Happy Birthday George Browning – 200 today..!!


This story of Browning history was originally written to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of my great, great grandfather, George Browning. Since then information has snowballed, suspicions have become facts, and new leads keep popping up everywhere. Time now to bring you up to date with, ‘the Ancient History of the Brownings’.

Almost exactly six years ago while sorting through some old papers I came across a couple of names I had scribbled on the back of a tatty brown envelope. I only had the name and approximate date of birth of my grandfather, Arthur Browning and the name of someone I believed to be a ‘great uncle’, but actually turned out to be my great grandfather. Since then there have been regular bursts of information, followed by periods when I believed I had exhausted all avenues of research, only for a fresh clue to turn up, and off we go again.

George Browning appears in the baptism register of St Nicholas Church, North Bradley, Wiltshire, for 17th January 1809. He is recorder as the baseborn child of Lydia Browner, one of many contradictory facts which confuse the issue. Lydia continues to be an elusive and mysterious woman because I can’t still find a birth, marriage or death record for her, which is almost unique in over 10,000 individuals on the master copy of my family tree.

As the church cleric has written the name Lydia Browner, some people might question whether I am researching the right people, but other documents clarify the matter. We are fortunate in having several documents, which prove that George and Lydia are, indeed, the forerunners of our Browning line.

There is a ‘bastardy order’ which names James Brewer as the father of George Browning and the court order instructs him to pay North Bradley parish a sum of money, every week, for the upkeep of his child. Thirteen years later, in 1822, it is clear he has paid nothing as a second order is served by the courts, for arrears totalling the 13 years of payments. This would suggest that Lydia and George were still living in North Bradley in 1822, but that James had long since flown the nest.

The next piece of documentary evidence to show this is the same man is a ‘removal order’ served on George Browning, while living in Frome, in 1832. George was unable to provide for his wife and family, and they were all ‘removed’ from the town and taken back to his ‘home’ parish of North Bradley.

Finally, in census returns for 1851 and 1861, George gives North Bradley as his place of birth, although his date of birth is given as 1806 and 1808, not 1809. This is definitely the right George Browning and if James had done the decent thing and married Lydia, our name would now be BREWER and not Browning.


Normally, the first place to look for family roots is the town or village where the individual was born, but in George’s case there was a distinct lack of Brownings and Brewers in North Bradley at this time, and so there is no obvious family to connect with the errant couple.

The parish of North Bradley, situated on the southern edge of Trowbridge, on the road to Westbury has been in existence since the Domesday Book, but in 1809, with a sizeable population of about 2000, it was an unremarkable place. The parish included the village of Southwick, which occupied a similar position on the road to Frome and both villages were just on the Wiltshire side of the border with Somerset and so acted like sentry posts for travellers to the south and west.

In the 16th century North Bradley grew in size as it attracted workers from far a field, who wanted to share in the spoils of the wool trade. The itinerant workers became hand loom weavers, living in squatters’ cottages that had been hastily erected on the common land of the area. From this time home spinning and weaving were as important as agriculture to the parish. There seems to have been a transient feel to the place, as North Bradley did not have the same established mills and infrastructure that was found nearby in prosperous Trowbridge, and remained very much reliant on agriculture for its regular employment and income.

When the cloth trade hit hard times, North Bradley was badly affected and the unemployed became a heavy burden upon the poor rate, which was largely paid by the local farmers at a fixed amount per acre farmed. There was no village poor house, but in 1830, over 100 people were housed in cottages belonging to the parish. So, the village seemed to be a magnet for the outcasts of the nearby towns of Trowbridge, Bradford-on-Avon and Frome, and so would have been a natural place for our runaway couple to seek refuge.

There were no Browning records of note in Wiltshire and so the most obvious place to look for Lydia’s origins was in Frome, which at the time was the largest town in Somerset.  Her son, George and his family, lived there for thirty years, from 1830 to 1861, and there were several other Browning families living in the town from the early 18th century and through to the early years of the 20th century. It would make sense that Lydia was the errant daughter of one of these respectable folk.

Several of these Browning families shared the same first names, lived in close proximity to each other and almost all were involved with the cloth trade. However, Frome was a compact town and cloth-making was the main business, so occupation and address were not necessarily diagnostic of a family relationship, but that was the place that kept drawing me back, again and again.

Common sense also pointed to these other Browning families being descended from one group, which had expanded during the 1700’s. Frustratingly, it has also been difficult to confirm the origins of these families, despite their obvious affiliations. Some also have gaps in the family tree at about the same time as Lydia’s potential birth date, between 1770 and 1790.

The missing records are probably linked to the strong thread of Non Conformist religion which ran through both the people of Frome and the Browning family. Several Non Conformist Churches were built in the early years of the 18th century, the most important of which were the Badcox Lane Baptist Church in 1711, and Rook Lane Congregational Church in 1707. The Rook Lane Church split in 1773, to form an evangelical wing, named the Zion Congregational Church. All these churches were riddled with poor record keeping, and although it improved later, the period we need to plug the gaps, from 1760-1795, has very few records.

There is a William Browning, who appears in the records as an influential member of the Badcox Baptist Church in the late 1700s. Much later, in 1830, our George Browning was to become a member of that same church and he remained so, during his time in Frome. Other members of George’s own family were also members of the Baptist church.

Perhaps of particular relevance to the missing Browning records is that Baptists do not baptise infants into their church. Becoming a Baptist has to be a conscious decision made by the individual themselves, and only takes place when the person is old enough to understand the teachings of the church. Therefore, children of Baptists, who did not join the church later, would not have their birth recorded anywhere as a national registration system didn’t begin until 1837.

In 2008 I began a ‘one name’ search of the Brownings of Frome, identifying every possible birth, marriage and death record. The excellent ‘Frome Research’ site also has records of other small scale censuses, trade directories and legal records, such as land tithes and wills, and they add small but vital pieces to the jigsaw of people, places and occupations.

This Frome Browning tree funnels back to just two people, John and Charles Browning, probably brothers, who were born between 1715 and 1720. The tree does go back further to George, William and Thomas, born in the 1670s, with the earliest Browning in the records being Thomas, born in 1589 but there is then a gap to William born about 1650.

New discoveries

Two important events happened for me in the same week, which moved the story forward. The first was a trip to the brand new Wiltshire register office in Chippenham. The main purpose was not Browning research, but to look for connections to the Cooper family who lived around Salisbury Plain.

Whilst I was there I checked the Lydia Browning reference in the North Bradley parish records and much to my delight I also noticed on the same page in the index an earlier family of Brewers. To my delight there was a James Brewer, although he wasn’t a young man and would have been 52 in 1809. Perhaps more importantly in my quest, James’ grandfather, Nathaniel, had been the Vicar of North Bradley from 1720 to 1727 and Nathaniel’s home town was given as FROME.

I looked for a son of James Brewer, 1757, hoping he might also be called James, but there was nothing. There were marriages in North Bradley, in the late 1700s, for two Brewer girls and interestingly there is no record of a baptism for either, so it is possible James Brewer (1757), might be the father of our George, but it could be his unrecorded son, also called James.

The following Sunday was my father, Hugh’s, 80th birthday and I had promised to take him back to Frome to repeat the visit we made three years previously. My research was now much further forward and there was much more to tell. However, the main purpose of the trip was to meet eminent Somerset historian, Michael McGarvie, who has written many books about Somerset, but is a particular expert on Frome and adjoining parishes. Michael has given me plenty of guidance and reassurance that my research is heading in the right direction.

I told him of my visit to the Wiltshire record office and my discovery of the Brewer, who became Vicar of North Bradley. He knew this Brewer family well, and said they had status in the town and went back several generations. The Brewer family’s home parish was actually in the village of Beckington, on the road from Frome to Trowbridge.

I had also long wondered how an illegitimate boy from North Bradley could end up, many miles away. Marrying as a young man in Nunney, and then having his first child in the hamlet of Tytherington, a farm that was part of the Marston Estate, family seat of the Earls of Cork. These were small, rather closed communities, on the ‘wrong’ side of Frome, and so I needed to find a route that allowed George to make that journey and in doing so solve the puzzle of George’s early life.

Marston Bigott is a curious parish in that it is split into several, unconnected pieces. The main bulk of the parish lies two miles south of Frome, but there were two tiny parts, right in the town centre and a largish chunk of land to the north. The strange geography is explained because the parish was created to reflect the land holdings of the Earls of Cork, which were diverse and included properties in the centre of Frome. Michael told me that, despite the obvious geographical problems, these isolated parishioners would frequently travel worship at the parish church of St Leonard, adjacent to Marston Hall, up to three miles away.

The northern section of Marston Bigott parish included Spring Gardens Mills, situated on the River Frome, between Frome and Beckington. A survey in 1811, of the Frome cloth mills mentions ‘Messrs Browning’, as being clothiers in the Spring Gardens Mills. Unfortunately the initials are missing but these are likely to be John Browning and his son, James, who also owned houses and land elsewhere in the urban area of Frome. This is John Browning, born in 1737, but he is unlikely to be a candidate to be Lydia’s father, as his last child was born in 1775 and the children were all well recorded in St John’sChurch records. George never used John as a name in his own family, although there is a James, but way down the pecking order.

Lydia could have been the daughter of one of the four other Browning families listed in the Frome census of Heads of Household in 1785. None have a Lydia Browning in their family tree and only one has a George Browning but there are plenty of other snippets of evidence that offer a solution.

After considering hundreds of clues, taken from a two hundred year period, the favourite to be Lydia’s father has to be Charles Browning, born 1749. He had a large family stretching over 20 years of the relevant period, and several of Charles’ children are missing from the baptism records.

Charles Browning lived in Welch Mill Lane on the north side of Frome and worked as a shearman in the cloth industry. The shearman was involved in the final part of the cloth making process, removing all the loose threads and preparing the cloth for sale. The heads of two of the other Browning families, William and James, were also shearmen.

Lydia is not a traditional Browning name, and is generally uncommon in the population as a whole, but it was present in the family of Betty Wilshire, Charles’ wife. Her uncle, Joseph Wilshire had married Lydia Cook and so this would have been a familiar name to Betty. The Cook and Wilshire names can be traced back to the late 1600s, in the Frome records and the Cook family play an important part in other branches of the Browning family in Frome.

Samuel Browning was probably another of Charles children,  and again there is no baptism record. He was born around 1773 and married Rachel Cook. The family tree now gets very complicated, as they have a son, another Charles Browning (1809), who again married into the Cook family.

Charles’ (1809) wife, Mary Cook was the product of a marriage between George Cook and Rachel Browning, although I believe that Mary may have been an illegitimate daughter of Rachel Browning. Rachel was also a daughter of Charles and Betty. Whatever the truth, the links between the Cooks and the Brownings were interwoven in an extreme way. Charles and Betty also had a son Isaac, again with no baptism date and he had sons, James and George.

So the names associated with Charles’ family also gives us the full list of the boys in George and Ann’s family; George, Charles, Samuel, James and Isaac. Names were so important in families at this time and this seems to me to be strong evidence for placing Lydia Browning in the heart of this family.

Whilst the Browning family in Frome were heavily involved in the cloth trade, only one branch had reached above the basic grades of cloth worker, to become successful land owners and clothiers.

The Brewer family

The Brewer family were also heavily involved in the cloth business, but they were in a totally different league to the Browning family as they had a record of success and reputation for innovation that spread nationwide. Their home base was the villages of Lullington and Beckington, a couple of miles north of Frome. William Brewer, born around 1600, started his cloth business in Lullington, but only made his name after transferring to Trowbridge in 1640. Later his son, also William, developed the business further, and gained a reputation as producing some of the ‘finest medley cloths in England’.

Trowbridge was one of the most important cloth towns in England and in the medieval period manufactured the standard white, undyed broadcloth. This was superseded by the manufacture of medley cloth, which consisted of a mixture of different wools, including finer wools from continental Europe, particularly Spain. Medley cloth wool was dyed before it was woven and so produced a much more attractive and higher quality product.

By the 1670s, William Brewer and his son had developed in Trowbridge, what was said to be “the greatest trade in medleys of any clothier in England “. Within half a century Daniel Defoe wrote that in the area “…the finest medley Spanish cloths, not in England but in the whole world are made”. The great wealth generated by the medley cloth paid for the many fine clothiers’ houses in the town. William Brewer, famously, brought twenty three skilled Dutch cloth workers to Trowbridge in 1673, to improve the quality of his products.

One of the sons of the younger William, was Nathaniel Brewer, and it was he who was Vicar of North Bradley from 1720-27. Nathaniel also held a number of other clerical posts in the area from 1710 till his death in 1750. He had nine children, and it was the youngest of these, James Brewer, who remained in the village and had his own family, including James Brewer, in 1757.

Members of the Brewer family who remained in Beckington were also successful clothiers. Amongst those was Christopher Brewer, who at one time owned BeckingtonCastle, a grand house that had been rebuilt in the 1600s. Later, another Brewer became the publican of the main coaching inn in the village.

So circumstantial evidence points to ‘our James Brewer’ being the product of this renowned family, but more of a ‘black sheep’, rather than the cultured stock of his ancestors. There is no record of where James Brewer went after 1809. It was the time of the Napoleonic Wars, so he may have been a casualty of that conflict. He just disappeared without trace.

The 1822 court order for arrears of payment for the bastardy order might indicate Lydia and George were still living in North Bradley at that time, but the next confirmed sighting of George is when he got married in 1827.

George Browning married Ann Cooper at All Saints Church, Nunney. He was eighteen years old and Ann had only just reached her seventeenth birthday. Witnesses at the marriage were, Lysimachus  Knapton, who was Ann’s cousin, and William Hoddinott.

Nunney parish is sandwiched between Frome and Marston Bigott, and All Saints was also the parish church for the nearby hamlet of Trudoxhill, where the Cooper family of carpenters had their home.

George and Ann had nine children.

Lydia (1829), born in Tytherington, on the boundary of the Marston Estate. This had been acquired from Lord Bath and was part of the Longleat estate before it came into possession of the Earl of Cork in 1824.

The remaining eight children were all born in Frome.

George (1830), Charles (1833), Sarah (1835), Mary Ann (1839), Samuel, (1841), James (1843), Isaac (1846), Mary Ann (1854).

There are two Mary Anns. The elder one died in March 1853 and George and Ann seem to have immediately replaced her as the second was born in late January 1854, giving a 25 year spread between the oldest and youngest children.

In February 1832, George and Ann, together with their two young children, Lydia and George, were served with a ‘removal order’, by the parish of Frome, sending them back to North Bradley. This was an extreme measure, dealt out to families who could not support themselves, and who were not native of the parish. The removal order was signed on 14th February and executed on 21st February 1832, when a carrier was paid the sum of five shillings to take them back to North Bradley. In the same weeks cholera first reached London, Charles Darwin was touring South America in the Beagle and in March the Great Reform Bill was passed, which gave votes to those who owned property worth £10 or more but did nothing to enfranchise the working classes. Perhaps of more relevance to George and his family were the changes that were being proposed into the Poor Laws. There had been riots in 1830 because of starvation caused by low wages and high food prices, but it wasn’t until 1834 when the Poor Laws were amended and workhouses appeared on the scene s the only source of relief for the poor.

However, curiously, a year later, their next child, Charles, was born back in Frome. It seems that removal orders were not always carried out, and they could be appealed, but that once finalised few people would attempt to return to a place that had expelled them. So for George and family to return after a carrier was paid to remove them seems quite exceptional.

My only explanation is that someone stepped in to overturn the order and possibly act as a guarantor for the family. The obvious Browning and the only one who fits the bill is James Browning, clothier and property owner. It is of course possible one of the Brewer family might have stepped in to help them, but there is no evidence of later connection between the Brownings and the Brewers, after 1809.

The other person who may have helped is the Earl of Cork, who was actually the magistrate who signed the removal order. Several of the Cooper family worked on his estate and would have been known to him. The Cork family crops up frequently throughout the Browning story in the 19th century and I’m sure there is an essential piece of information about the early life of George Browning and the Marston Estate, which still hasn’t come to light.

The other possibility is that North Bradley parish paid for them to return to Frome. The parish were already overburdened with the ‘poor’, and records for 1830 show over 100 homes occupied by people receiving parish handouts. It was known for parishes to reach an amicable, financial agreement when a family had split loyalties between places.

The first confirmed address we have for George and Ann, is seven years later, when in 1839 they were living in Milk Street, Frome, on the north side of the town. There were three other Browning families, also with addresses in Milk Street in the 1830s.

By 1841, George and his five children had moved to a newly refurbished parade of shops and apartments called ‘Behind Catherine Hill’, now known as Paul Street. This is in the very heart of Frome and adjacent to one of these outlying pockets of Marston Bigott parish. Samuel, James and Isaac were all born there. All three were recorded in the official birth registrations, but no baptism records have been found for them.

By 1851 the family had moved to Matthews Barton (also known as Sun Street), adjacent to the chapels of the Zion Congregational and the Primitive Methodist movements. The BadcoxBaptistChurch was also nearby on Catherine’s Hill. All three of George’s residences were near the centre of the town and although the early census returns don’t give street numbers, both ‘Behind Hill’ and Matthews Barton were short streets and each had properties previously owned and let by the clothier, James Browning.

George joined the BadcoxLaneBaptistChurch in 1830, and Ann joined a year later. As stated earlier the BaptistChurch do not baptise children and it is in 1844 that Lydia was baptised as a fourteen year old. Strangely, in 1837, there are baptisms in the Anglican Church, for Charles, then aged four, and Sarah, aged two and in 1839 Mary Ann was also baptised in the Anglican Church, only a month after her birth. There is no record of baptism in either faith for Samuel, James and Isaac.

Charles and Lydia both married their partners in the BadcoxBaptistChurch, in 1851 and 1854, but in later life Charles seems to have become more evangelical as his younger children were baptised in the Congregational Whitefield Memorial Church in London. George, junior, had his children baptised in the Wesleyan tradition, another evangelical movement.

George and Ann remained with the BadcoxBaptistChurch throughout their time in Frome, and the church record indicates they were ‘dismissed’ to Bristol in 1861. The term is somewhat confusing, but indicates there were transferred, with the approval of the church, possibly sent as missionaries to pastures new. So, after thirty years George Browning decided his time in Frome was over and together with the remaining members of the family, he moved to Bristol.

In Bristol they seem to have renewed acquaintances with John and Mary Twitcher and their two children, also called John and Mary, who were all born in Frome. The parents were described as ‘city missionaries’ in the census returns, whilst the youngsters became established in the printing and stationery business. Several of George’s youngsters ended up working in this trade, quite probably for the Twitchers. George describes his occupation in 1861, as a warehouseman but perhaps he also went to Bristol with ‘missionary’ intent, in this bustling, cosmopolitan city.

George and Ann Browning’s children

Lydia Browning was the first child, born in 1829, and the only one not born in Frome. Her birthplace was described in the 1851 census as Tytherington, which was known locally as Tytherington Farm or sometimes the Home Farm. This farm underwent a number of transformations and modernisations but when Lydia was born there were a number of smallholdings as well as the main farm. This may have been George and Ann’s first home after their marriage.

Lydia was baptised into the BadcoxBaptistChurch in 1844 and married William Read in 1854, again in the same church.  William was a labourer in the Fussells’ iron foundry, which specialised in making ‘edge’ tools, such as scythes, billhooks and axes. Nunney and Trudoxhill were traditionally where the wooden handles for these implements were made and the Cooper family were carpenters in this trade. Fussells’ also made gas pipes, and this led to Frome having gas lighting from as early as 1830. Lydia and William had no children and continued to live in Frome all their lives. William died in 1896, but Lydia lived to the age of 80, and died in 1909. Sadly the 1901 census describes her as a widow and living in the Frome Workhouse.

George Browning was born in 1830, joined the army in 1846, and served with the Northumberland Fusiliers in foreign service in Mauritius, and then with great bravery and distinction in the bloody conflict known as the Indian Mutiny. He returned to England in 1861 and soon afterwards married Sarah Louisa Cooper, who was fourteen years younger than him and his first cousin once removed. George continued in military service with postings to Aldershot, Ireland, Tower of London and Shorncliffe, near Folkestone.

He spent the last eight years of service as a Colour Sergeant, and retired in 1869 after 22 years service. His wife, Sarah Louisa, stayed with him during these postings and they had the first five of thirteen children during that period. The baptisms of the ‘army’ children were all carried out by a Wesleyan minister. After retirement they moved to Whitechapel, or more accurately Mile End New Town, where George became the Building Superintendent in the HowardBuildings. This accommodation was very basic but provided innovative social housing for working people. George lived there with his family for the rest of his live and died in 1904 at the age of 74. I have written a separate, more extensive, record of George Browning’s remarkable life.

Charles Browning was born in 1833 and married Martha Cannings in 1851, also in BadcoxBaptistChurch. They had three children in Frome before moving to St Pancras, London, around 1857, where a further seven children were born. Charles’ occupation was originally a cloth worker both in Frome and in London but this changed in 1871 when he gained a similar position to George, as a Superintendent & Rent Collector in a block of social housing. George gained his position first, so he may have suggested that Charles apply for the job, and probably recommended him.

Charles four youngest children were all baptised at the WhitefieldMemorialChurch, in Tottenham Court Road, in London. This was an evangelical Congregational Church and again shows the strong ties between the Brownings and Non Conformist religion. Four of the ten children died in infancy, and it may have been the early deaths in Frome, of the infants, Martha in 1855 and Charles in 1857, which prompted the move to London soon afterwards. We know only a little about the fortunes of the remaining six children and I expect there are a large number of cousins out there waiting to be found.

Charles and Martha returned to Frome for their final years, living in the High Street and were the only ones in the family to retire to their place of birth. Charles died in 1900, whilst Martha lived another twelve years, running a confectioners and tobacconist business, with her daughter and widowed son. In the 1901 census Martha was still at the same address in the High Street and living next door to her are Henry and Georgina Smith. Georgina’s maiden name was Browning. Was this just a massive coincidence or was Martha living next door to a close relation? Georgina’s line is easy to trace back and takes us to the Samuel and Charles, mentioned earlier, who had complicated relationships with the Cook family. This does add extra weight to my earlier speculation about where Lydia fits into the Frome family group.

Sarah Browning was born in 1835 and married the stone mason, Stephen Adams, in 1857, not in the Baptist church but in ChristChurch, the newly built Church of England building. The couple had two children, Sarah and Edward. Sarah died at the age of eleven, but Edward married Alice Pickford in 1885, and they had seven children. They moved to Wells, Somerset, where Edward joined the army and won awards for his shooting skills. He later became a gas fitter and plumber. One of their children, Beatrice, married into the Dixon family and their descendent, David Dixon has provided valuable information about the family.

Mary Ann was the first of George’s children born when registration was required and certificates of birth were issued. I have copies of hers and the four subsequent children. Mary Ann was born in 1839 but tragically died of typhus in 1853. This must have had a devastating effect on George and Ann as almost immediately afterwards Ann became pregnant again, at 44, after a seven year gap, and they again named the girl, Mary Ann.

Samuel Browning was born in 1841 and married Elizabeth Pulling in London in 1881. Samuel must have had a long army service as he is absent from the 1861 and 1871 census and then reappears as an Army Pensioner, at the age of 40. There is a Samuel Browning, who was a sergeant with the 19th Regiment in Bhutan, India in 1868, and this looks likely to be our Samuel. He returned to England for the last twenty years of his working life, as a foreman in a cardboard box manufacturer in Bristol.

James Browning was born in 1843. He married Ellen Cooper, another of the same Cooper clan as his mother and his brother’s wife Sarah Louisa Cooper. Ellen was James’ first cousin. They had a remarkable family of six boys and three girls. The six boys all spent many years serving their country on active service in the Boer Wars and the Great War. An article appeared in a Bristol newspaper in 1938, telling of their military exploits and their great service to the country. The military life seems to have curtailed their procreative skills and I only have a record of one child from these six brave gentlemen.

Their sister Emily, tried to make up for their short fall with nine children. She married Thomas Ford and their family moved to South Wales. Joan Pressly is a descendent of that family line and she has provided me with the information about the family’s time in Bristol and South Wales.

James spent the rest of his years in Bristol, working as a ‘stationer’s cutter’, quite possibly in the stationery business of the Twitcher family. Both James and Ellen died in middle age, Ellen in 1887, at 46, when several of the children were still very young, and James in 1898, at the age of 54. The early death of their mother, making them orphans, provided the stimulus for the boys to leave home and join the Army.

Isaac Browning was born in 1846 and moved with the rest of the family to Bristol. I can find only one other Isaac in the extended Browning family of Frome, and he is a likely candidate to be the missing Lydia’s brother. Isaac married Mary Goodman and they had six children. He worked as a bookbinder in Bristol and continued the trade after moving to Tottenham in North London. Isaac later moved to Walthamstow, where a large gathering of the extended Browning family seemed to accumulate in the early 20th century. Isaac died there in 1926. Two of his boys died in infancy but the twins, Charles and George, born in 1881, both married and one led a most interesting double life..

Mary Ann was the final child, born in 1854 and it must be a difficult stigma to bear knowing you have the name of an unknown deceased sibling. Mary Ann lived in Bristol with her parents till George died in 1869 and Ann in 1872. Mary Ann married Edwin Whitworth in Bristol in 1878 and in the 1911 census they were still living in Bristol. They had no children. Edwin worked as a marine engine fitter, whilst Mary Ann was a ‘stationer’ and later a ‘storekeeper’. Edwin died in 1928 and Mary Ann in 1930. The only thing to add here is that in 1879 George and Sarah Louisa Browning had a son, who they named Philip Whitworth Browning. We always wondered where the Whitworth came from, but now we know.

More detail about later generations of these children is known, but telling their story is for another day. Some of their stories are covered in the account of the life of George Browning, Colour sergeant.

Ancient History

Now it is time to look back into the distant past, and the origins of the Browning family in these islands. My search for the parents of ‘Lydia Browner’, took me much further a field than I expected and I have made some interesting and intriguing finds.

I am indebted to John Browning Reeve for passing on a letter sent to him by his uncle, Frank Ronald Browning, some years ago. It contained a short summary about the more recent family history, but then concluded with this extraordinary paragraph.

‘as you probably know the family started in 900 or 950AD, when two Viking raiders sailed up the Bristol Channel, one landed in Wales the other in Somerset. The brother who landed in Wales had a successful time and sailed away. The brother who landed in Somerset had his boats burnt and so stayed.’

This is a rather simplistic account, which you might have written in a first year history lesson at school. My father, Hugh, says he has memories of a similar story, although he can’t remember its origins. Ronald’s letter pre-dates the wealth of internet based information now available and indeed any of the scientific methods of researching family history.

One of these recent methods has been the compilation of ‘surname maps’. These are statistical charts showing the prevalence and distribution of individual surnames across the United Kingdom. These have been compiled for 1881 and 1998, and show that even the most common name has hotspots, and even seemingly national surnames, like Smith, Jones, Brown and Cooper still have a strong regional bias. I’m sure maps are being compiled for earlier periods, which will undoubtedly show an even greater localisation of surnames.

In the 1500s the total population of England was about four million and by 1700 had only reached five million. Most people lived in villages, which numbered about 250 people, and prior to 1800AD, very few towns had a population in excess of 10,000.

Surnames were first formalised, in 1538 by Henry VIII, when the parish registration scheme for births, marriages and deaths began. Therefore, originally one surname in a village referred to just one family group. One specific surname might have had its origins in a single village in Somerset or Gloucester, but 500 years later there could be tens of thousands of descendents, spread around the world.

Uncle Ronald’s letter also pre-dates the massive increase in knowledge and understanding we have of life in Britain prior to 1066. Documents, which have been lying in storerooms for hundreds of years, have now been transcribed and translated, and made available to public gaze. The history of that period is no longer as ‘dark’ as it was when school history books were written in the 1940s and 50s.

Quite amazingly, Ronald’s story of the origins of the Browning family stands up pretty well, using 21st century scientific analysis.

The Browning name is concentrated in the southern half of England, particularly Gloucestershire, Somerset and Kent. The greatest concentration, by far, is in Gloucestershire and these families also go back the furthest, to before 1300. The Browning name in Gloucestershire is found primarily on the banks of the Severn Estuary, but they did spread inland, up the valley of the River Stroudwater and into the Cotswolds.

Details of the Danish/Viking occupation of Britain is now well documented, and their presence in the Severn estuary began with raids from 875 onwards. The Danes signed for peace with the Saxon English at the Treaty of Wedmore, in 892, when King Alfred (of cake fame) signed a treaty with Guthrum, King of the Danes. England was then split between Wessex, in the south and west and the Danelaw, in the north and east.

Gloucester and the lower Severn valley were in Wessex but the upper reaches of the river catchment area crossed the border into Danelaw. A later treaty was signed in 1016, at Deerhurst, Gloucestershire, dividing England between the Danish King, Cnut and Saxon King, Edmund Ironside. Suspiciously, Ironside died very shortly after signing the treaty and King Cnut took control over the whole country.

Curiously, the first mention of the Browning name in England is at Deerhurst and in Somerset, it is at Wedmore.

The spelling of the Browning name has changed over the centuries, with Browninge, Brouninge and Brunning, the most frequent early variations. Browning is now firmly established, and there are relatively few spelling variations. The name does have a Danish origin, which does again support the idea of the family arriving prior to the Norman Conquest of 1066.

However, the first Browning arrival could have been later, as the Normans, who were really French Vikings in disguise, allowed friends and relatives from their old homelands in Denmark to settle in some areas. The Fitzharding family, originators of the Berkeley family, were supposed to have descended from the King of Denmark, who sent his son, Robert, to England during William the Conqueror’s time. Robert was given lands around Bristol and despite much political uncertainty, the family established their presence in the small town of Berkeley. The Berkeley family are one of only three noble families to maintain the male lineage unbroken from 1066 to the present day.

Berkeley Castle plays an important in English history, and is said to be the scene of the brutal murder of Edward II. Later there are records of various monarchs staying in the Castle when visiting the West Country. The Berkeley family continued to be the most important in the region, and inter-married with most of the important families across England during the next 1000 years.

It may be that the first Browning family arrived with the Fitzhardings, but there is no documentary evidence to substantiate that idea. However, Brownings did have a close association with the Berkeley family during the medieval period and it could well be that they shared the same Danish ancestry.

Early mentions of the Browning name are often associated with people of status, landowners, yeoman farmers and there are frequent connections with the nobility of the medieval period. The description, ‘minor ranks of the local gentry’, used by one writer seems to encompass where the family fitted into society prior to 1600, although at one point they were destined for much greater things.

The Brownings from the west of England seem to be all one family. Their geographical spread was very small right up until 1800, they used a relatively limited number of first names and like most families they passed on their names through the generations in predictable patterns. It is noticeable that the Browning name elsewhere in Britain is found primarily in coastal locations, perhaps indicating a maritime connection, with seafarers moving from port to port, before settling down in a new place.

Remarkably, despite finding no genealogical links between the Kent Brownings and those from further West, they also use very similar first names – rather like identical twins meeting after many years and turning up with identical clothes. The Kent line is much later, so this could be a maritime deserter from the SevernValley or the Bristol Channel.

Family Trees

Some family researchers want to be 100% certain of their findings and insist on a written record for each individual on their tree. This is just about possible for the period 1837 onwards, but prior to that there is increasing uncertainty, as parish records often have gaps or give little detail of people or place. The problem is made more difficult as the same names keep appearing. In the case of the Browning family, many lines lead back to a William or a John, and then it usually becomes impossible to distinguish one from another. Unusual names often help, and the name, Anselm, has helped link several family groups, who otherwise would have just been unconnected branches.

What I do know is that at some point in family research a map becomes a more important document than a parish record. Professor Bryan Sykes, geneticist and genealogist has shown that the same surname in the same place means that the family are almost certainly related. Rural communities were usually quite stable and many people stayed in the same parishes for several generations. When increasing numbers of children survived some would be forced to move to find work. However, the root of the family, particularly if they had land, property or a skilled trade, might remain in situ and so mapping the spread of a family is a valuable tool for tracing pre-1837 genealogy.

I tried a ‘one name’ search, optimistically hoping to create one large, extended tree of Brownings.  I had been successful in this tactic with other branches of my family, but they were easier to trace as their common root was in the 1600s, not the late 1200s. I had partial success because the multitude of Browning lines led me back to the same places in Gloucestershire, but I was hampered by the prevalence of the same first names, John, William and Thomas. Eventually, I realised I couldn’t join them up with any confidence and abandoned the task for another day.

Instead I decided to trace the earliest records and bring them forward, to see where they led. It was easy to track the early prominent members of the family and to observe the spread of the name from village to village as the decades and centuries passed. It is interesting that the ‘common’ people bearing the family name also appeared in the same places at about the same time as the landowners and gentry.

The earliest record is for John Browning, born about 1300, in Leigh Deerhurst, a small rural parish north of Gloucester. The parish has a Saxon church, built by 804, one of the largest and finest Saxon churches in the country. Deerhurst was mentioned above as being the site of the King Cnut treaty, in 1016. The population of Leigh Deerhurst in 1327 was less than 50 people and it was part of the estate of Deerhurst Priory. What position John Browning held in this community is unknown but it must have been significant because his son, also John, married Alice Maltravers, who was from a notable Dorset family. Her father, John Maltravers, was one of those complicit in the murder of Edward II in BerkeleyCastle, in 1327. The union with Alice Maltravers gained John Browning a title and lands at Melbury Sampford, Dorset. The Browning coat of arms, with horizontal blue and white wavy banners, dates from this period.

Alice and John had a son, another John Browning, who married four times. Firstly to Agnes Rodborough, abt 1385, who was the heir to Notgrove Manor. After Agnes died in 1390 and John in 1416, Notgrove ended up in the hands of their daughter, Cecily Browning, who married into the Whittington family (‘Dick’ was a relation), and the estate was lost from the Browning family name.

John’s second wife, Katrina died soon after the marriage, and in 1400 he married Elinor FitzNicholl, a blood relation of the Berkeley family mentioned previously. The inter-relationships are too complicated to completely unravel but at this time the Brownings were certainly very close to the Berkeley and FitzNicholl families. This John Browning was a Knight and represented Gloucestershire as a Member of Parliament on several occasions.

The Brownings seem to have the ability to marry into the best families and this is a pattern which carried on for many centuries. This trait applied to both the male and female side, and so the enhanced status earned by the family usually resulted from marriage to the heir of a substantial estate, rather than receiving the land as the gift of the monarch, after some glorious deed on the battlefield.

Often we know of only one or two Browning children in a generation, but there may have been others, particularly as spouses died young and there was often remarriages on both sides of a new partnership. Three wives or husbands were not that unusual. The Browning name always becomes more common in a new area after a Browning had married a new ‘landed’ spouse. The younger members of any family had to fend for themselves as they would not inherit the main estate.

Tradition in landed families at the time was that the eldest son would inherit the estate and title, the second son would take up arms for the monarch, and the third would join the Church. Later sons would be given small amounts of land to farm, and the daughters married off to local gentlemen. There were winners and losers, and it was possible for unlucky branches of the family to go from manor house to gatehouse to agricultural labourer, in a couple of generations if circumstances didn’t go your way.

