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 the parish burial registers), 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. However, as I discovered while investigating the career of my ancestor Detective Inspector George Read of the Thames Division, the chief concern of river police was theft and smuggling rather than murders and drownings.

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 …

Geagle Badcock Sniffs Out a Criminal

Geagle Badcock (c1724-1802) was the Cook of Pembroke College, Oxford for more than 50 years in the 1700s. I love his name, and imagine that even if he was an excellent chef, some cheeky scholar would have nicknamed him ‘Geagle Badcook‘.

In 1776, when he was about 47, Geagle placed an extraordinary advertisement in Jackson’s Oxford Journal, as follows (don’t miss the surprise ending!):

WHEREAS on Saturday Night last, the 2d of March instant, some evil-disposed Person or Persons stole into the Pantheon Garden, near the New Road (leading from St. Peter’s le Bailey Church to Ensham) belonging to Geagle Badcock; and there did wantonly and lasciviously take away and destroy the Cauliflower and Lettuce Plants from under the Hand-Glasses; and also removed, stole, and wounded, many Fruit Trees; likewise beheaded a large Quantity of Broccoli, and committed many other indecencies: Advice is hereby given, that in order properly to accommodate those Sons of Rapine for the future, the Owner of the aforesaid Garden will engage himself, on the shortest notice, to wait upon these Deadly Night Shades, and give them a warm Reception. But if the Tyler of that Lodge should not give them the Last Word, let them be particularly cautious how they descend the Walls, as Steel Traps and other Engines will be placed as commodiously as can be, for the Protection of Property. And as the said Robbery had been so scandalously perpetrated, any Accomplice, or other Person, who shall give the necessary Information for Conviction, shall receive a Reward of FIVE GUINEAS; and such Person or Accomplice so informing, will also be pardoned the Offence.
N.B. A Book of Songs and Glees, the Property of a young Surgeon, was also stolen; and an enormous Excrement left behind, which smelleth much like one of the Persons suspected. Statim intellexi, quid effet.

Yep! Not only did these vandals destroy the garden, they left a huge poo there as well! Geagle jokes drily that the poo smelled a lot like the person he suspects of making it. The Latin motto at the end was included in a Latin-English phrase book from 1673 (published in ‘Little Britain’ (!) – a London street dominated by book-sellers), and means ‘I quickly smelt it out’.


instant: of this month
Pantheon: The Pantheon was a fashionable public entertainment centre which opened on Oxford Street, London in 1772; perhaps naming his vegetable garden the Pantheon was a joke of Geagle’s, since it had been used as a place of entertainment by someone on that night.
Hand-Glass: a miniature green-house or cloche used to protect or speed up the growth of plants
Sons of Rapine: rapine is violent plunder, and this phrase, presumably of classical poetic origin, pops up in other writing of the era to describe both real and mythical villains, including in an Ode For His Majesty’s Birthday, by poet laureate Henry James Pye, in 1794.
Deadly Night Shades: this plant was well-known to be responsible for accidental and deliberate poisonings.
Tyler of the Lodge: the office of outer guard of a Masonic Lodge
Steel Traps: could have been animal traps or man-traps (snares); it was legal to use man-traps to ensnare poachers and trespassers until 1827. An ‘Engine’ was a mechanical device.
Five Guineas: Worth about £460 today

Geagle’s advertisement is brilliantly melodramatic, witty, poetic, and menacing. He was rather like Mr. McGregor, but with lethal man-traps rather than a rake! I really hope he caught the naughty and very anti-social Peter Rabbit who committed this crime.

Featured Image: Geagle Badcock’s ad, Oxford Journal, Saturday 9 March 1776 (britishnewspapers.com)

Crowdfunding — Georgian Style

Have you ever contributed to a crowdfunding campaign to support a startup, community project or someone in need? It might seem like a new idea, but in fact, people had similar ways of fundraising for causes and ideas 250 years ago!

