Our centenarian ancestors

Our centenarian ancestors

A perhaps surprising number of our 19th century ancestors reached their 90s or even their centuries - and press interest in their age can really help the family historian, as Nell Darby explains

Dr Nell Darby, Writer who specialises in social and crime history

Dr Nell Darby

Writer who specialises in social and crime history


John Daubeny
John Daubeny, a centenarian, holding a one-year-old boy, c.1922 Wellcome Library

Much has been written about the mortality of our ancestors, and we know about high infant mortality rates and how illnesses or accidents that today could be easily treated once left our ancestors at a high risk of dying early. This doesn’t mean that everyone died young, of course, but it is still surprising to read of individuals who lived to what would be considered even today as a ripe old age. These individuals escaped the diseases and illnesses that waylaid others to live long lives, and often merited them mention in their local newspapers – their longevity in itself being newsworthy.

1901 census
In 1901, the 101-year-old Rebecca Birks was living in Doncaster with her son (who would die the following year) and daughter. Despite her age, she was still working

One London report in 1881 stated that centenarians seemed to have become ‘as plentiful as blackberries’, but warned that the numerous reports of people making advanced ages should be treated with caution, for our ancestors ‘seem to have been marvellously credulous’, and assumed people were extremely old without having any statistical or archival evidence of this. Indeed, the Victorians were mocking of their own ancestors for believing in such cases as a Portuguese writer who was alleged to have died in the 16th century aged 370, and three people who were said to have lived until their 170th year. Yet with the censuses and the introduction of birth and death registrations, cases of people reaching their 90s or beyond could be more easily proved – or, at the least, seem more believable. Certainly, some of the cases covered in the press during this time were keen to stress how the details of a person’s age had been checked and verified.

HMS Royal George
Martin Toogood’s obituary in 1852 notes that he helped rescue men from HMS Royal George, when it sank off Portsmouth in 1782

My own 5x-great-grandfather, Martin Toogood, was born in rural Hampshire in 1756, and lived to the age of 97. His whole family was from the area in which he lived, and they would continue to do so right up to my own generation. Yet he saw great change over his lifetime. Even as a man from an apparently humble background, his death in the 1850s, after nearly a century, was deemed worthy of a paragraph in the Salisbury and Winchester Journal, where he was described as ‘an old and respected inhabitant’ of Totton, near Southampton. It was further added:

‘He was impressed into the service of his late Majesty George III, as he was on the eve of emigrating to America, and served during the American War on board the Queen; he came to England with other ships of the grand fleet, was lying at Spithead when the unfortunate Royal George sunk, and was one of the seamen who manned the boats to assist the unfortunate sufferers.’

Obituaries such as these – if true – really help build a picture of our long-living ancestors, adding detail that might otherwise have not been known. In my case, I thought my ancestor had lived his entire life in the Totton area, working as a carpenter (as the basic records of his marriage and the censuses record), and would never have known about his youthful adventures had it not been for this obituary.

William Gallup
William Gallup had worked as a gardener when he was younger, but spent his old age mainly in the workhouse

More detail can be found by looking at accounts of the sinking of the Royal George. This occurred at Spithead, off Portsmouth, on 29 August 1782, when the ship was waiting to sail to relieve Gibraltar. It resulted in the loss of over 800 people’s lives. At the time of the tragedy off the Hampshire coast, Martin, a native of the county, would have been around 26 years old. Another paper’s coverage of his later death was more mundane, but still adds interesting detail: it notes that there was an inquest on his body, which found that he had died without having previously had to receive any medical advice. The official verdict was that he had died by visitation of God.

I have included a caveat about when newspaper accounts prove true. This is because errors can creep in, or even family legends that may not be completely true. The obituary for my own ancestor is somewhat confused; it gives the impression that he served in the American Wars of Independence, yet HMS Queen did not serve there, but off the French coast. It was part of the Second Battle of Ushant – a battle fought between French and British forces near an island off the Breton coast –– in 1781. It could be that he had been going to emigrate to America but then ended up heading out into the Channel on the Queen instead – at the same time as the American War, but not as part of it.

Errors also seem to have crept into another elderly man’s life story even before he had died. In the case of William Gallup, his birth was altogether more exotic than my ancestor’s, but it was still his age that saw him make the news. He was born in Barbados in 1819, and was said to have travelled round the Caribbean as a young man, including a stint living on Jamaica, but spent most of his adult life in London. He was a Baptist, and worked as a nursery gardener, although in old age he only scraped an occasional living as a hawker. From the censuses, the picture you get of him is one of a poor, elderly man who was constantly in and out of the workhouse – in fact, different workhouses around London, as he made his way round the capital – between at least 1897 and 1916. By March 1922, William Gallup, at 102 years old, was living in the Park Royal Hospital, formerly the Willesden Workhouse Infirmary. He attracted press attention not purely because of his age, but because he was refusing to be a quiet resident of the workhouse; instead, he regularly lobbied the poor law guardians to be allowed to leave and seek work. This was despite, as it was made clear, there not being much demand for centenarian workers.

