‘And where were you born Harriet ?’ ‘I was born at Winscombe, sir.’ ‘And what was your maiden name ?’ ‘I was Hancock afore I was married, same as I am now.’ ‘Oh, I suppose you married a cousin?’ ‘Well, I don’t justly know whether we were cousins or not, – some kind of kin though, I reckon. We be all Hancocks there. My father, he married a Hancock, and my sister, she married a Hancock, and when she were married – (you know, sir, there’s eight bells in Winscombe Church)- all the ringers were Hancocks and the clerk he were a Hancock, and there were no one at her wedding who werdn’t a Hancock excep’ ’twas the parson.’
Extract from Somerset & Dorset – Notes & Queries
James Hancock (1822-1901)
James Hancock’s life story is a most remarkable one, as it challenges our understanding of the lives of our forefathers in so many ways. This is not a story for the faint hearted or for those unwilling to offer an open mind to the ‘sins of their fathers’. James committed plenty of those. However, even after his dirty washing has finally been exposed to public gaze, it is difficult to know whether he was an inherently untrustworthy individual, a lovable rogue, who seemed always to be labelled as the guilty party, or just one of life’s foot soldiers, a hard working man who was merely the victim of circumstance.
James was no different to many millions of his time, an unskilled working man, who just tried to scratch a living for himself and those he cared for. Despite James coming from a family where poverty, illiteracy and laborious work seemed to arrive in equal measure, his descendents are some of the most literate and dedicated family historians imaginable. This is their story too.
No-one has yet managed to pull together a complete history of the extended Hancock clan of James’ home county of Somerset, and that isn’t my intention either. I am, however, gradually tying all the diverse branches together, but that has happened more by chance than design. This story is mainly about ‘our’ James Hancock and his close family and just following their lives has been exhausting enough on its own.
James was born in March 1822, one of the younger children of a farm labourer’s large family. He was one of the fortunates of his generation, as a quarter of all children died before their fifth birthday and average life expectancy at that time, was under 40 years. This is a story about a man who defied these odds and lived his life several times over. A man who seemed to run roughshod over laws and social conventions of his time and most others, but despite having many opportunities to change his life prospects, James never rose far above the bottom rung of the economic and social ladder. Until August 2015, no photographs of James had surfaced, but thanks to this online story, a relation miraculously appeared from the ether, giving us our first sight of a man with a truly extraordinary story.
James Hancock was born in Wellow parish, just four miles south of the Roman city of Bath. During the 18th century, the rural beauty of this Somersetshire countryside became increasingly pockmarked, as the spoil tips of small coal mines emerged to blot this traditional English rural scene. Those of you who have seen the classic Ealing comedy, ‘The Titfield Thunderbolt’ will be familiar with this area of North East Somerset as the film, made in 1953, was shot entirely on location in the Dunkerton Valley and surrounding villages.
The Dunkerton Valley – the star of the film
By the late 1950s, this industrial fervour had subsided and the idyllic scenery had reverted back to its pre-industrial beauty. However, during James’ childhood, 130 years earlier, the world of coal dust, smoke and steam was already taking hold and new roads and canals were transforming the countryside into a most unlikely home for the inventions of Newcomen, Telford and Stephenson.
Dunkerton suddenly became a prominent feature on the industrial map in 1805, because of the newly completed Somerset Coal Canal. This was built as a feeder to the Kennet and Avon canal, which connected Bath to Newbury, in the east, and westwards along the River Avon to Bristol and the Severn Estuary. Canal was the cheapest form of transport until the 1840s, when the Great Western Railway and numerous other small lines arrived on the scene.
Prior to the advent of the canals, all goods had been moved by pack horse or horse drawn wagon. However, the hills of North Somerset, although not of great altitude, were severe in gradient and made transport of the black gold both slow, laborious and expensive.
A couple of forlorn looking horses at Crossways Inn, about to tackle the ‘three mile hill’ into Bath, with their load of coal.
(one of a number of similar photos to be found at www.dunkertonparish.org.uk)
Interpreting the family records of people living in the vicinity of the Dunkerton Valley has been made more complicated by the layout of the original parishes of Dunkerton, Wellow and Camerton. These were all distinct rural settlements at one point, each with their own parish churches, well seperated from each other. However, the boundaries of the three parishes came together near the top of Dunkerton Hill, on the south side of the valley, where previously there had only been a few houses, a couple of inns and fields as far as you could see.
(to see a full page, detailed version of any of the illustrations please click on the picture – to return to the story click the ‘left facing’ arrow at the top of your screen)
This part of the valley was dominated by the old Roman road, the Fosse Way, which ran south from Bath to Exeter. After the exertions of Dunkerton Hill, the Red Post Inn offered a respite for travellers and during the late 19th century, this became a major focus for expansion as six coal mines had been sunk within a radius of a couple of miles, so the area became desperate for new housing and amenities.
Red Post Inn, Peasedown St John
The development was such that eventually a totally new settlement was created, Peasedown St John, now the largest village in Somerset, with around 6000 inhabitants. However, in true British tradition, it retained its ancient parish boundaries until 1955.
This residential anomaly meant that during James Hancock’s era, your neighbour’s home, only a hundred yards away, might be in any one of three different parishes, with baptisms, marriages and burials conducted in their respective parish churches.
Kilmersdon and beyond
Like most of the Dunkerton Valley inhabitants, our Hancock family were newcomers to this previously sparsely populated valley, with in-comers arriving from as far afield as Dorset and Devon, where life did not offer the same financial rewards as the coalfields. Most, however, came from Somerset itself, moving from the isolated rural areas, which hadn’t yet reaped the ‘benefits’ of Britain’s industrial revolution.
‘Our’ James’ father was also called James, born in March 1783 and a native of the small Somerset parish of Kilmersdon, situated only a few miles to the south, between Radstock and Frome. Going back a generation earlier there was yet another James Hancock, so three in a row, a naming pattern which was the norm in families 200 years ago, but which now provide a nightmare scenario for family historians. We only know about this earlier James Hancock from the marriage certificate for his son’s second marriage, and so using the 20 year generation rule, we can estimate he was born about 1763.
Like so much of this story, the history of James’ forefathers has taken plenty of lateral thinking and educated guess work to decipher, as we quickly move backwards, into the world of irregular record keeping and wholesale illiteracy. This is an on-going process because within days of presenting James’ story to the wider world, in January 2013, new evidence has been uncovered, some of which supports previous ponderings. However, uncovering fresh clues has also called into question some of the earlier suppositions, so the story of the Hancocks of Dunkerton Hill continues to develop.
I was originally given 11 March 1783, as a baptism date, but this was a second hand record from a fellow researcher and I dont have any more details. Luckily, there are several other documents which trace James’ life, with surviving paper records of his two marriages, baptism of all his children, his own and his wives death certificates, plus census records for 1841 and 1851.
The death certificate supports the baptism/birth date of 1783, but other documents are more liberal with his age. The 1841 census, which often rounded ages to the nearest five years, gives him a 1791 birthdate and the 1851 census a 1781 date. His second marriage, in 1851, repeats the 1791 date, but I believe he didn’t necessarily want his 56 year old wife to know he was actually 68 and not a youthful 60, as the certificate clearly states.
Amazingly, his death records actually contain both versions, aged 70 as written by the parish vicar, (probably on the advice of his wife), but on the official death record James is recorded as 77 years old when he died. This is a trend that you will have to get used, because the Hancock family seemed to have scant regard for the accuracy of the information they entered on official records.
Most documents record the James Hancock, born in 1783, as a ‘labourer’ with the 1851 census and his death certificate giving him the status of ‘farm labourer’. As I dont have access to his baptism record, the 1851 census is the only document that confirms Kilmersdon as his birthplace.
However, in the transcribed records for the local parishes around Kilmersdon his name does not appear anywhere on the lists of baptisms. There are several other Hancock families, but the name we need is missing. His is not the only one absent, because despite a variety of researchers being on the case, no-one has been able to link together these other Hancock family groups, with any degree of certainty. The parish records are incomplete for all the Hancocks in the area, particularly for the crucial period from 1775-1800.
This hole in the records has also been a common occurance when researching other branches of my family. It coincides with the rise of the non-conformist churches, whose early record keeping was poor or non existant. Although parishoners were still required to be married in an Anglican church, people frequently fell through the net of baptism records if they chose the non-conformist chapels. These folk were often called ‘dissenters’ and we know from later records that our Hancock clan were strongly influenced by the non-conformist Wesleyan and Congregational traditions.
The name Hancock first appears in the Kilmersdon area from 1672 onwards, but there are a variety of other spellings, with Hancox and Hancocks being the most frequent, all seeming to be spelling variations of the original name. The earliest individual baptised in Kilmersdon is John Hancock, in 1672, who had at least three siblings, Jane, Thomas and Hester. Their father was John Hancock, who could be the man born in Beckington parish in 1636 and died in Kilmersdon in 1688, although it is possible there is another generation inbetween. He had a wife Elinor who died in Kilmersdon in 1693 and so starting his family in his mid thirties is quite possible, probably this being a second marriage. This was the time of Cromwell’s Commonwealth and the Restoration of King Charles II and so many parishes refrained from keeping records during this turbulent period, but John and Elinor could indeed be the progenitors of the Kilmersdon line.
Previously I had believed these were the first Hancocks in the Frome area, spreading out amongst the neighbouring parishes over the next 100 years. That does not seem to be the case because Hancocks can be traced back to the 16th century in the parish of Beckington, east of Kilmersdon and just north of Frome. It was only during a ‘one name’ search did I realise that the Hancocks were playing ring-a-roses around the parishes, failing to establish their presence in one place or to grow into a substantial family group, like others such as the Chivers and Buttons.
The settlements of Coleford, Kilmersdon Common, Lypeat and Charlton all feature regularly in the Hancock records, and when I have been able to accurately pin down a village, hamlet or occasionally even an address, it is usually in the southern section of the Kilmersdon and Babington parishes. The Victorian maps show these were small clusters of houses, still based on the rural farmsteads and not industrial rows of terraced housing which became a familiar sight in the North of England.
Many of the wider Hancock clan were associated with coalmining and James Hancock (1783) gave his father’s occupation, on his second marriage document, as a coalminer.
Present day sign remembers the past
In Leigh-on-Mendip, an adjacent parish, to the south of Kilmersdon, there was a John Hancock married in 1738 and a James Hancock married in 1745. This may be the source of our James’ family roots, because this James Hancock married Mary Butcher, and they had a succession of children over the next 20 years. Their long running baby production line was not unusual in a Somerset family of the period, with Mary, 1750; Honour, 1757; Grace, 1759; Virtue, 1761, James, 1763 and Matthew, 1766, all seemingly members of this same family group.
St Giles Church – Leigh on Mendip
This also provides us with a perfect 20 year generation gap between this James Hancock, born in 1763 and our proven line in 1783. There are other James Hancocks in the Kilmersdon area, born in the 1770s, 80s and 90s, but none has James as a father and so my confidence levels are high that I have found the right man. That would give us four James Hancocks in a row – born circa 1725, 1763, 1783 and 1822, which is how I will descibe them, (in brackets), when there is possible confusion.
Gradually the mist is clearing and after yet another examination of all the parish records in the vicinity I may now be able to take the links back, unbroken, into the 17th century. That full tree is available as a link later in this story.
Catherine Hamilton, daughter of the Vicar of Kilmersdon during the 1840s, wrote her ‘Recollections of our Village’. Although written in the early 20th century, this short volume gives a tremendous insight into her childhood in the Kilmersdon area, 60 years before, during the early reign of Queen Victoria.
The vicar’s daughter was born in Kilmersdon in 1841, two generations later than James (1783), but little would have changed in her childhood years, compared with life half a century before. It was only the arrival of the railways in the 1850s, which caused the life of the inhabitants to alter dramatically, and when the wonderful iron road was taken up, just over a century later, many places slid back to their previous rural isolation.
Catherine talks at length about the importance of the two ‘Lords of the Manor’, who owned the neighbouring estates of Kilmersdon and Babington. Colonel John Joliffe was ‘Lord’ of Kilmersdon and the Knatchbull family ran Babington. She says that ‘Mr Knatchbull, who was a Member of Parliament, carried great weight and authority, whilst bachelor boys, Colonel Joliffe and his brother were unapproachable by anyone. She also remarks how people knew each other right across the whole parish, as they attended church on Sundays and because they walked everywhere, to get to work and to buy their essentials for daily living.
Catherine talks about an imbalance in the sexes, with ‘dozens of girls who never had a chance to marry and lived grey colourless lives’. Generally, it seems finding a ‘mate’ wasn’t easy for both sides, as poverty led the working population to become more transient, as industry replaced work in the fields. There are also comments that the local girls prefered the miners to the agricultural workers, because, although they might be covered in coal dust, they were paid more than those above ground. Women never change..!!
She mentions that the miners who lived in Kilmersdon village, had a two mile walk to reach the nearest coalmine and that, ‘they always had a piece of candle, four or five inches long, fastened into an iron frame on the front of their caps.’ Even in the late 1840s, she never saw a sign of a Davy lamp, which had been invented in 1815, but gave poor illumination and was considered by many miners to be just as dangerous as a candle. The miners seem to have been a very religious lot and even held prayers underground during their shift.
Catherine talks too, about a great many ‘dissenters’ in the village, but they always came to her Kilmersdon church to be married. There was a Wesleyan chapel close to her father’s church and the two faiths seemed to live in some degree of harmony. Her own Anglican congregation was split equally between miners who lived in the village and the farm labourers, who carried on a traditional rural existance, working on the estates of the two lordships.
Catherine’s Kilmersdon Church
At Sunday School, Catherine met children from all over the parish. ‘We considered ourselves vastly superior to the people who lived in the neighbouring village of Coleford, or as it was generally pronounced ‘Ca’ford’. It was said the Ca’ford folks had a dialect of their own. When they met a friend they said: ‘Marn t’ye!’ And if no answer was returned they added, ‘Win’t ye marn t’ye once then? ‘This was considered rather low by us who boasted rather more refined speech.’
Many of these Coleford folk may well have moved up from south and west Somerset, Dorset, Devon and Cornwall, and probably brought with them a stronger ‘West Country’ accent. There were certainly plenty of Hancocks living further west and is a logical place to hunt for the very earliest versions of the Hancock clan.
The otherwise, unremarkable parish of Kilmersdon does have one national claim to fame – as the home of the ‘Jack and Jill’ nursey rhyme, one of the most popular amongst 19th and 20th century children.
‘Jack and Jill went up the hill
To fetch a pail of water.
Jack fell down and broke his crown,
And Jill came tumbling after.’
Other people and places claim the rhyme as their own, but the local people were convincing enough with their evidence to gain funding from the Millennium Commission, to restore the footpath up the ‘Jack and Jill’ hill and the well.
The Jack and Jill well, at the top of Jack and Jill Lane, Kilmersdon
However, things aren’t quite as innocent as they appear. Catherine in her essay about life in Kilmersdon mentions that respectable females of all ages, rarely went out alone and never alone with men. But that didn’t stop those who were ‘courting’, and the the ‘jack and jill’ hill was in reality the ‘lovers lane’ of the district, which might account for Jack being sent flying down the path, possibly with a whack after getting too fresh with his girlfriend, Jill.
The Romans first discovered coal at Stratton-on-the-Fosse, south west of Kilmersdon, but there was a gap of a thousand years before small coal pits were dug in the area, from the 14th century onwards. Only from around 1700 was there any large scale attempt to extract coal, and although written records are sparse, the remains of hundreds of small ‘bell’ shaped pits still exist, close to Coleford and Vobster. These were just glorified holes in the ground, which followed the seams closest to the surface and as soon as they became unworkable they were filled in by the spoil from the next pit.
Bell pits – hundreds were dug in the Nettlecombe Valley
The coalfield of the Nettlecombe Valley (Coleford and Vobster) was always difficult to work because of the narrowness of the coal seams, but this still became the first area of the Somerset coalfield to be mined commercially.
Somerset coalfield – over 70 mineshafts
However, Nettlecombe was superceded in the late 18th century, when more modern coalmines were opened at Midsomer Norton and Camerton, a few miles to the north. They were larger than the Nettlecombe pits, but still small and uneconomic compared with those that were soon to appear in South Wales and the North of England. Despite these disadvantages the Somerset coalfield grew, at its height to over 70 different pits, but extracting the fuel was never easy and after 200 years the last two mines, at Kilmersdon and Writhlington, were closed in 1973.
Writhlington colliery – one of many excellent books about Somerset industry.
Brian Cooper, still a resident of Peasedown St John, worked in the Writhlington coalmine till its closure, in 1973 and it was a ’round robin’ letter sent to all people named Cooper in the area, that set this investigation going in the right direction. Brian replied and he is part of a line of our Cooper clan, who have remained resident in the area, whilst others fled to distant parts.
Hugh Browning – my father (left) – meeting cousin Brian Cooper (2008)
Catherine Hamilton describes the untouched natural beauty of the Kilmersdon and Babington estates and this lasted longer than it might have, because the two Lords of the Manor refused to accept mining or any related industry on to their lands. Whilst noble landowners, elsewhere in Britain, became wealthy men by exploiting the coal seams under their pastures, these very conservative and ‘individual’ families did not succomb to the temptation to ruin their environment for the sake of more money.
However, they were happy to take the income from the mineworkers who occupied the estate cottages, leaving these men, women and children, with a 2-3 mile walk to begin their days work in the surrounding collieries. Yes, before the 1840s Mines Acts of Lord Shaftesbury, women and children were an essential part of the workforce, above and below ground.
Even before Catherine’s recollections came to light, I had already been looking for Hancock predecessors further west. The Hancock name is not uncommon, but there are obvious ‘hotspots’ in west and south west Somerset, with the small town of Wiveliscombe, near Taunton, and Winscombe, near Cheddar, standing out as having large clans of Hancocks in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
The Hancock family in Wiveliscombe became successful brewers and they funded various building projects, including the town courthouse. The former Hancock’s Brewery is still a local landmark and can be seen from miles away and at its peak the brewery employed half the working population of Wiveliscombe.
William Hancock built the brewery in 1807, and as well as becoming the biggest brewer in south west England, the business later expanded into South Wales. These Hancocks later became fanatical about the game of rugby and seven of them played rugby for Somerset, one represented Wales, and another England. The name in Wiveliscombe goes back as early as 1558, but they are only present in numbers from the 1620s.
The Hancock brewery chimney survives as a local landmark
The quote at the beginning of this piece, from Harriet Hancock of Winscombe, recorded in about 1800, seems to be more relevant to the Hancocks of Kilmersdon than Wiveliscombe, and definitely has a theme to be remembered as you follow this James Hancock story. The Winscombe Hancocks were labourers and farming folk, and more typical of our own Hancock clan.