In the 1700s-1800s crowdfunding for a new product or project was commonly called ‘public subscription’ and just like now, financial backers could pre-order products or buy shares in a new venture – anything from a new railway to a book of folk stories. Supporters were given public recognition, for example in the book’s frontispiece or in a newspaper advertisement.

Having worked for numerous startups myself I appreciate that as well as an injection of cash, the public nature of subscriptions would have brought the additional benefit of PR from ‘celebrity endorsement’ – if Lady X and Rev. Z bought a copy, it must be good! (or at least, I’ll look good if I own a copy too!)

Some of the subscribers to The Midland Minstrel, by Thomas Gillet, published 1822
(Google eBooks)

Newspapers also frequently published lists of people who had contributed to a local charitable fund, such as ‘relief to the poor’, as well as national causes, like the ‘voluntary contribution towards the expenses of the War’ in 1798. Some of the supporters were truly philanthropic, but others would have been more concerned about keeping up appearances – with such public displays of generosity, you’d want to make sure your name was on the list, and the larger the donation you could afford to display by your name, the better.

Georgian Britons also launched public campaigns to raise money for individual people in need. Today, friends and families might start a gofundme campaign to help support a family after a tragedy. In Georgian Britain, similar appeals appeared in local newspapers.

Thomas Turner, my ancestor via marriage, was a goldsmith with a business on Oxford’s High Street and also a city council member. In February 1791 he was declared bankrupt. ‘Bankrupts’ were reported in newspapers nationally (presumably to alert anyone who might be owed money by them). Unusually, Thomas seems to have done a runner, as newspaper ads as far away as Kent called for him to ‘surrender himself’. However, less than three weeks later, he was dead. His difficult circumstances, the omission of his death in the papers, and my inability to locate a burial record all point to this being suicide. Quite possibly, rather than try to escape his debts, he had suffered a nervous breakdown.

In March, Jackson’s Oxford Journal reported on the ‘dreadful catastrophe’ that had left Thomas’s wife Ann a ‘widow with four small children, including a newborn, and called on the community to support this family in need through a public subscription or private donation. The first ad appeared on 9 March:

OXFORD, March 9th, 1792

A CASE of Real Distress humbly submitted to the Charitable and Humane.

ANN TURNER, of this City, having by a late dreadful Catastrophe been entirely deprived of every Support, and left a Widow with four small Children, one not more than three Months old, herself in a very indifferent state of Health; in a few Days she must leave her Home, without one Relation who can afford her the least Protection or Assistance, and without on Prospect but what the Hand of public Benevolence will kindly supply: In this melancholy Situation, by the Advice of her Friends, she humbly presumes to address herself to those who are blest with the Means of alleviating Distress the most accumulated and poignant.

The smallest Donations will be most thankfully received … The Friends of this distressed Family have promised to take Care that whatever Sum may be raised shall be applied, as far as possible, to give a permanent Assistance to the rearing of her infant Family, and to render every Information to the Subscribers concerning the Application of it.

Mrs. TURNER returns her grateful Thanks to two Ladies unknown, for Two Guineas received by the Hands of Friends.

Oxford Journal – Saturday 10 March 1792

The tone of the notice was deliberately dramatic. However, the immediate situation for a widow with a young family, whose breadwinner would have died intestate, really was desperate. Without money for rent and food, a parish workhouse would have been one of her only options.

Throughout March, the pleas for support were published weekly with lists of benefactors and the amount they had donated. Amazingly, sums were received from scores of people from both ‘town and gown’, as well as beyond the city of Oxford. Many clergymen contributed, and donations even came from several members of the nobility, including Lord Charles Spencer and the Countess of Guildford. 

In April, an older goldsmith, from whom Thomas Turner had learned his trade, announced that he had purchased his former apprentice’s stock. Then, in May, another notice from Ann Turner announced that thanks to the charity of so many people, she had been able to acquire a small house and shop in the Cornmarket:

OXFORD, May 5th, 1792.

