The gifts of sound and vision

One of the frustrating things about family history is that no matter how much you find out about your ancestors, you never really feel acquainted with them unless you know what they looked and sounded like. The further back in time we go, the more difficult it becomes to find photographs, films or voice recordings of family members, so researching them can sometimes feel a little like conversing with a taciturn pen friend who one never meets up with in person. Sounds and images can make us care about our subjects, and even if we are unable to find illustrative media which relates directly to our ancestors we can still often find materials which capture something of the world in which they lived. Below I have highlighted a few of my favourite image, sound and film archives which are available on the web, and how they have helped me in my research.

* * *

Images

Wherever possible, I try to illustrate my blog posts which contemporary pictures showing places my ancestors would have known, events they lived through or occupations they held. As someone with roots in the East Midlands and West Yorkshire I am lucky to be served by two excellent online photographic archives, Picture The Past and Leodis, covering these two areas. On many occasions they have provided me with useful images like the ones below of my great-great-grandfather Thomas England and a pram shop owned by my great-great-grandmother Emma Sillers (née Brook):

Deacons of Riddings Baptist Church
The deacons of Riddings Baptist Church, c. 1910, featuring my great-great-grandfather Thomas England on the far left. (via Picture The Past).
Sillers Prams
Sillers Prams, 1937, Vicar Lane, Leeds (via Leodis).

Similar local collections are available for many other regions, but national and specialist subject archives may also be of use. In previous posts I have used images from both the Imperial War Museums and the National Fairground Archive when discussing my First World War and travelling showman ancestors. Other more general collections I have found helpful include:

  • Archive Images – Describes itself as “a web based picture library for authors, publishers, local history buffs, genealogists, picture framers and print sellers”. Its collections are free to search but high-resolution non-watermarked images are only available upon payment.
  • The Card Index – An online archive of historic UK postcards which can be searched or browsed by location, subject or publisher.
  • Getty Images – One of the web’s largest online image collections containing a huge number of excellent high-resolution archive photographs.
  • Old Photos UK – An index of old photographs organised by location which allows users to submit their own images.

All of the above have been helped me get a better idea of what my ancestors’ lives would have looked like, and on occasion they have even turned up surprises like the photograph below from The Card Index, which very clearly features the sign for my great-great-grandmother Emma Sillers’s mail carts shop in Leeds.

Sillers Mail Carts
Vicar Lane, Leeds, c. 1910, showing my great-great-grandmother Emma Sillers’s mail carts shop on the left (via The Card Index).

Taken from virtually the same angle as the photo from the Leodis website above, it shows that between around 1910 and 1937 her business had begun specialising in prams in place of of mail carts.

Lastly, although not designed with genealogists in mind, it should be remembered that commercial websites dealing in old prints and postcards like ebay can be a good source of photographs unavailable elsewhere. In some cases, postcard sellers even include the sender’s name in the item’s description and a scan of the message on the back, making it possible to search by names as well as locations.

Sound

Often overlooked as a resource for local and family historians, sound archives can provide us with a way of finding out what our ancestors voices may have sounded like, the songs they would have known and the everyday noises which populated their auditory environment. By far the most important of these for UK researchers is the British Library’s Sounds archive, which holds thousands of recordings that can be listened to for free via their website. Some categories which may be of interest to family historians include:

  • Accents and dialects – Includes recordings of British PoWs from the First World War, a survey of English dialects taken between 1951 and 1974, and a selection of early spoken spoken word recordings taken from commercial 78 records.
  • Environment and nature – Mainly of interest for its period sound effects, featuring Victorian street scenes, leisure activities like football matches and funfairs, battles of the First and Second World Wars and a variety of historic workplaces.
  • Oral history – A diverse collection of voices of people from a variety of backgrounds and occupations, including Holocaust survivors, craftspeople and agricultural workers.
  • World and traditional music – Includes examples of regional folk music from the British Isles alongside many other countries.

While researching my England ancestors, most of whom were involved in Derbyshire’s mining industry from the early Nineteenth to the mid-Twentieth Centuries, I was able to use the collections above to gain an understanding of their environment which I never could have done with words and pictures alone. For example, this recording of retired collier Horace Brian,  who was born in north Derbyshire two years before my great-grandfather Tom England in 1876, provides me with an idea of what Tom’s accent may have sounded like, as well as some of the experiences he would have had at work. The British Library’s sound effects collection was also of help here due to it’s large number of mining-related recordings. One entitled At the coal face was of particular interest to me because, as a coal hewer, it would have been the daily soundtrack to Tom’s working life for close to half a century.

Film

Old film footage is perhaps the most evocative media through which we can learn about past societies. Although I have not yet been lucky enough to find any of my ancestors on film, my research has certainly benefited from the growing number of online film archives which are now available. Two of the most important are the news archive British Pathe, and the collections of British Film Institute, both of which contain early footage of many UK towns and cities. Although their URL unfortunately no longer appears to be active,  there was also a BFI-led initiative called Your Film Archives which aimed to provide a single-search interface allowing users to across seven regional film collections. These were:

It was while searching the Yorkshire Film Archive’s collections when a run of lucky strikes led me to discover of a piece of early film footage relating directly to my family. I had been searching for ‘Leeds’ just in case there were any contemporary films of Vicar Lane where my great-great-grandmother’s shop Sillers Prams was located (see photograph above). Among  my results was a street scene from 1898 which, although not featuring Vicar Lane itself, was still interesting for its depiction of late-Victorian city life.