Winscombe is in the north west of Somerset, not too far from Bristol and the Hancocks first record in the parish is in 1701. They then became so prolific, in just two generations, that they became a dominant name in the parish, which led to the inbreeding of a century later. The Winscombe clan spread out into neighbouring parishes and had links with Dunster, to the south. They dont appear to be a direct source for our Kilmersdon clan, but there are instances of them drifting eastwards to the parish of Stoke Lane, just to the west of Kilmersdon, making it difficult to distinguish one family group from another.
The church at Winscombe – full of Hancocks in 1800
Surname mapping of Britain in 1881 shows two hotspots for the Hancock name. One is on the Devon/Cornwall border and the second, in the Midlands, around Stoke on Trent. The largest concentration shows up in the West Country and it might well be that this was their ‘Eden’, from where all Hancocks originate. This could lead way back into the 14th century, when the first ‘surnames’ appeared, created partly because of the 1377 ‘poll tax’, an event which led to Wat Tyler’s Peasants Revolt of 1381.
Those of you who might doubt my reliance on a simple surname to prove a family relationship, need to be aware of the work of Dr Bryan Sykes, geneticist turned genealogist, who has shown a high degree of association between a name, a home village and the DNA of the inhabitants. The name maps support this view, although the same name may have evolved in two isolated places, possibly making the Stoke and Devon Hancocks totally different, unconnected family groups.
Hancock name map for 1881
The earliest and most prolific records occur in the area between Exmoor and Dartmoor and from there it seems likely the clan must have migrated, to Cornwall in the south, or northwards following the work, as the various phases of industrialisation took place. People bearing the Hancock name seem to have been consistently on the move, chasing the proverbial rainbow of success, and one of them did eventually did discover a very large crock of gold, well actually a mountain of solid iron. Unfortunately, the lucky prospector has no proven connection to our branch of the Hancock family.
The Hancock ‘hotspot’ in Cornwall was associated with the tin mining areas, an industry that started at about the same time as coal mining in Somerset, and so perhaps some Hancocks moved south to mine tin, whilst others went north to mine coal. The Hancock name crops up in St. Agnes (where the Coulter Hancocks were landowners) and St. Austell, where Peter Hancock has written a nostalgic book of his home town, St. Austell: The Golden Years.
When the tin mining boom ended in the 19th century, many Cornish Hancocks emigrated, to work in coal mines in the Americas and Australia. The most successful of the lot was Lang Hancock who discovered the world’s largest deposit of iron ore in Australia, in 1952. His daughter, Gina Rinehart is now the richest person in Australia, quickly heading to be the richest person in the world..!!!
Lang Hancock (1909-1992) with daughter Gina, behind
The earliest parish records for Hancocks anywhere, go back to the 1500s and point to the Minehead area of West Somerset, close to the border with Devon. Dunster is one of the earliest places with records and there are also early Hancocks recorded in other villages surrounding Exmoor. There was a cluster of Hancocks in the South Molton area and at Up-ottery, near Honiton, and they are still in the area today, with one family making a living from Devon cider.
Dunster village – Poirot fans might recognise it..!!
The family of billionaire, Lang Hancock can also trace back to this part of Devon, migrating to Australia in the early 19th century and much earlier their family home was in Winkleigh, a small isolated village, in the very centre of the county.
Much closer to Kilmersdon there were Hancocks to the north, across the nearby Wiltshire border, in Corsham and Westbury. James is also a popular name with this branch, but there is nothing to link them directly to our four James Hancocks.
Generally, though, the Wiltshire Hancocks are a class and a half above the Kilmersdon crew, with frequent mention of yeoman and even ‘gent’ amongst the early wills. Later, a Hancock family, from Marlborough in Wiltshire, who were furniture makers on the High Street, produced two remarkable sons. Thomas Hancock invented a masticator machine for rubber scraps and was an early pioneer of the British rubber industry, whilst his brother, Walter, pioneered steam-powered road vehicles.
Another Hancock family, this one from Somerset, were well know fairground operators, in the latter part of the 19th century. Their lives are recounted in Kevin Scrivens and Stephen Smith’s book, ‘Hancocks of the West’. There is nothing to link them directly with Kilmersdon, but again there could well be common roots from the wilds of Exmoor.
The Staffordshire Hancock line goes back to the late 1500s, and could well be a totally separate genetic clan. They include the famous 18th century engraver Robert Hancock and the 19th century Wesleyan minister, Sampson Hancock, who founded a pottery company in Stoke-on-Trent. Nick Hancock, the writer and broadcaster, is an outspoken and passionate champion of everything associated with ‘Stoke’.
There is also an ongoing Hancock DNA project, driven by the desire of the American Hancock community to link themselves with John Hancock, one of the founding fathers of America and one of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence. They link to the Stoke-on-Trent clan and have only one example of Kilmersdon DNA on the file and that does not seem to match other branches of this famous family group.
The scattering of Hancocks in the parishes surrounding Frome do have a common thread and may be one group, perhaps the precursors of our Kilmersdon group. They date back as early as Beckington parish in 1567, but the names of Henry, Edward, Thomas and Ambrose don’t fit our James, John and George. They sound more like our rubber masticators from Wiltshire.
My conclusion, after considering all the evidence, is that the Kilmersdon and Leigh-on-Mendip families are the same and related some time in the past, in word and deed, to the Winscombe crew. I believe all originally came from further south, quite possibily from the Exmoor area, where the Hancock family worked on the land. That is probably also the original home area for the Cornish miners, the brewers and the fairground people and so the West Country Hancocks are all related to the man who found his mountain range of iron ore, in Australia.
Lang Hancock was famous, not just for his wealth, but also his lifestyle. Even before his money arrived he was known to be a ‘charmer with the ladies’. This caused plenty of newspaper gossip, but the relationship that caused the greatest problem for him was late in life when, at the age of 76, he married his Philippino maid, much to the consternation of his daughter, Gina.
Now you might think I am digressing a little too far from the story of James Hancock, but possibly not as far as you might think. There appears to be a common theme in the Hancock line and it doesn’t necessarily relate to money, or lack of it. Genetic traits can keep reappearing in the most surprising ways and so I suggest you bear these I mind as you follow this story.
The Age of Canals and Volcanoes
Back in the land of English austerity – one significant piece of construction took place in the Kilmersdon area during the late 1700’s, which may have some relevance to this tale.
A branch of the proposed Dorset & Somerset Canal was begun in 1786, to link the coalmines of the Nettlecombe Valley, between Vobster and Coleford, with a major canal system, at Frome. Much of the construction was completed, but the project was abandoned in 1803, when the money ran out just a mile short of the destination. The grand scheme to build a canal from Poole, on the Dorset coast, to Bath was also abandoned, but the project left a prominent landmark, in the centre of Coleford, the ‘Hucky Duck’, a lonely aqueduct, looking as forlorn as those horses on Dunkerton Hill.
This canal project provided plenty of employment for the local population and would also have brought in many transient labourers from outside the area. The ultimate demise of the project reversed the process and caused many to seek work elsewhere, and the obvious next stop was the Somerset Coal Canal. The timescale for both canals ran in parallel, but the Dunkerton canal project lasted two years longer, being completed, in 1805.
‘Hucky Duck’ aqueduct – from nowhere to nowhere – photo: P Dindorp
Well, that was a little about the canals, but what about the volcanoes? Now you might be thinking that all those hours staring at census returns has fuddled my brain and caused me to totally lose the plot. Not so..!!
If you have read my other stories you will have learnt a little about the ‘year with no summer’, 1816, caused by an event that took place 12,000 miles away in the islands of Indonesia. Mount Tambora erupted with such violence that it scattered a cloud of dust around the planet, which affected the world for over a decade, and caused a massive decline in the economic fortunes of Britain and other European states. That seismic event was unknown to Europeans at the time and only in recent decades has its importance to the social history of the early 19th century been fully recognised.
Tambora in the 21st century
Well, that was actually the second volcanic eruption to afflict a single Hancock generation. The earlier event was much closer to home, on the island of Iceland, and analysis now shows this eruption was even more destructive to the inhabitants of planet Earth.
Whilst Tambora made one large bang and created a cavernous hole in the planet, the eruption of the Laki fissure in the summer of 1783 was very different, erupting over months and spreading deadly gases, not dust, around the planet. It is now thought to have been the most significant natural event in ‘recorded’ history.
Laki fissure dormant and in action – photo: National Geographic
A large slice of this 25 kilometre crack in the earth, erupted over an eight-month period between 1783 and 1784 pouring out an estimated 3.4 cubic miles of lava and clouds of a poisonous mixture of acidic gases. This killed over half of Iceland’s livestock population, leading to a famine that killed approximately a quarter of the island’s human population.
The Laki eruption and its aftermath caused a drop in global temperatures, caused crop failures in Europe and droughts in India. The eruption has been estimated to have killed over six million people globally, making it the deadliest eruption in historic times.
“This past week, and the two prior to it, more poison fell from the sky than words can describe: ash, volcanic hairs, rain full of sulphur and saltpeter, all of it mixed with sand. The snouts, nostrils, and feet of livestock grazing or walking on the grass turned bright yellow and raw. All water went tepid and light blue in color and gravel slides turned gray. All the earth’s plants burned, withered and turned gray, one after another, as the fire increased and neared the settlements.”
Jón Steingrímsson’s Fires of the earth: the Laki eruption, 1783-1784
The estimated volume of emissions are colossal and amounted to three times the total annual European industrial output in 2006, and equivalent to a 1991 Mount Pinatubo eruption every three days. The mixing of the material with the high level ‘Jet Stream’ caused unusual weather conditions, creating a thick haze that spread right across Western Europe.
The summer of 1783 was the hottest on record and a rare high pressure zone over Iceland caused the winds to blow to the south-east. The poisonous cloud reached Berlin by 18 June, Paris by 20 June and Great Britain by 23 June. The fog was so thick that boats stayed in port, unable to navigate, and the sun was described as “blood coloured”.
Inhaling the suphur dioxide gas caused victims to choke and the effect in the lungs was to create sulphurous acid. The hot weather caused severe thunderstorms, with hailstones large enough to kill cattle. The winter of 1783/1784 was very severe and the following spring brought damaging floods in Europe. In Great Britain, the death rate in the counties of East Anglia was two or three times the normal rate. It has been estimated that over 20,000 Britons died directly from the poison gases.
The meteorological impact of Laki continued, contributing significantly to several years of extreme weather in Europe. In France, a sequence of extremes included a surplus harvest in 1785 that caused poverty for rural workers, accompanied by droughts, then bad winters and summers, including a violent hailstorm in 1788 that destroyed crops. These events contributed significantly to a build-up of poverty and famine that may have contributed directly to the French Revolution in 1789.
Closer to home, here is an extract from the Journal of Gilbert White, from Selbourne in Hampshire:
‘The summer of the year 1783 was an amazing and portentous one, and full of horrible phaenomena; for besides the alarming meteors and tremendous thunder-storms that affrighted and distressed the different counties of this kingdom, the peculiar haze, or smokey fog, that prevailed for many weeks in this island, and in every part of Europe, and even beyond its limits, was a most extraordinary appearance, unlike anything known within the memory of man.
By my journal I find that I had noticed this strange occurrence from June 23 to July 20 inclusive, during which period the wind varied to every quarter without making any alteration in the air. The sun, at noon, looked as blank as a clouded moon, and shed a rust-coloured ferruginous light on the ground, and floors of rooms; but was particularly lurid and blood-coloured at rising and setting. All the time the heat was so intense that butchers’ meat could hardly be eaten on the day after it was killed; and the flies swarmed so in the lanes and hedges that they rendered the horses half frantic, and riding irksome. The country people began to look, with a superstitious awe, at the red, louring aspect of the sun.
The Wakes – Gilbert White’s House, in Selbourne (now a museum)
Sir John Callum wrote from Bury St Edmunds to the Royal Society in London. This was the same day that Gilbert White noted unusual events in the atmosphere – 23 June 1783.
‘The aristae of the barley, which was coming into ear, became brown and withered at their extremities, as did the leaves of the oats; the rye had the appearance of being mildewed; so that the farmers were alarmed for those crops… the larch, Weymouth pine and hardy Scotch fir had the tips of their leaves withered’.
Sir John’s vegetable garden did not escape; he noted that the plants looked ‘exactly as if a fire had been lighted near them, that had shrivelled and discoloured their leaves’
I am grateful to the wikipedia article that narrates this cataclysm, for the quotes and a summary of events that seem to have by-passed most history books and family researchers.
My family history researches frequently come across a ‘black hole’ in the records, for the period from 1780 to 1800, a sort of ‘genealogical discontinuity’. I have, generally, placed the blame on the rise of the non-conformist chapels and their reluctance to keep proper records, because of the fear that their membership might be victimised at some point in the future. However, the more I read about the Laki summer and the years that followed, then I’m sure the huge disruption to daily life, caused by illness, death and crop failure is probably more likely to be responsible for the missing people and the missing records. If scholars are now blaming the French Revolution on Laki, then a few missing Hancocks, Cooper and Brownings, are just a side dish in comparison.
It seems James (1783) was born just a few weeks before these cataclysmic events, which may help to answer questions about the fate of other members of his family. We know nothing for certain about James (1783), before his marriage in 1808, but the barren tree of evidence for the missing period is beginning to make new shoots.
We also don’t know when James moved the few miles north, from Kilmersdon to the Dunkerton Valley, but as one new piece of evidence leads to another a better picture is James Hancock’s (1783) early days can be surmised.
We also don’t know whether he was an agricultural worker in his younger days, or whether he had tried his hand, labouring as a surface worker in the coalmines or had a stint at digging canals. His move north may well have coincided with the demise of the Coleford canal, but whatever his employment opportunities, there can be no doubt the occupational structure of the whole area was in turmoil at this time.
Added to these natural events, the disruption of the ongoing wars with Napoleon, further helped to impoverish Britain for a generation. So we can see how James Hancock’s future was being shaped by both natural phenomena and the ‘boom and bust’ economics of those turbulent years. To end up working the land as an agricultural labourer, looks an unlikely scenario considering the other opportunities on offer both locally and further afield and so James Hancock probably did a mixture of everything. However, if he did remain on the land, as an agricultural labourer he chose a healthier lifestyle, and perhaps helped to ensure that most of his family lived long, if not necessarily, prosperous lives.
Families during this period tended to be large, but with high numbers of infants succombing in the early years of life, the average family could quickly dwindle, with just a couple of offspring reaching adulthood. The average life expectancy of 40, quoted earlier, actually hides the fact that many of those who survived the hazards of childhood and avoided accident in the coalmine or factory, lived into their seventies and eighties. This was not a ‘Logans Run’ scenario, when you suddenly ascended to meet your maker on your fortieth birthday.
After various new snippets of information and after careful pondering of various scenarios this is the latest and best analysis of the available facts.
James Hancock (1763) married Sarah George on 16 May 1782 in Frome, where it was not unusual for Kilmersdon folk to marry, when their spouse hailed from that parish. Their son, James appeared on 11 March 1783, but with no obvious siblings for the youngster, this strongly suggests that it was James (1763) who was the man who died on 1st November 1784, in Kilmersdon. Did he succomb to the affects of the volcanic acid cloud or meet a more mundane fate, but it does seem to leave his wife as a widow, with a single child.
There are no signs of Sarah remarrying and there is a death in Kilmersdon, for a Sarah Hancock on 2nd April 1803 and the age is right for a Sarah George born in Frome on 3 Dec 1758. There were other Hancocks in the area, including siblings of her deceased husband and although these other lines are also far from perfect in their continuity, the same christian names, common and rare, crop up in these other family groups, suggesting ongoing family relationships.
From that earlier generation, the children of James (1725), I found a Matthew Hancock, born in Leigh-on-Mendip in 1766, who married Sarah Padfield, in Kilmersdon in 1786. They had a son, James, who was living in Mells, when he married Elizabeth Hobbs, in Kilmersdon in 1811. The Padfield name is another that appears frequently in the Dunkerton Valley, another family who sought a better life in the new tranche of coalmines. Matthew Hancock also had a John who remained in the area and can be traced through the early census records living in Coleford but for most of the time in the hamlet of Lypeat, a mile to the west. Matthew himself met an unfortunate end, passing his final days in the Frome Workhouse, before dying in 1840, at the age of 74.
Another name of interest is George Hancock, who seems to marry in 1801, have a daughter, Harriet and then marry again, in 1806, to Amy Hancock, written at times as Naomi, and Emma. Yes, we have a ‘touch of the Winscombes’ here, because it would seem, according to my calculations, that second wife, Amy Hancock, was his niece!
George and Amy had a number of children in Kilmersdon and Leigh-on-Mendip over the next twelve years, including a Grace, Isaac and perhaps, significantly, a Mark. All these names cross over between the family groups and into the line of ‘our’ James (1822).
Catherine Hamilton, in her book, describes naming patterns in Kilmersdon:
‘Names were chosen for religious reasons as well as family tradition, with both Old and New Testament figures to the fore. Matthew, Mark and Luke, Benjamin, Samuel, Elijah and Zipporah were all common.’
The Hancock family is littered with Biblical names, from Job, Elias and Abel to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. There are also girls names we often associate with the Quakers, a religious group that began in the 1650s. These lyrical options include Mercy, Grace, Virtue, Honour and Patience, although Chastity doesn’t seem to be among them.
In passing, I did find a ‘Sympathy’, not a Hancock, but on the same sheet as a Hancock marriage. The parents were kind enough to only use it as a middle name, although that may have been a discreet switch by the bride herself.
Sympathy – ‘poor girl’
Generally, all these Hancock names indicate a strong leaning towards non-conformism. This does provide another link to Winscombe, because the Quakers were large landowners in that parish, which accounted for there only being one tavern in the village, when other villages of similar size might have had three, four or even more drinking establishments.
Quakers were an off-shoot of the Puritan movement, formed in the mid 17th century during the Commonwealth period of Oliver Cromwell. My Jaggar side has a broad Quaker streak running through their family, so if you need to know more about the men who brought you Barclays Bank and a certain breakfast cereal you will have to read my story about the Jaggar clan. (coming soon..!!)
There is an odd thing about the Quakers, because although they condemned the evils caused by the ‘demon drink’, many of them made their fortunes by extending their milling and grain businesses into the brewing and distillation of alcohol – which then takes us back to that Wiveliscombe family of rugby players. Is there a little clarity appearing in the Hancock mist?
Other Hancock families had also drifted into the Dunkerton Valley by the early 1800s. The small settlements at Priston and Tunley, on the north side of the canal were the homes to Richard Hancock, married to Leah, and there was also Job Hancock, a ropemaker, who eventually ended his days in London.
