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.

Surname Saturday: The Crisp family

Today’s SURNAME SATURDAY themed post takes a look at the CRISP family of Cambridgeshire, and unravels an old family story.

Today’s Surname Saturday theme follows the CRISP family, and it’s also home to one of the earliest verbal family stories that I ever heard in my research, some 19 years back.

The story went something like this:

“Your great great great grandmother was married to a Mr Crisp. They had a son, and then Mr Crisp died. She remarried to your great great great Martin grandfather, and that’s where we descend from.

Their son, married a woman called Selina. They had a number of children, moved up north, and most caught measles. Mr Crisp Jnr and most of the children died. His widow Selina, returned and lived near Soham, Cambridgeshire.”

Fairly vague, and probably not an uncommon style of storytelling of family rumours. But, there’s some interesting story details in there, and considering that this would have happened so long ago, it’s interesting to see that it survived into living memory.. so there must be something in it, and someone who has reason to believe it, right?

Putting it on the back-burner, as it’s a ‘sideline’ family, from whom I don’t descend, I parked it for about 19yrs whilst I focussed on the addiction that is tracing ancestors.

I was tidying up some old files again, and a slip of paper summarising the story above fell out. In all those years, the amount of, and types of, records available online has absolutely snowballed, and so i thought that I would casually go rummaging.

Finding Crisps in the records

(Face it, you knew I was going to put that pun down here somewhere).

A photograph of Mary Crisp (née Tingey, later Martin and Watling), with copies of her marriage certificate to John Crisp, and the birth certificate of their only son, William Crisp.
A photograph of Mary Crisp (née Tingey, later Martin and Watling), with copies of her marriage certificate to John Crisp, and the birth certificate of their only son, William Crisp.

I already had Mr Crisp Jnr’s (William Crisp) birth certificate from 1846, and the marriage and death certificate of his father John Crisp (m: 1846, d: 1847). By July 1850, widow Mary Crisp (née Tingey) had married her second of three husbands – my great great great grandfather – James Martin.

William Crisp remains with his mother for the 1851 and 1861 censuses in Little Downham, at the household of his step-father. In fact, the 1861 census lists him as William Martin, rather than William Crisp.

Things get rectified by 1871, when his Crisp name is reinstated. Here, he’s living in the fenland parish of Isleham. This village isn’t far from Soham, and is not a parish that any of my other relatives appear to have passed through (hence having not stumbled across him before).

With the census found, it told me that he was now 24yrs old, living at Lark Farm Cottage, with his wife Tabitha, and their 2mth old son John (in memory of both of their fathers). A quick dig on Ancestry, and FreeBMD showed that Tabitha was most likely Tabitha Large.

Where was the Selina that the story had spoken of?

Another census shows the family at the West Bank of River Lark in the parish of Isleham, Cambridgeshire for 1881. William was ’30’, and heading up a family of 6 children (John, James, Rosetta, Eliza Ann, Susan, and Mary) with Tabitha.

However, by the 1891 he’s missing, and so is Tabitha. Was this the tragedy with measles?

The North?

A little further digging, and some of the Crisp children turned up – still living at West Bank, but this time, George Butcher is head of the household, with Tabitha (now Butcher). A young Alfred Butcher is also included in the household, born about 1890.

Next stop was the Isleham parish registers to find out what’s been going on.

Here, I find that Tabitha Large (confirmed!), and William Crisp, having married on 20th May 1869 at Isleham parish church, went on to have eight children between 1871 and 1886.

FreeBMD notes that William died in in 1886, but Isleham and Soham don’t contain his burial. I shall have to explore this further. His burial did not take place in his native Little Downham, Ely Cemetery, Wicken, Fordham, or a number of other nearby churchyards.

Having lost William for now, I continue after Tabitha, but I soon find that she’s missing too… only to find her in 1901, aged 47 years, up at 29 Charles Lane, Milnrow, Lancashire, England.

There’s that ‘move up North‘ then.

Into the mills

At this time, George is noted a labourer at a Brickyard. Tabitha’s son Isaac Crisp is noted as a ‘Cotton Presser’, Rosetta Crisp as a ‘Woolen Weaver’, Eliza Ann Crisp as a ‘Pattern Card Room Hand’, and Mary Crisp is noted as a ‘Bread Maker’. It’s possible that the children were employed at the nearby Ellenroad Mill. Clearly the mills were putting a roof over the family’s head.