The film ends with ‘phantom ride’ through the busy streets shot from the top of an electric tram. On about the third watch, two minutes and ten seconds in I spotted the words ‘Mail carts’ on the side of a building, which immediately raised alarm bells as I knew my great-great-grandmother had run a mail carts shop in Leeds city centre prior to establishing her pram business. The word above it looked like it could possibly be ‘Sillers’ but I needed to work out the location of the film to be certain.

Sillers mail carts screenshot
Screenshot from ‘Leeds Street Scenes’ (1898) showing a mail carts shop sign near the top left (via Yorkshire Film Archive).

I found the locations of my great-great-grandmother’s shops at 49 and 51 Vicar Lane via Google Maps, then attempted to follow the tram’s route on the map with my finger in time with the footage to see if they lined up correctly. Unfortunately they didn’t. As a last resort I checked the film’s comments for clues as to the location shown in the its closing seconds, when I noticed someone had mentioned it ‘obviously’ showed the route along Boar Lane from the Queen’s Hotel to the junction with Briggate. This was slightly disappointing at first but then I remembered that Emma Sillers’s first shop had been on Briggate in about 1900, roughly when the film was shot. I looked up the shop’s exact address which was 150 Briggate, then checked Google Maps for its present day location and there it was on the junction with Boar Lane, leaving me in no doubt that the mail carts shop in the film must have belonged to my ancestor. Later I was able to track down the photograph below via the Leodis website showing the same shop in the film four years on.

Sillers Mailcarts 1902
Sillers Mail Carts, 1902, 150 Briggate, Leeds. The sign for my great-great-grandmother Emma Sillers’s shop can be seen beneath the larger sign for ‘Yorkshire Relish’ (via Leodis).

* * *

The websites mentioned above are just a few of my personal favourite image, sound and film archives and is by no means intended to be an exhaustive list. If you work in this area or know of any interesting local or national collections please feel free to mention them in the comments section.

Advertisements

There’ll always be an England (part 3)

This is the third and (for now) last in a series of posts describing the paternal ancestry of my grandfather Frederick England, the first two of which can be found here and here. This part mainly focuses on his grandfather Thomas England’s children, including Frederick’s father Thomas England Jr. (1878-1944).

* * *

The funeral of Cllr. Thomas England at Swanwick Baptist Church on 24 February 1918 would have been one of the largest family gatherings the Englands had held for many years. The extensive list of mourners reported in The Derbyshire Courier (2 March 1918, p. 1, col. 5) gives some indication of the family’s size at this time, but also raises some puzzling questions. Among those present were his older brothers George and James, his older sister Mary and younger half-sisters Alice and Elizabeth, plus a fourth sister, ‘Mrs. Watson,’ who I have yet to identify. His two other known sisters, Hannah and Ann, had both died decades earlier, and while this Mrs. Watson could have been his half-brother William Grice’s widow Mary, I can find no proof that William died before 1918 nor that Mary later remarried and took the name ‘Watson.’ The identity of the second mystery mourner, ‘Mrs. T. England (widow),’ is even more obscure. Thomas’s wife Mary Ann had died in 1913 according to the same headstone beneath which Thomas was interred. This newspaper report is the only evidence I have ever found of him marrying for a second time between 1913 and 1918, and although it’s possible the they could have made a mistake I think this is unlikely given how detailed and comprehensive the rest of their account is. The idea of Thomas remarrying in his mid-sixties is perhaps surprising but at present I can think of no other explanation for this enigmatic widow’s presence at his graveside. Hopefully further research will reveal more in time.

Swanwick Baptist Church
Swanwick Baptist Church, c. 2010 (via Geograph). Thomas and Mary Ann’s headstone is the light grey cross-shaped one directly behind the darker one on the right.

Also present at the funeral were, of course, all of Thomas’s surviving children with the exception of one, to whom I will return later. His five daughters Lucy Ann, Emma Jane, Lottie, Nellie and Amy all attended with their husbands and families. The eldest, Lucy Ann, had married an electric crane driver from Northamptonshire named John George Smith with whom she’d had one daughter. John had died not long afterwards however, and by the time of her father’s funeral she was married to another man named Herbert Hoskin. Thomas’s second daughter Emma Jane had at least six children with Frederick James Fido, and Lottie, who was recorded as a dressmaker’s assistant in the 1911 census, had married George Whylde in 1913. Both husbands were local coal miners. Lottie’s death at the age of ninety two in 1987 makes her the longest lived of Thomas’s children, as well as the only one whose life overlaps with my own. Nellie, unmarried at the time of the funeral, went on to marry a lorry driver named Walter Syson three years later but it is unknown whether or not she had any children. Thomas’s youngest daughter Amy had four boys and two girls with Bertie Crownshaw, a baker from Sheffield, but sadly, as is the case with the rest of  Thomas’s daughters, little else is known about her. The only son of Thomas’s named in the list of mourners is his third, John James England. According to one of his descendants, John had been a boot boy at the Royal Alfred Hotel in Alfreton when he was ten before securing an apprenticeship as a sawyer’s labourer. By 1911 he was working at a chemical works (possibly Kempson & Co. of Pye Bridge, his father’s company) and had married Bertha Ellen Sparham, with whom he had five children. He is remembered fondly as a very “quiet, gentle man.”

So where were Thomas’s other sons? His eldest George William England had, like his father, been a coal miner since he was a boy, and by his early twenties was working as a hewer, one of the most dangerous occupations in an industry comprised largely of dangerous occupations. Hewers were responsible for loosening rock at the coalface with picks, working deep underground in sweltering conditions. By the time George started working in the 1890s there were still no restrictions on the number of hours a miner could be obliged to work per day, wages could be cut arbitrarily and safety measures were still minimal. But while the average miner’s working conditions could be said to have improved little since George’s grandfather’s fatal accident in 1850, the organised labour movement had grown in strength by then and was starting to demand a better deal.

