A VICTORIAN TRAGEDY AND OTHER MYSTERIES
I began tracing my family history in the early 1970s when I decided to look for the graves of my grandparents.
As an only child of ‘older’ parents I felt deprived of living ancestors. I knew my maternal grandmother but she died when I was 15. She and her husband were buried in Erdington, Birmingham, where I lived as a child but I had no idea where to find my father’s parents.
My father, Herbert William Hampton, was born in Bristol in 1884, but I knew he had also lived in Plymouth and Portsmouth as a child. His parents, William Henry Hampton and Mary, née Lodge, had lived and died within the 19th century so it felt as if I had a long way to go back.
His mother died of puerperal fever following a stillbirth and his father died a year or so later of a “broken heart”. Such is the stuff of Victorian melodrama! But where were they buried?
I began my search in Bristol through the Register Office and after one red herring, I succeeded in obtaining my grandfather’s Death Certificate. Age at Death in 1899; 40 years, Cause of Death; Cardiac Dilatation, Asthenia.
There is a large cemetery in Bristol in the area I believed the family to live and enquiries there turned up trumps.
My grandfather was buried together with his own parents, my great grandparents, Joseph and Ann Hampton. Information from the burial records gave me their names, ages and dates of death. Treasure indeed to a budding genealogist. There was no record of my grandmother.
Among my treasured possessions, but buried in a cupboard, was a collection of book prizes given to my father during his schooldays. These were tales of moral virtue, my favourite being “Willie’s Victory”, where Willie discovers that moral rectitude triumphs over evil doing. The flyleaves were decorated with details of the awards and sure enough on one of these I learned that he was at school in Portsmouth.
My enquiries at the Register Office in Portsmouth revealed my tragic grandmother’s death in 1896, aged 40, from puerperal fever.
My father and grandfather returned to Bristol but after my grandfather’s death, my father decided to run away to sea. A young teenager, he only got as far as the docks. here he was stopped by a lady of the night who persuaded him to go home. This was a rare tale from his past. He was very reluctant to talk about his early days.
His mother’s paternal family fascinated me and I began the search for their records. Fortunately I had inherited a family bible and an inscription within it gave me a rough idea of the date when my great grandfather, Edwin Lodge, died. This set me on the quest for his Death Certificate and subsequently the details of his Marriage and Birth.
I discovered that the Lodge family originated from Bath and that they had been living there during the Georgian and Regency days.
My great grandfather was the youngest of three brothers but, in the 1841 Census their ages were all rounded down to 15, so I was unaware of the order in which they were born until I checked the parish records.
Great grandfather was indeed 15 and also living in the household was a servant girl, Emma Gaywood from Clapton, London, who was about ten years older.
Four years later in 1845 at the age of 19 my great grandfather and Emma moved to live together in Bristol and were married there. Whether they eloped and who seduced who I will never know but they lived happily in Bristol and district for many years producing a family of six children, one of whom died of Cholera at the age of 4.
Great grandfather Lodge appears to have been an erudite man, whose occupations included carver, printer, schoolmaster, stationer and postmaster. He and Emma both taught in school together and in later years Edwin established a printers and stationers in Bristol, an offshoot of which, I have recently discovered, is still a thriving business today. He also became a Lay Reader.
My mother was a Witchell and her paternal family originated in Gloucestershire. She and her sisters held their Witchell grandparents’ Marriage Certificate, dated 1842, the ceremony having taken place at St Phillip’s Cathedral, Birmingham.
Mother’s grandfather, William Witchell, left beautiful Bibury to move to Birmingham about the end of the 1830s.I wondered why anyone would choose to leave such a beautiful part of the world but local history revealed that this was at the time of the decline in the woollen industry and of the Swing Riots that took place across Gloucestershire.
Great grandfather Witchell evidently used his initiative and found work as an Ostler in Birmingham before marrying and then settling down in Sutton Coldfield.
He and his wife, Eliza Marks, produced a brood of eleven children, ten of whom lived and created successful lives for themselves in various parts of the world.
Two of his younger daughters, Eliza and Helen Witchell, were living in almshouses in Sutton Coldfield when I was a child. They were known as the ‘Old Aunts’ and were treated with the respect and reverence usually reserved for church. As a small child I visited a few times and was warned to behave and not speak unless spoken to. The old ladies dressed in Victorian style with long black skirts and black boots. They looked very severe. But they made delicious cakes!
One of mother’s cousins, Norah Barber, whose mother was also one of the eleven little Witchells, lived to the age of 106 and was one of the oldest women recorded in Birmingham. I did ask her about this great grandfather of mine but if I hoped to hear tales of a gentle patriarch I was to be disappointed. She had no such happy memories. She recounted that he was a hard man who had once shot one of the children’s dogs because it wouldn’t stop barking.
My early research was carried out with the help of the Public Record Offices in the towns where the families lived but, since the arrival of the Internet and the many websites devoted to Genealogy, research has been much easier. I have amassed a collection of names and dates and many Certificates and can boast that I can name all 16 great great grandparents.
The most interesting part of it all is finding out about their lives and the times in which they lived. The most frustrating part is knowing that more information might have been available if only I had asked more questions when people were alive.
I have found many anomalies. In both my father’s past and my mother’s, I have discovered relatives that were never ever mentioned. In some cases I found that they had simply died in infancy but father had an aunt with whom he appears to have been living and yet no mention of her was ever made.
He had also told me that he believed the Hamptons to have come from Shropshire whereas my investigations located them firmly in the West Midlands in the Dudley area where Hamptons abound!
Solving mysteries such as these has definitely been the most rewarding part of the research.
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