Keeping on the right side of changes in monarch or religion was key to maintaining wealth and influence. High ranking members of the court or church might lose their lands or their head if they made the wrong friends at the wrong time. Only the most skilful political animals kept their power and influence from one generation to the next.

Mortality was high at all stages of life, and those that survived birth and child birth might be killed by disease or on the battlefield, in their twenties and thirties. Average life expectancy was around 35 in the medieval period, 1400-1600, but that disguises the fact that if you survived the difficult years you could live to 60 or 70 years of age. It did mean that members of both sexes, way down the pecking order of inheritance, might find themselves inheriting a Manor or small estate. It also meant that a healthy parent might outlive all the offspring and so marrying in old age, for the third or fourth time would prevent the family estate from returning to the Crown.

Inter-marrying of the landed classes was seen as a way of protecting and, indeed, increasing the size of estates. An untimely death of a son or two might see the family lands pass to a daughter, who had already married a neighbouring Lord of the Manor. Inter-marriage amongst the landed classes was the norm and it was extremely unusual to bring fresh, commoner blood into the family. One member of the Berkeley family, who ‘married beneath himself’ was disinherited and so began a court case, between different branches of the family, which was unresolved for nearly 200 years.

All the present-day English ‘noble’ families gained their power, influence and large estates in this way, over five hundred years ago. This means that anyone who links somewhere into the line of heredity of the ‘noble classes’, also has a link into our current Royal family, and back to William the Conqueror and Alfred the Great. It is thought more than one million descendents of William are alive today.

The two most aristocratic Browning lines died out, with no male heir. This happened to John Browning’s descendents at Melbury Sampford, where the Maltravers inheritance ended up with a marriage into the Strangeways family, and at Notgrove Manor, when Cecily Browning married Guy Whittington. These two substantial estates had both slipped from Browning hands by 1500.

What we do see between 1350 and 1600 is the arrival of Brownings as yeoman farmers, (landowners of farms), which in some cases were quite sizable, with the largest landowners rising in status from ‘yeoman’ to ‘gent’, and hold a responsible position in local society, as magistrate or councillor.

As the family grew in number so the range of occupations of the Browning family also expanded. There was a continued connection with farming, and in those days, this meant sheep. The prosperity of Gloucestershire in the middle ages was derived from its sheep farms and particularly the wool they produced. The processing of the fleece into wool and cloth made Gloucester a wealthy county. This became one of the most important places for the wool trade in England, and together with neighbouring counties of Somerset and Wiltshire produced over 80% of England’s cloth.

So, Brownings, who had been farmers, produced sons who became clothiers. Others moved into a variety of occupations, including carpenters and masons, and for those close to the River Severn, some became boatmen. Although these other occupations were important for individual families, it was the wool and cloth trade which dominated the lives of many Browning families, from 1500, right through to the Victorian era.

When researching the Browning name I can become overwhelmed by our American cousins trying to trace their name back to England. There are thousands of them and they all want to take their ancestry back to Capt John Browning, who was one of the early settlers in Virginia.

Their commonly held believe is that, ‘Captain John Browning was born in England about 1588 and sailed from Gravesend, England in the ship “Abigail” in 1621. His ship landed on “College Lands”, later known as Jamestown, York   County, Virginia. His known children (with wife Elizabeth Dameron) were George, William, and Joseph Browning, who were all born in England. George and William came with their father Captain John on the “Abigail” to America.’

The American tree is extensive, but compiling a full and accurate version has proved difficult because of the loss of many early records, destroyed in a fire during the American Civil War. There is also thought to be another, slightly later, emigrant family which complicates the tree. However, the majority of American Brownings do seem to originate from Capt Browning’s family line, including current US President, Obama, who is related on his mother’s side.

Like so many original American settlers they seem to have left their past behind them. Despite the time and money spent by so many researchers the earlier family history of Capt John Browning has still not been fully established. His father was supposed to have been a clothier from Gloucestershire, but others link him to the East of England, where many of the earlier, ill fated, expedition of 1607, were born.

Further research seems to discredit the biography quoted above, as there was a William Browning mentioned on an earlier ship, which puts him at an age to be Capt John’s brother. Capt John is also mentioned in one ‘muster’ roll, in 1625 as being 22 years old. This would conflict with him being a married man with children in 1615, the supposed date of his youngest child. However, he must have had some status because he was elected to the governing body of Virginia in 1628. The early adventurers consisted of a high proportion of the landed gentry, trying to seek a fortune, and so there was no place in the government of the new country for the lower or middle classes.

Without an original source in either England or America, it is difficult to be sure who he was or where he came from. John is a common Browning name, and there are several other candidates, including one who was closely related to the organisers of the 1619-22 expeditions to Virginia. There is more about him in a moment.

Linking them all together

In the summer of 2010 I decided to make yet another effort to discover the origins of the Frome Brownings and also join together as many of the Gloucestershire mini trees, as possible. I also tried to connect the many Welsh Brownings, who inhabited the South Wales coalfields during Victorian times.

There was great success with the Welsh family, and although I couldn’t link them all together I did manage to trace them ALL back to the upper reaches of the Bristol Channel, and along the banks of the River Severn. As ever they all led back to a John or a William, or sometimes a Thomas, and then the trail becomes impossible to continue. My theory about just one Browning family radiating out from Gloucestershire was still holding up.

On the Gloucestershire side of the river the Browning name appeared in Berkeley and especially Coaley( previously Cowley), which really seems like ‘Browning Central’. There are more Browning names in the Coaley area than anywhere else, and the generations follow through for several hundred years. The timing of their arrival seemed to coincide with the marriage between John Browning and Elinor FitzNicholls at Nympsfield, and thereafter the name is firmly entrenched in the nearby villages of Coaley, Dursley and Cam.

Tracking the families became rather repetitive. The family christian names had a familiar ring to them, but they weren’t leading anywhere in particular. Nothing of note had leapt from the many pages I scrutinised and I gave up in despair when I came to a Mary Browning married to a John Smyth. That had to be the most unpromising combination I could imagine. The Coaley records carried forward to the 1700s and overlapped my Frome family dates. Now was the time to stop. My plan to go forward in time was proving as fruitless as going back.

Several days later when reading through some details about the Berkeley family, and the very early Browning connections with the death of Edward II, I noticed a reference to a John Smyth, and his history of the Berkeley family, called ‘Lives of the Berkeleys’, written about 1620.

I had stumbled upon one of the most important historical documents of the period and written by one of the most influential men of his time and this was the same John Smyth, who had married Mary Browning. John Smyth of North Nibley was steward to the Lords of Berkeley and their estate from 1596 to 1640. He was born in 1568 in Leicestershire and his father was Thomas Smith of Hooby, Leicestershire, who was second son of William Smith of Humberstone in Lincolnshire. Thomas Smith married Joane Alleyne, daughter of Richard Alleyne of Derby and John Smyth, born 1568, was their son. John had no brothers and only one sister.

John Smythe was educated at a free school in Derby, to the age of 16 and his education continued when he went to live with Thomas Berkeley, son and heir of Lord Henry Berkeley, at Callowden House, near Coventry. It was the practice for sons and daughters of good pedigree, to become members of great households to further their education and to raise their standing in society. John Smyth became teaching companion, as well as attendant to the nine year old Thomas Berkeley. Later, they both, graduated from MagdalenCollege, Oxford, but John Smyth continued his studies further gaining a degree in Common law at the MiddleTemple in London.

After completion of studies, in 1596, Smyth returned to the Berkeley household, becoming personal steward to Henry Berkeley and his household and later he was promoted to steward of the ‘hundred and liberty of Berkeley’. John Smyth married Grace Thomas in 1597 but she died in 1609, without producing any children. Smyth’s educational companion, Thomas Berkeley died in 1611, two years before his father, Henry and the line was carried forward by Thomas’ young son, George Berkeley.

Almost immediately after Grace’s death, John Smyth married Mary Browning who was described as:

daughter of John Browning of Cowley, descended from Nicholas Berkeley, second son of Robert Fitz Harding, who was one of the original Berkeley family.’

John and Mary had three sons, and three daughters, including another John Smyth, who carried on his father’s work, as steward to the Berkeley family.

According to the preface, in the beginning of ‘The Berkeley Manuscripts’;

‘John Smythe had charge of the Muniment Room in Berkeley Castle, sometime in the early 1600’s, which led him to write the history of the twenty-one Lords of Berkeley, extending from the Norman Conquest, down to year 1628. He also traced the numerous lordships, manors, and lands, which, for five centuries, the family held.’

This made him an expert on everything ‘Berkeley’, and indispensable to the family. Smyth must also have realised that marrying a direct descendent of the Berkeley line would strengthen his position as steward. Some of the lesser members of the family resented the influence this gave him, but they were powerless to curtail his activities.

‘John Smyth wrote two major books, ‘Lives of the Berkeleys’ in about 1618, and ‘The Description of the Hundred of Berkeley’, which was dedicated  to his son John, who succeeded him as estate steward to Lord Berkeley. It was written over many years, the final revision apparently occurring in 1639. It combines information that would be useful to his son as estate steward with the antiquarian gleanings of four decades spent in the Vale of Berkeley. Smyth was born in Leicestershire, took up residence in Gloucestershire when around 30 and spent a significant part of most years in London.’

John Smyth also had his own private business ventures. His legal training and influence with people in high places meant he acted as a consultant and lawyer to many friends and family in the purchase of land and negotiation of business agreements. He became a wealthy man, as he acted not only as lawyer but also a partner and shareholder in many of the deals he brokered. He is known to be an influential person of his time, but my research would indicate his influence stretched further than most modern historians realise, perhaps even further than the Lords of Berkeley realised!

John Smyth also played a key part in the Berkeley sponsored plantation in Virginia.

“Sir Walter Raleigh’s two attempts to establish a settlement in Virginia, the first in 1585, and again in 1587, were not successful: the support of such a settlement was found to be beyond the means of any one individual, however well-off or well-connected.

 Yet interest in such a project remained high and, early in the next century, the Virginia Company of London was formed to exploit the resources of the country. The first expedition in 1607 met with limited success as a large proportion of the migrants died soon after arrival. In 1618, as the wool trade foundered in England, a group of local Gloucestershire merchants and gentlemen came together to form ‘The Berkeley Company’. These pioneers were know as ‘adventurers’, rich men who often had never done a day’s manual work.’

 The principal backers of the enterprise were John Smyth of Nibley, agent to, and historian of, the Berkeleys, Richard Berkeley, George Thorpe of Wanswell Court, Sir William Throckmorton. They negotiated a grant of land on the James River in Virginia, some 8000 acres, on which to form a private colony to be named the Berkeley Hundred. This was somewhat of a rival to the Virginia Company and history shows they seem far better prepared than other expeditions.

On the morning of 16th September 1619, 38 voyagers, under Captain John Woodleaf set sail on the Margaret, of “Bristow” (47 tons), to cross the Atlantic and establish the new settlement. On the 4th December the settlers arrived in America and celebrated what has now become recognised as the first Thanksgiving.”

These four partners and others who later entered into the project were all related in some way. William Throckmorton was married to Lord Berkeley’s sister and another of those given responsibility on the first voyage, Ferdinando Yate, was married to another of the Lord’s sisters. Frequently in letters and dispatches, there is mention of, cousins, uncles and in-laws.

John Smyth not only wrote his two major books about the Berkeleys, but he also kept a careful record of all his administrative and legal transactions and correspondence. This became one of the greatest archives of the period and those records still exist today. The collections are split between the National Archives in England and the Thomas Jefferson Papers in the Library of Congress in America. Over 2000 documents have been catalogued and there may be many more.

Readers of this article might well now be wondering why I am going into so much detail about this man, who although a key player in the Berkeley family and the settlement in Virginia has little to do with the Brownings and Brewers of Frome and North Bradley.

Well you have to realise that the driving force behind the exploration of Virginia was money. Religion had driven the migrations to New England, but further south it was about wealthy men trying to increase their wealth even further. These were young, noble, adventurers, aiming to make their fortune in a golden age of opportunity.

The driving force behind the rise in importance of Gloucestershire in Tudor England was the wealth accumulated from the wool and more importantly the cloth trade. The Elizabethan age had seen England grow dramatically in power and wealth and it was families, like the Berkeleys, who had been big winners during this period. This was also an age of merchants and the rise of ‘big business’, with clothiers building small factories, rather than relying totally on homeworking.  King James, in 1604, abolished many tariffs and restrictions, which was supposed to encourage trade with France and Holland. This backfired as the continent didn’t want to buy our rather boring white cloth, and instead imports increased and the price of English cloth slumped. Not only was the cloth plain it was also much coarser than the fine, multi-coloured materials coming from Spain, France and Holland. English cloth went into decline and so the new wave of entrepreneurs from Gloucestershire needed to look for new ways to make their fortune.

The move to Virginia was not to further their textile interests, but to search for gold (which the Spanish had discovered in the South), and to mine iron ore. The Berkeley family already had mining interests beside the SevernValley, in the Forest of Dean, and in the Cotswolds. The early voyages, to the New World, sponsored by the four man cartel, included miners and mining engineers.

The 1607 expedition had found no sign of gold, but they did discover tobacco grew easily and realised that this could be a lucrative business if plantations were established. John Smyth had a better idea, as he could see no reason why the plant should not be grown in Gloucestershire and Worcestershire, and his one and only instruction to the leader of the first expedition was ‘to bring back tobacco seed’.

His plans to turn the Severn valley into one large tobacco plantation were quashed, when the government made it illegal to grow tobacco in England, as a protectionist measure for the benefit of the Virginia Company. Illicit tobacco crops were grown by some farmers, but troops were sent from London to destroy the ‘weed’, despite the protests of the locals.

This was all interesting stuff but, yet again, I had been diverted from my main research. However, John Smyth was a fascinating character, who seemed rather larger than life, and I decided to explore a little further. I started to search for some of John Smyth’s papers in the National Archives on-line website.

Immediately I found a collection of over five hundred papers stored in Birmingham Museum. Only the index was available for inspection, but half way through the list my draw dropped, as I saw the names, Browning and Beckington, referenced on a couple of papers. Further down were further references to Beckington, John Smyth himself, and several members of the Webb family.

Letter from John Browninge to Mr. John Smythe of Nibley, co. Glouc. his son-in-law, concerning the wardship of Mr. Web and the Manor of Beckington co. Somerset8 March 1610/11

 Letter from Robert Webb of Medbourne Wilts, to John Smith, esq., of Nibley co. Glouc., and his brother Mr. John Browninge of Cowley ? co. Glouc. concerning the wardship of the manor of Heckington and Beckington. co. Somerset5 March 1610/11

 Letter from Robert Webb to his brother, Benedict Webb of  Ryngeswoode Kingswood, co. Glouc. concerning the wardship of the manor of Beckington co. Somerset. 6 March 1610/11

 Letter from Robert Webb to John Smithe, esq., and Mr. John Browninge, concerning the drafting of a conveyance. 9 March 1610/11

 Draft copy of demise for 40 years from Elizabeth Sherington of Midburne Medbourne, Wilts, widow of William Sherington, gent., deceased, Alexander Webbe and William Webbe, sons of Robert Webbe of Beckington, co. Somerset, gent., to John Browning of Cowley, co. Glouc., gent., and John Smyth of  North Nibley, co. Glouc., gent., of the manors of Beckington and Beckington, co. Somerset, with messuages, land and appurtenances in Beckington, Rudge, Standerwicke and  Berkeley, co. Somerset.  11 March 1610/11

Could this be the link I had been looking for between the Brownings of Frome and their namesakes in Gloucestershire. The Frome Brownings didn’t really get going till the early 1700s, although there was one family recorded in the late 16th century. These John Smyth records were contemporary with the earliest mentions and might explain how the Browning family had arrived in Frome.

The other exciting part of these ‘headlines’, was that there seemed to be strong family relationships between all the people mentioned. But it didn’t stop there, because the relationships came not from John’s side, but his wife, Mary Browning, via her brother John, and her mother, Christian Webb.

The Webbs were an extremely successful family of Gloucestershire clothiers, and Mary’s uncle, Benedict Webb, born 1563, claimed to be the first person to introduce medley cloth to England. It became known as ‘Webb’s cloth’. Benedict had been apprenticed to a linen draper in London, who sent him for extended periods to France and Italy. There he learnt the skills of creating finer and more elaborate cloth by mixing different threads and dying the wool before it was woven. English cloth was universally white, or dyed to just one colour. The finer wools were not available in England, where the sheep produced coarse wool, but the Spanish threads were ideal, and his medley cloth became known as ‘Spanish cloth’.

The Smyth papers show the link between the Webb family and Beckington, and it can be no coincidence that Beckington also became known as a centre for medley cloth. There is also evidence of ‘sharp practice’ in the village, in the 1630s, when some clothiers tried to create cheap copies of the original Spanish Cloth, by using a say-dyed process, which tried to imitate the more expensive product.

So my research into the life of John Smyth of Gloucestershire was bringing me into familiar ground, and this now gets even closer to home because the Brewer name now reappears in the story.

It was the Brewer family of Beckington and Lullington were the pioneers of this cheap imitation. They didn’t invent the cheap medley cloth, but rather like the Webbs, they were good at spotting a business opportunity and exploiting a new development. Cloth making was highly regulated and initially these say-dyed copies were made illegal. There were even attacks by other local clothiers and their workers on the Brewer business. However, by 1640, in spite of protests and prohibitions, the making of say-dyed cloth had spread over much of the old white-cloth area, and in that year the Privy Council in London finally legalized its production if it was clearly distinguished from true Spanish medley cloth.

So now we have joined the circle because it was the same William Brewer, making fake medley cloth in Lullington, who moved to Trowbridge and became the ‘greatest medley clothier in England’.

The inter-relationship between these various clothier families is also very complex. Inspection of only a limited number of wills, shows that, just like the landowning families of the medieval period, the Gloucestershire clothiers extended their influence by marrying into other clothier families.

The wills also show how widespread their influence became, as individuals married spouses from new areas, or took over failing business of competitors in nearby towns. The influence of the Brewer and Webb clothiers spread throughout the south west and all the way to London. The Browning clothiers had more limited success, but their genes were well mixed with the other families.

The wealth was not to last though, as the early decades of the 19th century brought food shortages to the West of England, as the cost of basic provisions increased and the wool and cloth trade declined. There were riots and protests in many towns, with troops brought in from London. The textile industry had moved north, to much larger mills, processing wool in Yorkshire and imported cotton in Lancashire. The urbanisation and industrialisation of Victorian England saw the end of Gloucestershire, Somerset and Wiltshire as important manufacturing centres, and even today, some would say, that the Industrial Revolution still hasn’t quite reached this part of England !

So, are these entrepreneurs and adventurers our direct fore-fathers? Do our blood lines reach back to the successful clothiers and landed gentry of the middle ages. Well the circumstantial evidence points heavily in that direction. Statistically, it would seem to be unlikely that James Brewer and Lydia Browning were not related to these successful clothier families of the 17th and 18th centuries.

The next stage is to delve into the original papers of John Smyth and see what they can tell us. It would be wonderful to find the ‘missing link’, with Brownings from Gloucestershire living in Beckington .

The other exciting aspect about these particular papers of 1610/11 is the reference to ‘brother-in-law’, John Browning. This John is the right age and has the right background to be the very same man who went to Virginia on the ‘Abigail’ in 1622.

In 1601 and 1607 Thomas Berkeley lent money to John Browning, gent, to finance trips to Constantinople and later Jerusalem. These documents are in the Gloucestershire record office. This seems to be the future father-in-law of John Smyth, as his son would have been only 13 or 14 at the time, and couldn’t really be described as a ‘gent’, at that age.

‘Sir Thomas Berkeley of Caludon (Warks) to John Browning, gentleman: bond for payment of £102 by Berkeley to Browning on the return of the latter from Constantinople ‘Comonlye taken & reputed to bee under the dominion of the great Turke’.

 ‘Receipt for £70 accepted by Browning in full discharge of the bond, with note announcing his impending departure for Jerusalem and expressing the hope that Berkeley will again help him financially on his return.’

However, we can imagine that if John the elder was making pilgrimages to the eastern Mediterranean in his 40’s then his young son, as a thirty four year old, might be keen to join an expedition to Virginia in 1622. This was also a crisis point in the early colonisation of Virginia, as March 1622 had seen a massacre of over 400 settlers by the local Indian population. This amounted to a third of the total number of emigrants and caused a reassessment of policy by both the Berkeley and Virginia Companies.

The ‘Abigail’ was one of the first ships sent in response to the massacre. Brother-in-law, John Browning would seem to be an obvious choice to be part of that expedition as he would have had the backing of John Smyth and could be trusted to carry out the wishes of the Berkeley Company.

Some American researchers do suggest that Capt John was the brother-in-law of John Smyth, but none seem to have looked too deeply into his background. Therefore, research into the John Smyth. ‘Beckington’ papers, should tell us more about John Browning’s life in 1610, and whether this could be the man who became an adventurer in the New World twelve years later.

So, if the mysterious Capt Browning is the same man who was brother-in-law of John Smyth, and therefore had dealings with the Webb family in Beckington, it opens the possibility that our family has connections there also.

Poets corner

There is one famous Browning who has long been speculated to be a blood relative, but despite over 100 years of investigation no link has yet been discovered. Members of various branches of the family have thought we might be related to the great poet, Robert Browning, who lived from 1812 to 1889. Family members have provided photographs, which seem to show their relatives as almost clones of Robert and his son Penn. I have researched the Poet’s line extensively and although we are probably both part of the wider Browning tree, there is no link after 1700.

The Poet’s great grandfather, Thomas Browning, (1721-94) was the tenant of the coaching inn in the hamlet of Woodyates, in Pentridge parish, Dorset. Woodyates was on the main road south from Salisbury to Weymouth, and close to the Dorset/ Wiltshire. These isolated properties seem to have been under the tenancy of the local lord of the manor, Lord Shaftesbury, whose family seat was three miles away, at Wimbourne St Giles. This was an important route from London to the coast and the Duke of Monmouth had reportedly stayed at this inn, as he fled the soldiers of King James II, after his failed rebellion of 1685. Monmouth was caught at Horton, near Ringwood, the next day.

The earliest family event recorded in Woodyates was the birth of Robert Browning in 1719, son of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Petherbridge. They had two more children, Elizabeth and Thomas.

The Browning family were given the tenancy of the Little Inn for ‘three lives’, by the Earl of Shaftsbury. Whether this started with Thomas Browning or his father Robert is unclear, but as Thomas was born in the parish his father may have already been the publican by 1720.

The youngest son, Thomas, married Jane Morris and had six children. Robert, the eldest, (1749), was the grandfather of the poet, and he became a successful banker. He made the break away from rural isolation in Woodyates at the age of 20, when he obtained a position of clerk in the Bank of England, thanks to the influence of Lord Shaftesbury. He served for fifty years, and rose to the position of Principal of the Bank Stock Office, then an important one, and which brought him into contact with the leading financiers of the day. He also became a lieutenant in the Honourable Artillery Company, and took part in the defence of the Bank in the Gordon Riots of 1789.

His brother, Reuben, (1755) and sister, Christian, born 1757, remained in Woodyates and she married William Shergold, in Salisbury, in 1776. Christian and William took over the tenancy of the Little Inn, after her father, Thomas, died in 1794. William died a couple of years later, but Christian retained the tenancy of the inn and she remarried, to W. Rose. He also died and Christian continued to run the inn until her own death in 1812. Reuben is mentioned in a newspaper article in 1813, at the sale of his sister’s household belongings, as still being a tenant of a neighbouring property. The ‘three lives’ tenancy, had by now run its course.

The name William Shergold has other significance in the Poet’s family, Robert Browning’s grandfather remarried, and the first child of the second marriage was called William Shergold Browning. He was the Poet’s half uncle. It is the William Shergold Browning descendents who jealously guard their relationship to the poet, and rather dismissed my suggestions that we might all be part of a wider Browning family from Gloucestershire..!!!

The Browning Society, which celebrates the life and works of the Poet, can’t trace the family before their time in Woodyates.  Browning historians mention a possible connection with the defunct line of the illustrious Browning family from, nearby Melbury Samford, although that line died out in 1500.

There is also mention in an early official history of the Poet being related to Capt ‘Micaiah’ Browning who broke the siege of Derry in 1689. This story illustrates the problems of family history research from over 300 years ago. The biography calls him ‘Micaiah’ and because the history is well known this spelling is often repeated. There is a plaque to Capt Browning on the Derry city walls to commemorate the event and this calls him Michael Browning, a native of Londonderry. However, the National Archives has a probate document, dated 1691, for Micah Browning, a native of Bristol, who died in Ireland. My money for the correct provenance is with the probate document.

Micah may have been one of the many English families ‘planted’ in Ireland to keep a strong Protestant influence over the Ulster province, or he may have just been a Naval captain from Bristol, serving his King and Country.

The Poet’s biography also suggests a connection to Captain Browning, who commanded the ship `The Holy Ghost’, which conveyed Henry V to France before he fought the Battle of Agincourt, in 1415. We don’t know his Christian name but he would have been a contemporary of John Browning, Knight and MP for Gloucester. It is very possible this was the same person as John Browning died in 1416.

The assumption of the Browning Society is that the family is one of some pedigree, although ‘inn keeper for three lives’ doesn’t seem to reflect their optimism. However, Thomas Browning did believe his family came from ‘good West Country stock’, which does support my research into the wider Browning family, and a family seal was passed on by means of a signet ring.

There are no other Brownings for many miles in each direction around Woodyates, and as you increase the limit of the catchment circle you quickly come to Frome. The Poet’s family must have come from somewhere, before they arrived in Woodyates. They could have travelled north from a variety of coastal ports or south from Gloucestershire, Somerset or London.

Robert is a relatively rare Browning name in the early records. There is one, who was born in 1664 and died in 1735 in Coaley, Gloucestershire, but there is no record of his children. This is also a Robert Browning, born in Tetbury Gloucestershire in 1695. There is yet another Robert Browning born in Northam, Devon in 1701. This is a coastal town and was a major trading port of North Devon.

I did some research into Elizabeth Petherbridge, the wife of the earliest of the Poet’s family and that threw up some interesting data. Petherbridge is a very rare name and found almost exclusively in Devon. There was an Elizabeth, born in 1681 in Dartmouth, the daughter of Robert Petherbridge and Christian. This is one of those records that jumps out of the page, as the name Christian also appears in the Browning family in Woodyates. This cannot be the correct Elizabeth, but as Christian does appear in other Petherbridge families of the period, this looks as though it could be the correct family group.

Robert Browning, from one port in Devon, marrying a girl from another port in Devon would make a lot of sense. This also brings other facts together, such as the Browning link with the River Severn and the Bristol Channel, Captain Micah at Derry and Captain Browning taking the King to Agincourt. This then takes us back to the Berkeley and FitzNicholl families in the 1300s.

The believed connection to seafarers, by the Browning Society, does have merit, as my experience with family rumours is that they nearly always have some basis in fact. Again it would make some sense that a family with seafaring connections, who had their roots amongst the gentry of Gloucestershire might well end up running a coaching inn under the tenancy of Lord Shaftesbury, on the main road from London to the ports of Poole and Weymouth.

Conclusion and the future

I now have a much improved understanding of the early Browning history and it would seem certain we fit in there somewhere. There are now several new places to explore and they are historically very exciting. The key man is now John Browning, brother-in-law of John Smyth, who might or might not be the father of one of Virginia’s first families. He might also provide a link between the Browning family of Gloucestershire and those who lived in Frome. The links to Virginia and the poet also need progressing, and even if they don’t show a close relationship with our branch of the Brownings, further discoveries would have wider historical importance. The Brewer family of Beckington also need more research, as that really is our male descendent line.

Anyone who has information, especially photos and original documents please feel free to contact me. I’m still woefully short of information about the family in the past 100 years.

Keith Browning    June 2012                              Kbrow5121@aol.com

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George Browning – a true Victorian

George Browning col serg (3)

28 April 1830 – 27 Oct 1904


George Browning was a true Victorian, as his life occupied a similar time frame to the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901). His journey through the Victorian Age took George from Frome in Somerset, to Whitechapel in London, taking in Plymouth, Bahia, Mauritius, India, Bristol, Aldershot, Ireland, the white cliffs of Folkestone and the Tower of London, on the way. He had a most illustrious and colourful life, defying indescribable odds to reach his three score and fourteen years. The life expectation for a man born in 1830 was less than 40 years and a quarter of all children never reached their fifth birthday, so George’s escapades mark him out from the average.

George was born just a few weeks before William IV succeeded George IV, as monarch of Great Britain and Ireland, on 26 June 1830. William was also King of Hanover, in Germany, and the Germans were very much our friends and relations in those days and our royal succession was as much German as English. George Browning lived during the reigns of four monarchs; George IV, William IV, Victoria and from 1901, Edward VI, but for 64 of his 74 years his sovereign was Queen Victoria.

George did not have the benefit of wealthy parents to help him on his way. Instead the very opposite is true, as he constantly found himself in some of the most poverty stricken, difficult and dangerous circumstances that Victorian society could throw in his direction. Poverty, war, disease, crime and social unrest were the watchwords for most of his years, but despite these challenges, here was a very brave man of the utmost dignity and respectability.

George’s parents were George Browning and Ann Cooper, who married in 1827, in the picturesque parish of Nunney, near Frome in Somerset. They were both very young, George was 18 and Ann had  only just passed her seventeenth birthday. Ann Cooper was from a large family of carpenters and stonemasons who hailed from the nearby hamlet of Trudoxhill, which bordered the Marston Estate of the Earls of Cork.

Nunney%20Church  Hugh Browning at Nunney Church

My father Hugh, at Nunney church, where his great grandfather married in 1827.

(click on any illustration to see an enlarged version)

George, senior, had been blessed with less distinguished parentage; born in 1809, the illegitimate son of Lydia Browning, just across the county boundary, in North Bradley, Wiltshire. Unusually for the period, we know the identity of George’s errant father, as he was named in a ‘bastardy order’, as James Brewer.

Nothing has been confirmed about the lives of James and Lydia, but it looks as though they were runaway children of successful Frome families, involved in the prosperous wool and cloth trades. Both James and Lydia had disappeared before their son’s marriage, on 23 Dec 1827, so who cared for George between his birth and his marriage is unclear. The current theory is that he may himself have been brought up as part of the Trudoxhill/Marston community.

The story of George Browning, senior, plus discussions about the origins and lives of the wider Browning family are dealt with in a separate Frome Fable.

George and Ann soon had a daughter, Lydia, born 1828, in Tytherington, a hamlet that consisted of Grange Farm and a small collection of houses on the eastern edge of the Marston Estate. This hamlet had belonged to the neighbouring Longleat estate of Lord Bath, before it was transferred to Marston in the 1820s.  However, by the time of George Browning’s birth, in April 1830, the family had moved into the nearby town of Frome. After years of looking, I finally discovered a baptism record for George, several months after his birth, in Nunney Church on 15th August 1830, with the record noting that the family were residents of Frome.

All change at Frome

Britain was going through a tremendous social transition during young George’s early years, as the country became more democratic, living conditions improved, slavery was finally abolished and the industrial revolution was quickly transforming villages into towns and towns into sprawling cities.

Frome was also not the sleepy Somerset town we find today, but was the largest settlement in the county, with a population of over 10,000, (larger than Bath) and one of the most important business centres in the West of England. This was a large town for pre-industrial England, and it owed its size and wealth to sheep and the textiles manufactured from the wool. Sheep farmers from the whole region sent their wool to Frome to be processed, which was then sent on as cloth, to Bristol and London.


Frome’s earlier feeling of importance can be judged by the grandeur of the railway station, opened in 1850 – photo by Geoff Sheppard

Original Elizabethan houses of wattle and daub construction survived in Frome well into the 20th century. These would have still been common place in 1840, but new buildings had already been using the more familiar yellow, stone construction, of the cloth workers cottages, from the early 18th century.

Frome Elizabethan house  Elizabethan houses in Frome

The clutch of Elizabethan houses that survived into the 20th century – then some modernising barbarians pulled them down..!!

Sheppards Barton Frome

Honey coloured stone houses of Sheppard’s Barton

Frome’s wealth was already ebbing away by 1830, because of the meteoric rise of large industrial textile towns in Lancashire and Yorkshire. The people of Frome were not happy about their increasing poverty, and riots had broken out several times in the post Napoleonic era, with soldiers sent from London to quell the rebellious population. In 1826, the people of the town petitioned King George, imploring him to lower the price of bread and meat, because so many of the inhabitants were starving.

Life in the traditional rural areas had been made more difficult during the somewhat misnamed, Regency period ( 1795-1830), as Britain had to feed a growing population and fight a war with Napoleonic France. The economic situation was blamed in part on the cost of the hostilities, which ended with the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

However, the following year, 1816, became known as the ‘year without a summer’, as frosts in July and almost continuous cloudy skies, meant that harvests failed, and agriculture struggled to fully recover for many years afterwards. It was in July that year, which saw rioting in Frome because of the price of potatoes, and the population were only quelled by the use of the military. It was over 180 years before anyone realised the freak weather had been caused by the volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora, on the other side of the world, in the Sunda Islands, now part of Indonesia.

Historians of all types, amateurs and professionals rarely place much importance on the weather and natural phenomena ,when attempting to understand and interpret social events. Yet this eruption and an earlier one, in 1783 – this one closer to home on Iceland – very much shaped the political face of Europe we see today. The French Revolution and the Irish Potatoe famine both spring easily to mind. Each of my family history stories is shaped to a greater or lesser degree, by a major climatic event, which caused people to move their home.

Caldera Mt_Tambora Sumbawa Indonesia

Present day caldera of Mount Tambora

The 1815 eruption caused this to happen –


These cataclysmic events also affected the world of art and Turner’s dramatic skies and red sunsets have more to do with ash circulating in the atmosphere than someone who possessed a vivid imagination. He was still painting gorgeous sunsets in the 1830s, suggesting that the ‘Year without a Summer’ had a longer lasting effect than anyone realises.

Turner sunset

As the wool trade declined in the south of England, Frome was forced to turn to new industries.A bell foundry had been established as early as 1684, by William Cockey and  several London churches had their bells cast in Frome. At the beginning of the nineteenth centuryThe beginning of the nineteenth foundries began casting iron components for the gas industry, the spin off being that Frome had gas lit streets from 1832 onwards.

Another serendipitous event in the town was the setting up of a small printer’s press by pharmacist, William Langford, to provide labels for his medicines. From this small start grew, Butler and Tanner, the renowned printers and lithographers. Printing and the associated trades was an industry that later gave several members of the Browning family employment, in Bristol and London.


Frome-Selwood printing works of Butler & Tanner

This was also a time when social mobility for the average citizen was still difficult, as your family would already have an established postion in the local pecking order and moving elsewhere, to better yourself was fraught with potential obstacles. The industrial towns of South Wales and the North of England welcomed newcomers, but traditional towns like Frome were already struggling to cope with unemployment, so they didn’t want new people, who were unable to fend for themselves. There was no national welfare system, so each parish had to provide for its own poor from the taxes of its own ratepayers.

