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!


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 showed 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 used 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! (Thank goodness she made this trip, which required a passport, because the passport record has provided me with my only photograph of Dolly (with her husband)).

Orville and Dolly Sampson’s passport photograph, 1923

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. 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 odd, though not unheard of, to have two sisters both with the same name. However, Dolly may have only adopted the name Violet on the stage, initially, and then continued to use it. Unfortunately, Dolly’s identity remains a mystery for now.

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, and on 4 Apr 2021 with photograph of Dolly and Orville Sampson. With thanks to Caitlin Hollander of Hollander-Waas Jewish Heritage Services in NYC for obtaining these images.

Blog updated 13 Apr 21 to remove a theory about Dolly’s birth.

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. Was this down 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 received 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 common 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 couple 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!

Read Part 2: The Skeleton In the Cupboard

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 favourite pursuits, are in circulation among his friends, from among which I will entreat your acceptance of 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 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 September 1780, when his employer drew up his will. 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 employ when he died was to receive two shillings and sixpence per week for life. Benwell probably remained with his employer and benefactor until his death a fortnight before Christmas.

‘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

It’s possible that Benwell began to work at the Physic Garden prior to his employer’s death, perhaps dividing his time between two jobs. However, it is more likely that he started working there in early 1781. He embarked on this career change at the age of 45, well into middle age. 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)


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 probably only worked there for about 36 years (from 1781-1817). 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 Benwell’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 branched out from his trade as an accomplished picture framer and carver, and started selling prints in 1811. He 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. Updated on 7/8/21 with minor edits.

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


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


  • 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.


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


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


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


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

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


? 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]


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


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


? Nov – Charles Cook drowned


24 Jul – John Murray labourer drown’d


8 Oct – a drowned Man unknown


11 Aug –  William Ringseed drownd


? Jun – James Hall drowned


3 Nov – a drownd man unknown


28 Apr – John Miller a drowned boy

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


? 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


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

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


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


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


1 Jul – John Prince drown’d in the Thames


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

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


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

5 Oct – A Person unknown taken out of the Thames


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


? 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


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


? 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


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


? 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


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

Raised by an Aunt & Uncle Part 2: A Transatlantic Record

In 1928, my granny (my dad’s mother) broke several records at the tender age of 19 months. This is the story of how she came to be on the front pages of several Canadian newspapers, and what happened next.

The story begins with my great grandmother, Annie Margaret Munday. Annie was born in Aylesbury, Bucks, England, in 1895, to Joseph and Louisa Munday. Joseph, a pub landlord, had a huge family – three children by his first wife and fourteen with Louisa, his second wife. Annie was the fourteenth of seventeen children, and eleven of them were living when she was born (ages 1-26). Sadly, when Annie was between 10-12 years old, three of her siblings died, aged 13, 16 and 19. However, even after that, Annie was still one of twelve. It’s not surprising that in 1911, Annie, with two of her younger siblings and a cousin, lived with her grandparents. At 15 years of age, Annie was working as a servant.

Perhaps it was because the family was so large that some of Annie’s brothers and sisters moved far away from the area in which the Munday family had lived for centuries. Annie’s older brother Alfred went to Edinburgh before WW1, where he became an orchid specialist at the Royal Botanic Gardens. In 1911, her oldest (full) sister Sarah moved with her husband and two young children to Ontario, Canada. Annie’s oldest brother Will and his wife followed them there in 1913. In 1921, both families lived in Hamilton, Ontario. They must have reported back to family in England that life there was treating them well, because on 14 September 1923, Annie set sail for Canada as well. Her passenger declaration (which has just become available to me) shows that she was a cook, aged 27, and that she intended to remain permanently in Canada. Her objective was ‘to make my home’.

Annie’s sister Sarah Bateman had paid for her passage, and Annie intended to join Sarah’s family at their home: 34 Queensdale Avenue, Hamilton.