In 1893 when George was sixteen the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain called a strike against a proposed 25% pay cut, in which George’s union, the Derbyshire Miners’ Association (according to The Derbyshire Courier, 10 July 1915, p. 5, col. 4), were participants. The strikers held out for many weeks, and eyewitnesses at Swanwick Colliery recalled seeing pit ponies, which perhaps had not seen daylight for years, grazing freely above ground (Stone, 1998). Unlike earlier strikes in the area though this one was a success, and the management agreed not to reduce any wages. Industrial action by miners would of course continue throughout the twentieth century, including the National Coal Strike of 1912 which began in Alfreton and soon spread across the country. Their core demands were expressed in a popular chant, which could be heard at pits from Kent to Clydeside:

Eight hours work, Eight hours play,
Eight hours sleep and
Eight bob a day

The miners’ victory that year led to the passing of the Coal Mines (Minimum Wage) Act 1912, one of the first minimum wage laws passed anywhere in the world and a huge milestone in the history of workers’ rights. Many of the basic freedoms we enjoy at work today owe a great deal to the efforts of people like George, his brothers, their wives and workmates.

At the time of the strike George had been working at Birchwood Colliery in Alfreton for about seven years, about thirty minutes away from where he lived at 118 Prospect Street with his wife Amy (née Kinnings) and four children. By 1915 he had been promoted to the position of colliery stallman, an overseer’s role which perhaps could have been the start of a promising career had disaster not struck later that year. On Thursday 17 June, George was working alongside fellow stallman Henry Jenkins when at around 12.30 midday they heard a crash. Henry, on hearing George cry out, ran to his aid only to discover that he had been almost completely buried under the fallen pit roof, fracturing his spine and inflicting several other internal injuries. He was quickly pulled out and conveyed to his house on Prospect Street but it was too late, he died of his injuries almost three weeks later on 5 July. The coroner’s inquest which followed returned a verdict of ‘accidental death’ but noted that a slight crack in one of the pit’s supporting posts had been detected before the accident and that nothing had been done about it. His funeral took place on Thursday 8 July at Alfreton Cemetery. At the following Monday’s meeting of Alfreton Council his father Thomas received a vote of condolence from the other councillors. He was, he said “passing through troubled waters, ” having lost his son-in-law (John George Smith), his wife and his son in such a short space of time (The Derbyshire Courier, 10 July 1915, p. 5, col. 4). Sadly, 1916 would see no reversal in the England family’s fortunes.

George William England
‘The late Mr. G.W. England’. Source: The Derbyshire Courier, 10 July 1915, p. 5, col. 4, via The British Newspaper Archive).

Edwin England, Thomas’s youngest son, was born on 8 November 1893. His three older brothers were all at least ten years older than him and had already started their first jobs by the time he came along. It therefore seems likely he would have been closer to his sisters growing up, all of whom were nearer to him in age. From the 1911 census we know Thomas and Mary Ann had a total of thirteen children together, but sadly only nine of them appear to have survived infancy. Of the four who died the only name we know is that of Ernest Edward England, who was born in early 1892 and died on 27 November that same year. Although infant mortality rates were much higher back then I believe the timing of Ernest’s death must have had an impact on how Edwin was raised, even his name sounds like it may have been intended as a tribute. Having gone through the experience of losing a son the year before would surely have made Edwin’s birth and survival feel even more special, and it’s easy to imagine him as the youngest boy in the family becoming something of a favourite. Unlike his older brothers, when Edwin started work his father would have been successful and influential enough to help him out, and perhaps it was Thomas’s recommendation which had secured him a clerk’s job at Birchwood Colliery by the time he was eighteen (The Derbyshire Courier, 4 November 1916, p. 1, col. 2).

While as a young man Edwin may have seemed poised to follow in his father’s footsteps, there was of course a key difference between him and his father. When Thomas had turned twenty one it had been 1871 and Britain was at peace. When Edwin reached the same age the year was 1914. On 4 August that year Britain declared war on Germany, and Edwin, as the only England brother not employed in a reserved occupation would have faced enormous social pressure to enlist in the army. On 9 June the following year he enrolled as a private in the 9th Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters at Nottingham, and a month later he left Liverpool on a ship bound for the North Aegean. On 7 August he disembarked with his battalion at Sulva Bay, Gallipoli.

Men of the 9th Battalion
Men of the 9th Battalion, Sherwood Foresters, refilling mess tins and bottles at a well. Gallipoli, August 1915 (via the Imperial War Museum).

The events of that famously ill-fated campaign to capture the Dardarnelle Straits from the Ottoman army hardly need repeating here, but the 9th Battalion are said to have “maintained stout hearts and a soldierly spirit” despite heavy losses. Edwin apparently escaped the battle “without a scratch” (The Derbyshire Courier, 4 November 1916, p. 1, col. 2) before his battalion were evacuated to Egypt via Crete in December. In July 1916 they were redeployed to France, and on 26 September 1916, at the Battle of Thiepval Bridge, the first large offensive of the Battle of the Somme, Edwin was killed in action near the village of Ovillers-la-Boisselle. He likely fell during the capture of the German Hessian and Zollern trenches however his body was never recovered. He was twenty two. His memory is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial in France, and on his parents’ headstone in the churchyard of Swanwick Baptist Church.

