Jane Howson (1826 – 1833) & Isaac Wilkinson (1826 – 1905)

This is part of a series of biographies of early ancestors.

Dressed in her mother’s “for best, dear” muslin, Jane stepped cautiously through the church gate. The baby was fast asleep in her arms. Her father, John, was just a couple of steps behind. The pair paused and looked at the congregation milling about in front of the church. It appeared to be mainly the smarter folks from Kirkby Overblow village. It was the last day of August and Jane was pretty certain that their Rigton neighbours would be hard at work harvesting, not able to spare the time to walk the three miles to church. “Come on” John urged, doffing his cap as he stepped forward. The pair crossed the threshold into the cool interior and nervously approached the vicar. “We are John & Jane Howson from Rigton and we’ve come t’ get the babe baptised.” Not a lie of course, but hiding a truth, that John was the grandfather, not father, of the boy his daughter held. “Welcome” said the vicar, “John, you say” not quite recognising the man “we’ll call you to the font during the service.” Jane & John took a seat in a pew to the furthest side of the church. The baby slept soundly in her arms through hymn, prayer, hymn, prayer, hymn, sermon, prayer… right up until the point where the vicar poured cold water from the font on his forehead when he woke with a loud scream. “in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost we baptise you John Thomas and welcome you into the church community.” And just like that it was done, the bastard baby was baptised and recorded in the parish record as John Thomas, son of John & Jane Howson, Rigton.

Two documents made Jane’s life much harder to research than some. The first was the baptism record referred to above. The second was an 1891 census listing one Jane Wilkinson, wife of Isaac, living in North Rigton somewhat at odds with a gravestone showing her as having died in 1883. I had a lot of fun trying to put this story together….

The first accurate survey of Leeds was published by Netlam and Giles in 1815. It clearly shows the different types of development at each end of the Headrow…[including] the narrow streets, and crowded terraces of back-to–back houses of the east end. https://secretlibraryleeds.net/2015/09/25/the-headrow-coffee-change-loss/

Jane was born in Leeds around 1826, the only child of Mary Robinson & John Howson. Whilst Mary had been born in Boroughbridge & John in North Rigton, both were living in Leeds at the time of their marriage in 1826. Given that the 1841 census lists John & Mary as living on Lowerhead Row (the eastern part of The Headrow and close to Kirkgate Market) and John’s occupation as “butter dealer” it is reasonably safe to assume this is the general area where Jane was born & brought up. Jane herself was staying with her maternal grandparents in Boroughbridge in 1841.

Birth certificate of John Thomas Howson.

Everything changed for Jane on 6 August 1845 when her son, John Thomas, was born at Rigton, apparently fatherless. Had the whole family returned to Rigton before Jane became pregnant? Had they returned from Leeds knowing she was? Or had Jane returned from Boroughbridge in disgrace to join her parents or grandparents just before the baby was born? Then there is the baptism record for one John Howson at All Saints, Kirkby Overblow on 31 August 1845 listing two parents as John & Jane Howson from Rigton. This record has led a lot of people to assume there was a brother, John, married to another Jane, also having a son called John in 1845. I can find no other evidence that such a brother, wife or child existed which led me to imagining the above sleight of hand.

Isaac’s earlier years are much more straightforward. Born in Rigton the only son of Ann Thomas & Matthew Wilkinson. Isaac was baptised at Kirkby Overblow on 23 October 1826 and in 1841 was living with his paternal grandfather and uncle, still in North Rigton.

The couple were married on 24 September 1847 at Otley registry office, the existence of John Thomas potentially the reason for not getting married at Kirkby Overblow. (Either that, or the church had discovered Jane’s earlier deception!). A son, James, was born in 1849, and a daughter, Mary Ann (our great, great grandmother), was born in 1850. The couple lived with or next door to Jane’s parents in the centre of North Rigton village for the remainder of their lives.

Rigton Hill, 1906, from www.northrigton.org. The Wilkinson family likely lived in one of the houses on the left.

Meanwhile the railways were coming. The Leeds and Thirsk Railway Act received Royal Assent on 21 July 1845 with construction starting on 20 October 1845.  The section from Weeton to Wormald Green opened on 1 September 1848 and from Weeton onto Leeds on 9 July 1849.