Ocean Arrivals (Form 30A), 1919-1924, Vol. t-15137 p. 947, Library & Archives Canada

The next three years of Annie’s life are shrouded from my view. However, during that time, Annie met a man three years younger than her called Walter Emmanuel Raby. And by 1926, at the age of 30, she became became pregnant with his child — my granny.

In 1921, Walter’s parents, Charles and Mary Ann Raby, and six of his siblings, lived just five doors away from the Batemans, at 24 Queensdale. In 1921 Walter was working as a hired man in Mornington, 115 km away, but he must have met Annie on a visit home with his family. Charles’s parents had emigrated from England, and Mary Ann’s from Germany, but they had grown up together in a German household, and one of the very few things that my grandmother ever knew about her father Walter was that he was ‘German’. The large Canadian-German community in Ontario had faced animosity and suspicion during WW1 (the German-founded city of Berlin, halfway between Mornington and Hamilton, had been renamed Kitchener in 1916), and perhaps they were still pariahs. Could this be one reason that rather than marrying Walter, Annie returned to England? Or, did she leave Canada before she knew she was expecting a baby? Either way, Annie arrived back in Aylesbury in time to register the birth of Delia Raby Munday in February 1927.

However, in September 1927, Annie headed back to Ontario on the Cunard ocean liner RMS Antonia, taking 7-month-old Delia with her!

Delia Raby Munday – was this picture taken to be sent to Delia’s father in Canada?

Did Annie intend to try to get Walter to marry her? If so, was she unaware that Walter had quickly got married in November 1926, after he had posted a newspaper ad looking for a wife (!) … and that Walter had also had a baby daughter with his new wife, in May 1927 — only six months after the marriage and just three months after Delia was born?! According to family gossip, Walter may not have been the father of this ‘legitimate’ child, since his wife had reputedly answered the newspaper ad out of desperation, finding herself pregnant by her boss! Walter’s actions in marrying a woman, possibly pregnant by another man, rather than Annie, who was carrying his child, are impossible to fathom.

Annie was now a single mother of a baby in a country where she still wasn’t settled, with no possibility of marrying Delia’s father. However, the Mundays in Hamilton weren’t afraid to support an unmarried mother. Annie’s niece, known as Doll, who was only a few years younger than Annie, had had an illegitimate child in 1926, and he seems to have been raised openly within the Munday family.

Nevertheless, for reasons unknown, Annie was not able to keep Delia with her. In September 1928, after less than a year in Ontario, Annie obtained a passport for Delia, and on Friday 14 September, when Delia was one year, seven months, 11 days old, she was put on a ship back to England, on her own!

Delia Munday’s passport, issued in Canada. The signature field states ‘Bearer does not write.’

We have several fragile newspaper clippings about this extraordinary event that must have been cut out by Annie. According to the articles, ‘Little Delia Munday’, ‘a young Hamilton lady’, was going to Aylesbury, Bucks, England to visit her aunt and uncle, Mr. & Mrs. A. Read. However, since her parents weren’t mentioned, and it was unprecedented for such a ‘tiny tot [to] travel alone’ to visit relations, I’m sure many people would have read between the lines, and guessed that she was an illegitimate child going to live with family in England. According to the articles in The Hamilton Spectator and Toronto Daily Star, Delia’s trip, ‘unaccompanied by relations or friends’, would break five records, as she would be ‘the youngest to book through the Heming Bros. [local steamship agent] office, the youngest to travel alone on the Cunard or any other line, the youngest Hamiltonian to cross the ocean unescorted, the youngest Canadian to leave these shores alone, and the youngest person to land in England unaccompanied by parents.’ The previous youngest unaccompanied traveller had been three, and the ‘company steamship people do not encourage voyagers of such tender age as a year and a half.’

Delia’s ticket was for the Cunard ocean liner Ausonia (a sister ship to the Antonia). She was to be ‘taken to Montreal and placed on the boat by her mother’ and would cross the Atlantic in the care of the ship’s nurse. As I picture the scene at the port, I wonder what was going through my great grandmother’s mind as she handed her toddler over to the nurse. Did my granny cry? Did Annie know how long it would be before she would see her little daughter again? I wonder who Delia’s nurse chaperone was, and whether she was kind.

