Archive for the ‘Genealogy’ Category

Phoebe was born in 1834 in Colchester. The date of her birth is unknown, as is that of her christening, if there ever was one. She went on to have one of the most interesting lives of any of my ancestors. Reading between the lines and there are many lines, one could be forgiven for thinking that it was a life beset by scandal and maybe it was. One thing is certain, it was a hard life, but oh the stories she could have told!


Phoebe was the 3rd child, one of six, of George Henry Gusterson and his wife Susan. George was an army man, at least for a short while. His first child was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia – now Canada – and his second at Chatham Army Barracks in Kent. Although I have no details of his service, it seems likely that he left the army around 1830 and the family settled in Colchester, the place of his birth.


They lived around North Hill in Colchester. For at least some of the time they most likely lived in a dwelling behind the houses and businesses on North Hill – a house or rooms off a courtyard which was no doubt cramped and perhaps a little squalid. George worked as a labourer. Over time he had various jobs which included working at the local iron foundry and as a bricklayer.


At the age of seventeen, Phoebe was working as a housemaid to a butcher and his family. She was listed on the 1851 census as being resident at the butcher’s house so it was a live-in position. At this time, her parents only had three children still living at home easing the burden on the household.


Phoebe’s adventures began in November 1854 when she married a Thomas Barrell. He was a soldier, a private in the infantry and fourteen years her senior. At the time of their marriage, his place of residence was recorded as the Wagon and Horses Inn. I have no idea if he was local although that seems unlikely; I can find no trace of him.


In June 1856 Phoebe’s father was in court on a serious charge (those of you who have read my previous family history blogs will know that my ancestors are quite familiar with court proceedings). He was charged with having “ill-treated his wife” and having “threatened to murder her”.  The story was helpfully recounted in the The Essex Standard at the time:

Colchester Town Hall. Monday, June 9. Before the Mayor and S. G. Cooke. Esq. George Henry Gusterson was brought up on a warrant, charged with having ill-treated his wife on Friday evening last and threatened to murder her. – It appeared that he had been for about two years out of employment, during which time he was mainly supported by the unremitting labour of his wife. Several times he has threatened to murder her, and on Thursday night his conduct was such that she was compelled to leave her home. On Friday night she returned to the house for some things, when the defendant received her with the greatest apparent affection; but after she had entered the house he fastened the door, and declared with an oath that he would murder her. Hearing her screams her son attempted to break open the door, upon which defendant struck her several times with a screw-driver, and she became insensible. – The Bench asked if he was in the habit of getting drunk; but the complainant (who seemed to feel keenly being driven to the necessity of appealing to the law for protection) begged not to be pressed to answer the question. – Defendant subjected his wife to a lengthy cross-examination, and endeavoured to show that he was the most ill-used of husbands; that he, not his wife, ought to be the complainant; and that notwithstanding the greatest provocation he always behaved kindly to his wife. – The Bench, however, considered the case proved, and ordered defendant to enter into his own recognizances in £20 to keep the peace for six months, and to find one surety in £10.”

The son who tried to break down the door was only twelve years old at the time! As it happens, George was unable to find surety and was committed to prison for six months. Six months!! That seems an unduly lenient sentence for threatening to murder someone.


Amazingly enough, in September of the same year he was back in court, this time to be discharged on the request of his long-suffering wife:

COLCHESTER TOWN HALL. – SEPT. 11. Before the Mayor and J. Chaplin, Esq. Mr. Abell applied on behalf of Mrs. Gusterson for the discharge of her husband, George Henry Gusterton [sic], who, it will be remembered, was committed to prison on the 9th June last, in default of finding surety for his good behaviour to his wife for six months. Having given a solemn promise to behave better to her for the future, his wife wished him to be set at liberty. – The Bench having acceded to this request, the prisoner was brought up into the Court and addressed by the Mayor, who said at the earnest request of his wife the Bench had consented to his liberation. He had much to thank his wife for, especially after the treatment she had received at his hands, and he hoped he would properly appreciate it. Whatever he did, let him shun drink; it was drink that had brought him to his present position. It had been to him a curse, and would continue so, unless he endeavoured in the most determined manner to free himself from it. – Gusterson thanked the Bench for their kindness, and having entered into his own recognizances for his future behaviour, left the Court with his wife.”

Maybe encouraged by the misdemeanours of her father Phoebe embarked on something quite remarkable. With her husband, Thomas, now presumably dead, most likely in the Crimea (sadly something I cannot ascertain), she married again.


In 1854, Britain had declared war on Russia following Russian incursions into the Crimea. Struggling to recruit sufficient soldiers at home the British fell back on the time-honoured tradition of hiring foreign recruits. The majority came from the German states, eager for action, many deserting their own army. Known as the British German Legion or Anglo-German Legion, the mercenaries saw little or no action as the war ended. Many were still being trained and Britain was contractually obliged to pay them their dues. In 1856, around 10,000 legionnaires were billeted at Barrack field in Colchester Garrison. Having committed the treasonous act of swearing an oath of allegiance to Queen Victoria they faced difficulties with repatriation and the British Government decided to resettle some of them, in the Cape Colony in South Africa, known then as British Kaffraria, to help protect the Eastern Cape Frontier. They wanted married men so they gave the men permission to marry any woman who was willing to join him on the adventure. In the end, less than 2,500 men volunteered for resettlement and the number of married soldiers that arrived in the Cape was far fewer than that, less than 400, and the colony struggled from the very start, not helped by the lies and exaggerations they were told about the settlement in order to make the idea seem more appealing.


One of Colchester’s oldest photos, taken in 1856, of the British German Legion’s encampment by the Garrison Church in Colchester. Source: Essex County Standard.


On 16 November 1856 Phoebe married a Carl Formhals on board the depot ship HMS Britannia in a mass wedding with a number of other couples. Her younger sister Sarah also married a German, Heinrich Langefeldt, her marriage taking place in the Garrison Church on 19 October 1856.


Carl was actually Prussian, from a town called Arnsberg. He was 5’4”, blonde and a butcher by trade. He enlisted in the British German Legion in November 1855 aged just 21.


Phoebe and Carl sailed for South Africa on 19 November 1856 and arrived in the Cape on 28 February 1857. They took a circuitous route, chasing trade winds across the Atlantic, then turning south down the coast of Brazil before crossing to the Cape. Three months on board a ship must have felt like an eternity.


On arriving in South Africa, after camping in a tented village overlooking the mouth of the Buffalo River close to the hamlet of East London, they were moved to Fort Murray, a three-day march away. The women and children rode on ox wagons with the baggage while the soldiers walked. Of course, by this time the legionnaires realised that British Kaffraria was not what they’d been promised. It was nothing like Germany – it was hot, there was a lack of proper roads and the forts were not stone castles but earthen constructions. When they arrived in Fort Murray they once again had to make do with tents. During these early days, and later on, many died from dysentery.


The legion was broken up into three regiments and after two months they left Fort Murray to settle into various villages. Sarah and her husband settled in Stutterheim where he was granted land and it is possible that this is also where Phoebe and Carl settled but there is no record.


There seemed to be some confusion about how the men should be ordered. Were they soldiers who were becoming settlers or were they settlers who had been soldiers? Apart from the weekly parade they were left to their own devices and did very little. There was dissent, money was a problem, soldiers starting deserting. Many seemed uninterested in constructing permanent homes. There were relatively few married men and no prospect of any women for the unmarried ones and therein lay the main problem.


The soldiers received full pay for a year; a whole 11 months longer than originally promised thanks to lies fed back to Britain by those in charge about uprisings and threatened wars. After that the soldiers were reduced to half-pay which made their lives unsustainable. By way of a solution to this and to help rid the colony of those soldiers who were uninterested in settling and thus causing problems, they were offered the opportunity to volunteer to serve in India where a “mutiny” had occurred. Around 45% of the settlers volunteered and by August 1858 they had left. Those who stayed were once again able to receive full pay. Further German immigrants were brought over and the colony started to flourish.


Phoebe and Carl stayed in South Africa as did her sister, Sarah, and her husband. Phoebe had two children, Charles in 1859 and Bertha in 1860. Carl purchased his discharge from the legion on 31 August 1859.


In 1861 Phoebe Formhals was back in Colchester, England, with her two children in tow, living with her mother and two siblings. The census lists her as married but her husband is not there. There is no record of when, how or why Phoebe returned to England. What happened to Carl is a secret that Phoebe may very well have taken to her grave.


Phoebe’s father was living elsewhere with a woman listed as “housekeeper”. Maybe she was, maybe she wasn’t; however, I doubt she was his housekeeper if this was her profession. In his daughter’s absence he had been in court again, this time on the charge of obtaining charitable contributions under false pretences. For this he served two months of hard labour. He died in 1865 in the workhouse. A sorry end to a sorry tale.


