Thursday, 15 September 2016

What do you think they did?

A few weeks ago the Ireland XO site posted an interesting piece on the theme what did your ancestors do? I was amused to read of some of the more outlandish job titles. I do not have a flax scutcher in my tree: my lot seemed to be predominantly linen lappers.

But I was disappointed not to find any mention of the job title that has been puzzling me lately. Our 2xgreat grandfather Andrew Burton was described in 1905 as a "coal trimmer". In 1890, Andrew had been a stonemason. Was this new trade a highly specialised craft that drew on his expertise working with stone to ensure that the fuel fed into a furnace was neat, or at least uniform in size?

It turns out that at the turn of the twentieth century, coal trimmer was a well-recognised (and very important) maritime occupation with a very misleading name. They should have been called ship trimmers. A ship might steam out of harbour looking very seaworthy with its bunkers loaded with coal. But if all the coal stored on the port side of the vessel was fed into the boilers before any was taken from the starboard side, the ship would become very unstable and could easily roll over and sink in even a mild sea.

black gangIn order to keep the vessel on an even keel, also called "in trim", a group of men were occupied around the clock redistributing coal within the hull to ensure that all the forces remained in balance. Despite the disastrous consequences of any failure in their work, the coal trimmers were regarded as being less skilled than firemen or stokers (fellow members of the Black Gang) and were among the lowest paid on the ship for working in the most difficult conditions.

So Andrew was not making fine technical adjustments to fuel quality in a new high-technology environment, as I had optimistically imagined. He was shovelling tons of rock in near pitch black and choking dust alongside the boilers that could make the metal bulkhead glow red.

When he listened to the preaching at the Salvation Army Citadel on the torments of hell awaiting the unrepentant, Andrew Burton must have understood quite literally what was being described.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Drawing aside a veil

In a recent post concerning the apparent break-up of a family revealed in the 1911 Census, I noted that even though Cornelia Wilkins (nee Medwell) declared in 1925 that she was widowed, her husband Thomas was recorded in the 1939 Register1 as being very much alive.

At the time, I chose not to reveal that Thomas was not living alone at 69 Russell Street, Peterborough or that his housemate described her occupation as “unpaid domestic duties”. My reasoning was that an association more than thirty years after the event was probably not relevant to the separation and that any further investigation could be seen as being driven by little more than salacious interest.

But how many genealogical blunders have been driven by an untested assumption that some line of inquiry was not relevant? And as for my delicate sensibilities; surely most family history research is socially-approved snooping into matters that our ancestors intended should never see the light of day.

So with any ethical qualms pushed aside, I sought more details on Miss Florence Marston (born 30 Jan 1876).Did she have a long term association with Peterborough that could reveal an earlier connection with Thomas?

Fortunately, Florence had never married and it was quick and easy to demonstrate that she had indeed been born in 1876 in the town where she was resident in 1939; and where she would die on 27 July 1947. But these few markers on her life journey would (if taken in isolation) be quite misleading. Before 1870, the Marston family had no connection to Northamptonshire, much less the town of Peterborough. Florence’s father, William, had abandoned his ancestors’ traditional occupation (as agricultural labourers in Leicestershire)2 and embraced new technology by joining the railways which involved a more mobile lifestyle.

Peterborough East Station (undated)Florence was born in Peterborough (as were two younger brothers) because her father was posted there as the Station Master. When he was appointed to a new post at Hugglescote on the Charnwood Forest Railway, his family moved with him. Both the 1901 and 1911 Censuses3 show that Florence was not in the area when Thomas and Cornelia married or when they (apparently) separated.
While the 1939 Register does provide a snapshot of domestic arrangements at one point in time, it does not reveal their duration. The 1911 Census showed that Thomas had been living at Russel Street with his brother (and mother) then and Electoral Registers show that his occupation was continuous. Indeed the Electoral Register for the P C of Northamptonshire, Peterborough Division shows three voters (Thomas Wilkins, John Wilkins, and Miss Florence Marston) at the house in Russell Street in 1930. When John died4 in 1934, Thomas and Florence apparently continued to occupy the home.

However, there is one compelling piece of evidence that their arrangement was not a de facto marriage. When probate was granted5 on Florence’s Last Will and Testament in 1947, her property passed to two brothers (described as railway officials). In the following year, Thomas’s Will left £2000 to a retired Solicitors Clerk, despite the fact that he had a widow and two sons (one of whom lived less than 15 kilometres away).

The preponderance of evidence apparently supports the initial notion that the lady with whom Thomas shared a home in 1939 was most unlikely to have had any connection to his relationship with Cornelia. But one curious feature continues to nag at me. In 1911, Florence Marston’s occupation was listed as a dressmaker working on her own account from her parent’s home, which is consistent with her description as an apprentice dressmaker in Peterborough in 1891. But there was another young woman learning the same trade at that place and time — Cornelia Medwell.

A novelist might consider the possibility that these two young apprentices were acquainted (perhaps even trained under the same lady) before one moved away and the other married. When Florence had cause to return to the area 30 years later (after the death of the parents she had cared for), she sought out her old friend but was shocked to find her gone and her children dispersed. But she remembered the young man who had become Cornelia’s husband and when they met …

A writer of fiction has a licence to speculate in that way, As a responsible family historian, I could not possibly do so.


  1. 1939 Register Ref: RG101/6292I/004/11 Letter Code: RQAY
  2. 1871 England, Wales & Scotland Census Barrow upon Soar, Leicestershire RG10 3267 131 page 36
  3. 1911 Census RG14PN16771 RG78PN1041 RD365 SD3 ED2 SN203  piece 16771
  4. England & Wales deaths 1837-2007 1934 Peterborough Volume 3B Page 201
  5. Probate Calendars of England & Wales 1858-1957 1947 Page 559
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