This is the second part of the story of Stephen Willis, the Ramsgate hawker, and his parents, Stephen Willis senior and Ellen (née Foley). In the first part, we followed Stephen senior from his birth in Bishopsbourne near Canterbury in the early 1830s, through his life with Ellen Foley in Maidstone in the 1870s, their subsequent move to Canterbury, and his death there in 1890. But later records seemed to suggest that Stephen was still alive and living with Ellen in the 1890s…
1890 was a bad year for Ellen. Her husband Stephen died on 26 June, leaving her with seven children to look after, the youngest just two months old. By September the family was in crisis.
A short piece published in the Canterbury Journal on 27 September covered the previous week’s proceedings at the Canterbury Police Court. The second item was headed ‘A SAD CASE’ and concerned the theft by an 18-year old girl of ‘a number of articles belonging to her mother’. The 18-year old was called Sarah and her mother was Ellen Willis. Sarah had apparently broken into her mother’s house on two occasions and removed various items including two nightgowns, a shirt, a blanket and some plates. Sarah pleaded guilty to the charges.
The rest of the report makes difficult reading. Sarah was evidently living apart from the rest of the family. She complained to the court that her mother had ‘beaten her black and blue … several times’ and that she had been ‘turned out of doors’. The police superintendent said that Sarah had had ‘a bad bringing up’ and that the family were ‘much neglected’ and regularly ‘without food’.
Ellen’s own statement provides us with a fascinating insight into her life and, by inference, into the lives of thousands of other women in her situation. She made her living selling watercress and ‘often tramped 19 or 20 miles a day’. She had been at Whitstable when Sarah first broke in to the family home. Ellen claimed to have four children under five years old but this part of her story, at least, is untrue. Her four youngest children were aged 8 (Rosina), 6 (Thomas), 4 (William) and four months (Ellen/Nellie).
The Mayor, presiding over the court, was less than impressed with it all. He had some sympathy with Sarah, referring to the ‘unfortunate surroundings’ in which she had been brought up, but went on to describe her conduct as ‘unjustifiable’. Sarah was fined 10 shillings and it was suggested that the Church of England Temperance Society should be asked to help her to find work in domestic service.
The next sighting we have of Sarah comes six months later when she turns up in the 1891 census, as Sarah Foley, living in a lodging house in Gravesend, and working as a flower seller. I have yet to discover what happened to Sarah after this but it seems that the option of going into domestic service had not been explored, or at least, not taken up.
The rest of the family, meanwhile, were still living at 4 Church Lane, Canterbury, where Stephen senior had died the year before. The census entry is quite straightforward. Ellen Willis is listed with her six remaining children; Stephen (15), Eliza (13), Rose (8), Thomas (6), William (4) and Ellen (11 months). The two oldest were already working as hawkers, presumably assisting their mother. The only odd thing about the entry is that Ellen is described as married rather than widowed, but this can probably be put down to a basic error somewhere in the system.
By early 1893, the Willises had moved the 15 miles or so from Canterbury to Ramsgate on the Isle of Thanet – an island by name only, but an area with a strong sense of its own identity. Ramsgate, and its near neighbours, Broadstairs and Margate, were part of the late Victorian seaside boom, which brought thousands of people to England’s coastal resorts every summer – rich pickings for a family whose livelihood depended on the passing trade of holidaymakers and daytrippers.
On 1 March 1893, Ellen’s eleventh and youngest child, Walter Henry Willis, was born at 35 Thornton Road, Ramsgate. Ellen registered the birth herself on 11 April and she told the registrar that Walter’s father was Stephen Willis, a general labourer. But Stephen had been dead for nearly three years, so what was going on? Was Ellen lying to cover up an illegitimate birth?
About a year later, Ellen was in court once more. She had accused a woman called Minnie Perry of attacking her with a knife and stabbing her in the face. Ellen, it seemed, was lodging at Minnie’s house (i.e. 35 Thornton Road) and claimed that Minnie had threatened to throw a pail of water over her children. A quarrel had ensued and Ellen had come out of it the worse. Her complaint was dismissed, the court feeling that the evidence was ‘weak and inconclusive’, however, as a result of investigations into the case, she found herself back in court the following week, accused of breaching sanitary laws. Ellen was now charged with ‘overcrowding’ of the house at 35 Thornton Road and ordered to pay costs of 6s and 6d.
Ellen’s name continues to crop up in the pages of the Thanet Advertiser and other local newspapers throughout the 1890s. It was clear that she was constantly struggling to keep her head above water. In September 1900 she was charged with using ‘profane language’ in Packer’s Lane, Ramsgate. The wording of the report in the Thanet Advertiser relating to this case is slightly ambiguous; after describing Ellen Willis as a ‘married woman’ it refers to her ‘quarrelling with the man she was living with’. We then learn that the quarrel was caused by her husband refusing to allow her to go inside the house. The implication is that ‘the man she was living with’ and ‘her husband’ were two different people. There had apparently been ‘several complaints’ about Ellen’s conduct; she was fined 10 shillings and given one week to pay up, or face imprisonment.
The 1901 census only introduces new levels of confusion. The Willis family (or at least, some of them) were living at 10 Henry Villas, in Packer’s Lane, Ramsgate. The head of the family was Stephen Willis, a 54-year old fish hawker, born in Canterbury (but Stephen was dead!). Next up was his 53-year old wife, Elizabeth, a flower hawker, who was apparently born in London. Then we get the names of four children and we’re on more familiar ground here with Stephen (aged 24), Eliza (21), Rose (17) and Thomas (16), the first three also working as flower hawkers. Despite some slight discrepancies in the ages, we can recognise them as the children of Stephen and Ellen Willis.
Of Ellen and her three youngest children, William, Nellie and Walter Henry, there is no sign.
Time to take a deep breath and assess what we’re looking at here…
Who were the Stephen and Elizabeth Willis, listed as the parents of the four children who we know to have been the offspring of Stephen Willis (deceased) and Ellen (née Foley)? Well, it’s a strange story, but once again, the newspapers give us (some of) the answers.
We need to rewind to 1892, and a piece which appeared in the Thanet Advertiser on 3 December, covering proceedings at the recent sitting of the Ramsgate Police Court. The report names three men, Stephen Willis, Charles Manning and James Young, who were charged with poaching on the land of John Palmer of Dunlock Farm in Minster, a few miles from Ramsgate. We get quite a lot of detail regarding the case (Victorian newspapers are such a good source for stuff like this – all human life is there!) but the crucial thing from our point of view is the description of Stephen Willis. John Walker the bailiff at the farm said that he knew Willis ‘because he had a wooden leg’.
And it’s this clue that allows us to identify this particular Stephen. I could (and probably will) write a whole blog just about him but for now I’ll just give you a brief summary of his life up until this point.
He had been born in Barham near Canterbury in 1839, the son of John and Sarah Willis. John was the younger brother of Ingram Willis who we met in the first part of this blog post. Which makes this Stephen the first cousin of ‘our’ Stephen. His family seem to have avoided the workhouse but Stephen soon found himself in a succession of institutions of a different sort, the result of an ever-escalating criminal career. Six months in Dover Prison from October 1858 was followed almost immediately by a year incarcerated in Lewes. And shortly after his release he was back inside again, serving three years for housebreaking.
The courts were clearly getting serious with him and when he was convicted of stealing fowls in March 1867 he was sentenced to seven years imprisonment; time which he served in Millbank, Dartmoor and Portland.
Stephen served nearly 5½ years of his sentence before being released in July 1872 under licence and he doesn’t seem to have gone back to prison after that – at least not for a substantial period. Instead, he seems to have settled (for a while at least) and at the time of the 1881 census he can be found living in Enfield with his wife Sarah. I say ‘wife’ but there is, you won’t be surprised to hear, no record of a marriage.
Ten years later, in 1891, Stephen was back in Kent, living under the roof of the Dover Union Workhouse. The common thread in all of these documents is that his trade is consistently given as that of a brickmaker. And the prison records all mention the fact that Stephen had lost his leg below the knee. There can be no doubt that we’re dealing with the same person throughout all of these records.
And, as we’ve seen, by the following year, Stephen had made his way to Ramsgate where he was in trouble for poaching, something which was to become a recurring theme for the rest of his life; he seems to have been particularly handy with a ferret and a rabbit net.
You’ve probably worked out what’s going on by now but a succession of newspaper reports over the next few years (not to mention the small matter of the birth of a child in March 1893) make it quite clear that Stephen had stepped into the shoes (well, just one of them…) of his cousin.
For a start, also in March 1893, Stephen was charged by the school board with failing to send his child to school. The child in question ‘a little girl who went about selling water-cress’ (sound familiar?) apparently hadn’t been to any school in the town. This was probably Rosina who would have been 11 at the time; Stephen had evidently taken on parental responsibility for his late cousin’s children.
In April 1895 Stephen was summoned again ‘in respect of his child Rose’ and he was fined once more in October the same year for ‘neglecting to send his child to school’.
Stephen Willis junior was by now an adult and it becomes difficult to be certain which of the two is being referred to as the seemingly endless succession of court cases continue to crop up in the local newspaper. Occasionally, they’re identified in the reports as Stephen Willis ‘the older’ or ‘the younger’ (did anyone know – or care – that they weren’t actually father and son?) but more often than not, we’re left to make our own minds up. (As a rule of thumb, if poaching is concerned it’s probably the former and if drunken brawling in the streets is mentioned we can make an intelligent guess at the latter.)