From the time she arrived back in England and until she married for a third and final time, Phoebe worked as a tailoress. On the 1871 census she reverted to her first married name, Barrell, and was calling herself a widow. Was she a widow? Who knows. She may have wished to distance herself from the German surname since anti-German sentiment began to make an appearance in Britain in the 1870s following the Prussian victory in the Franco-Prussian war.


On 1 Jun 1873 Phoebe married Joseph Slade, another soldier. He had served in Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) and quite possibly the Crimea, and was living in the Colchester Garrison. The marriage certificate records Phoebe as Phoebe Barrell, widow. It makes no mention of her previous husband.


When Phoebe’s children married they both named their father as Charles Barrell, Charles being the anglicised form of Carl. On Charles’ marriage certificate his father’s profession was recorded as being a publican, which he most definitely was not, and on Bertha’s, it was correctly recorded as soldier.


Phoebe and Joseph remained together until her death in 1898. They had a child, William, in 1880, no doubt rather unexpectedly given Phoebe’s age (45-46). On the 1881 census Joseph is listed as an army pensioner so had at some point in the intervening years left the army. Another ten years passed and Joseph was working as a labourer at Colchester Garrison which afforded them accommodation within the barracks; however, Phoebe is sadly noted as being paralysed – to what degree it doesn’t say. She died on 22 May 1898 aged 64. Her death certificate lists the causes of death as rheumatoid arthritis and debility plus something that is frustratingly illegible. It says she had suffered from arthritis for 18 years and debility for two. Given the adventures she had and the hardships she must have faced, 64 seems like a good age.


So for all intents and purposes Carl Formhals never existed, or at least that’s the impression Phoebe seems to have been hoping to give. The German surname was erased from the collective family memory and, although we knew her children were born in South Africa, the mass wedding was just a rumour. It was only when I started delving into her past that we found out the truth. But what is the truth? What happened to Carl? Did he return to Germany? There is no record of him remaining in South Africa but that means very little. A man with the same name, birth year and birthplace married in Germany in 1861 but the name isn’t uncommon enough for me to make any assumptions and I don’t have access to any other records to be able to delve further. Did Phoebe commit bigamy?


Phoebe and Carl’s daughter, Bertha (pictured below), was my great x 2 grandmother. When she was eligible to receive an old age pension from the government she experienced some difficulty proving her age because she had no proof of her birth. There was no official recording of births and such-like in the Cape Colony.


The rather wonderful looking Bertha Mary Ann Hunwicke (née Formhals but known as Barrell). Family archive.


So, a tiny part of me is German, or more accurately, Prussian. Whatever the reasons for Phoebe and Carl parting ways I am very proud to call them my ancestors. I think they were brave and adventurous, especially Phoebe. Imagine the stories she could tell.


The story of the Eastern Cape’s German Settlers can be found here:




As an aside it is interesting to note that Phoebe’s elder brother, also George Henry Gusterson, seems to have been of the same ilk as his father. On 11 November 1856, five days before Phoebe married Carl Formhals, her brother was in court on charges of ill-using his wife. He had used a familiar threat: murder.

COLCHESTER TOWN HALL. – Nov. 6. Before Mayor and S. G. Cooke. Esq. MATRIMONIAL DISAGREEMENT. – George Henry Gusterson, jun., was summoned for ill-using his wife. – Mr Abell for defendant. Complainant stated that she had been married to defendant four or five years, and about two months ago he left her in London after selling off the furniture, and she did not know where he was till a week afterwards, when, on his promising to behave better to her, she came to Colchester and lived with him. On Friday last he struck her in the face with his fist, and threatened to murder her. On Monday last, when she returned from the Court, after applying for a summons, he repeated his threatening language. – A neighbour, Mrs Brooker, a respectable woman, spoke to hearing defendant make use of threatening language towards his wife on various occasions. Mr Abell, for defendant, called Eliza Hardwick, who stated that she had heard complainant speak to her husband about another woman, when defendant replied that he would knock her head through the wall. She had heard complainant tell her child not to love her father. – In answer to a question by the Clerk to the Magistrates, this witness admitted that she had been brought into the station-house off the pavement when intoxicated. – The Mayor asked complainant if there was any prospect of their living peaceably together after this? – Complainant. No, Sir: this is the fourth time he has treated me thus, and I wish to be separated from him. – Mr Cooke. We cannot do anything of that kind: our business is, if possible, to set man and wife together. – The Mayor, We might sit here all day if we were to separate married people who wished to part. – The Bench then required defendant to find two sureties in £10 each to keep the peace towards his wife; and the required sureties being forthcoming defendant was discharged.”

George Henry Gusterson, jun. disappears from all records after this and his wife is living in London with her daughter by 1861 and is recorded as a widow. Again, was she? Who knows.



Read Full Post »

… that man being the Duke of Wellington of course!


The Battle of Waterloo. William Sadler II (1762-1839). Oil on canvas. Source.


I have an ancestor called Thomas James Drinkwater, sometime Assistant Surgeon in the 2nd Life Guards. His name appears on the Waterloo medal rolls. He was my great (x4) grandfather.


Thomas was born around 1787 in Farnham, Surrey. The youngest son of a surgeon and great great grandson of a Baptist Minister who was imprisoned for preaching in 1677. He joined the 2nd Life Guards on 22 September 1812 and served in Iberia and was at Vitória and Waterloo.  He served for a total of 6 years until 1818. He married and settled in Ledbury, Herefordshire, where he continued to work as a surgeon. He had 4 children but sadly died in 1823 aged just 36 years old.


I registered Thomas’ details some time ago on a website that was collecting information from descendants of men who had been at Waterloo. This year marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo and there have been all sorts of commemorations taking place both here in the United Kingdom and in Belgium.


Completely out of the blue I received a rather smart-looking letter in the post. Enclosed in the envelope was this:

Invitation. My image.


To say I was stunned would be an understatement. (Not sure why they think I’m married!) I was thrilled but concerned that I might be unable to attend because the service was on a weekday in term time and I would be working. Anyway, to cut a long story short I was given permission to take the day off work and I accepted the invitation.


On the 18th June 2015, exactly 200 years to the day since the battle, I travelled to London, wearing my interview suit (it would have to do) and arrived at St Paul’s Cathedral at about 9.10am. The security gates opened at 9.30am and I had to show my ticket, passport and have my bag searched by a very polite young soldier who appeared unperturbed by the Birkenstocks hiding in the bottom of my smart handbag – I can wear heels but I can’t walk in them!


I joined a queue waiting for the doors of the cathedral to open at 10.00am and had a bit of time to take in my surroundings. I was now in the environs of St Paul’s Cathedral having entered through a gateway in Paternoster Square. There were metal fences surrounding the area and people were gathering on the other side to watch. I’ve never been on the inside looking out before – it’s a bit weird! While we waited in the rather hot sunshine we were serenaded by a Scot’s Guards pipe band which sounded wonderful.


Upon entering St Paul’s Cathedral which is already an awe-inspiring sight I had to walk past this line up of Standards, Guidons and Colours of the regiments in succession to those that fought at Waterloo:

200th Anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo
At first glance they could easily have been mistaken for mannequins because they stood so still. And they seemed so tall! It truly was a memorable sight and one I wasn’t expecting which made it seem all the more surreal. It’s something I will probably never see again and I only wish I could have lingered but we were being ushered to our seats.


Because I had arrived so early I was very near the front of the queue entering St Paul’s. This meant that when I reached the area in which I was to be seated I found myself in the 2nd row. I was sitting just under the edge of the famous dome in the south transept. When I looked up this was my view:

Looking up into the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral. My photo.


The service was attended by a lot of very well-known people. I didn’t know a lot of them would be there so I failed to spot any of them except those mentioned in the Order of Service. In attendance were their Royal Highnesses the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall (Charles and Camilla to us plebs), the Earl of Wessex (Prince Edward), the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, the Prime Minister (David Cameron), the President of the European Parliament and the present Duke of Wellington. I saw the Royals arrive and spotted the Duke of Wellington but I saw no politicians or anyone else. I only glimpsed Charles and Camilla because when they came in and left it was in procession and we all had to stand. I could see the tops of their heads when we were all seated though! They were sitting just in front of the congregation on the right-hand side of the aisle as is traditional – royalty on the right, politicians on the left. They can be seen in this photo, as can I:

200th Anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo


Here is a print screen version to which I’ve added a handy little red circle so you can see where I was sitting (click to enlarge):


In addition to the above, amongst the congregation were senior representatives of the Armed Services, representatives and ambassadors of all combatant countries involved in the Battle, and descendants of men who fought in the Battle (including me!), 200 children and 200 teachers together with members of the public who entered a ballot for tickets.


