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.

William Bailey ‘Died by the visitation of God’

William Bailey died whilst cutting oats in a field in Wicken in 1861. The inquest’s verdict was ‘died by visitation of God’.

William Bailey - killed 'by God'

Newspaper report from page 5 of the Cambridge Chronicle, dated 31st August 1861, details the sudden death of labourer William Bailey of Wicken. After an inquest took place, the cause of death was noted as ‘Died by the visitation of God’.

Needless to say, the culprit was subsequently not brought to justice.

The death of a child

William Martin died aged 10 in 1890 when he was entrusted with a horse and cart. The Factory Act (1891) could have protected him and many others from a working childhood.

Long before health and safety was invented, before ‘risk assessments’ unified a workforce with a sigh, and compulsory education was implemented, children were commonplace in factories, mines and other workplaces.

William was the fourth of the twelve children of my Great Great Grandparents, James Martin and his wife Sarah Elizabeth (née Giddings), and one of two of their children to die that year.

An inquest was held at Pyemoor, on the body of William Martin, a boy of ten years of age. He was entrusted, the previous day, with a horse and manure cart. He was lifted on the horse and afterwards found face downwards on the ground with an internal injury and died before the doctor arrived. The jury returned a verdict of “Accidental Death”, expressing their disapproval of children so young being entrusted with a horse and cart, the boy’s master being one of the jury – 31st July 1890.

Like most of those families living in fenland during the 19th century, children working in agriculture meant that the family could afford to keep food on their table and avoid the workhouse.

Whether William, at 10yrs of age, was employed or whether he was just there, is unclear (‘master’ may have been employer or his father), but his accidental death would never have been an easy situation to deal with.

The Factory Act (1878-1901)

The Factory Act (1878) meant that children under the age of 10 could not be employed in any trade, and that compulsory education ran up until the age of 10.

Group of child workers from the 19th century.
A group of unknown Victorian child workers.

This act was key at keeping the youngest of children away from dangerous environments such as mills, mines, glassworks, and other industries with heavy machinery – or at least it meant that those who continued to employ children under 10 could be prosecuted (and this was quite common).

The act also meant that 10-14yr old children were allowed to work half-days.

The act was revised again in 1891, upping the age to 11 years, and again with the introduction of The Factory and Workshop Act in 1901 to 12 years.

The slow pace of laws to protect children in the UK, and the harsh reality of bringing up a family on a railway labourer’s wage, may have contributed to William going to work at aged 10 on that fateful day.