Research into the earliest parish records does show a Hancock family living in Priston, and the neighbouring parish of Farmborough and rather like the family in Beckington, seemed to have survived as a single, compact unit. It looks as though Samuel and Job may be descended from these earlier Pristonites. They also have a Matthew in the early part of their family tree, so is this just a Biblical naming coincidence or is it more evidence this was one family group spreading across Somerset.
To untangle the complete web of Hancocks is a major task and with the honey-pot effect of the coalfield people coming from everywhere, the opportunity for inter-lopers, who would disrupt a carefully constructed family tree, is high and so is work for another day, but given time, one that has a chance of reaching a satisfactory conclusion.
On 4th October 1808, at the age of 25, James Hancock married Sarah Gregory, a girl from Paulton, one of the larger mining villages, in the western end of the Dunkerton valley. James’ marriage does seem late in the day for the period, at a time when there were are a surfeit of the fair sex on offer, and plenty of opportunity to meet them; but James states he was a bachelor in the Wellow parish records, so we must believe him…??
The Old Mills, Paulton Batch – remains as a memorial to the coalfield era.
The couple had their first child, Dinah, in Camerton parish in 1809, and by the birth of their second, Harriet, two years later, they were recorded living in the adjacent parish of Wellow parish.
The early census enumerators for this area seemed reluctant to identify with any accuracy where each of the inhabitants lived. There were small smatterings of houses with only a public house, a church rectory or a farmhouse to act as signposts to the researcher. The houses of the average parish dweller seemed to lack name or number an omission that carried through to the latest available censuses of 1901 and 1911.
It has taken plenty of pontificating (educated guesswork) to reach the conclusion that I present to you now, and previous followers of this tale will notice this is a major upgrade on previous versions, although there are still plenty of bugs to be sorted. Special thanks go to David Hancock, who gets the major credit for moving this part of the story forward, not only suggesting where the Hancock family lived but also the mechanism for how they might have arrived where they did.
David noticed that in the 1851 census living near to James Hancock on Dunkerton Hill was Daniel Hall, a retired farmer. He was a similar age to James and also gave Kilmersdon as his birthplace. With James being a farm labourer it therefore seemed a possibility that James Hancock had been employed by Daniel Hall.
That one observation suddenly opened up a whole new chapter on this story, because it also threw a totally new perspective how life had been organised in the Dunkerton Valley before the arrival of king coal. Indeed the extinguishing of the traditional land tenure system and the introduction of a way of life based on industrial practices was taking place at the very time the Hancocks first set foot in the area.
The Hall family were yeoman farmers at Tram Hill Farm, part of Charlton hamlet, just north of Kilmersdon Village. Daniel Hall was the youngest son of the family and it was his elder brother, William who was seen to be farming the land when he married Ann Lippiat, in 1809, a ceremony that actually took place in Wellow Parish.
This followed in the traditional ways of the rural world, because their father had died in 1807 and therefore it was time to take over the farm and find a wife. Daniel, then had to find his own way in the world and if he was lucky, find his own farm.
He did just that because in 1812 Daniel Hall married Mary, the widow of Thomas Weeks, in Camerton parish church. We dont know whether Thomas Weeks was a farmer but we do know thaat in 1832 Daniel Hall was farming land that rented at more than £50 per year, in the 1841 census was farming land close to Woodborough House and in 1846 was the farmer at Woodborough Farm.
The next part is pure supposition but does stand-up to scrutiny.
The parallel between the Hall and Hancock families might suggest that James Hancock may well have worked for the Hall family at Tram Hill Farm, Charlton, but when the old farmer died and the son took over then James and Daniel Hall went to look for pastures new. The death of James’ mother died in 1803 would have freed him from that responsibility and with no other siblings he was free to look for work elsewhere.
The new broom at Tram Hill Farm might have been a signal for a reshaping of working practices and although a son might happily work for his father, he wouldn’t necessarily be so keen to work for his elder brother, and taking James with him.
This possible chain of events would also explain how James married Sarah Gregory, a Paulton girl, in 1808 and their first child was baptised in Camerton in 1809. There is another family connection with Woodborough Hall, because two of the Cottle family, another name with later links, were servants for the Wait family at Woodborough House.
The close-up of the ‘fickle finger’ of Camerton illustrates the problem, of identifying who lived in what parish, with Woodborough House being in Camerton parish and Woodborough Farm in Wellow. The area marked ‘Wellow’ on the map, is now covered in houses but in the 1840s this was still open fields, with the just the odd cluster of houses, and very typical of the wider landscape of the area. The straight-ish road is the Fosse Way with the Red Post Inn marking the beginning/end of the steepest section.
adapted from an original map by Michael Chapman
The geography of this tiny part of Somerset has caused much confusion, particularly with the lack of definitive addresses in the records, and some of you might wonder why Camerton parish has this weird finger of land intruding into the landscape.
Well, parish boundaries originally reflected the landholdings dished out to individuals by William the Norman, after his arrival in 1066. Over time ownership changed whilst, generally, the parish boundaries remained more constant. However, anomalies occured when neighbouring land was sold off, leaving peninsulars and even islands of one parish inside another.
There were some ‘islands’ that belonged to a totally different ecclesiastical diocese, and others which were effectively under the central jurisdiction of no-one. Known as ‘peculiars’, these small pockets of land, outside the control of the local bishop, often became a haven for locals who had transgressed within their own parish, so attracting the waifs and strays of the area; unmarried mothers and young disruptive males thrown out by the local parish commissioners.
The parish of Marston Bigot, which plays a huge part in these Frome Fables, is peculiar in a different sort of way. The main parish and its church, lies south of Frome, but there was a detached section to the north west of the main town at Spring Mills and a tiny pocket of land in the very heart of the town centre. This discongruency reflected the landholdings of the Earls of Cork, who had great influence over the politics of the area. Those unfortunate parish dwellers living in the isolated sections were still expected to conduct their religious duties at the parish church, a walk of up to three miles each way, for some, every Sunday morning and religious holiday.
The Woolborough House peninsular was owned by the Wait family originally from Gloucestershire, who had purchased the property in the 18th century from the Lansdownes, who had previously held it for over 200 years. The estate crossed the Fosse Way into the Dunkerton valley, but soon met the estate of the Jarrett family, who owned Camerton Court.
Entance to Woodborough House – abt 1900
Camerton Court had come into the Jarrett family in 1801 when Henry Newton Jarrett married Anne Stephens, the heiress to the property. This was only a country cottage for the wealthy Jarrett family of ‘ex-pat’ Englishmen, who had their main base in the West Indies, where they made a fortune from sugar and slavery. Henry Jarrett never lived there but when his wife died in 1830, the old manor house passed to their son eldest John, who built a brand new house, Camerton Court and knocked down the old one. The new build began in 1838 and took two years to complete and it may be this project which attracted carpenters and masons to the area as much as the growth in the coal business.
Camerton Court – built in 1838
The parish of Dunkerton was owned and influence by a different clan, the Bampfylde family who moved from being baronets to ‘Lord Poltimore’, with one being a minister in Gladstone’s cabinet. They add an interesting twist to this whole saga, one that only came to light in 2013 and the part of the Bampfyldes in this story is described later.
Take away the two Camerton coalmines and the canal and what is left in the early 1800s, leaves a trail that leads to the front porch of two, three, perhaps even four grand houses, although the Hancocks and their kin would have been entering via the servants/tradesmen’s entrance, not the front gate.
James could have been involved in an unusual enterprise which took place in September 1815, when the local vicar and enthusiatic archeologist, the Reverend Skinner, organised the excavation of the ancient ‘Round Barrow’, known locally as the ‘Tump’, situated not far from Woodborough House. Local people, including miners were hired to dig a shaft into the middle of the mound, but they discovered nothing.
Round Barrow – Woodborough
In this still sparse community everyone would have known everyone else, so it is difficult to second guess how relationships began, but there were certainly communities of workers and servants at both Camerton Court and Woodborough House, but the diving rod points to the Hancocks having connections at Woodborough in their early days in Camerton parish.
We know James and Sarah were in Camerton in 1810 and in Wellow thereafter, but whether they lived at the Woodborough end, to the west, or moved immediately to a position over a mile away, half way up Dunkerton Hill is unknown at the time of writing. They certainly remained in Wellow parish to bring up their expanding family and this became their home for the next 40 years.
Fosse Way – looking north, towards Bath. ‘The Waggon and Horses’ is to the left.
(This is close to where the three parish boundaries met)
Knowing the exact location would alter the story a little, because when our James (1822) and his brothers and sisters came on the scene, were they living in the more ‘suburban’ lifestyle, attached to a lordly estate, or were they in an isolated home, on the steepest part of Dunkerton Hill.
Whenever the Hancock family did reach Dunkerton Hill, they chose a most picturesque spot to live, although probably the view from his bedroom window wasn’t high on the agenda. Careful analysis of several census documents suggests their home was situated at a busy junction of roads and trackways.
Dunkerton Valley – looking westwards
Dunkerton Hill was part of the main north-south road, from Bath to Frome, Shepton Mallett and beyond, although the section where the Hancocks lived, is now by-passed 50 metres to the east. Already, in James’ time, the steepest section of the Fosse Way had been improved and his home was at the point where old and new met, supplying a much needed rest point, particularly for the weary horses.
The Hancocks lived amongst a group of six or seven households, others being farm labourers and one, a coal haulier. The site occupies a rare flat spot on the hill, as the contours bend at this point. The 1887 map shows evidence of a well, an essential ingredient of living in such a place. Springs are in evidence in several places so they might not have had to dig too deep to strike water.
Actually, six footpaths, tracks and roads, all met at this one point, but once the new straight-line route up the hill was built, the well and its local inhabitants would have become an irrelevance to the majority of travellers.
My feeling is that the Hancock family did live here from 1810 till 1859 and that this was ‘2 Brimble Court’, the address that James Hancock,(1783) gave on his second marriage certificate. Brimble is a surname that crops up in the local parish records, so maybe it was the Brimble family who built the properties.
My interpretation of the ‘crossroads’ – no definitive map has been found for 1840-60
The outlines of the demolished cottages are still visible
James Hancock and Sarah Gregory were recorded as the parents to nine offspring, over a sixteen year period. There were five boys and four girls, with the family in descending order;
Dinah (1809), Harriett (1811), Thirza (1813), Abel (1815), Mark (1817), David (1820), James (1822), George (1824) and Patience (1825), and apart from Dinah, all were born in Wellow parish, probably on the White Ox Mead crossroads.
Baptisms of Hancock children
All were fortunate to survive childhood, and the majority are now well documented, with several traced through to the present generations. Only Abel, who died at the age of 26, and Patience, who died at 34, failed to make it past 60 and the majority did very much better.
Abel’s passing is noteworthy because of his death certificate. Born in 1815, Abel died in 1841, a year that proved a turning point in the lives of several in the family.
His cause of death was stated as, ‘Visitation of God’.
No, this wasn’t a diagnosis by a local ‘quack’ doctor or zealous priest, but was the verdict given by Robert Uphill, the Somerset coroner, who made his decision after an inquest held at the nearby village of Chilcompton. Causes of death are many and various but I’m not sure this is still one of the options on offer to the present day pathologist, coroner or even the local man of the cloth.
Patience Hancock, the youngest child, born in 1825, married James Smith in Southwark, London, in 1856, but died in Surrey in 1860. She had been a cook in service in Camberwell in 1851 and may have had children but no records have yet been found. Female death at her age was often as a consequence of childbirth.
Dinah, the oldest, was born in 1809 and died in Bristol in 1887. Her name crops up as a witness at the marriage of both her sister, Harriet, and her father’s second marriage, in 1851, but by then Dinah was already a widow. She married William Fare in 1831 and they moved to Bristol, but there is no sign of any children and after her husband’s death she continued to live in the port city, working as a charwoman, until she died, aged 78.
Harriet was born in 1811 and died in Trevethin, Monmouthshire in 1882. She married Elihu James in Wellow in 1829, and the couple remained in the parish for the birth of their ten children. This is one of the best documented members of the Hancock family as present day descendents are avid researchers. It was only in the 1860s did Harriet and Eliju follow their son, Abel James, to Trevethin, where the family were working in the coalmines.
The James name crops up in a marriage to James Weeks in 1830. This is Elihu James younger sister but no direct connection has been found to Thomas Weeks, the first husband of Daniel Hall the farmer.
Harriet and Dinah Hancock both making their ‘mark’.
Thirzah Hancock was born in 1813 and died in Bath district in 1892. She married Daniel Owen about 1836, and they had five children. In 1841, the couple were living with her father and brother on Dunkerton Hill. Daniel Owen started life as a farm labourer but in a later census is described as a ‘mechanic’, a by-product of the industrialisation of Victorian England.
Young James Hancock (1822) and his three remaining brothers now become the focus of this story and Mark, David and George are all mentioned in some depth during this account of the life of James Hancock – brickmaker.
There is no record of young James’ early years, although we can have some idea what life might have been like for him and his siblings in the Dunkerton valley during the 1820s. Children during this period were usually put to work at six or seven years old, and so it is likely James and his brothers and sisters helped his father with the farm work or they might have had employment for a few pence a week as worker in one of the mining related enterprises that were springing up everywhere. The young boys were mainly employed below ground pushing the wooden tubs of coal and winding the ‘gugg-wheels’, which pulled the small trucks up the inclines. On the surface they would do similar work, whilst the women would often be employed sorting the coal.
The Dunkerton coal canal in its final years
There is some help in understanding what life was like for the average citizen of Dunkerton, because for a short time it did warrant a significant place on the map, before receding to its present day anonymity of scattered houses, green fields and a rather out of place, parish church.
There is a history, written by Milly Maggs and William Bayntun-Coward, in 1989, which records talks given by Milly, about life in the early decades of 20th century Dunkerton. There are flashbacks to an earlier period, but I have a feeling that her own recollections about the parish, she so vividly portrays, wouldn’t have been out of place a century earlier.
There is mention in this history of a notorious rector of the parish, who plied his trade in the first half of the 19th century. Charles Francis Bampfylde (1785-1855) was the vicar of Hemington and Dunkerton parishes from 1814 to 1855. Hemington is a parish that nestles between Kilmersdon and Wellow and brought with it a sizeable annual tithe of £1200, a huge sum for a local parson.
Charles Bampfylde had the rather unenviable nick-name of the ‘Devil of Dunkerton’, a title well deserved by all accounts. He was the brother of the first Lord Poltimore, George Bampfylde, well actually a half-brother because he was the adopted illigitimate son of Charles Bampfylde 5th Baronet of Poltimore, whose family seat was in Devon.
It was common for the local Lord of the Manor to place one of his younger sons in charge of the local parish church, which meant he kept control of both the bodies and the minds of the local peasants (parishioners). Who said serfdom had been abolished in the medieval period?
Rector Bampfylde gained his reputation as the ‘Devil’ at tithe payment time. He expected to receive a full ten per cent of the profits of the local farmers and he always kept two loaded pistols beside him on the payment table, as a threat to non-payers.
The ‘Devil’ makes another appearance later and adds an extra scene to this story, one that on its own would make this story noteworthy, but comes as a delicious topping to a whole sequence of events which provide the background of my Frome Fables.
Those that have read my reinvention of the world of William Shakespeare – found at www.shakspearereinvented.wordpress.com, will quickly realise I have a great love and fascination with the fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes.
Well, to my great surprise and delight he turns up in Dunkerton as well, in the shape of his creator Arthur Conan Doyle. The great writer made many visits to Dunkerton rectory as the guest of the Reverend Cyril Angell and his wife, who was the great author’s sister. Conan Doyle is reputed to have caused a damaging fire in the house by failing to tend to the log fire, being engrossed in his writings.
Arthur Conan Doyle
Fans of the deer stalking detective will also realise that the name of the local village of Shoscombe, appears in the title of one of his mysteries – ‘The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place’, the very last of his short stories, published in 1927. Mr Holmes seems to be following me around and perhaps keeping a watchful eye over my revelations.
I add this link to the work of Milly Maggs and William Bayntun-Coward.
Milly Maggs (I believe) taken in front of Dunkerton colliery, with the profile of Dunkerton Hill standing out on the horizon.
There was always a relentless procession of horses and wagons traversing the Fosse Way, passing the Hancocks’ front door, beit at the Woodborough or the Wellow end of the valley, all straining to move goods up and down Dunkerton Hill. The damage to the road was such that parishers requested an alternative ‘turnpike’ road was built on the Tunley side, to ease the problem.
Many would have stopped to rest the horses and to grab some refreshment at the well, which was almost equidistant between the Wellow Inn, at the bottom and the Prince of Wales, which offered a further rest station, before heading for the summit at Red Post Inn.
Coal was the most difficult commodity to transport, but there was also bales of cloth from Frome and that town also had a growing business as a manufacturer of iron goods, which gained a market over a wide area of Southern England.
The Bath side of Dunkerton Valley was known as ‘three mile hill’ and was the main reason for building the coal canal, a costly venture that failed, because its complicated design was quickly overtaken by advances in technology and in particular the age of steam power and the coming of the railways.
Dunkerton Hill, on the south side, was shorter, but much steeper for the first mile, although it was nearly two miles until the Red Post Inn was reached. Here, Catherine Hamilton’s last comments are again of relevance to this story, as she recounts the journeys she made, with her father, from Kilmersdon to Bath, by horse drawn buggy. She remembers well having to dismount and having to walk up Dunkerton Hill, because of its steepness.
‘Incident on Dunkerton Hill’
(Drawing made in 1853 – the very period when Catherine Hamilton was using the road)
There is also an account of what must have been a common occurence, mis-treatment of the poor horses.
I quote from Neil Macmillen’s excellent book – ‘Coal from Camerton’.
‘On Thursday, Will Parfitt, a coal carrier of Camerton was fined forty shillings for cruelty to his horse, as the animal was labouring to pull a load up Dunkerton Hill’ – A local magistrate, who happened to be passing a the time, remonstrated with Parfitt for bludgeoning the animal with a heavy stick. Parfitt’s added insolence ensured he was summoned before the magistrates in Chandon House, in Bath.’
Bottom of Dunkerton Hill, towards Bath – the scene of the 1853 ‘incident’.