To quote the order of service, “during the service an anthologicon is delivered, drawn from extracts from contemporary accounts of events before, during and after the Battle of Waterloo by British, French and German readers under-laid by the sound of the organ.” So, the story of the Battle of Waterloo was told through the voices of those who were actually there read by their descendants or current serving members of the armed forces. It was incredibly moving and very thought-provoking.


To have been a surgeon on such a battlefield is something I don’t think any of us can truly imagine and I feel immensely proud to be descended from someone who served his country in such a way.


The horror of battle was summed up by the Duke of Wellington in a conversation recalled by his friend Lady Shelley:

I hope to God that I have fought my last battle. It is a bad thing to be always fighting. While in the thick of it, I am much too occupied to feel anything; but it is wretched just after. It is quite impossible to think of glory. Both mind and feelings are exhausted. I am wretched even at the moment of victory, and I always say that next to a battle lost, the greatest misery is a battle gained. Not only do you lose those dear friends with whom you have been living, but you are forced to leave the wounded behind you. To be sure one tries to do the best for them, but how little that is! At such moments every feeling in your breast is deadened. I am now just beginning to regain my natural spirits, but I never wish for any more fighting.


The Bishop of London, the Right Reverend and Right Honourable Richard Chartres, KCVO, gave the address. The main thing I took away from what he said was this:

The past cannot be changed but we are responsible for how we remember it.

His address can be read in full here and I strongly recommend reading it.


The service was not a mourning of loss nor a glorification of war but a commemoration of all those who fought at Waterloo and a salute to their courage and resolution.


I am so honoured and privileged to have been there. I don’t imagine for one moment that my ancestor, Thomas James Drinkwater, ever dreamt that his great great great great grand-daughter would be thinking about him and honouring him in such a way so many years later.


After the service and once the great and the good had exited the building I made my way outside into the sunshine. As I walked down the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral I noticed that there were many more people watching from behind the barriers, undoubtedly come to see the Royals and other dignitaries. It is very bizarre to be watched by so many people waving cameras and phones – not that they were looking at me of course.

200th Anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo


As the bells of St Paul’s rang out across London I made my way back to Paternoster Square, removed my jacket, packed away my heels, replaced them with my trusty Birkenstocks whilst sighing in blissful relief and joined the crowds in London – just another tourist once more.


I still can’t quite believe I was there!



All photos that are not labelled as mine are embedded courtesy of St Paul’s Cathedral’s Flickr account.

Read Full Post »

Back in July I wrote about the things that remain elusive in my family tree and the fanciful idea of finding a Royal connection. I sit here now with a piece of paper in front of me on which I have written the descent of William the Conqueror from Charlemagne because I’ve found that elusive piece of information thanks to a message I received from someone who happened to read my blog.


King William I (‘The Conqueror’) by Unknown artist.
oil on panel, circa 1620, purchased, 1974
Primary Collection. NPG 4980(1)
© National Portrait Gallery, London.


I know that pretty much everyone with British ancestry is more than likely related to Royalty somewhere along the line and that what I’ve found is anything but exclusive or special or even that interesting to most people, but it means something to me. You see, while we all may be related to the great and the good, and the not so good, those of us who are able to follow the trail back are a lot rarer.


I always assumed that if I was really lucky and found a connection it would be via a shared ancestor. I never imagined that I’d follow the trail back and find names like Lancaster and Plantagenet. You see, as it turns out, I’m descended from Henry III and Eleanor of Provence by two of their sons, Edward I (Edward Longshanks – Hammer of the Scots) and Edmund Crouchback. This, of course, means that I can trace my lineage back to William the Conqueror and Charlemagne and then further still.


The amount of “blue” blood flowing in my veins, if indeed there’s any at all, because after all who knows what went on behind closed doors, is infinitesimal. But I can draw up my family tree and see one branch of it stretching back nearly 1500 years and to me that is quite incredible. I can’t quite comprehend it and some would argue that the reason I can’t is because it’s meaningless. But instead of thinking of it in terms of years I look at William the Conqueror and I realise there are only thirty generations between us. Thirty! That seems a very small number to get back almost 1000 years. And after that it’s only another eleven to get back to Charlemagne.


I’m well aware that thirty generations back I should have over a billion ancestors but of course that would be more people than there were on the entire planet at that time so there’ll be a lot of common ancestors across the various branches of my family tree. I may even have other lines of descent from William the Conqueror. Who knows?


It seems funny to me that the very first family tree I ever drew was a Royal one. When I was a teenager there was a drama series on the television called Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna. It told the story of Anna Anderson, the woman who claimed to be the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. I was of an age, fifteen, where I was easily caught up in romance and fanciful ideas. I fell in love with the story and desperately wanted it to be true. I set about finding out how Anna Anderson would be related to Queen Elizabeth II had she turned out to be Anastasia. The relationship between the current British Royal family and the Russian Tsar is, of course, well documented, but I had no knowledge of it so I sat in the local library armed with the Dictionary of National Biography and various other books and wrote it all out. Imagine what my fifteen-year old self would have done with the knowledge that, not only was she distantly related to the entire Royal Family, but she was descended from Kings and Emperors, not to mention Vikings!


In many ways I’m still that fifteen-year old girl with fanciful ideas and endless daydreams. I must remember that just occasionally fanciful ideas are not so fanciful after all.



I went to the theatre on Tuesday evening. A long anticipated trip to Stratford-upon-Avon to see David Tennant play Richard II at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. It was sublime, extraordinary, wonderful, moving, and every other superlative you might care to suggest. I’m a huge fan of David Tennant which is why I bought a ticket; however, seeing it just confirmed to me my love of Shakespeare. The fact that it happened to be Tennant playing the lead was simply a fabulous bonus.


David Tennant in Shakespeare’s Richard II at the RSC in Stratford. Source.


I mention this here because as the main characters were revealed upon the stage I was struck that I can now go to the theatre and see plays about people that I can legitimately add to my family tree. Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, banished forever by Richard II, is a distant great-uncle. He was brother to a direct ancestor of mine a mere twenty generations back. Fanciful ideas …


Read Full Post »

Change is necessary, change is good, but sometimes change brings sadness.


As part of my family history research I’ve come across a lot of churches that are no longer standing and graveyards that have long since been lost in the mists of time and buried under decades or centuries of change. Sometimes they’re flattened by war, sometimes they’re demolished simply because they’re in the way.


I just came across St Mary’s Church in Birmingham whose churchyard was the last resting place of my great x 5 grandmother, Mary Moseley. She died in March 1833.


St Mary’s Church and General Hospital off Whittall Street, Birmingham, 1921.
Source: Britain from Above

The same scene today – now Birmingham Children’s Hospital. Source: Google Earth.


Looking at the two images above you can see that the old hospital with its two towers (slightly distorted by the Google Earth’s rendering) is still standing but the unusual octagonal church and surrounding gardens that lay beyond it are no longer there. St Mary’s is long gone.


The website A History of Birmingham Churches by William Dargue tells us the story of St Mary’s:


At the beginning of the 18th century Birmingham began to spread northwards from its ancient centre around the Bull Ring. One of the earliest estates to be laid out was that of Dorothy and Mary Weaman. However, housing development here was slow, and so the ladies decided to build a church, not so much to cater for local residents, but rather to attract new residents. At a time when most pews were rented and the best pews had been taken in the other churches in the town, this would prove an attractive proposition to newcomers to the estate. They would live close to their place of worship and, if they subscribed towards the building of the church, they would be guaranteed the rent of a prestigious pew near the pulpit.

St Mary’s was built in 1774 in Whittall Street by Joseph Pickford, an architect from Derby who had worked on the Palladian Horse Guards building in Whitehall. A chapel of ease of St Martin’s, St Mary’s took its dedication from the Christian name of Mary Weaman, for, although the cost of building was raised by subscription, Mary Weaman gave the site for the new church and £1000 towards its construction, by far the largest single amount. The final cost was around £4700.

When first built, the church stood in open ground on the north edge of the town, but the creation of a new church here had the desired effect and the area was soon built up around it. St Mary’s was an octagonal brick building with a small tower and spire, in a neo-classical style and surrounded by a large churchyard. The importance of being assured a place of burial was probably of equal rank to that of having a guaranteed seat in the church.

The octagonal shape of the church was considered ideal for preaching and there was only a small apsidal chancel. There was a tower of three stages, the first round, the second octagonal with Doric columns at each angle, and the third octagonal with a clock face and pediment on each alternate side. There was a slender spire.