Weeton station is just over a mile from North Rigton and Isaac started working on the railways, as a repairer (1851), platelayer (1861 & 1871) or labourer (1881) leaving only to become a full-time farmer after the death of his father-in-law in 1883. In due course John Thomas became an “engine tenter” (overseeing an engine’s operations) and James an engine driver leaving just Mary Ann to marry a local farmer.

Jane Howson’s gravestone at Kirkby Overblow. Photo from www.gravestonephotos.com

Jane died at the age of 56 or 57 on 12 April 1883 from bronchitis and pneumonia not long after her father and only a couple of years after her mother. Having lived so close to their grandparents, the children must have been devastated and, unusually for a woman, Jane has her own beautiful headstone “in affectionate remembrance” at Kirkby Overblow complete with a poem:

“My wearied limbs are at rest.

Suffering and pain with me are o’er

I meet my friends whom God hath blest

In heaven where we shall part no more”

But if Jane died in 1883, why does the census list one Isaac & Jane Wilkinson as living in North Rigton in 1891? If there’s one complication in family history research that trips me up more than any other it’s forgetting that my male ancestors seemed to like marrying two women with the same first name. Maybe it’s so they don’t get mixed up. Isaac was one such culprit marrying Jane Woodhead (previously Lancaster) at Wetherby registry office on 26 April 1890. Sadly the marriage didn’t last long. Jane died just four years later. Unlike our Jane, she doesn’t appear to have merited her own headstone.

Rose Cottages, Rigton Hill. Isaac likely lived in the closest one. Own photo.

By 1901 the 75-year-old Isaac will still living on Rigton Hill, now with his granddaughter Mary Abigail (Mary Ann’s daughter & Grandad’s mother). He died four years later on 6 July 1905 from “syncope [fainting] caused by the shock of an accidental fall on the thirtieth day of June last.” An inquest was held, but I’ve been unable to locate any records.

Estate notice published in The Yorkshire Post on 29 July 1905

There’s one final part to the story. Whilst Isaac seems to have ignored both his daughter, Mary Ann, and Mary Ann’s daughter, Mary Abigail, when he wrote his will, he did chose to recognise both his son, James, and his wife’s illegitimate child, John Thomas, equally. One half of £164 – 4 – 0 may not have been a particularly large sum (it’s worth less than £13,000 in today’s money) but clearly demonstrates that Isaac thought of John Thomas as his own.

Extract from Isaac Wilkinson’s will, written in 1901, proven in 1905.

With much gratitude to Jane Howson & Isaac Wilkinson, my great, great, great grandparents for helping me hone my research skills. Jane and Isaac are the parents of Mary Ann Wilkinson who is the mother of Mary Abigail Clapham who is the mother of my Grandad.

Margaret Grange (1728 – 1816) & George Houseman (1727 – 1815) – a founding family

Most people have sixty-four sets of great great geat great great grandparents. I, however, have sixty-three, for Margaret Grange & George Houseman were the ancestors of both my Grandma (Mary Houseman) and my Grandad (George Houseman). Houseman is my birth surname, doubly inherited and it is through this couple that I connect to almost all the Housemans in Yorkshire (where the majority of Housemans in England still reside). It is also where my fascination with family history started. (See Is Grandma related to Grandad?). Although I can trace back further, Margaret & George are, for me, our founding family and, as we will see at the end, the foundation of a multi-generational connection between Housemans and the Yorkshire village of Darley.

So who were Margaret Grange and George Houseman?

Margaret was likely the sixth of seven children born to John Grange of Porch House, Pateley Bridge in c. 1728. It is difficult to be certain of this as I have been unable to find a baptism record, but her birth fits into the pattern of the siblings one of whom was called Joseph and who was likely the Joseph Grange who stood as witness at her wedding. Margaret’s year of birth is derived from the age of death listed on her burial record.