The financial responsibility fell on the shoulders of the land owning ‘freeholders’; the well-to-do of each parish. Parish clerks were responsible for assessing the needs of their poorest citizens and calculating a set of ‘rates’, which would be charged to the ‘ratepayers’ of his community to meet the anticipated expenses. The parish council also needed to be aware of anyone moving into their locality, because such movement could result in additional pressure on very finite resources. Freedom of movement was not like it is today.

If an individual or a family were not financially able to fend for themselves then a ‘Removal Order’ would be issued, and the named individuals sent back to their parish of birth or their last abode. These ‘removal’ documents were kept in the parish chest and were usually held for many years in case the individuals cocerned tried to return at a later date.

George and Ann, Lydia and young George (still under 2 years old) ended up on the wrong side of these regulations in February 1832, when they were served with a ‘removal order’, forcibly returning them to George’s parish of birth, North Bradley, ten miles to the north, over the county border in Wiltshire. What circumstances led to this drastic action can only be imagined, but clearly George had no employment and was unable to make provision for his young family. Frome parish was not prepared to look after them, so in the midst of winter, the parish council paid a carrier a fee of five shillings to ‘remove’ them back to George’s home parish. The order was made on 8 February and they were taken back to North Bradley on 21 Feb 1832.

Removal order 1832

This ad hoc system was modified when the Poor Law Act was passed in 1835 and Parish Workhouses were set up. These replaced the previous piecemeal system of supporting the poor, but quickly became one of the least welcome features of the Victorian age. The conditions were kept deliberately severe to discourage people from using the system as a rest bite centre. So under the same circumstances, only three years later, the whole Browning family could have ended up in the ‘workhouse’.

However, circumstances must have changed very quickly, because George and the family had returned Frome, as their third child, Charles, was born there in 1833. I am told this is extremely unusual, as parishes were rarely willing to give someone a second chance. The only possible explanation is that one of the influential members of the family, possibly James Browning, a clothier who owned several properties in Frome, intervened and acted as a guarantor, perhaps also offering George permanent employment. It is also possible that North Bradley parish ‘traded’ them back to Frome as this settlement, on the outskirts of the prosperous town of Trowbridge, seemed to attract the unwelcome and unwashed of the whole area and its poor rate responsibilities mushroomed during this difficult period. George and Ann had also become members of the Baptist Church and so one of their influential members might have been their salvation.

Frome 1774

Frome in 1774, before the expansion in housing. There were then five Browning families living in the town.

(The red dots show places relevant to this story of George Browning)

(click map for more detail)

Once allowed back into the town the family thrived, remaining in Frome for a further 20 years, with seven more children being born. Six were recorded in the new national registration system, which began in April 1837 and prior to that a second girl, Sarah, was born in 1835.

This new system of recording the population began only a few weeks before another momentous day, 20th June 1837, when Queen Victoria ascended the throne and from then onwards, life for the people of Britain was to be very different, although not always for the better.

Young Victoria 1842

Young Queen Victoria, 1842

Mary Ann Browning, born 1839, was the first of the family to receive an official birth certificate. The family were then living in Milk Street and her father’s occupation was described as a(wool) spinner.

Mary Ann Browning birth 1839 - Copy

George may well have been a home-worker, as this was common practice in the cloth trade, allowing his wife and the older children to help in the piece-work tasks.

spinning and weaving

Other Browning families were living in Milk Street during this period but I have been unable to confirm their relationship with George’s family, although the naming patterns were similar. Establishing the relationship between these various families has been an on-going challenge but now, using a variety of sources, the threads are being drawn more tightly together. Most recent confirming material has been to match photographs from successive generations of different family groups. This, hopefully, will lead to a definitive identification of the family of the wayward girl, Lydia.

The complicated story of the Frome Brownings and their ancestors is dealt with in much more detail in a later ‘Fable’.

Milk Street 1

Milk Street – 2008

The grander buildings in the distance, appeared about 1840, when a Rechabite chapel was built, which by 1843 had became the first school in Frome. Rechabitists were a group of tee-total Primitive Methodists, who organised themselves in ‘tents’, after the tent dweller Rechab. This might explain the tent like design of the roofs.



The people of Frome were acknowledged as a god-fearing bunch and particularly noted for their strong support of non-conformist religion. There were plenty of options in the town and these increased further as the population grew and the non-conformist faiths became more confident that they would no longer be the victims of persecution by the government.

During the time of Charles II’s restoration, in 1660, a variety of laws had been passed to ban any form of worship other than that promulgated by the Church of England. These laws were relaxed by the end of the century and during the early decades of the 18th century the non established church go-ers were building their own places in which to worship.

The Badcox Lane Baptist Church was one of the first ‘chapels’ in Frome, being built in 1711. The street is now called Catherine Street and the church building has sadly been demolished.

Badcox Lane Baptist Church

The ‘modest’ frontage of the Badcox Lane Church

George, senior, is recorded as being baptised into this church in October 1830 and his wife, Ann, baptised a year later, in 1831. There is a record of a William Browning being a member of the Badcox Baptists in the late 1700s, so George was following in a family tradition. Membership of this church may have helped in their return to Frome after being expelled in February 1832, because it did confirm them as devout citizens of the town.

The Baptists do not baptise young children, because joining the Baptist faith has always had to be a conscious decision made of free will, usually after the age of fourteen. I long believed the Frome Baptist connection would explain an absence of the expected number of Browning entries in the Anglican church records, particularly in the decades either side of the year 1800.

That proved to be true and after a tranche of non-conformist records were added to one of the major search engines, suddenly the wholesale connection between the Browning family and the Badcox Baptist Church became obvious. Their attention to detail was indeed shocking and so was their spelling of Browning, with Brownim appearing on several occasions. However, there was still no sign of a birth, marriage or death for Lydia.

Rather strangely, Charles and Sarah were baptised together, in St John’s Anglican Church, on 25th Feb 1837, several years after their births. Mary Ann was also baptised in St John’s, a month after her birthday, in March 1839, but there were no more Browning events in St Johns Church after this. Lydia was later baptised at Badcox Baptist Church as a 15 year old, in 1844 and later Browning marriages also took place there.

One of the rival groups to the Baptists was the Congregational Church, which represented the more evangelical wing of the non-conformist movement. In 1773, a breakaway group of the Rook Lane Congregationalists built a new church, in Whittox Lane and formed the Zion Congregational Church, a church that later became the Methodist Church.

The Wesleyan and Congregational Church rather than the Baptists became important in George’s later life, so he might have had an early influence from one of these competing religious organisations during his childhood in the town. generally, though, whichever way young George turned, when he left his front door, there was a preacher ready to welcome him into their chapel.

Zion church memorial

Restored memorial to the Zion Congregational Church

‘Behind the Hill’

By 1841, George and his family had moved their home from Milk Street to a short, but peculiar street called ‘Behind Catherine Hill’. This is an area of ‘high pavement’, near the bottom of Catherine Hill, in the heart of the commercial shopping area of the town. The parade of 21 premises was refurbished at about this time, with living accommodation provided above each shop.

James Browning, who owned several properties in both streets, died in 1838 and these passed to his second wife, Hephzibah (Yerbury), a prominent name in the cloth industry of Frome, Trowbridge and Poole. She died in April 1840 and her estate seems to have than been dispersed, with some passing to members of the Yerbury family, whilst others was sold. Could it be their original home had to make way for the new church – but instead they were offered a refurbished house, ‘behind the Hill’.

James Browning, clothier, owned two of the premises in the high pavement, although it is not clear which ones. Study of the various census returns, shows George and family seemed to have lived at Number 9. Several of the houses have now been demolished, but Number 9 is still there, whilst the street has been given a ‘proper’ name, Paul Street.

Behind Catherine Hill 1900ish    Paul Street joins Catherine Hill

Paul Street, (behind Catherine Hill) around 1875 and in 2008.

derelict section of Paul Street

The derelict part of Paul Street, next door to Number 9.

 gabled white house - George's house

The white house, probably the one occupied by George’s family from 1840-47

Three more children arrived whilst living ‘behind the hill’; Samuel in 1841, James in 1843 and Isaac in 1846. George continued to be called a spinner on their birth records, except in 1843, when he was referred to as a weaver, seemingly a higher status job. He might have still been working on a home loom but possibly in one of the specially built weaver’s rooms, belonging to a clothier. These were often built as an annexe to a row of cottages, with much larger windows than the average house.

George Browning – senior
Birth: 17 Jan 1809 in North Bradley, Wiltshire.

Death: 30 Nov 1869 at 7 Dalton Court, Bristol

Marriage: 23 Dec 1827 in Nunney, Somerset.

Father: James Brewer. Mother: Lydia Browning

Wife: Ann Cooper
Birth: 11 Nov 1810 in Nunney.

Death: 13 May 1872 in Bristol

Father: Ephraim Cooper. Mother: Sarah Mees

You’re in the army now..!!

Frome was still a busy, bustling town in the 1840s and the Browning family were slap bang in the middle of things. Memories of their ‘removal’ were long gone, and they had become established residents of the town. George was growing fast and in that period children would have been expected to work from as young as six years old. Three trades dominated the town, the cloth trade, foundry work and the growing industry of printing. The family later became very involved in the paper and bookbinding business, after they moved to Bristol, so it is possible there was already a connection, while still in Frome.

The 1841 census describes George, senior, as a wool spinner, but no occupation is attributed to Anne or any of the children. Anne’s 75 year old mother, Sarah Cooper, nee Mees, from Trudoxhill, was also living with them. Many of those in the cloth trade worked from home, so although George, senior, might nominally be the wage earner, even the elderly mother-in-law was probably putting in a shift to support the family finances.

The next we hear of young George Browning is when his life starts to get more interesting because he had managed to extricate himself from the spinning wheels and stone cottages of Somerset and found himself in far more exotic surroundings. 16 year old George already had a job as a labourer, but on 4th November 1846 he enlisted in the army and joined the 5th Northumberland Fusiliers, not a local regiment, but one with a fine heritage.

Men enlisted in the army by accepting the ‘Queen’s Shilling’ from the recruiting officer, who were well known for plying their ‘targets’ with drink in the tavern and when they awoke in the morning found they had joined up. However, the official records suggest that George’s recruitment was legal and above board, although he served his first 12 months as an ‘under age’ boy soldier.

Taking the Queen's shilling

George joined should have been 18 years old to join as a ‘Private’, but was exactly 16 years 6 months and 8 days when he was attested in the records, and offically served for the first 12 months of service as an ‘under age’, boy soldier.

Attestation involved the recruit appearing before a Magistrate to swear that he didn’t have any hidden illness, that he wasn’t an apprentice, and that he did not already belong to the Army or Navy. After physical particulars were recorded he was read the parts of the articles of war and took two oaths: the Oath of Fidelity and the Oath of Allegiance.

The rules for the period were rarely applied with any vigour and often height was the determining factor. The official records make it look as though the army believed that he had joined on his seventeenth birthday, making his date of birth 6 November 1829 and all subsequent records support that. However, we know from later family records that his birthday was nearly six months later on 28 April 1830.

He signed up for 21 years service, the only option available at the time. A short service enlistment had been introduced during the Napoleonic Wars, but that was abolished in 1829. This shorter service was brought in again, in 1847, to try to improve recruitment in what was becoming a less desirable occupation, compared to the money on offer in the factories and heavy industry that was spreading across Victorian Britain.

However, this early enlistment and manipulating of ages on official documents became a trait in the family, as several dates on marriage certificates were ‘doctored’, and other family members joined the services to fight for their country below the legal age.

Fusilier was originally the name of a foot soldier armed with a light flintlock musket called the fusil. The word was first used around 1680, and has later developed into a regimental designation. The Northumberland Fusiliers was a British army regiment raised privately in 1674, to assist the Dutch in their fight against France, and in 1685 was added to the British army as the 5th regiment of the line. The Northumberland Fusiliers were employed in the Seven Years’ War (1756-63), against France and later suffered severe loses during the American War of Independence. They served in the Peninsular War (1808-14), where they earned their nicknames of the ‘fighting fifth’ and the ‘old and bold’.

The 5th Fusiliers had been barracked in Cork, Ireland and returned to Plymouth in September 1846, where their headquarters were in Devonport. Recruiting sergeants were sent out to return the regiment to full strength and form two additional companies and George was recruited at this time. Whether they came to Frome or whether George heard they were recruiting and went to join them is unclear, but he decided that the soldier’s life was a better prospect than the arduous and repetitive jobs on offer in a town, which despite the new industries was continuing to struggle to compete with the northern industrial towns. George signed up for a full 21 years service as a professional soldier at a wage of one shilling a day, although this was before deductions, for food clothing and other essentials, which left many soldiers close to penniless.

We have photographs of him near the end of his service and later, in civvy street, but the only indication of his stature as a young man comes from a description in his army records. On discharge he was described as being of fresh complexion, grey eyes, light brown hair and five foot eight and a half inches tall. He may have grown somewhat after joining up as a teenager, but his descendents were all ‘early maturers’ and so George may have been close to that height even then.

He would have been tall man for the period, as although the minimum height limit for enlistment was five foot six inches, which was the average height of the male population, George was in the highest percentile.

Victorian height

George was initially stationed in Devonport, but in the early months of 1847, the Regiment sent detachments out into Devon and Cornwall to quell riots, caused by a lack of food. Cornwall in particular was suffering from a ‘blighted’ potato crop and a doubling of the price of wheat. This was the same blight that caused the Irish potato famine from 1845-52. Police forces were in their infancy and not capable of controlling major civil unrest, so detachments of soldiers were often used instead. Frome had been hosts to soldiers from London during periods of unrest in 1816 and 1829.

In the middle of May 1847 orders were received for the Regiment to embark for Mauritius, meaning detachments were recalled to Devonport. George’s 5th Fusiliers embarked on 23 July 1847, with six companies of men, under the command of Lt Col. Johnson. A total of 560 men sailed on the troopship ‘Resistance’, first heading for City of Bahia (Salvador) in Brazil, where they remained from 30th August till 6th September.

Salvador, Bahia 1870

City of Bahia, now known as Salvador, 1870

Next stop was Simon’s Bay, Cape of Good Hope which they reached on 3October, but were quarantined because of a case of small pox on board. They departed on 11October, and more cases of small pox developed before they arrived in Mauritius, on 2 November 1847. The troops were forced to stay in quarantine grounds until 8 December, when they took up their posting in Port Louis. There were a total of just under 700 personnel, including officers, soldier’s wives and children. During the voyage three soldiers and three children died, and five children were born.

British army arriving Mauritius - 1810

British army disembarking at Port Louis in 1810 – probably little change by 1847

Life in the army at this time was virtually unchanged since the time the regiment had fought in America in the 1770s. Conditions could be described as primitive.

According to Peter Burroughs in his ‘Barrack Life’ –

Construction and maintenance of barrack buildings was the responsibility of the Ordnance until that department was disbanded in 1855. The size and construction of barracks varied greatly but they were generally arranged around a barrack square. What they all had in common was overcrowding. “……Often soldiers had to make do with 200-300 cubic feet of air per man, when 600 was considered the minimum in British prisons.”

Conditions inside were squalid and unsanitary. “….frequently soldiers washed indoors, the overnight urine tub being used for this purpose, until the sanitary commission in 1857 advocated ablution rooms and baths.” Sometimes the buildings were located close to open sewers which served to exacerbate the problem.

The diet had little variation, breakfast was 1lb of bread with coffee, a midday dinner consisted of ¾lb of boiled meat served with potatoes (in Britain) and any vegetables the men purchased with their own money. Facilities for roasting or frying were not introduced until the 1860s.

Basic pay was 1s. per day (slightly more for the cavalry), from this was deducted 6d. per day for rations, further stoppages were made for other living expenses so that after the deductions a soldier would be lucky if he got anything.

So George had signed up to a soldier’s life of squalor and uncertainty. He had already bent sent to grapple with his own revolting kinsmen, but suddenly things had improved. He had already had a taste of the tropics in Brazil and had now arrived in most people’s idea of paradise. In a few short weeks he had travelled from Frome to heaven – at least if we are to believe the writer Mark Twain.

‘From one citizen you gather the idea that Mauritius was made first, and then heaven; and that heaven was copied after Mauritius.’

mauritius aerial

Mauritius, known for its powder-soft sand, palm fringed beaches and translucent lagoons.

The island was discovered by the Portuguese, and named by the Dutch, but it was the French who developed the island in the 1700s and called it the ‘Isle de France’. It was important strategically as it commanded the route to and from the Cape of Good Hope, and access to the Indian Ocean and beyond.

The French and British fought over the island, but after an initial French victory, the British took control in 1810, and kept it by treaty thereafter. The French had brought slaves from Africa to work the sugar cane fields, a crop which eventually dominated the economy of the island.

Mauritius was unique in the British Empire, in that the French, ‘Code Napoleon’, continued to operate after the British took control, and French names and customs continued. Slavery was abolished in 1835, but instead the British imported indentured workers from India, who were tied to their employer for a fixed period. This was still slavery, but under a slightly different name.

Eventually the Indians overwhelmed the existing population, which caused friction between the racial groups. The first official census, in 1846, gave a total population of 158,462; white and coloured, 102,217 and Indian only 56,245. In 1861 the total had doubled to reach 310,050. The white and coloured population increased slightly to 115,864. The Indian population had more than tripled, to 192,634, and the Chinese population first registered at 1,552. The country then stabilised to become a mixture of the five cultures, African, French, British, Indian and Chinese, and maintains this mix today.


The cosmopolitan atmosphere of Mauritius –  shown in 1880

Mauritius is famous for being the last home of the flightless bird, the Dodo, eaten by the first Dutch explorers and their dogs, and extinct before the French arrived. The bird remained only in the story books until the 1860s when Dodo bones were discovered during building excavations on the island.


The island is also famous for the Mauritian blue stamps, the worlds most valuable, an example of which was sold for over 4 million US dollars in 1993, the last time one was auctioned.

In 1847, Mauritius was the first to follow mainland Great Britain in issuing stamps carrying the image of Queen Victoria. The stamps were engraved by Joseph Osmond Barnard, born in England, who stowed away on a ship to Australia and was ejected at Mauritius in 1838. Although these locally-produced stamps were quite primitive, they have made Barnard’s name immortal in postal history. On 21 September 1847, Mauritius issued two stamps, an orange-red one penny (1d) and a deep blue two pence (2d). The words “Post Office” appear in the left panel, but were changed to “Post Paid” in the following issue.

Bordeaux Cover Mauritius stamps

The ‘Bordeaux’ cover which sold for 5,750,000 swiss francs in 1993

The “Post Office” stamps are among the rarest stamps in the world, and are of legendary status in the world of philately. Five hundred were printed from a single plate bearing both values. Many were used on invitations sent out by the Mauritian Governor’s wife for a ball she was holding that weekend.

George Browning arrived on Mauritius only a few days after these stamps were first issued. We know he could write his name so he might just have sent a letter home, to say he had arrived safely.  Could everyone please check their dusty drawers, old family photo albums and the like to see if there is an old envelope from Mauritius tucked in amongst the papers with a rather boring looking blue stamp on it !!!

Port Louis had four purpose built forts, which were there to maintain the British presence on the island. The most impressive was Fort Adelaide, an impregnable fortress, built on the top of the mountain overlooking the town, and was provisioned to withstand a siege for at least three months. The British had built all these fortifications after 1810, because the French capital had been at Mahebourg on the other side of the island. There were also various other small garrisons, right across the island.

Fort Adelaide

Fort Adelaide in Port Louis

George and his Battalion remained in Port Louis for the whole of 1848, but in June 1849 they were marched across the island to Mahebourg, from where detachments were sent to the smaller settlements. They remained there for almost a year before being returned to Port Louis on 23May 1850.


The soldiers’ main duties were to guard the various military forts and compounds, and protect them, from an enemy who no longer seemed interested in retaking them. Drill and military training would have been a major part of everyday activities. The soldiers were also involved in building work, probably with the assistance of the local inhabitants. Some of this was for defensive purposes, but there was also an extensive program of public works to improve general facilities for the growing local population. A network of canals and irrigation systems was built during the period George was on the island and the first preparation work was started to build a railway across the island. This became an essential part in transporting the sugar cane from the centre of the island to the coast. it was during these engineering works that the Dodo bones were discovered.

Mauritius landscape

Beautiful but rugged interior to the island.

There is no record of any aggressive intent from the people of Mauritius towards the British, and during George’s ten years on the island there was no threat to its sovereignty. There are records of the typical misdemeanours of fighting and drunkenness, but generally the British soldiers and the indigenous French speaking locals co-existed happily. The influx of Indians may well have caused tension, and so we can imagine that a peace keeping role was also part of their duties, perhaps similar to their previous deployment in Devon and Cornwall.

Life in the tropical sunshine must have become a monotonous routine, sprinkled with moments of celebration or remembrance. One such celebration was the presentation of new colours to the Regiment, because after 14 years the old ones were ‘worn out’. The new colours were presented with great ceremony on 23April 1851 (St George’s Day), by Major General Sutherland. This must have been doubly special for George as it was just a few days before his twenty first birthday, although because he had lied about his age, he might not have been able to celebrate on that date, as he would have liked.

The 5th Fusiliers were not the only military personnel on the island;

Bolton‘s Mauritius Almanac, and Official Director’:

 ‘the 5th Regiment of Foot (Northumberland Fusiliers), the 12th (East Suffolk) Regiment of Foot, the Royal Artillery and the Royal Sappers and Miners were there, in 1851. The 12th were involved in the earlier taking of Mauritius, in 1810.’

 The Almanac says each Regiment, except the Sappers was represented at the Main Barracks, at Port Louis, and at Fort Adelaide. Royal Sappers and Miners were at the Caudon, Port Louis. There was also a Military Hospital located in Port Louis. Regiments came and went from year to year as the needs of Britain overseas changed, but George’s Northumberland Fusiliers remained in situ for nearly ten years.

As international tensions mounted in Europe, the period from 1852 to 1856 was spent undertaking similar duties to protect the island from possible foreign threat. Postings continued to be made to various parts of the island and detachments were rotated at regular intervals. In June and July 1854, there was a cholera outbreak amongst the general population, but his subsided without too much alarm. Indeed disease was the biggest danger at this time as smallpox, typhoid and cholera were an ongoing threat to military personnel.

Some new recruits did arrive and some officers departed, but generally those that arrived in 1847 stayed throughout the regiment’s time on Mauritius. Noteworthy in September 1854 was the arrival in Port Louis of a troop ship, in a ‘sinking state’. The officers and men all survived the voyage and strengthened George’s regiment from 10 to 12 Companies.

Elsewhere the Crimea War had begun, and in January 1855, the Regiment petitioned Queen Victoria to be allowed to proceed to the war with Russia. This was refused, and the men were left to continue to carry out their routine duties around the island. Whether the men were as keen to fight as the senior officers is not clear, but it wasn’t to be too long before they got their fair share of the action.

Meanwhile back in Frome, George’s family were living out a more conventional life. Port Louis was a busy port, en route to Australia and the Far East, and so communications by letter must have been relatively easy, and as George was literate he probably wrote home on a regular basis, and was also able to receive news from Somerset.

By 1849, George and the remaining family had moved a few hundred yards up Catherine Hill, to Matthews Barton, later called Sun Street. There had been a further addition to the family as Elizabeth had been born in March 1849, but she tragically only lived for eight months.

Sun Street looking towards Catherine Hill

Sun Street (to the righ) and looking toward Catherine Hill, which can be seen in the distance.

Their new family home was close to three non-conformist churches; Primitive Methodists, Zion Congregationalists and their own Badcox Baptist Church. This may also have been one of James Browning’s former properties, although the clothier and his widow had long since died.

Frome 2008c

Matthews Barton/Sun Street in 2008

George’s siblings were also getting on with their lives. Charles Browning married Martha Cannings in Badcox Baptist Church, in 1851, and he was employed as a cloth worker at the time. Two of their three children died in the first weeks of life, and that might have prompted them to move from Frome to St Pancras, London, in 1857.

George’s elder sister, Lydia, was married on Christmas Day 1854, to William Read, a labourer in the Fussell iron foundry and again the ceremony was held at Badcox Baptist Church. The couple had no children and after William died in 1896, Lydia ended her time in the Frome workhouse. She died in 1909 having reached the age of 80.

Sarah married Stephen Adams in April 1857, in the newly constructed, Christ Church, which had been built to take the pressure away from St John’s. Stephen worked as a stonemason in Frome, but died in 1872. Sarah remarried, to John Bracher, but she passed away in 1876. Stephen and Sarah had two children, but only Edward Adams maintained the family line and it is his descendent, Dave Dixon, who has provided me with photos and other information about the Adams family.

Edward_Charles_Adams - Copy

Edward Charles Adams with his marksman trophies

Samuel Browning must have joined the Army around 1857, at the age of 16, as he disappears from the next two censuses, but reappears as an Army pensioner in 1881. There is a likely candidate in Sergeant Samuel Browning, serving with the 1st Battalion, 19th Regiment, in 1868, posted to Butan, India.

The second piece of tragic news George must have received from home was the death of his sister, Mary Ann, in 1853. She was only 14 when she succumbed to typhus, a disease which is a good indicator of social conditions, because improved sanitation decreased the incidence almost immediately. Mary Ann’s death, on top of Elizabeth’s might also have contributed to Charles’ decision to move to London in 1857, with his young family.

Mary Ann Browning death 1853 - Copy

Better news for George would have arrived a few months later, when he heard that his mother, now aged 44, had given him a new sister, again called Mary Ann, born in January 1854, and 24 years his junior.

His other brothers, James and Isaac, were only infants when George left home, but by the mid 1850s would have already started their first jobs, as child workers, probably assisting their father with his spinning and weaving. New factory and mining acts had been introduced to reduce child labour, but in a family home, where the clothworkers were paid by ‘piecework’, everyone would have helped in some way.

Meanwhile back in Mauritius things were also about to change.

Mauritius sea

Military responsibilities on the island were shared with other regiments and these were rotated as necessary. The Crimean War resulted in a shuffling of the military cards, so in early 1856, the 85th regiment was moved to the Cape of Good Hope, leaving the 5th Fusiliers with increased responsibilities.

More officers and men arrived from England on 10 October 1856 and with them the new Enfield rifle-muskets that had been adopted by the British Army, three years earlier, in 1853. The old flint lock muskets were returned to store and this new design only remained in use for 15 years, but this modernisation of weapons by the British was soon to have consequences no-one foresaw and have a major influence on George’s future.

Enfield rifle close-up

New Enfield Rifle  – 1853

In March 1857, it was George’s turn to be moved to a new posting, as the Regiment received orders to proceed to Hong Kong to complete their foreign service. So after nearly ten years of ‘flying the flag’ on this idyllic island the honeymoon days of George’s military career were soon to be over. From now onwards life was to get tough, and he must have later looked back on those days of mundane sentry duty on this tropical island with fond memories. The fates were about to make him pay for those ten years of peaceful military routine, in ‘paradise’.

George was seventeen years old when he arrived in Mauritius and twenty seven when he left. These are the formative years of anyone’s life and he had spent it protecting a tropical island, during a period when no-one wanted to challenge the authority of the British occupiers.

How friendly the soldiers became with the native population is not known, but judging by experiences of armies throughout history the local girls would have been attracted to the soldiers and vice versa.

‘John Atkinson, had children that we had no idea about! He married a local lady, and when she died he married a second local lady. We knew he had two sons (one by each wife) as they returned to live in the UK. It was only after we sought additional copies of documents (ships manifests etc) from the Mauritius Government Archives that we found the two hitherto undiscovered daughters!’

There is no evidence that George had other than an exemplary record during his ten years on Mauritius. He won good conduct awards, although he failed to rise above the rank of Private for the entire tour of duty. He seems to have had an unconfirmed promotion near the end of his stay, as he recalls being made a Lance Corporal in August 1856, although his official record says he remained a Private until March 1859.

The report in the Fusilier Journal says ‘it was a proud boast of the Regiment that it left behind none but sorrowing friends and ardent well wishers’.

The HMS Simoon, transport screw steamer, arrived in Port Louis with a relief regiment from England and the main contingent of the 5th Fusiliers embarked from Mauritius on 22nd May 1856. George was on this vessel, although about a quarter of the regiment had to wait several weeks for a second ship. Ships had both sail and steam power at this time, another reason why Britain was ruling the waves.

‘HMS Simoom was an iron hulled (350 horse power steam engine) screw Frigate. She was named after a hot, dry desert sandstorm and launched on the 24th of May 1849. Simoom was converted to a troopship steam frigate HMS Simoom, fitted as a troop steamer, to carry 1,000 men. Simoom served as a troop ship at the Crimea from 1854 to 1855, at Pei Ho fort in 1859 and at Ashantee from 1873 to 1874. She was sold in 1887.’

Model of HMS Simoon

HMS Simoon


HMS Simoon arrived in Singapore, with George and his comrades, on 19June 1857, but to find new orders waiting for them. They were being redirected to Calcutta, rather than China, in order to be on standby to deal with a Sepoy uprising that had started in Meerut, India, in mid-May, and was spreading throughout the northern states. The Indian Mutiny had begun.

As we shall see this was to be a challenging posting, but if George and his comrades had moved on to Hong Kong as expected, their stay there would have been no picnic.

‘He described 1857 Hong Kong as a dangerous place and, at the time, Hong Kong only consisted of the original island that Captain Elliot landed on in 1841 when the British were expelled from other areas of China during the first Opium War.  In 1857 there were about 1,000 foreigners and 25,000 Chinese living in Hong Kong.  Most men did not go out without being armed.

Dean said that traveling outside of Hong Kong was even more dangerous. It was also the time of the Taiping Rebellion that resulted in the death of more than 20 million Chinese. It was also a time when Chinese pirates attacked a mail steamer and beheaded 11 foreigners and the ‘Bread Poisoning’ incident. Chinese conspirators in an attempt to poison the expatriate population of Hong Kong, laced the bread prepared at the main bakery with 10 pounds of arsenic; which proved too much as it made people sick and they vomited the poison out.

Dean Barrett: from his book, Hangman’s Point

Life in Hong Kong would have presented a totally different challenge but in India the British were about to face an all-out war, face to face with an enemy that was challenging the very presence of the British on the sub-continent.

The Indian Mutiny, given various other names at different times by different peoples, was one of the major conflicts of Queen Victoria’s 64 year reign. It was a crucial war in the formation of the British Empire, on which ‘the sun never set’. It was also one of the bloodiest conflicts of the past 200 years, and indeed of the last 2000 years, and yet it is rarely featured in discussions about important moments in world history. The BBC and the ‘silver screen’ have both given the conflict a very wide berth, probably because many of the events are too unpalatable for a nation that regards itself as amongst the most civilised on the planet.

The 5th Fusiliers were one of several Regiments that played a key role throughout this conflict, and George Browning was in the thick of the fighting, and was to come out of it alive and well, and with an enhanced reputation, as a brave and gallant soldier.

It is worth noting at this point, the source of my material about the Sepoy Uprising. The majority of the detail has been taken from the ‘Digest of Service’ ‘a supplement to the St George’s Gazette, 30 November 1888.’  This was the journal of the Northumberland Fusiliers and provides a highly detailed account of the regiment’s movements, both in war and peace. However, it is patriotic, even jingoistic in its language. Confirming evidence has been sought elsewhere, including a letter George later wrote to the army, concerning an increase in pension. The tone would be very different if the account of events had been written from the Indian side.

A fuller text is available here: Digest of Service

What is clear is that this was a bloody affair, not like the innocent  slaughter of World War One, but wanton barbarism shown by both sides, an aggresion that was continually ramped up as each army sought to trump the horrific acts carried out be the other.

George arrived in India on the 4th July 1857, after a rapid and uneventful voyage from Singapore. HMS Simoon was able to steam up the Hooghly River, one of the mouths of the Ganges, to Calcutta and there the 5th Fusiliers transferred to river steamers for the final leg to Chinsurah River station. There they were re-provisioned and kitted out with what was thought to be, more suitable battle attire and equipment, although ‘tropical kit’ wasn’t on offer.

So for the first time in over 40 years, the 5th Fusiliers were ready to enter active service in a major conflict. On 14th July 1857, No 1 and No 2 Companies proceeded up river, while the rest of the men, including George, in 7th Company, followed a few days later. The women and children were left at a Depot station, near Calcutta.

We always think of soldiers marching everywhere or being moved by train, but in India the rivers were the highways, and most of the battles took place close to water courses and mostly along the banks of the River Ganges. The soldiers were often moved by river steamer or barge, at least when time was of an essence.

The Sepoy soldiers, Indian natives who were employed as part of the British army, had mutinied. This was outwardly because the new Enfield rifles used bullets covered in animal fat, which was against their religion to touch. The root of the trouble was actually far deeper, and there was a general disaffection with the East India Company, the organisation which controlled the country on behalf of the British government. For that reason, many present day Indians describe the Mutiny as the First Indian War of Independence.

Muslim Sepoys first mutinied at Meercut, near Delhi, and other dissidents throughout northern India rapidly joined the insurrection. Some Sepoys stayed loyal to the British Crown and others rebelled, killing indiscriminately. No-one could distinguish friend from foe and there were massacres of British soldiers and civilians at many of the remote field stations.

During their preparations at Base Camp, the 5th Fusiliers were receiving plenty of bad news, but with no real idea of the scale of the insurrection or what they were about to find upstream.


Cawnpore – before the massacre, 1810

The events that took place at Cawnpore triggered the subsequent behaviour of all the British who took part in the war and made this war more like those of more ancient, barbarous times.

The British garrison in Cawnpore was surrounded and unprepared for an extended siege, and quickly surrendered to rebel Indian forces. After three weeks, on 25 June, Nana Sahib, rebel leader, offered safe conduct for all those inside the entrenchment, and boats were provided to take them down river to the British base at Allahabad.

The experienced British commander, Major General Hugh Wheeler, accepted the offer and as they embarked in their vessels, a shot was heard. The Indian boatmen, instead of pushing off, jumped overboard and made for the shore. The British immediately opened fire. The Nana’s men replied with grapeshot and the boats were soon full of casualties. The 60 British soldiers who survived the short battle were rounded up and immediately killed by the Nana’s troops.

1857 sutter ghat cawnpore - site of the boat massacre

Launching place of the boats at Cawnpore

The surviving women and children were imprisoned in a nearby house, the Bibigahar (or House of the Ladies). Nearly three weeks later, on 15 July news reached the rebels that the British were approaching, and Nana Sahib ordered all remaining prisoners to be killed. 120 British women and children were hacked to death, with their dismembered remains being thrown down the well.


The well at Cawnpore, taken in 1858.

Following the recapture of Cawnpore and the discovery of the massacre, the outraged British forces engaged in widespread retaliatory atrocities against any captured rebel Indian soldiers. The murders greatly embittered the British rank-and-file and inspired the war cry, ‘Remember Cawnpore!’

Captured rebels were usually summarily executed, after roadside ‘drumhead’ courts and everything was done to humiliate them and denigrate their religious beliefs. The most barbaric of these practices was the formal executions of the leaders, when they were tied to the barrels of field guns and blown apart. These were very public ceremonies in front of the massed ranks of the British forces and aimed at deterring further revolts. General Neill had started the practice of execution of all proven or suspected insurgents, from the moment he arrived in India and this was compounded by events at Cawnpore and he saw it as his personal mission to kill all the mutineers. The Sepoys retaliated in kind and so the uprising became an excuse by both sides to take no prisoners.