In 1776 part of the gallery collapsed during the morning service. Although there were no injuries other than the loss of some ladies their handkerchiefs and some gentlemen their hats, this was a serious matter. The trustees had difficulties in arranging a meeting with the architect. In the end the matter was settled by Pickford’s offer of £400 in settlement.

One of the Hiorne brothers (it is not known which one), the architects of St Bartholomew’s in Masshouse Lane, was consulted. He suggested using cast-iron columns to support the gallery. If this is not the first example of the use of cast-iron this way, it is certainly one of the earliest.

St Mary’s had a Methodist connection (Methodists were part of the Church of England until after John Wesley’s death in 1791). In 1786 John Wesley attended a service at the church to hear ‘an admirable sermon’ from the curate.

The church remained a focus of evangelical preaching until the end of the 19th century.

Around the beginning of the 19th century the district became a focus for gun manufacture. The rear gardens of the large Georgian houses were first used to carry out manufacturing processes, and then the houses themselves were used. And the area quickly lost its high-class status.

In 1841 St Mary’s was assigned a parish out of that of St Martin’s. In 1857 the building was renovated. The tower and spire were found to be unsafe and were rebuilt in 1866 to a very similar design, but with pilasters instead of columns and a balustrade on the second stage. In 1888 400 of the 1700 sittings were free. At some point the tower and spire appear to have been rebuilt yet again.

In 1882 the churchyard, presumably now full, was taken over by the Corporation and laid out as a public garden, known as St Mary’s Garden.

In 1897 the General Hospital was rebuilt in Steelhouse Lane close to the church. Because of need for land for the expansion of the General Hospital, St Mary’s was closed in 1925 pending demolition and the parish united with that of the Bishop Ryder Memorial Church in Gem Street.

The sale of the land paid most of the cost of £20,415 to build a new St Mary’s on the new housing estate at Pype Hayes in 1929. St Mary’s 18th-century silver communion service by Boulton & Fothergill now belongs to Pype Hayes church.”

St Mary’s Church. Image from R K Dent, 1878, ‘Birmingham Old & New’.
Source: Sally Lloyd


I know the burials were reinterred elsewhere before the building work began, some in Witton Cemetery around 1927, and the rest in Warstone Lane Cemetery around 1952-53. In 1882 a record was made of all the monumental inscriptions in St Mary’s churchyard but sadly there were no Moseleys listed. This could be because no stone was ever placed on the grave or because the one that was had succumbed to the ravages of time. This, of course, means that Mary’s new grave wherever she was reinterred will also be unmarked.


Mary is not by any means the only ancestor I have whose last resting place is forever lost and each one saddens me. I know that it would be impossible to preserve all graveyards and cemeteries forever but I still find it sad that so much of our heritage has been lost to the unceasing march of progress. Change and progress are and always will be inevitable. But sometimes it just makes me sad …


Read Full Post »

Source unknown.


To forget one’s ancestors is to be a brook without a source, a tree without root”

Chinese Proverb


Throughout all the research I’ve done into my family tree there have been many things that I’ve longed to find buried in the past. Some I’ve been lucky enough to stumble over, others have remained elusive.


Some of these things might surprise you because they’re not all lovely and fluffy but then neither is life, and if nothing else I’ve found that my ancestors were real people with faults and flaws, and I’m proud of every single one of them. I’m so blessed to have found such exciting and interesting people, and I love that a small part of these people lives on in me. I don’t necessarily want to emulate them but I would love to have met them.


I hoped for and found:


Scandal – Closer to home than I expected; so close, in fact, that I can’t write about it here. I will say that we’re talking 3 generations back so not directly involving anyone still living!


Bigamy – I found one confirmed bigamist, a great x 3 grandfather on my mother’s side, John Hawkins. There is a possible other, a great x 3 grandmother on my father’s side, but it’s unprovable. The first one I’m sure brought great shame on the family but I can’t help being ridiculously excited by it. I was lucky enough to find that a vicar had written a note in the margin of the parish register. It was next to the christening record of my great x 2 grandfather – John Hawkins’ son by his second bigamous marriage. It confirmed what I was already sure was true although it seems he went unpunished as he died in 1851, 3 years after his son’s birth. The note said: Elizabeth Warner was married on the 3rd of November 1847 in Kenilworth Church to John Hawkins who, it has since been ascertained is a married man with a wife & children living.

Parish register margin note. My image.


Lawbreakers – I know it’s not big and it’s not clever but it makes for interesting reading! The Smiths of Tollesbury aside I’ve found quite a few others spending time behind bars.


Convicts – not direct ancestors but siblings of my ancestors – one went to Australia, the other to Tasmania and I consequently have hundreds of relatives scattered all over that part of the world.


Foreign ancestors – I am part German (Prussian actually) but that’s a story for another day. I am also part Welsh but that doesn’t count as foreign.


Famous relatives – For a long time I searched in vain for a connection to Herbert Morrison, Labour politician, senior cabinet minister and grandfather of Peter Mandelson. He looks very much like my great-grandfather (also an important figure in the Labour Party) of whom he was a friend and associate. The family believed that they were cousins but I know for certain they were not. I have found a possible connection by marriage but have been unable to prove it. I am, however, related to sisters Carole Carr (actress, singer and radio presenter – a forces sweetheart in WWII) and Dorothy Carless (singer), and The Wyatts – Thomas (poet allegedly in love with Ann Boleyn), and his son Thomas (beheaded for raising a rebellion against Mary I); none of them close relatives but famous (or infamous) nonetheless.

The Carr / Carless sisters:


Members of the Peerage – I’m related to the current and 9th Earl Bathurst of Bathurst (he’s my 12th cousin). Their family seat is Cirencester Park which is famously the home of the oldest polo club in the UK.


Still proving elusive although a bit of simple maths shows that if I go back far enough they are inevitable:


My parents being related – so far it seems that they’re not and a connection is becoming increasingly unlikely. Their families originate from very different parts of the country and I have no surnames that appear on both sides, but I have always loved the idea of finding out they were distantly related. If that’s weird then I don’t care!


A Royal connection – who doesn’t want a Royal connection? Well maybe some don’t but I do! A link to the Royal family is something I’ve become increasingly desperate to find. As I’ve done more and more research I’ve discovered that some of my ancestors and their close relatives moved in some very elite circles. And of course, the further you go back in time the smaller the population and the greater the chance of a connection. A connection has proved to be frustratingly elusive but I am now a little closer than I’ve ever been before.


On my mother’s side, I have the aforementioned link to the Wyatt family. Thomas Wyatt (snr) married Elizabeth Brooke who was 3rd cousin to Anne Boleyn and a direct descendant of John of Gaunt, so the Royal Family already exist in my family tree albeit connected to me by marriage only.


My link to both the Wyatts and the Bathursts is via a marriage between the two families. An Edward Bathurst married an Elizabeth Wyatt on 1st June 1714 in the parish church of Ash in Surrey – my great x 7 grandparents. Both were the children of gentlemen, the lowest rank of English gentry. They would likely have been well-respected members of their communities and judging by their wills were comfortably off. Their connections with their better known cousins were too distant to have elevated them socially.


Edward was the grandson of Margaret (or Margarite) Holland who was born around 1580 in Angmering, Sussex and when I was browsing through some of the names in my lineage the other week her name jumped out of my computer screen and sent me into a frenzy.


My frenzy was caused by me knowing that the surname Holland appears in the Royal family tree. Yes, I have a very detailed one on my computer that I compiled myself. Obsessed? Me? Never!


Another Margaret Holland, Duchess of Clarence and grand-daughter of Joan of Kent, married John Beaufort and was the great-grandmother of Henry VII, making her an ancestor of the Tudors, Stewarts, Hanoverians and consequently Queen Elizabeth II. But what does this have to do with my family tree?


The Margaret Holland in my family was the daughter of George Holland of Angmering. I did a bit of googling for Hollands of Angmering and found a couple of old books that have been digitised and are now freely available online. The first was a book of pedigrees of families in the county of Sussex compiled in 1830 by someone called Berry. This book told me that George was the grandson of William Holland of Calais and showed a copy of the family coat of arms. It also showed me that through his mother Joan (or Mary) Bellingham he was connected to some important armorial families and could trace his lineage (and hence mine) back to the time of William the Conqueror. The second book was entitled The Lancashire Hollands and written by Bernard Holland. This book raised my excitement levels considerably because I found a whole section about the Hollands of Sussex. Sadly, these Hollands were not from Angmering so my excitement abated slightly until I read the last paragraph.


There was in Sussex another family of Holland living at Angmering, whose pedigree for five generations, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, is given by Berry. This family had the same crest and arms as the Hollands of Conway; but Berry, in his ‘Sussex Genealogies,’ does not say that they were derived from these, or from the Hollands of Upholland. The first of them mentioned is a William Holland of Calais.”

