About Alex in a Library

Reader and adventuress.

Railway Children, Four Generations

We often forget how brutal the links between cities, towns and villages were to make and how heavily they impacted on those who made them.

I was reminded of this very sharply recently when one of the trees I was working on unearthed four generations of railway excavators, or ‘navvies’ as they used to be called.

It started with a family that had very strong ties in the Mansfield/Pleasley Hill area of Nottinghamshire. Rooted there for hundreds of years, Frederick Powell was a noticeable outsider when he married into the family in 1886 at the age of 21. In the 1891 census he lists his place of birth as ‘Not Known’ – something that really caught my eye in this small town community. Later, on the 1901 census, he gives it as Melling Moor, Lancashire which again is intriguing as he’s miles away from home.

While I researched the rest of the family I couldn’t help but be intrigued by Frederick and want to know more about where he came from. I had no luck tracking down a birth record for him but struck gold with the 1881 census. Taken five years before his marriage it revealed just how he’d come to the Pleasley Hill area, he was working as a railway labourer. And not just working on the railways, living on them too with an address that clearly said ‘Railway Hut’. And there with him, a large number of siblings all listed as being born in Hartlepool and his widower father, William, who gives his place of birth as Huntingdonshire. All the adult men in the family were railway labourers.

Navvies near Sheffield, Yorkshire

This was the key I needed to piece the story together and follow the Powell line back further.

Frederick was born to William and Elizabeth in Lancashire in 1865 but the family lived a very transient lifestyle. Elizabeth was from South Shields, Durham and William had met her while working on a railway line nearby, they married in 1856. Within two years their first child had been born and they were on the move. Over the next twenty years their nine children are recorded as born at Falstone in Northumberland, Chapel Frith in Derbyshire, Melling Moor and Backbarrow in Lancashire and, for one child, simply ‘Westmoreland’. In between the children’s births the family are recording on the census at Kielder in Northumberland and Dent in Yorkshire.

Dent – Highest Railway Station in England

To give a snapshot of this lifestyle, these are all remote and bleak places to live and work. Pay was poor, the huts were temporary, alcohol flowed freely, local presses record fights and tragic accidents and there would have been a outlawish feel to the navvies’ camps. The family are recorded on the census returns as living in huts with several lodgers, all other men working on the line. Dent station sits on the Settle-Carlisle line, and is now the highest mainline station in England. There would be no shelter from the wind and rain outside the hut and it’s four miles to the nearest village. There are long tunnels here cutting through the moors and hills, some of the last to be hand dug. This was hard labour.

Frederick though, appears to have been a runaway. His mother Elizabeth died between 1875-1881, the oldest she could have been is about 40 years old. The family moved onto Nottinghamshire, living in railway huts at Pleasley Hill in 1881 where Frederick was now a 16 year old railway labourer like his father and two brothers. Frederick appears to have opted out of the lifestyle though, while the rest of his family moved onto Carlton he stayed in Pleasley Hill, married and settled as a coal miner. Presumably he was used to hard work and working in the mines at least meant the roof over his head was a bit more solid and food was marginally better.

Frederick’s oldest sister, Elizabeth, married another railway man and continued the lifestyle for another generation.

But at the beginning of the post, I said four generations and William, his children (including Frederick) and Elizabeth’s children only make three. To find the fourth we must look back to William’s father.

1841 census – William Powells, senior and junior

William was born in 1834 and on the earliest available census of 1841 his father, William senior, is also recorded as an excavator – in fact the family are living at a navvies camp at Padam’s Green in Essex. During his lifetime William worked in at least eight counties across the country. He didn’t know any other lifestyle – he was born, bred and buried alongside the tracks.

It should also be noted 1841 is very early for this work as railway excavators which gives rise to the tantalising possibility that William senior had worked as a canal navvie before and just switched what he was digging for…

Sixty years of rain, mud, blood, sweat and poor quality beer. And one hell of an adventure for a genealogist tracking the paper trail across the counties and years.

It’s not the story the client was expecting but I think it will give them something to think about next time they’re out walking in the Yorkshire Dales.

Reuben Stenning, After Florence

Previously I told the story of Florence May Chappell, a young Edwardian lady who ran away to Canada with a married father of six, Reuben Stenning.

The story was pieced together from records held within the Stenning family, census returns, passenger lists and immigration cards to solve the mystery of where Florence went in 1912 when she vanished from Brighton and ceased using the name of Chappell.