Peshawur - blowing from the guns

Showpiece executions of Sepoy leaders organised by General Neill

However, the details of these early actions were unknown to the 5th Fusiliers, who were gradually making progress up the Ganges on river steamers. Around them, all hell was breaking lose. No-one onshore knew which Sepoys were loyal and who was likely to rebel, so whenever the Regiment touched land the locals supporting the British asked for protection from the 5th Fusiliers.

Combatants on both sides of the conflict were usually killed and few prisoners were taken. Local villagers would also end up as innocent victims, if either side thought they were collaborating with the ‘enemy’.

During the journey upstream, men from Companies in the vanguard were dispatched to answer the pleas for help from the river bank villagers. Many of the culprits were killed in the fight or captured and executed, but this was already too late for their victims. This sortie was the first time the Regiment had used the new Enfield rifles in anger.

George seems to have remained with the main body of the 5th Fusiliers at this action, because he does not mention it in his later account. Each Company was given a specific task at each stage of the conflict, and so it has taken careful research to follow George’s exact part in the various actions.

The 5th Fusiliers continued upriver and eventually joined General Outram, at Allahabad. Outram had made three unsuccessful attempts to relieve the major British residency at Lucknow, which had been surrounded by mutineers. Outram’s troops were suffering from battle fatigue, and there were persistent outbreaks of cholera and general sickness caused by the extreme heat and torrential rain.

Fort of Akbar, Allahabad, 1850s

The British fort at Allahabad

The 5th Fusiliers were fresh and raring to go and they became part of the advanced column of General Outram’s force as they marched from Allahabad to Cawnpore on 5th September. George Browning was amongst them. After five days marching, 300 rebels were spotted trying to cut off the British advance. A battle ensued by the river, and only three rebels escaped with their lives. This was the first organised battle of the conflict for the 5th Fusiliers and their organisation and weaponry proved irresistible.

At the same incident several of the Fusiliers were severely injured, when a powder magazine on board a boat detonated accidentally. Despite this accident, casualties were still in single figures.

By the 15th Sept the Regiment had reached Cawnpore, the site of the massacre of women and children. They would have heard the stories when they met up with Outram’s men but seeing the place for themselves must have stiffened their resolve to defeat the mutineers.


(As in all foreign expeditions where the British were involved, they always anglicised the local place-names and this was very much the case in India. Some of the places through which George passed, particularly later in the ‘clean-up’ operation, seem to be an agglomeration of names and their exact location needs further research)

Preparations were made over the next week, and on 22nd Sept 1857, a force of over 3000 men set out to relieve the men, women and children still besieged in Lucknow. The bulk of the 5th Fusiliers marched with a joint force led by Generals Havelock and Outram, whilst General Neill was in charge of the infantry section, of which the 5th  Fusiliers were a part.

However, George’s, 7th company, with Capt Masters in charge, was left behind to defend Cawnpore against further attack. Captain Masters became a key figure during the next ten years of George’s service in the 5th Fusiliers, as he eventually rose to become commanding officer of the Regiment.

After two days the joint force, minus George, reached the Alumbugh Palace, on the outskirts of Lucknow and came face to face with the enemy. The 5th Fusiliers took the Alumbagh with ease and moved into the outskirts of the town itself, but were ordered to withdraw to the palace as there was not enough support to sustain their advance.

Alumbugh Palace by Felice Beato

Alumbagh Palace, surrounded by trenches and fortifications, 1858

(This is just one of hundreds of photgraphs taken by Italian photographer Felice Beato, who visited many of the sites, soon after the conflict had subsided.)

The last few miles were only won after the most intense fighting, with the 5th Fusiliers again in the heart of it. The numbers of rebels killed was in the thousands, with no prisoners taken. The 5th only lost nine men killed and 36 injured. After three days of fighting the 450 British trapped in Lucknow were reached, but the battle did not stop there, as thousands of Sepoy rebels now arrived to surround the relieving army. Lucknow had been relieved on 27th Sept 1857, by General Outrams men, but they were now under siege themselves.

Lucknow before the siege

Lucknow residence before the siege.

There was one significant casualty in the last stage of the battle, when General Neill was killed by a musket shot to the head. His death may in the circumstances have been better for everyone, although he was celebrated as a hero by many sections of the British establishment back in London.

The race was now on to relieve Lucknow for a second time….!!

Sir Colin Campbell assembled a second force at Cawnpore, which this time included George’s, 7th company and the 4th company, who had belatedly arrived from Singapore. The relieving force contained a mix of different regiments, but with each section remaining under its local commander.

The 5th Fusiliers were in the advanced guard, whose job it was to clear a path to the city boundary. They were united as one unit again, for the first time since they had left Singapore. The surrounding region was still controlled by many thousands of Sepoys, so George and his fellow soldiers had a base at the Alumbagh, a palace that guarded the road to Cawnepore, on the outskirts of Lucknow. Their job was to establish a secure fortress and wait for the next stage of the British campaign.

250 men, under command of the now promoted, Major Master, took part in the storming of the last obstacle in their way, the Secunderbagh. The rebels were entirely routed, and all 2000 killed, in what many described later, as a ‘massacre’. Major Master was promoted again for his success in this battle, to the brevet (field) rank of lieutenant-colonel.

Lucknow Map Campbell Relief_Nov_1857

George’s role at the Alumbagh took part in numerous sorties into the surrounding countryside, pro-active defence, to remove pockets of the enemy. One of these was to the village of Guilee, on 22 December 1857, where the rebels had created a gun position on a small hill. In a joint operation with the cavalry, 400 Fusiliers advanced on an enemy, some 2000 strong. The gun was taken by a small group of Fusiliers, led by Private McHale, with George right alongside him. The two turned the captured gun on the enemy, killing several with their own weapon.

This was the second time Private McHale had shown such bravery, as he had taken another large gun emplacement almost single-handedly, during the first relief of Lucknow. He was awarded the new bravery award, the Victoria Cross for these two acts of courage. Amongst his colleagues he was regarded as the bravest soldier of them all.


Private McHale’s citation reads:

‘On 2 october 1857, at Lucknow, India, Private McHale was the first man at the capture of one of the guns. On 22 December, he was the first to take possession of one of the guns which had sent several rounds of grape through his company. On every occasion of attack Private McHale was the first to meet the enemy, amongst whom he caused such consternation by the boldness of his attack that those who followed him had little to do. His daring and sustained bravery was a byword among comrades.’

In this war, as in many others, it was the officers that took the highest rate of casualties. In the case of the 5th Fusiliers, it was their most senior officers, who were killed or injured. However, even in this bloodthirsty conflict, death on the British side was more likely to come from disease or accident than enemy fire. A number of officers died from injuries received in falls from their horses. it did mean, though, that there could be rapid promotion for those that showed both bravery and adept soldiering skills, and who lived to tell the tale.

The superiority of the British weaponry and field organisation meant that the overwhelming numbers of Indian rebels were defeated by the numerically inferior British. This was no better demonstrated than a day after the Guilee village sortie, when the Sepoys organised a full front attack on the Alumbagh compound. In a massive show of strength, with estimates of at least 30,000 in the rebel force, they appeared at sunrise, stretched across a six mile front. Their attack lacked any organisation and after several groups were routed the assault came to nothing. There were incessant attacks during January and February, but each time the rebels retreated with heavy casualties.

Tantia Tope 1858 - London Illustrated News

The Alumbagh was held and gradually a force was building to retake Lucknow, and regain control of the whole area south of the city. During this period of continual assault only five Fusiliers were killed, and thirty five wounded.

The_Relief_of_Lucknow by Barker

Romantic view of the ‘Relief of Lucknow ‘by Thomas Jones Barker

 British_soldiers looting Qaisar Bagh Lucknow - Times correspondent

Perhaps more realistic is the engraving that was created from an account made by ‘The Times’ correspondent – looting of the buildings and bodies of the defeated mutineers.

The 5th Fusiliers finally re-entered the town on 19th March 1858, as a part of Sir Colin Campbell’s second relieving army, and this time they were not to relinquish it. George doesn’t seem to have made that final mile because his Indian Mutiny medal does not seem to have a ‘Lucknow’ clasp. However, his service record does credit him with the award.

Colin Campbell

Sir Colin Campbell

The victorious 5th Fusiliers were immediately withdrawn to Cawnpore, where they were able to re-provision and re-cloth themselves. From there they returned down river to Allahabad to provide garrison support. Although the major part of the uprising had ended, there were still strongholds, where the local leader refused to give allegiance to the British.

On 28th October the 5th Fusiliers were called again to action to remove one of these reluctant Rajahs. They marched for three days to Fort Ameatie, but when they arrived the Rajah had flown. They followed him throughout most of November marching and camping each day. Eventually they confronted the rebels on the 24th November at Doonia keera, but it was a one sided affair and most of the enemy fled across the river.

Elephants in war

Elephants were common, if unconventional weapons of war on both sides

However, the Sepoys were still active north of Lucknow, and the 5th Fusiliers and a cavalry regiment returned again to the town. The terrain north of the river was jungle rather than floodplain, which made conditions more difficult. The 5th Fusiliers had to be ‘calmed’ from their usual tactics of storming enemy strongholds, and they were ordered not to proceed to take their objective until it had been softened up by artillery fire.

The rebels had evacuated by the time the ‘eager 5th arrived at Fort Oomera, and a few days later they moved on to Fort Bithur, which was captured by General Havelock on July 19, 1857. The town, which was a home and headquarters to several rebel leaders, was laid waste, with leader, Nana Sahib’s palace and all the significant buildings in the town, razed to the ground, so they could not be reoccupied by rebel forces.

The fighting was now over but a forceful presence was still required.

The 5th then marched to Gonda and set up a temporary camp there, on 16 December, where they remained until 16th January 1859, before marching across country, back to Allahabad, and into permanent quarters. Cholera broke out twice during the following months. 46 men died in May and another 24 men in August, far more than were lost in all the battles with the Sepoys.

Whilst at Allahabad, George earned promotion to Corporal, on 1st March 1859, something it had taken over 12 years to achieve. George stayed in camp in Allahabad for another two years, ready to act should there be further unrest. during this period of pacifiity, George received yet another and much more rapid promotion, being promoted to Sergeant on 24th May 1860. He was also able to benefit from the change of military attire, from khaki to white clothing for foreign service. This change was welcome, but 13 years too late for George.

On 17th February 1861, the Regiment marched from Allahabad to Calcutta, a journey they had originally made by river steamer. There Victoria Crosses were presented to Private McHale and Sergeant Grant for their bravery at Lucknow.

It was estimated that over 130,000 rebel combatants took part in the mutiny, defeated by only 10,000 British soldiers and their loyal Indian supporters. The British were better equipped, better trained and better organised, and they continued to be so for the next 40 years. However the manner of their victory was brutal in the extreme and its barbarism lived long in the memory of the Indian people. They had lost this first war of independence and had to wait another ninety years for that to become a reality.

India was never to be the same again as the brutal narcissistic ways of the East India Company were abandoned. Queen Victoria took direct control, as Empress of India, and the British Empire, where the ‘sun never set’, was created. It would take nearly another century, before the Indian continent finally gained its independence, in an even bloodier conflict.

On the 9th March 1861, the majority of the Regiment, including Sergeant George Browning, embarked on the ‘Walmer Castle’ for England. The journey home was not without incident, as by the time they reached the island of St Helena, in the South Atlantic, four Privates had died, three of cholera and one of consumption. The 5th Fusiliers finally reached Portsmouth, on 9  July 1861, and marched into Anglesea Barracks, Portsea.

Back on home soil

George had been away from England for six days short of 14 years, and in that time there had been great changes. The Great Exhibition of 1851 had come to Hyde Park, but then miraculously been moved across the Thames to Penge. Perhaps even more miraculously Britain was now covered by thousands of miles of railways. The very environment of Britain had also been transformed. The air of the cities had become polluted with poisonous vapours and the water supply turned into a reservoir for cholera and typhoid. George had left a country still mainly reliant on rural practices and returned to one dominated by industry, with the majority of people now living in a town or city.

788px-Crystal_Palace_General_view_from_Water_Temple   Dudley, Midlands 1860

Crystal Palace re-assembled in Penge – 1854      Lovely Dudley – 1860

So far, in his 31 years, George had defied all the odds. He had survived infancy in starving and unsanitary Frome, riots in the West Country, sea voyages across dangerous oceans, cholera, typhoid, small pox, and the hell of the Sepoy Mutiny.

The next part of his life was about to begin, although there were still another eight years of military service to complete, before civvy street beckoned. Army life in England was to engage George in a less arduous, peace time role. However, Sergeant George Browning was soon to get yet another significant promotion, this time to the important position of Colour Sergeant. On 29th October 1861 he was to receive the latest in a line of rapid promotions. Moving from Private in early 1859 to Colour Sergeant by the end of 1861 is indeed extraordinary. This may have been hastened by the equally rapid rise of Captain Master, commander of the 7th Company, when he arrived in Calcutta, to Lieutenant Colonel Master, CB, commander of the 1st Battalion, Northumberland Fusiliers, in 1861.

The loss of several senior officers had certainly helped Lt Col Master’s rapid promotion, but he had also led several successful actions, which were crucial to the final victory at Lucknow. He had seen George work at close quarters and must have been impressed by George’s bravery and leadership. This surely hastened George’s sudden rush through the lower ranks.

The rank of Colour Sergeant was introduced into the British Army during the Napoleonic Wars to reward long-serving sergeants. Historically, Colour Sergeants of British regiments were tasked with protecting Ensigns, the most junior officers, who were responsible for carrying their BattalionsColours (flag or insignia) to rally troops in battles. For this reason the Colour Sergeant rank was considered a prestigious one, given to courageous Sergeants, who had attained battle honours.

George fitted this description perfectly.

So, Colour Sergeant George Browning got his reward for bravery, not with a Victoria Cross, but with a promotion recognising him as one of the bravest and most trusted members of the Regiment.

George Browning in colour sergeant uniform

George in all his military glory

Meanwhile more changes had occurred to the Browning family in Frome. Well actually, they weren’t in Frome anymore, because George, Ann and the remaining children had moved 20 miles, to the centre of Bristol. They were now living at 7 Dalton Court, where George and his son James, were working as grocer’s warehousemen, whilst Isaac was a bookbinder. Also with them in 1861, was married daughter, Sarah Adams and her daughter Jane. Her husband Stephen Adams was back in Frome, living with Stephen’s brother and James Cooper, who was Ann’s great nephew from Dunkerton.

The Badcox Church records say they left Frome in 1861, and transferred to a church in Bristol. This must have been early in the year because by the census of 8th April, they were already living in Bristol. This was an adventurous move for George and Ann because they were both over 50 years old at the time and their whole live had been spent close to people they knew. Interestingly, today, only a few steps from Dalton Court is to be found one of Bristol’s most evangelical churches.

I’m not sure how much leave you are entitled to receive after fourteen years foreign service, but there must have been an opportunity for George to return to visit friends and family in Frome and Bristol. In 1846, his journey from Frome to Plymouth would probably have been by horse drawn wagon, but fifteen years later getting from the barracks at Portsmouth to Somerset would have been quick and easy, thanks to the new railway network.

The journey wasn’t wasted because only three months after his promotion to Colour Sergeant, George found himself taking part in a different ceremony, one of marriage. The wedding took place in Bristol, on 8th February 1862, and his bride was Sarah Louisa Cooper, a young girl from Dunkerton, Somerset. He was nearly 32 and she was still a few months short of her eighteenth birthday.

So, how had this whirlwind romance occurred?

Well their genetic relationship was already close, because Sarah Louisa was a cousin, the grand daughter of his mother’s eldest brother. George’s bride was his first cousin once removed.

Sarah had been only two years old when George joined the 5th Fusiliers in 1846, but already her life had been far from normal. She was born illegitimately, and left behind to live under the care of her grandparents, Samuel and Ann Cooper, in Dunkerton, near Bath, when her mother and step father moved to Blaenavon, in South Wales. Sarah’s name had already been changed twice from Louisa Cooper to Louisa Hancock, and then to Sarah Louisa Cooper, which was the name on her marriage certificate. From now onwards she was to answer to the name, Sarah Louisa Browning.

Sarah had lived with her grandparents, as an only child, in Dunkerton for seventeen years. The neighbours were also members of the Cooper family, and they did have children, so there were young people to mix with, but it wasn’t the childhood she should have had. One of these children was James Cooper who was living and working in Frome with George’s brother in law, Stephen Adams in 1861. The Cooper families in Dunkerton, Bristol and Frome were clearly still in communication, so George might have met Sarah at any of these places during his period of leave.

Despite attempts to legitimise her birth in 1844, by the convenient marriage of her mother, soon after Sarah’s birth, there was no ambiguity on the marriage certificate, as the place for her father’s name was left blank. The suspicion is that her father was a member of the Earl of Cork’s family, but nothing has been firmly established.

Louisa Hancock 1844

The link to the Corks is one of the rumours passed down through various branches of the family, although Olive Browning, who was the family historian and a contemporary to those who would have known the truth, offered another name, because she believed the father was the famous, Lord Shaftesbury.

My pontifications on the subject of the identity of Sarah’s parentage are expressed more fully in another of the Frome fables. In summary, there were up to a dozen eligible men in the extended Cork/Boyle household, who could have perpetrated the deed, but the odds have been shortening on Charles John Boyle, born in 1806 and nephew of the Earl of Cork. In 1841 Charles was living in the Marston Rectory and his father, Courtney Boyle, had his home at Millard Hill House, on the edge of the hamlet of Trudoxhill.

My suspicions have been strengthened when I discovered a remarkable coincidence which has no logical explanation. Charles Boyle was a member of the diplomatic service and had been Clerk to the Cape Colony Legislative Council in South Africa in the early 1850s, but in 1856 he was given the post of Chief Commissioner charged with creating a railway network on Mauritius. Therefore, both Sarah Louisa’s future husband and her ‘father’ were both posted to this remote island in the Indian Ocean and were there at the same time.

Whether they met or whether they were just ‘ships that passed in the night’ is unknown and their positions at opposite ends of the British social structure make it possible they didn’t meet. However, George would certainly have been aware of Charles Boyle’s arrival on the island and have known of him from his days in Somerset.

Charles Boyle would certainly have known the Cooper family, who were plentiful in Trudoxhill and some worked on the Marston Estate, even recorded as servants at Millards Hill House. The Boyle household were known to be benevolent to the local population and generally well liked, which adds to the possibility that Charles and George already knew each other. Charles Boyle could well have known George’s mother Ann or even his father, George, from his younger days?

George had been in the army for ten years in 1856 and must already have shown his trust and reliability, which was about to serve him in good stead in India. Perhaps he was given a role with Charles and perhaps that was why he states in his ‘pension letter’ that he had a promotion to Lance Corporal at this time. This is not mentioned in his official army record. Whether any of this connects to the marriage in 1862 is impossible to say but I am convinced there must be a link somewhere. All is pure conjecture to this point.

This discovery, however, did throw up some more evidence in the hunt for Sarah’s father and this time photographic not circumstantial. Charles Boyle’s daughter, Audrey, married Hallam Tennyson, son of Alfred Lord Tennyson, the poet, and she later became a well known socialite, when her husband was appointed Governor-general of Australia. The photos do show a remarkable similarity between the two women, who if I am correct, are half-sisters.

Audrey Tennyson    Audrey Tennyson 2  Sarah Cooper

Audrey – aged 43 above with Sarah Louisa – age 38 below

We can only guess at the full circumstances of Sarah’s birth and her reasons to marry George, but this union of a celebrated, 31 year old, Army officer, who had been absent from England since he was sixteen, with a lonely young girl of 17, might well have been a marriage of convenience for both sides.

George might have heard something about the circumstances of Sarah’s birth, before he left Frome in 1846, but he could never have guessed that she would be his marital partner, and the mother of his thirteen children.

Their marriage took place in the register office at Clifton (Bristol), and the certificate puts both George and Sarah as residents of Dalton Court in Bristol, his parent’s home. Interesting, that Sarah declares she is eighteen, although a few months short of that birthday, and their witnesses were not family members.

George and Sarah army marriage George & Sarah marriage 1862

Marriage of George Browning to Sarah Louisa Cooper – 8th February 1862.

(Two versions of the same event, military and civilian, with both being modern transcriptions of the original records. Notice how the addressed is mistaken in the army record.)

A ‘John and Mary Twitcher’ witnessed the marriage, and research into them has thrown up more interesting connections with Frome and the evangelical Church. There were two John and Mary Twitchers, living in Bristol, parents and children, and all four were born in Frome. The elder couple are described as ‘city missionaries’, in the 1841, 1851 & 1861 census for Bristol. John Twitcher was a couple of years younger than George and a bookbinder, whilst his sister, Mary was a public school teacher.

By the time of the 1881 census for Bristol, John was running a bookbinding business, employing three men, three women and three boys. I suspect that three of these workers were James, Isaac and Mary Ann Browning, who were listed as stationers and bookbinder in the same census. Mary Twitcher also appears in the same census as a stationer and a ‘maiden lady’. In 1891 she has changed professions again and is ‘under matron at a Home for Fallen Women’. John Twitcher’s business seems to be flourishing and in 1891, is described as a ‘manufacturing stationer’.

The evangelical connection is confirmed when the records show the young children, aged two and three, were baptised in the Zion Congregational Chapel, in Frome, in 1828. I suspect that the witnesses were the younger couple, and it might be that George Browning and John Twitcher were boyhood friends back in Frome. In 1846, the Twitcher family were living in Milk Street, one of the main Browning haunts in the town and so the two families look like long standing friends, possibly associated with the church, as well as neighbours. The Twitcher connection could have been the stimulus for the Brownings to leave Frome and set up home in Bristol. It also might help to explain how, although coming from a staunch baptist tradition, became one who had their children baptised by a Wesleyan minister. His wife, Sara Louisa, was also from a family that prayed and preached in the Congregational Church.

So, rather against the odds, Private George Browning, in 1859, had become Colour Sergeant Browning by 1861 and by February 1862, married to a very young wife. When he returned with his bride to the barracks in Portsea, his colleagues would have been more than surprised and tongues might well have wagged, as he presented Sarah to the Sergeants Mess. There would surely have been envious glances from both the other officers and the rank and file.

In the family way

Sarah’s life was now to be that of an Army wife, and as the 5th Fusiliers were run like an extended family, she was to follow George to each posting and any children who appeared would follow with them as well. Accommodation for married soldiers was often extremely basic.

Soldiers were used to sleeping in tented villages and even if permanent ‘barrack’ style accommodation was on offer, then a large dormitory block might only be partitioned by blankets hanging from clothes lines. The rank of colour-sergeant might have given George and Sarah some priority in the allocation of living quarters.

It was only a few weeks after their marriage, that their first posting together began. On 13th May 1862, the Regiment travelled by train from Portsmouth to Farnborough, and then marched to South Camp, Aldershot. Previously, they might have marched the whole 50 miles from the coast to Aldershot, but now it was only two miles from the railway station. The wives and children would have been transported by horse drawn wagon for the last section of the journey.

Aldershot at the time was divided into two camps, North and South, situated either side of the Basingstoke Canal. Between 1851 and 1861 the population of the parish of Farnborough rose from 477 to 5,529, of whom 3,929 were military, still a relatively small number of soldiers, when we consider that George’s 5th Fusiliers numbered around a 1000 personnel.

Aldershot 1860s

The fledgling army town at Aldershot 1860.

The Aldershot barracks were in their infancy, only being established in 1855, and George and Sarah were lucky to find they were occupying brand new quarters, which replaced the tents. The original wooden huts of South Camp were built by contractors Haywood and Nixon at a cost of £163,000. Although far from ideal his Army married quarters must have been an improvement over the over- crowded barrack rooms and tents George had slept in almost every night for 16 years.

southcamp 1866 Aldershot_Barracks-1866

South Camp, Aldershot, only completed in 1859 and photographed in 1866.

In the summer of 1862, the 5th Fusiliers took part in the divisional field days and drill parades at Aldershot, and on each occasion received high commendations. This was especially so in June, when HRH Duke of Cambridge inspected the men and expressed personal thanks to Lt. Colonel Master.

‘Your regiment is one of the finest in the service, and I will hope that other regiments will take the 5th Fusiliers for an example of steadiness in marching and in soldier like bearing’.

George must have also taken great satisfaction in this accolade as this would have been one of his first major tests as a Colour Sergeant. His commanding officer, Lt. Colonel Master would also have been pleased that he had made such a sound promotion from the ranks.

Almost exactly a year after their marriage, the first of many happy events occurred, with the birth of Wilfred Louis Browning, on 12th Feb 1863, at Aldershot. Neither Wilfred nor Louis was a typical Browning family name, but they must have been chosen with some thought. Louis might well have been named after Port Louis, although it seems to have been pronounced Lewis, as this later became the spelling on official documents. There were previously no ‘Wilfreds’ in the family, and there have been none since, and so this was a rather strange choice, in a society where the naming of children usually had great social significance. Perhaps Wilfred was a comrade from his time in India or Mauritius.

In May, 1863 the regiment was on the move again, this time to Shorncliffe Camp, near Folkestone. The camp, on the cliffs overlooking the English Channel, was built as a training and depot centre in 1795, to hold troops in case of attack by the French.

Shorncliffe 1850

Shorncliffe Camp – 1850

George remained in Folkestone for a further twelve months, and during this period Sarah became pregnant again. She gave birth to Egbert George on 2nd May 1864, and the child was baptised at Shorncliffe, by a Wesleyan Minister, on 29th May 1864.

This was just days before they were on the move again, and this time to a world famous location. On 6th June 1864, the Regiment moved to the newly built, Waterloo Barracks, in the Tower of London. This sequence of events has led to a story that one member of the family had been born in the Tower of London.

It would have been a great tale if true, but it looks as though Egbert missed the experience by about a month. However, Sarah and her two young children would have followed George to the Tower, and so the first months of Uncle Bert’s life were spent in one of the world’s most famous prisons.

 Waterloo Barracks

Waterloo Barracks, Tower of London – now home of the Crown Jewels

The stay in the Tower was brief, although it did allow new colours to be presented to the Regiment, on Horse Guards Parade, on 13th July and so George would have been very much part of that ceremony. The 5th Fusiliers were yet again given a glowing testimony by the Commander in Chief. In September 1864, they were transferred to Woolwich barracks, where George and family spent the winter months.

1865 saw another move and nowadays it would be a foreign posting, but at that time the whole of Ireland was still, very much part of the British Empire. On 7th March 1865, seven companies of Northumberland Fusiliers and the Regimental headquarters embarked from Woolwich, on board HMS Urgent, and headed for Kingstown, Ireland.

They disembarked on the 12th March, and headed, by rail, for Dublin, and then on to Birr, an Army base in the very centre of the emarald isle. Later they moved on to the Curragh Camp and spent the summer encamped there.

Curragh Camp

Cavalry camp at the Curragh but not dissimilar to George’s experience

Smaller detachments were sent out from there, and No 7 and 11 Companies, which included George and his growing family, went to Castlebar, County Mayo, on 23rd October 1865. This was obviously an important assignment as it was commanded by Lt. Col. Milman, second in command of the Regiment.

Why the British should have such a garrison in a small town near the west coast of Ireland might seem strange, but it is all down to history. The Napoleonic French had seen Ireland as a weak point in British defences, and with a local population unloving of the London government, there had made at least one attempt to attack the town. There had been an army outpost there since 1691, and this had been reinforced with new barracks, built in 1834. This also was an area earmarked by the British government as a potential source of Irish revolt, and this turned out to be a good prediction, as one of the leaders of the Irish independence movement of the early 20th century was born in Castlebar.

A brief resume of the history of the Castlebar barracks

In 1828 the order was given by the British Government to construct a number of Barracks in Castlebar co Mayo. The new Infantry barracks was constructed on the site of an old castle (two towers of the castle being used to house the infantry in Castlebar and were in a very dilapidated state). The cavalry units were located initially at Barrack St (which used to run next to Morans pub along the back of Linenhall St to new Antrim St).

The old Family home of the Lucans which was damaged during the 1798 rebellion was pulled down and dressed stone from this building was used in the construction of the present barracks.

An Artillery barracks was also constructed and this was located at the corner of the mall where the present Garda station now stands. Although it was constructed for artillery it was later mainly used by the Cavalry units because of the large number of stables built for the artillery horses, which were used to pull heavy cannon.

The builder of the Infantry barracks was a Mr Clarke, from Galway and the construction took just over two years. The infantry barracks consisted of five three-story buildings arranged in an L shape around the northeast corner present square. These were Blocks A-H were for the enlisted men or other ranks. Blocks J-O were officers accommodation. The barracks commanded a fine view of the town and had its own water supply consisting of a well.

The barracks could accommodate about 500 personnel consisting of all ranks.’

Castelbar barracks

Sarah had become pregnant again in March 1865 and was heavily pregnant when they were posted to Castlebar in late October. She gave birth there to their third son, Victor Samuel, on the last day of the year, 31st December 1865.

Beginning of the end

1866 marked the beginning of the end of George’s military service. Colonel Master, who he had served alongside for 20 years, retired as Commander of the 5th Fusiliers, and at the same time, orders were received to prepare the Regiment again for foreign service, and another tour of duty in India.

However, George and family were not to go with them, as he was posted back to the Depot, at Shorncliffe. The main body of the Regiment travelled to the Curragh Camp on the 1st June 1866, including the detachment from Castlebar. George stayed there for the whole of June, before the Depot companies were sent to Dublin, and then by the steamship ‘Foyle’, to Dover for their posting to Shorncliffe Camp. They were attached to the 10th Depot Battalion, a training unit of the army which acted as a reserve to provide extra soldiers as required. George joined the Depot as the Senior Colour Sergeant and later took over some of the duties of Sergeant Major.

Not long after the move back to Folkestone, a great tragedy occurred when Patrick McHale VC, died suddenly, in October 1866. He was buried in the Shorncliffe Camp churchyard and a tombstone erected in memory of this very special soldier.

Patrick McHale burial

But tragedy was to strike, even closer to home, in early 1867. Sarah was again pregnant and gave birth to a baby girl at Shorncliffe on 10th January 1867. This is a mysterious birth because there is no official record anywhere of little Ada Browning.

The only reason we know of her existence is because she appears on a list of George’s family, written much later on a torn piece of parchment. The list is clearly written, and then as an afterthought, Ada’s name and date of birth have been added, squeezed between two lines. We can only guess she lived a very short time, and was never baptised or registered. The only clue in the 5th Fusilier records is that in the period 23rd Aug 1866 to 25 Feb 1867, 2 men died, 1 child died and nine were born. The assumption must be that Ada was one of the births, and also the only death.

Bible scrap 1

The only record of the existance of Ada Browning’s short life

George continued with his training and supervisory duties during 1867 and 1868, being one of those responsible for the turnout of the men at the many regular inspections. Sarah had to care for her three growing boys, in a man’s world of constant drill and military exercises.

The biggest fear in barracks and training camps was disease, and especially small pox, which was very infectious, and could debilitate and kill. Luckily for the Browning family, vaccination became standard practice in the 1860s for all military personnel, including wives and children. Disease in the outside world was also a big killer, with cholera, typhoid and tuberculosis taking people at any time of their life. These were to be a new enemy, which the family were going to have to combat, once they returned to civilian life. That day was getting very close.

Sarah became pregnant for the fifth time in the middle of 1868 and a girl, Edith Annie was born on 22nd March 1869, the last of their children to be born in military service. A few weeks later, on 11th June, George handed over his responsibilities as a Colour Sergeant and he formally retired from the Army on 29th June, after 21 years and 236 days service in the 5th Northumberland Fusiliers.

He received two good conduct badges and this would have been five if he had not been promoted. He was never wounded, although did appear in the defaulters book on three occasions. When discharged from Shorncliffe, George was 39 years old, fit and ready to begin the next part of his life.

George was presented with a clock by Captain Oldfield, on behalf of the Regiment, and a tea service by the sergeants’ mess. He was to receive a pension of one shilling ten and a half pence a day, which amounted to only £34 a year.

George Clock

George’s presentation clock

George left the Army to take up a position as Building Superintendent at the Howard Buildings, Spitalfields, London. This was to be the family home for the next 35 years.

Howard Buildings had just been refurbished and was one of several of initiatives to provide decent affordable homes for the industrious working classes. The development was situated in Mile End New Town, close to Brick Lane and Whitechapel, but was probably one of the worst neighbourhoods in England. Crime and disease were rife and all the visions you might have of the evils of Victorian and Dickensian London were on the doorstep. The air was foul, the water was foul, the streets were foul and yet George and Sarah chose to take their family there.

Whitechapel 1890s

Howard Buildings part of the building marked ‘MOD LODG HOU’. 

Whitechapel 1890s - Copy

Dorset  Street in Whitechapel in  the 1890s


‘A horrible black labyrinth, think many people, reeking from end to end with the vilest exhalations; its streets, mere kennels of horrent putrefaction; its every wall, its every object, slimy with the indigenous ooze of the place; swarming with human vermin, whose trade is robbery, and whose recreation is murder; the catacombs of London darker, more tortuous, and more dangerous than those of Rome, and supersaturated with foul life.  Black and nasty still, a wilderness of crazy dens into which pallid wastrels crawl to die; where several families lie in each fetid room, and fathers, mothers, and children watch each other starve; where bony, blear-eyed wretches, with everything beautiful, brave, and worthy crushed out of them’.

Description of Whitechapel in the Palace Journal, 1889

 Albert Buildings 19th century

Albert Buildings (left) and Howard Buildings (right)

From the 1830s, a number of philanthropic organizations campaigned for an improvement in the housing conditions of the “labouring classes”. Groups such as the ‘Society for Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classes’, the ‘Metropolitan Association for Improving the Dwellings of the Industrious Classes’ and the ‘Peabody Donation Fund’, not only promoted the idea of healthy and low-cost housing for the poor, but erected ‘model’ buildings to support the principles they advocated. These model schemes included not only family homes, but also lodging houses for single people, providing an alternative to the squalid conditions found in the privately run ‘common’ lodging houses of the time.

The Metropolitan Association for Improving the Dwellings of the Industrious Classes (MAIDIC) was formed in 1841 and was incorporated by Royal Charter in October 1845. It aimed to provide sanitary and affordable accommodation for those of limited means, although it took the view that this was most effectively done by operating on a proper commercial footing, with its shareholders receiving a dividend of up to five per cent per annum.

Dwellings which MAIDIC erected were provided with the following sanitary conditions:

Effective drainage of the site
Abolition of the cess-pool and replacement by a water-closet, involving complete house drainage
Abundant supply of pure water
Means for the immediate removal of all solid house refuse

Enlightened Victorian’s were beginning to realise that clean water and disposal of waste were key elements of controlling disease, but the majority of houses in London still relied on a communal water pump and a cess pit for sanitation. This meant water borne diseases continued to kill large numbers of people, especially infants. The turgid atmosphere of smoke and fog was still an enemy to all and no attempt to cure that problem was made until the 1950s.