George’s heritage is clearer. Baptised at St Marys, Pateley Bridge, on 3 March 1727, his parents were Margaret Wilks & George Houseman. George had one half sibling, John (b. c. 1719), son of George senior and his first wife, Mary Jackson, and three full siblings Elizabeth (b. c. 1724), Michael (b. c. 1731) and Thomas (b. c. 1732). John seems to disappear from the records and, given he was the oldest son, I suspect this means he died young. Thomas died as an infant and Elizabeth too died, unmarried, in 1745. This left just the two brothers, George & Michael, who remained close, both starting work as linen & flax weavers and both acting as witnesses at each other’s weddings. Michael will continue to feature through this blog.

Margaret & George were married on 14 June 1759 at St Jude’s church, Hartwith with their wedding witnessed by their two brothers as mentioned above. Margaret was living in this parish at the time, George in the nearby parish of Pateley Bridge.

Home was “The Holme” at the east end of Darley. Holme Hall, dating from 1667, still exists today, beautifully restored and grade two listed. I like to imagine this was where they lived although it is entirely possible they were living in a mean little cottage close by which has long since disappeared…..

rom wwwHolme Hall, extracted from www.houseman.info, taken by J Simpson

Seven children arrived in quick succession: Thomas (b. c. 1760), Elizabeth (b. c. 1761), George junior (b. c. 1763), William (b. c. 1765), Benjamin (b. c. 1767), John (b. c. 1769) and Margaret junior (b. c. 1775). Margaret junior was likely a bit of a surprise arriving so long after the rest when Margaret herself would have been in her late forties. By contrast, George’s brother Michael had just one child, a son, Michael, in 1761, nine years after he had married.  

They were a healthy family. All seven children survived to adulthood, married and had children of their own. Sadly Elizabeth, George and Margaret were to die before their parents, but the other four children lived much longer with Thomas even reaching the grand old age of ninety-eight.

George continued to describe himself as a weaver on his children’s baptism records but at some point started to rent land in the local area. Both George & brother his Michael were ultimately to describe themselves as yeomen, as farmers. It is possible they inherited money from George senior during this time which enabled them to prosper. Michael died relatively young in 1785 and whilst the majority of his estate went to his sole heir, Michael junior, there were specific bequests for his nephews & nieces, George & Margaret’s children.

George lived much longer, dying in 1815 at the grand old age of 88 and was buried on 15 July at Pateley Bridge. Margaret died less than a year later, also, apparently, aged 88. However, oddly, Margaret was buried on 9 May 1816 at Hampsthwaite and not with her husband. This only thing I can think to explain this is perhaps she had moved to live with one of her children following the death of her husband the previous year.

Fortunately for us, George left a will which helped validate much of what I have written above. Thomas, as eldest son, was appointed executor and tasked with taking care of his mother. Thomas’s daughter, Margaret, was given a specific bequest of £5 which makes me think she had been the one taking care of her grandparents in their old age. The rest of the will is pretty equitable. Following Margaret’s death, the furniture was to be sold “by fare and open sale” and this, together with bills, bonds and all other security (totally just under £200 or nearly four years wages for a skilled tradesman at the time) was to be split equally between all the children, or, if deceased, their children, with one exception. Hannah, wife of the late George junior, was to receive just five shillings. This is amount was designed to prevent her contesting the will. There’s no indication in the will as to why she was left out but it’s possible there were questions as to her “character”. George junior & Hannah Furness were married by licence rather than banns on 14 October 1794 and their first daughter, Mary, was baptised just two weeks later. Hannah was to go on to marry again in 1817 and perhaps she had already been “seen” with her future second husband Thomas Akers.

Michael was to appear in the family’s life one last time, or rather his son, Michael did, for Michael junior died without children of his own. He left a substantial bequest to his cousins and, following the death of his wife, Margaret, in 1831, the cousins were to split nearly £1,000 between them. This was wealth indeed although somehow it seemed to dissipate over the generations between then & now!

The two branches of Margaret Grange & George Houseman connecting back to us as drawn out by Grandma. Own collection.