The son of a WW2-era crew member has created a website packed with history and memorabilia about the RMS Antonia. From his website I’ve learned that she was an ‘A Class’ steamship launched in 1921, which accommodated about 1500 cabin class, third class, and tourist class passengers, plus 270 crew. Amenities on board included a children’s nursery, decorated with murals of Alice in Wonderland. The Children’s Room had miniature furniture and was filled with toys, such as teddy bears, dolls, games, swings and a wigwam. If Delia was able to play in those rooms, I hope that they distracted her from her strange surroundings, and her separation from her mother.

At the end of the voyage, which would take about a week, Delia was to be met by her aunt and uncle, Charlotte and Arthur Read. Charlotte Louisa Read née Munday was Annie’s older sister by nine years. She and her husband, Arthur Goodgame Read, had been married since 1909 and apparently weren’t able to have their own children. When Delia joined them in 1928 they were in their early forties. This type of informal ‘open adoption’ between relations was not uncommon. Indeed, Annie’s sister Sarah had emigrated to Canada with her own child (Doll) and an adopted baby — her husband’s cousin, whose mother had died in childbirth. In Delia’s case, it allowed a childless couple to raise a child, a single mother to avoid stigma and financial crisis, and an illegitimate child to be raised in a more conventional and financially stable two-parent family.

My granny always called Charlotte and Arthur ‘Auntie’ and ‘Uncle’, but they were like parents to her. However, her mother Annie continued to be closely involved in her life as well. I don’t know when Annie returned to England, but we have a charming photograph of them together, in which Delia looks about three-four. Delia also had lovely studio photographs taken with her aunt and uncle at around the same time. In my opinion, my granny looks shy and uncertain with her mother — understandable for a child who may not have seen her mother for months, or more.

In 1939, when the National Register was taken, Charlotte, Arthur, Annie, and Delia were all living together. Annie was working outside of the home in Domestic Duties (probably in a hospital canteen). Their cohabitation surprised my dad, who only knew that his mum had grown up with her auntie and uncle. We have no idea how long this arrangement went on for.

Annie never married, and Delia continued to live with Charlotte and Arthur, who gave her everything they could afford. Arthur was a machine mender’s assistant, and they lived in a tiny terrace house with a scullery and outside toilet, yet Delia had piano lessons, and took a piano exam at the Trinity School of Music in London when she was 11. Delia also did well academically and excelled at sports.

When Delia married in 1947, a photograph of the bride and groom’s parents included her mother (centre) and her aunt and uncle (right).

My dad remembers visiting his nan (Annie), but he saw Charlotte and Arthur, who he also called ‘Auntie’ and ‘Uncle’, far more often. Annie and Arthur passed away when he was a boy, but Charlotte was still alive when I was born, and my dad remained very close to his kind and generous (great) auntie until she passed away in 1981.

My granny never spoke of the mysteries surrounding her childhood. Illegitimacy was hugely stigmatised when she was younger, and it was never discussed. Children did not ask their parents personal questions in those days. When we asked her questions, such as why she was sent back to England, she would simply say “I don’t know.” We have been able to uncover many facts, records, and even photographs of Walter Raby and his ancestors in recent years. However, the truth of what transpired between Annie and Walter was a well guarded secret, never intended to be revealed.

It’s very sad that single mothers found it so hard to keep their children, and I can’t help wondering how my great grandmother felt about giving up her daughter. I also wonder how my granny felt about having been sent away from her mum at such a young age. However, it seems that she had a very happy childhood, and had three parent figures who loved her. In her last years, she wrote, poignantly, that ‘I have enjoyed every moment of my life.’