MAIDIC’s first construction scheme, called the Metropolitan Buildings, opened in Old Pancras Road in 1848 and was designed for 110 families. Each apartment had a scullery containing a sink, high pressure water supply, meat-safe, a chute for the removal of ashes and refuse, and a water-closet. Each living room was equipped with a range, boiler, and oven. The land in front of the building was enclosed by iron railings, to form a protected play area for children. At the rear were a washhouse and drying ground for the residents’ use.

These facilities provided a more healthy and comfortable environment than any of the tenants had previously occupied. The weekly rent varied from 3s.6d to 6s.6d, depending on the size of the apartment. Rent was paid a week in advance (no arrears were allowed), and references were needed by new tenants, but no other security was required.

The Deal Street Metropolitan Association Estate, at Mile End New Town, was the second estate of the Metropolitan Association for Improving the Dwellings of the Industrious Classes. In 1848 the Association purchased for £1,300 land, bounded by two new roads, Underwood Road and Albert Street (now Deal Street), and held an open competition to design a block of family dwellings a model lodging house for single men. The successful candidate was William Beck, who received the commission for the practical merits of his designs.

The men’s lodging house was opened in December 1849. The building, called ‘The Artisan’s Home’, was given a considerable amount of attention by the architectural press, as the first of its kind in Britain. It had four storeys above ground level with a U-shaped plan. The wings contained dormitories, divided into long rows of cubicles opening on to a central corridor.

The ground floor was given over to the superintendent’s quarters and communal recreation rooms, the chief of which was a coffee-room. The roof was finished in stained timber with skylights, and the end wall was pierced by a large Venetian window with a smaller window to each side. Some contemporary critics considered this room too grand for its purpose. A library, reading-room and kitchen were also provided. In the basement were baths, washing facilities and meat safes.

The Builder magazine had early expressed doubts about the suitability of the designation ‘Home’, and its fears were realized, for over the following twenty years the ‘model’ lodging house, did not prove successful. The rules and regulations were a discouragement, and many men preferred the cosy camaraderie of the ‘common’ lodging houses, despite their disgraceful reputation.

Accommodation on the Deal Street site was provided for 234 men, but there were rarely more than 150 lodgers. It became clear that the Association could not continue to operate so unprofitable a venture, and in 1869 the building was converted into dwellings for forty-six families, under the name of the HowardBuildings.

‘This building was originally erected as a lodging house at a cost of £13,122. 7s. 3d., but not being sufficiently occupied to yield an average net return of 1 per cent during a period of eighteen years, the directors felt it their duty to convert it into dwellings for forty-six families, thereby increasing the cost to £17,861  8s. 10d. The building is now fully occupied, and the return increased to near 2½ per cent.’

The dormitories were subdivided into rooms, some of the windows made into doors, and external iron access galleries added, entirely transforming the side elevation of the building. Each flat consisted of a living-room, bedroom, scullery, and sanitary facilities, and each had a separate entrance paired with that to the adjoining flat. The new family flats were occupied at the end of 1869. The conversion must have been a success because in 1877 the building was extended to accommodate an extra thirty-seven families.

 Howard Buildings plan

The original plan for the Lodging House

Before the conversion in 1869, the Association had already enlarged the site in 1858, by building two parallel terraces of cottages in adjacent Pelham Street. Each cottage had a separate dwelling on each of the two floors, thus accommodating thirty-two families. These two terraces were known as the Albert Cottages, and in 1865 they were duplicated by the Victoria Cottages further along the street.

The Albert and Victoria Cottages were intended for those who could not afford the higher rents of the family dwellings. The Association was criticized for using the land to provide housing of such a low density. It appears that the initial plans had been to build other large blocks, but instead the Association experimented with an urban estate, more typical of suburban districts in the North of England.

In February 1875, the Statistical Society was addressed by Charles Gatliff and his talk had the rather grand title: ‘Improved Dwellings and their Beneficial Effect on Health and Morals.’

Charles Gatliff, who was a pioneer member of MAIDIC said:

‘There were at that date a total of 683 “improved” or model dwellings in operation in London, housing a total of 32,435 persons. In the previous eight years, in dwellings belonging to MAIDIC, the death-rate had not exceeded 14 per 1,000, compared to the general death-rate in London of 24 per 1,000.’

Dwellings   for Families on Flats. Date when   Built. Population. Rents   per week
Number   of Families. Ave   Total Pop, 1 Yr. 4 rms 3 rms 2 rms
Albert   Build. 1849 60 303 4/8-6/0 4/0-4/8
Gatliff   Build. 1868 149 610 5/6 4/3
Howard   Build. 1849 46 219 6/0-7/6 5/0-6/0 4/9-5/6
Pancras Sq. 1846 110 648 6/0-7/9 4/3-5/9
Albert   Cotts 1858 33 130 5/0-5/8 5/0-5/8
Victoria   Cotts 1864 36 81 7/0-7/6 5/0-5/8

Summary of rooms and rents at ‘model buildings’.

I don’t have the exact duties for George’s role as a Superintendent of Howard Buildings, but we can get a good idea of them from looking at sets of ‘Rules and Regulations’ for similar buildings of the period. His was a family refuge, not one for single people, but the basic rules will have been similar.

‘The Superintendent, together with his wife, are expected to set an example of sobriety, decorum, and exemplary conduct, abstaining from whatever might in any degree countenance in the Lodgers an infringement of the Rules for the general regulation of the house. He must faithfully account for all monies received by him or his wife from the Lodgers, at such time, and in such manner, as is required by the owner of the house.

He is to keep a book, in which, besides a regular entry of the names, period of occupancy, and payments made by each lodger a record shall be kept of any circumstances which may occur either of the nature of a complaint or otherwise.

The Superintendent is to occupy free of rent, the apartments appropriated to him, and he will be allowed fuel, candles, salt and soap, and such necessary articles as may be required for keeping the house in proper order. He is to be responsible for all the Beds, Bedding, Furniture, and other effects in the House, and as far as is in his power, to preserve them and the buildings and fixtures from injury.’

No alcohol was allowed on the premises, and smoking only allowed in the kitchen. Card-playing, gambling, quarrelling, fighting, profane or abusive language and “filthy or dirty practices” were all prohibited.

The Superintendent of a lodging house could, at his discretion, give lodgers up to two weeks credit on their rent payments, which could then be repaid in instalments.

He could also lend out copies of the Bible, and various improving books, to those who wished to avail themselves of the opportunity. The ‘keeping of a library’ was seen as important in all these dwelling houses. Most working people would have been illiterate at the time, but one of the objectives of these residential developments was to offer people the chance to make a better life for themselves.

Howard Buildings 1977

Howard Buildings in 1977 with the Victoria Cottages next door

George and Sarah had obvious suitability for this job, and retiring military men of the middle ranks were keenly sought for this quite challenging position. An Army pension, free accommodation and a small wage would have been attractive for George, with no trade to fall back on.

The coloured photos of the couple, wearing rather austere dress, looks like Wesleyan attire, and their involvement in the church may have been much greater than the available evidence suggests. Their children were certainly baptised into the Wesleyan Church, and the social values of the family suggest that this was an important part of their lives. They may well have regarded themselves as ‘inner city missionaries’, like the Twitcher family, and may have been a major motivation for taking the position.

  Geoge Browning photo      Sarah Louisa Browning

Hand tinted photos of George – 1876, age 46 and Sarah – 1882, age 38.

The Metropolitan Association and its shareholders wanted both a good return for their investment and to be seen to giving something back to society, by running a respectable establishment. They spent money to modify the Howard Buildings from single to family accommodation, and it was George and Sarah Browning who were entrusted to make it work. They were clearly very successful as the occupancy rate was close to 100%, and the Association were so impressed that they invested more money, seven years later, to double the size of the building. Overall George’s 35 years as Superintendent must have been regarded as a great business success.

My father, Hugh, was taken by his father, Arthur, to see the Howard Buildings in around 1938. He remembers his father pointing out his old home, on the southern corner of the building, which was then occupied by a branch of the Midland Bank. George’s address was No. 1 Howard Buildings and as the Superintendent’s position was on the ground floor, this would seem to fit Arthur’s recollections.

Howard Buildings flats plan

A pair of family flats after conversion in 1869

The plan above, illustrates one of the ‘pairs’ of apartments, which was the standard accommodation. George’s space must have been similar, but with an additional office and janitors room. In the 1881 and 1891 census the adjacent flat was occupied by Browning relatives, giving opportunity for shared and more efficient use of the limited available living space.

Life in Whitechapel, in 1869, must have been challenging, after the often isolated and controlled existence they had experienced in Army life. George hadn’t been able to make a ‘free choice’ of his own for 22 years, and never as an adult. There were new experiences to undertake, like shopping, and if anything needed doing it was up to him to fix it. Now he was responsible, not only, for the welfare of his own family of four children, but 46 other families, and the care and maintenance of the newly converted building.

Things didn’t start too well because in November 1869, news came from Bristol of the death, of his father, from bronchitis. A few months later, in July 1870, their youngest child, Edith Anne, also died from bronchitis, both probably related to the foul air and damp living conditions.

Soon, Sarah became pregnant again, but things must have proved difficult because in the 1871 census, held on 2nd April, only Egbert was at home, with Wilfred and Victor staying with William and Harriet Perry, in Chingford, Essex. Harriet was a Cooper cousin from Trudoxhill and does show that family connections were maintained with Somerset, long after the family had left the area.

Ethel Sarah Browning was born in July 1871, and in early summer of 1872 there was more bad news from Bristol as George’s mother, Ann, also died from bronchitis. After her husband’s death, she had been living, with youngest daughter, Mary Ann. Sons James and Isaac were also living nearby and able, to offer assistance.

We are very fortunate to have this wonderful family group, with six of the nine children.


front: Charles, Lydia, George.  rear: Isaac, James, Samuel – possibly taken in 1892 at the time of the death of their sister, Sarah.

(I am indebted to Dave Dixon, descendent of Sarah Browning, for discovering the original of this photograph)

Lydia Browning
Birth: 1829 in Tytherington, near Frome. Death: 1909 in Frome. Marriage: 25 Dec 1854 in Badcox Baptist Church, Frome. Spouse: William Read

George Browning
Birth: 28 Apr 1830 in Frome. Death: 27 Oct 1904 in Whitechapel, London Marriage: 08 Feb 1862 in Bristol. Spouse: Sarah Louisa Cooper

Charles Browning
Birth: 14 Nov 1833 in Frome. Death: 20 Jan 1900 in Frome. Marriage: 14 Dec 1851 in Badcox Baptist Church. Spouse: Martha Cannings

Sarah Browning
Birth: 21 Mar 1835 in Frome. Death: 1891 in Frome. Marriage: 20 Apr 1857 in Christ Church, Frome. Spouse: Stephen Papps Adams

Mary Ann Browning
Birth: 03 Feb 1839 in Frome. Death: 11 Mar 1853 in Frome.

Samuel Browning
Birth: 28 Mar 1841 in Frome. Death: 1914 in Thornbury, Bristol Marriage: 1881 in West Ham. Spouse: Elizabeth Pulling

James Browning
Birth: 24 May 1843 in Frome. Death: 1898 in Bristol Marriage: 1867 in Bristol. Spouse: Ellen Cooper

Isaac Browning
Birth: 12 Jan 1846 in Frome.  Death: 1926 in West Ham. Marriage: 1868 in Bristol. Spouse: Mary Ann Goodman

Mary Ann Browning
Birth: 22 Jan 1854 in Frome. Death: 1930 in Greenwich Marriage: 1878 in Barton Regis, Gloucester. Spouse: Edwin James Whitworth

Further tragedy occurred a year later, in the autumn of 1873, as young Ethel Sarah’s life was cut short by pneumonia. The damp, polluted air in both Bristol and London was taking its toll on the young and old alike. So, three healthy boys were followed by three girls, who all died in infancy. Doubts must have been cast as to the wisdom of the move to Whitechapel, as two girls had died there in three years. However at the time little was understood about the relationship between airborne pollutants and chest disease or polluted water and typhoid, cholera and diphtheria.

These setbacks did not stop four healthy children being born in the 1870s; Ernest, Beatrice, George and Philip. Philip was given the middle name Whitworth, which was an unusual name, which at first didn’t make a lot of sense. Only when I discovered that George’s sister, Mary Ann Browning married Edwin Whitworth, in 1878, did things become clearer. Philip was born the following year and it was clearly a message from George to his sister that he was still thinking of her.

George’s responsibilities increase in 1877, when an extension was added to Howard Buildings and he was now responsible for 80 families. His oldest children were now of working age and expected to fend for themselves. Wilfred had already left, to travel the world as a seaman, whilst Egbert finished school in 1878 and was given two weeks, by his father, to get himself a job. He must have had a skill at drawing as he became a designer in a lace factory, and copies of his delicate drawings survive today.


At the time of the 1881 census there were five healthy children living at home, with the oldest 17, and the youngest less than two years old. Living in the adjacent flat at Howard Buildings, was the Perry family, the same cousins who had been caring for Wilfred and Victor in 1871. They had moved from Chingford and so George was obviously looking after his extended family and friends.

 1881 Census Howard Buildings

1881 Census

Sarah was pregnant again at the time of the census, and she gave birth to another girl, Ethel Maud in September 1881. Ethel, like her previous namesake, had a very short life and died of measles a year later, in December 1882.

Sarah was pregnant yet again at the time of the death of the second Ethel, and had her twelfth child on 7th April 1883. The date was actually registered for the 8th, because George got the date wrong. This was an important birth for me, as Arthur James Browning was my grandfather.

Fifteen months later and after Sarah’s final pregnancy, Grace Helen was born. This meant thirteen children, with all the boys surviving infancy, but with four girls dead before their second birthday.

The designers of the various ‘model’ buildings seem to have underestimated the average size of a working family in the latter part of the 19th century, because their accommodation had two or at the most three bedrooms. The Victorian Age brought about a population explosion of previously unheard of proportions. More children were born and more survived. Families of 10-14 children were common, with often 6-10 children making it through to adulthood. Overcrowding was the norm in most families.

The Brownings were typical of those numbers, with George having 13 children ( 9 to adulthood), brother Charles had 10, (6 adults), brother James 9, (6 adults) and this trend followed through to the next generation with George’s sons Egbert, having 11 (11 adults), Wilfred 8, (6 adults),  and Arthur 6, (6 adults).

George Browning
Born Frome 28 Apr 1830. Died 27 Oct 1904, in Whitechapel.
George married Sarah Louisa Cooper on 8 Feb 1862, in Bristol.
Sarah was born on 20 Jun 1844 in Peasedown, Somerset. She died on 17 Feb 1934, in Walthamstow.

Children of George Browning and Sarah Louisa Cooper:

Wilfred Louis Browning,
B: 12 Feb 1863 in Aldershot, Hampshire, D: 10 Sep 1937 in East Ham

Egbert George Browning,
B: 2 May 1864 in Shorncliffe Camp. D: 28 Sep 1951

Victor Samuel Browning,
B: 31 Dec 1865 in Castlebar Barracks, Ireland, D: 1915 in Dartford, Kent

Ada Browning,
B: 10 Jan 1867 in Shorncliffe Camp. D: Abt. Feb 1867 in Shorncliffe Camp

Edith Annie Browning,
B: 22 Mar 1869 in Shorncliffe Camp. D: 4 Jul 1870 in Whitechapel

Ethel Sarah Browning,
B: 1 Jul 1871 in Howard Buildings, Mile End D: 6 Nov 1873 in Mile End.

Ernest William Browning,
B: 19 Apr 1872 in Howard Buildings, Mile End D: 1938 inEssex SW

Beatrice Mary Browning,
B: 21 Jan 1873 in Howard Buildings, Mile End, D: 29 Nov 1953 in Leyton

George Robert Browning,
B: 28 Aug 1876 in Howard Buildings, Mile End D: 1924 in Llanelly, Wales

Philip Whitworth Browning,
B: 25 Sep 1879 in Howard Buildings, Mile End D: 1960 in Wandsworth

Ethel Maude Browning,
B: 6 Sep 1881 in Howard Buildings, Mile End. D: 24 Dec 1882, Whitechapel

Arthur James Browning,
B: 7 Apr 1883 in Howard Buildings, Mile End. D: 26 Feb 1964, in Colchester

Grace Helen Browning,
B: 29 Aug 1884 in Howard Buildings,Mile End. D: 19 Jan 1911

The next generation

Life started to develop further in the Browning household in 1888.

George’s wife, Sarah Louisa, had been forcibly split from her mother and step-family in 1846, after they moved away from Somerset to Blaenavon, in Monmouthshire. Closest in age to Sarah was her sister, Mary Ann (Hancock), 18 months younger, who had, like her, had been born in Dunkerton. They should have been brought up together as sisters, but instead Sarah had been left behind in Somerset with her grandparents, when the family moved to South Wales.

Mary Ann Hancock married William Wathen in 1869, one of the leading members of the Blaenavon Congregational Church. William and Mary Ann immediately produced two children, Sarah and Lizzie Wathen, but not long after Lizzie’s birth, in 1873, Mary Ann died, leaving the two girls without a mother, although this was partly remedied a year later, when William Wathen married Emma Morgan. That set in motion aproduction line of 13 more children and so their Welsh home must have become increasingly over-crowded.

The story goes that Sarah and Lizzie Wathen went to live with their grandmother Browning in the Howard Buildings, in 1885, to act as mother’s help for ‘Auntie’ Sarah and her growing brood. Reportedly, the young girls had strong Welsh accents, and took time to adjust to the modern ways of London life.

 1891 census Howard Buildings

1891 census 

The eldest child still at home, Egbert (known as Uncle Bert) became attracted to and married the eighteen year old, Sarah Wathen, in the summer of 1888. Initially Bert and Sarah lived in Euston, but by 1891, they were back living with his parents, in the adjacent flat to his father, in the Howard Buildings, the one previously occupied by the Perry family.

Egbert Browning and Sarah Wathen      Sarah Wathen

Bert and Sarah in later years      Sarah was 21 when photo taken in 1891

Bert and Sarah wasted no time in starting their own family, and by 1891 they had two children, Hubert and Victor. There were now fifteen people, living in the two adjacent apartments. Living arrangements must have been very cosy and organised on military lines.

By 1892, Bert and Sarah had found their own home, moving to Forest Green and later, closer by, in Bethnal Green. Lizzie Wathen remained with the family in London and continued to be a home help for Egbert and Sarah’s eleven children. Lizzie never married and was with the family till she died in 1922.

Famously, the two Wathen girls transformed their ‘image’, from rural Welsh girls to rather well spoken London ladies. This was an era when ordinary working people tried to better themselves by attending evening classes, and it seems the whole Browning family took the opportunity for further education in places such as the ‘Peoples Palace’ in Whitechapel.

In yet another ‘strange’ marriage George’s oldest boy, Wilfred, returned ‘home from the sea’ and quite remarkably, married his first cousin, Alice Browning, TWICE during 1890 (August and December), in different churches. He was a house decorator at the time of his marriages, but his story later takes as many twists and turns as others in this extraordinary family.

His choice of wife was even more remarkable than his younger brother, as he chose to marry the youngest daughter of his uncle, Charles Browning.

Charles Browning, born in 1833, had given up his ‘cloth maker’ job in 1871, to become superintendent of a similar establishment to George, the Gatliff Buildings, in what is now Ebury Bridge Road. Charles also took his religion seriously and several of his younger children, including Alice, were baptised in the Congregational, ‘Whitefields Memorial’ Church, in Tottenham Court Road.

So, George’s eldest had married Charles’ youngest – Browning had married Browning. I suspect the first marriage was kept from the rest of the family because at the time of the first nuptials the couple were living in the seedy area of Bermondsey, close to the infamous Jamaica Road. The second ceremony looks to have been with full ceremony and with family present, as you would expect of a ‘normal’ wedding, with banns read in the preceeding weeks.

Wilfred Browning marriage

Wilfred and Alice’s first marriage in Aug 1890

Wilfred Browning banns Dec 1890

Wilfred Browning second marriage (2)

Wilfred and Alice’s second marriage in December 1890 – with banns. This marriage was conducted in Southwark Church, which soon afterwards was transformed into Southwark Cathedral..!!

Wilfred and Alice were certainly not outcasts, as by 1891 they had moved to 6 Victoria Cottages, right next door to the Howard Buildings and were still living there in 1901, by which time they had produced five children.

So with father, George, and now two of his sons, this was the third time cousin had married cousin. In fact there was another because George’s brother, James had also married a Cooper girl, Ellen, back in Bristol in 1867. This is all rather strange because these are marriages that took place between 1862 and 1890, and not in 17th century, rural isolation, but in the centre of Bristol and the heart of London. The marriages could have been prevented by strong parenting, but rather they seem to have been condoned, because all concerned were kept at the heart of the family.

Sometimes closed religious sects marry within the group and sometimes rich families marry close cousins to keep money and estates from being diluted; Royal families have been doing it for centuries. They might also marry to keep a skill in a family or they could marry to protect a family secret.

In small village communities marrying ‘family’ had been common, because of the small choice of individuals available. This was not true here, because both George and Wilfred had travelled the world and Bert was part of the world’s biggest metropolis, whilst James was living in the large city of Bristol.

The reason why Brownings kept marrying their cousins might be a combination of all of the above, but the reasons definitely seem to have Cooper roots, and that might lead back to Trudoxhill and Marston Bigott. Perhaps also relevant could be that a member of the Boyle family was almost certainly the father of Sarah Louisa Cooper. This was mentioned earlier and discussed in another article, but evidence seems to point to Charles Boyle, son of Courtenay Boyle and grandson of the seventh Earl.

Courtenay was the product of a first cousin marriage, and so if Sarah had known the truth about her father’s family she would have seen nothing wrong with continuing the practice. However, the genetic problems for Bert’s family soon became plain. Blindness and disability were common and the problem was so acute that the men of the family made an agreement not to have children, although not all kept to the promise.  Bert’s family tree is extremely complex, but in consecutive generations a first cousin married a first cousin, and Coopers appear on both sides of the tree. Remarkably most lived to a very good age and had successful lives, despite their disabilities.


Alan Browning 1901-1991

Several of Uncle Bert’s family emigrated to Canada in the 1920s and Alan’s memory is epitomised in this wonderful piece about the way he failed to let blindness prevent him living a full and active life – reaching 90 years of age.

‘Alan Browning was a craftsman whose blunt but sensitive hands and fingers gave him, touch, sight and ability far beyond that of most sighted persons. His engineer’s mind (electrical engineer graduate of University of London) and prodigious memory allowed him to compete and exceed his competitors in caning and rushwork repair and manufacture. Simple footstools and priceless antique chairs came to Alan. He has preserved their beauty and usefulness for years to come. Many examples of his craftsmanship grace the Legislative Buildings in the State of Washington and in our own Legislative Buildings in Victoria. His willingness to teach his skills to others, especially the handicapped, was often overshadowed by his own working excellence. He turned no-one away who wished to learn.

For those who love and admire beautiful old furniture his legacy will live on for many years. His great ambition was that the craft of caning and rushwork be preserved. Alan’s example of courage, ability and tenacity will hopefully continue in the craftsmanship of others.  written byPeter Eldridge.

George’s younger brother, James, in Bristol, who married his cousin, Ellen Cooper, had six sons, but instead of producing large families these boys spent ‘lifetimes of service’ for their country.

They fought in the Boer War in South Africa, during the last years of Victoria’s reign and then again in the Great War of 1914-18. All six survived the experience, contributing over 120 years of military service to their country. Their sister, Emily, married Thomas Ford, moved to Monmouthshire and made up for her brothers’ shortfall with nine children. Queenie Ford lived to be 102, and her sister Winifred lived to 93.


Browning brothers of Bristol in 1938 – Henry, Jim, Walter (back), Fred, Frank, Charles (front)


Article in Bristol newspaper  – circa 1938

Back in Whitechapel

However, back in the Howard Buildings, in the late summer of 1888, the Brownings had other things to worry them. This was the year of the Whitechapel murders and ‘Jack the Ripper’.

The killings began in August, and although the exact number is disputed, they carried on until November. The five that are generally accepted as the work of the ‘Ripper’ are below, but the first victim may have been Martha Tabram, murdered on 7th August, 1888, at George Yard.

Mary Ann (Polly) Nichols, murdered on Fri, Aug 31, 1888. (Bucks Row)

Annie Chapman, murdered Sat, Sept 8, 1888. (Hanbury Street)

Elizabeth Stride, murdered Sun, Sept 30, 1888.( Dutfield Yard)

Catharine Eddowes, also murdered on Sun, Sept 30 1888. (Mitre Square)

Mary Jane (Marie Jeanette) Kelly, murdered Fri, Nov 9, 1888. (Millers Court)

Ripper map

Sites of the ‘Ripper’ murders.

The serial nature of the assaults was realised when the mutilated body of Annie Chapman was found in the backyard of 29 Hanbury Street, lying against the fence. It was her killing that caused genuine fear and panic to begin in Whitechapel.

29 Hanbury Street         29 Hanbury Street exterior

29 Hanbury Street – backyard where the murder happened and an exterior shot in 1967. Things don’t appear to have changed too much in 80 years.

The unrest that followed the second murder, of Annie Chapman, caused an increase in public criticism of the authorities. The inadequacy of local policing had long been a complaint but the Home Office refused to offer a reward for information caused further anger with the local residents. Several Jewish businessmen, including Samuel Montague the local Member for Parliament, put up their own money in the hope of encouraging local residents to give up the killer. Residents began forming themselves into vigilance patrols, in the hope that their own private endeavours might succeed in bringing the killer to justice. The most famous of these was the Mile End Vigilance committee, led by George Lusk.

George Browning and his family must have been as terrified as the rest. The murders were taking place all around them. The first was a quarter of a mile to the east and the second the same distance to the west. The police were then saying there had been a third murder a quarter of a mile to the south of them. The murderer might have walked past their front door. He might even be one of the residents.

There were four vulnerable women in the Browning household at the time, Sarah Louisa 44, Beatrice 15, Bert’s new wife Sarah, 18 and her sister Lizzie, 16. There were also the 80 families of Howard Buildings, which were under George’s umbrella of care.

George’s job would have included ensuring the security of the building and many residents probably expected some advice and support about their personal safety from this veteran soldier. Vigilante patrols were begun and extra police patrols started and George would probably have organised night watchmen for the main doors, a routine he had known before in India. It was the Alumbagh Palace all over again.

The prostitute murders did not become ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders until 27th Sept 1888, when the phrase was written at the end of a letter, received by the Central News Agency.

The letter was couched in lurid prose and began “Dear Boss……” It went on to say, “I am down on whores and I shan’t quit ripping them till I do get buckled…’ The appended ‘trade name’ of ‘Jack the Ripper’, was then made public and further excited the imagination of the people.

The two murders of 30 September 1888 gave the letter greater importance and to underline it, the unknown correspondent again committed red ink to postcard and posted it on 1st October. In this communication he referred to himself as ‘saucy Jacky…’ and spoke of the “double event…….” He again signed off as Jack the Ripper.

Ripper letter

It was at this time that the panic was at its height, and the notoriety of the murders was becoming truly international, appearing in newspapers from Europe to the Americas. Even at this early stage the newspapers were carrying theories as to the identity of the killer, including doctors, slaughterers, sailors, and lunatics of every description.


‘Leather apron’ – one of many terms to describe the killer

There were dozens of arrests of suspects, usually followed by quick release. There was a police, house to house search, handbills were circulated, and Vigilance Committee members and private detectives flooded the streets.

The murder of Mary Kelly, in November 1888, was accompanied by mutilation of such ferocity that it beggared description and left the press short of superlatives. The murder had been committed on the day of the investiture of the new Mayor of London and the celebrations were soon overshadowed by the news of the Ripper’s latest atrocity. However, that was the last of the ‘Ripper’ murders, but of course no one knew that at the time. Any suspicious death in the area continued to arouse the police and the press. People were well on their guard into 1889, but there no more and people gradually began to go back to business as usual.

Not only must the women of the Browning family have feared for their lives during those few months in 1888 and beyond, but there was also a wave of opinion which was blaming the murders and indeed all the ills of Whitechapel and Mile End on the very existence of the Common Lodging Houses.

Although George might like to think Howard Buildings was a clean respectable place and a ‘cut above the rest’, it was still part of a housing system that was being widely criticised by the press and the population in general. All Jack the Ripper’s victims lived in the relatively small neighbourhood, close to Commercial Street, an area which social reformers had been focussing their attentions for several years. This was not far from where the Howard Buildings were situated.

By law, every one of these common lodging houses had to be licensed and was subjected to strict police supervision. Men and women’s dormitories were meant to be separate, and rooms for married couples were meant to be partitioned off. Most of the lodging houses were owned by middle-class entrepreneurs and investors, the majority of who lived well outside the area and entrusted the day to day running of the businesses to “wardens” or “keepers.”

Unlike George, many of these wardens had criminal backgrounds and operated on the periphery of the law. They would turn a blind eye, probably in return for a share of the proceeds, to illegal activity and blatantly flouted the regulation stating that men and women, unless married, must be kept separate.

In a letter to the ‘Daily Telegraph’, on 21st September 1888 a correspondent who signed himself, ‘Ratepayer’, highlighted the problem. Referring to Thrawl Street, where Mary Nicholls, was lodging at the time of her murder, he wrote:

“the population is of such a class that robberies and scenes of violence are of common occurrence. It is a risk for any respectable person to venture down the turning even in the open day. Thieves, loose women, and bad characters abound, and, although the police are not subject, perhaps, to quite the same dangers as they were a few years ago, there is still reason to believe that a constable will avoid, as far as he can, this part of his beat, unless accompanied by a brother officer…”

The Home Office asked the police to provide information on East End prostitution, brothels and the Common Lodging Houses. This was based on the observations of constables, whose beats took in the district to the west and east of Commercial   Street. The police gave the number of Common Lodging Houses at 233, the number of residents at 8,530 and the number of brothels at 62. The police reply also stated that, ‘we have no means of ascertaining which women are prostitutes and who are not, but there is an impression that there are about 1200 prostitutes, mostly of a very low condition.’

So now, it was doubly important that George and Sarah kept Howard Buildings to the best possible standard, something they seem to have achieved, as life around them threatened to collapse.


Two other significant events took place near the Browning home during this period – and both where they would have expressed great sympathy for the participants. The first was the London Matchgirls Strike of 1888 and the other, the London Docks Strike.

Annie Besant, a Fabian Socialist lecturer, was horrified when she heard about the pay and conditions of the women working at the Bryant & May match factory in Bow, and decided to take action.


Annie Besant

The women earned 1s. 4d for a fourteen hour day despite the 1847 Factory Bill limiting the day of work to only 10 hours. However, they did not always receive their full wage because of a system of fines, imposed for talking, dropping matches or going to the lavatory without authorisation. If workers were late, the fine was half-day’s pay.

The women were also risking their health when they dipped their match heads in the yellow phosphorus. Many suffered from ’Phossy Jaw’, caused by the toxic fumes of the yellow phosphorus. The whole side of their faces turned green, then black, and finally caused death.

Annie Besant published an article, which talked about ‘white slavery’ and used extremely emotive language. Three women who supplied information for Besant’s article were fired and other workers were ordered to repudiate the claims. The women at Bryant & May decided to form a Trade Union, with the help of Besant and the writer, George Bernard Shaw, who was treasurer of a £400 fighting fund.

Nearly 700 match girls picketed against their employers, who gave in after a three week strike. Bryant & May made important compromises, including the re-employment of the three victimised women. This was the first time in Britain that an unskilled workers’ union had triumphed in picketing for better pay and conditions.

This strike was followed by the London Dock strike of 1889, when for the first time the rights of unskilled people to organise their labour and to join a trade union were established. Both events provided a platform for the next great social break through, one that also took place in West Ham. The poorest working people were now making their voice heard and George Browning’s family were to play a part in this social revolution.

Socialism and Non Conformist religion were intrinsically linked during the late Victorian period, particularly amongst the working classes, who had seen little of the wealth of the Victorian Age.

Non-conformist religion seems to have been important for the Browning family but how important is difficult to assess. We know the Coopers came from a Congregational Church background in Trudoxhill and Brownings in Frome had their roots in the Baptist tradition. In Blaenavon we find the Wathens were Evangelical Christians, associated with both the Wesleyan and Congregational church. The marriage of George Browning and Sarah was witnessed by a family who described themselves as ‘city missionaries’, and the children born in Shorncliffe were baptised by a Wesleyan minister.

The two wonderful photographs we have of George and Sarah Louisa look as though they were taken for a religious purpose. Both have a rather unusual style of dress, which looks as though it was their Sunday religious best.

Wesleyan minister    George Browning col serg

A picture of an un-named Wesleyan minister and the formal photo of George Browning from the same period.

Victorian couple

This couple seeming to mirror George and Sarah in their attire

The Wesleyan Church would have fitted in well with the ideals of the Metropolitan Association, who owned the Howard Buildings, and were, therefore, George’s employers. His disposition as a very decent man in such a deprived neighbourhood seems to have a ‘missionary’ feel to it, similar to the Twitchers, in Bristol.

The Congregational, Baptist and Wesleyan Churches were all very active in trying to right the wrongs of Victorian Society. The Non-Conformist Church was becoming more militant, in the fight for social justice for the poor and to control the menace of drink and drugs that afflicted the middle classes. They were also very active in the fight for women’s rights and particularly the right to vote.This militancy also put them in straight competition with the Church of England, who rarely upset their friends in Westminster.

The early strands of the Socialist political movement sprang from the more militant amongst these religious groups, and this movement which had first shown its intentions in Newport and Manchester in the first half of the 19th century, by the early 20th century had evolved to become the Labour Party, fighting parliamentary seats head to head with their established Whig and Tory opponents.

This adds weight to the stories passed down about George Browning and his family, which suggest they were very much involved in the early rise of liberal socialism, which had its roots in the nearby streets of Whitechapel and West Ham.

George and Sarah Louisa seem to have bred a family with a strong social conscience and both came from a working class background, typical of the militant sections of the non-conformist church. George had witnessed, and indeed been a part of, the horrors of the Indian Mutiny, and so there is every reason to believe he would hope to make a contribution to a more peaceful world, on his return to civilian life.

Evidence is patchy, but the accounts we do have put the family at the very front line in trying to create a better life for the average working citizen. It was originally suggested that Egbert was the election agent for Keir Hardie, the first socialist Member of Parliament. Initially there was scepticism about the possible role of the Browning family in Hardie’s success, but it didn’t take long to realise that this enigmatic Scotsman, won the first ever socialist seat in the Westminster Parliament, at West Ham, just down the road from the Howard Buildings.

Hardie_election poster

‘James Keir Hardie was born in Lanarkshire, Scotland on 15 August 1856. He was the illegitimate son of a servant, Mary Keir. His mother later married David Hardie, a carpenter. Keir Hardie was sent to work as a baker’s delivery boy aged eight without any schooling, and was the sole wage-earner of the family. By the age of 11, he was a coal miner. By 17 he had taught himself to read and write.