Like many thousands of their peers living on the Somerset coalfield, the Hancock youngsters became attracted by the blossoming opportunities across the Bristol Channel, in South Wales. The coalfield had transformed the face of North Somerset and provided work for many thousands of people, including numerous members of the extended Hancock family. However, the Somerset coal seams were shallow, rarely more than twelve inches thick, so extracting the coal was difficult and rarely profitable for mine owner or collier. These small collieries were very unpredictable places of employment and men were frequently laid off, as a seam petered out or became too dangerous to work. There had been instances of rebellion, particularly in 1817 when 3,000 miners gathered at Paulton to complain about a reduction of ten per cent in their wages. This must have been all the miners from far and wide and was no doubt exacerpated by the rise in the cost of food, caused by the ‘year with no summer’, the previous year. Those in need of extra wages usually headed to the fields in harvest time and so if you were one of those who had continued with your ‘fresh air existance’ you suddenly found that job under threat as well.
The dangers of life for the miner in these unregulated times are shown by the number of ropes that broke, sometimes cut deliberately, by disaffected employees, or where the sides of the shaft collapsed, crushing or burying the poor victim. Miners drunk, probably on cider, fell down shafts, whilst others fell in the canal and drowned.
Demon drink was the curse of many families and after a bonus was paid to all the men in the Camerton pit, on the discovery of a new coal seam, the result was that no-one appeared the next day as they had spent their windfall in the taverns.
Children were also victims and a young boy called Cottle (that name again), son of the schoolmistress, was killed by falling earth whilst working down a shaft. This was in the early years of the 19th century and it was thirty years before laws forbiding the practice of sending children down mines were passed, so perhaps our Hancock boys also shared that unwelcome experience.
Reverend Skinner, the archeologist, was Camerton parish vicar, was a good man and tried to improve both the bodies and the souls of the miners, but despite his best efforts he fought a losing battle. He negotiated with the mine owners for better conditions and started a Sunday school for the children, but of his 50 attendees only ten were boys. Skinner’s efforts, though, compare markedly with his compatriot, next door, in Dunkerton, where Bampfylde, apart from his highwayman pistols, was a notoriously heavy drinker and lover of the easy life, with total disregard for the welfare of his parishioners.
The local cloth industry, in Frome and Trowbridge was also struggling, unable to compete with the highly mechanised factories of Lancashire and Yorkshire. Somerset was never to recover and in just a couple of generations its status as a manufacturing powerhouse was gone. The hunger pains of decline affected most families in the county and so there was large scale migration to places that offered a better future.
This is why we see family groups change abode with increasing frequency as they sought a way out of the rural poverty that afflicted the area. After generations of stability, in a small village or even an isolated hamlet, the people of Somerset began to spread out into neighbouring counties and the more adventurous sought work right across the globe.
James Hancock’s elder brother, Mark, seems to have been the first of this particular branch of the family to make the move to South Wales. The mining industry there was expanding rapidly and attracting labour from all over the British Isles. The mines were larger and more productive than the ‘mouseholes’ of Somerset, and in places like Blaenavon, there was the added attraction of an iron making industry.
Study of the movement patterns between Somerset and Monmouthshire have shown that some people commuted between the two areas with the seasons. Miners followed the availability of work and so if their local village mine suddenly hit a problem they would seek temporary work across the watery divide. They were also happy to mix mining with the seasonal work of the farm, as spring planting and the September harvests all needed large numbers of extra hands. The coming of the railways in the 1840s also brought a new growth business as strawberries became a popular crop, aimed at the new markets in London. These luxury fruits provided extra income in the previously quiet period of June and July.
There was a constant traffic of people between the two mining areas, folk either travelling by horse drawn wagon but more often on foot. The cost of organised travel by stage-coach or wagon was high, although people might have hitched a lift with friendly drivers carrying goods. Most of these ‘commuters’, though, took the long walk, 20 miles to Bristol, a ferry boat across the River Severn to Newport and then the high road into one of the Welsh valleys; a distance of over 40 miles. If they walked further northwards, the river was narrower, the crossing shorter and cheaper, and there were plenty of boatmen, who would accept a small fee to row them to the Welsh side.
Ferry at Newnham – in 1920…!!
Only after Brunel built his wonderful railway in the 1840s, did travel as we know it today become possible, but the rail journey to Wales, still involved a long detour via Gloucester, until the Sharpness Bridge was built in 1879 and the Severn Tunnel was opened in 1886. This novel method of travel proved too late on the scene for those involved in the early part of this drama, but once the railway arrived, everyone from the humblest servant to the lords of the land, made use of the freedom of movement the railways brought to the entire population.
Sharpness Bridge – short cut across the Rivern Severn, but not until 1879
The first record of the Hancocks having made the journey westwards, was in 1837, with the marriage of 19 year old Mark to Anne Jones, in Blaina, a village just north of Abertillery, in Monmouthshire. The 1841 census shows the couple had now moved to Blaenavon, in the next valley, over the Coity mountain and the nineteen year old James was now with them. Both men were working in the Blaenavon brickyards at this time and from then onwards ‘bricks’ seem to have increasingly become the family trade.
The family were not only working in the brickyard, but they were also living there as well, in the ‘Brickyard Cottages’, situated only a few feet across the road from their place of work. Their mother, Sarah, was also living with them in 1841, although her visit was probably only temporary as her husband and youngest son, George, were still residing in Wellow. Both Ann and Sarah may also have been working in the brickyard, with their menfolk, as women were an essential part of the labour force at that time.
The boys’ mother, Sarah, disappears from the scene after that and the only reference to her later, is back in Wellow, in 1849, where she passed away due to the ‘effects of epilepsy’.
By the time of the 1851 census, their widowed father was still living on Dunkerton Hill and working as a farm labourer, but now with him was a companion, Sarah Bird, a widow whose occupation was described as ‘hawker with a basket’. Her maiden name was Sarah Vincent and she had been born in Frome in 1794, but we dont know any more about her life, although there were other families of ‘Birds’ living in Wellow parish, at Shoscombe
Sarah may have knocked on James’ front door selling her wares and they both got more than he bargained for! More likely, she had become an ‘entrepreneur’, using James’ position beside the Fosse Way, to become a roadside seller of refreshments for the weary travellers, perhaps pies, bread or even strawberries in season. Being half way up the hill, between the two inns, meant she would never have been short of custom.
Only a couple of months later the couple formalised the living arrangements, with marriage. They both gave the same address, as 2 Brimbles Court. He was 68 and she was 57, although he only admitted to being 60.
The name Brimble appears as a surname elsewhere in the Dunkerton area, usually attached to families of miners, but what connection there is between the people and the address is unclear. This may indeed have been the same house where James had lived since his first arrival on the hill, 40 years earlier. The couple died within a year of each other, James Hancock in 1859 from ‘paralysis’ and his second wife, Sarah in 1860.
Blaenavon is a Monmouthshire town, situated at the head of the most easterly of the Welsh valleys. This bleak and remote, rural landscape was transformed in a few short years to become one of the pioneering centres for iron and steel production, not only in England but across the world. The site was unique at the time, as all the raw materials for iron manufacture; iron ore, limestone (for flux), coal (for power) and clay (for building), were all available in the same place.
Coity mountain,- bleak hillside above Blaenavon
In 1782, Samuel Hopkins, Thomas Hill and David Pratt leased land from Lord Abergavenny and opened the first coal mine in the area, but their big project was to build the Blaenavon Ironworks, which opened in 1789. Iron and steel production continued on the same site until 1900 and in that 111 year period the process of iron and steelmaking was revolutionised by a number of new processes developed in Blaenavon.
During the early years of the 1800s, Blaenavon could be characterised as a ‘wild west’ frontier town, attracting migrants from all over Britain and even as far away as Italy. By the 1850s the population had risen from a couple of farmers and a few sheep to nearly 10,000 industrious souls. There were over 40 public houses in the centre of the town and there was the inevitable rush at the end of a shift to quench the thirst after a day spent in the heat of the blast furnaces or the dust of the coalface or brickyard. What had been one of the healthiest of environments in 1780 had become one of the foulest, imaginable by 1850.
Blaenavon Iron Works – World Heritage Site
In contrast to the wild behaviour generated in the public houses, there sprung up a mixture of churches and chapels, representing both the established Church of England, but more particularly various branches of non-conformist faiths. Blaenavon eventually gained a wide reputation as a god-fearing, well ordered society, and the town became as famous for its chapels and pulpit bashing sermons, as its iron and steel production.
The story of the growth of Blaenavon is described in a novel by Alexander Cordell. ‘Rape of the Fair Country’, which was first published in 1959 and is based around the Welsh iron-making communities of Blaenavon and Nantyglo in the 19th century. The action is seen through the eyes of young Iestyn Mortymer who grew up in times of growing tensions between ironmasters and trade unionists. In 1826, when the book starts, Iestyn is eight years old and already beginning work at the Garndyrus furnaces near Blaenavon.
His sister Morfydd has strong feelings about women and children working in mines and ironworks and she sympathises with the Chartist movement, who were forerunners of the Labour Party and highly active in mining areas in the 1830s. This militant faction of working people wanted the right to vote and the implementation of other changes to the parliamentary system, which would allow the ‘common working man’ to become part of the democratic process.
The Chartists, named after a charter they published in 1838, had a notorious battle with the authorities in nearby, Newport, Monmouthshire in that same year. Known as the Newport Rising, the revolt ended with 22 dead Chartist supporters, and was the last armed uprising on the English mainland. The ring leaders were sentenced to death, to be ‘hung, drawn and quartered’, but the sentences were commuted to transportation to Australia.
That was the environment that greeted James and Mark on their arrival in their new Welsh domain, perhaps little different from what they had left behind in Somerset.
New investment was constantly needed to compete with the other industrial towns of South Wales, so this became a boom and bust economy as Victorian industrialisation raced forwards. The 1850s saw the high point in the fortunes of Blaenavon; a new turnpike road opened in 1847, a new steel works was commissioned in 1851, and in 1852 the railway arrived, revolutionising the transport of goods to and from this remote Monmouthshire hill town.
But it was this remoteness which eventually proved Blaenavon’s downfall because larger factories, more powerful steam engines and easier transport links offered better opportunities for iron and steel production elsewhere. Iron and steel-making expanded more quickly in the more accessible valleys further west, such as Merthyr Tydfil and Eddw Vale and eventually moved to the coastal plain, which fringed the Bristol Channel. Blaenavon was left behind, to ponder its fate at chapel, every Sunday.
Ebbw Vales steelworks 1969 – photo Peter Benton
Blaenavon, the thriving town, that had been a testbed for many of these new, early technologies, went into terminal decline in the early 20th century. The main coal mine struggled on till 1980, but the days when Blaenavon was the industrial capital of the world became a long distant memory and the town faded away.
Blaenavon – a forgotten town?
This abandonment eventually was turned into a postive outcome, because at the beginning of this millenium, Blaenavon gained ‘World Heritage’ status, as an industrial museum, because the remnants of the original Iron Works and other industrial structures were still there.
Looking down High Street in Blaenavon – handbrakes on !!
Once major industry deserted Blaenavon no-one bothered to demolish the buildings, and they just slowly decayed for the next 100 years. The coal mine also still survives as the National Mining Museum of Wales – ‘Big Pit’.
The original remoteness and inaccessibility of Blaenavon can be judged by the claim of the local railway preservation group, that this was the highest and steepest standard gauge line built in Britain and had the highest station, at 1400 feet above sea level.
‘Big Pit’ and the local preserved railway – popular tourist attractions
Bricks and Brickyards
So, the Hancocks must have thought they were on to a good thing. If regular work was to be found they had come to the right place. Blaenavon was where it was happening. Working conditions might be poor, but there was more money and opportunity in the heat of the blast furnaces, or the dust of the coal faces and brickyards, than in the fields, hedgerows and ‘mousehole’ coalmines of Somerset.
There were two brickyards in Blaenavon, Upper and Lower. The Upper Brickyard was the larger, high on the hillside to the north of the Iron Works, where the boulder clay outcropped on the surface and the main source of clay for the town. The close proximity of these clay deposits was an important factor in the rapid growth of the Blaenavon as there was no need to import building materials from the coastal plain.
Blaenavon – 1899
James and Mark Hancock’s home, in 1841, was in the small terrace of houses attached to the Lower Brickyard at Blaenavon. This smaller brickyard, was in the heart of the Iron Works complex, supplying material directly to the blast furnaces. Living and working there must have seemed like something out of Dante’s Inferno. The smoke and noise from this industrial megalith could be seen and heard for miles around, whilst there was also the noxious smell of the heavily polluted atmosphere.
Despite the conditions people flocked to Blaenavon, gaining their compensation for the onerous conditions, in the public houses and chapels. This choice of environment might seem odd to us now, but industrialisation was the ‘future’ and the Hancocks wanted their share.
Model and artist’s impression of the Iron Works in 1850
Stack Square cottages show how close the workers lived to their place of employment – photo: Steve Bevan /Canis Major Photography.
The Lower brickyard occupied the site of the bushes – behind the chimney – photo Steve Bevan /Canis Major Photography.
Bricks and bricks and more bricks
Beneath the Blaenavon furnaces – photo David ‘RATS’ Jones
James had made a sensible choice in choosing brickmaking as his trade. We now take for granted that houses are made from bricks, but this basic building material has only been in common use for the past 200 years. Prior to 1800, bricks were an expensive luxury, which meant only the richest in the land could afford them. Most buildings were constructed from the local materials, and so Somerset had stone cottages, Sussex had houses made from flint and for many of the poorest throughout the land, homes were still of wattle and daub (sticks and mud) construction. Only in East Anglia were brick houses more common, as clay was readily available across the region.
The population explosion associated with the industrial revolution also meant millions more homes and thousands of mills and factories, bridges and viaducts were needed. A standard building material was required and because of their relative portability and flexibility of use, bricks were seen to be the answer.
However, the transport of heavy goods before the railways was limited to canal barge or horse and wagon and the roads were poor, with most impassable in the winter months. So, despite their portability, moving large quantities of bricks more than a few miles was not practical, and so every town with clay deposits had its own brickworks, although it probably didn’t look like what you’d expect.
Permanent brick kiln – what you might expect – but no..!!
However, if you visit the sites now and expect to find the remnants of a huge factory complex then you will be disappointed. There will probably be nothing to see. We now think of a brick kiln as a massive permanent structure with huge chimneys, but burning bricks in Victorian days was not like that, at least not for the majority of the time.
Understanding the early days of brick manufacture gives a better insight into the life that James and his gang might have led. I am indebted to a present day descendent, David Hancock, who has provided plenty of detailed material about brick production in the 1800s, and he says, ‘to fully understand the life of James Hancock and his family you need to understand how bricks were made during the Victorian era’.
Early brickmakers first had to dig the clay themselves, using simple hand shovels and this was done in the autumn each year. The winter frosts and rain made the clay soft and removed unwanted oxides. In the springtime, the weathered clay was placed into a ‘soaking pit’, where it was mixed with water and kneaded with the hands and feet to mix all the elements of the clay together. This step was called tempering or pugging and was the hardest work of all. Horse-driven pug mills often speeded up the process. Every part of the preparation stage entailed hard manual work, but each had a seasonal component and this had an obvious effect on the lifestyle and working habits of the labourers themselves.
Digging and pugging
The bricks were made close to the site of the clay outcrop and the coal or wood was brought to the site, as these were the lighter materials. Many towns and villages now have places known as ‘old brickfields’, ‘burnt knoll’ or a Clay Lane, which was where the clay was dug and the brick ‘clamps’ were assembled and fired.
The brick moulder was the head of the team and would stand at the moulding table for twelve to fourteen hours a day, and with the help of his assistants, could make several thousand bricks in a day. With a sprinkling of sand, the clay was pressed into the mould with the hands and the excess clay removed from the top of the mould with a flat stick, a ‘strike’. Single, double, four or six brick moulds were used, with the single brick mould having an advantage in portability in that a child could carry it to the drying area.
The moulded, ‘green’ bricks were then stacked in a herring bone pattern to dry in the air and the sun, a job for the younger members of the family, as seen here in modern day Afghanistan. The drying process took around fourteen days, and then they were ready to be burned.
Afghan children turning ‘green’ bricks to aid the drying process
The kiln was constructed entirely of green or raw bricks which were stacked in such a way to create structures called ‘clamps’ or ‘scove kilns’. Wood and coal were used for fuel and that was placed in the centre of the creation, with a number of tunnels to allow for ventilation and control of the firing process.
Mini brick ‘clamp’ – demonstrating the process
Even after drying, the green bricks contained up to fifteen per cent water and so the fires were kept low for 24-48 hours to finish the drying process. During this time steam could be seen coming from the top of the kiln. Once the gases cleared this was the sign to increase the intensity of the fires, but if it was done too soon the steam in the bricks would cause them to explode. Intense fires were maintained in the fire holes around the clock for a week until temperatures of 1200 centigrade, were reached. The knowledge and experience of the brickmaker dictated when the fireholes would be bricked over and the heat was allowed to slowly dissipate over another week.
When the kiln was disassembled the sorting process began. If only raw bricks were used, the bricks from the outermost walls were kept to be burned again in the next kiln. The best bricks were chosen for use on exterior walls of buildings, but bricks that were over burned might be used for less prominent structures.
Essentially, to burn bricks was a 24 hours, 7 day week, team job. A burn for a small clamp kiln on a Victorian farm was a few days, but when large quantities of bricks were needed for major building projects in urban areas, the clamp could be 20 metres wide, 12 metres high and 100 metres long. These structures were colossal and would burn for a month and make half a million bricks. To create that many bricks for one firing the moulders became like whirling dervishes creating a wet brick every 10 seconds.
These photos come from a variety of sources, from a number of countries and cover a long time span. What is clear, though, is that there is a standard process which has probably been used for centuries and would have been very familiar to the Hancock brick gang.
Brickmaking, in England, began as small, family run affairs, often associated with the large estates or manor houses of the landed gentry. The brick making cycle lent itself to a seasonal approach with agricultural workers working on the farm for the summer months, digging clay in the autumn and brickmaking in spring and summer. The local lord could, therefore, make optimum use of his estate work force.
History also tells us that the early days of brickmaking, particularly in the towns was dominated by the use of child and female labour. Much of the work was menial and repetitive and not regarded as ‘heavy’ labour, compared with working below ground, in a coal or iron mine. New labour laws in the 1840s prevented some of these practices, but women still played a large part in brickmaking right through to the very end of the 19th century.
Child labour in the brickworks captured in a series of engravings of the early 1800s
Blaenavon Upper Brickyard gang – 1880 – formidable….!
Mark and James might have been new to brickmaking when they arrived in Blaenavon, but the chances are they had learnt the art of brickmaking on one of the large estates back in Somerset. Various places associated with this story had building projects taking place at this time. In the Dunkerton Valley there was the construction of Camerton Court, from 1838-40 and less than a mile to the south a new coalmine was sunk at Tyning, in 1837 and shafts on the Woodborough farm itself, creating Braysdown colliery. One notable feature on the map was the creation of a brickworks close to Tyning colliery, but this probably post dated the Hancock exodus to Blaenavon. Frome also had major rebuilding projects at this time, as it tried to modernise the local industry and on the Marston Estate there were extensive renovations and improvements being instituted by the Earl of Cork.