Intriguing article?

Subscribe to our newsletter, filled with more captivating articles, expert tips, and special offers.

Please enter a valid email address.

It seems that the Daily Express sent a reporter to interview Gallup from his bed in the workhouse. He had initially been on the male ward, but had recently been transferred to the hospital ward. The interview, which was then copied by other newspapers – with various additions and added hyperbole – certainly makes for fascinating reading, as it builds a picture of a very strong-willed and able old man. William was described as having a ‘snow-white’ mop of hair, lying in bed wearing a bright red jacket, and in full possession of his faculties. ‘His sight is splendid – he can read without spectacles – and his hearing might be the envy of many such younger men.’ He was literate, and spent his days trying to write his life story, when he wasn’t reading the Bible. His handwriting was said to be good, he was the ‘life and soul’ of his ward, but he was toothless, which meant he could only be fed on milk ‘and soft substances’.

The accounts of his life were clearly published to make an example of him to younger, ‘feckless’ men. His desire to work was ‘a striking example to mere striplings of 60 or 70, who are thinking of retiring from business’, one paper stated with its tongue not entirely in cheek. He was a ‘wonderful man’ both because of his desire to work, and his health, a result of having ‘spent a very active life travelling abroad’. Yet there were also anomalies. In one paper, he is a chatty, happy man; in another, he was said to not have ‘a very pleasing temperament’. This latter description was because he had a tendency to shout at the guardians, calling them ‘thieves’ for ‘keeping me in this prison’.

More crucially, one account stated that he had lived in Bath, while another said he was born in Bristol. One went into more detail, stating that he had lived for years in Bath, where he worked for a cooper, Mr G. Harding. This seems to have been a conflation with one or two other men of similar names and ages; for example, another man, William Gollop (not Gallup) was born in Bristol, but in 1818, and later lived in London, and lived until his 70s. George Harding was also definitely a cooper in Bath, but there is no record of a William Gallup living and working with him. The centenarian was also definitely born on Barbados, according to all his census returns, and always described himself as a gardener, not a cooper. Therefore, not all the accounts of an individual can always be trusted; although reports all highlight Gallup’s desperation to be independent and to work. William Gallup died in the autumn of 1922, aged 103 – still in the Willesden institution and having not been allowed out to seek work.

St Andrew’s Church, Ham, Surrey
Sarah Morfew, known as ‘Granny’, was buried at St Andrew’s Church, Ham, Surrey, in 1892, the burial register stating that she was 105. In reality, she was probably 97 AndyScott

Gallup’s long years in the workhouses shows how long life did not necessarily mean a comfortable life. For every affluent elderly person – such as Lady Pleasance Smith, who lived to 103, dying in 1877 – there was an individual with a less privileged position in society. Indeed, old age, and extreme old age, increased one’s chances of poverty, given that – as Gallup found – the pool of employers willing to take on an elderly man was vanishingly small. Another centenarian who faced poverty found his story covered in the press back in the 1860s. This was David McKay, a Scottish man who in 1864 appeared in court charged with vagrancy. He was 102 at the time, and had been living as a vagrant. When brought before the bailie at police court in Aberdeen, however, the official decided not to punish him because of his advanced age, and instead advised him to return to his home city of Inverness, which apparently he did.

As can be seen in the case of William Gallup and others, the press enjoyed detailing a centenarian’s long life, especially when the facts could be proved. When Rebecca Birks died in Doncaster aged 104, the Sheffield Daily Telegraph included a long obituary of her, noting that her birth and baptism had been authenticated. She was born at Epworth on 28 August 1799, and died on 7 June 1904. She was from a humble background, and it was noted that she had been a delicate child who her parents doubted would survive – so ‘there was nothing to indicate in her early days that she would live to such a great age’. She had been a domestic servant in Hull until she married at the age of 26; she then lived in various places with her husband until his death aged 70. When Rebecca herself reached 70 years old, she got a job as caretaker for a firm of solicitors, where she worked until she was physically unable to do so any more due to her ‘advanced age’. This was not an exaggeration: the 1901 census for Doncaster records that Rebecca was still working as an office caretaker at 101 years old. It was noted in the newspaper that her sister lived to 93, her mother to 87 and her brother 86, although at the time of her death, all but one of her five children had predeceased her.

Lady Pleasance Smith
Wealthier individuals had the advantage of being able to afford a more varied diet and better healthcare. It was perhaps not surprising that Lady Pleasance Smith, aunt of Alice ‘Alice in Wonderland’ Liddell, lived a long life.
Lady Pleasance
Lady Pleasance’s age made her a subject for the newspapers, although they may have actually got her age slightly wrong. In 1875, they stated that she was entering her 103rd year, but she died at 103 two years later British Library Board

The Sheffield paper was also keen to note that Doncaster was well known for its ‘stock’ of centenarians; there was one still alive there in 1904, and it listed a number of others born in the 18th century who had made it to at least 100. These seemed to be largely women, including a pauper named Ann Green, who allegedly died in 1791, aged 118. There was also mention of a John Roseberry as another former centenarian who was born in Yorkshire. Indeed, the 1871 census records him working as a hawker in Nottingham at the age of 102; in this case, the papers may have understated the age he lived to, saying that he died in 1877 aged 108. In fact, his death was registered in Cambridgeshire in 1879, with his age recorded as 110 years.