By the time of the 1911 census, it’s revealed that Tabitha has had 4 children and that 3 of them died. This must surely refer to her children with George Butcher, but i’ve not yet checked for their names.

The Traveller’s Rest

Whilst I lose George after 1911 (was this the measles?), Tabitha ends her days back at  the aptly named ‘The Traveller’s Rest‘ in Towns End, Soham, Cambridgeshire on 29th June 1921. She was 69 years old. Why was she back there?

Well, her second child, James Crisp (known as ‘Jim’) is noted as Publican – presumably of The Traveller’s Rest. He is noted as an executor of her estate.

But what about Selina?

Twenty-five years before Tabitha’s death at James’ pub in Soham, he had walked the aisle on 17th October 1896…. when he married Selina Collen. Selina outlived James (who died in 1944), having raised a family of at least five children with him.

Unravel those stories and memories

So, what turned out to be a snippet of oral history, handed around and down my branch of Martin family, which is vaguely related to the Crisp family (William Crisp is apparently my Half Great Great Great Uncle!), it turns out to be loaded with facts… albeit somewhat jumbled.

There’s still a few loose ends – death certificates will, or newspaper articles might, reveal details of whether the measles story is true. The identity of Selina was also generation out, and the wrong bit of family went ‘up North’ – it was all in the story.

For me, it proves that those little oral snippets, or those scribbled notes, are just as important as those official records. In fact, they are often more interesting. Using official records to help untangle these family stories is the trick…. regardless of how long you take to start work on them!

Happy hunting!


Happy 101st Birthday, Percy

Today would have been my paternal grandfather’s 101st Birthday. Here’s a little ‘happy birthday’ nod to him, and some photos from his life.

Today would have been my paternal grandfather’s 101st birthday.

Percy Martin was born on the 1st October 1913, as the third of four sons of Daisy (née Burnell) and Herbert Martin of Little Downham, Cambridgeshire.

In 1917, during the First World War, when he was only a little over 4yrs old, his father was killed in a train accident in Boulogne, France.

Paternal Grandfather, Percy Martin (1914-1991)
Percy Martin (1913-1991), outside St Owen’s School, Third Drove, Little Downham.

Percy appears to have gone to St Owen’s School on Third Drove of Little Downham Fen, alongside his Martin brothers and cousins.

The Martin family in about 1916.
L-R: Sydney James, Daisy (née Burnell), baby Cyril, Percy, Herbert, and Herbert George Martin – circa 1916. Within months, Herbert would be killed in a train accident in Boulogne, France.

The photograph above shows the four sons and their parents – within less than a year, his father was dead.

His widowed mother, now with four sons all under the age of 8yrs, eventually re-married in 1919, and had three further children – half-siblings to Percy.

Edna and Percy, with Percy's half-sister Edith Shelton, visiting the seaside, circa 1935.
Edna and Percy, with Percy’s half-sister Edith Shelton, visiting the seaside, circa 1935.

Percy married my Grandmother Edna in 1937, and together they had four children, although they later divorced. Percy re-married to Irene.

He worked mostly for the Great Ouse River Authority in Cambridgeshire.

I was fortunate to know my grandfather for about 13 years (both grandfathers as it happens), and whilst it saddens me that I never really got to know him, and not at all as an adult, I’m pleased that we were able to spend a little time together.

Percy died on 9th September 1991 in Ely.

Happy 101st Birthday Grandad.

Tombstone Tuesday – The Harrison family grave

Today’s TOMBSTONE TUESDAY post returns to Little Downham and finds a delightful example of 19th century headstone for the Harrison family.

It was wonderfully sunny on Sunday, so I went for a short drive to Little Downham – a village synonymous with my paternal ancestry – to re-tread my steps from years ago, and photograph the gravestones that match my ancestral surnames.

I always find it interesting to see how the headstones have changed in the preceding years too, some look much the same, other’s have become more lichen and mossed over.

William, Mary and Sarah Harrison headstone
The 19th century headstone commemorating William and Mary Harrison, and their daughter Sarah stands in Little Downham parish churchyard, and is almost 200 years old.

This stone, which I don’t remember seeing before (perhaps I was yet to uncover my Harrison roots), stands on the West side of St Leonard’s church, against the perimeter wall. Whether this is it’s original place of standing, or whether it’s been moved, is a mystery, but having noticed that a lot of stones are around the edges, then I’d suspect this to be the case.