Edwin England
Edwin England, 1893-1916. Source: The Derbyshire Courier, 7 November 1916, p. 4, col. 3 (via The British Newspaper Archive).
A Pye Bridge Loss
‘A Pye Bridge Loss’. News of Edwin’s death reaches Derbyshire. Source: The Derbyshire Courier, 4 November 1916, p. 1, col. 2 (via The British Newspaper Archive).

Unlike George and Edwin, Thomas England’s second son Thomas England Jr. would go on to outlive their father by several decades, however his name is conspicuously absent from the list of mourners at his funeral. Apparently, his wife Maud did attend (identified as “Mrs. T. England (daughter-in-law)” in The Derbyshire Courier, 2 March 1918, p. 1, col. 5), which makes Thomas’s unexplained absence even stranger. There are a number of possible explanations for this of course, but before exploring these let us first take a look at his early life. To avoid confusion with his father I will from this point on refer to Thomas Jr. as ‘Tom,’ as this is the form he used on two of his sons’ baptism records and therefore was probably the name by which he was best known.

Born on 28 July 1878, by the time he was thirteen Tom had already left school and was listed as an ‘errand boy’ in the 1891 census. He would likely have started down the mines not much later, as by 1901 he is recorded as a coal miner. It is unknown which pit he was based at then but he would probably have been working for the Babington Coal Company at Birchwood Colliery alongside his brothers George and Edwin. At around this time, just up the road from the England family home on Park Street was a china shop at number 16 King Street run by a widow named Mary Ann Ling, who lived above it with her daughters Maud and Olive. Maud (b. 17 April 1881, Ripley, Derbyshire – d. 22 July 1950, 119 Holbrook Street, Heanor, Derbyshire) would undoubtedly have helped her mother out from time to time at the shop, and it was perhaps here where Tom met her for the first time. It’s tempting imagine a romance blossoming between them over the counter during Tom’s frequent visits as an young errand boy, but that’s maybe a little fanciful. Their wedding, which took place on 16 November 1901 at Alfreton, has already been described elsewhere but I’ve reproduced their marriage certificate below which gives their names, their witnesses, and their fathers’ names and occupations.

Ling England wedding certificate
Thomas England and Maud Ling’s marriage certificate with missing left quarter, 1901, Alfreton, Derbyshire.

Tom and Maud appear to have left Alfreton shortly after getting married. They had one son there in 1902 but the rest of their children were all born in Langley in south Derbyshire, including my grandfather Frederick England. Their names were:

  • Albert (b. 6 September 1902, Alfreton, Derbyshire – d. 17 October 1948, The City Hospital, Nottingham, Nottinghamshire)
  • Arthur (bp. 15 December 1904, Heanor, Derbyshire – d. c. May 1905, Derbyshire)
  • Harry (bp. 23 January 1908, Heanor, Derbyshire – d. 26 January 1958, 7 Grace Crescent, Heanor, Derbyshire)
  • Frederick England (b. 23 July 1912, Langley, Derbyshire – d. 24 September 1980, Codnor, Derbyshire)
  • Herbert Kenneth (b. 30 April 1915, Langley, Derbyshire – d. 27 March 1984, Derby, Derbyshire)
  • Norman (b. 23 April 1921, Langley, Derbyshire – d. c. May 1983, Nottinghamshire)

In the 1911 census the family were living in a three-room house at 15 ‘Odessa Yard’ in Langley. I initially had some difficulty locating the present-day site of this address but after checking the house numbers which came before and after the Englands in the census schedule I now believe they were actually based at 15 Laceyfields Road. Like his older brother George, Tom was a coal hewer, and we know from an article in The Nottingham Evening News (12 Nov 1910, p. [4], col. 4) that he was employed by the Butterley Company Ltd. at the New Langley Colliery (Thomas had been a witness to a recent pit fatality and was giving evidence during the inquiry). In 1912 he would most likely have participated in the National Coal Strike, as well as the General Strike of 1926. By then though he was no longer working as a hewer but an ‘onsetter’ (according to an application for a copy of his son Frederick’s birth certificate dated 4 August 1926). Onsetters were in charge of loading the cages at the bottom of the shaft which conveyed miners to the surface, as well as giving the appropriate signals to the winding engineman. Their equivalent above ground was known as a ‘banksman,’ which is the occupation Tom gave the following decade in both his son Frederick’s marriage certificate from 1938 and in the recently-released 1939 register.

Onsetter
An onsetter signals for the cage to be raised up the shaft, Denaby, Derbyshire, c. 1910 (Elliot, 2014, xii).

By this time he was sixty one years old and living at 98 Holbrook Street in Heanor with his wife Maud and their son Kenneth (Frederick and his wife Mary also stayed with them for a period in the late 1930s before moving across road to number 119). Tom died in 1944 while his sons Frederick and Norman were away fighting in Europe. Unusually for the time he chose for his remains to be cremated rather than buried, which was perhaps appropriate for a man who had already spent so much of his life below ground.

Although I know a great deal about my grandfather Frederick from my mother, and over time have managed to piece together almost as much about his grandfather Thomas England Sr., many of the details of Tom’s life are still shrouded in mystery. I have neither the wealth of anecdotal information about him which I have for his son, nor the extensive news coverage on his activities which I have for his father, and that has somehow always made him even more intriguing to me. This curiosity has been fed by the two major pieces of anecdotal information I do have about him: that he was an excellent fiddle player and a heavy drinker.