I looked up the Hollands of Conway (anglicised spelling of Conwy), which is in Wales, in the same book. It shows a detailed pedigree going back to someone called Piers (or Peter) Holland who it says was in the service of Henry IV. The book also states that he is “believed to be fifth in descent from Alan, a brother of Robert, first Lord Holland.” The book explains this further and says that these brothers were of the Hollands of Upholland in Lancashire.


Robert, first Lord Holland, was the great-grandfather of Margaret Holland, Duchess of Clarence. Can you see why I might be excited?


My Hollands carry the same coat of arms and crest as a family that is believed to share ancestry with Hollands that are ancestors of Kings and Queens. I know it’s a very tenuous connection and one that sadly can’t be proved. I can prove my connection to the Angmering Hollands by searching through parish registers, helpfully now digitised and available online but the trail from William Holland of Calais back to the Hollands of Conway and Upholland is as cold now as it was back in 1830. All I can do is make a note in my records explaining what I know to be true and what I believe might be true, and hope that one day something remarkable comes to light.


So a provable Royal connection remains elusive but the Hollands of Angmering may be the closest I ever come to it. I shall never stop searching for more information on them and I’ll continue to search for other Royal connections because you just never know what might turn up.



Read Full Post »

William Richard Curtis, 1899-1980

William Richard Curtis, 1899-1980. Family archive.


Most people my age don’t have clear memories of relatives who fought in the First World War … some have no memories at all. The Second World War is still within living memory: my parents were born in it, my grandmother lived through it; however, it’s the First World War that draws me in time and time again as I scour records for information about my ancestors and relatives.


The Great War – “the war to end all wars”. It draws me in because I can’t, not even for a moment, imagine the horrors that the young men in my family faced. Too many never came home, their stories, like them, buried forever in a field in France, a desert in Gaza or some other battle-scarred place.


Uncle Will came home and I have clear memories of him – my one living memory of someone who served his country in the horror of the trenches.


Will with his parents and sister, my grandma. c. 1906.
Family archive.


Will was born a Victorian in 1899. My grandma, his sister, was born in 1904 and, as a result of being born so long before the war, seemed to me to be a whole generation older than my other three grandparents (she was 12 years older than my granddad).


Will was born in a beautiful village called Snitterfield, just outside Stratford-upon-Avon, where his family had lived for generations. He was born 9 months and 9 days after his parents’ wedding day – a honeymoon baby, if they had a honeymoon. His father’s occupation is listed on the 1901 census as “carrier / dealer” and maybe this profession is what took the family to Wales where my Grandma was born. In Wales he found work as a “domestic gardener”. They then moved to London for a short time and then to Bosbury in Herefordshire where they ran The New Inn. They finally settled in Bromsgrove in Worcestershire where Will’s father became an Insurance agent and later ran a grocer’s shop.


Will’s father died of cancer in 1916 and was buried in Snitterfield, a place that was close to his heart. It must have been an extremely difficult time for the family. Will’s mother had to take in washing to put food on the table and in January 1917 Will enlisted in the army two days before his eighteenth birthday.


Will with his mother (in mourning) and his sister. c. 1917. Family archive.


He joined the Royal Warwickshire Regiment and then, after a few months, was transferred to the Royal Berkshire Regiment. Sadly, his service records were destroyed during the Second World War and because he never spoke of his experiences I have no way of knowing the details of the time he served. What I do know, from doing a little bit of research into regimental service numbers, is that he transferred into the 8th Battalion of the Royal Berkshire Regiment and is unlikely to have served at Passchendaele.


Thanks to my grandma carefully hoarding some old family postcards, and to her memory of times past, I know that both she and her mother travelled to Newcastle upon Tyne and visited Will in hospital on 1st June 1918. It was exactly two years, to the day, since they buried his father. Will had been wounded in France.


Will wearing “hospital blues” while recovering from his injury.
c. 1918. Family archive.


Will was one of the lucky ones. He came home with little more than a badly injured foot. Lucky because he survived the injury, lucky because it rendered him unfit for war service and lucky because he never had to go back. Of course, there are many reasons why he may not have felt lucky.


As I mentioned, he never spoke of his war service but there’s no doubt that it affected him very much. He refused to have anything but condensed milk in his tea, a common trait of men who’d spent time in the trenches, and, after he retired, he gradually left his bungalow less and less often. Eventually, he could barely make it to the garden gate, not because he was debilitated in any way but, we assume, because of some unknown fear, most likely related to the experiences in his past.


Uncle Will, as I knew him.

Uncle Will, as I knew him. Family archive.


To me, he was always an old man. He was 73 when I was born. He smoked roll-ups (with a herbal mixture rather than traditional tobacco) and I was endlessly fascinated by the little machine he had for rolling them. Even though I was only 8 when he died in 1980 I have clear pictures in my mind: Uncle Will sat in his front room rolling a cigarette and licking the paper to seal it; his wife, Auntie Lil, whisking me and my brother into the walk-in larder to find something we might like to eat, me playing in his garden as the trains roared past up the Lickey Incline (I mentioned this here).


Uncle Will was, of course, actually my great-Uncle but he was always just Uncle Will to me. Very close to his sister and happily married to Lil, he was also a craftsman. Aged just 12 years old he went to work for the Bromsgrove Guild of Applied Arts, a very important name in the Arts and Crafts Movement. They are perhaps best known for the work they did on the gates to Buckingham Palace although this was before Will joined them. He specialised in all aspects of ecclesiastical work e.g. altar & processional crosses, but the work of which he was most proud was bronze work done for the Queen Mary liner and the entrance gates to ICI house on Millbank, London.


Unable to find any information online, a couple of years ago I went to London and wandered down Millbank to see if I could find the gates. The building is now Nobel House and is occupied by Ofgem but the gates are still there and are very fine indeed. I can understand why he was so proud.


The gates to 9 Millbank, formerly ICI HQ. Panels designed and created by the Bromsgrove Guild. My photos (click to enlarge).


He worked with the Bromsgrove Guild until 1956 when they sadly ceased production. He went on to work for a company called Garringtons which made automotive parts and where, although he was much respected as a craftsman and very popular, he was never happy. He retired in 1964.


Uncle Will died in 1980 and was cremated. He would very much like to have been buried in Snitterfield, a place filled with happy childhood memories of holidays and kindly relatives, but it was never meant to be.


My reason for wanting to remember my Uncle Will was because I watched a drama series on BBC1 called The Village. I won’t go into detail about the programme except to say that it portrayed a young man who went off to fight in the First World War. He came home on leave and developed symptoms of shell shock caused by being left out in the open at night as punishment for things written in a letter home. A doctor blamed it on ingested toxins, another less reputable person blamed it on him being feeble-minded. When he failed to return to his regiment because he was too ill, he was taken by force and shot for desertion. I cried.


We all know that this really happened. Men, although relatively few, really were shot for cowardice, desertion and other offences. I don’t believe it’s the fault of the people who made those decisions, it was simply of the time. It’s just sad that it took until 2006 for those men to be posthumously pardoned.


The programme made me think of all those men in my family who had to fight for their country. Uncle Will was the only one I ever knew personally. As I said, I can’t begin to imagine the horrors of war and what living through those things must do to a person. Uncle Will was one of the lucky ones and I am proud to have known him.



An interesting article on The Bromsgrove Guild can be found here.


Read Full Post »

Fishing smacks off the coast of Mersea, Essex in 2004 (edited by me). Source.


For other craft our prouder river shows,
Hoys, pinks, and sloops; brigs, brigantines and snows:
Nor angler we on our wide stream descry,
But one poor dredger where his oysters lie;
He, cold and wet, and driving with the tide,
Beats his weak arms against his tarry side,
Then drains the remnant of diluted gin,
To aid the warmth that languishes within,
Renewing oft his poor attempts to beat
His tingling fingers into gathering heat.”

Extract from The Borough by George Crabbe (1754 – 1832)


If you read my previous post about The Smiths of Tollesbury you will be aware that they didn’t exactly live within the law. Of course, they were by no means the only people to live a less than, shall we say, blameless life. The times in which they lived and the lives to which they were born were hard and unforgiving so it’s no surprise that they looked to make money any way they could, and sought solace in the bottom of a tankard of beer.


After writing about them previously I did some further research. At the last count, Thomas and Mary Ann Smith (it seems she had a middle name) had 11 children. Of those children I’m aware of three that died before they were 5 years old. For some unknown reason only the first four births and then the last were registered. The other six were unregistered as far as I can tell. Additionally, the three youngest appear not to have been christened. The registering of births was the responsibility of the local registrar who in these cases seems to have been a little inept. It wasn’t until 1875 that the law was changed making registration of children’s births compulsory and the responsibility of the parents.