Wherever they gained their early experience, brickmaking for James, Mark and George would have been a spring and autumn occupation returning to be farm labourers during the warmer months. They probably did a bit of all sorts, taking labouring work as and when available.
Back to Somerset and an ‘arranged’ marriage
We know nothing more for certain about young James Hancock between June 1841 and July 1844, but the picture is building about other family events and now lead me to believe it is probable he returned to Somerset for a greater part of that period. The evidence is confusing and although there is plenty of written evidence some of it is contradictory. Some of this confusion concerns his brother, Mark, who was with him in Blaenavon.
There is only one Mark Hancock in each of the Welsh census records from 1841-81, but in June 1841 it is definitely our Mark, who was living in the Blaenavon Lower Brickyard with wife, Ann, James and their mother, Sarah. However, from 1851 onwards the Mark Hancock, living in Wales has a wife called Martha and consistently gives his birthplace as Babington, the adjoining parish to Kilmersdon.
A Mark Hanco(x) does marry Martha Chivers in Kilmersdon in September 1841, and by his credentials, this is the person in the later Welsh census records, from 1851 onwards. So, is this also the same Mark Hancock, brickmaker, married and living in Blaenavon on the night of 6th June 1841?
Mark is almost unique in the Hancock list of names, however, there were actually two Mark Hancocks born within a year of each other; in 1817, son of James, and in 1818, son of George and Amey, (the uncle and niece!). The 1841 census has only one Mark Hancock, either in England or Wales, and so do the censuses in the following decades. I dwell on this because establishing who was living where during the early 1840s helps to set the scene for events that follow.
These census ‘snapshots’ can sometimes give an accurate idea of ‘belonging’ to a place, but they can also cause confusion when major changes to the family occur a few days after the census. In this case, that may be what happened. There is an Ann Hancock, who died in the Bath district in the summer of 1841, and this could be Mark’s wife and might mean the whole family had returned to greener pastures soon after the census.
This is also suggested because there had been dramatic events taking place in Blaenavon in 1841, when the Director of Blaenavon Ironworks resigned, because the £138,000 investment to modernise the ironworks, which had began in 1836, proved to be a financial disaster. This started a boom and bust period that eventually led to the decline of Blaenavon as a thriving industrial centre. The two brickyards would have played an essential part in any rebuilding process, but would have been amongst the first places to suffer during any financial collapse.
So, there are a number of confirmed events that occured in 1841, which all had an effect on Hancock family life. The timeline for 1841 now looks something like this.
James’ brother, Abel, died back in Dunkerton in April 1841, after his visit from the ‘Almighty’, and by the time of the census in June, their mother Sarah was with her two boys in Blaenavon. Might mother have been there to nursemaid a sickly, possibly pregnant daughter-in-law, a victim of the terrible living conditions or perhaps complications with a pregnancy; perhaps though she was part of the brickyard team, earning some extra money. Did they all return to Somerset soon after, prompted either by the collapse of work opportunities or the ailing Ann, or perhaps both?
Back in Somerset, an Ann Hancock died in the summer 1841 and there was an almost immediate marriage on 12th September of a Mark Hancock, coalminer from Coleford, to the sixteen year old Martha Chivers also from Coleford, with the wedding taking place in Kilmersdon. The father of the groom is named as Joseph Hancock, when we should be expecting a George. Confusion all round..!!
A child, Alfred Hancock, appeared rather sharply in early 1842 and the non Hancock name suggests that Martha was already pregnant with another man’s child, and that this Mark helped her out of a predicament. This couple remained in the Kilmersdon area until around 1847-8, when they moved to Monmouthshire, where Mark continued to work as a coalminer and died in 1882.
This really does look like the Mark Hancock, son of George and Amey, or even Joseph, but not James, however, we are we suffering from a lack of death and census records for Mark, brother of James, which would confirm what happened to him, so the jury is still undecided. he could have headed off, stateside, a journey made by several other Hancocks in later years.
It isn’t an essential part of the story, although it would put the Hancock family firmly back in Somerset in 1841, but is an aspect that those doing the research have agonised over long and hard and got absolutely no-where.
Whilst the Welsh Mark losing a wife in Wellow, and scurrying across to Kilmersdon and marrying a pregnant young girl a few weeks later might seem highly unlikely, as you will see, the odds on that possibility shorten considerably the more you know about the Hancock family. Whichever Mark it was, it does show the Hancock men were quite prepared to help out a damsel in distress, acting as a father to a child that probably wasn’t theirs, and in a world where there were plenty of fair maidens to choose from.
The other thing to come out of this research is that other families from the Kilmersdon and Frome area were also on the move at this time. The Chivers, Button, Mitchell and Cooper names crop up in abundance spread across this area of north east Somerset and it is clear from their baptism and marriage records that they were not averse to popping back to their home village to court and to marry their spouses. The inter-marriage is everything you might believe would be typical of a tight knit community and apart from the names mentioned above there are James, Weeks, Padfields, Cottles, Hamblins and others, cropping up regularly in other peoples family tree. When you run through the list of neighbours in the Dunkerton Valley census, many have a familiar ring to them, mirrored by the census returns from Kilmersdon district.
The family connections with home base were never broken but instead each branch was like a tentacle that stretched out into pastures new, when the opportunity arose. Yes, the Button name is one of the most prolific in the Kilmersdon area and also appears at Dunkerton, and yes it is closely connected to a certain circuitous car driver of the same name.
So, it looks as though James Hancock may have returned to Somerset with his brother, Mark in the summer of 1841 but whether Mark headed off to marry Miss Chivers is unclear. If this was not him then he disappeared off the face of the Earth after that. Somerset is certainly where we hear about James Hancock next, and not in Wellow or Dunkerton, but in the village of Nunney, a couple of miles south of Frome. This is when the extraordinary part of his life really begins, because in 1844, now aged 22, he was ready to find a partner to share his life.
The parish record simply states that James Hancock married Eliza Cooper on 14 July 1844, in All Saints Church, Nunney. This bland entry in the register seemed such a common place event, as it was supposed to, but behind it lay a tale of intrigue and deception, and a mystery that has survived until the present day.
‘Chocolate box view of Nunney village’
Nunney village has been described as the ‘prettiest village in England’ and with its traditional stone cottages, ancient coaching inn and quaint moated castle, few would argue with that description. The 12th century Church of All Saints, in Nunney, may have been the local parish church of the Cooper family and the centre of marriage ceremonies, but the real Cooper roots lay in the adjacent hamlet of Trudoxhill. This small settlement bordered the parishes of Marston Bigott and Nunney, and was an area dominated by the large estate of the Earls of Cork, who lived at Marston House.
Main Street in Trudoxhill – 2008
Eliza Cooper’s family were carpenters by trade, and made their living crafting wooden handles for ‘edge tools’, (chisels, billhooks and scythes), which was a traditional cottage industry around Nunney. Family members were also furniture makers, and there was a stonemason or two thrown in for good measure as the local quarries were also of major importance to the the local economy. Trudoxhill may be a sleepy hollow now but in the early part of the 19th century was a busy, industrious place.
The hamlet also had a tradition as being the home of ‘dissenters’, those with religious beliefs out of step with the Church of England tradition and these go back several hundred years.
‘ It is the opinion founded on circumstances somewhat probable, and sustained by facts, that the neighbourhood of Trudoxhill was in past ages a kind of hiding place for persecuted Dissenters or Nonconformists. Surrounded by woods, situated in a retired vale, with roads in bad condition and difficult to travel, it is supposed that the persecuted people of God here (occasionally at least) found a more quiet resting place than in the populous localities where hireling officials, and cruel men in power more generally abounded, – especially in the Days of the Stuarts.’(17th century)
Taken from the Trudoxhill Congregational Church book and written in 1855.
Congregational Church, Trudoxhill
Trudoxhill is probably now best known for its public house, the White Hart Inn. The stone built tavern dates from 1625 and had various uses in its early days but externally seems unchanged since the Coopers and their neighbours walked through the door, after a hard days work, some 200 years ago.
White Hart Inn, Trudoxhill
Much of the detail in this next section can be read in my separate story about Sarah Louisa Cooper – click on the link on the side panel. I have tried to include here information that is relevant to James Hancock’s story, although inevitably there will be a little overlap.
Mystery Number One
If James had moved back to Wellow in 1841, then there was every chance he met up again with his new wife, Eliza Cooper, at that time. The Cooper family lived only a mile or so down the valley, at Lower Peasedown Cottages, and there were just open fields between the young couple. It is very likely James had known Eliza much earlier, since her family had moved to the area, from Trudoxhill, in the early 1830s and in the sparse populations of the time, as Catherine Hamilton pointed out, everybody knew everyone else.
The pattern of life in the eastern end of the Dunkerton Valley is gradually revealing itself and the network of minor trackways and footpaths give a strong clue about the movement patterns of the residents. What is clear is that the now insignificant hamlet of Carlingcott, was formerly a focal point for many of the isolated inhabitants of the hillside. This influence continued as the coalmines were opened but gradually became overtaken by Camerton, Dunkerton and the newly created village at the top of the hill; Peasedown St John.
In the centre of Carlingcott was a small building, owned by Ann Chivers, which doubled as the Wesleyan Chapel. This was replaced by a purpose built church in 1851, with one of the trustees an Isaac Button, and that church is still very much in use today. We know from later records that the Wesleyan Church played a part in the lives of the Hancock and Cooper families and this seems to be a likely meeting place for the two families – weekly prayers at the home of a member of the Chivers family. Whilst the Church of England seemed unable to control the drinking habits of its congregation, abstinence from alcohol was a central plank of non-conformist tradition and this provided a clear divide between the two.
There is also a clue as to the fluidity of movement between Frome and the Dunkerton Valley, as the newcomers often popped back to their home village to get married. This was certainly true in 1843, when Harriet Cooper, elder sister of Eliza, married William Mitchell from Frome, a man fifteen years her senior.
He was 37 and she 22, a large age gap, but it was quite common for a man in his thirties or forties, who had lost one or even two wives to look for a younger model next time around. The benefit to the young girl was the financial security of the older man. Harriet’s marriage also took place in Nunney, on 6th August 1843, and was an occasion when we can be sure all the Cooper clan and their friends would have been back on home turf, to celebrate the event.
The elderly William Mitchell seems to have been married at least once, possibly twice previously, in Frome, and with no sign of a death for either wife. The occupation of this William Mitchell is mentioned in 1837 as ‘brickmaker’, and the first time anyone remotely connected with the Hancock family has claimed this occupation. Could this 1843 wedding also have brought the brickmaking fraternity together and cemented a few more family relationships?
It also squares the circle, because a Brimble, from Dunkerton had earlier, married a Mitchell from the Frome area and then there was the Wesleyan chapel being held in the Chivers home, which neatly brings Mark Hancock into potential contact with the poor girl from Kilmersdon who had found herself in the family way. Village life in rural Somerset was about marrying the people you knew, who were more than likely people your family knew, who were very often part of the family. All very cosy..!!
The next we know for certain about James Hancock is that he married Eliza Cooper in Nunney in July 1844. Both sets of parents were now well entrenched ten miles to the north in the Dunkerton Valley, but James Hancock and Eliza Cooper had banns read in Nunney, so the couple must have been residents and this was exactly the same path her sister had taken a year earlier, marrying a brickmaker in her home parish.
Reasons for the decision to choose Nunney rather than Wellow, Camerton or Dunkerton Churches become clearer when birth records show that on 20th June 1844, twenty five days BEFORE their marriage, Eliza Cooper gave birth to a baby girl back in Peasedown. The child’s birth was later registered by the mother, in Bath, two weeks AFTER the marriage, on 29th July, as Louisa Hancock.
The motives for the choice of venue and the sequence of events now seem more obvious. The birth and the marriage were separated geographically, so there was no reason for the Nunney and Trudoxhill gossipmongers to know of the pre-nuptial birth. The 25 days gave just enough time for the banns to be read in Nunney, and therefore allow for the wedding to take place without a problem.
For those looking back or viewing the event from afar everything would look very legitimate; father, mother and child’s name all correctly in place. Well nearly, because there was still a new baby to account for, so soon after the wedding.
James’ occupation is now given as just ‘labourer’, suggesting the nomadic nature of his existance at this time. The two witnesses were both Coopers, one Eliza’s father and the other Jane, probably not her sixteen year old younger sister, but possibly the wife of the estate carpenter. Both James and Eliza must have been accepted by the church minister as part of the Nunney community because usually the title ‘sojourner’ was attached to any temporary resident of a parish, or the name of the home parish noted.
The small detail of accounting for the baby was overcome, when almost nine months elapsed before little Louisa was baptised, in Dunkerton Church on 9th March 1845, but by now her name had been amended to Sarah Louisa Hancock. On that same March day, Eliza’s brother and next door neighbour, George Cooper, was in the same church to witness his daughter baptised as Sarah Anne Cooper. The cleric who conducted the service was our old friend, Charles Bampfylde, the Devil of Dunkerton’.
That act of baptism has much wider connotations, although whether anyone realised it at the time or even until now is open to question. It does produce a remarkable side-show to this story, but one I have saved for my Sarah Louisa Cooper saga – which is rapidly reaching the realms of remarkable coincidences or the most well written drama in the history of literature – however, the coincidences are so implausible that you couldn’t make it up..!!!
The confusion and deception now seemed complete. Only those close to the affair would know the whole truth and even those with access to all the records and certificates would find it difficult to sort out later. The baptising of two children with similar names on the same day, some nine months after the birth was also meant to later confuse those who were not close to the matter. The whole scenario of birth, marriage, registration, and baptism are clearly done to legitimise the birth and to make it seem that James was seen as the father of baby, Sarah Louisa. This deception worked almost perfectly for over 150 years before a name scribbled on the back of a photograph and the wonders of computer ‘search engines’ uncovered the truth.
The reasons why the name might have been changed and the whole shenanigans surrounding this episode is dealt with in Sarah Louisa’s story, but the confirming evidence that all wasn’t exactly what it should be was revealed on her 1862 marriage certificate, where the father’s name was left blank.
James Hancock is supposed to be my great, great grandfather, but he clearly isn’t..!!
The story about Sarah Louisa, which passed down through the Browning family, was that her name was originally Hancock and she was adopted by her Cooper grandparents and changed her name. There is no evidence of a formal adoption process, so this was just a way to explain the name change for those that got too curious. However, someone did scribble a clue on the back of a photograph, which helped to solve the riddle and without which the truth might have remained a secret. The writing simply said, ‘Sarah Cooper nee Hancock’.
Grandparents frequently did act as parents to the offspring of wayward daughters, but they rarely went to the trouble to dot the ‘i’s and cross the ‘t’s of the paperwork which went with this deception. This was the early days of the national registration of births and marriages, only begun in 1837, so there was little previous experience to fall back on. I wonder whether these simple labourers and carpentry folk were able to devise such a plan themselves.
How could they expect to hide the truth from both their family, friends and the authorities in the form of the church and the newly created public registration system. Most of the Hancocks and Coopers were illiterate and signed with a cross. Samuel Cooper did so, on James and Eliza’s marriage certificate, in 1844 and Eliza Hancock was still unable to sign her name some twenty years later on the birth of her final child. Surely they must have had help and advice from a third party in constructing this convincing cover-up?
There was a thread of literacy in the family, because Eliza’s brother, George who lived in the next door cottage in Peasedown had married Sarah Ashman from Babington, whose father was a bookkeeper, possibly on the Babington Estate. James’s sister, Harriet, could also write but none were budding Jane Austens.
The story goes that it the real father was someone of importance, possibly a member of the Earl of Cork’s family. To James that was immaterial because he was now married and legally the father of Eliza’s child.
Marston House, home of the Earls of Cork until 1904
But what were James’ motivations for marrying this girl, whose life had been turned upside down by an unwanted pregnancy? There were plenty of other fish in the sea, or in the brickyards or the hayloft and as Catherine Hamilton says, there was a surfeit of girls and many were destined to spend their life as unmarried maidens.
Well, James certainly gained a wife, and we can guess she might have been a pretty girl if one of the landed gentry had been tempted by her charms. There are several photos of Cooper girls, and they are certainly not unattractive and most held their good looks long into middle age. Was this purely an arranged marriage to help out Eliza or was this James jumping at the opportunity to marry a girl he had long admired?
Eliza and her Cooper family lived in the isolated terrace of houses known as Lower Peasedown, overlooking the Dunkerton Valley. Her parents, Samuel and Ann Cooper, had moved from Trudoxhill about 1825 and moved to Radstock, Camerton and then Peasedown. Samuel was a carpenter by trades probably working in the local collieries, but it seems strange to move so frequently.
Their son George Cooper started his own family, in 1839 and was living in the adjoining house door in Peasedown in 1841. Also in the row was Samuel’s brother Uriah, a stonemason, the forethaer of Brian Cooper, pictures earlier, so this was a thriving Cooper community. Uriah didn’t stay put for too long in the row and had moved on to Radstock by 1843. However, by the 1851 census the ‘New Buildings’ had sprung up and there was a veritable ghetto of Coopers in the Peasedown area, which also included the Mitchell and Cottell families, who had married Eliza’s sisters, Harriet and Jane.
Lower Peasedown Cottages and the Dunkerton Valley, 2007
The footpath to Carlingcott and to Peasdown Cottages (in the distance).
So were James and Eliza childhood sweethearts from their time in the Dunkerton valley? Did they know each other from Sunday School at the Wesleyan Chapel or perhaps they both worked as child labourers in the fields of Ashridge Farm which joined their two homes. Was James an eager volunteer to marry Eliza and was she a willing partner of this rather ordinary individual, well at least compared to the father of her child.
Or perhaps, this was a severe case of matchmaking by friends and relatives to offer a perfect solution to Eliza’s plight, and to provide James with a suitable bride? Might this, indeed, have been a repeat of what happened to Mark Hancock in Kilmersdon in 1841, when he married the pregnant sixteen year old, Martha Chivers. Hancocks again ready to help a maiden in distress.
For James Hancock the identity of the father was less important than the fact he was now married and had someone else’s child to look after and soon he also had one of his own on the way – but not too soon.
Eliza had a second child, Mary Ann Hancock in December 1845, a convenient nine months after the baptism of little Sarah Louisa, and eighteen months after the marriage. Again, this appears to be a normal family going about their lives, creating the next generation. The timing for everying was perfection!