ANN TURNER, encouraged by the Indulgence she has hitherto experienced in her great Calamity, presumes once again, in the most humble Manner, to return her most sincere Thanks to all those by whose Generosity she and her Family have not only been rescued from immediate Poverty, but are now enabled to inform the Publick, that she is put into Possession of a small SHOP, opposite the Cross Inn, in the Corn-Market, where she carries on the China, Glass, and Earthen-Ware Business. – As she is supplied with these, and some few other small Articles, from the same Manufacturers as her late Husband, she presumes to solicit the Continuance of the Orders of her former Friends, and a generous Publick, to whom it is known she has no other Support now left for her young Family.

It strikes me that Ann’s own voice is behind this announcement; this is a woman who was confronted with a crisis, but with the help of friends and her own strength of mind, she not only saved herself and family from destitution, but set up a business to safeguard their future.

The amount of support received by the family indicates that the family was liked and respected. Perhaps Thomas’s financial problems had been caused by bad luck rather than recklessness – such as a failed investment or health crisis. In fact, the previous year, Thomas had placed an ad in the paper looking for his lost pocket book containing drafts (cheques) for £266 – could this have contributed to his misfortune?

Thanks to the rallying of the community, Ann was able not just to survive but to thrive. Sales of personal effects and stock in trade after her death in 1809 showed that she had been able to move her business back onto the High Street and lived in comfort. Moreover, her children went on to great things. One had a distinguished career as a Consul in Europe and Latin America. Another matriculated to Christchurch, Oxford at the age of 15, became a private tutor for about a year to William Gladstone, future Prime Minister, and finally became Lord Bishop of Calcutta!

Forty years later another Oxford family was in need of support: Mr Stephen Wentworth, Surgeon to the city and county gaols, died in 1831 at 49 ‘leaving a widow and nine children totally unprovided for’. In early 1832 the Oxford University and City Herald reported on an ‘AFFECTING CASE OF DISTRESS’. Wentworth’s family had been left ‘in a state of utter destitution’ by his decease. ‘After several years’ considerable practice in his profession, he had to struggle for a long period under the pressure of declining health, and the claims of an increasing family, but, having sunk at length, under the combined effects of sickness and adversity, his bereaved Widow and helpless Orphans are left with no resource but an appeal to the generous sympathies of a humane and benevolent Public, through whose prompt and liberal assistance, it is proposed to raise a fund by subscription, sufficient to enable the afflicted Widow to embark in some line of Business, by which she may be enabled to supply the wants of her numerous family.’

Oxford University and City Herald – Saturday 11 February 1832

Once again, the article listed the names of the most recent contributors to the fund, hopefully inspiring many others to follow.

Widows and orphans weren’t the only beneficiaries of charity projects. In 1817, my ancestor James Benwell, who had been a gardener at the Oxford Botanic Gardens for forty years, finally retired at the age of 82. Benwell was ‘although uneducated, a very intelligent man’ and he had many well-to-do supporters and admirers. One of those admirers addressed a long letter to the editor of the Oxford Journal describing Benwell as ‘an individual of acknowledged worth, who is at length, by age and infirmity, rendered incapable of providing for himself.’ After attesting to Benwell’s skills and character (through some fantastic anecdotes that deserve another blog post), he makes his pitch to readers for support:

‘In order to procure some trifling addition to his comfort and support during the remainder of his days, Messrs. Burt and 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. … subscriptions will be very thankfully received’.

In other words, local artists had either been commissioned, or had volunteered, to draw James Benwell, and purchases of the engraved portrait would raise money for him. I don’t know how many copies were sold, but one is in the collection of the British Museum and another one hangs in the Sherardian Library of Plant Taxonomy, Oxford, next to grand portraits of much more eminent men.

James Benwell lived two more years, and hopefully, thanks to the ingenious crowdfunding campaign of his friends, he enjoyed a few ‘trifling additions to his comfort’ during his well-earned retirement.

Read James Benwell’s full story

Engraving of James Benwell © The Trustees of the British Museum

Featured Image: Chris J. Ratcliffe / AFP/Getty Images