A Draper’s Tale

Thomas Port, my great great grandfather, was born on 22 August 1822 in St Pancras, London. There is, however, no official record of his birth or baptism – at least none that I have ever been able to find. The information I have is taken from two separate sources: Thomas’s date of birth is entered in an old family bible, while the place of birth is recorded in the 1891 census.

I only discovered the entry in the family bible a few months ago, as a result of a contact made through the Ancestry website. I’d known about the bible for over 20 years – Thomas mentioned it in his will along with his ‘portrait in oils’ (which I’ve never managed to track down) – but it was a real thrill to see it for the first time, even if it was only in the form of a digital photo.

The absence of a record of Thomas’s birth led me on a prolonged research journey, lasting more than 20 years, as I sought to find evidence of his birth. My theory that he was the illegitimate son of Mary Ann Port, who worked as a governess in Buckingham in the early decades of the 19th century, was all but confirmed when I found that I had a DNA match with a descendant of Mary Ann’s grandmother.

I know nothing about Thomas’s childhood. In fact, the first 25 years of Thomas’s life are a complete blank as far as documentary evidence is concerned; most frustratingly, I have been unable to find him in the 1841 census.

I suspect that he grew up in Buckingham although I have no hard evidence to support this. He must have gone to school – he was clearly an educated man – and he probably served an apprenticeship. But I have no idea where he went to school or where he learnt his trade. He would have been apprenticed to a draper and I would expect Thomas to have completed his seven-year term in 1843 at the age of 21.

Market Place, Buckingham

Mary Ann Port died in Buckingham in 1846 and the following year, Thomas married for the first time. The marriage certificate gives Thomas’s occupation as a draper and his residence simply as ‘Buckingham’ but there’s a blank space where we would expect to see the details of his father. His bride was a local woman called Mary Layton, the daughter of Benjamin Layton, a carpenter. Thomas and Mary were married at the Independent Chapel (the ‘Old Meeting’) in Well Street, Buckingham. Mary’s father had died in 1835 and it was her brother George who acted as one of the witnesses. The other witness was a woman called Mary Biss, a member of the Independent congregation in Buckingham.

The names of Mary Biss and Thomas Port appear regularly in the minute book of the Buckingham Independent (Congregational) Church’s Sabbath School. Thomas’s wife was also a member of the congregation, having been baptised at the chapel in Well Street in 1815. Thomas’s name first crops us in the minutes on 13 January 1847. It’s clear that he was closely involved with the church for a number of years, taking an active role in organising and running the school’s library. Thomas was later (in January 1850) elected Superintendent of the school.

Old Meeting Sabbath School minute book [Buckingham Congregational], 1842-1850
Buckinghamshire Archives reference: NC/4/1

Thomas must have been quite well known in the town. His marriage to Mary ‘Leighton’ was announced in the Oxford Chronicle on Saturday, 5 June 1847:

June 1, at the Old Meeting House, Buckingham, by the Rev. W. D. Rowe, Mr Thomas Port to Miss M. Leighton, of Church Street, Buckingham.

We get an address here (the marriage certificate simply gave their ‘Residence at the Time of Marriage’ as Buckingham) but it’s not entirely clear whether it was Mary or Thomas who lived in Church Street, or indeed both of them.

This was certainly the address at which their first two children (Kate Mary Elizabeth and Frederick Thomas) were born in February 1849 and July 1850 respectively. But by the time of the 1851 census, just eight months after Frederick Thomas was born, Thomas and Mary had uprooted themselves and moved 50 miles away to the booming industrial city of Birmingham.

1851 census, 56 Stafford Street, Birmingham
The National Archives reference: HO 107/2057 f.60 p.39

Thomas and Mary first settled at an address just to the north of Birmingham city centre. An 1852 trade directory lists Thomas Port, a draper, at 56 Stafford Street. The family were soon on the move again but they would move to their new home with just one child; Kate Mary Elizabeth died in October 1851 following an outbreak of smallpox in the area.

The Junction of Lichfield Street & Stafford Street, Birmingham. Painting by George Warren Blackham (ca.1890). Birmingham Museums Trust

The Ports’ second shop in Birmingham was located in another busy shopping area; Sherlock Street was one of the main roads leading into the city from the south. Thomas Port, draper, is recorded at 191 Sherlock Street in a number of trade directories between 1852 and 1858 and this was also the address at which two more children (Mary Emma and Annie) were born.

Thomas and Mary stayed a bit longer at Sherlock Street than they had at Stafford Street (around six years) but their next move saw them leave Birmingham itself to settle in the industrial town of Smethwick, then a hamlet within the ancient parish of Harborne and some three miles from Birmingham.

We don’t know precisely when they moved to Smethwick but we know that they were there by December 1859 and the move seems, at first at least, not to have been a particularly happy one. Lucy Ann Mary Port, Thomas and Mary’s fifth child, was born at the family’s new home in Mill Lane, Smethwick, on 7 December 1859, but just twelve days later, her mother died. Not, as you might suspect, as the result of complications from the birth, but from a disease that was a killer in Victorian Britain: bronchitis.

Mary Port was the first member of the family to be buried in the new family plot at Key Hill Cemetery in Birmingham. She was soon to be followed by her recently-born daughter, Lucy Ann Mary, who died in April 1860. Kate Mary Elizabeth, the daughter who had died soon after the family’s arrival in Birmingham had been buried nearby in a public grave in October 1851 but her name was later added to the gravestone.