I’ve also found a couple of new and interesting stories regarding the family. For this I owe the local Essex press a debt of gratitude as they seem to have recorded every single case that took place in the local courts, thus providing me with a rather colourful history of a family that otherwise may well have been overlooked as simply poor and uninteresting.


In 1853, a possibly pregnant Mary Ann, who I’d previously thought of as down-trodden and put upon, made a court appearance of her own. She accused her next door neighbour of assault. As the case proceeded it became apparent that Mary Ann had not been assaulted at all. She had, in fact, been the one doing the assaulting and the case was therefore dismissed. What she did and why she did it will forever remain a mystery as the details were not reported. I wonder what sort of woman she was…


In 1861, Mary Ann had to go through something that no mother should ever have to face. Her nine year old daughter, Selina Alice, was assaulted by a 42 year old man called Isaac Rootkin. The paper reported that he was accused of and pleaded guilty to “assault with intent to abuse” and that he had “a previous conviction for a similar offence”. He was sentenced to two years’ hard labour which seems a lenient punishment for what he did. Ever curious to know the whole story, I looked up the details of his previous conviction. Four years before assaulting Selina, Isaac Rootkin, a builder’s labourer, had been sentenced to just 18 months’ hard labour for “carnally abusing” a little girl of 11 years old. Reading between the lines I’m assuming that Selina’s assault was less horrific than that of the first unfortunate child but, of course, I don’t know that for sure.


Both these assaults took place in a time when the words we now use to describe crimes such as these and the people who commit them were unknown. People were punished more severely for crimes such as larceny and robbery than they were for what we would now refer to as child sex abuse and paedophilia. Having spent so long in the company of the Smiths and having fallen in love with their wayward exploits, reading about Selina saddened me very much. I know she lived to be at least twenty but after that I’ve so far been unable to trace a marriage or a death. I shall continue to search.


In 1870, Mary Ann did something that must have shocked the people that knew her. She remarried following the death of her first husband Thomas. Now of course remarriage is nothing unusual even if it is to a man who encourages your sons to steal oysters and who will, in the future, be accused of piracy (more on that later). William Crabb was considerably younger than Mary Ann, but even that is not that shocking until you realise that he’d also been widowed … his deceased first wife being none other than Thomas and Mary Ann Smith’s eldest daughter, also Mary Ann Smith.


William Crabb married the daughter in 1866 in the parish church in Tollesbury. She died approximately nine months later. I don’t have the death certificate but it does seem likely that she died in childbirth or from complications with a pregnancy. Anyway, as you may have already realised William Crabb marrying his mother-in-law was illegal. In fact, a marriage of this kind only became legal in the UK in 1986 so they were over 100 years too early. Unsurprisingly the wedding took place in the local registry office in nearby Maldon where they were probably unknown. It could never have taken place in the local church where plenty of people would have known of a few “lawful impediments”! Mary Ann’s brother, Henry Biggs, was a witness at the registry office implying that at least her family were happy with the arrangement, or at least happy to let it go ahead. The marriage was, of course, void so legally they were never married.


And so to the piracy. Unfortunately we’re not talking eye-patches, skull and cross-bones, buried treasure and Jack Sparrow here. No, nothing so glamorous! In 1894, William Crabb and several other men were charged that “on the high seas, [they] did piratically and feloniously assault William John Barker, master mariner, of Burnham” on board his ship, the Emmeline, putting him “in fear of his life”. Apparently they “piratically, feloniously, and violently did steal from [him] a cargo of oyster shells”, and other items that were “the goods and chattels of certain subjects of our Lady the Queen.” There were other men charged as well in regards to offences on another boat.


It seems the case was very high-profile in the local area and at least 200 people came to see the proceedings. The court was crowded as were its precincts. The majority of the people attending were fishermen from Tollesbury. The alleged offences took place near Brightlingsea, another town further along the coast also known for its oyster fishing.


1904 map showing Tollesbury, Brightlingsea and Burnham (all circled in red).
Click for larger version.


In the springtime fishermen from Burnham-on-Crouch were “in the habit of taking culch1 and shell from the grounds … off Brightlingsea, said to be common property, to sell for the purpose of oyster culture”. This habit caused great upset amongst the fishermen of Tollesbury and the surrounding area because “the taking of the shell destroys the spat which in the season affords a living to them”. They had allegedly threatened the Burnham men on several occasions and although no threats had actually been carried out, things had been “a bit lively”.


Allegedly four Burnham boats were on the point of returning home when three Tollesbury vessels, each with two or three hands, were seen to be bearing down on them. One of the boats drew up alongside the Emmeline and upon touching it “some twenty or thirty men jumped up from the deck, and armed with sticks and shovels proceeded to board the Burnham boat”. The other two Tollesbury vessels likewise attached themselves to other Burnham boats. The fourth Burnham boat approached the others to see what was amiss and found herself similarly threatened. On pulling up alongside this fourth vessel, the Tollesbury men found themselves faced with a gun and an angry Burnham man threatening to “blow out the brains of any man who attempted to board”. The gun was allegedly unloaded but the boat was allowed to leave with its hoard. The three “captured” boats were driven onto the sand about three miles away from where the culch was gathered and their hoard thrown overboard. The Burnham men were threatened with a similar fate should they say anything about the affair. The paper reports that “various other picturesque incidents were narrated by the learned Counsel, one being to the effect that the Tollesbury men insisted on their captives supplying them with cocoa, tobacco, and various articles”. The Burnham men were set free a few hours later. It was made clear that “no blood was spilt, neither were any lives lost”.


To be found guilty of piracy could have resulted in the men being sentenced to penal servitude for life. There was some debate as to whether this was an act of piracy at all or simply a farce. Reading it all now, it does seem a little farcical but then put yourself in the shoes of the men finding themselves outnumbered and no longer in control of their boats.


The issue the Tollesbury fishermen had was that they believed removing the culch inflicted great damage to the fishery which was said to be worth a quarter of a million pounds. The Burnham men admitted to taking oyster brood for which the Tollesbury and Mersea Company alone had paid £14,578 in six years. Of course, the ground from which the Burnham men had been taking culch was a public one so they had committed no offence; however, several witnesses attested to it being the “best breeding ground in the Kingdom”. Any sums paid for oyster brood would have been paid to whoever caught the brood and it was said that two or three hundred boats worked the grounds, so removing culch permanently was “ruinous to the fishery”.


It’s not hard to understand why the Tollesbury men felt so strongly about this situation. Judging by the report in the paper it appears that the case descended into a bit of a farce, but, to cut a long story short, parts of which I’m a little unsure about, William Crabb and the other men on his boat were found not guilty.


So, I can only conclude that the people of Tollesbury were passionate and fiercely protective of their livelihoods. Mary Ann may have had a lot of worry and strife caused by her children and her wayward husband, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that she supported them wholeheartedly in maybe not all but at least some of their many misdemeanours. Putting food on the table and a roof over their heads was no doubt the most important thing. I’d like to think that the one thing she objected to was their money being wasted on beer.


I do still intend to somehow fictionalise the story of the Smiths and give it some colour and depth. There’s so much raw material that is amusing, heartbreaking and even bewildering that I may struggle to know where to start!



1Culch – the rocks, crushed shells, and other sea detritus that create an oyster bed, where oyster spawn can attach themselves.


The poet quoted at the beginning of this post is not, as far as I know, any relation to William Crabb; however, George Crabbe was from Suffolk which neighbours Essex, so anything is possible!


I found this blog by Michael Halminski which describes how oysters spawn and goes a long way to explaining the fury of the Tollesbury men in finding the Burnham men removing the culch.



Read Full Post »

Tide coming in at Tollesbury, Essex. My photo.


The old luxurious Romans vaunts did make
Of gustful Oysters took in Lucrine Lake:
Your Essex better hath, and such perchance
As tempted Cæser first to pass from France.
How did those ancient Worthies captive all
The humbled world unto their Capitol!
Yet from it’s highest Towers could not survey
So rich a Countrey as (from Holt) you may.
The noble Brutus, vertuous Portia,
Luckless Antonius, chast Octavia,
Soul-fix’d Paulina to her murther’d Lord
(The learned Seneca) such worthes afford
As have astonish’d Ages; yet your best
Of wives may justly with them all contest.
You then enjoying a full Fortune, and
The delicacies may eat of Sea and land;
Your dayes spend at a house of so fair site,
And (with a so deserving wife) each night:
Consider (since that you possess all this)
If y’are not happy, who the Devil is?”