Intriguing article?

Try a four-month Diamond subscription and we’ll apply a lifetime discount making it just £44.95 (standard price £64.95). You’ll gain access to all of our exclusive record collections and unique search tools (Along with Censuses, BMDs, Wills and more), providing you with the best resources online to discover your family history story.

We’ll also give you a free 12-month subscription to Discover Your Ancestors online magazine (worth £24.99), so you can read more great Family History research articles like this!

View Offer Details

A more common instance was for an individual’s age to be exaggerated. This was not necessarily intentional, but more that as a person got older, and there were fewer people to have known them in their youth surviving, their neighbours might think they were older than they were, or the individual had become unsure of when they were born. When Sarah Morfew died in 1892, it was reported that ‘“Granny” Morfew, the well-known centenarian of Ham, Surrey, died yesterday at the age of 106.’ Sarah was buried at St Andrew’s in Ham three days later, with the burial register recording her age as 105. However, although Sarah is on every census between 1841 and 1891, her birth year is different for each. In 1841, she is listed as 45, which would make her birth year 1786, and thus 106 when she died. However, the 1841 census usually rounded people’s ages up or down by five years. The 1891 census suggests she was born in 1787, and the 1871 census suggests 1782. However, the 1851, 1861 and 1881 censuses all gave her age as younger, suggesting that she was born in the 1790s. This is backed up by her baptism at St Andrew’s, Farnham, which was in January 1795. Although her parents may have baptised her when she was older, it was more common to baptise babies when they were weeks or months old, suggesting that she was, at most, 97 when she died. However, the legend of Granny Morfew – or Widow Morfew, as she was listed as on the 1891 census – meant that locals believed she was over 100 years old, and this is what she was obituarised as being, and buried as.

Although exaggerations and errors made it into these accounts, what is particularly interesting for family historians is that many of these individuals were from poorer backgrounds, and so their stories and obituaries provide descendants with lots of detail about their lives that would otherwise be absent. Some – although not the likes of William Gallup – may have been illiterate and unable to record their own lives; in all aspects other than their age, they would not have been considered worthy of a news story. So their extreme age meant that otherwise ordinary men and women were able to have their lives recorded by the press for posterity.

These individuals may not have had exciting lives; Sarah Morfew, for example, was said to have lived in Ham most of her life, and wasn’t born far away. However, some of the obituaries and interviews show that they were more interesting than we might imagine (as was the case with my own ancestor). Even if not, the reports give us an insight into their lives, and even the most mundane lives are made more interesting by the passing of time, and the changes between how they lived their lives and how we live ours now. Back in the 19th century, James Easton wrote a book about age and what caused certain people’s longevity. He included nearly 2000 examples of people who allegedly lived to 100; one was a man named Macleod who, at 100 years old, set out to walk 550 miles to London in order to ask for an increased pension – he needed more money because he had recently remarried and become a father! Easton also wrote about a woman named Mary Wilkinson, who in her youth had often walked from her home in Yorkshire to London. At the age of 90, she became keen to see London again, and so set out to walk the 290 miles, strapping a keg of gin and bag of food to her back. Allegedly, she covered the distance in five days – an average of nearly 60 miles a day. Such stories were unlikely, but seen as motivational and a means to chivvy along those of younger ages who were rather more sedentary; the Victorians, of course, divided the poor into idle or deserving, and wanted to see the idle poor become more active, and working.

Isaac Lamb
Isaac Lamb, a centenarian, sitting on a chair outdoors, winding the handle of a gramophone, c.1921 Wellcome Library

Yet it was age that was itself newsworthy – it did not need any extreme or fanciful acts adding to the accounts of these people, as they had done well in surviving to such an age as it was. Therefore, when Jean Williamson of Torryburn, Fife died in 1893, aged 102, her obituary noted that she had lived in Torryburn since she was two – she had remained in the same place for over a century. Her life was quiet; she married a local man and had eight children. Her main achievement, it seemed, was that she had lived to see a third generation of descendants in her family, and that she had had a nice family-oriented life. There was no need for embellishment; that Jean had lived quietly, but for a long time, was all there was to say.

Discover Your Ancestors Periodical is published by Discover Your Ancestors Publishing, UK. All rights in the material belong to Discover Your Ancestors Publishing and may not be reproduced, whether in whole or in part, without their prior written consent. The publisher makes every effort to ensure the magazine's contents are correct. All articles are copyright© of Discover Your Ancestors Publishing and unauthorised reproduction is forbidden. Please refer to full Terms and Conditions at www.discoveryourancestors.co.uk. The editors and publishers of this publication give no warranties,
guarantees or assurances and make no representations regarding any goods or services advertised.