His career in politics began with the establishment of a worker’s union at his colliery, and in 1881 he led the first ever strike of Lanarkshire miners. In the 1892 General Election, Hardie stood as the Independent Labour candidate for the West Ham South constituency in London‘s industrial East End. Hardie won the election and became the country’s first socialist M.P.

Hardie was an abrasive figure and made himself unpopular in some quarters with his anti-monarchy stance and this may have led to defeat in West Ham, in 1895. However, the Socialist movement in East London gathered momentum and in 1898 West Ham became the first local authority to come under Labour Party control.

Uncle Bert’s youngest son, Ronald, born in 1908, was a life long socialist and in a recorded interview, claims that Bert was the election agent for an equally important figure, George Lansbury.

George Lansbury

George Lansbury, 1859–1940, born in Suffolk, was a socialist politician, Christian pacifist and newspaper editor. He was a Member of Parliament from 1910 to 1912 and from 1922 to 1940, and was leader of the Labour Party from 1932 to 1935. He started his political life as a Liberal, campaigning for social justice and improved conditions for the working class, especially in London’s East End.

Lansbury acted as electoral agent for Samuel Montagu in Whitechapel, at the General Election of 1886, but became increasingly disillusioned with the Liberals after he came into contact with the Social Democratic Federation during the 1889 London Dock Strike. Lansbury left the Liberal Party in 1892 and formed the Bow and Bromley branch of the SDF. He became a prominent member of that organisation, standing twice as a parliamentary candidate for the SDF in the 1890s, before leaving to join the Independent Labour Party around 1903.

In 1910, he became MP for Bow and Bromley, when the sitting Liberal MP retired and the Liberals supported his candidature. In 1912 he resigned his seat to force a by-election in support of the Suffragette movement, but lost the election and did not return to Parliament until 1922. He continued to support women’s suffrage, and a pacifist approach to world affairs.

Lansbury was one of the founders of the Socialist newspaper, the Daily Herald, in 1912. He became editor just prior to the Great War and used the paper to oppose the conflict. In 1922 the paper got into financial difficulties and he handed it over to the Trades Union Congress and the Labour Party.

At what stage Egbert Browning and George Lansbury were connected is unclear but Lansbury’s biography offers several clues as to where the Browning family may have played their part.

Uncle Bert had worked for a short time in the London Docks, (1886), after his lace making employer closed down following a fire. He then took up carpentry, and it was whilst he was working on the ‘People’s Palace’ in Mile End, that his skills as a designer came to the fore and he then re-trained as an architect and surveyor.

‘The People’s Palace was conceived at a meeting at the Mansion House on 23 June 1885 to continue the existing Beaumont Trust for the benefit of local inhabitants “for the purposes of affording them intellectual improvement and rational recreation and amusement by means of libraries, access to reading of newspapers and journals, lectures, and other means for the diffusion of useful and entertaining knowledge.”

Building began after a royal ceremony for laying the foundation stone in June 1886 and the vast, central Queen’s Hall opened in May 1887.  The library came to be known as the Octagon and was completed a year later in June 1888.  It was described by the Palace Journal as “very striking…with a lofty domed roof…presenting a very fine appearance,” and “it may fairly be stated that there is nothing like it anywhere, except the Reading Room of the British Museum.”  Other facilities offered by the People’s Palace were lectures, concerts, a gymnasium, swimming pool, and day and evening Technical Schools which had their own distinct library.

The library was extensively used by 1,200 to 1,400 readers every day.  On a bank holiday in 1888 the Palace was visited by over 26,000 people and one and a half million passed through the turnstiles in the first year.  Hence it would have been a natural home at this time for a popular library to commemorate a popular author.

The People’s Palace housed one of the first public libraries in East
London, but was doubly unusual since it was administered entirely by women and was open on Sundays.  The Palace also published its
own newspaper.’   written by Andrew Casson


People’s Palace – about 1900

The ‘People’s Palace’ had been created by the people for the recreation, amusement and education of the East Enders and was official opened by Queen Victoria in 1887. The project, included a technical school, swimming baths, winter gardens, gymnasium and lecture rooms. This idea of education and organised recreation for the working classes was allied strongly with the ideals of improving living conditions for ‘ordinary people’. The money for the project was raised by public subscription and so this facility belonged to the ‘people’. Later a music hall was built on the site and the buildings, rebuilt after a fire in 1937, eventually came under the umbrella of St Mary College, University of London.

Bert was employed on this project and must have been attracted to join the socialist movement in the late 1880s, when, in his mid 20s, he was witnessing at first hand the harsh conditions of life in the East End. He could have met Lansbury in any of these places, possibly after 1891, when Lansbury decided to go it alone with the Social Democratic Front.  To become his election agent at some point shows their association must have been close and that he saw Egbert as a trusted confederate. Bert did have an ally in his sister, Beatrice, who was 19 at the time of the 1892 election. She became an active socialist politician after she later moved to Walthamstow, at a time when Women’s Suffrage was high on the agenda.

In Ron Browning’s interview, he mentions the strong early influence of his aunt Lizzie Wathen on his social values. She was a very compassionate individual and he has memories of discussions when only 7 or 8 years old of the inhumanities of the Great War. Ron and Lizzie witnessed a German Zeppelin being shot down over London and that had a lasting effect on Ron’s views.

Ron became an active socialist politician in his teens, but he became disillusioned with the Labour Party during the turmoils of the 1930s Depression and the rise of Nazi Germany. He had been offered a safe Labour seat in an East End constituency, but instead he resigned from the party and joined the Communist Party in 1936. His change seems to have coincided with the end of Lansbury’s reign as leader, during the debate about how Britain should react to the rise of Nazi Germany. Ron’s increasing blindness did nothing to blunt his socialist zeal and was still fighting as a Communist candidate in elections in the 1960s.

There is another Browning connection to George Lansbury, and this time via George’s youngest child, Grace, who married Edwin Ernest Hunter, in 1906, who was a journalist and political activist. The couple had three children, but Grace died in January 1911, only a few weeks after the birth of their third child, Margaret Hunter.

Ernest stood as a parliamentary candidate for the Labour Party, in Hackney and later became a political correspondent for the Daily Herald, with responsibility for reporting events in the House of Commons. It was George Lansbury who took control of the newspaper in 1913, as the first socialist daily paper and ten years later the title handed it over to the Trade Union Congress and the Labour Party. The Herald survived until 1964, when the name was changed to ‘The Sun’ and the newspaper was then bought by Rupert Murdoch, in 1969.

Keir Hardie’s local success in 1892 might have prompted George Browning to make a rather rebellious step himself, when in 1893, he wrote to the Army asking for an increase in his pension. We know from army records that he had previously had two pension increases, but this time there is no record that his plea was successful.

Egbert’s papers show he earned 25 shillings a week, (£64 a year) in his job as a lace designer in 1880, which as a 17 year old compared favourably with his father whose pension was only £34 a year.

Two decades later, in 1903, a report by the Board of Trade, found that the typical urban labourer, was earning 29 shillings and 10 pence per week, and spent 22s 6d of it on food alone. Another study by the Rowntree Foundation, in 1900, found that a clerk earning 35s a week, spent over half his income on food.

In other words, the proportion of total income needed for housing in the late Victorian period was small and so George’s free accommodation was actually worth relatively little in the economics of the period. Once Bert had married and left home, in 1892, he would no longer be contributing to the household income and so by the early 1890s, George’s family finances would have been stretched to the limit, with still several young children in the home to feed and clothe.


I beg most respectfully to solicit your favourable consideration at this my application for an increase in my pension. I beg leave to place before you a list of my services, active, foreign and home, which were all performed in the 5th Northumberland Fusiliers.

I enlisted under the unlimited service act on the 4lh November 1846, joined the Regiment at Plymouth. Embarked in HMS Resistance for Mauritius 23 July 1847. Embarked for China in HM Ship Simoon 24″ May 1857. The Regiment was however stopped at Singapore 19″ June 1857 and ordered to Calcutta (by order of Lord Elgin) where we landed on 4″ July. The first Regiment landed of the Reinforcements called for by the Indian Mutiny. Proceeded up country at once detained at Cawnpore until relieved by the 90th Regiment.

 Defence of the Alumbagh during the relief of Lucknow by Sir Colin Campbell. Encamped at the Alumbagh under the command of Sir James Outram, from 25th Nov 1857 till the capture of Lucknow 17 March 1858 under Sir Colin Campbell.

During this period I was present at most of the minor actions including that of Guilee 22nd Dec in which Pt McHale and myself captured a gun and turned it on the enemy firing several rounds on the mutineers. For this and for another or previous occasion Private McHale received the Victoria Cross.

 On the 12 Nov 1858 marched into Oudh and was present at the surrender of the Fort Ameatie. 18 Nov 1858.  Action at Doondiekeera. Nov 1858 action and capture of Fort Oomrea, 2nd  Dec 1858.

Returned to England 8th July 1861 after 14 years foreign service including one year and a half active in the Mutiny. Joined the depot July 1866 as Senior Color Sergt was assistant Sergt Major to 10th Depot Battn for 2 years and discharged as Color sergeant with a pension of 1/10 1/2 per dieu 29th June 1869.

I therefore most respectfully beg that my services be taken into favourable consideration both in the field and in quarters and that you may be graciously pleased to grant me in my old age, 63, an increase in pension.

 I have the honor to be your humble and obedient servant.  Geo Browning   Late Color Serg

He had previously received a slight increase in 1890 and another on 29th October 1892. This request was in 1893 (age 63), so I think the Army’s generosity finally ran out.

This letter and detailed accounts of the 5th Fusiliers in the Regimental Journal allowed me to make an accurate account of George’s movements during the Indian Mutiny. George seems to have had a very good recollection of the dates and places. Perhaps he used the same journal, published in 1888, to act as an aide memoir or perhaps he kept a diary himself.

Some of us suspected that George, himself, may have been politically active, but there was no evidence of this until 2011, when it emerged that he was elected as a local councillor right at the end of his life.

George was elected as a Councillor for the Borough of Stepney, which included the hamlet of Mile End New Town. This account is taken from notes sent by Ronald’s daughter, Genia Browning after some good detective work.

‘On 17th February, 1904 the Council, ‘upon nomination of the Councillors of the Mile End New Town ward appointed Councillor George Browning of 1, Howard Buildings to be a Trustee and to act in the administrations of the “Prisca Coban” (Covill Hall) Charity’. It seems he had a mess to sort out. A report on the charity for 22nd July 1903 found an, ‘apparent discrepancy between the amount of stock standing to the credit of this Charity and the amount referred to in the will of the benefactor’.

The said benefactor of the charity was George Fournier, who added a codicil to his will in 1840, for a sum of £4,000 to be invested at 3% with one half of it to be distributed annually on June 22nd (his birthday).

‘to such poor and industrious parishioners who had not been relieved by the Parish for two years previous to the said 22nd June, each person to receive not less than £10 nor more than £15 a year, and such persons being parishioners qualified to receive the same, to be balloted for.’

So this meant George Browning was a councillor, but he hadn’t been listed in the main roll of elected officers. There were three councillors for Mile End New Town. Those elected in 1903 were E.Schrier;  H. Gibbs and J.E.Bacon, but H.Gibbs died on the 18th October 1903, creating a “Casual Election”, which was held on 2nd  November 1903 at which George Browning was elected, topping the poll in a close election, with 324 votes; Schrier 305, Bacon 302. George was 73 years old when elected and died the following year.

‘On October 27th October 1904, the Council and the inhabitants lost, by reason of death, the services of Councillor Browning a representative of the Mile End New Town Ward of the Borough. At the meeting held on 9th November, 1904, the Council, by unanimous resolution, expressed its condolence and sympathy with the widow and family of the deceased.’

Despite his truncated time on the Council, George Browning had a good attendance record.

Meetings of the Council: 17;
General purposes, Staff and Education Committee: 18;
Meetings of the Housing of the Working Classes Committee: 6.

His total was 41 meetings out of a possible 53.

The ease with which George took on an important role, so quickly, suggests he could well have been a councillor previously. He was clearly a trusted and popular man amongst the local community.

There is another family story about a Browning involvement with another famous person, one with strong socialist values. Beatrice Browning, who as mentioned already was a socialist activist, was said to have been friends with the famous American novelist, Jack London, who she introduced to her brother Bert and others in the Browning family.

My first look into the life of Jack London made all this seem unlikely. The writer was born in San Francisco, in 1876, as John Griffith Chaney, then went to the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897, to try to make his fortune.  There he developed his socialist political ideals, as a direct response to the greed and avarice of the people he met. Jack had joined the Socialist Party in 1896, and when he returned to the US, in 1898, he began to write short stories, to make money and to express his social conscience, which is when he took up his pseudonym.

‘Throughout his life he saw writing as a business, his ticket out of poverty, and, he hoped, a means of beating the wealthy at their own game.’

Jack London’s writing career coincided with cheap printing methods being invented to print magazines freely, and he became an almost immediate success. One magazine article was later extended to a book, ‘The Call of the Wild’, and this became a 20th century classic. ‘Call of the Wild’ was published in 1903 and Jack was to become one of the most famous American novelists of his generation. He seemed to have spent his short life on the other side of the Atlantic. He died in California in 1916 at the age of forty, and there didn’t seem any way he could have met and befriended Beatrice and Bert in Whitechapel.

However, Jack had heard at socialist meetings in the USA, that London was not only one of the richest cities in the world but also had areas of the greatest poverty. To Jack, in the more democratic and egalitarian California, this seemed like something he wanted to explore, understand and expose.

So in the summer of 1902 he travelled to London, and dressed in workman’s attire and with a camera set about gaining material, with the specific intention of writing a documentary book about the poorest people in the East End. His book, ‘People of the Abyss’, is spectacular because it also contains photographs of people and places taken by Jack London himself.

People of the Abyss

It is not one of his best known books in the United States, but it is a fabulous historical record of an outsider’s view of London at the end of the Victorian period.

Taken from the introduction to ‘People of the Abyss’

It will be readily apparent to the reader that I saw much that was bad. Yet it must not be forgotten that the time of which I write was considered `good times’ in England. The starvation and lack of shelter I encountered constituted a chronic condition of misery which is never wiped out, even in the periods of greatest prosperity.

Following the summer in question came a hard winter. To such an extent did the suffering and positive starvation increase that society was unable to cope with it. Great numbers of the unemployed formed into processions, as many as a dozen at a time, and daily marched through the streets of London crying for bread. Mr. Justin McCarthy, writing in the month of January, 1903, to the New York Independent, briefly epitomizes the situation as follows:–`The workhouses have no space left in which to pack the starving crowds who are craving every day and night at their doors for food and shelter. All the charitable institutions have exhausted their means in trying to raise supplies of food for the famishing residents of the garrets and cellars of London lanes and alleys. The quarters of the Salvation Army in various parts of London are nightly besieged by hosts of the unemployed and the hungry for whom neither shelter nor the means of sustenance can be provided.’

It has been urged that the criticism I have passed on things as they are in England is too pessimistic. I must say, in extenuation, that of optimists I am the most optimistic. But I measure manhood less by political aggregations than by individuals. Society grows, while political machines rack to pieces and become `scrap.’ For the English, so far as manhood and womanhood and health and happiness go, I see a broad and smiling future. But for a great deal of the political machinery, which at present mismanages for them, I see nothing else than the scrap heap.

Beatrice probably first met Jack at a Socialist meeting in Whitechapel, and being of similar age became friends. They also seem to have had similar ideals and so we can imagine Beatrice might have helped him with his research. There is a suspicion that Jack actually stayed in Beatrice’s home, during his time in Whitechapel. Jack London was then just an unknown young American socialist wanting to write and photograph life amongst the social outcasts. Only later did he become famous, and so Beatrice and Egbert must have followed his rise to fame with interest.

‘People of the Abyss’ can be accessed in full and for free at: http://london.sonoma.edu/Writings/PeopleOfTheAbyss/.

There are extensive photographs of many parts of Whitechapel and features all parts of the life of the area. I have read the book but found no reference or character that resembles Beatrice or the Brownings, but it does give a great insight into what everyday life must have been like for George, Beatrice, Egbert and the rest.

Human melting pot

The social character of the area around Howard Buildings changed dramatically during the final fifteen years of George’s life. He had moved into a newly refurbished building in 1869, and other new buildings were springing up all over Mile End New Town, which had previously been undeveloped, wasteland. There were new houses, schools and businesses, each filled with a mixture of people from Britain, including plenty from the rebellious colony of Ireland, and with increasing numbers of migrants from Europe.

The Huguenots (French protestants), in large numbers, had inhabited the area between Brick Lane and the edge of the City of London, from the early 1700s. Irish and other victims of the potato famine arrived in the 1840s and they were replaced by Jewish settlers during the mid 1800s. However, this area, just east of the old city walls, wasn’t big enough to hold the great influx that arrived from Russia and Eastern Europe from 1880 onwards. The Jewish population rose rapidly from about 45,000 in 1881 to 135,000 in 1900.

Jewish map east End 1900 - Copy

Jewish areas in turquiose – Howard buildings; yellow dot

(George Arkell, compiled the map from information gathered by the London School Board through its various visitors. The complete map is available here – Jewish map 1900 )

In 1889 Charles Booth observed:

‘The newcomers have gradually replaced the English population in whole districts, Hanbury Street, Fashion Street, Pelham Street, and many streets and lanes and alleys have fallen before them; they have introduced new trades as well as new habits and they live and crowd together.’

Whitechapel streets


In his book, ‘Living London, GR Sims describes Whitechapel in 1904:

‘It is its utterly alien aspect which strikes you first and foremost. For the Ghetto is a fragment of Poland torn off from Central Europe and dropped haphazard into the heart of Britain

This rapid change was all happening outside George Browning’s front door. Turn left at the end of the street and you would hear traditional ‘cockney’ English, but turn right towards Brick Lane, and the streets were more like Poland, Russia or a Middle East Bazaar and the language wasn’t Russian or Turkish but ‘yiddish’.

Most of the areas of white poverty and prostitution from the ‘Ripper’ period were gone, to be replaced by one of an equally impoverished people, and all of them were Jewish

The following accounts are contemporary, the first written in 1896 and the second in 1911. They give some idea of the changes George must have seen between his arrival in 1869 and his death in 1904.

‘The stranger to the scene is at first baffled and bewildered. The roadway is filled with large tramcars, and the footways are crowded with groups of busy shoppers. But we soon begin to make the great and startling discovery which awaits every new comer in Whitechapel. Here, in spite of the English-looking surroundings, this is practically a foreign land, so far as language and race are concerned. The people are neither French nor English, Germans nor Americans, but Jews. In this Whitechapel Ghetto the English visitor almost feels himself one of a subject race in the presence of dominant and overwhelming invaders. Yet the crowds are peaceful and entirely non-aggressive in demeanour. There is no sign of lawlessness, or of molestation of the minority. Indeed, in this respect Whitechapel on Sunday, as on other days, compares most favourably with many parts of Gentile London.’

 ‘The Ghetto has burst its old boundaries and now extends over a large area which until lately was a Christian quarter. All the shops are open and the narrow thoroughfare is packed with the stalls of Jewish hawkers. We hear a little English at the top of Wentworth Street, but as we push our way through the seething crowd and get nearer to Brick Lane the English words become rarer and rarer, and presently only the German Hebrew jargon known as “Yiddish” reaches our ears.’

 ‘The women are as Eastern as the men. The girls are handsome, dark-haired, dark-eyed daughters of Israel, whose type of beauty has not changed in all the thousand years of persecution and exile.

The children, who have been running in and out of the crowd, are neat and clean, their pinafores are white, their boots are good and well-fitting, their hair is bound with bright ribbons, and their frocks are pretty. The first thought of the poorest alien immigrant is for his children. His pride is to see them well clad and well cared for.

Leaving Brick Lane with its Russian post-office, its Romanian restaurants, and shop after shop where the young men of the Ghetto take the syrups and temperance drinks that are their principal liquid refreshment, we make our way down Commercial Street and plunge into the new Ghetto, a vast area far more foreign than the old Ghetto, and now entirely given up to the alien immigrant.

Many of the streets are still crowded with dwelling-houses of the poorest class; but where the Gentile dwelt the Jew trades. House after house has been transformed into a shop. Windows have been taken out and living rooms packed with merchandise.

Here is a building which is fitly labelled “The Oriental Bazaar.” You are in London, but you might be in Cairo or Mogador. And at that moment the distant church bells ring out to call the Christian worshippers to evening prayer. Passing into the Synagogue itself, you are startled to find the Royal Arms of England, elaborately carved and coloured, standing out boldly on the walls. The mystery is solved when we learn that this was originally a Huguenot chapel, owned by the French refugees who settled in Spitalfields after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. At one time the Huguenots were under special Royal favour, which may account for the display of the Royal Arms in their place of worship. The Jews acquired the building and converted it into a synagogue.’

Social mapping had been started by the social reformer, Charles Booth, as a way of demonstrating to the government and the upper middle classes the extent of poverty in their seemingly great capital city. This seems to have been a labour of conscience, because he completed the huge task himself.

Between 1886 and 1903, Charles Booth conducted an inquiry into life and labour in London. In 1898 he published his twelve ‘poverty maps’, with each street colour-coded and given a letter-name classification to indicate the income and social class of the residents.

Colour chart of Mile End New Town

















The darker the colour the poorer and crime ridden the streets were. George’s area is mostly purple and actually comes out reasonably well, described as a ‘mixed area of poor with some of middle income’.

Survey sheet

An example of Booth’s notebook, relating to Albert Street

Booth conducted the survey personally, walking through every street in London, usually with the local police constable, who was able to add background to his observations.

The one comment made about Albert Street refers to;

a 4 and half stone drayman seen next door to the Howard buildings’

During the period of Booth’s survey a more modern London was beginning to emerge. The Metropolitan Railway had become the Underground, and then the ‘Tube’, and was extended out past Whitechapel into the wilds of Essex.

Whitechapel Underground 1896

Underground railway arrived in Whitechapel in 1884

Congestion on the streets was also an increasing problem at this time. Wheeled transport was becoming more sophisticated, as horse drawn trams joined the plethora of wagons and carts. The railways had stimulated a growth in traffic rather than curbed the problem. Whitechapel High Street was even more congested with traffic than it is today.

 Whitechapel abt 1900

Whitechapel Road in the 1890s        

A new era was about to begin after the dawn of the new century and the death of the elderly Victoria, in 1901. George just made it into the new era, outliving Victoria, after fighting many battles on her behalf, both as a member of her armed forces and in the social melting pot of the East End.

George had been the ‘model’ superintendent of a ‘model building, in one of the most socially challenging places in Britain. Horse drawn carts were being rapidly replaced by underground railways and trams and the motor car was slowly making an appearance on the streets and the first ‘lighter than air machines were being flown in Paris and in America. George’s family were to become part of the techological revolution, with several having an engineering and design bent.

I have added a couple of links to the earliest moving pictures of London, which coincide with the last few years of George’s life. I don’t yet have the facility to embed them in this account but please click on the links for some wonderful shots of London at the beginning of the 20th century.

Watch out for the motor car – near the end of clip two..!!




George was also part of a social revolution that would eventually bring more power to the people and votes for women. These beliefs passed on to his children and grandchildren, not in a religious way but as part of a moral revolution, that sought equal opportunity for everyone.

George and Sarah Browning abt 1900

Sarah and George – around 1900

I am in possession of a ‘gold sovereign’ brooch, which George gave to Sarah to mark a special occasion. The two gold sovereigns are dated 1894 and 1897, and a gift of this kind was normally given to mark a significant anniversary. I’m not sure what that might have been but There would seem to be three possibilities; Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, the advent of the new century in 1900, but the most likely is that it was to celebrate their Golden wedding anniversary, in 1902.

George didn’t live long enough to see much of the motor car or see an aeroplane fly, although the internal combustion engine was already mixing freely with the horse drawn wagons on the streets of Whitechapel, in the months before he passed away.

On 27th October 1904, George died at his home in the Howard Buildings. The certificate says ‘acute dyspepsia’, and ‘syncope’, but that could hide a multitude of other complaints.

George Browning death cert 1904 - Copy

George left all his possessions to his wife Sarah Louisa,the gross value of which was £140 and the net value £94. Inflation is difficult to calculate and estimates range between 75 and 100 fold, so £94 would have been worth between £7000 and £10,000. It wasn’t a fortune, but with plenty of help from her sons, it was enough to keep Sarah living comfortably for the next thirty years.

 Sarah Browning and Grace 1905

Youngest child, Grace and Sarah, probably taken at George’s funeral in 1904

Sarah had to find a new home when George died, as they had effectively lived in a ‘tied house’. She moved away from the city to the suburbs, to Lloyd Road, Walthamstow, a well built terraced house, not far from Blackhorse Road Tube station. Her sons, Ernest and Arthur and daughter Grace went with her.

Sarah’s life remained tough to the last, as she ended up caring for two of Grace’s children, Margaret and Dennis Hunter after the young mother died in 1911. Two of her sons, Ernest and Arthur were late in the marriage stakes and hung around until they were in their thirties, both marrying towards the end of the Great War. All her sons continued to support their mother financially, till her death in 1934.

The area around the old Howard Buildings is now known as Bangla Town. The Jewish community of the late Victorian period has gone, to be replaced by the latest wave of immigrants to reach East London, from Bangladesh.


59 Brick Lane

Never can a building have been so descriptive of the local community. In 1743, 59 Brick Lane was established as a Protestant chapel by the French Huguenot community, but in 1809 became a Wesleyan Chapel, before being taken over by Methodists in 1819. It remained in non-conformist hands until the influx of Russian Jews, when it transformed into the ‘Spitalfields Great Synagogue’.

As the Jewish presence in the area dwindled the building was vacated but then the arrival of the Bangladeshi community during the 1970s, gave it a new life. It was refurbished in 1976 and has since that time served as a mosque, holding as many as 3000 worshippers at any one time.

The Howard Buildings have also gone and the site is now occupied by a small estate of low rise houses, probably built in the 1980’s. The two rows of Victorian terraces are still there exactly as they were built, and now have ‘listed’ status, as a remnant of the Victorian era.

Brick Lane, only 400 metres away, is now synonymous with the colourful life of East London multi cultural society. For 35 years, George and his family were an integral part of that society.

Brick lane

George and Sarah’s children had mixed fortunes in the 20th century. Uncle Bert was missing from the 1901 England census but eventually we found he was working for the British Army in Ireland, as a surveyor, building a barracks in Kildare City. The ‘missing years’ of Bert’s life were revealed in a wonderful tape recording made by his son Egbert, in 1983, when he was in his 90th year. I have a full transcription of the one hour tape, but I have also included the summary made by the interviewer.

For the full transcript click here.

Egbert Browning 1892 transcript of tapes


Record ID: 00000149 Browning, Egbert, Sgt., 1894 -198?: interviewed by Elizabeth Hazlitte 1 sound cassette (ca. 60 min.)

Recorded on original sound cassette 1983?, Veteran’s Hospital, Memorial Pavilion, Victoria, B.C.

(Side 1) Born ca. 1892  Spent some of his early years in Ireland where his father was employed by the War Department in survey work. Returned to London at about eighteen years of age. After a twelve-month course in surveying he joined his father and brothers in the survey business during the period 1910-1914. Due to the crowds of volunteers he had a difficult time joining up when war came in 1914. With the rank of sergeant he eventually joined a “special service”  unit composed of technical personnel. Initially posted to the remount  depot at Woolwich where he learned to ride. Inspected by Lord  Kitchener. Hospitalized with a serious case of pneumonia. Went to Le  Havre, then “up the line” in charge of a small unit. Encountered the Prince of Wales. Visits the 3rd Corps area where he inspected well-built (German?) trenches. Armistice, 1918.

(Side 2) Returns to comments on the first, hard winter of the war. Obtained leave in 1916 in order to be married. Anecdotal account of honeymoon on the Isle of Wight. Very unsettled after the war. Tried his hand at learning farming. Emigrated to Canada, to Victoria, B.C., in 1924. Worked on the Taylor farm at Patricia Bay. General comments on North Saanich, his brothers, etc.

Several of the family, including my grandfather, Arthur, served in the Great War, and all were fortunate to survive the experience and most made it well into old age. George’s children, Egbert, Arthur and Philip lived into their eighties and with 18 children between them were responsible for extending the Browning line until the present day.

Arthur James Browning

Arthur James Browning 188-1964 (taken 1916)

Wilfred made it into his seventies and Ernest his sixties, whilst George Robert died in his late forties. Beatrice married, but was childless and also reached the age of 80. As mentioned already, Grace had three children but died at 26, in 1911, soon after the birth of her third child.

Victor married twice, to a pair of sisters and had five children and this looks like another case of pushing the legal and social conventions to the limit. He was killed at work in a gas explosion in a sewer pipe at the age of 49.

Several of the family, from different generations, ended up living near Sarah Louisa, in Walthamstow, but others travelled much further a field. A surprising number ended up seeking the wide open spaces of Canada, before heading further west to end up in Vancouver. Bert’s family seem to have travelled there but in a rather disorganised fashion. There were 11 children in Bert’s family and at least five emigrated, creating a Browning world on Vancouver Island.

Victoria in Victoria

Victoria in Victoria – front of Parliament building – photo by ‘halfgeek’

The two most interesting of the others that I know the history of, are George’s eldest son, Wilfrid, whose antics didn’t stop at double marriages and there was so much else besides that I have allocated him his own short story. He deserted his large family and headed west to Ontario, before returning to Walthamstow, the bosum of his wife and eight kids, to enlist as a 52 year old in the Great War (1914-18).

Another who deserted his loved ones, this time permanently, was Charles Mico Browning, son of George’s brother Isaac. He made a good start in adult life, living the most respectable of lives, marrying at 21 and with a steady job in the London Stock Exchange as a stock jobbers manager.

A child quickly arrived but soon after that, conformity was abandoned, because soon after we find he has teamed up with the an Irish bricklayer’s daughter, had two more children, before heading off across the Atlantic to start a new life, marrying the young lady and producing a couple more offspring. In the 1911 census his first wife still thinks she is married..!!

Present day descendents of Charles Mico knew nothing of his Stock Exchange past or an abandoned wife and child, well until the wonders of the internet matched their information with mine. There is no-where to hide anymore..!!

Those who seem to have done well out of the wide blue yonder, only achieved that state after a tough few years, tearing up trees to create space to farm, but life eventually improved. Certainly we might envy the lifestyle that their descendents now enjoy.

Randy Browning 1  Canada photos

I think George and Sarah would have been proud of their children and the ongoing line of grandchildren. Their efforts to create a decent life for their off-spring, in the most challenging condiitons of Victorian England, has paid off.

The contrast between the clean air of Vancouver Island and the crowded, smoky squalor of Whitechapel couldn’t be more marked. I wonder if it is a coincidence  but the nearest major urban area to the Canadian Brownings, is the capital of British Columbia, the city of Victoria,

Whitechapel abt 1900  Vancouver

             Whitechapel 1902                   Vancouver Island 2008

click to access the genealogy of George Browning, his parents & his siblings

Lydia Browning tree

Text is copyright: Keith Browning – updated February 2013

Illustrations from various sources – attribution as appropriate.

Queries plus further contributions, please contact me as above.

Posted in family history, Frome | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Sarah Louisa Cooper – a whodunit …. ‘par excellence’.!

Sarah Cooper

Sarah Louisa Cooper  1844-1934

This story and much of the family history which surrounds it would never have been written if Henry Read, the Registrar at Clifton Registry office, had entered a name into the space reserved for the father of the bride. That one omission, for a marriage that took place in Bristol, on 8th February 1862, meant that a whole catalogue of clerical niceties, cleverly executed in 1844 and 1845, were voided in an instant.

The story begins 20 miles southeast from Bristol, in Trudoxhill, Somerset, where Eliza Cooper was born on 10 Feb 1823, the daughter of Samuel and Sarah Cooper. Trudoxhill was and remains today, a small hamlet in the parish of Nunney, bordering the Marston Estate, which, at the time, was the family seat of the Earls of Cork. The large town of Frome is less than three miles to the north.

Frome and adjacent parishes

Frome and surrounding parishes

(Please click on all illustrations for larger view)

In the middle of June 1844, Eliza Cooper was heavily pregnant and living with her family, not in Trudoxhill, but at Lower Peasedown, ten miles to the north, in the Dunkerton Valley, close to the city of Bath.

The family had moved away from their home in Trudoxhill, about 1825, first to the large village of Radstock, then on a little further, to the Dunkerton Valley and the parish of Camerton. Finally, in about 1832, they settled down in a collection of houses known as Lower Peasedown, a row of six isolated cottages and a couple of adjacent houses, perched on the southerly slope of the valley.

Cooper cottages peasedown

Lower Peasedown, three of the six isolated cottages were occupied by the Cooper clan at one point.

By the 1840s there were a number of other members of the Cooper clan and their married offshoots living around them, with all seeming to be involved in some way with the flourishing coalmining business.

The Cooper name had maintained a similar large presence in Nunney and Trudoxhill, where many worked as carpenters, making handles for ‘edge tools’; scythes, sickles, axes and the like. One Cooper was the Marston ‘estate carpenter’, while another was the local butcher and others, stonemasons, an occupation associated with the local quarries, which still today provide much of the stone for road building in the South of England. A William Cooper even reached the exhalted title of ‘estate steward’, the man who ran the extensive enterprise on behalf of the Earl of Cork.

Cooper is a most common name in England today, when you go back into the 18th century you find they have a very localised distribution. However, despite their obvious connected pedigree, joining together the Somerset and Wiltshire Coopers has proved a time consuming and frustrating occupation, rather like trying to complete a 1000 piece jigsaw, where the picture is a seascape watched over by a clear blue sky. The Cooper family and their Frome connections is another story to watch out for in future Fables.

The initial move from the relative serenity of Nunney parish, to Radstock was probably due to a decline in the rural trades and because the new coalmines of north-east Somerset offered plenty of opportunity for carpenters and other skilled trades.

Life in the countryside had also suffered because of the ‘year without a summer’, 1816, when frosts occured in June and July and the sun rarely shone. This had been caused by a volcanic eruption on the other side of the world, but the knock-on effect had social repercussions, which encouraged the population to desert the land and seek their fortune in coalmining or head to the industrial heartlands of London and the North of England. The miners were also struggling because of the rise in the cost of food and the unpredictablility of the coal seams, so they too were looking for work above ground, to supplement their wages.

Not all the Coopers left their rural idyll and the name continued in Trudoxhill and Nunney well into the 20th century. Coopers were leading figures in the Congregational Chapel, which thrived in the Trudoxhill community, whilst the traditional, ‘Anglican’ church goers had to walk a mile or so, over the ‘Ridgeway’ to All Saint’s Church in Nunney.

The two Cooper communities,  migrants and homelovers, kept in touch with each other for decades, with family members regularly returning to their original home parish for baptisms and marriages.

Trudoxhill Congregational

Trudoxhill Congregational Church

Eliza Cooper gave birth to her child on 20th June 1844, in Peasedown and the baby girl was registered a month later, in Bath, as Louisa Hancock. However, to create that change of name between the birth and the registration, Eliza had married labourer, James Hancock, in a ceremony, ten miles away, in Nunney Church.

