I remember thinking, when I was just setting out on my family history research as a naïve fifteen year old, that this genealogy business was quite a simple affair. Once you’d found a record of someone’s birth, you looked for their parents’ marriage, then you looked for their births, their parents’ marriages and so on, until you got as far back as you could go. Couldn’t be easier…
But if forty plus years of experience has taught me anything, it’s that family history research is rarely, if ever, straightforward. Every case is different and each one presents a unique set of challenges, particularly when our ancestors didn’t follow the rules.
We like to think of our families living comfortable lives, free from harm, in stable relationships, with regular employment, a home, and enough food to keep them healthy, by the standards of the times, at least.
The reality, of course, is that the combined threats of hunger and disease were ever present, particularly for our working class ancestors, and that many of them lived from hand-to-mouth, looking for work wherever they could find it, with the dreaded spectre of the workhouse looming constantly over their lives.
And there were many people who lived on the edge of society for whom life could be particularly tough; the itinerant travellers, costermongers and hawkers, many of whom showed an understandable distrust of authority. These people can be difficult to trace in the records at the best of time and the information that they supplied to the registrars, clerks and census officials can be thought of more as an opening negotiation than as anything that we might think of as fact.
This is the story of one such family, whose lives in late 19th and early 20th century Kent tell of hardship, suffering and frequent encounters with the law. The family had what we might call a relaxed attitude to the truth and they viewed marriage as, to quote Henry Mayhew, ‘a waste of time and money’. It’s also a story with an unexpected twist…
Stephen Willis was a familiar character in Ramsgate in the early part of the twentieth century. He could often be seen driving his cart around the streets of the bustling seaside town, his dog perched precariously on the back of his pony.
Life had been a struggle for Stephen. As a young man he’d been in constant trouble with the law, with frequent appearances in court on charges of assault and drunkenness, but by the 1930s, he had gained an air of respectability. He was even, perhaps, a bit of a local celebrity, and when he died in 1938, his death was reported in the local newspaper.
Stephen had been born into poverty in Maidstone in 1875. His father, also Stephen, was a labourer and a native of Kent. The Willis family’s roots were in Barham, a small village roughly halfway between Canterbury and Dover, just off the ancient Roman road, now better known as the A2. But Stephen senior was born a few miles to the north, in the parish of Bishopsbourne.
The older Stephen’s father, Ingram Willis, had been born in Barham but after marrying Thomasine (or Tamsin) Finnis in 1826, had settled in Bishopsbourne where nine children were born in the 13 years between 1827 and 1840. Remarkably, all nine survived and it was probably the struggle to feed all those hungry mouths which led to the family being forced into the workhouse.
The Elham Union Workhouse at Lyminge was built in 1836. It housed 177 pauper inmates at the time of the 1841 census, including Ingram and ‘Tamzen’ Willis and their nine children. Stephen was 10 years old at the time.
The Willises had been admitted to the workhouse on 14 November 1840 and stayed there for nine months, eventually being discharged on 13 August 1841.
Shortly afterwards, in October 1841, another child, Mary, was baptised at Elham. She had probably been born in the workhouse and sadly, she only survived for a few months. Two years later, Ingram and Tamsin were back in Barham where their eleventh and youngest child, Eliza, was born.
What happened next is difficult to say. The records can only ever tell part of the story and the 1851 census returns for the Willis family are a good example of this. Ingram can be found living in Barham, with four of his older children; Richard, Stephen, Tammy and Ingram junior. Like their father, and, presumably, generations of the family before them, the two older boys, Richard and Stephen, were working as agricultural labourers. Stephen was, according to the census, aged 18, although he was actually 19 or 20 at the time.
The three youngest surviving daughters, meanwhile, were back in Elham workhouse.
The big question then is, what had happened to their mother, Tamsin? And the answer is that, sometime in the early-to-mid 1840s, she had been admitted to the Kent County Lunatic Asylum, at Barming Heath near Maidstone. At least, a 45-year old married woman with the initials T.W. who was described as the wife of a Labourer, is listed in the 1851 census returns for the asylum and, seven years later, in the December quarter of 1858, the death of Tamasine Willis was registered in the Maidstone district.