Margaret & George’s real legacy was not money, but rather the founding of a multi-generational connection between Housemans and Darley, a connection which continues to the present day. Thomas was the great great grandfather of my Grandma, Mary Houseman (born in Haverah Park, just a few miles from Darley). John was the great great grandfather of my Grandad, George Houseman (born at Fairfield Farm, Darley where his nephew still farms). George junior had only daughters and although Benjamin had two sons, one died young and the other had just one (illegitimate) daughter so no Houseman legacy from either. However, William (who incidentally married Catherine Downs, daughter of Alice Moon & John Downs who are also my 5x great grandparents) had one son, John. His descendants form the third branch of Housemans in Darley to which I used to think I wasn’t related. Every Houseman in Darley, and there are still a number, descends from either Thomas, John or William and hence from Margaret & George, truly a founding family.

With much gratitude to Gary Houseman at www.houseman.info for all his work untangling the various Houseman lines and to Amy Johnson Crow for her continuing #52ancestors series.

Betty Beecroft (1811 – 1882) and Robert Houseman (1806 – 1865) – an illustration of the (lack of) Victorian women’s property rights

Caroline Norton (1808 – 1877) was almost Betty’s contemporary. Married young to an abusive & jealous husband, she left her husband in 1836. At first, she attempted to subsist on her own earnings. Then her husband went to court to claim this money as his leaving her penniless. He also, legally, took sole custody of her three sons. Caroline became a tireless political campaigner and is credited with doing much to ensure the introduction of the Custody of Infants Act 1839, the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 and the Married Women’s Property Act 1870 which started to create the conditions for women to become legally separate people. Betty’s story is an illustration of why Caroline’s work was so necessary for women of Betty’s era were defined by her relationship to a man.

Betty Beecroft was likely the second of the two children of Faith Bell & Luke Beecroft. Betty’s elder brother, John, was born on 8 August 1808 almost exactly nine months after their parent’s wedding on 1 November 1807. He was promptly christened at Pateley Bridge. What date or even what year Betty arrived, however, is somewhat more difficult to determine…. What we know for sure is that Betty was baptised on 6 April 1817 at Thornthwaite. Ages in later documents would suggest a date of birth anywhere between 1809 & 1816. Was she already eight by the time she was baptised which would have meant having her last child at forty? Or was she still a baby at the time meaning she married at the tender age of nineteen to a man ten years her senior? My guess is closer to the former than the latter, but a guess is all it can be.

Robert Houseman’s date of birth on the other hand was clearly listed on his baptism record, also at Thornthwaite, as 2 March 1806. He was the twelfth child of fourteen, his parents, Mary Akers & Thomas Houseman being much more productive that Betty’s!

Childhood for Betty was likely largely uneventful or at least, as is often the case, any events went unrecorded. Until her elder brother John died, unmarried and childless, in 1832. This must have come as a shock to her parents. Betty’s father, Luke, was around 65 by now and seems to have amassed a reasonable bank balance from running the New Inn in Darley. Without a son to inherit the business the monies would come to Betty, the daughter whom he hadn’t even seen any hurry to get baptised.

Was this when Robert started to express an interest in Betty? As a twelfth child he would certainly need to have made his own way in the world and a daughter, who was now an only child, would have been an attractive prospect.

Whatever the intent, Luke was obviously determined to protect the interests of his daughter and any potential grandchildren. Luke wrote his last will and testament was written on 11 March 1835 six months before Betty & Robert married (8 September). Luke died before the year was out, buried at Hampsthwaite on 23 December. Whilst various assets were bequeathed directly to his nephew, Betty’s share would be held in trust to be managed by friends, Thomas Petty & Thomas Skaife. The “rents issues and profits” would be paid to Betty’s mother first and on her demise to Betty. But the assets themselves would only be divided between any lawful children on Betty’s death. In other words, Betty received the income and not the assets – important in this era where a woman’s property automatically became that of her husbands on marriage.

Luke Beecroft’s will, 1835.

The money wasn’t entirely free of Robert’s influence, for life in a small village is intimately connected. The above-named Thomas Skaife, trustor for Betty, had a sister, Tibby, who just happened to be married to Robert’s cousin John. Then there was Benson Skaife, cousin of Thomas Skaife, husband of Robert’s sister, Mary, and one of the witnesses at Betty & Robert’s wedding. Benson was sadly to die just a year after the marriage and his son, Joseph, came to live & work for the couple. Benson & Robert may simply have been good friends but another connection to the Skaife family can’t have harmed Robert’s case.

For there was money at stake. Luke’s estate was valued at something under £1,500 including £970 deposited in cash. The national archives currency convertor suggests that £970 was equivalent to approximately 4,850 days wages for a skilled labourer, which is more money than any skilled labourer on average wages could ever hope to amass.

Betty & Robert benefited from the “rents issues and profits” throughout their married life as Faith, Betty’s mother, came to live with the young couple and their growing family. Children arrived at regular intervals: John Beecroft (1837), Thomas (1838), William (1840), Michael (my great, great grandfather) (1842), Ann (1845), Joseph (1847) and Benjamin (1849). Faith would have likely helped her daughter deliver all seven of these healthy babies.

I believe that Betty & Robert would have been living at Red Syke Farm, Thornthwaite for much of their married life although the first actual evidence of address is not until 1871. This farm was to pass from father to son for at least two further generations. Luke had set his daughter & his grandchildren up well.

All seven children survived infancy, but four (William, Thomas, Ann & Joseph) were to die as young adults before marriage, three of them before Robert’s own death from consumption on 25 October 1865 at the age of 59.

Robert’s will was written just a month before he died. In it he sought to “give and bequeath unto my wife Betty Houseman the residue and remainder of my property the whole of my farming stock of whatsoever kind also the whole of my crops my hay corn straw and the [xx] of all the land also the household furniture and everything within and without that is the whole of my property whatsoever and wheresoever until my youngest son Benjamin attains the age of twenty one years and then my will is that the whole then remaining shall be sold and the money arising therefrom shall be equally divided amongst all my children.” The property was not left solely to the eldest son, but is instead split equally between all, perhaps reflecting the equality seen in the will of his father-in-law, Luke. Strangely too, it is his fourth (albeit second surviving son), Michael, who is appointed as executor and it takes nearly seven years for probate to be received. There’s a hint, perhaps, that the relationship between father and oldest son (John Beecroft) wasn’t entirely happy, and whilst John Beecroft was at his father’s side when he died, he may have been living some twenty-five miles away in a village called Aberford where he marries in 1869.

Whatever the family dynamics it is Betty who, in 1871, is named as head of the household and farmer of 37 acres in the 1871 census despite the return of John Beecroft and his new wife. By 1881 Betty has moved to Folly Gill with her youngest son Benjamin and is no longer the farmer. Instead she is an “Annuitant” benefiting still from the provisions in her father’s will.

Betty died on 19 August 1882 from an apoplexy fit. Aged 73 according to her death certificate, or 71, or maybe only 67 if you believe other records. She’s buried with Robert and four of her children at Thornthwaite, the exact same place as her story begins.

With much gratitude to Luke Beecroft, my great, great, great, great grandfather for leaving such a protective will and to his daughter Betty & her husband Robert Houseman, my great, great, great grandparents for continuing the tradition. Betty & Robert are the parents of Michael Houseman, father of Jesse Houseman, father of Mary Houseman, my paternal Grandma. I am also grateful to Betty & Robert for moving to Red Skye Farm, postcode HG3 2QS which made me smile as we grew up just a few miles away at Hill Top Cottage, Lindley, postcode LS21 2QS!

Martha Handley (1830 – 1921) & William Clapham (1829 – 1893)

Martha Handley, from Justin Clapham’s collection

This is part of a series of brief biographies of earlier ancestors.

On Monday, 1 March 1920, Martha would have been celebrating her 90th birthday. It had been a fair February that year so perhaps Martha sat on her front doorstep of Blaeberry Croft cosily wrapped in her woollen shawl and headscarf with her faithful dog by her side. How might she be reflecting on those past ninety years?

Martha had lived her whole life in North Rigton, a compact Yorkshire village situated towards the top of a hill. It’s a popular place these days, just a few miles to Harrogate, close to Weeton station giving easy access to Leeds and beyond, with an excellent primary school and a welcoming pub.