Reuben’s story is just as startling though so it seems only fair I write about him too.

Reuben was born in about 1877 in Croydon, the seventh child of Phillip and Rhoda Stenning who were in their late thirties. Phillip and Rhoda had nine children in total, eight sons and one daughter. Phillip worked as a coach builder with help from his sons.

Reuben stayed at home working with his family until 1899 when he married Harriett Sarah Gosling. Reuben was 22, Harriett was 23. Harriett’s family was smaller and her parents were a decade or so younger than Reuben’s. Her father was a clock maker.

Within a year of marriage Reuben and Harriett had moved to Brighton and on the 1901 census they’re recorded there with their one month old son and Reuben is working as a coach painter. By 1911 the couple had been married twelve years. They’d lost one son in 1905 at the age of 5 but had five children still living including a babe in arms.

It was in the summer of 1911 that Reuben met Florence. By the spring of 1912 she was pregnant and in July 1912 Reuben vanished to Canada. For the next ten years Reuben and Florence lived in Canada as a married couple and had two sons. Meanwhile Harriett stayed in Brighton, struggling to look after the children with no idea where her husband had disappeared to.

In 1922 when Florence died, Reuben was left with two young sons and appears to have done something very audacious. He contacted Harriett and asked her to come to Canada. What Harriett made of Reuben’s return to her life can only be imagined but in 1923 she said yes.

Harriett’s entry card for Canada is a very emotive document. By now she was 46, working as a dressmaker (a hard and poorly paid job) and carrying just £3 in cash. Her passage was paid for by Reuben, her object in going to Canada is listed as ‘going to join husband’. Her three youngest children travelled with her.

Descendants of the family tell me that Florence’s children and Harriett’s lived alongside each other as equals and made fresh new lives within their community. An unusual but peaceful ending to this Edwardian drama.

Florence May, Edwardian Teenage Runaway

Here is the start of an occasional series about some of the people I’ve uncovered in my research so far. Florence May Chappell seems like a good starting point for this series as she appears to have been strong-willed and lived a remarkable life.

Background: Florence May Chappell was born in Battersea in 1892, her parents had been married for eight years. Both her mother and father were from Brighton but had moved to London soon after marrying. On the 1891 census (the year before Florence’s birth) they had two little boys, Herbert James and Arthur Walter, who had both been born in London and the family of four were living in 2 rooms in Battersea. Florence’s father was a boiler maker and it appears he and his wife had come to London for work. By the 1901 census the family are back in Brighton, again living somewhere very small with their three young children.

The story: On the 1911 census Florence is listed as a pianoforte teacher, 18 and single. She appears to have really loved music and it is apparently through her love of music that she met Reuben Stenning, an event that changed her life. Reuben was a coach builder in his mid-thirties; he was also married and had six children – the youngest of whom had been born the year before he met Florence. Reuben and Florence fell in love despite all of this. In the spring of 1912 Florence was pregnant. Reuben’s solution seems to have been fairly drastic. In June he travelled to Liverpool and boarded the SS Tunisian – destination Quebec. He lists himself as a joiner/painter, married and Church of England.

In September a very pregnant Florence, travelling as Florence Stenning and listing herself as married, made her way to Liverpool and caught the SS Tunisian to join Reuben in Quebec.

While this had obviously been arranged in advance Florence must have been a brave, somewhat foolhardy lass. At 20 years old she was walking away from family and friends to join a man who was just ever so slightly untrustworthy, halfway round the world in a place she probably knew little about. It was less than six months since the sinking of the Titantic and the summer’s newspapers had been full of stories about the subsequent investigations and the testimony of witnesses. She was also nearly 8 months pregnant.

On arrival she and Reuben set themselves up as a married couple in Ontario and their first child was born at the end of October. Reuben used the name Robert R Stenning presumably to be less traceable and Florence lived as his wife although no marriage was possible – his first wife was still very much alive. They went on to have another child a couple of years later and appear to have been happy together in their new life. Unfortunately Florence died of septicaemia in 1922 just a month before her thirtieth birthday leaving forty five year old Reuben with two young children to care for.

Although Florence isn’t a direct ancestor of mine I find her story fascinating. I also find Reuben’s story jaw-dropping, you see he didn’t stay single after Florence died. On the contrary he did something I find remarkably brazen. But this post is about Florence so I’ll write a separate post all about Reuben’s antics.