Smoke and Censuses – a lucky escape for Matilda Johnson

In 1837, a tragedy strikes, leaving infant Matilda Johnson in the care of her elderly grandmother, Avis Wisby.

Since learning the hard way, I’ve always been an advocate of exploring your relative’s neighbours and house guests in census returns. In one such case, I unraveled a mystery that led me to a tragic yet peaceful accident.

When their youngest child was no more than 2 years old, my Gtx4 Grandmother Avis Martin (née Tall) lost her husband Robert Martin at the age of 41 in the March of 1826. With his death prior to certification, any efforts to find the cause would likely be zero. The burial register of the fenland village of Little Downham, Cambridgeshire, England, gives no clue.

The couple had become parents six times since their marriage in 1812, but life had dealt them a cruel hand in these bleak fens – their first (William), fourth (Elizabeth) and fifth child (Robert), all failing to thrive. Elizabeth made it to 2, Robert less, and William died just 4 months after their father in July 1826. He was 13.

Avis was now a widow at 38 years in a remote fenland village with three remaining children (James, Sarah, and a second Robert). By August 1827, she re-married, this time to James Wisbey, and by 1830 the couple had their first son. For once, life was a bit ‘on the up’.

By 1834, her daughter Sarah Martin had married James Johnson at Little Downham, and their daughter Matilda Johnson entered the church for her baptism on 3rd January 1836.

Matilda and Avis

PatPatPatPatPatMat Great Great Great Great Grandmother, Avis
Photo believed to be of Gt x4 Grandmother Avis.

In my beloved 1851 census, I found Avis Wisbey as an ‘out door labourer‘ in what was to be her final census. I’d already killed her off in August 1858, but I noticed that she wasn’t alone. I didn’t know Matilda at this point, so was curious as to who this 17 year old Matilda Johnson was. My only clue was that she was noted as ‘granddaughter’.

I back tracked to the less reliable 1841 census – and there she was again – this time aged ‘5’ years, and again living with her grandmother.

Heading backwards through the records, I found her baptism in January 1836, and then found the Johnson/Martin marriage that belonged to her parents in 1834 – and proving her connection to Sarah Martin and Avis.

But where had her parents gone?

It didn’t take me long to find a burial register entry that hinted at a bigger story. On 5th February 1837, James (23yrs) and Sarah (20yrs) Johnson are buried with the register giving a clue of ‘husband and wife by suffocation‘.

Matilda in the headlines

That’s the first time that I’ve seen ‘suffocation’ given as a cause of death, and with both husband and wife dying together by the same cause, I sensed that there must be more information. Was it foul play? Or was there some terrible accident?

A search of newspapers provided me with the answer, and they made several different ones:

The Huntingdon, Bedford & Peterborough Gazette of the 18th February states:

“DEATH FROM SUFFOCATION – Inquests were held on Friday se’nnight in the parish of Downham, on the bodies of James Johnson and Sarah, his wife, who died from the effects of charcoal burning in the bed-room. Verdict accordingly”

The story unfolds a little further courtesy of a number of newspapers that including The Cambridge Chronicle, and The Morning Post, and this cutting from Jackson’s Oxford Journal also of 18th February 1837, which carries a long and detailed report on the whole incident.

Here it states that due to a pan of ashes being in the bedroom, the wife suffocated. The husband died of apoplexy having seemingly woken but dying shortly afterwards, and that the daughter (Matilda) survived only because she was tucked further down in the the bed and saved by the sheets. It notes that Matilda entered the care of her grandmother.

Death from Suffocation - 1837 deaths of James and Sarah Johnson
The story made front page news of Jackson’s Oxford Journal in February 1837.

It seems that an innocent accident brought tragedy for the family. And that only by luck, through the action of neighbours, and the positioning of some bed sheets, that Matilda survived in bed – not even 2yrs old, laying amongst the bodies of her dead parents.

What became of Matilda?

In Avis’ care, orphaned Matilda Johnson grew up. Eight months after the 1851 UK census, Matilda married John Artingstall of Lancashire, in the Little Downham church where her parents had just 17 years earlier.

After a sad start to their own parenthood (their first child, Elizabeth Artingstall died as an infant), they went on to become parents a further nine times in Gorton, Lancashire. The family appear at Far Lane (briefly at No. 10) and 56 Far Lane, Gorton.

John died in 1897 aged 69, and Matilda reached the ripe old age of 81, dying in 1917.

She survived tragedy by a stroke of luck, and lived a full life, becoming a grandmother herself, via her own daughter, who took here late mother’s name – Sarah.

1931 England and Wales Census to be ‘free and online in 2015’

The British Archives has announced that the 1931 Census of England and Wales will be online and available for free in 2015.

 

The British Archives have announced that the England and Wales Census from 1931 is to be made available online for free and available earlier than its predecessors.

This has come as a great surprise to me, as I thought we were lucky to get to see some of the 1911 census before 2011 arrived, but in this surprise move, we’re going to see one of the most anticipated data sets here in England and Wales.

Access to the 1931 census, which records the population of Great Britain on the 26th April, will be a real treat for genealogists. It has widely believed to be one of the least likely censuses to be made available freely online.