And by then, the ten surviving Willis children had lost their father as well. Ingram Willis senior was buried at Barham on 23 November 1851. One day I’ll follow up the stories of the other children but for now, I’m focussing on Stephen.
The next sighting we have of him comes in the 1861 census; he’s living in Charlton near Dover with his recently-married brother Richard, both still working as labourers.
All too often the details of significant parts of our ancestors’ lives are missing. We find them in one census and the next time we see them is a whole decade later. Who knows what had happened to Stephen in the ten intervening years but we catch up with him again in 1871, living with his wife, Caroline. They were lodging at the Oddfellows, a pub in Folkestone.
This is the first example of a phenomenon which was to become almost commonplace in this story; the phantom marriage! There is no record of Stephen marrying anyone called Caroline, or at least, there’s no evidence that they underwent a formal marriage ceremony. Caroline certainly considered herself to be married as we learn from the text of a newspaper report from October 1871. It’s a report on a case heard at the Dover Police Court on Saturday, 7 October, in which Caroline Willis, a lodger at the Red Lion in St James’s Street, Dover was the victim of a crime involving the theft of her purse and a number of other items from her room at the pub. Crucially, Caroline described herself as a ‘married woman’ and stated that her husband’s name was Stephen Willis.
The 1871 census described Stephen as a 41-year old labourer and gave his place of birth as Barham, Kent. Caroline was a year younger and apparently born in Bath. No earlier or later trace of her has been found but without knowing her maiden name that’s perhaps not too surprising. She’ll have to remain a mystery for now.
How long Stephen and Caroline had been together will also have to remain unknown but we know that, within a few years of the 1871 census, they had parted ways and Stephen was living with a new ‘wife’.
Sometime between late 1871 and early 1875, Stephen Willis met and began a relationship with a young woman called Ellen Foley. Her early life is shrouded in mist; she was born in Tisbury, Wiltshire but there’s no record of her birth and no obvious trace of her in the 1851, 1861 or 1871 censuses. I suspect that her family originated in Ireland and that her parents were itinerant travellers.
Ellen‘s oldest daughter, Sarah, was born in 1872 in Gravesend. The birth was registered under the name of Sarah Foley and it seems fairly certain that Stephen wasn’t the father. His name doesn’t appear on Sarah’s birth certificate; in fact, Ellen only appears on the certificate as the informant. The mother is said to have been Mary Ann Foley!
It’s impossible to say what’s going on here. Who was Mary Ann? If she really was Sarah’s mother what happened to her? Ellen definitely had a daughter called Sarah, born in Gravesend in 1872 (or, at least someone called Sarah who she considered to be her daughter) and if this isn’t her, who is it? Sarah, it’s interesting to note, was born on 6 February 1872 but her birth wasn’t registered until 31 May. The signature of the Deputy Superintendent Registrar indicates that a fine would have been paid for late registration.
Whether Sarah was Stephen’s daughter or not – or even Ellen’s – he and Ellen were definitely together by the early part of 1875. Later that year, on 16 December, Ellen gave birth to twins; a boy and a girl. They were living in Stone Street, Maidstone, right in the heart of the ancient town. Sadly, the daughter died young without being named, but the son, Stephen Samuel Willis, survived and was baptised at the parish church of St Phillip, Maidstone on 20 January 1876.
Of course, there’s no record of a marriage taking place between Stephen Willis and Ellen Foley in Kent around this time, or indeed anywhere else at any time.
Nevertheless, Stephen and Ellen were by now an established ‘married’ couple and the following year, on 27 September 1877, another child was born. Named Eliza, she was born in the Medway Union Workhouse in Chatham, some eight miles north of Maidstone. Ellen had been admitted to the workhouse the day before (she’s listed in the admission and discharge registers under the name Ellen Wilson) together with her son, Stephen. They were discharged a few weeks later on 13 October.