The former has always struck me as unusual. Given the time and place in which he grew up, if Tom was musically inclined one would probably have expected him to gravitate towards the local colliery brass band, or perhaps some form of sacred music (which I’m sure his father would have preferred). In contrast to these more traditional, community-based forms of music-making, to me playing the fiddle feels more individualistic, more romantic and possibly a little wilder. This image of him seems to fit well with the fact that he was also known to enjoy a drink. Although it was fairly common for miners to be heavy drinkers at this time, the very fact that this is one of the few pieces of information about him which has been passed down to me suggests his habit was somehow exceptional he may have suffered from alcoholism (Maud apparently had to hide money around the house to stop him spending it on drink). This is pure speculation, but based on the few details I have about him, Tom seems like very different character to his father Thomas England Sr., the respected town councillor, Freemason and deacon, so perhaps his absence from his father’s funeral was due to some kind of falling out? Alternatively Tom may just have been sick or unable to get out of work that day, and his drinking habit could have developed later (perhaps triggered by the deaths of his parents and two brothers in the space of five years). Like so much else about his life, the truth is now lost to us and we must make do with what have the faculty to imagine.

England family
Tom England (far right), with (L-R) his sister-in-law Ethel May England, mother-in-law Mary Ann Bestwick, c. 1935.
Harry England and Ethel Buxton's wedding
Tom England (far left) with Maud (seated) at his son Harry’s wedding to Ethel May Buxton, 1935.

* * *

Although I fully intend to return to Tom’s sons in future posts, because their stories are inextricably tied up with those of several living persons I am ending my in-depth history of the England family here in order to to preserve their privacy. In the posts to come I’ll be turning my attention to the family of my grandfather Frederick’s mother, the Lings, a family so different to the Englands with their deep roots in the Derbyshire coalfield it’s a surprise their paths ever crossed.

Sources:

Baker, Chris. “Sir Ian Hamilton’s Fourth Gallipoli Despatch.” The Long, Long Trail. Accessed 2 March, 2016. http://www.1914-1918.net/hamiltons_gallipoli_despatch_4.html.

Elliot, Brian. Tracing your coalmining ancestors: a guide for family historians. Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2014.

Stone, G. Strike action at Swanwick Colliery during the Nineteenth Century. Matlock: Derbyshire County Council, 1998.

There’ll always be an England (part 2)

This is the second post detailing the paternal ancestry of my grandfather Frederick England, the first of which you can read here. This entry focuses mainly on Frederick’s grandfather Thomas England and covers the period between 1850 and 1918.

* * *

Born on 26 May 1850, Thomas England would have been the only one of his six siblings with little or no memory of their father James, who had died in a mining accident before Thomas was eighteen months old. For the next year and a half he was raised by his mother Alice alone, perhaps aided by his older sister Ann, until his mother’s second marriage to William Grice on 17 May 1853. He would have received only the most basic education, possibly at a Sunday School set up for miners’ children, before starting work as a pit boy at Swanwick Colliery aged ten, working twelve and fourteen hour shifts.

According to his obituary, four years later Thomas “met with a serious accident which caused an injury to his spine and he became a weigh clerk at the Swanwick New Pit where he stayed for another […] years. He then went into the colliery offices where he remained for 22 years” (The Derbyshire Courier, 2 March 1918, p. 1, col. 5). The exact chronology is somewhat unclear as the number of years Thomas is said to have worked as a weigh clerk is illegible (it could be five or six) but the jobs described match up with his occupations recorded in the 1871 and 1881 censuses (‘weighing machinist, colliery’ and ‘clerk in colliery office’ respectively). As a weighing clerk Thomas would have been responsible for recording the weight, quality and intended destinations of the coal waggons as they left the mine. Although operating the weighing machinery would have involved a certain amount of physical exertion this was far less strenuous work than anything below ground. In addition the opportunities for advancement would have been more numerous here, and it isn’t difficult to imagine how displaying an aptitude for numbers, attention to detail and accurate record keeping could have led to a promotion to the colliery offices. His obituary describes him as a ‘plodder,’ who gradually improved his position throughout his whole life.

Weighing the coals
Weighing coal at a pit head, from a Victorian print. Source: Illustrated London News, 21 September 1878, p. 285 (via Old Print).

By the time of the 1881 census, Thomas, now a thirty one year old married father of two, had moved away from Sleetmoor Lane next to Swanwick Colliery to 15 Park Street in Alfreton. This new address closer the town centre reflected his rise in social status from manual labourer to salaried white-collar worker. His wife Mary Ann Munks (sometimes spelled ‘Monks’, b. 30 April 1854, Bottesford, Leicestershire – d. 11 January 1913, Pye Bridge, Derbyshire), who he had married five years earlier at Swanwick Baptist Church, was the daughter of John Munks, a Leicestershire bricklayer’s labourer, and Ann Askew, a former servant and charwoman. In the 1871 census Mary Ann had also been working as a domestic servant, and although it’s not certain how she and Thomas met it’s possible her job may have drew her into his orbit. At this time even many lower middle class households like Thomas’s employed servants (her employer in 1871 was a banker’s clerk), so it’s not inconceivable that she could have been working for someone he knew from the colliery.  They had a total of thirteen children (according to the 1911 census), the ones whose names we know were:

  • George William (b. c. February 1877, Alfreton, Derbyshire – d. 5 July 1915, Derby, Derbyshire)
  • Thomas (b. 28 June 1878, Alfreton, Derbyshire – d. c. November 1944, Heanor, Derbyshire)
  • John James (b. c. February 1882, Alfreton, Derbyshire – d. 6 December 1957, Leamoor Avenue, Alfreton, Derbyshire)
  • Lucy Ann (b. c. November 1883, Alfreton, Derbyshire – d. c. February 1950, Nottinghamshire)
  • Emma Jane (b. c. May 1888, Alfreton, Derbyshire – d. c. November 1971, Chesterfield, Derbyshire)
  • Ernest Edward (b. c. February 1892, Alfreton, Derbyshire – d. 27 November 1892, Alfreton, Derbyshire)
  • Edwin (b. 8 November 1893, Alfreton, Derbyshire – d. 26 September 1916, Ovillers, Somme, Picardie)
  • Lottie (b. 20 March 1895, Alfreton, Derbyshire – d. c. November 1987, Selby, Yorkshire)
  • Nellie (b. 12 November 1896, Alfreton, Derbyshire – d. c. November 1976, Derby, Derbyshire)
  • Amy (b. c. February 1899, Alfreton, Derbyshire – d. c. November 1966, Derby, Derbyshire)

Unfortunately Thomas’s plodding ascent up the social ladder was to be halted abruptly in 1889. That year he was dismissed along with two other clerks from his job at Swanwick Colliery by the owner Charles Rowland Palmer-Morewood after they gave evidence in an action against the colliery manager Frederick George Pogmore (The Derbyshire Times, 27 November 1889), who had been accused of seducing the seventeen year old daughter of another colliery manager, Thomas Severn (The Derbyshire Times, 21 August 1889). The incident provoked a strong reaction by the Radicals, who cited it as an example of the Conservatives’ contempt for the working man (Morewood was a member of the latter party), however the Conservative candidate for mid-Derbyshire, John Satterfield Sandars, used a Conservative meeting at Alfreton to condemn Palmer-Morewood’s action and express his sympathy with the men (The Derbyshire Times, 27 November 1889, p. 2, col. 4). We know Thomas was in attendance as at the end of Sandars’s speech he proposed a vote of thanks to Mr. Sandars and thanked the Conservative Party for “the practical help and sympathy which had been shown to his fellows and himself.”

In the report Thomas was named as the secretary of the Alfreton Conservative Association. A few years earlier he had also apparently served as the Alfreton delegate for the Nottingham Imperial Order of Oddfellows (Nottingham Evening Post, 13 July 1886, p. 4, col. 5), a friendly society with a Masonic-style lodge structure. Both positions suggest an increasing interest in local affairs and a growing public profile. By 1891, when the family were living at 28 Park Street, he had found a new job as a bookkeeper for the Wingfield Manor Colliery Company, and from this point on his name begins to appear more frequently in local news stories. For example, according to the Derby Mercury there was a bizarre incident at his office at Highfield Cottage on 26 June that year when a man who lived above them was charged with deliberately damaging the company’s books. Thomas was quoted as a witness, saying that the man had entered the offices clearly drunk and ordered him and an assistant to leave, threatening to chuck them out if they did not. Thomas put the books away in a cupboard before leaving, and then the man proceeded to destroy or damage a large quantity of said books (The Derby Mercury, 29 July 1891, p. 3, col. 3).

News cutting
‘Damaging books,’ The Derby Mercury, 29 July 1891, p. 3, col. 3 (via The British Newspaper Archive).

A year later the Manor Colliery Company went into liquidation but Thomas and several other ex-employees successfully recovered £90 in owed wages from the owner John Brocklehurst (The Derbyshire Times, 23 January 1892, p. 8, col. 5). Later in the year Thomas is reported as giving “corroborative evidence” in the case of the Manor Colliery Co., Alfreton (In Liquidation) v. W.B. Hodgson, which involved another claim of unpaid wages against his former employer (The Derbyshire Times, 16 July 1892, p. 4, col. 8). After these debacles Thomas left the mining industry altogether and got a job as a clerk, and later manager at Kempson and Co. of Pye Bridge, a company producing sulphuric acid, coal derivatives and tar distilleries. Not glamorous perhaps, but a world away from what his brothers would have been exposed to down the mines. His wife’s epitaph states that the family lived somewhere called ‘Tynefield House’ in Pye Bridge in 1913, and the fact that their house had a name (and one worth mentioning on a gravestone) rather than simply a number suggests they were living in rather more spacious accommodation than they had done at Park Street (the 1911 census describes it as having eight rooms). Thomas’s importance within the company can be attested by the fact that he is listed as the company secretary in both a public notice in The Derbyshire Times (30 October 1897) and the 1912 edition of Kelly’s Directory.

This same directory also mentions that Thomas was a local councillor for the Somercotes and Riddings Ward of Alfreton Urban District Council. His interest in politics can be traced at least as far back as his work as secretary for the Alfreton Conservative Association, and in 1895 he had been appointed as a scrutineer in the sixth ballot of the Alfreton Building Society (The Derbyshire Times, 6 November 1895). This same public spiritedness can be detected again in 1901 when he had served as the census enumerator for his home district of Alfreton. Rather pleasingly, this means he would have met a large number of my Alfreton ancestors during census week as he trudged from door to door handing out the blank forms and collecting them a few days later.

gypsy_mary_evans_copyright_small_450
Census enumerator at a gypsy camp (via History.org).

Thomas had first been elected councillor on 29 May 1906 following the retirement of his predecessor Mr. F. Bonsall of the Midland Miners’ Permanent Relief Society (Nottingham Evening Post, 16 May 1906), and stood successfully again in 1909, 1912 and 1915. During this time he served as superintendent examiner for Somercotes Technical Education Committee (The Derbyshire Times, 15 February 1911, p. 6, col. 6), presided over a number of meetings coordinating Alfreton’s contribution to the war effort (Derbyshire Courier, 22 August 1914, p. 3, col. 6, Derbyshire Courier, 17 April 1915, p. 3, col. 7) and was promoted to Chairman of the Alfreton Urban District council, a position which carried with it a magistracy. In his later years Thomas also became increasingly involved in both his local Masonic lodge, into which he had been initiated on 21 April 1908, and the Baptist church at Swanwick where he and Mary Ann had married in 1876. Some of his activities reported in the local press include opening a fundraising bazaar for the church on Easter Tuesday 1911 (Derbyshire Times and Chesterfield Herald, 22 April 1911, p. 7, col. 8) and opening a new Sunday School there the following year (The Derbyshire Courier, 6 January 1912, cols. 3-5). According to his obituary he also ran a bible class and was a deacon at Riddings. The photograph below shows him with with his fellow deacons when he would have been around sixty years old.

Deacons of Riddings Baptist Church
Deacons of Riddings Baptist Church c. 1910. Thomas England is stood on the far left (via Picture the Past).

Thomas’s final years were marred by a series of personal tragedies. In 1913 his wife Mary Ann passed away at the age of fifty eight. Her epitaph reads “rest comes at length,” from the hymn ‘Hark, Hark, My Soul.’ Her death was followed by those of their sons George in 1915 and Edwin in 1916, and after a long illness Thomas himself died on 21 February 1918 aged sixty seven. His obituary described him as “a man of many parts [who] was thorough in all he did,” and a “very popular member” of the council with “a large circle of friends.” His funeral took place at Swanwick Baptist Church three days later, where he was laid to rest in the same plot as his wife. Although on the surface his life can seem like Victorian self-improvement fantasy (the working class lad who overcame various hardships through faith and perseverance), to me Thomas seems like a more complex character than this would suggest. Although possessed of a strong work-ethic (or perhaps just restlessness) he seems to have been genuinely motivated by a desire to do good for his community. Perhaps his memories of that cramped house on Sleet Moor, and of another life underground which he’d so narrowly avoided, had something to do with that.

Thomas England's grave
Thomas and Mary Ann’s headstone, Swanwick, 4 November 2011. The full epitaph reads: “In loving memory of Mary Ann, beloved wife of Thomas England of Tynefield House, Pye Bridge. Died January 11th 1913 aged 59 years. Rest comes at length. Also, the above Thomas England. Died February 21st 1918 aged 67 years.”

 * * *

A brief note on how I discovered the site of Thomas’s grave. When I first began looking into my family history in 2010 neither the 1911 census nor the British Newspaper Archive were available, so my knowledge of Thomas’s life was initially limited to what I could glean from the censuses of 1851-1901. I could find no record of his marriage or burial in the local parish registers but didn’t realise till much later that this would have been because of his Baptist faith. The key piece of information which led to the discovery of everything else was the brief reference to his role as councillor for Riddings and Somercotes ward in the 1912 edition of Kelly’s Directory. The news that he’d worked as a local councillor convinced me he must have had an obituary in the local newspaper, and this quickly obtained via the Derbyshire Record Office. In it was the first mention I’d seen of his involvement with Riddings Baptist Church, and from there I was able to identify him as the man in this photo from the excellent Picture the Past website. Later that day, a bit more research led me to the site in Riddings where the Church had once stood (now a car park, but the wall the men in the photo are standing in front of is still there), and while in the area I thought it might be worth a quick look around the Baptist churchyard at nearby Swanwick, just in case. His and Mary Ann’s marble headstone was one of the largest and best situated there, standing in an unmistakably prestigious plot in front of the church. Even more surprising was the presence of a third commemoration on the stone’s left hand side which simply read “Also Edwin their son, killed in action, September 26th 1916 aged 22 years.” His story and that of his brothers and sisters, including Frederick’s father Thomas England Jr., will be told in the next post.

Thomas England Obituary Picture
Thomas England, 1850-1918. Source: The Derbyshire Courier, 4 February 1911, p. 9, col. 4 (via The British Newspaper Archive).

There’ll always be an England (part 1)

This is the first of a series of posts detailing the paternal ancestry of my maternal grandfather Frederick England from the late 18th Century to the early 20th. This part will focus on the period from 1797 to around the 1850s.

* * *

The England family name seems to have originated independently in a number of different places where Anglo-Saxon ‘Englishmen’ were historically a minority, including the borders of England and Scotland and the Scandinavian-dominated Danelaw in Yorkshire and the East Midlands. Given where his immediate family came from it seems likely that the earliest ancestors of Frederick England would have come from the second of these two areas, and indeed the earliest documentary evidence I have found featuring the name of one of his England ancestors appears in the parish registers of St. Martin’s Church in Alfreton, Derbyshire. There on 20 March 1797 the marriage of Samuel England (b. c. 1772 – bur. 28 January 1829) to Hannah Stendall (b. c. 1779 – bur. 15 June 1809, Alfreton, Derbyshire) took place, witnessed by Joseph and Elizabeth England. Given their surnames it seems likely these witnesses were members of Samuel’s family but their exact relationship is unknown. Between them Samuel and Hannah had four children, the last of whom, Frederick’s great-grandfather James England was baptised on 15 June 1809, the same day Hannah was buried suggesting she may have died in childbirth.

The next time we encounter James is in the parish registers of St Mary’s Church in Greasley, Nottinghamshire for his wedding to Alice Sisson (bp. 3 April 1820, Strelley, Nottinghamshire – bur. 18 August 1896, Swanwick, Derbyshire) on 23 May 1836. The following year, James and Alice had moved back to James’s home parish, and according to the birthplace of their first daughter Hannah (perhaps named for his late mother?) were living in the small community of Pye Bridge on the Nottinghamshire-Derbyshire border. This record also confirms that James was employed as a collier (coal miner) at the time, and aside from the 1841 census on which he is listed as an iron ore miner, James appears to have worked in the coal industry his entire life.