Some nine months later, the child was baptised in Dunkerton Parish Church and given the name Sarah Louisa Hancock. This delay was unusual because most children were baptised within days of their birth, usually on the following Sunday – a practice caused by the high rate of infant mortality that saw many die in the first weeks of life.

James and Eliza soon produced a second one, Mary-Ann, but when they moved to South Wales, a couple of years later, they only took one child with them, leaving little Sarah behind, in the care of her grandparents, Samuel and Sarah Cooper.

During the next 15 years of her life, the girl was known simply as Sarah Cooper, with no mention of Louisa or Hancock. Less than a year after the 1861 census, she married her first cousin, George Browning and her name had changed again to become Sarah Louisa Cooper – but the space on the certificate for her father’s name was left blank!!

The sequence of events was so precisely organised that it has taken over 160 years to unravel the truth about Eliza’s baby, and even now the identity of the father is still open to debate. What is clear, though, is that Sarah Louisa and her new husband, George, were not prepared to carry on the charade and so by failing to enter the name of her ‘official’ father, she was cocking a snook at her grandparents and all THREE of her parents, Eliza Cooper, James Hancock and A.N. Other.

Up to that point the cover-up had been almost perfect, despite the multitude of people who must have known the truth. This was a subterfuge aimed at those looking from afar, one that would be soon overlooked as time passed by.

The summary above only hints at the complexity of the cover-up, but the detail clearly demonstrates that plenty of thought had gone in to the timing and the sequence of events. If Richard Nixon had been as scrupulous in covering his tracks then he might never have been caught out.


Nixon speaking to the US nation, displaying his evidence, which in reality were folders of blank paper.

Sequence of events

On Thursday 20th June 1844, Eliza Cooper gave birth to a girl, in her home in Peasedown. The mother must have then scurried back to her old home village, because three days later banns for her marriage were read at All Saint’s Church in Nunney, on Sunday 23rd June.

Nunney Church interior

Banns were read again on Sundays, 30th June, and 7th July, before she married James Hancock on Sunday 14th July.  The reading of banns (the formal announcement of the marriage) is designed to allow ‘interested parties’ to object if they knew of any legal impediment why the marriage should not take place. If the couple lived in separate parishes then banns should be read in both.  It seems no-one did object but the process and the marriage certificate indicates that James was also a resident of Nunney parish at that time.

Canon law now says that the intended couple do not have to be present at the reading of the banns, but in that small community of 1844, when all parishioners were expected to attend church every Sunday, then it would be remarkable if they were not there to hear their names read out.

James Hancock to Eliza Cooper marriage 1844

No doubt the baby was left behind in Peasedown during the nuptials, wet nursed by a relation, but Eliza must have returned soon after the marriage because only nine days later, on Tuesday 29th July 1844, she registered her child at Bath Registery office, as Louisa Hancock,  now officially the daughter of Mr and Mrs James Hancock.

Louisa Hancock 1844

These were god-fearing days when almost all children were baptised in their local parish church and this was usually at the earliest convenience, sometimes two or three days after the birth and frequently on the following Sunday.

The only exceptions to this rule were members of the Baptist Church, who only baptised adults, or older children, who were old enough to make their own religious decision. However, although the Coopers and Hancocks came from Wesleyan and Congregational Church traditions they seemed quite content to baptise their children in the local parish churches.

Louisa Hancock had to wait a little longer than a few days to be baptised, 34 weeks to be exact, because it was on Sunday 9th March 1845, almost nine months from the date of the wedding, before she was presented to the church. To make it even clearer that the baptism was to be part of this great deception, the family event was shared with another member of the Cooper clan. Eliza’s brother, George, baptised his daughter on the same day and she was to be called Sarah Anne Cooper, whilst the girl registered as Louisa Hancock suddenly became Sarah Louisa Hancock.

Sarah Louisa Hancock baptism 1845 - Copy

Confused? I think that was the idea.

There was one last detail to compound the felony, because another nine months after this baptism, a real Hancock/Cooper baby was born; MaryAnn Hancock, and she also plays a significant part in the Browning – Cooper-Hancock stories. Everything done in order and properly in its place.

This was all very cleverly thought out and what makes this doubly impressive is that the official registration system for births, marriages and deaths, had only begun in April 1937 and so there was little previous experience to fall back on.

This was also a world where, although illegitimate births might have been frowned upon, they were common place. The parish baptism records show a steady stream of ‘base-born’ children, to single mothers, with rarely a mention of a father. Such events had occurred previously in the Cooper clan, with no attempt at a cover-up and so this whole charade was not the norm for the early days of Queen Victoria’s reign.

There was also a system where a man might be accused, in front of the local magistrate, of being the father of one of these ‘bastard’ children. This court action was rarely instigated by the mother but almost always by the local parish council. The parish clerk didn’t believe he should pay ‘poor relief’ to a single mother, if the identity of the guilty father could be established. These ‘bastardy orders’ were designed to ensure the natural father paid his dues, although they were of little use if the man decided to exit from the scene.

There was another, more subtle and more effective way of dealing with this most delicate and difficult situation, but this only applied to the super rich, who were usually members of the aristocracy. The Court of Chancery dealt with disputes in common law, arbitrating the financial affairs of the well-off who had died intestate or where there were complications of inheritance. The Court also dealt with the orphaned children of rich families or where other parentage issues presented a financial problem.

The system allowed the wayward aristocrat to provide finance for the mother and the child of his unheralded offspring, by using the Court of Chancery as a ‘middle man’, keeping both parties separate and so ensuring the name of the father was not disclosed to the wider world. This was of benefit to both sides because the man’s identity was kept secret and the mother and child had a secure income, something that otherwise might have been denied to them.

21st century researchers are beginning to unravel some of these financial agreements, but although the two parties might be tied together circumstantially, those all important historical legal documents remain hidden in dusty vaults and out of reach. Many legal agreements were systematically destroyed after a period, sometimes 50 or 100 years.

My father recalls his mother saying there was money ‘in chancery’ somewhere, related to a family ancestor, but she never gave any more detail about which side it was on – perhaps knowing little more herself.

Court_of_Chancery early 19th C

Court of Chancery – early 19th century

Given all the anecdotal evidence to hand, James Hancock, the bride’s husband, was clearly NOT the father of Louisa Hancock, although the paperwork quite clearly states the opposite.

Dunkerton Valley

James’ family lived further along the valley from Eliza, on the main north-south road, about half way up Dunkerton Hill. There were only a few open fields between the two homes and the families would surely have known each other, in an area still sparsely populated. They would have also been acquainted most Sundays at the nearby, Carlingcott Wesleyan Chapel, a faith that seems to flow through both families.

Peasedown 8

Dunkerton Hill in the distance, as viewed from Peasedown

James Hancock and his elder brother, Mark, had been working in the brickyards at Blaenavon, in South Wales, in 1841, but evidence suggests that soon afterwards they returned to Somerset and that James then became a general labourer, either working in the fields or associated with the many building projects that were springing up in the valley, as the industrial revolution took hold. We don’t know for certain where James was working in the period 1843-45, but there is some evidence the search for work took him, southwards, to Frome and Nunney.

The Hancock family were originally from Kilmersdon, a rural parish situated just north of Frome, so this whole area of north-east Somerset would have been home ground to James, the young brickmaker and labourer. Frome had several building projects at this time and so too did the Marston Estate of the Earls of Cork, where the parish church acquired a new chancel in 1844. The estate also had its own brick-making fields, where brick clamps could be built and fired; bricks made on the doorstep, as and when needed.

So, the paths of James and Eliza almost certainly crossed in Dunkerton and maybe also in Nunney, Marston and Trudoxhill. For whatever reason, they decided to tie the knot and James must have been well aware of the situation he was getting himself into. Were they long time friends, who would have got married anyway or was this a marriage of convenience to provide both with a secure future?

What does seem most likely is that this was a brokered marriage, to provide James with a wife and Eliza with a degree of legitimacy for herself and the baby. What also seems clear is that the baby was not to be part of the long term deal. Even at this early stage it must have been agreed that the child would be fostered by her grandparents – but agreed by whom?

It also seems strange that Eliza, with two young girls, aged only 18 months apart could possibly leave one behind, when they moved to Blaenavon – both girls were still under three years old at this stage. It is such an extreme move that it suggests that Eliza wanted nothing more to do with Sarah Louisa – and that is evidenced in more detail in my story about James Hancock and his quite extraordinary life.

Before we can move on to try to identify the various villains of the piece, there is one more area that needs to be discussed.

It is, probably, already obvious to the reader that the name ‘Louisa’ has particular significance in this whole affair because of the way it was given, lost and then reclaimed by its owner. From the time of her marriage, Sarah quite deliberately kept her middle name, Louisa, and it is clearly written on each census return, her death certificate and other documents.

In 1891, she was even using Louisa as a first name, probably to avoid confusion with her daughter-in-law, another Sarah Browning. In my experience it is very unusual for an ‘average’ woman of the period to maintain their middle name with quite such determination – to her it was mightily important.

Sarah Browning 1911 census

1911 census which was completed in Sarah’s own handwriting

1891 census Howard Buildings - Copy

1891 she reverted to Louisa as there was another Sarah Browning in the household, her daughter-in-law

Sarah Louisa death cert - Copy

Death certificate

Louisa was clearly the name that Eliza intended for her baby, with no mention of ‘Sarah’ on her registration details. It may have been the grandparents that wanted her baptised as Sarah and therefore adding to the confusion with the Sarah of her brother’s daughter.

Single mothers were often quite cunning in the name they chose for their base-born offspring. If the child was a boy they might choose the name of the father or a nick-name associated with him. Others, often aggrieved lovers, quite blatantly added the father’s surname as a middle name, making sure everyone knew. If the baby was a girl then the name of a friend or family member who had supported the mother through her crisis was often chosen. Rarely, if ever, did the mother make a purely random choice in these traumatic circumstances.

The name seems doubly important in my search, because the owner actually reclaimed it for herself and kept her name to the fore. Louisa is almost unique in the Cooper, Browning and Hancock families and was rarely used later. The only exception I have found was in the Hancock family, where the name seems to have been deliberately chosen to ‘remember’ Eliza’s illicit child.

That story is fleshed out elsewhere in an extended and fascinating story, which touches on the many ‘lives’ of James Hancock. Not to be missed if you are a lover of ‘reality’ TV or soap dramas – although my story of infidelity and treachery, leave both genres gasping in James’ wake.

Louisa was not a Cooper family name, but it had been given to Eliza’s cousin, Louisa Pitman, who died as an infant, in 1839. The Pitmans lived on the Ridgeway, the crest top road that provided geographical separation of Nunney from Trudoxhill.

Harriet Pitman, elder sister of Louisa Pitman, later married William Perry and they became very close to George and Sarah Louisa Browning in later life, after both families moved to London. In the 1871 census the Perrys were found caring for two of the elder Browning boys, in Chingford, at a time when Sarah was in the late stages of yet another pregnancy. By 1881, William and Harriet were living in the adjacent flat to the Brownings, in the Metropolitan Buildings at Whitechapel.

One can imagine the 15 year old Eliza Cooper being asked to help in the Pitman household, at the time of the birth of Louisa and the baby’s early death may well have been a good reason for Eliza to name her own child, Louisa. However, this does not offer an explanation for the name changes for Eliza’s child, from plain Louisa, to then become Sarah Louisa, then plain Sarah.

If the child had been named after Louisa Pitman it would seem strange to abandon it because this child was Samuel Cooper’s younger sister’s child, his niece. This was also the grandfather, who cared for Sarah Louisa Cooper between 1846 and 1862. If Louisa was named after the young Pitman niece then surely Samuel would have kept and cherished the name. For the source of inspiration for the name, I think we need to look elsewhere.

This tale of deceit and intrigue was passed on to me by my cousin, Sari Browning, who has blood ties to all four families affected by the subterfuge: Cooper, Hancock, Browning and Wathen. She learnt snippets of the mystery from two ladies, one who certainly knew the answer but never disclosed it and another who thought she knew.

One of the major clues Sari had uncovered was a photograph of great grand mother, Sarah Louisa, with on the back the phrase ‘aka Hancock’. When I started this investigation, it was the only solid piece of evidence I had to prove there was anything of substance in Sari’s family myths.

Sari believed the ‘special’ missing name we were hunting was that of Lord Shaftesbury, one of the most famous politicians of the 19th century. Conversely, stories that passed through later generations of the Cooper and Wathen family tell of an illegitimate birth which involved a member of the Earl of Cork’s family and these rumours seemed to fit well with the birth of Sarah Louisa Cooper, in 1844. Either way, the rumours point to the father being of high status and in a situation to want to cover-up his indiscretion.

The quality of the evidence for the two competing miscreants is high, because on one side, the story, but not the name, was passed on by a lady who lived to 96 years of age and on the other side one who lived till ten days short of her 100th birthday. In fact all the protagonists lived to a ripe old age and although this story stretches back into the 1820s, we are only going back two or three generations.

There are several people still living, who have good memories of Sarah Louisa in her final years and they talk of a robust, dominant lady who still treated her boys as her babies, despite the fact they were all over fifty, and some already well into their sixties.

Both suggestions would be at the top end of the scandal stakes and one would have been of national significance, because in 1844, ‘Shaftesbury’ * was one of the most famous men in Britain.

*Lord Shaftesbury only gained the title on the death of his father in 1851, so prior to that he was known simply as Lord Ashley or sometimes just plain Anthony Ashley-Cooper. Interesting, that he was sharing the second part of his hyphenated family name with the Trudoxhill carpenters.

In the early 1840s, Shaftesbury was one of the most famous politicians of the period, particularly amongst the working classes, as his parliamentary bills were designed to improve the rights of men, and particularly, women and children, in factories, coal mines and in the school room.


Shaftesbury became so popular and his reputation so eulogised that when he died a statue was erected in his memory, with the money raised by public subscription. You might have heard of that memorial, one of the most famous tourist sights in the world and a great meeting place for long lost friends and travellers. His statue, ‘The Angel of Christian Charity’, more colloquially known as ‘Eros’ can be found in Piccadilly Circus in London.

Eros Piccadilly

Shaftesbury Memorial in London

This would be a sensational story if it were true, because not only was Shaftesbury a great politician he was also a very religious man, advocating a very moral, Christian approach to life. He was also devoted to his family, so an errant fling with a country girl looks extremely unlikely; well until we look, in a little more depth, at the source of the evidence and the man himself.

The chief advocate for Lord Shaftesbury’s involvement was Olive Browning, born in 1895 and the granddaughter of George and Sarah Louisa by their second son, Egbert. Olive became the family historian of her generation and lived until 1971. My cousin Sari met Olive on many occasions and said she was convinced that Lord Shaftesbury was the man. Olive had the advantage of being 39 years old when Sarah Louisa died and 74 years at the death of her mother, Sarah Wathen, so had been in an ideal position to elicit the truth.

Sarah Wathen is also an important figure because she complicates the family tree beyond reason. Sarah Louisa’s younger sister, Mary Ann, that genuine Hancock-Cooper child, married William Wathen and had a child, Sarah Wathen. She went to work as a ‘home help’ in the Browning/Cooper household in London and married their son, Egbert Browning. It shouldn’t have happened but it did and so left Olive and her ten siblings with the same grandparents on both sides of the family tree…!!

Olive ought to have known the answer, if anyone did, because she was both interested in the family history and was contemporary with the combatants. So, let’s test the evidence for Anthony Ashley-Cooper, aka Lord Ashley, aka the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury or even Lord Shaftesbury.

Anthony Ashley-Cooper was born in London in 1801, but the family seat for this aristocratic family was at Wimbourne St Giles, in Dorset, only some 20 miles south of Frome. The Ashley-Cooper name goes back to 1621 when Anthony Ashley-Cooper was born, the eldest son of Sir John Cooper (1598-1632), from Wimbourne St Giles, and Ann Ashley from nearby Rockbourne.

This Cooper family is said to descend from a line of nobleman, who signed the Magna Carta, however the Cooper name would have to be linked to a female line to gain that heritage. Having done plenty of research into our own Cooper family I found a Cooper ‘Eden’, a heartland, not too far away from Wimbourne St Giles, in villages north of Salisbury. The Coopers then spread out across Salisbury Plain into Somerset and also south into Hampshire and Dorset. All these Cooper lines may have had a common heritage in the medieval period, even if they weren’t joined together in 1844.

Lord Ashley remained stubbornly single until 1830, when he married Emily Cowper, another similar name that has the potential to confuse onlookers to this story. From then onwards he produced children and Acts of Parliament in equal measure.

However, before his marriage Ashley lived a less than righteous life and only a year or two earlier had become besotted by a ‘lady’ called Antoinette. He met her in Vienna and intended to make her his wife, despite his friends pointing out that her affections were sprinkled liberally around many others in the social set.

His character in his early years was very different to that of his post marriage persona and his biographer, G. A. Best, describes him having an unpredictable, unstable character, with extremes of opinion and temperament. This may have been due to his difficult upbringing, as his father treated him cruelly at home and sent him to a school, ‘Manor House’, which some later compared to Charles Dicken’s ‘Dotheboys Hall’. These unpleasant experiences had a positive effect later and led to his life’s mission, ‘to improve the lot of children and women in society’.

Shaftesbury openly admitted to having several personal defects, ‘all vices’, he said, which he claimed to have cured himself by turning to the church. He seemed to have been attracted to girls of easy virtue and so it wasn’t until the age of 29 did he find a suitable wife; one who was approved by friends and family.

Antoinette must have been mentioned frequently is his first diary as several relevant pages were later excised. She died in child birth, in 1829, and this may have settled his mind and allowed him to marry, because, even decades later, he mentions he still had fond memories of the exciting times he shared with her.

Shaftesbury’s diaries are kept amongst the larger, ‘Broadlands collection’, at the University of Southampton and I’d hoped they would help to clarify whether he could possibly have been involved with Eliza Cooper. Could they have been in the same place at the same time? After obtaining special permission to view the diaries first hand, the expectation was immense but no-where did the names Eliza, Marston or Bath jump out of the page, to reveal all.

Time, place and opportunity

Analysis of various pregnancy calculators gives a conception date  for Sarah Louisa Cooper of the last week of September 1843 and one was more specific suggesting that 29th September was the most likely date; when Eliza was aged 20.

First confinements usually go to full term, if mother and baby are healthy. That situation seems highly likely as both became strong individuals; Eliza living to 82 and had another nine children, enduring the foul conditions found in the industrial town of Blaenavon. Her baby, Sarah Louisa lived to 89 and had 13 children, living for over 30 years in one of the worst environments possible, in the Whitechapel area of East London.

So where was Lord Ashley in September 1843?

That summer, his wife, Emily, had a miscarriage and as part of her recuperation the family went to Switzerland and they didn’t return to England until early October. The Shaftesbury diaries provide only intermittent records, not daily accounts of his life, and they are blank for the exact period we need. However, this was a busy politician and known to have a butterfly temperament, with a whole variety of projects on the go at any one time and Ashley was rarely known to sit around and relax for long. Whether he returned to England at the end of September is unclear but if he had been on home soil, he would certainly have been without his wife, who was still recuperating in the fresh air of the Swiss Alps.

Where could he have met Eliza? How could the paths of this great politician and simple country girl have crossed?

There are two obvious places.

The first was in the city of Bath, close to Eliza’s home and a meeting place for the social set of the period. Many members of the aristocracy from London and across the South of England made Bath their playground. Their town houses needed servants and many of these came from the rural villages in the surrounding area. It doesn’t take too much imagination to see that if Eliza, working as a maid, had an occasion to meet Lord Ashley, then a ‘chat-up line’ mentioning they both shared ‘similar names’ would have been a good place to start.

The few photos we have of Cooper girls suggest that would be worth the attentions of an amorous young buck and aspects of my ‘Hancock story’ also suggests that were willing to share their affections, not always appropriately.

There were also a large number of houses in the Somerset countryside, owned by the landed gentry, some of whom were also Members of Parliament and these took part in the  seasonal whirlwind of party going. One such place was Babington House, near Kilmersdon, originally the home turf of the Hancock family, whilst on the doorstep to the Cooper homeland, at Trudoxhill, was the Earl of Cork’s residence, at Marston House. This was not too far from Wimbourne St Giles and so the opportunity for Lord Ashley to have been a guest at Marston can’t be ruled out, perhaps even a handy stopover on his way to Bath.

The Dunkerton Valley also possessed two houses of note, although not with the same pedigree. Camerton Court and Woodborough House were on the doorstep of the Cooper household and both would have needed extra staff for grand events, that were part of the social round of the county set.

1842-1844 was his busiest time as a politician, supporting changes in the Factory Acts, Mining regulations and the beginnings of his famous, ‘Ragged’ Schools. We know from present day politics that those in positions of power, busy making important international decisions, still found time to satisfy an increased libido, which powerful men seem to enjoy; and so none of this rules him out as a candidate.

Later generations of the Shaftesbury line continued to show their wayward side. Edwina Ashley, his great granddaughter, married Lord Mountbatten, and was known to have had an ‘open’ partnership, with any number of suggested lovers. In more recent times the trait has shown itself with the 10th Earl of Shaftesbury, who had a most eventful life and spectacular death.

The 10th Earl of Shaftesbury divorced his first wife, the Italian daughter of a Roman banker, previously married to a Hollywood film producer, after the Earl’s adultery, with an unnamed woman. This was all in his well behaved period…!!

His second wife produced two children, but after the Earl’s mother died, in 1999, and his seat in the House of Lords was removed by Tony Blair in the reformation of parliament, the depressed Earl upped and left the family seat, in Dorset, and headed for the South of France, leaving his elder son and wife in charge of his estate.

The 10th Earl then lived the life of a playboy, the 62 year old being known for his leather trousers, pink shirts and red and black sunglasses. He soon married a lady, a dancer, born in Paris, of North African descent. He titled her ‘Lady Shaftesbury’, bought her property, but still carried on his playboy lifestyle.

The Earl then met another woman and separated from his third wife, but shortly afterwards disappeared from his hotel in Nice and it was some months before his body was found in woods on the French Riviera. His third wife and her brother were eventually convicted for his murder.

10th Earl

10th Earl of Shaftesbury – murdered in 2005

Well, it seems to me that if Lord Ashley had met Eliza Cooper in late September 1843 then the genetic traits suggest he could have been the father of her child. However, I do believe if that was true and that the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury was the father, then the story would have got out long before now. It is only Olive that came up with his name and a much more plausible story comes independently from other branches of the family and ones that seem to have been unconnected for over a century.


There are three stories that substantiate this theory and all of a similar nature, each suggesting the father to be a member of the Earl of Cork’s family, although none specifies the aged Earl himself.

One story mentions that Eliza became pregnant by a member of the Cork family and went to stay with her uncle Ephraim’s family at Cooper’s Hill, near Birdlip, Gloucestershire. A similar story is that she had to marry a man from Cooper’s Hill because she became pregnant by one of the Earl’s family. These stories look to be Chinese whispers inter-twined as James Hancock lived on Dunkerton Hill and not at Cooper’s Hill.

The purveyor of the Cooper’s Hill story was Edith Morrisina Meeze, whose great grandfather was Ephraim Cooper, born 1796, the younger brother of  Samuel, Eliza’s father. In adult life, Ephraim called himself Cooper-Mees, adding his mother’s name and after time passed, with various spellings, the name became just ‘Meeze’.

Ephraim had moved to Gloucestershire by 1822, where he married and worked as a gardener. No-one knows why he used his mother’s name, but there doesn’t appear to have much continuing connection with the rest of the family, either in Trudoxhill or Dunkerton. This would suggest a triste in the family somewhere.

However, it was Edith Meeze, (1887-1987), who brought the story into the present day, and again because of the longevity of the messenger her story has plenty of credibility. Incidentally Edith was one of Britain’s first lady ‘aeroplanists’, learning to fly in 1910.

Meeze first flying lesson

Brave or crazy? Edith’s first flying lesson in 1910 – the lady lived to be 99 years old, missing her century by ten days.

The other mention of note is via the Wathen branch of the family. This was the family of Mary Ann Hancock, Sarah Louisa’s half sister, who married William Wathen, in 1869; well actually, descendents of William Wathen’s second wife, Emma Morgan, who had 13 children.

Their granddaughter, Mabel Bryant,  a very fit octogenarian, told me that there was a family story of a Cooper girl becoming pregnant by a member of the ‘Royal family’. The term might have several meanings in common parlance, but would seem to refer to the same event as portrayed by Edith Meeze. What worries me slightly is that the rumours might refer to two events and two different girls, but my instinct says this is one story line that has survived, slightly altered, for over 160 years.

Edith Morrisina Meeze            Mabel Bryant

Edith Meeze and Mabel Bryant

So, there does seem to be strong anecdotal evidence to point the finger in the direction of the Earl of Cork’s household and because of a remarkable stretching of the generations, due to late male marriages to much younger women and great longevity by all concerned, there are still people alive who remember well, meeting Sarah Louisa and others close to this story. This may be a distant story from 167 years ago, but remarkably, there is only a gap of one generation in the telling.

The evidence begins to mount further, when we realise that Louisa was a highly significant name in the Boyle household, the family name of the Earls of Cork.

Louisa Boyle, born in 1806, was the youngest daughter of the 8th Earl of Cork, Edmund Boyle, and she died of smallpox, in 1826, at the tender age of just 20. That was a calamatous period for the Boyles as eldest son, Edmund also died in 1826, and two other daughters, Lucy in 1827 and Isabella in 1829. Louisa was adored by her father and greatly loved by the rest of her family and a memorial to her and Lucy was erected in St John’s, Church, in Frome. Out of a family of nine only two of the boys lived to a decent age. The name Louisa seems to be the one that was remembered the most, reappearing in subsequent generations of the Boyle family and with greater frequency than her two older sisters.

The next piece of evidence is, perhaps surprisingly visual, as there are various 18th and 19th century paintings of the Boyle household, which enable comparison with photographs of Sarah Louisa and her descendents.

There seems an obvious similarity between a painting of Anne Courtney and the tinted photograph of Sarah Louisa, taken in 1887, and there are also similarities with a more recent generation that stem from Sarah Louisa herself.

Sarah Cooper  Anne Courtney - Copy Honor Browning 1944 - Copy

Sarah Louisa Cooper            Anne Courtney                 Honor Browning – granddaughter

7th Earl of Cork Owen Browning and family abt 1955

7th Earl of Cork                      Owen Browning –  Sarah’s grandson


The aristocratic Boyle family line, itself, has some interesting twists and duplications in the ancestral tree.

Edmund Boyle, 7th Earl of Cork (1742-1798) and first wife, Anne Courtenay had two sons; Edmund Boyle (8th Earl) (1767-1856) and Courtney Boyle (1770-1844). The two boys kept the family tree well entwined, by marrying a pair of Poyntz sisters, who also just happened to be their first cousins.

The Poyntz girls’ mother was Isabella Courtney, sister of the Boyle boys’ mother, Anne Courtney. The Poyntz and Courtenay families both have illustrious pedigrees that can be traced back to the ‘Conqueror’ line and 1066 and so these were the type of incestuous marriages for which the aristocracy has become notorious.

Carolina Poyntz Courtenay Boyle

Carolina Poyntz who married Courtney Boyle

Both partnerships were actively discouraged by the Boyle family, especially by the boys’ father, Edmund (1742). Edmund junior defied his father’s wishes and married Anne, but Courtenay waited till his father died before he bagged his own Pointz sister.

The boys’ father, 7th Earl, had a history of womanising and his roaming was no secret to the locals, as he fathered several children via workers on the estate, so there were already plenty of half-Boyled children in Marston and Trudoxhill. All the candidates listed below stem from the 7th Earl of Cork, ensuring, that despite the uncertainty of what is to follow, he has a fixed place on the Browning ancestral roll.

Twelve Green Bottles

There are twelve members of the 7th Earl of Cork’s family in this mystery, and each of them would make a worthwhile character in any Agatha Christie mystery. They range in age from 13 to 76 and include vicars, schoolboys, admirals, colonels, MPs and of course the 8th Earl himself.

Originally, it was like swimming through treacle, trying to rate one of the candidates over the other, but as all the pieces came together, one name has evolved to be an odds-on favourite, although still not a total certainty.

I have rated them on a ‘star’ basis, as to the likelihood of them being the missing father. Five stars being the highest, but most gain at least one star. Michael McGarvie, the Earl of Cork historian and Marston House archivist, whose research into the Boyles goes back over 30 years, has also shared his thoughts on the matter and so, I hope, gives an added credibility to my conclusions.

Michael McGarvie and Hugh Browning, Marston 2008

Michael McGarvie and Hugh Browning (my father) at Marston House 2008

Edmund Boyle (8th Earl of Cork)  1767-1856   **

Son of Edmund Boyle, the 7th Earl. Age in 1843 – 76 years

Edmund, the 8th Earl of Cork, was the senior member of the family in 1843 and occupied the family seat at Marston House. There were other also other homes owned by the Boyle family, scattered all over the place, with several in Southern Ireland and also in London.

Edmund was extremely active in extending and updating both the main Marston House and other buildings on the estate. The big project for 1843-44 was to build a new chancel, as an extension to the Marston parish church, which stood close to the main driveway to the house.

Edmund’s wife, Isabella Poyntz, Countess of Cork, died on 29 Nov 1943, just a few weeks after Eliza Cooper became pregnant. I believe the Countess had a prolonged illness before her death, aged 67.

Edmund 8th Earl of Cork

Edmund Boyle, 8th Earl of Cork

Like most of the male Boyles, Edmund had a colourful youth, but he seems to have been loyal to his wife from the time of his marriage. Edmund would seem an unlikely errant partner for Eliza, because of his age and family circumstances. However, an indiscretion on his part at this time would give plenty of reason to cover up his involvement. After the death of his wife, the 8th Earl then spent most of his last ten years in his London home and left Marston House to decay, with only a skeleton staff left behind.

John Boyle  1803-1874         *

Eldest surviving son of Edmund, 8th Earl. Age in 1843 – 40 years

John lived in a family home, in Cork, after his marriage in 1835, but by 1840 he had moved to Brighton, where his first three children were born, with the fourth, born in Tunbridge Wells, in 1845. He did not inherit the title because this had passed to the children of his elder brother, Charles Boyle. Like all the others, he could have been visiting his sick mother, in September 1843.

Charles Boyle  1800-1834

The 8th Earl’s eldest son, Charles Boyle, died in 1834, so he plays no direct role in this ‘whodunnit’, but he had three sons who were all of school age in 1843.

Richard Cavendish Boyle – born 19 Mar 1829

Son of Charles Boyle. Age in 1843 – 14 years

He attended Eton College from 1842-1846 and was probably at school in late Sept 1843.

William George Boyle – born 12 Aug 1830

Son of Charles Boyle. Age in 1843 – 13

Started at Eton at about this time and so probably away at school.

Edmund John Boyle  –  born 25 Nov 1831

Son of Charles Boyle. Age in 1843 – nearly 12 years

Richard and William seem too young to father a child with a 20 year old servant girl, but although unlikely it is a remote possibility. The boys did have a younger sister called Louisa, born 1832.

Robert Boyle 1809-1854 ***

Son of 8th Earl, Edmund Boyle. Age in 1843 – 34 years

Robert was married on 23rd October 1844 and so the birth of a ‘wayward’ child only a few months earlier would have been a great embarrassment to him and could have caused the cancellation of his wedding plans.

In the 1841 and 1851 censuses, Robert was recorded as a serving military officer, based in London. In 1841, he was living in Hamilton Place which was a prestigious address, near Hyde Park Corner. Robert was probably in the officer’s quarters or in a gentleman’s club as the roll of names on the census looks like a hotel list. This is the same street, Hamilton Place, that his father retired to after leaving Marston, in 1846, but as the building no longer exists it is difficult to tell whether the two addresses were connected.

By 1851, Robert was living with his wife’s household, near Berkeley Square. He was appointed a Page of Honour to Queen Victoria in 1846 and a year later was elected MP for Frome, a position he retained till his death in 1854.

He was a Colonel in the Coldstream Guards, but died from sickness, in the port of Varna, on the Black Sea, just a few days prior to the commencement of hostilities in the Crimea War.

Michael McGarvie, thinks Robert would be a good candidate for a ‘one off’ affair and his imminent marriage would have meant any knowledge of an errant child would have been disastrous. He was the elder brother of the tragic Louisa, and like the rest of the family would have felt the loss greatly. However, there is no specific evidence that points in his direction and it would seem unlikely he had the time or resources to organise the clerical cover-up.

Richard Cavendish Boyle  1812-1886  * *

Son of Edmund Boyle, 8th Earl.  Age in 1843 – 31 years

Richard was a religious and caring man, who became Rector of Marston and lived his whole life in the parish. I have read nothing but good words to describe his character and in 1843 he was already in post and living in the Marston Rectory.

He married on the 23rd Sept 1845, so was still single in 1843, but any indiscretion by the local clergyman would have been extremely difficult to explain. He and his wife worked hard for their parishioners and they were well liked and if he had been the father it is unlikely he would have been given such a good reception by his flock. Michael McGarvie thinks he is the most unlikely of the candidates, but he gets two stars anyway… being in the right place at the right time..!

Courtenay Boyle  1770-1844               ***

Son of  Edmund, the 7th Earl of Cork & brother of 8th Earl. Age in 1843 – 73 years

Courtenay died on 21 May 1844, just a month before the birth of Sarah Louisa on 22 June 1844.

In 1843, Courtney was living with his family at Millards Hill House, on the south side of Trudoxhill. They had taken over the unpretentious house in 1840 and he lived there till his death in 1844. The family continued to occupy the house for a number of years and in 1851 the census shows an assortment of Boyles in residence, with one of the staff being a Cooper girl from the village.

Anyone with his father’s genes would be capable of taking advantage of a young servant girl and so Courtney cannot be ruled out. Again the timing of the birth of Sarah Louisa in June 1844, just after his death, would make any hint of an affair extremely embarrassing for all concerned. His age might be against him, but such a liason would make a cover-up highly desirable.

Courtenay Edmund Boyle  1800-1859 *

Son of Courtenay Boyle. Age in 1843 – 43 years

Courtenay junior became a Rear Admiral in the Royal Navy, married in 1836, but had only one child, born in 1851 and the infant died soon after the birth. Little more is known about him, but he does seem to have lived the strict life of a naval officer and later worked in the Admiralty in London. He could have been visiting his mother in September 1843 but he is a rank outsider in the fatherhood stakes.

Cavendish Spencer Boyle  1814-1868               ***

Son of Courtenay Boyle. Age in 1843 – 29 years

Cavendish was probably engaged at time of the birth of little Louisa in June 1844, but almost certainly single at her conception, in September 1843, because he married in Frome, on 19th December 1844. He seems to have spent his time in England, living in London but surely would have visited parents at Millard Hill from time to time and probably to visit his dying grandmother in September 1843.

Cavendish was a military man, living in St Marylebone, London, in the 1841 census and after returning from the West Indies, lived with his uncle, 8th Earl Cork, in Hamilton Place, close to Hyde Park, in 1851. In the same census his family were amongst the ensemble living at Millards Hill, with their grandmother.

He lived in Jamaica after his marriage and had a daughter with a middle name, Louisa. Courtenay was another of those that escaped the scene very quickly and where the timings would have been extremely difficult and with good reason to instigate a cover-up.