The family moved to Monmouthshire sometime in the next year or two. Eliza had certainly moved to Blaenavon by the middle of 1849 as their eldest son, Abel, was born there in August of that year. Two of James’ other brothers also went to live in Monmouthshire, George was there and married by 1845, and David married in South Wales in 1847.
BUT Sarah Louisa was left behind with her grandparents – she wasn’t part of their plans. From her christening, in Dunkerton parish church in March 1845, onwards there is no record of Sarah Louisa being part of Hancock family life. Everyone was still in Peasedown at the end of 1845, but after the move to Wales, Sarah Louisa was left in the care of her maternal grandparents and with yet another name. She was now plain Sarah Cooper and her registered name, Louisa Hancock, had been eradicated.
Who made that decision to change her name and leave her behind is open to question. Obviously James didn’t necessarily want to care for another man’s child, but maybe Eliza also wanted to leave her indiscretion behind and start her life afresh. Perhaps this was part of a deal brokered by the grandparents, Samuel and Ann with the couple and maybe the father himself. Removing the name Louisa seems to have been part of it. However, things didn’t work out quite the way anyone expected.
Until now I have not questioned the rural exodus of Hancocks and many of their neighbours that occured from 1845 onwards. Migration may have an obvious ‘pull’ effect, with the attractions of pastures new, a Utopian land somewhere across the water, brimming with milk and honey. However, there also has to be a ‘push’, a dissatisfaction with your current environment that gives you itchy feet or forces you to leave. There was actually plenty of new work opportunities all around them as new pits had been sunk at Braysdown and Tyning, the first of a new spate of investment.
Some of the Hancocks had already tried the new world of iron and coal, across the Bristol Channel but seem to have preferred the old life, back in Somerset. So, why did they give it a second chance and this time go mob handed?
I mentioned earlier about the way two massive volcanic eruptions changed the face of Western Europe, far more radically than most historians acknowledge. Well, the answer again lies in the weather and one of the best documented catastrophies of the 19th century.
1845 was the first year of the Irish Potato famine, which caused the deaths of millions and the emigration to the United States of a few million more. The wet cold conditions that lasted throughout the summer caused potato blight to decimate the potato crop. The high taxes on wheat meant the potato was the stable diet of the average Irish family, but this also applied to many of the poorest folk in the peripheral parts of England and Wales.
The politics of the day compounded the problem in Ireland, but this event began with a natural disaster not a man-made one. The blight also hit the west of England and there were food riots in Devon and Cornwall and this is mentioned in my story of George Browning, who was one of the soldiers sent to quell the West Country food riots.
However, not only was the potato blighted, but the whole corn harvest across Western Europe failed in 1845 and the conditions didn’t improve much in 1846 either. Somerset may have escaped the worst effects of a dramatic hailstorm that swept across England in 1843, but it certainly didn’t escape the summers of 1845 and 1846.
Work opportunities on the land must have shrunk to nothing and so given every reason for the younger hancocks to return to Blaenavon, where things were now improving a little after the financial hiccup of 1841. I don’t believe the Hancocks returned to Monmouthshire through choice, it just became an economic necessity. James variety of seasonal labouring activities was no longer enough to support his family, he needed a proper job and so it was back to the brickyards of Blaenavon.
In the 1851 census, James and Eliza were living with their two young children, Mary Ann and Abel, at 81 Heolsteiog, Blaenavon and James was again a brickmaker. In 1852, at the time of the birth of the twins, John and Mark, he was an ostler, probably tending horses in the brickyard. The twins only lived for three years, dying within days of each other in January 1856.
The baptism of the twins in the Blaenavon parish church is also the last record of a Hancock baptism there, so we might surmise that subsequent events were carried out in the Congregational Church or Wesleyan Chapel. Copies of prayer books from the Congregational Church have been passed down to the present day, but there are family connections with both non conformist churches.
Bethlehem Congregational Chapel, Blaenavon
Although, I have painted a grim picture of life in Blaenavon, that doesn’t mean the homes of the Hancocks and their fellow toilers were slums – in fact far from it. In the same way that the chapel confronted the demon drink, the dust and dirt was confronted by the women of the town.
The Blaenavon Heritage Centre has restored a number of worker’s cottages, inside and out, and the internal furniture and decoration, suggests these were poor but house-proud folk. The wife of the South Wales miner kept a clean, even spotless house. Don’t forget that families might comprise six or seven children and you will see that the unusual patterned wallpaper, is in fact newspaper, glued to the walls.
The double bed might have been for the mum and dad, but more likely for six kids – topped and tailed – photos by Dave ‘RATS’ Jones
By 1861, James and Eliza’s surviving brood had increased to six with the addition of Aaron, Thursa, another John, and Jethro. Unfortunately the family are nowhere to be found in the 1861 census despite Jethro being born in Blaenavon, in September, soon AFTER the census date. This could just be a rare omission by the enumerators, but after a thorough search of all the streets of Blaenavon and surrounding parishes, they just aren’t anywhere to be found.
The only piece of evidence that might be a clue to their whereabouts is that their last child, Edith, was born a few miles away in Newport, Monmouthshire in 1864. James was now described on Edith’s birth certificate as a ‘journeyman brickmaker’, a man who works on a temporary basis, following the work.
Edith Hancock – 1864 (born in Newport)
The Lower Brickyard was closed by this time, as the town had gradually modernised and new iron and steel making facilities had opened on the edge of town and all the bricks were now supplied from the Upper Brickyard. It could be that James had already started this journeyman life in 1861 and the family were on the move during the actual census period and missed being recorded. If indeed, James and the family were minding a brick-making clamp somewhere, then it is easy to understand how they might be overlooked.
Meanwhile, during this same period, the abandoned baby, Sarah Louisa Cooper had left the care of grandparents, Samuel and Ann Cooper, and on 18 Feb 1862 she married George Browning in Bristol. This was a surprising match in several ways because Sarah Louisa was only 17 years old when she married and George was nearly 32. She lied on the certificate claiming to be 18 and of full age, but that was a common occurance and we shouldn’t hold that against the lonesome girl. This was also a strange partnership because George was already a very close relation, being the son of her aunt, her grandfather’s sister, Ann Cooper. Complicated yes, but in simple terms, Sarah Louisa had married a man who was fourteen years older than herself, who just happened to be her first cousin once removed.
George Browning’s story is another I have fleshed out in these Frome Fables and another who lived his life twice over. He served for 21 years in the 5th Northumberland Fusiliers, and after he left the army the couple settled in Whitechapel, East London, producing a total of 13 children.
At the time of the wedding, George Browning had not long returned from 15 years foreign service in Mauritius and India, so it was hardly as though they were close neighbours from an isolated village community marrying because there was no other choice. This smells like another severe case of matchmaking by the Cooper family, and a way of securing the future prospects of the abandoned girl, and providing a spouse for this gallant soldier. There might also have been some unseen hand from the Marston Estate, as the Browning family had connections with Frome, Nunney and the parish of Marston Bigott. So, instead of Sarah Louisa being cast off into the wilderness and marrying a complete stranger, she was being returned to the heart of the Cooper family, Eliza’s Cooper family.
George, magnificent in his colour sergeant’s uniform and Sarah Louisa Cooper, aged 39.
There was even more extraordinary meshing of the same genes, a generation later, when James and Eliza Hancock’s granddaughter, Sarah Wathen, married George and Sarah’s second son, Egbert Browning. Was this a story of a family group with naturally incestuous tendencies, or one where they had an important secret to protect and were trying to keep it in the family?
These marriages and other events that come to light later, might even suggest that there was great family resentment about Sarah Louisa being abandoned and that these were subconscious attempts to right a grievous wrong.
The church figures strongly in the traditions of the Hancocks, Brownings, Coopers and Wathens. Strange then that they seem to be involved in so much deception and marriages of a dubious nature. There was a strong association with the Congregational, Wesleyan and Baptist Churches and family members rarely seem to have lived too far from a chapel.
These religious movements were part of the non-conformist tradition that began in 16th century Northern Europe as a reaction to the centralised doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church and later as an alternative to the centralist control of the Church of England.
Primitive Methodist Chapel Deacons of the Horeb Chapel
Congregationalists evolved from a Puritan tradition and the teaching of John Calvin, where the Bible and word of God was paramount. There was no central body to control the Congregational church movement, and so differences arose between the communities and they became diverse in nature.
It is often easy to spot families who followed these beliefs as the children were frequently baptised with Old Testament names. The Congregational movement became particularly strong in South Wales during the 19th century, where it had both an ally and competitor in the Wesleyans and Baptists.
Wesleyans were more evangelical and were sometimes known as ‘ranters’ because of there outspoken support of their faith. The Wesleyans advocated abstinence from the evils of gambling and drinking, improvement in social rights and the rights of women. Members of these churches were eventually influential in the rise of the Temperance Society, the Labour Party and later the Suffragette movement.
Public Houses frequently had ‘temperance’ bars, where non alcoholic beverages were served.
It was only recently that I realised I am an accidental by-product of this Temperance movement. My childhood was spent surrounded by bottles of Corona, a popular fizzy drink that was delivered to the door, just like milk. My father worked for the company that traded as ‘Thomas & Evans’, whose head office was in the Welsh mining town of Porth. Two Rhondda grocers, supporters of the temperance movement, had begun the company in the 1890s and after it seemed the local population continued to prefer the ‘demon drink’ to ‘fizzy pop’, they decided to take their product direct to the people, and so delivered to the door.
This is NOT my father and he didn’t deliver the ‘pop’.
After 1795, an Act of Parliament allowed non-conformist groups to conduct their own baptisms and marriages, but much family history has disappeared during the period from 1770 onwards as many ‘dissenters’ avoided being baptised in the Anglican parish church, and their own chapels were very irregular in their record keeping. There was still a fear that their members might be ostracised by the government, as had happened in previous centuries.
Mary Ann Hancock, the first born of James and Eliza, back in Peasedown, married William Wathen, a foreman in the Blaenavon Iron Works and a Wesleyan preacher of high regard, so no doubt an orator who preached with great passion. One of his sons was also a noted preacher.
Remember too the Wesleyan Church in Kilmersdon, which was frequented by many of the mining families and the ‘dissenter’ tradition of Trudoxhill. There was also the Wesleyan Chapel at Carlingcott, just a few yards down the hill from Lower Peasedown Cottages. George Browning and wife, Sarah Louisa baptised several of her children in a Wesleyan church, and the Congregational church shows up later in the Hancock family.
The Browning family were originally from Frome, where they were members of the Baptist church and their later moves to Bristol and then East London, have all the marks of people who were strong in their christian beliefs and wanted to deomstrate that in the way they lived their lives, perhaps seeing themselves as ‘city missionaries’.
Mystery Number Two
By the time of the 1871 census everything in the Hancock family had dramatically changed. Eliza Hancock was no longer in Newport, but was back again living in Blaenavon, although at a different address. There was no sign of James, and sadly Eliza now described herself on the census form as a widow. Therefore, it seemed clear that James had died between 1864 and 1871. Searches of the local death registry quickly found just one death in the relevant period, for a James Hancock in Abergavenny district, for 1869, so that seemed to be the end of his story.
32, Queen Street, Blaenavon (centre), where Eliza Hancock lived in the 1880s
For many months I assumed that this was ‘our’ James Hancock, but eventually in a strange moment of doubt, I sent off for the death certificate, just to clarify matters. When it arrived I was surprised to find this James Hancock had little similarity to our brickmaking labourer.
This James was a ‘baker and brewer at the local asylum’, in the nearby town of Abergavenny. James might have taken an evening course in culinary and catering skills, after working long hours in the brickyards, but it seemed unlikely and so I needed to look elsewhere.
Despite hours of inventive and laborious searching, I could find no trace of the death of another James Hancock in the area. When I spread my search further I quickly realised that the name was very common across wide areas of England and Wales and his death could be out there somewhere and as he was probably in Newport in 1864 he might have died on his travels. I tried Somerset and other likely places, but nothing. Eliza declared she was a widow and so James must be dead. I gave up the search and decided to let him lie peacefully, wherever that might be.
Many months later, I was tying up the loose ends of the James Hancock story and hoping, with my greatly improved searching skills, I could find his missing family in the 1861 census. There was a whole page of James Hancocks, but still nothing that fitted the bill.
However, half way down the screen was a record from the 1881 census for Yorkshire, and incredibly this James Hancock seemed to have very similar credentials to our James Hancock – ‘born about 1822, Willow, Somerset’, and when I checked the original record, found he was a brickmaker by occupation and that Willow was, of course, Wellow.
This James Hancock was living in Morley in Yorkshire and married to Maria, from Guiseley. There was also a young child, Harriet Hancock, who had been born in Rawdon, in 1876. Could this possibly be ‘our’ James, reborn in a second coming? No, it seemed impossible as I knew he was dead. Eliza had stated this clearly on four census returns from 1871 onwards.
St Peters Church, Rawdon
Rawdon and Guiseley are neighbours, to the north of Leeds, not far from Ilkley Moor.. bah tat..!! If James and Maria lived there now they would be close to Leeds/Bradford airport. This was certainly far enough away from Somerset and Blaenavon for James to believe he could start a new life.
But things got even more interesting as I checked further, in the 1891 and 1901 censuses. For here was the same James Hancock, but this time married to another woman, Martha, from Pudsey, and there were two more children, Rose born in Manningham, near Bradford, in 1892 and Ivy born in Leeds in 1900. To prove this was the same man as the 1881 census, Harriet was still part of the family group and James was still a brickmaker. There he was, nearly 80 years old, with young children and still working.
No, its got to be a mistake. This must be another James Hancock from Somerset.
I thought it possible that James had a cousin or nephew in Wellow, who could be his genealogical doppelganger. Brothers often gave their sons the same name as their fathers and grandfathers and this can cause havoc in researching some families, as there can be three or four children bearing exactly the same name and born within a year or so of each other.
Prior to compulsory national registration, in 1837, it is sometimes difficult, if not impossible, to assign these ‘doubles’ to the correct family group. Despite exhaustive searches of the 1841-71 censuses and the Wellow parish records, I could only find one man that fitted this James Hancock profile. I came to the conclusion that there only ever was one James Hancock, born in Wellow, Somerset about 1822, whose occupation was ‘ brickmaker’.
So James had disappeared from South Wales in the 1860s to reappear in Yorkshire in the 1870s, and with two more ‘wives’. His first wife, Eliza always called herself a widow after 1871, although she did have a long term ‘lodger’, Edwin Rees from the Isle of Wight, living with her in 1891 and 1901.
Eliza died in Blaenavon in 1906, with son Aaron by her side. Had her final 35 years in Blaenavon been a complete deception? Did she know where James was living or did she really believe he was dead?
I eventually found, what I hoped was an obvious death record for James, in Morley, Yorkshire in 1901. Surely this must be the right man this time. There was no death record for Maria and in the 1911 census Martha was a widow, and still living in Morley, with daughter Rose, but there was no sign of the mysterious girl named Ivy, so perhaps she had died.
What had been going on? How had such an ordinary man ended up living such an extraordinary life?
Three wives, with so sign of a death or divorce between them during his life time. A continual production line of children right through to his late seventies and still working in the brickyard at 79. Was this a 19th century Superman in disguise? His matrimonial credentials were something that Richard Burton or Hugh Heffner would be proud to proclaim.
My interest in James’ story was heightened by a chance contact via ‘Genes Reunited’, from Victoria Hampson, a descendent of James’ eldest son, Abel Hancock. Abel was born in Blaenavon in 1849 and had moved to St Helens, near Liverpool, at some point before 1872. Victoria’s family roots had remained in the Lancashire area and she was very interested in the story of James’ three wives, and helped greatly with the research into unravelling his second life – post Blaenavon. This also led to uncovering some dark secrets about Abel’s family life in St Helens. Once you start digging into the past you never quite know what you will find.
If the bare facts are what they seemed to be, then the story of James’ life so far had been unusual. Well the story has plenty more twists and turns to come and every stone upturned seemed to produce something more incredible each time. There is plenty more to come and even Miss Marple would have difficulty in unravelling this mystery.
The absence of James from the 1871 census was also another mystery, but he wasn’t in the 1861 census either, so I wasn’t totally surprised. He might not want to openly declare who he was in 1871, but by 1881 he had had the courage to put all his correct details on the census document. So, if I could find him hiding somewhere in 1871 that might provide the ‘missing link’ between Wales and Yorkshire.
I had to assume there were three options in 1871:
He was lying low, after walking out on Eliza, and had avoided the efforts of the census enumerators.
He had emigrated to the USA, where many South Wales coal miners had sought a better life, including several members of the Hancock family. Some returned to Britain, preferring their previous lifestyle.
He might be a misprint somewhere on the census records. His information had either been originally copied down incorrectly or unclearly, or an error had been made in the 21s century transcription.
Originally, I had suspected that James Hancock was the wronged party, and that it was Sarah Louisa’s marriage to George Browning and therefore a reintroduction back into the Hancock/Cooper family group, that might have prompted James’ desertion of Eliza in the mid to late 1860s. Both Sarah Louisa Cooper and George Browning, were closely related to Eliza Hancock, one a daughter the other a first cousin. This reunion with the Cooper clan might have caused James to think that any agreement to forget about the illigitimate Sarah Louisa had been broken.
The second possibility I considered, was that James was not the father of the youngest child, Edith Hancock, born in Newport in 1864 and had cleared off to pastures new as a result. I sent for the birth certificate and everything seemed in order, but that didn’t mean too much judging by previous experiences of either Eliza or the surrounding paperwork.
My third avenue for speculation, was that James’ ‘disappearance’ from the records in the late 1860s might have coincided with the marriage of their first child, Mary Ann Hancock, who wed William Wathen in Blaenavon, in 1869. He was one of the mining overseers and a leading member of the Church. This was quite a catch in such an industrial and god fearing community. Could there be anything about the match that had caused a family rift? That seemed very unlikely.
However, as alluded to earlier, events subsequent to this Wathen marriage, several years later, would certainly have been a cause for disagreement between James and Eliza. William and Mary Ann Wathen had two girls, Sarah and Lizzie, before Mary Ann died soon after the birth of Lizzie at the age of 28, in 1873. William Wathen remarried again the following year to Emma Morgan and had a further twelve children. It is this Wathen/Morgan line that carries stories of illigitimate births and cousin marriages through to the present day.
Later, in their teens, both Sarah and Lizzie Wathen, found themselves working in Whitechapel as servants at the home of George Browning and his wife Sarah Louisa Browning, (yes her again). The two Sarahs were related as aunt and niece. Sarah Wathen, again decided to keep the gene pool small, and married Sarah Louisa’s second son, Egbert, in 1888. They produced another large brood of eleven children. Egbert (uncle Bert) and Sarah lived to a ripe old age like many in this story. Bert died at 87 and Sarah reached 96 and died in 1966.