We have to be careful here; by the latter half of the nineteenth century workhouses were increasingly being used as maternity wards so we mustn’t assume that Ellen had entered the workhouse for any reason other than to give birth in a (relatively) safe environment. The workhouse would at least have offered her some basic assistance.
The family must have been constantly on the move. By May 1880, they were back in Maidstone, living at an address in Bristow’s Yard, where another child, Walter, was born and they were still in Bristow’s Yard at the time of the 1881 census. Stephen was still working as an agricultural labourer but Ellen was listed as a hawker. It’s interesting to see that Ellen’s occupation is recorded. It’s perhaps an indication that she had an independent income and wasn’t entirely reliant on her husband.
As a hawker, Ellen would also have had a non-traditional view of marriage. Henry Mayhew, writing in London Labour And The London Poor in 1851, wrote the following about attitudes to marriage amongst London costermongers ‘and other street folk’:
Only one-tenth—at the outside one-tenth—of the couples living together and carrying on the costermongering trade, are married. In Clerkenwell parish, however, where the number of married couples is about a fifth of the whole, this difference is easily accounted for, as in Advent and Easter the incumbent of that parish marries poor couples without a fee. Of the rights of “legitimate” or “illegitimate” children the costermongers understand nothing, and account it a mere waste of money and time to go through the ceremony of wedlock when a pair can live together, and be quite as well regarded by their fellows, without it. The married women associate with the unmarried mothers of families without the slightest scruple. There is no honour attached to the marriage state, and no shame to concubinage.
Marriage, for people like Ellen, wasn’t about going through a legal ceremony. It was an unwritten contract, in which a man and woman lived (and often worked) together for their mutual benefit. It may have offered little in the way of long-term security (particularly for the women) but they considered themselves to be married just as much as anyone else in the mainstream of society. It’s possible that Caroline, Stephen’s previous partner, had also been a traveller.
Returning to the 1881 census entry, the Willis family is completed by Stephen and Ellen’s four children; Sarah, Stephen, Eliza and Walter. Further children were soon to follow; Rosina Elizabeth and Thomas were born in Bristow’s Yard in February 1882 and January 1884 respectively (the entry in the St Philip’s, Maidstone baptismal register shows Rosina’s mother’s name as Ellen Folley) but by the middle of the decade the family had moved to Canterbury.
Three more children were born there, bringing Ellen’s total to ten. William arrived sometime around 1886, Margaret (who died young) followed the next year and then, on 26 June 1890, Ellen (aka Nellie) Willis was born at 4 Church Lane, Northgate, Canterbury. Or, at least, that’s the date recorded on her birth certificate; in fact she was almost certainly born some considerable time before this. She was baptised at the parish church of St Gregory, Canterbury on 6 October 1890 – and a note in the register indicates that she was then six months old, and therefore born in March or April.
There’s a clue on the birth certificate. Ellen registered the birth on 8 August 1890 – exactly six weeks after Nellie’s supposed date of birth. And when we remember that parents had six weeks to register their children’s births, the invented date of birth begins to make sense.
There’s so much to talk about here (not least of which is the fact that Ellen/Nellie’s birth was registered under the name Frances and she was baptised as Mary Anne!) but the crucial thing to note is that on the baptismal record, the words ‘now deceased’ are written after Stephen’s occupation.
Stephen had died in the Kent & Canterbury Hospital on 25 June (the cause of death given as the horrific-sounding ‘Cancer of Face’) and his death was registered by Ellen two days later (the day after she had supposedly given birth).
To paraphrase the opening lines to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol:
Stephen was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever, about that.
So how then, do we explain the fact that Stephen Willis is listed in the 1901 census as the father of Stephen junior, Eliza, Rose (Rosina) and Thomas and that he was the informant on his wife Ellen’s death certificate in 1908?
Find out in part two here….
© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 21 November 2020