The TBA Head of Digitalization, Ivana Pranker, confirmed that ‘the scanning process was completed in their warehouse in Hayes, in secret, back in August’ and that a dedicated team have been sanity checking it, and the indexing of the scanned records.

‘We expect that the whole census will be available to the public in 2015’.

The 1931 census sees the first time that ‘place of usual residence’ was asked – a piece of information that will allow family historians the means of deciphering where those mystery census night visitors actually lived.

Find out more about the 1931 Census of England and Wales, and read the full Press Release from TBA.

 

Why keeping up with the neighbours is important in genealogy

If you’re not examining your ancestor’s neighbours, then you could be missing some key information.

These days, quite a lot of people have no idea who their neighbours are – their names, what they do, where they work etc, and the only interaction may be a quick ‘hello’, a nod, or occasionally collecting parcels from each other.

It’s just a sad sign of the times that as our lives become busier, and as families become more geographically spread, that we just don’t have the time or inclination to socialise with the people who live just a few feet away.

It’s not always been like this though – looking to the censuses of at least the early 1900s, you may discover that your ancestor’s neighbours play a much more significant role in your family.

‘Neighbours. Everybody needs good neighbours’

When the 1861 census took place, the enumerator for Swaffham Bulbeck in Cambridgeshire, England, visited Village Street and noted down the names and details of everyone there including four families who were all living nextdoor to eachother – each with different surnames.

1861 census return for Village Street, Swaffham Bulbeck, Cambridgeshire.
The 1861 census of Village Street in Swaffham Bulbeck, shows a number of families.

The enumerator may well have known the Newman, Skeels, Fordham and Levitt families seen in the example above, but the census does not shed any light onto the significance of the proximity of these 18 people.

The 18 people on this census folio are actually four generations of the same family, and this folio is a snapshot of how they had stayed together as the families grew. By trawling back to the 1851 census, you are able to find the core family again, in a much smaller family group.

The seventy-seven year old widow, Elizabeth Skeels, née Richardson, is the great grandmother and matriarch of the family. She appears here in 1861 as living just feet away from her daughter’s (Elizabeth Levitt, née Skeels) family, and is surrounded by the families of her daughter’s oldest children (Emma Newman, née Levitt and Harriet Fordham, née Levitt) whilst the younger children are still at home.

At first glance, I would have spotted Skeels, or if i had been in Newman or Levitt ‘research mode’ I’d have seen them and not necessarily spotted or realised the importance of the families around them.

So, keeping an eye on what’s happening nextdoor on the census returns can help you in your research.

Four families in a row is probably my best when it comes to related neighbours – can you beat that? Or have your ancestors had a famous/infamous neighbour? Let me know in the comments below.

Why I love the 1851 UK Census

Why I Love The 1851 Census: Despite having used 8 different censuses, the 6th census (1851) is my firm favourite – and here’s why…..

Whilst the 1940 US Census continues to cause a storm with genealogists across the Atlantic, I’ve fondly turned to my favourite UK census of them all – the good ol’ 1851.

A page from the 1851 Census.
The 1851 census builds bridges between data.

I’ve used 8 UK censuses in my research – 1841-1911 – and each one is different – adding or omitting different questions, but it’s the UK Census that took place on the night of the 30th March 1851 that’s my favourite. Here’s why…

Building data bridges

I use the 1851 census to verify information that I’ve picked up from the scant data of the 1841 census. This enables me to build bridges with data – following families from the 1841 census, through to the 1861 census.

The 1851 census also gives the opportunity to verify those people who were alive before 1837 when certification was introduced for births, deaths and marriages. Whilst the 1841 census captures a more of those people, it’s not much more than a head-count with poor spelling and some seriously unreliable ages.

More household detail

The 1851 census was the first to ask and record answers about relationships between household members. This piece is very useful – again helping me decipher the 1841 and pre-certification records.

The 1841 did ask whether people were born in the same county as that which they were being recorded in – so gave a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer in the county box, but the 1851 census goes further by also recording the parish AND county of birth. It also records whether the person had a disability – namely blind or ‘deaf-and-dumb’.

The State Opening of The Great Exhibition in 1851
The Great Exhibition took place in 1851.

The 1851 census also asks for more detail about occupations – and it’s here that you can find some interesting insights into what your family members did, and it can give you an insight into where in the social classes they would have sat.

The 1851 census has been publicly available since 1912 as it was not covered by the 100 year retainer rule. I have no idea what the demand was like back in 1912 when it became available, but I doubt that it matched the US 1940 Census demand – which saw 37 million website hits overload the website within 8 hours.

Were people queuing up in the streets in 1912 to read the 1851 census? I’m guessing they probably weren’t.

Why not love the 1911 UK census?

Just for the record, the 1911 census is a close second – for the sentimental moment you see your ancestor’s handwriting, and the very useful ‘years married’, ‘number of children born’ and ‘number of children living’ data.

The reason that the 1911 census is not my first love is partly down to being of an age where I personally knew many people who were alive during this period, and still know relatives whose siblings were born before it took place. Also, being part of a relatively close family, I’ve found the 1911 census not as revelational as it’s 1851 counterpart.

Which is your favourite census and why?

Tweet your love for the 1851 Census RIGHT NOW!