Charles John Boyle  1806-1885    *****

Son of Courtenay Boyle. Age in 1843 – 37 years

Charles was originally an outsider as a candidate and until I delved deeper, a most anonymous member of the Boyle family. However, I have become increasingly drawn to him because of age and opportunity and particularly the names of his own children and those of Sarah Louisa’s family. There are also a series of bizarre coincidences that point towards him rather than contradict, and again there is some intriguing photographic evidence to support his candidature.

He was the same age as his cousin, the ill fated Louisa, and they may well have shared the Marston House nursery in childhood, so the shock of her death would have hit him as much as anyone. Charles was recorded living with his cousin, Richard, at the Marston Rectory, in the 1841 census, and didn’t marry till 1849, when he wed the Italian, Zacyntha Moore and quickly headed off for Cape Town, in South Africa.

Marston Rectory - architect sketch

Architect sketch 0f Marston Rectory – the finished buildings enhanced the servants quarters at the rear.

Records in the various censuses give some indication of Charles’ travel pedigree, because of the birth places of his children, but in 1861 and 1871 he was recorded living in England as a member of the landed gentry and nothing more to explain his other roles in life. That is where the detective work began and led to unexpected places.

Charles Boyle attended Charterhouse School, in Surrey, just like a number of other Boyles, and in 1822 won the ‘Gold Medal’ for an oral rendition of classical verse, a rare distinction. In 1827, Charles became a fellow at All Souls, Oxford, a ‘graduate only’ college, regarded as being the haunt of the cleverest individuals and would go some way to explain how he was later to become a senior member of the foreign diplomatic service.

Soon after his marriage, in 1849, Charles was appointed Clerk of the Legislative Council in the Cape Colony, South Africa, and after returning briefly to England, became Chief Commissioner on Mauritius, charged with building a new railway on the isolated island, in the Indian Ocean.


Mauritius railway – engraving from 1867

Charles held his position on Mauritius, from 1856-65, but he brought his wife and children back to England in 1860-61, so they could receive a better education. In the 1861 census, Charles and the family were found, residing, as guests, at the home of a clergyman in East Brent, near Burnham on Sea, in Somerset.

Now, perhaps you should sit up a little because that means Charles Boyle was on Mauritius at the same time as George Browning the FUTURE husband of Sarah Louisa Cooper. George arrived as a soldier on the Indian Ocean island, in November 1847 and left on 22nd May 1857. They both resided there at the same time, for at least six months and probably around a year.


The northern and midland lines were built before Charles Boyle left for home

To build a railway on Mauritius, from scratch, much surveying and preparation work needed to be done and this was in the hands of the Army engineers, the sappers. The labouring work was increasingly done, not by the soldiers or the native population, but by the influx of Indian and Chinese. The workers would have been supervised by the regular soldiers, working under the direction of the Army sappers. Charles Boyle and his support team would also have needed a small squad to offer protection and to escort them around the island.

We also know that from the middle of 1856, George Browning’s 5th  Northumberland Fusiliers were given increased responsibility for ‘soldiering’ on the island, as the 85th Regiment had moved on to another posting, without being relieved, as was normal practice and the majority of the 5th Fusiliers were recalled from the various outposts, to headquarters, at Port Louis, in May 1856, to cover the short fall.

Now that raises an obvious and rather intriguing question. Could the two men have met on Mauritius and might they have known each other previously, back in Somerset?

George’s parents were married in Nunney and his mother was from Trudoxhill. Their first child was born on the Marston Estate, at Tytherington, before they moved to Frome, where George was born in 1830. George’s father and mother were of similar age to Charles and so there might be a contact there from earlier days and so in this tight little rural community, there is certainly a possible connection.

However, there was an obvious difference in social position, which might stand in the way, but what is obvious is that George would certainly have known the name Charles Boyle when he arrived to take up the ‘Commissioner’ post, in 1856.

George Browning mentions in his own records that he was promoted to acting Lance Corporal in September 1856, but this was never formalised in the records and he went into the Indian Mutiny, a year later, as officially still a Private, a rank he had held since he joined up, nearly ten years earlier.We could imagine George volunteering to be in any personal bodyguard for Charles’ surveying team, or perhaps George came across him in the early work on the railway project. Perhaps he was given a role with Charles  Boyle and perhaps that was why he had this temporary role as Lance Corporal.

Michael McGarvie suggests the relationship between the Boyles and the local population was amiable, with both being respectful of the other. Obviously the 7th Earl had been more amiable than most, but generally both sides of the social spectrum got on harmoniously together. That wasn’t the norm on every landed estate where frequently the lord of the manor was seen as a figure of loathing, feared by the local peasants. The larger than planned, servants quarters for the Marston Rectory are indicative of a more liberal approach to the local people.

Of course, George and Charles might never have met and been simply ‘ships that passed in the night’. However, even if they did meet, how does this connect to a marriage some six years later, to someone I believe was Charles’ illegitimate daughter?

Charles and his family did return to England, in late 1860, where their last child was born, with Charles remaining until at least April 1861. It would seem unlikely he was a matchmaker, but did he have enough influence to cause George rise through the ranks from Private to Colour Sergeant in just over two years?

Was their sojourn together on Mauritius just an amazing coincidence that had no relevance later?

I do find that difficult to believe…!!


The first section of the railway didn’t open until 1864, and it was a year later, in 1865, when Charles finally returned to England. He wasn’t a well man after that and his daughter, Audrey, is known to have nursed her father at the family home, in Hawkhurst, Kent, for the final years of his life.

However, the source of this detailed information about Charles Boyle is most interesting and gives added weight to the argument that I have, indeed, found the right man. Whilst Charles led a fairly anonymous life, as a landed gent and later a senior administrator, his daughter, Audrey, was a little more flamboyant in her path through life, because just prior to her father’s death, she married Hallam Tennyson, the son of poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson.

The Boyle family already had a variety of notable connections to the literary world. Richard Boyle’s wife was a noted author of children’s stories and Mary Louisa Boyle, Charles’ sister, was a writer and actress and great admirer of Charles Dickens. The great author is known to have reciprocated her friendship and they corresponded frequently. Mary Boyle is reputed to have sent Dickens a fresh flower for his button hole every day during the time of their friendship.

Charles Dickens Mary Boyle

Charles Dickens to Mary Boyle

Hallam Tennyson went on to become the second, Governor-general of Australia, in 1903-04, after previously holding the same post in  the state of South Australia, from 1899-1902. These appointments may well have been connected to Lord Tennyson and Audrey being ‘good friends’ of Queen Victoria, who they visited frequently, and letters between Audrey and Victoria still survive. The connection may have begun because both the Tennyson family and the Queen had family homes on the Isle of Wight, and of course, Alfred Lord Tennyson was the poet laureate at one time and a great favourite of Victoria.

Farringford-LordTennyson's residence

‘Farringford’ – Tennyson’s Isle of Wight home

During this brief period in Australia, Audrey wrote frequently to her mother, back in England, and these letters were later published. Her mother never wanted the couple to take up the appointment, fearing the country was still inhabited solely by ‘savages’ and the ‘sons and daughters of convicts’, whose parents had been transported from England for their crimes. Audrey Tennyson is a well known figure in Australian history and her story is well documented, including a portfolio of photographs.

The couple also had a famous son, Lionel Tennyson, who became a cricketer of some note. He played nine test matches and was captain of England three times and was one of Wisden’s Cricketers of the year in 1914. Lionel later captained Hampshire for over ten years.

Lionel Tennyson

Lionel Tennyson

If my assumptions are correct then Sarah Louisa and Audrey are half-sisters and if we are lucky they might both have a few Boyle genes showing up in their features. I have earlier shown there is a striking likeness between Sarah Louisa and her ‘grandmother’, Anne Courtney, so there would be a good chance that similarities would show up in Audrey as well.

See what you think?

The photos of the two ‘sisters’ were taken at about the same age, Sarah Louisa 39, and Audrey early 40s. Hairstyle, ears, nose, lips and chin all seem to be remarkably similar, certainly not dissimilar.

Audrey Tennyson 2   Sarah Cooper  Audrey Tennyson

Audrey left and right with Sarah Louisa in centre

I do believe that both the Mauritius connection and the facial similarities, add weight to the idea I have snared the correct Boyle. I would like to see a photo of Audrey when she was a little older, although she died in 1916 and so didn’t reach the grand age of her ‘half-sister’.

Charles Boyle was obviously a very competent administrator, the sort of man who could easily have made sure the 1844 paper work for his errant daughter was processed in the most advantageous way for everyone. However, although I can’t see the connection, it does defy credibility that both the most significant men in Sarah Louisa’s life should be in Mauritius at the same time. If Charles was such a methodical man then perhaps in some way he put George Browning and his daughter together and possibly had an influence on George moving from Private, in 1858, to Colour-sergeant in 1861.

Charles was recorded at Marston Rectory in 1841, and described as of ‘independent’ means. Whether he was there as a visitor or living there permanently is not clear, but with the rest of his family already living at Millards Hill this suggests he was perhaps sharing with bachelor boy, Richard Boyle, and had another home elsewhere, probably in London. We know the rectory needed staff, so did that provide a Cooper connection, indeed did Eliza work as a servant there.

Of all the possible relationships between Eliza and the twelve Boyles, this one might have had more substance to it, than a quick romp in the hay. Perhaps also, Eliza thought she might become Mrs Boyle, an unlikely scenario, but the aristocratic world has been littered with third and fourth sons running off with pretty servant girls, half their age. The cover-up would then be compensation for Charles not doing the right thing, whilst Eliza’s decision to leave the child behind, would be her retaliation.

It would also offer a little more substance to the idea that Charles did act as a matchmaker for ‘his’ child  – the one that Eliza had abandoned. Could this also be the source of the ‘money in chancery’ story, although there is no evidence that Sarah Louisa ever lived other than on basic means. The longer I study this conundrum, the more I believe there was something between the couple.

Name game

None of Sarah Louisa Browning’s seven sons, (fourteen chances in all), was named Charles, which is extremely odd because it was the name of George’s closest brother, born in 1833. When George and Sarah later moved to London, Charles Browning was living nearby and both brothers ended up in the same occupation, as Building Supervisors, in innovative social housing schemes.

Charles was also an important Browning name back in Frome, in the 18th and 19th century, and was probably the most common name found amongst the Browning clan during that period.

Charles Boyle was liberal with the use of his own name, using it three times as a second name for his boys, but never as a first. Normally the first child took the father’s name, so this is also an unusual occurance.

In contrast, Sarah’s eldest boy had a middle name Louis (which later became Lewis), and a later child called Ernest, neither of which were traditional Browning or Cooper names. I have always thought it likely that Louis came from Port Louis in Mauritius, which then became anglicised to Lewis.

Lewis was also the middle name of one of Charles Boyle’s children, named in 1859 and Sarah Louisa Browning’s, Louis in 1863.

Charles Boyle used Ernest for his last child, in 1860, but Sarah didn’t use the name until the birth of her fourth boy, ‘Ernest William’, in 1872. So, between the two families there were thirteen boys, with none having a first name, Charles, but each having a Lewis/Louis and an Ernest.

Perhaps, even more significantly, neither of Charles Boyle’s two daughters was named Louisa. Charles had a sister with Louisa as a middle name and other family members had reused the name after the girl’s death. It was house-mate, Richard Boyle, the rector, who commissioned Louisa’a memorial in the church, but Charles refrained from using the name.

Sarah Browning, despite having six girls, using eleven different names, never used Louisa either. This is odd in the extreme, as Sarah Louisa seemed to treasure her name.

In Sherlock Holmes parlance – is this a case of ‘the dog that didn’t bark’.

Of all my candidates, Charles Boyle has the least reason to cover up the affair but also the one most likely to have had a longer relationship with Eliza. He would also have been in a position to help and advise on how to ‘legitimise’ the birth because he was still living in the area and wasn’t encumbered with a potential new wife.

Did his influence continue to Mauritius and then to the period in 1560-61, when he had returned to England before completing his railway duties in 1865. He seems to have been at the right place at the right time on more than one occasion. Was Charles Boyle the matchmaker in putting the two together?

It is also remarkable that five of the prime candidates in the Boyle family had a significant event in their life in the period under investigation, from late 1843-45. One died, one became a widower, and three became engaged and married. That ought to put them all in the starting traps, but for me Charles is a better candidate.

Eliza’s family were living in Peasedown during this period but where she was is far from certain between 1841 and 1844, because travel between the two places was commonplace as it was on the main road between Frome and Bath. The fact she married in Nunney church showed she still had a strong allegiance to her home area and seemed unafraid of potential talk or a local scandal. The couple could easily have run off to another parish to make their vows.

The ‘arranged’ marriage with James Hancock and the clever way in which the paperwork was manipulated seems beyond the capabilities of a family that was functionally illiterate. Eliza and her father, Samuel always signed certificates with a cross, even in their later years, although there were occasional bursts of literacy in the extended family of Coopers, Hancocks and the Brownings. Again Charles Boyle provides all those essential beaurocratic skills that would test most of us, even today.

Once in a ‘blue’ Moon

The one subject that I havn’t yet pursued with much vigour is where did the romantic deed take place? Where was Eliza likely to have conjugated with her aristocrat? If we could work out where she was on that day, this would make things clearer. Again, there are a few clues that might help.

The first one is that her older sister, Harriet, got married in Nunney church on 6th August 1843, nearly two months before the conception. Witnesses were her brother George and Jane Cooper, who was probably the wife of James Cooper, the estate carpenter at Marston. Jane may have been her younger sister, although she had only just reached her fourteenth birthday, but as there is no age limit on being a witness, then this also possible.

No doubt this was a major gathering of the Cooper clans from both the Dunkerton Valley and those around Nunney and Trudoxhill. The church records show that weddings were not common because of the small population, so this would have been a celebratory event for the whole community.

Just three days later, on 9th August 1843, a major, cataclysmic event hit the southern half of England. The most destructive hail storm in English recorded history, carved a ten mile wide path from Norfolk to Gloucestershire, destroying crops and the roofs of thousands of buildings in its path. Whilst Somerset didn’t take a direct hit, the extreme weather associated with this ‘supercell’ phenomenon may have caused heavy rainfall in areas close to the main storm.

Whether Marston was hit directly or not, the knock-on effect to agriculture would have meant harvesting the crops that year took on major importance as food was likely to be short and prices would have been at a premium.

Harriet’s wedding coincided with the start of the harvest period, when spring sown wheat was ready to be gathered; usually from mid August till the end of September and may have played a part in the timing of the marriage, as it brought everyone together.

Harvest time is the most important event of the summer, indeed the farming year, as the wheat crop provided bread for the following twelve months. The labour intensive work needed all available hands, as in 1843 this was still a manual process and it was the one time when the community came together, with a single objective. Each morning the church bells were rung and on the last day a ceremonial cart was decorated and a corn dolly made from the last sheaf of wheat.

corn dolly

The corn dolly then took pride of place at the celebration feast that was held in the home of the farmer or landowner. In the case of large estates this was hosted by the ‘Lord of the Manor’ and so ‘mine host’ was the Earl of Cork and the venue, Marston House.

In a normal harvest year the final sheaf of corn would have been gathered by the middle to end of September and the feast often coincided with the ‘harvest moon’, the nearest full moon to the autumnal equinox.

This was a local celebration and not a formal one, like those commonly held for aristocratic guests, but it would guarantee that the Boyle family and the villagers would all be there together. Add a little strong cider or some barley wine and perhaps we should look no further for the time and place of Eliza’s role in the hay.

In 1843, the full moon was late in the month, on 30th September, a Saturday night. This was also the second full moon of the month, making it a ‘blue moon’, a rare event.  The 29th of September is a date favoured by one of the pregnancy calculators I consulted. ‘Blue’ moon and ‘harvest’ moon combined made for something doubly special that night..!


Harvest Moon – close to the autumn equinox

If this was the event where Sarah Louisa was conceived then it would probably rule out the Earl of Shaftesbury, but definitely rule in the members of the Cork family, who lived on the estate, which does seem to put the ball firmly in Charles Boyle’s court.

That mention again of the Shaftesbury name does offer one more chance to put his case. There are photos of the Earl and his kin, which so far I haven’t shown the reader. There are also other photos of relevant Browning descendents of George and Sarah Louisa and none totally rule out Olive’s champion.


Anthony Ashley-Cooper had quite pronounced features and these are exemplified by the cartoonists of the period. However, later generations show much softer features and cast doubt about whether he should be discarded completely from the discussion. The reader’s judgement is as good as mine in this matter and may cast a fresh eye and fresh thoughts on the subject. The 7th Earl’s grandson, Wilfred William Ashley, certainly has a similar look to that of my grandfather, Arthur Browning, but then much can be put down to the fashion of the day.

Annie, Barbara and Arthur Browning (2) - Copy             NPG x45443; Wilfrid William Ashley, 1st Baron Mount Temple by Henry Walter ('H. Walter') Barnett

   Arthur James Browning                 Wilfred William Ashley

Any similarities between all three families, Boyles, Ashley-Coopers and the Cooper/Brownings could also be, because the two aristocratic clans were already inter-related and when you dig deep enough, the noble pot pourri is extremely well mixed.

The Boyle blood line goes back through the Cecil family and then to Ferdinando Stanley, probably poisoned before he could succeed Elizabeth I. The Stanley family, prior to that, link back to the Tudors via Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, who was the second husband of Mary Tudor, sister of Henry VIII.

The Ashley-Cooper line also joins with the Cecil clan, a couple of generations earlier than the Boyles, and they then take the same route back into the Royal mists of time. Both Boyles and Ashley-Coopers also link to the Spencer family of Althorp House in Northamptonshire. Yes, that is the family of Diana Spencer, which would make Sarah Louisa’s offspring part of that blood-line, whether you choose Cork or Shaftesbury, as Eliza’s suitor.

The links here take two different paths back through the family ancestors. One is through the Poyntz line, showing the inter-marriage of the two sisters to the two brothers. In fact if I had taken it back further there is a link via the girls mother to the Montagu family, the Beaulieu motor museum people, and if you take them back returns to the same familiar faces of Tudor aristocracy. It is also the Poyntz line that connects to the Spencer family, as the sistter of the girls’ father, William Poyntz married John Spencer, so providing a ‘sixth cousin’ link to the current Duke of Cambridge.

Poyntz-Boyle legacy

The second genealogy leads back through the ranks of the Boyle clan itself and also links to many of the great families in aristocratic England and shows up an earlier Boyle/Montagu link.

The pedigree of John Boyle (1707-62) is typical of the family, as his mother was Elizabeth Cecil, a line that joins to that of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, and far more interestingly to the Stanley family and that of Lady Jane Grey, who were the ‘alternative’ Royal family, the one proscribed in the will of Henry VIII. More of the Cecils and the Stanleys can be read about in my ‘Shakespeare Re-invented’ saga.

Boyle family tree

That also brings a smile to the face of many when I claim to be the sixth cousin of the heir to the throne. That might give the Browning family only a lower to middling chance of eventually succeeding as king or queen of England, but it does offer a little hope in these days of depression and austerity.

Another intriguing piece of evidence that some judges might rule is inadmissable, because it doesn’t have anything directly to do with the events of September 1843. However, I think it adds weight to the argument that it was a ‘Boyle that dunit’.

The father of our ‘aeroplanist’ who lived to 99, described himself in the 1911 census, as a ‘technologist’, but prior to that, had been a village schoolmaster, who, in the 1880’s, published a text book about ‘Applied Geometry’, which is still available today.

In 1887, he took his expertise to a new level, when he registered a patent, in the United States of America, for a heat exchange pump, a system to regulate the temperature of fluids. This ordinary Englishmen invented and patented a refrigerator, in 1887..!!

This seems quite extraordinary, because the inventor, Arthur George Meeze, was the son of a Gloucestershire publican, who was in turn, from a line of carpenters. That is where my own family line joins in, with Ephraim Cooper-Mees, a long way before the Coopers and Boyles might have become entwined in a haystack. Arthur Meeze’s maternal side were a family of gardeners, so no obvious mathematical or technological credentials there, although probably some practical ones.

However, schoolmaster is not a great leap forward from publican and people do have inate skills that might suddenly flower – but a heat exchange pump patented in the USA..!!

Click to see more about the Meeze heat pump: Meeze refrigerator

Those of you that spent time at school studying chemistry will probably be aware of Boyle’s Law. The man who, in 1662, discovered a law of thermal dynamics was the great chemist and physicist, Robert Boyle and he made a greater contribution than most in kick starting the modern scientific age. Robert Boyle was one of several eminent ancestors of the Marston House family.

Arthur Meeze 1915

Arthur George Meeze 1915

The Meeze ‘refrigerator’ certainly paid homage in its conception to Boyle’s Law and Arthur would have been well aware of the nobleman’s indiscretion with his first cousin, as it was his family who became the source of the ongoing rumours. If one of the stories is to be believed, Eliza might have spent time in Arthur’s grandparents home, during her pregnancy.

My suggestion is that Arthur’s curiosity, as a schoolteacher of mathematics, may have sparked him to explore the Boyle family further and after learning about the eminent ancestor, this might well have stimulated him to develop a new career as a ‘technologist’. It certainly offers a plausible explanation for Arthur’s amazing leap into the world of scientific discovery.

‘I don’t believe it’

As I have found out on numerous occasions, the best way to uncover something new is to publish what you believe is a ‘near complete’ version of the facts. Placing the family stories on the internet has proved that premise to be accurate, as suddenly a wealth of new and significant discoveries have come to light and two have particular relevance to this ‘whodunnit’, one of which caused me to shout out – ‘I don’t believe it’, in true Victor Meldrew style.

The first discovery proves the old adage, if you are trying to uncover any kind of conspiracy you need to follow the money. We had looked for sudden bursts of profligacy in the Cooper, Hancock or Browning families, but although those surrounding Sarah Louisa and her mother never ended up in a Victorian workhouse, they always seemed to be living close to the breadline. If there was money in chancery, then it was only a small sum that landed in Sarah Louisa’s purse.

Then, there it was, whilst looking for something entirely different, was the answer we had been hunting for these past eight years.

In the 1846 register of votes, Samuel Cooper appeared on the list for Dunkerton parish, at a time when only a very limited number of people were entitled to vote. Samuel’s entitlement was because he owned ‘freehold land in Peasedown and Carlingcote’. despite there being a number of other Coopers and their kin in the area, he was the only one to have such a title.

This was a man who was a simple carpenter by trade and had been on the move since he had left Nunney in the 1820s. In fact even earlier he had lived across the county border in Warminster, and after he moved to Radstock and then Dunkerton he is recorded in at least three different places. His wife, Ann, was from Lamyatt, a tiny hamlet, situated west of Nunney, and on her baptism record her father is described as a ‘pauper’, so no inheritance coming from that direction.

In the 1841 census the couple were definitely living at Lower Peasedown Cottages, but by 1851 they had moved to somewhere nearby, given the location as ‘Upper Peasedown’ but with no specific address on any record.

This must be his new ‘freehold’ property mentioned in the 1846 voter list. Only Samuel, Ann and their grandaughter, Sarah Louisa were living there in 1851, and they were still there in 1861. By 1870 we know Sarah Louisa was married, but by then the elderly couple had both died.

Samuel left a will, which was unusual for the Cooper clan, although that hasn’t yet been found, his estate was less than £200. The majority of the Somerset wills were destroyed in 1942, by the German bombing of Exeter. The records of Somerset, Devon and Cornwall had been stored there for safe-keeping..!!


So, what was this windfall and how big was it. Well, the 1846 record says ‘house and land’ and mentions two locations, although this could be the field next door.

Living next door to Samuel in 1851 and 1861 were the Mitchells, the family of his daughter Harriet, who had married in August 1843 and perhaps began this chain of events. The baptism records of their children suggest they moved there in 1848 but the family remained in that house for the remainder of the century. Harriet was still there in the 1901, alone and receiving ‘parish relief’

Samuel’s brother, Uriah, also remained close by, as did the Cottle family, as Samuel’s youngest daughter, Jane, had married Charles Cottle. In the 1871 census, they seem to have occupied her parents home after they had died and were still there next door to Harriet, in 1901, Charles is described as a ‘retired coalminer’

What seems to have happened in 1845 was that Samuel was given the freehold to at least one property and some land and that those close to the secret, Uriah, the Mitchells and the Cottles eventually shared in the benefits of that windfall. It meant that Sarah Louisa had a safe secure place to live in her early years, which was the whole purpose of the exercise.

With Uriah being a stonemason, Samuel a carpenter and William Mitchell in the brick business, then it seems highly probably that they built themselves other properties on the land Samuel had acquired.

Careful study of all the census records  – from 1841 to 1911 – hasn’t definitively pin-pointed the location of the ‘freehold’ property but my suggestion is that it was only a few yards from the Lower Peasedown terrace.

Church Road map - Copy

The houses still exist and the age of the properties in the photo below suggests that these, indeed may be ones where the Cooper family lived.

Church Road Peasedown

The timings of these events suggest that either James and Eliza Hancock left Peasedown and headed off for South Wales, as soon as Mary-Ann was born at Christmas 1845, or that their departure wasn’t till 1848, which paved the way for the Mitchell family to take their home. The story isn’t complete but has moved forward remarkably in only a few days.

One ‘coincidence’ has arisen because by the time of the 1911 census there is no sign of the Cooper extended family, but one name that is in the thick of where they lived is Maggs, quite probably the family of Millie Maggs, the local historian. Could it be she lived in the Cooper home?

Sarah Louisa’s husband died in 1904 and she was cast out of their tied house to find her own accommodation. She found a home in Lloyd Road, Walthamstow, a substantial terraced house, close to Blackhorse Road Tube station, where she lived for the last 30 years of her life. The house is about half way along the street and has one significant difference to the others, having a ‘turret’ above one of the front bedrooms. Was the property in Dunkerton finally sold and the proceeds passed to her? Was there just enough money somewhere to ensure she lived a comfortable retirement?

That isn’t my ‘I dont believe it moment’  – but the second revelation certainly is – and takes us into a rather surreal world – where it would seem to be impossible to make it up.

Michael McGarvie’s masterpiece, ‘The Book of Marston Bigot’ became part of my collection soon after I discovered the possible intertwining of the Boyles with the Coopers. It is a very detailed book and is written as an interested observer and certainly doesn’t take the side of the Earl of Cork’s family, or paper over their shortcomings or indiscretions.

He describes the  seventh Earl of Cork as the ‘Black Sheep’ of the family and if I am correct about our parentage then we all have a little Edmund Boyle inside of us. His life was only 56 years (1742-1798), but he packed in enough pleasure for  for someone twice that age.

Edmund inherited the title of Earl of Cork, after the death of his half-brother, Hamilton Boyle, then after marrying Anne Courtenay when he was only 19 he ‘rapidly developed into a spendthrift and a womaniser’. I quote Michael’s words here and later also, so as not to let you think I have added extra drama to what is already a dramatic enough tale.

He enjoyed the Court society in London and the ladies he encounterd but he was also brazen at home – ‘around Marston he played fast and loose with the women, and fathered several children with the wife of Robert Ashby’ …..  ‘This was all known locally’.

That is the background to the man, but now we come to the pertinent part, which pulls together the most unlikely parts of Sarah Louisa’s story.

Edmund joined the army and became Colonel of the Somerset Regiment of Militia. His whole personality showed his great bravado and this followed him into his military duties.

In 1794, after the outbreak of war with Napoleon, he was stationed in Canterbury with his regiment with little to do but sit around and wait.

‘Lieutenant, Sir Charles Bampfylde circulated a song which was derogatory to Lord Cork. Cork immediately challenged Bampfylde to a duel and they had one shot at each other before the seconds intervened’.

Bampfylde’s coat was grazed but no damage was done, and he apologised for his indiscreet lyrical composition.

Now the name Bampfylde has occured before, as the ‘Devil of Dunkerton’, and yes they are the same family. Charles Bampfylde was also a brash individual and liked playing fast and loose with the ladies, and he produced an illigitimate son, Charles Francis Bampfylde, who he acknowledged and adopted as his own. This was the man who became the ‘delightful’, Rector of Dunkerton.

So that means that at Dunkerton Church, in March 1845 we had the illigitimate son of the man who fought a duel with the 7th Earl of Cork, baptising the illigitimate child of the Earl’s grandson.

A wild coincidence – maybe?

Was the ‘devil’ himself part of the cover-up – maybe..!!

Because there is a little more that ties all these people together.

Charles, the duelist, finally met his match in 1823, when he died after being shot by the husband of one of his maidservants. The killer had been sacked from the Bampfylde establishment, possibly to give Charles more leg-room with the wife.

The husband killed himself immediately but Charles Bamfylde lingered for over two weeks, before eventually dying of gangrene. It was discovered that the shot had missed his vital organs but that a piece of his braces had lodged in his lung, causing the infection. he was effectively, killed by his braces..!

Charles Bampfylde also had a legitimate son, Sir George Bampfylde (1786-1858) who had his baronetcy raised in stature, to become Baron Poltimore, so entering parliament as Lord Poltimore. His son, Augustus, (1837-1908) succeeded him and became a member of William Gladstone’s Liberal government. The Whig party had become the Liberals in 1868, but that does bring the Earls of Cork closer to the Poltimores, because they were both strong supporters of that political voice.

So, who was selling land in 1845 that could come under into the hands of Samuel Cooper? Well, none other than Lord Poltimore, who sold several parcels of land in the Dunkerton Valley at this time. Some of this was bought by the various mining enterprises, but it would certainly have been an opportune moment for one member of the Whig party to do a favour for another, perhaps as a recompense for his father insulting the previous Lord Cork.

Whether these are just bizarre coincidences it is, as yet, impossible to say, but the track record in this ‘case’ points to there being few coincidences and plenty of substance in the family rumours and speculation.

If any of the Poltimore speculation is any more than just that, then it this would also add weight to the idea that there was a meeting in Mauritius, ten years later, between father and potential son-in-law. It looks as though the errant father was trying to give his daughter the best possible start in life, but without revealing exactly who he was.

Judgement Day

According to the offical paperwork James Hancock was my great, great grandfather, but nothing I have uncovered would now convince me he is a blood relative. However, James has become an integral part of our family’s history, perhaps the most interesting of the lot, so he has warranted a story of his own.

For some Brownings reading this, those that have Wathen genes, the Hancocks are ‘proper’  full blooded family and so the influence of James Hancock has spread much wider than it might otherwise have done. The complexities of the relationships were rejected by the early computer versions of the ‘family tree makers’ and even the latest ones dont seem too happy about the various marital arrangements..!!

My odds would now be on Charles John Boyle being my great, great grandfather – people have been convicted on less evidence, in a court of law. I wonder what the decision would have been if my evidence of parentage had been presented as a ‘bastardy case’, before the Frome magistrates in the 1840’s?

However, although the evidence is wide ranging, and in places quite indicative of guilt, I have a hunch Charles Boyle might have been exonerated from all blame on this occasion, as one of the chief magistrates at the time, was his uncle, the 8th Earl of Cork.

Olive Browning, family historian, who started us out on this wild goose chase, held a cache of photos and other documents, which have not been seen since her death in 1971. Should this treasury of family secrets miraculously re-appear, then it might provide an answer, once and for all. Until then we can all continue to speculate.

Keith Browning – updated February 2013

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The lives & loves of James Hancock


‘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


Possibly Abel Hancock's father

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.

Titfield poster    Titfield

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.

Coal cart at crossways Inn, Dunkerton

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.

Camerton - Copy

(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

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.

James Hancock senior death cert

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.

Frome and adjacent parishes - final

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 Leigh on Mendip

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.

  Kilmersdon drawing

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.

Jack and Jill well at school

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.

King Coal

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.

Somerset coalmines book

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 and Brian Cooper at Peasedown St John

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.

Before Kilmersdon

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.

Winscombe church

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

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.

 HuckyDuck c P Dindorp

‘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.

Caldera Mt_Tambora Sumbawa Indonesia

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.

 Islande-Lakki       icelandic-rift-eruption National Geographic Magazine

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.

Family Life

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.

Camerton conundrum

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.

Woodborough Drive

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

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

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.

Bath Road, Peasdown

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.

 Looking back to Carlingcott from Ashgrove

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.

James Hancock house

My interpretation of the ‘crossroads’ – no definitive map has been found for 1840-60

Hancock home - close up

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.

James Hancock children

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.

Abel Hancock death cert

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.

Patience Hancock marriage certificate 1856 - Copy

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 Hancock marriage 1829

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.

Canal wharf, Dunkerton

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.

Conan Doyle

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.

Dunkerton History

Dunkerton Colliery

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.’

Dunkerton Hill bottom

Bottom of Dunkerton Hill, towards Bath – the scene of the 1853 ‘incident’.

New beginnings

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.

Blaenavon and Somerset map

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.

EPSON scanner image

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’.

Sarah Hancock death cert

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, Blaenavon

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 panorama

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.

Main Street, Blaenavon

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 overlooking Blaenavon Blaenavon railway sign

‘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 map - close-up

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.

Blaenavon Ironworks model  Blaenavon Iron Works sketch

Model and  artist’s impression of the Iron Works in 1850

Blaenavon cottages

Stack Square cottages show how close the workers lived to their place of employment – photo: Steve Bevan /Canis Major Photography.

Blaenavon works showing brickyard

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.

brick kiln

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.


Making bricks

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.

Child Labor

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.

Kiln making Kiln making 2

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.

Brick clamp

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.

Sorting bricks

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 brickworks    children in brickyards

Child labour in the brickworks captured in a series of engravings of the early 1800s

Blaenavon Upper brickyard women

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.

Nunney chocolate box view

‘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.

Trudoxhill 6

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.

 Trudoxhill Congregational_ext

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

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

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.

Peasedown 1900

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.

Cooper cottages peasedown

Lower Peasedown Cottages and the Dunkerton Valley, 2007

Path to Carlingcott Old footpath to Peasedown

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.

Family life

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_Page_3

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.

Kitchen Bedroom

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 birth

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.

Another wedding

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 Browning in uniform - Copy  Sarah Cooper

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 DeaconsOfHorebChapel

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.

Corona lorry

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

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.

Ilkley Moor

Ilkley Moor

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.

Missing link

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.

Cousin marriages

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

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.

First obituary

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.

James Hancock 1881 census

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 1876 birth

Harriet Hancock – born 1876

Rose Hancock 1891 birth

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.

Hancock to Walton marriage 1883

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.

Maria Jowett 1891 census

Maria Jowett 1893 death

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 Hancock 1900 birth

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.

Gillroyda clay pits, Morley

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.

Gillroyds Mill, Morley

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’               

The Inquest

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 in brickyard

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.

Morley mills

James lived at Gillroyd Mount, probably one of the terraces to the north of the mill.

Morley Station abt 1900   Morley station 1900

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.

David Hancock to New York

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.

  Cass map

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.

Hancock family USA

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 Road, Morley

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.

James Hancock 1871 census

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.

George Hancock to Cooper marriage 1868

Matilda Cooper

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.

The Twist

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 !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Matilda Hancock 1867 birth

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.

The split

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.

Woodlesford Brickyard 1912 Levi Hancock 2nd from left, George, son, second from right

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