So, what had happened to Ellen? Stephen seems to have had a relationship (probably quite a short term one) with a woman called Elizabeth who appears as the mother to his step-children in the 1901 census, and the incident in Packer’s Lane in September 1900 suggests that Ellen had another man in her life. In fact, a child called Dora Gladys Spencer was born to an Ellen Foley in Folkestone in January 1896 and later ‘adopted’ by a family called Piggott. Was this child the result of Ellen’s relationship with this mysterious man?
Two more incidents in 1900 are worthy of note. First of all, in July 1900, Stephen Willis, hawker of Packer’s Lane, Ramsgate was charged with assaulting his wife, Ellen. The report on the case includes some fascinating detail. Ellen stated that she had been married to Stephen for ten years (it was actually probably closer to nine years – not that there was a formal marriage ceremony anyway) and that on the day of the alleged assault he had come home drunk. Stephen replied that he had been teetotal for 18 months but that his wife’s ‘drunken habits’ had driven him to drink. Interestingly, one of Ellen’s daughters spoke up for Stephen claiming that she had witnessed her mother throwing a teapot at Stephen ‘who did not touch her’ and that the marks on her mother’s face were caused by her ‘knocking her head against the door’. Stephen and Ellen were bound over to keep the peace.
But just two months later, the Willises were back in court and this time it was Stephen ‘the younger’ who was accused of assaulting his mother. Ellen, however declined to prosecute and the case was dismissed.
The key to much of what happened to the Willis family in the 1890s may well be found in the records of the Thanet Poor Law Union. I suspect that Ellen and the three younger children were all in the care of the Poor Law authorities at the time of the 1901 census. I would love to find their whereabouts…
In January 1903, Stephen was summoned for ‘allowing his child, Nellie Willis, aged nine years, to be in Camden-road for the purpose of offering firewood for sale’. Nellie said that she had come out on her own and that her father ‘did not send her out to sell it’. Stephen said that Nellie was in fact ‘just a little under 14 years of age’ and the court asked him to produce her birth certificate, suggesting that if she really was nearly 14, the prosecution would fail.
After an adjournment for a week, Stephen returned to the court but without a copy of the certificate. He now stated that Nellie was ‘the daughter of his wife’s first husband’ – which was true. He also said that she had been born in Canterbury and that she would be 14 in June – which was almost true; she would actually have become 13 in June. In the event, Stephen was ordered to pay seven shillings costs and the case was closed.
Ellen must at some time have returned to the family and may even have become reconciled with her second Stephen Willis. When she died at the family home in Packer’s Lane in March 1908, it was Stephen ‘widower of the deceased’ who registered the death.
Then we come to the 1911 census entry for the family which is one of the most confusing census schedules it’s ever been my pleasure to come across. It took me a long time to work out what was going on and I’m still not entirely sure about some of the details. If you take it all at face value the head of the household was the 32-year old Stephen junior (he would actually have been 35 at the time) who was, supposedly a widower who had been married for 20 years. And he’d had two children, four of whom were still alive…
But the one thing that we can’t do is take this at face value. It seems to me that there was some confusion about which of the two Stephens was the ‘subject’ of the census schedule. Because the older Stephen had ‘married’ Ellen about 20 years ago, and the place of birth of the ‘head’ of the household is given as Barham – which fits the older Stephen but not the younger. The entry is, essentially, an amalgam of the two Stephens, stepfather and stepson.
I have to confess that my initial reading of this (and of the 1901 census entry) was wrong. I had theorised that the younger Stephen was acting as pater familias in order to keep the family together. But that was before it was suggested to me by a fellow researcher (thank you Allie Nickell for the nudge) that maybe, just maybe, Ellen really had been married to two different men called Stephen Willis, and once I went away and took a closer look at all the newspaper items and realised that there was a second Stephen and that the two men were cousins, it all started to fall into place. Kind of.
Stephen the second died on 14 June 1914 at his home in Ramsgate. His death was registered by his ‘daughter’ Rosina (now Mrs Oclee) who gave his occupation as ‘Brickmaker (journeyman)’, confirming, if any doubt remained, that this was the ‘other’ Stephen, her stepfather.
There are still lots of questions to answer and there are lots of stories to tell about other members of the family (for example, the tragic tale of Nellie, who fell off a riverboat and drowned in 1917, a year after her husband had died on the Western Front). Life had always been a struggle for the family but they survived and things seem to have taken a turn for the better after the First World War. And we can be comforted by the knowledge that Stephen junior lived out his final years as a familiar character on the streets of Ramsgate and that his final mention in the Thanet Advertiser had a somewhat more positive tone to it than some of the earlier ones.
© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 26 November 2020