The Square & Compass today, own photo

During Martha’s childhood it would have felt very different. Yes, the Square & Compass served ale of course, to the men of the village, but it also acted as the place where inquests and other village meetings were held. The church wasn’t built until 1911 . A methodist chapel had been built in 1816 but was replaced in 1932. Farming was hard and winters bleak. Harrogate and Leeds would have felt another country.

Early twentieth century postcard of North Rigton, from www.northrigton.org

Martha was the youngest of five girls and, for a period of time, very much the baby of the family until joined by her illegitimate niece, Matilda. Her older sisters ranged in age from five to sixteen and when she was born in 1830 Martha’s parents, Sarah Halliday & John Handley, likely despaired at the arrival of yet another girl. John was a gamewatcher and farmed a few acres, a precarious existence which relied on sons for labour in their youth and the “pension” for parents in their old age.

Baptism record of William Clapham at Kirkby Overblow, 1829, showing parents as Henry & Hannah Clapham. Note: there was a second William Clapham baptised at a similar time, but 1841 census & William’s marriage record ties to this one.

Then there was William. Likely also a baby of the family as his parents, Hannah Hardcastle and Henry Clapham were aged around 45 and 60 when he was born on 12 March 1829. The Claphams were tenant farmers also living in North Rigton where their family had lived for many generations.

William & Martha were close neighbours, listed on adjoining pages in the 1841 census, and on 4 November 1850, with William having both become the head of household following the death of his father and attained the age of twenty-one, the pair were married at Kirkby Overblow church.

Marriage certificate of Martha Handley & William Clapham,. Kirkby Overblow, 1850

Martha’s reflections likely moved on to her married life and that of her family. Nine children arrived in quick succession all surviving to adulthood. Samuel, the eldest, born in 1854, married to a local woman, with four children all already married, ten grandchildren and more to come. Martha might even have had a letter in her hand from Samuel’s son, William, who had emigrated to Canada a few years ago. Joseph, her baby, born in 1871, had got married in Hartlepool, but had thankfully chosen to come back to nearby Fairview Farm, so Martha would have regularly seen his six children. Samuel & Joseph were doing just fine.

It was the middle children Martha worried about. Henry (b. 1856), Hannah (b. 1858), William (b. 1861), Abigail (b. 1866) and Mary Grace (b. 1870) had all remained unwed. Henry had died in 1902, but the others were all still living close by. They supported each other with the sisters acting as housekeepers for the brothers and Mary Grace still living at home with Martha, but was that a life? And of course Sarah (b. 1859) – did she marry, die or disappear after 1881? I haven’t been able to trace her, but Martha would have known.

Then there was Martha or Marie as she now liked to call herself. Born in 1863, she’d always thought differently. As a young country girl she used to tramp the 12 miles to attend the meetings of Charles Bradlaugh.” Marie was married to John Greevz Fisher and living in Leeds. Her five children, Auberon Herbert, Wordsworth Donisthorpe, Constance Naden, Spencer Darwin and Hypatia Ingersoll were named after anarchists and radical philosophers. Marie was a militant feminist and active suffragette and deserves her own story but right now, sat on her Rigton doorstep, Martha must have wondered how on earth she’d come to raise such a daughter.

The time for sadness would come later, when, perhaps one of Martha’s children would take her on the short trip to Kirkby Overblow church. After more than forty years of marriage, William had died on 13 December 1893 and was buried where the couple married, in Kirkby Overblow together with their son, Henry. That would be the time for sadness and in the meantime, Martha could be happy with her ninety years, surrounded by her family in the village she was born. Martha was to die the following year on 29 March 1921 and was buried with her husband at Kirkby Overblow.

Martha Handley, from Justin Clapham collection

With much gratitude to Martha Handley & William Clapham, my great, great, great grandparents through my paternal Grandad, for bringing up such a wonderful family.

A brief addendum

Sarah didn’t, as it turns out, disappear. She married Richard Hallewell, moved to Armley and had two children, Mary Ellen & Richard Bertram. Indeed, Mary Ellen was staying with her grandparents at the time of the 1891 census which is a reminder to double check all the available evidence. Sarah was widowed sometime between 1909 and 1911 and ultimately moved back to the area.