Sarah Wathen – aged 21 in 1890
This Sarah Browning (nee Wathen) is also the source of several, seemingly most unlikely family rumours, which have all since turned out to be true. She would have known all the ‘players’ in this story well, as she was 37 when Eliza died in 1906, and 67 when Sarah Louisa died in 1935. My cousin, Sari Browning, a granddaughter of Sarah Wathen, visited her frequently over several years and it was Sari who prompted this whole research with stories of name changes, incestuous marriages and illigitimate births. Sari’s recollections set me on a wild goose chase that ended with several well roasted roast birds.
The relationship between Egbert Browning and Sarah Wathen was now so complex that their children had Eliza Cooper as a grandmother on both sides of the family tree and Eliza’s aunt, Ann Cooper was also a grandmother, on the father’s side.
Despite what many people believe today, ‘marrying your first cousin’ was NOT common amongst Victorian families, although it might have been in 17th and early 18th century rural villages. Yet, there are at least five instances of ‘close’ cousin marriages in the Browning/Cooper family during the period 1860 to 1890. No-one has yet given any sort of explanation as to why this happened or was allowed to happen. Certainly the two Ann Coopers in the story, wife of George Browning senior and wife of Samuel Cooper were in a position to block the early marriages. Instead they must have condoned them, and maybe actually arranged them. Sarah Louisa could have blocked those later in the century, but again failed to do so and all concerned were kept in the bosum of the family group, not cast out into the wilderness.
The other noteworthy family where first cousins married, was in the Earl of Cork’s family. Both Edmund and Courtenay Boyle, sons of the 7th Earl, married a pair of sisters, Isabella and Carolina Poyntz, who just happened to be their first cousins, on their mother’s side. This was regarded by the Boyle family as being extremely unwise matches, but they took place anyway. So, perhaps the Coopers took a lead from their noble masters. What was good for the rich was also good for the poor of the Trudoxhill community.
Like Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway, James Hancock might have been able to read his own obituary in the newspaper and if James had really died in Abergavenny, in 1869, then he would still have had a more remarkable life than most of his ancestors.
Instead of spending his whole life in a small village, working as an agricultural labourer and marrying the girl next door, he had decided to venture further afield. His story would have not been unusual for the period as wholesale migration from the countryside to the towns, had affected large parts of rural England and Wales. James’ move to South Wales to look for employment, was joined by nearly a million other souls in the first half of the 19th century.
To return to Somerset to marry a local girl, made pregnant by the local lord of the manor, was more unusual, but not unique. The church registers are teeming with single women of all ages, producing children by known and unknown fathers. The local wealthy landowners and their sons frequently helped themselves to the young servant girls, whose job it was to keep their large houses running smoothly. To leave the child behind after moving to Blaenavon might seem callous to us now, but she was left in the safe hands of her grandparents. The clean break would make life better for everyone and the well ordered paperwork would mean Sarah Louisa’s future life could move forward untarnished.
The life in the brickyards of Blaenavon must have been hard, but it was James’ choice, and despite the horrific working environment in this industrial town, this was regarded as an improvement over the poverty of a rural English village. A wife, nine children and death at 46 were typical of the lives of so many of James’ generation. But James wasn’t dead, he was alive and well, and living a couple of hundred miles away in the North of England and with new , hungry mouths to feed.
1881 census for Morley, Yorkshire
Life ‘up north’
So to my total amazement, James had reappeared in the 1881 Yorkshire census, living in Morley and married to Maria Hancock. With them was daughter, Harriet, who was the product of a rather late birth, as Maria was 38 years old when the new arrival was born. The 1891 census shows Maria Hancock replaced by Martha Hancock, but with Harriet still there, now 15 years old. The family were then living in Clough Street, Bowling a small village on the outskirts of Bradford. Was Martha a misprint or a nickname for Maria, as often happened in census returns? No, Martha was over ten years younger than Maria and born in a different place, Dewsbury. She was a totally different individual.
James and Martha were still there together in 1901, but now back in Morley, at Gillroyd Mount, and two more children had appeared, Rose born in Manningham, 1891, and Ivy born in Leeds in 1900. Nothing too remarkable about a married couple having young children, but in 1901, James was now aged 79 and Martha aged 51.
The mist surrounding this chapter of James’ life started to clear, when the birth certificates for his children, Harriet and Rose arrived. They revealed a Maria Jowett and Martha Walton as the mothers of the respective girls, both seemingly legitimate births to Maria Hancock and Martha Hancock. Now the hunt was on to find marriages to support these facts, and also to look for a death for Maria Hancock.
Harriet Hancock – born 1876
Rose Hancock – born 1891
There turned out to be no trace of a marriage to Maria Jowett, but I found one for Martha Walton and this brought more surprises. The marriage was much earlier than I suspected, as it took place in Batley, in April 1883, and James had also acquired a middle name, William. This is the only occasion there is a record of him having a middle name, and there might be a suspicion he was using William rather than James to perhaps create a little confusion with his identity. He was also said to be living in Morley at the time, a place he kept returning to. James was also signing his name at this point, which was more than his new wife and the witnesses could manage.
James Hancock marriage to Martha Walton – 1883
So who was Maria Jowett, the missing Mrs Hancock of the 1881 census, and how did she so mysteriously appear and then disappear from James’ life so quickly. Did she ever formally marry James or was it a ‘marriage of convenience’ in name only?
There was no evidence of a divorce from Eliza and so in 1876 James was still actually married to the ‘widow’ living in Blaenavon, and bigamy was a crime punishable by between a year and 18 months in prison, so that would might explain his reluctance to take part in a proper marriage ceremony with Maria. James Hancock and Maria were living as husband and wife from the birth of Harriet in 1876 until the 1881 census but must have parted company at some point in the next 18 months because he married Martha Walton in 1883, in a formal but bigamous ceremony.
Although no marriage for Maria was found I have been able to use the census to piece together something of her sorry history. Maria Jowett seems to have had a terrible life. She came from a family with a history of blindness and invalidity. Her elder brother, Samuel was partially blind (1871 census), and eventually Maria developed the same problem. Two of her elder brothers were still unmarried and living at home in their 50s, whilst Maria herself had been the product of a ´late´birth, when her mother was 44.
In 1891, Maria (Jowett) was not dead but living in Leeds, with her brother, Francis and his family and she was described as an invalid and blind. One of Francis´children, Elizabeth, is also described as an invalid. So Maria hadn’t died in 1882, the couple had just parted, and she never did become Mrs Hancock.
Maria eventually succombed in 1893, at the age of 56, still living with her brother. Cause of death is described as ´paralysis many years´. Maria’s increasing blindness and paralysis must have made life difficult for James Hancock and their growing daughter, and as there was no formal marriage it would have been easy for the two of them to part. Whether this was by arrangement or whether James just walked out and married Martha is unclear, but as he took the seven year old Harriet with him, we can suspect they did what was best for the child.
1891 census and death certificate – Maria Jowett
Maria’s family has the look of a ‘syphilis’ family, a disease that was thought to be present in over ten percent of the population. Although it was a sexually transmitted disease it could also be passed on during child birth. Often the children were born with a weak disposition and died quickly or they struggled on with a variety of disabilities. Often the disease did not affect the mother and could even clear her system, so that later children were born fit and healthy. Sometimes the disease reared its head in old age, causing senility, even ‘madness’.
James and his third ‘wife’, Martha moved at least once more, before finally ending in Morley in 1893. Rose Hancock had arrived in December 1891 and this must have been a bit of a shock to both of them as Martha was 42 and James the ripe old age of 69. There is the obvious possibility of other births and subsequent deaths between the marriage in 1883 and the 1891 census, but none have yet come to light.
Young, Ivy Hancock’s identity continued to remain a mystery, because if she was the product of James and Martha this would probably be worth an entry in the Guinness Book of Records. Searches for all Ivys that fitted the profile brought nothing resembling an Ivy Hancock, but there was an Ivy Jowett and an Ivy Walton, both born in Leeds in 1900. It was only when the 1911 census became available in 2009, that the mist around Ivy’s identity cleared.
An Ivy Jowett was there, and she was living with the Hardcastle family, James and Harriet Hardcastle. Yes this Harriet looked like being the daughter of James, by Maria Jowett. The marriage certificate details subsequently showed that Harriet had been using her mother’s Jowett name, not Hancock.
Ivy Jowett – born 1900
James Hancock’s 1901 census return was covering up the fact that Harriet had had an illigitimate child a year earlier. When Harriet was free to stake her own claim in life she discarded the Hancock name and took that of her tragic mother, Maria Jowett.
‘I have now come to the conclusion that my Grandmother had a Poor Mans Divorce – Bigamy!’
(quote from a fellow family researcher)
Many people researching their 19th and early 20th century families have discovered a second or third spouse, with no signs of a death or a divorce; so the informal separation of Eliza and James in such a manner was not unique.
If one partner left the matrimonial home and moved to a different part of the country there was no registration or identity system to track them. Truth was usually confirmed by a ‘man’s word’ or by an oath sworn on a Bible. The fact that Eliza described herself as a widow in four subsequent census returns and James took part in a bigamous marriage, and seemed happy to declare his true identity on national census returns, means they had little fear of the truth being discovered.
Divorce was very expensive and was difficult to obtain. In the 19th century divorce was only granted through an Act of Parliament in London, and so only the very rich could afford one. From 1858, the new, Court for Divorce, also based in London, heard divorce cases instead of parliament, but this still involved considerable expense, so the poor and middle classes were effectively excluded.
Until 1922, a wife had to prove her husband’s adultery, along with some other offence, to gain a divorce. The other offence could be cruelty, or desertion for at least two years. She could also divorce him on the grounds of incestuous adultery; where he committed adultery with a woman that he could not legally have married, if his wife were dead. This is an interesting and almost overlooked law and one of the reasons that banns were read in church for three Sundays before the marriage.
A man could not legally marry his wife’s sister, or half-sister and marriage to a deceased wife’s sister was forbidden until the Deceased Wife’s Sister’s Marriage Act of 1907. However, this Act contained wording that still expressly forbade marriage to a divorced wife’s sister or half-sister, while the divorced wife was still alive. The Deceased Brother’s Widow’s Marriage Act of 1921 contained a similar clause, so that until that date, a man could not marry his brother’s ex-wife during the brother’s lifetime.
Complicated yes, but it does clearly demonstrate how the law frowned upon close matrimonial and sexual associations within a family group. The National Archives for the 40 year period of James and Eliza’s separation, unsurprisingly, show no record of a divorce.
A second death
Martha and James lived out their final years together in Morley, where he worked for Gillroyd Brickworks, owned by J. Woods, from 1893 till his death in 1901. The town of Morley was dominated by Gillroyd Mills, owned by John Hartley & Co, who were primarily a textile company and the largest employer in the town. They had originally created their own brickworks, as a subsidiary company, because of the huge scale of their building developments in the area. They had their own large clay pits and the brickfields were not too distant from their ‘satanic’ mills.
Disused clay pits, with ‘burnt knolls’, to left and mill in distance
The original Hartley mill was built in 1834/35, and then developed in several stages before a new five storey structure opened in 1860. There was major destruction in two fires, in 1888 and 1891, followed by a rapid re-building after each event. James’ brickmaking skills would have been in demand and was probably why he returned to Morley in 1892-93.
Gillroyd Mills at Morley
James Hancock’s situation was a summation of all the ills of Victorian life. Here was a man in his 70s living in an industrial northern town, no pension but still with a wife and children to support, and therefore he had to go to work every day. However, his occupation was one in which he was an expert as he had been involved in the brickmaking process for sixty years, and so he must have been confident in his skills. The work wasn’t particularly hard but the conditions were hot and unpleasant and it was this hostile nature of the kiln, which was to eventually bring about his demise.
Such was the fate of the average working man in Victorian England that life expectancy in 1900 was almost exactly 50 years. This figure is rather misleading because up to a quarter of all children didn’t make it past their fifth birthday and many of the population did make it into their eighties. Several of the characters featured in this story beat the odds and reached well past their seventieth birthday; James Hancock 79; James’ father 76; Eliza Hancock 83; Sarah Louisa Cooper 89; and Sarah Wathen 96.
They were the fortunate ones, as disease killed many adults in their twenties and thirties, with small pox, typhus and cholera outbreaks the most common. Tuberculosis and other chest conditions took young and old alike. The water was polluted and the air in the big cities filled with smoke and noxious fumes that might not take your life today or tomorrow but would probably get you in the end.
Men and women frequently died from industrial accidents or from the longer term actions of the poisonous substances that surrounded them at work. The choice in the large industrial conurbations lay between working below ground in the hazardous coal mines or on the surface in a large factory, which effused every toxin and contaminent conceivable.
People had been tempted in their millions to leave the land and seek a seemingly better life in the towns and cities. In so many cases those that survived disease and accident lived in harsh conditions and in near poverty. The survivors who made it past their sixty fifth birthday had to keep working. There was no pension or social security to look after them in old age, and when relations had died or deserted them, many ended up in a psychiatric institution or that most dastardly of places, the Victorian Workhouse.
Death and inquest
The certificate for James Hancock’s death took nearly three weeks to arrive, instead of the usual three days and when it landed on the doormat it had been sent from a different department than usual. When I opened it I was quite shaken.
‘Accidentally burnt through the overheating of bricks in the kiln at Gillroyd Brick Works, causing them to fall and knock out the kiln end. Lived 8 hours.’ ‘Inquest held 29th April 1901’.
So after living this amazing life, James was destined to die in such a terrible way. He never seemed to do things simply. Miraculously, the Morley Observer had a news report and the details revealed much more about the horror of James’ death and the standards and values of working life at the time.
‘The Burning Fatality at Gillroyd Brickworks’
Mr P.P. Maitland, district coroner, held an inquest at the Fountain Inn, Morley on Monday afternoon, touching the death of James Hancock, aged 79, brick burner, 2 Gillroyd Mount, who died last Friday from the effects of burns received whilst at Messrs J.W. Wood and Sons, Gillroyd Brickworks.
Mr J. Mellor, Inspector of Mines, was present during the inquiry, and Mr A. A. Burton (Messrs E.O. Wooler, Burrows and Burton, Solicitors) watched the interest of the deceased’s employers. Mr Burton expressed the sympathy of the firm with the relatives of the deceased in their bereavement through this sad, but unavoidable occurrence. Martha Hancock, widow of the deceased, said her husband was a healthy man, and had worked for messrs Wood and Sons about seven years, off and on. He had worked for them regularly since Christmas.
He last left home about six o’clock on Thursday night to go to is work and came home at 20 minutes to five on Friday morning. He knocked at the door and his daughter went downstairs to let him in. When witness got down he was sat on the sofa and his daughter was taking his boots off. He had a sheet on him when he was brought home but on the sheet being taken off he was seen to have been badly burnt about the lower part of his body and on his arms and hands. He asked for a doctor to be fetched. He told witness he was going to fire and that the kiln had fallen in on him. Deceased’s daughter went to Dr Travers Clarke. He had not had anything put on the burns before he got home, and witness applied linseed oil, being assisted by a neighbour. The doctor came soon afterwards and dressed the wounds, but gave no hopes of his recovery. Deceased was got to bed. He seemed to be in great pain and cried out in it, and the only nourishment he could take was a little soda water. He gradually sank, and died at a quarter past twelve the same afternoon, never having lost consciousness.
Benjamin H Wood, Hope Cottage, Wide Lane, Gillroyd, member of the firm of Messrs Wood and Sons, said he thought the deceased had worked for his firm from seven to nine years as a brick burner. His duty was to keep the fires of the kiln burning at night time.
Witness saw the deceased at eight o’clock on Thursday night, and spoke to him about the bricks in the kiln getting pretty hot, and told him not to fire too hard. When the bricks got too hot they were liable to be thrown over and possibly knock the end out. The bricks were piled up 25 high in the kiln. The bricks were stacked about the 7th April and slow fires were put in on the 15th. The process of burning took about 14 days. When witness spoke to the deceased about the bricks getting too hot he replied that he thought they would be alright. About a quarter to five on Friday morning George Bilton, night watchman of the Gillroyd Mills, knocked him up and told him that the kiln end had fallen out and that witness had to go down at once. When witness got to the works he found that the top half of the front of a fire had fallen down at an angle but had not noticed any deficiency at the front of the kiln. A few thousand bricks had come out of the front of the kiln and when the kiln end gave way the flame would rush out over the deceased. Deceased was an experienced workman, and understood his job.
Mr Mellor: When the bricks were placed in the kiln the end was built up so that it was not an old structure. My only reason for cautioning the man was my fear that the bricks would be spoilt, and not on account of any deficiency in the kiln.
Mr Burton: The bricks nearest the fire would dry in when over heated and cause those above to fall… There would be no indication of the fall of the bricks but the rattle, which would be heard by the firer.
George Bilton, night watchman at the Gillroyd Mills, said that about half past four he heard deceased shout out ‘Fire, fire!’ Witness made haste to the place and found the deceased in flames near the engine mans house. Witness tore the man’s burning clothes off him and having thrown a sheet over him took him home. On the way home in reply to witness, deceased said the brickwork had fallen in on him and he cried out in pain. The jury returned a verdict of ‘Accidental death’.
Fire at the brickyard…..
Some might say the inquest, held only three days after the death, in the local public house, was a charade designed to protect not only the owners of the brickworks, but also the owners of all factories and similar establishments.
A local public house was a popular venue for inquests because it was large enough to hold a reasonable number of interested parties and could also be held close to where any incident had taken place.
The speed served two purposes. Events were fresh in the minds of everyone involved and they were likely to still be around as witnesses. Secondly it allowed life to move forward for everyone concerned and meant business could continue without too much interruption.
Workers were frequently killed and injured in industrial accidents and I came across a report of another death in the same brickworks, so this was not a one-off occurence. However, the speed and venue of the inquest were also typical of the period and industrial accidents were just a way of life. The wealth and opulent lifestyle of Victorian factory owners was based on the life and death of so many people like James Hancock, and the wealth of the town of Morley was based on this success. No-one was prepared to criticise and inevitably the inquest became a box ticking exercise, with the legal representatives there to support and maintain the status quo.
Fellow researcher, David Hancock has made comments about the inquest and so too has his father, John, who lived, with his grandfather, in a brickyard in Leeds.
‘my father has concluded that James was about to open the wicket gate entrance when the burning bricks in the kiln collapsed and the sudden rush of hot gas (1,100 degrees Celsius) blew out of the kiln burning the lower half of his body and his arms. The fact that he didn’t have any crush injuries meant that the kiln end wasn’t knocked-out and fall on him. The other oddity with the inquest report is that it had been ‘put to fire’ on 15th April for 14 days and was 25 bricks high (about 10 ft) which in turns means 14 ft wide. This is well and truly in clamp territory not fixed kiln. I don’t understand!?’
Here was a man at 79 years of age having to work the night shift to earn enough money to provide his wife and young family with food and shelter. The fact his work colleague took him straight home, untreated, despite these terrible injuries, and the doctor was unable to give any effective medical assistance seems incredible in today’s world, but the coroner saw nothing wrong in this sequence of events. James was just allowed to die of his injuries after eight hours of intense pain and trauma. His wife, Martha, looked on, totally helpless.
James lived at Gillroyd Mount, probably one of the terraces to the north of the mill.
Morley folk at the railway station around 1900
James is not finished yet..!!
James Hancock’s elder brother, Mark, born in 1817 still remains an enigma. Did he die unrecorded? Did he disappear across the ocean to America or was he reincarnated with a new wife in Kilmersdon? The jury is still out on that one.
However, another of James’ older brothers, David Hancock, born 1820, is far more clear cut, well at least to begin with.
David married Ann, a girl from Gloucestershire, and they were living in those same Brickyard Cottages in Blaenavon, in 1851, although David wasn’t actually working in the brickyards, but was an ironstone miner. Their first son, David junior, had been born in Blaenavon in 1847, but after 1851 they all disappear from the England and Wales censuses, and I eventually discovered them in the coalfields of Pennsylvannia, USA. David and his family emigrated in 1854, one family amongst thousands who sought a better life in the New World.
Tens of thousands of Welsh miners made the 3000 mile journey and created new communities of Welsh folk in Pennsylvannia, taking with them their chapels and their congregational singing. David ended up in South Cass, Schuylkill, in the 1860s, and whether by coincidence or design other Hancocks from the Kilmersdon area also settled in the same county.
David and his family’s move was made easier because instead of having to embark from Bristol, Liverpool, Southampton or London, a special Welsh miners emigration passage was organised on the ship, ‘Lebanon’, which sailed from Newport, just 20 miles down the valley. They departed Wales on 1st October 1854 and landed in New York City a week later.
Lebanon migration ship – 1854
Where David went for the next ten years isn’t known but in 1865 his tax return shows an income in South Cass of 868 dollars 37 cents, a substantial sum, and he was featured on the map as a landowner. His 1865 income was one of the largest amounts on the page of tax returns, but the huge drop the following year, to 576 dollars, was already telling the story of the problems that were to hit these coalfields. The boom was already becoming a bust and the mining fraternity was already looking elsewhere for their next ‘hole in the ground’ bonanza. His home was situated on the side of a mountain of anthracite coal, which now shows up as a great scar on the landscape, gradually being reclaimed by forest.
David Hancock’s property, Cass County – in 1875 (marked in red)
The last record for David or his family anywhere in the USA is as a farm labourer in South Cass in 1880. David was now 60 years old by then, so unlikely to have started his life again elsewhere. Many from the area moved on to Australia, as this was a popular next stop on the mining conveyor belt after the Pennsylvannia coalfields went into decline. The 1890 US census was destroyed in a fire so there is a 20 year gap in the records. David would have been 80 in 1900 and probably dead by then, but his children had disappeared as well, so that is a puzzle that still needs solving.
One Hancock who definitely did make the trip from Pennsylvania to Australia was Solomon Hancock who made the trip in July 1877. He was the grandson of George Hancock, born in 1803 in Kilmersdon. George and his children were coalminers who also moved from Somerset to South Wales, before then migrating to the Pennsylvania coalfields in the 1850s.
There was a steady stream of Hancocks, from various strands of the family, taking the trip across the Atlantic, but whether there was any communication between the different branches is unknown, but if there wasn’t then there was a lemming like urge to head for the same anthracite hill-top.
The first one to migrate was Solomon, in 1851, pre-dating David, but eventually his whole family moved out to Schuykill County, and their family history is well documented by an avid group of family historians. They have not been able to confirm their family history prior to 1800, but they claim Kilmersdon as their homeland and would seem to be close cousins of James and his gang, but exactly how they link is still a mystery.
Four Hancocks in America, relatives of Solomon and all with Kilmersdon heritage – do we have a model for our James Hancock?
One mystery solved but then …??
I knew there were still large gaps in James’ story, but there comes a point when all the available facts had to be drawn together into a readable format. The trouble with James is that every time I attempt to do that another sensational event comes to light. I’m always prepared for more, even now.. !!
and yes it keeps happening as several sections of this story have had to be re-written with days of appearing on the internet.
Then, in an attempt to complete my precis on the remaining siblings, I went back to confirm the few facts I had recorded about James’ younger brother, George, born in 1824, someone, who had totally slipped off my radar. He was living with their father, James senior, on Dunkerton Hill in 1841, but four years later, 1845, had moved to Blaenavon and married Mary Ann Jones of Rockfield, Monmouthshire, a remote village, on the edge of the Forest of Dean.
The census records for the couple in 1851 are very confusing, as George and Mary Ann are there with a ten year old boy called Philip Hancock. There is also another entry for a woman living alone called Mary Hancock, same age as George’s wife and also born in Rockfield, who was working as a coal hewer.
I found a Philip Jones in the records, born in 1840 and I take this to be Mary’s illigitimate son, who became part of George’s family. The double entry for 1851 is also confusing with Mary perhaps now living away from the family home, but George still recorded Mary as being there with him. I couldn’t find a second Mary Hancock from Rockfield anywhere else before or afterwards, so I remain confused. Perhaps she had retained her home from earlier times, making them a two home family..!!
In 1861, there is just one record for Mary Hancock, with the couple now living together in Queen Street, Blaenavon, and George is working in the brickyards. This is also the street where James’ ‘widow’, Eliza, lived after returning to Blaenavon in 1871.
I had failed to find George Hancock in later years, although I hadn’t tried very hard, as he seemed an unimportant member of the cast. George Hancock is a common name throughout Britain and looking for a stray name would be time consuming and probably a fruitless exercise. However, I tried again with a rather token effort and as I expected there were several George Hancocks on the search page, but there was one, which I would have previously ignored, but now jumped out of the screen at me.
1881 census; George Hancock, born Somerset , 1825, married to Matilda, living in MORLEY.
Morley the same Yorkshire town where I had found James, Maria and Martha.
One quick click on the mouse and there was a family group of Hancocks with five children. George Hancock from Somersetshire, his occupation described as a ‘late brickman’, and the eldest two children were born in Liverpool and St Helens.
Bells were ringing loudly – this could well be James’ brother as I knew Abel had also ended up in St Helens.
James might not have run away to Yorkshire, on his own, and there were these two children born in Lancashire. Frustratingly, I couldn’t find an equivalent census record for George in 1871. I was desperately hoping for a record with Wellow in the place of birth rather than the vague ‘Somerset’.
Luckily, the oldest two children had been born in the 1860s, prior to the 1871 census and the boy had an unusual name, Cornelius. Punching in Cornelius’ details brought up information for him in 1891 and 1901, but nothing for 1871. It did confirm he had continued in the family tradition, and in 1891 was living in Little Fountain Street, Morley and working as a brickburner. All looked very promising.
Little Fountain Terrace, Morley
There was no joy with Cornelius in 1871, so I tried Matilda, the eldest child. Immediately at the top of the page was the record I was seeking. The family group living in Purston Jaglin, a small community near Pontefract, Yorkshire. That was so easy.
I opened up the page to see the details and there to my shock and utter delight I saw not only George, wife Matilda and two children, but living with them there was his brother James Hancock, the missing hero of the story, the man who had defied all my best search efforts. Gotcha !!!!!
So, why had James been so difficult to find and how had he evaded my clutches for these three years?
The 1871 census clearly had George Hancock, age 44, and Matilda Hancock, age 30, both born Donkeston (sic), Somersetshire.
Matilda L. Hancock, age 3, born in Liverpool, Lancashire.
Cornelious Hancock, age 2, born St Helens, followed by a ditto mark.
James Hancock, age 46, born Donkerton also with a ditto mark.
James’ entry and ditto mark were at the bottom of the family list and had been transcribed to the ‘Ancestry.com’ search engine as ‘Donkeston, Lancashire’. No wonder I couldn’t find him amongst the dozens of other James Hancocks in Britain.
Crucial 1871 census – with James Hancock (click to read)
At last there was some evidence to work with, and much more than I had expected. There was a pattern emerging, because Abel, was living in St Helens in 1871 and a year later he had married Isabella Hill, a local girl and their descendents have remained in the area until today.
It was now looking possible that James and George and Abel had all moved north to Lancashire at about the same time and perhaps they had all left Blaenavon together. Not all the boys had gone with them, because Aaron and Jethro had ended their days in South Wales, although Aaron did make a short lived migration to the USA in the 1880s, but returned after his first wife died.
Aaron died in 1926, but I know very little about his three children and surely their descendents would have a tale to tell. His son, Aaron Gordon Hancock had at least six children, who seem to have remained in the Aberdare area and so still offer a chance for us to learn more about Eliza’s last days in Blaenavon.
Abel had remained in St Helens, but George and family, with James along for company, were now living across the Pennines, near Pontefract, and both working as coalminers, not in their familiar brickyards. Several aspects of this record also alerted my attention, and they concerned the two females. Who was this new wife, Matilda, born in Dunkerton about 1840. She sounded vaguely familiar. Where was George’s first wife, Mary? Had she died? The three year old, Matilda, had an ‘L’ initial for her middle name, and that made me feel slightly uneasy.
I thought I might have a Matilda Cooper, born 1840, on the master copy of the family tree and sure enough there she was – the daughter of Eliza’s brother, George Cooper. The two families occupied adjacent houses on the Lower Peasedown terrace. This was all sounding a bit close to home again. My vivid imagination was running riot – no, no, please not another, ‘close cousin’, Cooper marriage.
My searches have regularly shown me that if you have an ‘unknown’ for the wife’s surname when researching the Browning genealogy, then you have a pretty good chance of being correct, if you pencil in the name ‘Cooper’. I was already prepared for the inevitable.
So, when I looked up the marriage index there she was !! – Matilda Cooper and George Hancock married in St Helens, and I was almost certain this was the daughter of George Cooper. Remarkably a photo of Matilda Cooper has turned up and by her attire this may have been taken on the death of her husband in 1897.
Matilda Cooper, born 1840 – taken 1897?
What came as a surprise was the marriage was the year following the birth of little Matilda L. Hancock, mentioned on the census, so perhaps now a motive for the sudden move north was emerging.
Eliza was living next door to Matilda when she was born, in the Peasedown terrace, and may well have nursed her on occasions. Highly likely, that a 17 year old girl would want to play mother and baby with her new little niece. Eliza would have felt mightily aggrieved if her brother-in-law had deserted his wife and got together with her young niece. However, this didn’t explain why James and Abel had left home and gone to Liverpool as well.
The search in the index for the birth of Matilda was also easy and it threw up another shock – well not a shock but more an inevitability.
‘Matilda Louisa Hancock, born Liverpool 1867’. Louisa ….Louisa ……. Louisa ……..
There it was – the child was given the same middle name as that of the unwanted Sarah Louisa who had been left behind in Somerset. My instincts were right for when I first saw the solitary ‘L’ on the census, I had a horrible feeling in my stomach that it might be ‘L for Louisa’.
All now seemed to be clear with George and Matilda and family, so next the search was on for a death record for George’s first wife, Mary Ann or possibly just Mary Hancock, in Blaenavon, or anywhere else that fitted the dates.
Fishing for the death or second marriage for Mary Jones, her maiden name, would be a pointless exercise as it is probably the commonest name in Wales, but it increasingly looked as though she had also been left behind on a Welsh hillside, in another Hancock style divorce?
However, there was one clue to help, because in the 1861 census, a Henry Jones was living with George and Mary Ann, and the right age to be her father. I also found him in the early Rockfield records which confirmed I had, indeed, found Mary’s father. I found him again, but alone in 1871 and a record of his death, in Bedwelty, near Abergavenny, in 1873. There was no sign of Mary Hancock in the 1871 census but there was a death of a Mary Hancock in Abergavenny district in 1870, and that would seem to be our missing ‘wife’, dying two years AFTER the second marriage of her husband.
Those of you who might have vaguely heard of Rockfield, an isolated collection of houses in the middle of no-where, could be correct because the Rockfield Studios were created in 1965 as the first residential recording studios anywhere in the world. The list of artists who have recorded there seems almost endless but includes everyone from Queen and Mike Oldfield to Nigel Kennedy, Annie Lennox and Coldplay. The most famous song recorded there is probably ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’.
Up to this point, I had no details of the family events in Liverpool and St Helens, only the search index results, so there was still potentially much more information to come. It was time to send for a couple more certificates. Whilst waiting for them to arrive there was the time to speculate, about who had done what to whom, when, and possibly why. I was still looking for the moment when James and Eliza split, and James moved up north taking a collection of other Hancocks and Coopers with him.
I summised that George had put Matilda ( his sister-in-law’s niece) in the family way, much to the annoyance of Eliza. Matilda was after all seventeen years younger than George, and he was still married to Mary! James might have taken sides with George in the matter, perhaps calling Eliza a hypocrite because of her own illigitimate child and the recent marriage of first cousins, George Browning and Sarah Louisa. The two brothers, together with son Abel, and the bulging Matilda Cooper, then headed north to seek a new life in Lancashire.
Like a Poirot murder mystery this seemed to be the final scene where everything is explained in one simple sentence. Well no… !!
The adventures found in the world of Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes are to far too simplistic to compare with the life and loves of our James Hancock.
George and Matilda’s marriage certificate was rather disappointing, although it did contain one glaring oversight and one numerical miscalculation. George Hancock declared himself a bachelor, clearly overlooking his marriage in 1845 to Mary Ann Jones, and his age in 1868 was actually 47 not the 36 given to the vicar (or the 44 on the 1871 census). The service otherwise seems to have been performed quite legally in the parish church of St. Helens, after banns had been read. The Hancock family had obviously become quite adept at falsifying official documents, after the ingenious cover up surrounding Eliza’s first pregnancy. Perhaps it helps to get away with these malpractices if most of you are illiterate.
Actually more light is being thrown on the literacy side of things. It seems some of the Coopers, certainly the Coopers from the Ashman side could sign their name, and Matilda was recorded as doing so on several occasions. However, the Hancocks, were usually in scratchy cross territory, although James did manage to sign his name on a marriage certificate in 1883.
The second certificate I had ordered sat there, unopened, on my desk as I read details of the marriage. It was the birth certificate for Matilda Louisa Hancock and as the birth was before the marriage I was expecting the space for the father’s name to be left empty. Judging by many other certificates of the period it might say very little regarding address or circumstances of the mother.
How wrong could I be?
The certificate read:
11 June 1867 Born – 12 Sefton Square, Toxteth Park, Liverpool
Child name – Matilda Louisa
Mother’s name – Matilda Hancock formerly Cooper
Father’s occupation – Brickmaker
Father – JAMES Hancock
I looked again …. James Hancock – no, not her future husband, George Hancock but his brother James.
James had surprised us all yet again !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
What had been going on for Matilda Cooper to have a baby with Uncle James and then marry his brother, Uncle George, a few months later ………… and then for everyone to be living happily together in the same house some three years later. It was like a Californian hippy commune of the 1960s, not conservative, pulpit bashing, Blaenavon or Yorkshire.
More research found that the Sefton Square address was close to Toxteth Park, in central Liverpool, but more significantly, also adjacent to an area now known as the ‘old brickfields’. At least the neighbourhood had a familiar ring to it.
One has to assume that Matilda Cooper called herself Mrs Hancock, on the birth certificate, for the sake of the child, as her marriage to George was still some months away. The ‘brickfields’ across the road sound too much of a coincidence so probably James and maybe George and possibly Abel as well, went with her. She was living as Mr and Mrs Hancock, but with which Mr Hancock?
No, please don’t even consider she married James, prior to George.
Well, I did check ………….. and there were several James Hancocks, who married between 1864 and 1867 in Somerset, Monmouthshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire. Yes, I tried them all and James Hancock is a very common name !! Every time I opened up the record to check the spouse, I had a sudden rush of adrenalin, half expecting to see Matilda Cooper’s name flash up. It didn’t!
Now it was, and still is, both a religious and legal taboo, that husbands and wives dont share their sexual favours, with siblings of their marriage partner, and certainly it was a complete no-go area to have children by them. There were specific laws at the time to stop this happening and they applied even after the death of the spouse. The divorce laws mentioned earlier were quite specific about outlawing these cross sibling marriages and the exceptions only appeared in the 20th century.
Cousin marriages were more controversial and attitudes varied greatly between the different religious groups. The law in England did allow for someone to marry their first cousin, but it was frowned upon in Victorian society, although most of Queen Victoria’s children married one of their European cousins – but they were royalty and were special?? However the Hancocks and Coopers didn’t seem to care about these legal and social conventions.
So, lets try and follow the sequence of events and see how James ended up where he did, with women and children scattered far and wide, with rarely a legal document that accurately described his status at the time.
The last time Eliza and James are recorded together was in October 1864 in Newport, Monmouthshire, when Eliza gave birth to her last child, Edith. She names James as the father, a ‘journeyman brickmaker’, This is the first time Eliza is recorded away from Blaenavon and it could be the split had already happened.
Two years later, in September 1866, Matilda Louisa was conceived between Matilda and James and born in Liverpool in June 1867. Matilda in the 1841 and 1851 census was living in Dunkerton, and in 1861 was working as a servant in a most respectable establishment, for a solicitor’s clerk, in a house on the outskirts of Bath.
So, in September 1866 was Matilda visiting James in Wales, or was James visiting friends in Somerset, or alternatively might Matilda have moved to Blaenavon to work? There are lots of possibilities, but no way of knowing which one is closest to the truth.
February 1868; the marriage of George and Matilda in St Helens. This was an illegal event in two ways, as George was still married and his wife had already had a child by his brother. George also was less than truthful about his age.
December 1868; George and Matilda have a son, Cornelius, born about nine months after the wedding, so hopefully this one belongs to George.
April 1871; George, Matilda, Matilda Louisa, Cornelius and James are all living together, across the Pennines, in Purston Jaglin and working at Featherstone colliery. George and Matilda later had further children, Seth, 1871, Theodosia, 1873, Levi, 1875 and Florence, 1879.
Levi, 2nd left, son George, 2nd right, possibly Cornelius, centre back, at Woodlesford in 1912
Filling the gaps
Connecting up with a fellow family researcher chasing the same family roots can be exciting, because you hope they have lots of missing pieces in y