In Part 1 of this post, I shared the story of Ida Gifford – another ancestor who was also raised by an aunt and uncle while her parents were still alive. Although Ida and Delia’s circumstances were different, I see common threads between their stories. Both had opportunities as children that they might not have had living with their parents, especially as girls. I will never know the motivations or emotions experienced by the people involved, but I believe that in both cases, the parents did what they thought was best for their child.

Updated May 2021

Raised by an Aunt & Uncle Part 1: The Mysterious Locket

When you find a child missing from a census, the first assumption is probably that the child has died. Sadly, this was far too often the case. Sometimes though, they were living with other family members. You might even find them with a grandparent living right next door, where there was more space!

Of course, we all visit family now and again, and it’s possible that on the night of the census, a child was just visiting that day, or staying there for a short time. However, it was also quite common for children to be raised by other family members, even when their parents were still living.

This blog post is the first of two stories about women in my family who were each raised by an aunt and uncle. It’s also a reflection on the lives they had, compared with the lives they might have had.

The Mysterious Locket

In 2018, my husband’s aunt showed me a locket that had belonged to her grandmother (my husband’s great grandmother), Ida Maud Martin née Gifford. The locket contained striking Victorian photos of a man and woman (which you might recognise from my homepage and social media accounts). She told me that her grandma had been brought up by the couple in the locket, but she had no idea of their names. It was a branch of the family I hadn’t looked into yet and I was thrilled to have a new mystery to solve!

Ida was the daughter of Mark Gifford and Phoebe Morse, who lived in the Forest of Dean. Like many men in the region, Mark Gifford was a coal miner, as was his father, also Mark Gifford. In 1851, when Mark Sr was 61 and Mark Jr was 13, they were both coal miner labourers living in the village of Bream. In 1856, there were 221 pits in the Forest of Dean, and almost every man and boy was a miner. In 1861, both Mark Giffords were still coal miners, even though the older Mark was by then 73. He did eventually leave coal mining … but rather than retiring, he worked as an agricultural labourer into his eighties! Mark Gifford’s brothers also worked as miners of coal and iron ore, except the youngest, who was deaf and dumb.

In 1866, the younger Mark Gifford was in the newspapers, after a woman (in one article called a prostitute) stole a sovereign from him at a ‘low beer-shop’ in Gloucester. Just a few weeks later he married Harriet Ann Jones. Mark and Harriet had two daughters and a son. However, Harriet died in 1874.

The following year, Mark remarried to Phoebe Morse, a miner’s daughter. Two of Phoebe’s brothers had died a few years earlier in mining accidents, which highlights how dangerous this work was. Mark and Phoebe also had two daughters and a son, the first being Ida Maud in 1877. In 1881, Mark, then an iron miner, lived with Phoebe and four of his children – the younger two children from his first marriage (the oldest daughter had left home to become a domestic servant) and the younger two from his second marriage. However, four-year old Ida was living 120 miles away with William & Harriet Jones, in Walton on the Hill, just outside Liverpool. Ida was described as their niece. And there Ida stayed, until she got married.

Who were William & Harriet Jones? I assume that William was a brother of Mark Gifford’s first wife Harriet Jones (though I’ve not yet found proof). William was born in Ireland, but his wife Harriet came from Yorkley in the Forest of Dean, where Ida was also born. Unfortunately I’ve not been able to trace them prior to 1871 and I don’t know Harriet’s maiden name. William Jones was a warder at the Liverpool Gaol in Walton on the Hill for over three decades.

Lots of questions come to mind:
– How old was Ida when she left home?
– Why was she selected or sent away to be raised by another couple? Were her parents struggling for money, or unable to cope with caring for all of their children? Ida’s younger brother seems to have been poorly as an older child, so perhaps he was unwell as a baby too, and demanded extra funds and attention.
– How did Phoebe feel about her own first child leaving home while she continued to raise two older step-children?
– Why were William & Harriet Jones willing to raise Ida? The couple do not appear to have had any other children of their own. In 1871 they had another niece living with them, who would have been an adult by 1881. Therefore they presumably had the desire as well as the means to offer another girl a home. In 1881 they were in their late forties and seem to have been childless. Ida, the daughter of Phoebe rather than Harriet, was not a blood relation, but perhaps they offered or agreed to care for Ida rather than another sibling simply because they took a shine to her.
– How did Ida feel about growing up without her parents and siblings, and did she ever see them or write to them?

I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. However, I think she must have had a much more comfortable and secure childhood than she would have had with her parents. As a prison warder, I assume her uncle would have been better educated and significantly better paid than her father, a collier, and that her adopted family would have had higher social status and greater respect than the one she left behind. Additionally, she was now the only child in the family, so everything that her aunt and uncle could afford for their family would have come to her only. The community she grew up in was dominated by the prison (built 1855), with most neighbours also being prison warders and their families. A workhouse had also been built there in the 1860s. How much contact did she have with the prisoners, or the inmates of the workhouse? And how did this experience differ from life in the close-knit Forest of Dean mining community, often defined by tragedy and hardship?

Ida’s sister and half-sisters all left home as teenagers to go into domestic service, but Ida was a dressmaker’s apprentice at home at age 14 (when the photo below was taken), and she stayed home until she was in her mid twenties. Ida’s half-brother became a miner like his father and grandfather. At the age of 19 he was convicted of an attempted assault on a woman, but let off due to previous good behaviour and the ‘great temptation [he] was subjected to’! He continued to be in trouble with the law for violent behaviour; even at age 71, an old-age pensioner, he was charged with stabbing his neighbour with a fork! Her full brother seems to have been unwell as a child, and died at the age of 20.

Ida Gifford in 1891, aged 14

In 1899, Harriet Jones died, and in 1901, Ida, 24, still lived with her widowed retired uncle, working as a housekeeper (probably for him). William Jones died later that year. After William’s death, Ida became Second Nanny to a wealthy family, the Stacpooles. According to my husband’s aunt, she fell in love with a footman, but his social status was so much higher than hers, that the match was impossible! However, James Martin, a man who delivered vegetables to the house, did fit the bill. In 1905, Ida married James and they soon had three daughters. Did Ida’s parents, who still lived in the Forest of Dean more than 120 miles away, come to her wedding, I wonder? Did they meet their granddaughters? Ironically, in 1911, Mark and Phoebe Gifford, now in their sixties and retired, had a 16-year old granddaughter living with them, who was a dressmaker’s apprentice. By then, perhaps they themselves were able to offer better opportunities to their granddaughter than she had at home. However, their support of their granddaughter would be short-lived, as Phoebe died in 1912 and Mark in 1913. Mark died intestate with his estate valued at just £25.

A beautiful picture of Phoebe has been handed down to us. Based on the dress style, circa 1860s, this would have been taken before she was married. It’s surprising to me that a miner’s daughter had such a full and fashionable gown, and that the family had the means to take her picture. However, Phoebe’s family were free miners (independent miners) and they seem to have been considerably better off than the Giffords.

Phoebe Gifford nee Morse c1860s

Was the portrait a precious possession of Ida’s, which she took with her to her new home? Perhaps. Nevertheless, it is her aunt and uncle, William & Harriet Jones, whose pictures she kept in her locket. I have more to find out about them still, but I’m so glad our family now knows their names.

Update 13/9/20: I now believe that William Jones was not related to Harriet Jones, the first wife of Mark Gifford. The Jones name was a red herring! Rather, I believe that his wife Harriet was Harriet Morse, an older sister of Phoebe Morse – Ida’s mother. This would indeed make William & Harriet Jones Ida’s uncle and aunt. Harriet’s age and place of birth fit. However, as yet I have found no marriage certificate for William Jones & Harriet Morse and can’t find Harriet in the 1851 or 1861 censuses. It’s possible they married and lived in Ireland during this period.

Next: Raised by an Aunt & Uncle Part 2: A Transatlantic Record …