The 1861 census finds the family living at Windmill Lane in Smethwick. The precise address isn’t recorded but from other records I’ve been able to work out that the Port’s home, and the location of their draper’s shop, was 1 Windmill Lane. The address is frequently given as Six Ways, the name of the junction at which Windmill Lane and five other roads met. The Port’s shop was on the corner of Windmill Lane and Lower Cross Street. Nothing remains of the old Six Ways today; the whole area was redeveloped in the late 20th century and is now a modern housing estate and the junction, a large urban roundabout.

Ordnance Survey 25″ Map, Staffordshire sheet LXXII.3 (detail) – National Library of Scotland
Showing Windmill Lane leading south-west from the junction at Six Ways and Upper Grove Street, Smethwick.

The family at Windmill Lane in 1861 consisted of Thomas, aged 38, a linen draper, his three surviving children – Frederick T, Mary E and Annie – and his sister-in-law, Ann Layton. Ann is listed in the census as a housekeeper and had evidently come up from Buckingham to help Thomas with the children. The household is completed by George L Simmons, an apprentice of Thomas’s and a 13-year old servant called Harriet Beech. Although not stated in the census, George Layton Simmons was also a relative; he was the nephew of Thomas’s late wife, Mary, the son of her sister, Elizabeth.

A few months after the census was taken, Thomas married for the second time. His second wife was Mary Anne Berrill, who, at the time of the 1861 census had been listed as the proprietress of a ‘ladies seminary’ in Smethwick. It’s likely that she and Thomas had met through their involvement in the local Congregational Church, where they were married on 4 July 1861.

The Ports were to remain in Smethwick for over 30 years. Thomas was to have another eight children with Mary Anne; three boys and five girls, born between 1862 and 1875.

Sometime around 1867, having worked as a draper for over 20 years, Thomas gave up the shop at Six Ways to become a soda manufacturer. I’ve been unable to find a precise definition of this but I believe that it was a chemical process involving the manufacture of caustic soda. It seems like a strange career change for a man who had worked his whole life as a retailer and it’s difficult to envisage precisely what his role was. Was Thomas doing the work himself or was he simply an employer with a business which made the soda? As a man of means in his mid-40s, I assume that it was the latter, although there’s no evidence of him owning a business; there’s certainly nothing in the local trade directories.

I found an intriguing entry in a newspaper dating from 1864 (at a time when we know that he still had his draper’s shop at Six Ways). A notice was published on 4 October 1864 in the Birmingham Daily Post, announcing the dissolution of a partnership between Thomas Port and James Anderton who had been ‘carrying on Business at Smethwick, in the county of Stafford, under the style or Firm of “PORT and ANDERSON,” as Crystallised Soap Manufacturers’. The manufacture of soap was closely connected to the manufacture of soda and in at least one record, Thomas was described as a ‘soap manufacturer’. I need to find out more about this, particularly as it relates to Smethwick itself.

After the Ports gave up the shop at Six Ways they moved to a new home in Upper Grove Street, a short distance to the south and close to the Anglican parish church of St Matthew. The family were still living there at the time of the 1871 census. Thomas is described as a soda manufacturer, as is his oldest son (my great grandfather, Frederick). The oldest daughter, Mary Emma was working as a teacher in the British School; several of her younger siblings were also to become teachers.

1871 census, Upper Grove Street, Smethwick
The National Archives reference: RG 10/3086 f.73 p.16

By the time that Thomas and Mary Anne’s youngest daughter, Bertha Lilian, was born in 1875, the family had moved again. Their new home was at 4 Windmill Lane, just a few doors away from their old draper’s shop. Thomas was still working as a soda manufacturer but he was soon to retire from business. His name appears in an 1880 directory under the ‘Private Residents’ section and the 1881 census describes him as a ‘Retired Chemical Manufacturer’.

Sadly, four of the children from Thomas’s second marriage died young (all buried at Key Hill Cemetery), but others married and provided him with grandchildren. Five were born in his lifetime and another six after he died. Two documents from the late 1880s describe Thomas as a house proprietor. He continued to live at 4 Windmill Lane and he and Mary Anne, along with five of their children, are listed there in the 1891 census. Thomas’s ‘occupation’ was given as ‘Living on his own means’; he clearly had an independent source of income.

Then, sometime in the mid-1890s, Thomas and Mary Anne left Smethwick to spend their retirement years in the small Worcestershire village of Chaddesley Corbett, where their daughter, Nellie, was the head teacher of the local board school.

Thomas was to die in Chaddesley Corbett a few years later. The local newspaper, the Smethwick Telephone carried a short piece on 20 January 1900:

The Smethwick Telephone, 20 January 1900, page 3, column c
British Library Newspapers

Thomas died on 18 January. He was buried five days later in the family grave at Key Hill Cemetery, the seventh member of the family to be interred there. The grave was to be opened two more times; once on 12 November 1904 when Mary Anne was reunited with her husband and then 38 years later when their daughter Nellie died.

I visited Key Hill Cemetery for the first time in June 2017, having discovered just a few months earlier that this was my great great grandfather’s final resting place. Finding the plot proved to be an emotional event, but the actual moment of discovery was tinged with the disappointment of realising that the stone itself was in a terrible state. It had fallen and was lying on its back in pieces. Much of the text is illegible, the face of the stone having crumbled away many years ago.

Port family gravestone, Key Hill Cemetery, Birmingham
Photographed by the author, June 2017

The cemetery was neglected for many years but since 2004, the Friends of Key Hill Cemetery & Warstone Lane Cemetery have been working to maintain and restore the two historic burial grounds. A recent crowdfunder successfully raised the money to restore 15 damaged gravestones in the two cemeteries and a new ‘stretch target’ has just been announced which would allow for another 5 stones to be rescued. It would be great if the Ports’ stone was one of those considered most ‘at risk’ but even if it’s not, it’s a great and worthwhile cause and all donations are greatly appreciated.

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 8 August 2021

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