John Murray labourer drown’d

1757

8 Oct – a drowned Man unknown

1758

11 Aug –  William Ringseed drownd

1760

? Jun – James Hall drowned

1762

3 Nov – a drownd man unknown

1763

28 Apr – John Miller a drowned boy

13 Oct – A drown’d Man unknown taken out of the Thames

1764

? May – A drown’d Man taken out of the Thames unknown 

23 Jul – A drown’d man unknown taken out of the Thames

29 Nov – William Wilson Joiner from King Street drown’d

30 Dec – James Olliston? A Dane & Mariner drowned

1765

25 Aug – A drowned Man unknown taken out of the Thames

8 Sep – A drowned Man unknown taken out of the river

1766

30 Jan – William Styles drown’d in the Thames

6 Feb – A Man unknown taken out of the Thames

26 Feb – Two Men unknown taken out of the Thames

6 Mar – John Fagan Mariner drown’d in the Thames

5 Jun – William Docklerly a boy drown’d in the Thames

13 July – A Blackmoor* name unknown drown’d in the Thames

8 Aug – A Man Unknown taken out of the Thames

? Dec – A Person Unknown taken out of the Thames

1767

11 June – William Klaasen a Dutchman drowned in the Thames

20 Dec – Susanna Westley drown’d in the Thames

22 Dec – Thomas Goodall Mariner drown’d in the Thames

1768

1 Jul – John Prince drown’d in the Thames

1769

1 Jul – A Person Unknown drown’d in the Thames

24 Oct – John Limbourgh Mariner drown’d in the River Thames

1770

17 Jul – Anthony Tassania Mariner drown’d in the Thames

5 Oct – A Person unknown taken out of the Thames

1771

9 Apr – A Person unknown, who was drown’d in the Thames

21 Apr – Henry Dykes Mariner drown’d in the Thames

12 May – A Person unknown drown’d in the Thames

1772

16 Feb – A Person Unknown drown’d in the Thames

26 Feb – Walter Archbald Mariner drowned in the Thames

8 Aug – A Boy unknown, drown’d in the Thames

24 Oct – A Man unknown drown’d in the Thames

1773

24 Jan – Peter Goodman Mariner drown’d in the Thames

11 Mar – A Man unknown drown’d in the Thames

21 May – A Man unknown drown’d in the Thames

27 Jul – Two Men unknown drown’d in the Thames

23 Aug – A Person Unknown drown’d in the Thames

1774

27 May – George Richardson, Taylor, drown’d in the Thames

5 Jun – James Buckley, Watch-maker, drown’d in the Thames

5 Jun – John Sergent, Watch-maker, drown’d in the Thames

5 Jun – John Williams, a Boy drown’d in the Thames

1775

16 Mar – Hugh Molton, drown’d in the Thames

24 Apr – A Person Unknown drown’d in the Thames

6 Aug – Philip a Negro* drowned in the Thames

20 Aug – John Drummond drown’d in the Thames

31 Aug – William Bradfield Customs House Officer drown’d in the Thames

1776

24 Mar – A Person unknown drown’d in the Thames

26 Mar – A Person unknown drown’d in the Thames

3 May – A Man unknown drown’d in the Thames

1777

18 Jul – A Man unknown drown’d in the Thames

2 Sep – A Man unknown drown’d in the Thames

? Oct – A Person unknown drown’d in the Thames

18 Nov – A Person unknown drowned in the Thames

2 Dec – A Person unknown drowned in the Thames

1778

16 Feb – A Person unknown drowned in the Thames

16 Apr – William Davis, Coal Porter from the Bone House, drown’d

20 Jul – A Person unknown drowned in the Thames

18 Sep – A Person unknown drown’d in the Thames

1779

1 Jan Arthur Woolcott, drowned in the Thames

9 Apr: – A Man unknown, who was drown’d in the Thames

? Aug – A Person unknown drown’d in the Thames

8 Sep – George Davidson, Mariner, drown’d in the Thames

9 Sep – John Davidson, Mariner drown’d in the Thames

12 Sep – John Towell, Mariner drown’d in the Thames

1780

10 Mar – John Fagan, Mariner, drown’d in the Thames

12 Apr – A Man unknown drown’d in the Thames

26 Apr – Peter Chandler, Shipwright drown’d in the Thames

6 Jun – Two persons unknown drown’d in the Thames

1781

? Mar – Robert Downs, drown’d in the Thames

? Mar – A Person unknown drown’d in the Thames

10 Jun – Edward Jones, Shopman to a Stationer, drown’d in the Thames

3 Nov – Thomas Cullin, Shipwright drown’d in the Thames

1782

19 Mar – George Buxton, Mariner drown’d in the Thames

? – Thomas Elgrin, Mariner drown’d in the Thames

? – John Wilson, Mariner drown’d in the Thames

? Oct – A Person unknown drown’d in the Thames

1783 

? Feb – A Person unknown drown’d in the Thames

? Mar – Thomas Cane, Mariner drown’d in the Thames 

30 Mar – A Person unknown drown’d in the Thames

9 Apr – A Person unknown drown’d in the Thames

21 Apr – James Barber, drown’d in the Thames

4 Nov – A Person unknown drown’d in the Thames

1784

18 Apr – A Person unknown drown’d in the Thames

May 24 – A Person unknown drown’d in the Thames, by the Parish

29 Jul – John Johnson, Mariner, drown’d in the Thames 

30 Jul – Joseph Salisbury, drown’d in the Thames 

2 Aug – Ann Jones, drown’d in the Thames 

13 Aug – Philip Matthews, Mariner Drown’d in the Thames

17 Aug – John Bruce, a Boy Drown’d in the Thames

1785

? Feb – William Bares Drowned in the thames

4 May – William Butler A Boy Drowned in the Thames

6 May – A Person Unknown Drowned in the Thames

12 May – A Person Unknown Drowned in the Thames

14 Jun – A Person Unknown Drowned in the Thames

22 Jun – Ann Woodward Drowned in the Thames

5 Sep – Francis Roberts A Boy Drowned in the Whet[Wet] Dock King’s Yard

3 Oct – William McCraw A Boy Drowned in the Thames

14 Oct – A Person Unknown Drowned in the Thames

31 Dec – Joseph Smith Mariner Drowned in the Thames

1786

5 Jun – Eliz. Daugr of John Gould Mariner Drowned in the Thames

2 Jul – Patrick Sloan Mariner Drowned in the Thames

5 Jul – A Person Unknown Drowned in the Thames

9 Jul – A Woman Unknown Drowned in the Thames

19 Aug – A Person Unknown Drowned in the Thames

25 Sep – Thomas Williams Drowned in the Thames

10 Oct – James Riley Waterman Drowned in the Thames

12 Oct – Robert Crook Drowned in the Thames

*terms transcribed from original documents; apologies for any offence caused by their inclusion here

All images of burial records taken from the St. Nicholas, Deptford 1717-1786 register, viewed on Ancestry.co.uk