In 1909, Mary Ellen married one William Houseman and moved to Felliscliffe looping right back into our family. It possible the two would have met when her cousin and my great grandmother Mary Abigail Clapham married George Houseman in 1906. William & George were both second cousins through William’s father, John Houseman, and third cousins through his mother, Ann Houseman. Incidentally this also makes William as closely related to Jesse Houseman, my Grandma’s father as it does to George, my Grandad’s father.

A diagram helping to illustrate the connectedness between cousins Mary Abigail & Mary Ellen’s husbands.

Although I have now identified Mary Ellen she was still absent from Martha’s 90th celebrations as she had sadly died the previous year.

Elizabeth Furniss (1817 – 1911) & George Downs (1809 – 1868)

This is part of a series of brief biographies of earlier ancestors.

I turned to Elizabeth & George as part of a plan to ensure I’d fully captured all relevant documents for each of my great, great, great grandparents. A Darley farming couple, I didn’t expect this to be more than a short biography but when I looked into those documents I found a wonderful story of a woman who really came into her own upon the death of her husband. 

Darley-cum-Menwith is a typical Yorkshire farming village. Today it is a sought after country location close to Harrogate, commutable to Leeds and right on the borders of the Yorkshire Dales. In the mid-nineteenth century it was a thriving village. The 1841 census lists 725 people living in around 150 households who worked in agriculture or as shoemakers, linen weavers and wheelwrights. There was a church, two methodist chapels and a friends meeting house, a school, grocers and public houses. It was a self-contained village – even the arrival of a railway station in the 1860s meant you took a day trip to Harrogate, it didn’t mean you married out of the area.

The Great British Agricultural Depression was yet to hit and Darley was thriving. 

So let’s meet Elizabeth & George at the time of the railways and specifically in the year 1866. Elizabeth was 49, George eight years older. Elizabeth was born in Darley in 1817, the daughter of a local farming couple, Mary Pullan & Joseph Furniss, and she married George Downs, on 2 November 1836 at the age of nineteen. George, aged twenty-seven when they married, was the third son of another local farming family, Mary Beecroft & John Downes. The couple spent their early married life living with George’s parents no doubt whilst they were searching for a suitable tenancy. Such was the life of a third son and those they married. 

Thornthwaite church (c) Calverleyinfo www.calverley.info

By 1866 they’d made it – 30 acres of land on Craike Lane and six surviving children, Mary (b. 1836), Salina (b. 1839), George (b. 1841), Elizabeth (b. 1847), John (b. 1852) and Ann (b. 1858). There’s a reason for choosing 1866 and it’s not just about the railway. On 22 September of that year, Elizabeth & George’s eldest daughter, Mary, married Thomas Houseman, another local farmer, and that union ultimately led to me. I can imagine that wedding at the beautiful Thornthwaite church with the trees turning their autumn colour. There would have been the traditional seating complications as Elizabeth’s brother, John, had married the groom’s sister, Mary, but at least that likely ensured family presence. The date was no doubt chosen to be post harvest and it wouldn’t surprise me if the ceremony was scheduled to allow for milking time. Elizabeth & George could be proud of the family they had brought up. 

Then, just over a year later, on 7 December 1867, George wrote a will. Maybe he was already ill or maybe he was approaching 60 and conscious of his young family. Whatever the reason, it was timely, he died a few months later, on 21 May 1868.

It was a precarious time. Elizabeth, aged 51, was left to raise a family the majority of whom were female and under age. The eldest son, George, had married, the younger son, John was just sixteen. Farm tenancies didn’t pass automatically to women or underaged boys. The Great Agricultural Depression was just starting and farming was becoming less viable. It would have been very easy for the family to progress to the workhouse.

It is the will that suggests that Elizabeth had this under control. Written months before he died it suggests a confidence in her ability and the likelihood of a couple who had discussed and prepared for George’s death.

Extract from will of George Downs

George asks that Elizabeth “remain tenant and manager of the farm occupied by me if permitted to do so by the proprietor.” He orders that the “remain of my personal estate shall be equally divided among my son George and my other surviving children share and share alike” and directs that “before this division there be an auction sale of my personal effects such as farming stock implements household furniture etc”

The normal practice is for fathers to leave the bulk of their estate to their eldest son to ensure a viable farm is passed on. The only exception being where an eldest son is already fully set up in business or they have fallen out, and as the son George is named as an executor that doesn’t appear to have been the case. George didn’t do this – he intended for his wife to remain in charge, split his estate equally and specified that everything should be sold before the estate was split. My personal experience is it’s incredibly difficult to properly value everything in a farm business and incredibly expensive to set up from scratch. If you want to ensure equal inheritance this is the way to do it, but it runs the very real risk that none of the sons inherit sufficient to set up on their own.

What all of this (together with other evidence) suggests is that Elizabeth was very much a partner in this farm and that George cared deeply about his wife and all his young family.

Elizabeth took on the tenancy of the farm and by 1881, at the age of 64, had doubled the acreage. Her remaining children went on to marry well and all lived long fulfilling lives. Ten years later, in 1891, aged 74 she was living with her daughter, Ann, but was described as living by independent means. Ditto 1901 and 1911. Finally, at the age of 94, Elizabeth died on 31 July 1911. She lived almost half her life as a widow and had thrived. 


There are missing pieces to this story. I am sure there are documents concerning the passing of the tenancy and I know there’s a lot more I could write about the life of farmers at this time. However, the big gap for me is that I have no photo of Elizabeth. Despite this competent and, quite possibly, formidable woman reaching the grand old age of 94, I’ve found no trace of an obituary, her story or any photos. This blog is the start of a journey to rectify that.

With much gratitude to Nathalie Pithers for running the excellent Curious Descendants Club at which Tina Konstant ran such an inspiring story telling session that I spent the rest of the evening writing this blog and, of course, to Elizabeth Furniss & George Downs, my great, great, great grandparents through my paternal Grandad, for leaving me such a wonderful story to write.

Sarah Stansfield (1804 – 1885) & John Houseman (1805 – 1884)

This is part of a series of brief biographies of earlier ancestors.

Sarah Stansfield & John Houseman are the parents of Thomas Houseman, father of George Houseman, father of George Houseman, my Grandad, and hence are my paternal great, great, great grandparents.

Sarah was born on 8 December 1804 in Strangford, Idle to Methodist parents. It seems my family were fairly early Methodists and thanks to a dual registration I know Sarah’s birth, baptism, parents, her father’s father and where they lived. Unless of course there were two Sarah Stansfield’s born on the exact same date……

Baptism record of Sarah Stansfield – Upper Chapel, Idle, Yorkshire – 1805
Record of birth of Sarah Stansfield – St Wilfred’s church, Idle – 1805

Of John, all we know is that he was baptised in Hampsthwaite on 15 April 1805 so was maybe just a few months older.

Sarah & John married on 13 October 1830 in Hampsthwaite. At the time Sarah could write, John was illiterate. Another legacy of the Methodist tradition? By the time of their marriage Sarah was living in Hampsthwaite, perhaps with some of her mother’s family and I suspect Methodism was how they met – at least the family continued to hold the same faith for several generations.

The couple quickly settled in Tunnel Bank, Darley, close to John’s family, perhaps even taking over a family farm, where they lived for the remainder of their lives. With 64 acres to their name, the couple would have been a respected part of the Darley community.

Four children followed at regular intervals: John (ch. 1832), Thomas (my ancestor) (ch. 1834), William (ch. 1836) and Mary (ch. 1838). All seemed like the perfect, respectable, farming family. Yet, William died aged in 1844 aged just eight, John never married and Mary married a widow twelve years her senior and had just two children of her own. It was left to Thomas to carry on the family name. I was reminded about a comment my Grandma apparently made that “there wasn’t much choice.” Did this respectable family, with strong Methodist links, a focus on literacy and a family that came from 16 miles distant somehow struggle with the Darley community of the time?

Nonetheless the Methodist temperate life likely led to the last facts we know of the couple, that they lived long lives. John died on 13 November 1884 aged 79, Sarah just six months later on 4 May 1885 aged 80. Both are buried in Birstwith. Long lives, that I think, were well lived.