To my Brother in Law Colonel Will. Nevil. – Aston Cockayne (1608 – 1684)


Thomas Smith of Tollesbury in Essex first went to sea in 1830 when he was just nine years old. He was born to be an Oyster Dredger. His father before him and his sons after him were men of the sea, of the mudflats and saltings; they were sailors of fishing smacks.


Thomas married Mary Biggs in 1841 when he was 20 and she was just 16. They started a family and between 1842 and 1866 had 10 children, at least two dying in infancy and others dying at very young ages. Life must have been hard.


Family tree – click for enlarged version (then click again to magnify). My image.


Tollesbury lies at the mouth of the River Blackwater on the Essex coast and its main trade was, for generations, oysters. Unfortunately, oysters could not be dredged all year round so money had to be earned elsewhere. Men found work on the land or as regular fishermen. Some crewed boats as part of the Merchant Navy, while others, having gained notoriety for their skill as smacksmen, crewed yachts and even took part in races. Despite the opportunities, finding work would no doubt have been difficult.


As well as oyster dredging, Thomas spent time in the Merchant Navy. Sadly he died in the late 1860s and it seems most likely that this happened at sea, although I am yet to confirm this.


Mary remarried in 1870, probably in desperate need of support for both her and her family. Her new husband was William Crabb, a man 16 years her junior and I sometimes wonder if she came to regret her second marriage.


In November 1883, William, along with Mary’s two youngest sons Uriah and Herbert, was in court. Herbert, aged just 17 was charged with stealing “a quantity of oyster brood”, with a value of sixpence. These oysters were the property of the Tollesbury and Mersea Oyster Fishery Company and Herbert was seen with his brother and stepfather in their smack, The Margaret, a few metres south of the company grounds. Herbert left the boat and made his way onto the company’s ground, which was marked out by beacons. He was witnessed picking up oyster brood. When approached by a watchman he denied being on the company’s ground despite his footprints telling a different story. Herbert returned eight brood to his accuser who maintained in court that there were between 14 and 18 in his bucket.


William was called as a witness and stated that the company’s ground was covered with water, the implication being that Herbert couldn’t have stolen the oysters if the tide was in. Uriah, also called to the witness stand, stated that Herbert had “got brood from the swashway about the company’s ground,” but when cross-examined admitted he hadn’t actually seen his brother pick any up. Herbert being found innocent was dependent on the testimony of his brother and stepfather. Unsurprisingly he was found guilty, fined 40 shillings and ordered to pay costs of 11 shillings and sixpence.


William and Uriah were also charged, but with damaging oyster beds rather than stealing. They both pleaded guilty and were fined £1 and costs of 8 shillings, the Tollesbury and Mersea Oyster Fishery Company stating that they “did not wish to punish these men.”


In May 1885 Uriah was back in court, this time accused of stealing 4,500 oysters from layings belonging to a Mr Adam Elisha Chatterson. The prosecutor stated that he’d found evidence that his oyster pits had been disturbed: 27 places where sheards had been used for getting up oysters, strange footmarks, and signs that a bag had been dragged down to the water. The value of oysters stolen, he said, was about £20. When cross-examined he stated that “the prisoner is a dredgerman, and I have known him since he was a boy. I have never heard he is half-witted; he is too sharp for me.”


A witness testified that his boat had been used without his permission. A watchman called to the witness stand stated that he’d seen Uriah with his stepfather, William, and another man, in the boat in question. Another dredgerman testified that some days after the alleged event took place, he had a conversation with Uriah who admitted going down to the prosecutor’s pits, in the said boat, and leaving a pair of sheards in it. Under cross-examination the witness admitted that he himself had been convicted of unlawfully dredging for oysters. He also admitted that before he spoke to Uriah he’d heard there was a reward out for information thus discrediting himself. Yet another witness testified that Uriah had admitted to him that he had stolen oysters from the prosecutor. Finally, William Crabb defended his stepson by testifying that he was with Uriah and the other man at the time in question, but in their own boat and that Uriah had at no time gone to the prosecutor’s pits. He was also discredited due to a previous conviction and the fact that Uriah was his stepson.


The case was summed up by the barrister for the defence stating that the robbery was a very extensive one and it could not be found that Uriah had had any dealings in oysters. He said that Uriah was half-witted and that no reliance could be placed on the statements he’d made to two witnesses.


Uriah was found not guilty and was discharged. This case fails to explain who actually stole the oysters and if the old adage “there’s no smoke without fire” is true then it’s likely that Uriah was possibly coerced or the only one naïve enough to boast about what he’d been doing. And half-witted?


Woodrolfe Creek, Tollesbury, at low tide. My photo.


In November 1888, William Crabb was in court without his stepsons, charged with unlawfully dredging for oysters, which by his own admission in 1885, was not the first time he’d been charged with this offence. The case involved debates about initials marked on an oyster dredge identifying it as belonging to William. He was found guilty, and, together with his accomplice, a Mr Levi King, sentenced to three months’ hard labour. The judge had wanted to send them down for four months, but the law would not allow.


In January 1890 Uriah was in court again, this time charged with being drunk and disorderly. It seems he had too much festive spirit as the incident occurred in Tollesbury on Christmas Day 1889. Another court case in the following July sheds a little more light on this incident. It seems Uriah was not alone in his carousing. His eldest brother Thomas was also charged with the same offence, committed on the same day, but, having been away, most likely with the Merchant Navy, could not be served with a summons until July. The report of Thomas’ case provides a little more information. The police constable reporting the incident said that Thomas used “very bad language” and had caused “a great disturbance.” On being asked to go home he behaved very violently towards the constable. Both men were fined, although Thomas was fined considerably more than his younger brother.


Just over two years later, in 1893, the brothers were at it again. This time they were drunk and disorderly in a village just down the road from Tollesbury. Neither actually appeared in court but were found guilty in their absence and fined in default of seven days’ hard labour. The police sergeant who reported them had ordered them to go home but Thomas was heard advising Uriah not to go saying, “I don’t care for any ****** policeman.”


Three years later, in 1896, the same thing happened again; both brothers were in court charged with being drunk and disorderly. They were again fined, this time in default of 10 days’ hard labour.


In February 1898 Thomas was in court again, but this time he was alone. He was charged with stealing a purse containing £2 and 10 shillings which belonged to William Crabb, with whom he was lodging, and who failed to appear in court to give evidence. A police sergeant stated that this was no doubt because Thomas had offered to repay the money, but that if William were to accept this offer he would be compounding an alleged felony. No mention was made of William’s relationship to Thomas and the case was adjourned so William could be subpoenaed.


Back in court a few days later William appeared and testified that Thomas was his stepson. Thomas admitted taking the money and hoped that William would forgive him. He said he would “go to sea and bring home money and pay it.” He said he always came home with good character, and whatever made him take the money he didn’t know. Bursting into tears he said, “It’s the drink, sir.”  Thomas went on to say, “Yes sir, I was drunk, and mother asked me to stay at the house rather than sleep in the street.” He was given one month’s imprisonment and told that, had it not been for his good character, it would have been a good deal more.


What happened to Thomas once he’d served his time is not known; however, Uriah appeared in court once more in September 1914. The headline in the local paper expressed some surprise: AFTER 18 YEARS. It had indeed been 18 years since Uriah was last in court on charges of drunkenness and this time the story gives a little more insight into Uriah’s character. In actual fact, his case was straightforward. He’d been seen coming out of a pub in a drunken condition. He was found guilty and fined. It was the case that came after his that explained things a little more clearly.


This is the news story as reported in The Essex Newsman:


Arising out of the previous case, Henry James Worsby, landlord of the King’s Head, Tollesbury, was summoned for allowing drunkenness, and for selling intoxicating liquor to a drunken person, at Tollesbury.

Mr. S. Wortley prosecuted; Mr. H. W. Jones defended.

Mrs. Barbara Gurton, wife of the landlord of the Hope public-house, Tollesbury, said that about two o’clock on August 17 she refused to serve a man named Uriah Smith, as he was not sober.

Cross-examined: Smith was eccentric, and always walked a bit “tottery”.

John May, bootmaker, Tollesbury, said he saw Smith between two and three o’clock on Aug. 17, and the man was drunk. About an hour and a half afterwards he saw him again. He was then staggering, and pitching on his toes.

Mrs. Blake, wife of Thomas Blake, landlord of the Plough and Sail, Tollesbury, said she refused to serve Smith on the afternoon in question, because of his condition; and James Collins, landlord of the Victoria, Tollesbury, said Smith was a bit “rolly.”

Wm. Crabb, West Street, Tollesbury, said Smith, who lodged with him, went home the worse for drink on August 17.