It’s a delight in colour, typography, and of course design. I just wish that the long piece of prose at the bottom of the stone had survived. The legible part reads:

IN MEMORY OF William Harrison who died Nov 8th 1819 Aged 73 years.

Also of Mary his wife who died Nov 3rd 1836 Aged 69 years.

Also of Sarah their daughter who died April 22nd 1828 Aged 24 years.

And, actually, as I write this blog article, a strange shape has caught my eye on the top left of the photo – is that a horseshoe resting on the top of the left corner of the stone, or a metal brace to keep this stone standing up? It was a fair few inches away from the wall… I’ll have to return and check!

As for the occupants of this gravestone, William Harrison was born circa 1746 to William Harrison and his wife Anne Leaford. He was baptised on 27th July 1746 at Little Downham. He married Mary (surname not discovered), and the couple had at least five children, with Sarah seemingly being the youngest born around 1802. She was baptised on 25th September 1803. She died aged 24 years, on 22nd April 1828, and was buried with her father (who had died in November 1819) 3 days later. Her mother joined them in November 1836.

At the moment, these Harrison family members seem to be eluding my own William Harrison branch, who seem to alternate between this family group in the Little Downham registers. It is pretty certain that these were ultimately the same family.

Research continues…. and i think i need to get my timeline/whiteboard out again to solve this puzzle.



Surname Saturday: GIDDINGS

Surname Saturday – it’s the turn of the Giddings family from Fleet, Lincolnshire and later from March, Cambridgeshire.

My Giddings ancestry from Lincolnshire and later from Cambridgeshire provides me with one of my favourite photographs in my collection.

Elizabeth Giddings (1831-19??)

At some point between October 1791 and December 1793 my 5x Great Grandparents Thomas Giddings and his wife Rebecca (née Watson) left the village of Fleet on the border of Lincolnshire and brought their family of at most 3 children to March, Cambridgeshire.

By 1798 the couple had grown the family to 5 children with the youngest, Daniel Watson Giddings (my Gt x4 grandfather) having been born that year.

The Giddings family appear to have been Baptists, attending The Providence Baptist Church in March – this is certainly the place of many of their appearances in parish records.


In 1852, my Gt x3 Grandmother Elizabeth Giddings (pictured) gave birth to my Gt x2 Grandmother, Sarah Elizabeth Giddings. This must have been a real test for both Elizabeth and Sarah as illegitimacy was heavily frowned upon during this period and both mother and child would have bore the weight of the ‘disgust’ of the community they lived in. Elizabeth would have been encouraged to marry. Despite this, Elizabeth remained unmarried for another 10 years, finally marrying a Charles Lincoln from Potton, Bedfordshire in 1862. Together they had a daughter, Jane.


Sarah Elizabeth married my Gt x2 Grandfather James Martin from Little Downham, Cambridgeshire and the couple settled down to rear a family of 13 children. Sarah must have been as tough as her mother, as she saw six of her children plus a son-in-law and daughter-in-law all go to the grave in her lifetime. One son died as an infant, another was killed when he fell from a horse as a working child. She then lost a daughter and son-in law, and two sons as a result of the First World War. I’m unsure of the cause of death for one of her daughters and her daughter-in-law. All in all, Sarah and her family suffered terrible losses.

Sarah died just five years after her mother in 1925, aged 72 years at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge.

A life consumed

The ‘White Plague’, ‘Consumption’, ‘T.B’, Tuberculosis.

If you’ve been researching your family tree, you’re bound to have stumbled across some of these phrases as causes of death (i’d only not seen the ‘white plague’ term before, but I’ve seen the others too many times).

Although it wasn’t notifiable until 1912, Tuberculosis was probably the cause of one-third of disease caused deaths in the nineteenth century. That’s quite a claim.

Environments with poor ventilation, overcrowding and people with poor nutrition (including the drinking of infected cows milk) were all susceptible to the disease. However, improvements in housing and nutrition halved the number of deaths by the end of the century.

Within my own family, I have found cases where it has claimed my ancestor’s lives: a 35yr old Henry Bowers of Wicken, leaving his young wife with a hungry family of eight young children; two children both under the age of 1 year of James and Mary Martin of Little Downham – (another daughter died aged 9yrs from Scarlet Fever, and James himself was killed by a train not far from his house).

If you’re interested in reading more about poverty and disease (such a jolly topic i know!), i recommend getting hold of a copy of Rosemary Rees’ Poverty and Public Health : 1815-1948 (Heinemann Advanced History S.)

More on Tuberculosis at Wikipedia