By the mid-nineteenth century, the East Midlands region which included Swanwick Colliery, James’s place of work, was one of the most heavily industrialised places in the world. At this time however mining was extremely dangerous work and poorly paid. Safety measures were almost non-existent and the living conditions of the workers were often cramped and overcrowded (by the time of the 1851 census James’s household included nine people). It was common for miners to start work before day break, spend all day underground and not emerge until after sunset. It is perhaps not surprising therefore that the area was an early hotbed of working class radicalism, with the Swanwick Miners’ Association organising an ill-fated strike as early as 1844, in which James England could well have participated.

Coal mining 1842
Mine conditions in 1842, taken from a contemporary report by the Children’s Employment Commission (via the British Library).

On 20 October 1851 when James was only forty two he was killed in an accident at Swanwick colliery. According to a subsequent inquest he had been “using a crow bar for the purpose of removing a prop, when the bar slipped and springing back caught him such a severe blow in the pitt [sic] of the stomach that it caused immediate death” (The Derby Mercury, 5 November 1851). He was buried on the 23rd of that month, leaving behind his wife and five surviving children.

James England's inquest
Coroner’s inquest following James England’s death. Source: The Derby Mercury, 5 November 1851, p. 3, col. 2 (via The British Newspaper Archive).

So what of the family James left behind? Between 1837 and 1850, he and Alice had had at least seven children, whose names were:

  • Hannah (bp. 21 May 1837, Pye Bridge, Derbyshire – bur. 14 June 1842, Pye Bridge, Derbyshire)
  • Ann (bp. 10 February 1839, Pye Bridge, Derbyshire – bur. 5 March 1879, Swanwick, Derbyshire)
  • George (b. c. April 1842, Pye Bridge, Derbyshire – d. c. November 1918, Derbyshire)
  • Samuel (b. 3 September 1844, Somercotes, Derbyshire – bur. 7 April 1845)
  • James (b. 4 April 1846, Sleet Moor, Derbyshire – d. 15 May 1933, Nuttall Street, Alfreton, Derbyshire)
  • Mary (b. 6 May 1848 Sleet Moor, Derbyshire – d. c. August 1945, Derbyshire)
  • Thomas (b. 26 May 1850, Sleet Moor, Derbyshire – d. 21 February 1918, Riddings, Derbyshire)

Just less than two years after James’s death, Alice remarried on 17 May 1853 to another coal miner, William Grice (b. c. 1823, Min, Leicestershire), with whom she had at least three more children:

  • Alice (b. 1 April 1855, Alfreton, Derbyshire – d. c. August 1925, Derbyshire)
  • William (b. c. November 1856, Sleet Moor, Derbyshire)
  • Elizabeth (b. c. 1860, Sleet Moor, Derbyshire – d. c. May 1910, Derbyshire)

We of course cannot say whether Alice remarried for love, the need to support her children economically or a combination of the two, but in the years between the death of James and her second marriage she must have struggled to provide for her children, especially as her mother Ann was no longer around to help having died nine years earlier (Alice was the eldest of two two ‘illegitimate’ sisters, no father is named on her baptism record but on the record of her marriage to William Grice thirty three years later she gives her father’s name as Thomas Dewes). Tragically, only ten years into their marriage Alice’s second husband William died, like her first, in an accident at Swanwick Colliery on 15 November 1863. According to a report in The Derbyshire Times, two other men were seriously injured, and the accident had occurred in the same pit where two men had drowned the previous October.

William Grice's inquest
Coroner’s inquest following William Grice’s death. Source: The Derbyshire Times, 21 November 1863, p. 3, col. 2 (via The British Newspaper Archive).

The regularity of pit fatalities like those of James and William at this time is quite shocking. A search of the Coal Mining History Resource Centre’s database of Coalming Accidents and Deaths shows that between 1851 and 1919 there were thirty five incidents reported at Swanwick Colliery alone. According to this database James has the dubious honour of being the first man to die at Swanwick Colliery, but unfortunately many of his descendants also appear among the lists of dead and injured.

After Alice’s marriage to William the family never left the Sleet Moor area, the small semi-rural community located just south of Swanwick Colliery but North East of Swanwick village. Growing up in the shadow of the Palmer-Morewoods’ great pit it’s hardly surprising that all her children who survived infancy grew up to either work down the mine or marry a collier. Her eldest son George suffered bruising and a broken collar bone in a pit accident at the age of forty three (The Derby Daily Telegraph, 24 June 1885, p. 2, col. 6.) but survived to live another twenty six years. Alice and James’s youngest son Thomas, Frederick England’s grandfather, also met with an accident aged just fourteen. His resulting spinal injuries were so severe he was prevented from ever working down the mines again, but in his case this turned out to be something of a blessing as it led to a career as a clerk above ground. Later, despite his humble origins he would go on to hold an important managerial position in a local chemical works at a time when such social mobility was unusual, and became a councillor for the Somercotes and Riddings Urban District Ward, perhaps providing the origin of the England family’s later involvement in local politics. His story however will be explored in the next post.

Alfreton and surrounding area
Map of Alfreton and surrounding villages c. 1837. Swanwick is visible in the bottom left quarter, and the colliery were James worked is indicated near the centre of the map, about half way along the long East West road on the left-hand side (Sleet Moor is unmarked but would have been the area just south of here). Riddings and Pye Bridge can be seen in the bottom right-hand corner (via The British Library Online Gallery).