For the defence the defendant and his wife, George William Osborne, and Alfred J. Gurton, of Tollesbury, gave evidence to the effect that defendant and his wife refused to serve Smith, as it was a practice among publicans of Tollesbury not to serve him when there were any young men present, as they frequently treated him to drink, made fun of him, and had occasionally blacked his face. On the day in question defendant was not drunk when he went in the King’s Head, but there was a number of men present. He sat in the house, but was not served.

The case was dismissed.”

From this story it seems likely that Uriah Smith could have been a person that people referred to as “half-witted” as they did in 1885 when considering if he was capable of stealing 4,500 oysters. Maybe he wasn’t as bright or as clever as his brothers; undoubtedly he was gullible and naïve and someone that others took advantage of either to further their own gains or simply for their own entertainment. I rather suspect that he was a useful person to have around if you wanted to break the law or needed an amusing drinking partner.


Modern day fishing boats moored at Tollesbury. My photo.


So what of the others?


Mary, despite her sons and husband probably running her ragged and giving her far too many reasons to worry, lived to the ripe old age of 89, outliving all but two of her children according to the 1911 census. She died in 1914.


William Crabb, died in 1925. Curiously on the 1911 census, which he completed himself, he lists himself as a Boot Repairer. Maybe he found it to be a more lucrative profession than dredging for oysters, legally or otherwise.


Norris Smith, not mentioned before because it seems he never got into trouble with the law, married and had three children. Sadly he died in 1897 serving on board a steam yacht near Crete in the Mediterranean. The cause of death was recorded as syncope (loss of consciousness) owing to immersion.


Norris’ eldest son, also Norris, was involved in a humorous court case in 1899. The Essex Standard certainly found it amusing:


At the Maldon County Court the other day, before the REGISTRAR (Mr. J. C. Freeman) Walter Lock, a horseman, of Woodham Mortimer, sued Norris Smith, a lad of 19, a dredgerman, of Tollesbury, for £1., 10s, board and lodgings.

The REGISTRAR asked the defendant Smith if he were any relation to the plaintiff.

Defendant. He married my mother.

An old man then stood up in the Court.

The REGISTRAR. Well, what relation are you? (Laughter.)

The man, William Crabb. I married his father’s mother. I am step-grandfather to the defendant. (Laughter.)

The two parties then agreed to wait till the Judge arrived and have the case tried before him.

The REGISTRAR. I am not sorry. (Laughter.)

The plaintiff, before His Honour Judge Paterson, said defendant came to live with him last December and had stopped till January, offering to pay 6s. a week for board and lodgings. On January 17 he paid 6s. and on the 28th he paid another 7s. He left soon after, when five weeks’ pay was owing. Defendant would not do anything. He did not work “half his time”.

His HONOUR. Who’s he got to support him?

Plaintiff. He’s old enough to support himself.

The defendant said that when he left the plaintiff forgave him the money that was owing and in addition presented him with 5s.

His HONOUR. How do you live?

Defendant. I don’t know what you mean? (Laughter.)

The JUDGE. Who supports you?

Defendant. I support myself.

The JUDGE. What do you earn?

Defendant. Last week I earned 6d., and the week before 7d. (Laughter.) My best week I earned 8s. When I came away plaintiff said he did not want anything.

The JUDGE. This is a strange story altogether. (Laughter.) How is the lad to live?

William Crabb. He will have to go on credit. (Laughter.)

His HONOUR. No, no.

Judgment was given against the defendant for 15s., to be paid at the rate of  2s. a month.”

This case makes a little more sense when you realise that the reason Norris stopped lodging with his stepfather was because his mother died. Walter Lock was his stepfather. Why William Crabb found it necessary to be in court is anyone’s guess. Maybe he’d been there so often for one reason or another, he grew to like it. Maybe I’m being unfair and he was there simply to support his step-grandson.


Herbert Smith, the youngest son of Mary and Thomas Smith, never got into trouble again after falling foul of his stepfather’s influence in 1883. He died when he was just 43 in 1910, leaving behind a wife and four children: Herbert, who was lost at sea when he was a young man; Charles, who went on to become a grocer, owning his own shop; Henry, who grew up sailing the fishing smacks and crewing racing yachts, but who sadly suffered serious shrapnel wounds to his right arm and leg during the Battle of the Somme, lived out his life in Tollesbury, minus his leg; and Ruth, who married a rather dashing young Petty Officer in the Royal Navy and spent World War I living on Ascension Island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, where my grandmother was born.


Tollesbury today is a large village with a thriving marina and yacht club. If you take a walk, or drive, down to the marina, take a moment to gaze over the mud flats and think about the men who risked fines, or even prison, to steal a few oysters. It must have been a tough life, probably with little reward if you didn’t have your own oyster pits. The life of any kind of fisherman is a tough one and I know from other research I’ve done that life as a Merchant Seaman could be dangerous and traumatic. I think we can forgive them a little alcoholic relief.


All information on the various court cases was obtained from the British Newspaper Archive.

Read Full Post »


What’s in a name? that which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet.”

Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet (1595)


It seems one of my ancestors was Sarah Daft! Some people, my dad especially, will take great amusement from this. Incidentally, this ancestor is on my mother’s side not his, giving him free rein to laugh … a lot!


Of all the names I’ve found in my research this has to be the most amusing to date. When I first found it I assumed it had probably been misspelt in the parish register, but no; I just found a whole family of Dafts!


Pulling out my Oxford Names Companion I have found the following meaning:


Daft English: nickname for a meek person rather than a stupid one, from Middle English daffte mild, gentle, meek (Old English gedæfte). The surname survives in the East Midlands in spite of the unfavourable connotations that were acquired by the vocab. word in the 15th cent.”


I feel a bit better about it now although I have to admit that despite living in the East Midlands I have yet to meet anyone with the name Daft. If I ever do I must remember to ask them if they’ve researched their family tree!



Read Full Post »

Coquelicots – Vaucluse – France (Charlotte Ségurel) / CC BY-NC 3.0

A year ago I posted Lest We Forget, my small tribute to all those who paid the ultimate sacrifice and gave their lives in service to their country.  I listed those from my own family who sadly died during the two world wars.  This year, I want to write about one man in particular. My reason for doing this is because I have copies of two especially poignant letters he wrote to his sister back home. From what he says I believe they were written in the month before he died.


The letters particularly bring to mind the following line from the poem I quoted a year ago:

They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted


Walter John Moseley served with the 5th Battalion, Essex Regiment. In the 161st (Essex) Brigade they formed part of the 54th (East Anglian) Division and they fought at the First Battle of Gaza on 26th March 1917 where Walter lost his life.  He was 22.  His name is listed on the Jerusalem Memorial in Israel.


He wrote the first letter on 17th February:

Dear Tottie

First a few lines hoping to find you in the best of health as it leaves me the same at present but getting fed up you can guess as we have had some more tramping to do but it is the load we have to carry in our packs that give us gippo.  Betty said in her letter that you were losing your men. I expect you have been enjoying yourself lately while poor old Walter have had to rough a bit. We are marching to the promised land I think. I shall not be sorry when it is all over now and I do not think it will be long either. Give my love to Aunt and Uncle and I think this is all this time so will close with best love from your loving Brother Walter.


The second letter was written on 25th February:

Dear Tottie

First a few lines in answer to your letter which found me still in the best of health. Glad to find you the same I was glad to hear you got the parcel and photo all right. I don’t think I have got any thinner I believe I get fatter as I cannot get my trousers round me now. I expect you miss the men I hope you will get some more decent chaps in so as to keep you lively. Sorry to hear you are getting such bad weather but the sun is shining lovely while I am writing this.  We are settled down again now for a time all on our own and near the sea so shall be able to have a bathe. Give my love to Aunt & Uncle and I think this is all this time so will close with best love from your loving brother Walter.


Of course, there was little of any importance a soldier could write to his loved ones back home and while in the first letter he perhaps sounds a little downhearted and tired, in the second he is decidedly more up beat. Perhaps it was the letter from home, or the prospect of a dip in the sea, or perhaps it was just bravado to assuage his sister’s worrying about his loss of weight. Whatever the reason, we will never know. A month later he was killed during a battle that saw British casualties amount to 4,000; 523 killed, 2932 wounded and over 512 missing including five officers and 241 other ranks known to be prisoners. The casualties were mainly from the 53rd (Welsh) Division and the 161st (Essex) Brigade, in which Walter was serving.


Walter John Moseley, 1894-1917. Family archive.


You can read full details of the First Battle of Gaza here.


At 11am today I will do what I do every year and spend two minutes remembering all those who have lost their lives in conflict. I will spare a special thought for those men of my own family – each one has a story, each one more than just a name on a war memorial.


Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: