Tuesday, July 25, 2017

More Bonnetts, a sad tale (or three), and alcohol. Lots of alcohol.

When I first started researching the Bonnett family--my maternal grandmother's family--I found that there were other Bonnetts in Leicestershire, but I could not find any connection. I put them to one side. These were the Bonnetts of Whitwick and Ratby, possibly the oldest family of Whitwick; well known and respected farmers and graziers. But try as I might, I couldn't find a connection: I was stuck at my third great-grandfather, John Bonnett, a blacksmith, born in Seagrave, Leicestershire, about 1800. He was my "brick wall" in researching the tree: I couldn't find out where he had come from.

But then came the Eureka! moment (and yes, I did shout, probably YES!!! or BRILLIANT!!! when I found the key info). But that story is for later: today's is about a couple of Bonnetts who were living in Leicester in the 1830s. And yes, we are related: they are both my fourth great-uncles. Their father, John Bonnett of Whitwick (1870-1823) was my fourth great-grandfather. It's a little complicated, and the complication is another story.

Leicestershire Mercury, 24 June 1837.
Part of the account of the William
Townley inquest.
Image reproduced by kind
permission of FindMyPast.
Image copyright The British Library
Henry Bonnett (born 1806) and Thomas Bonnett (born 1818) had one sister, Catherine (1810), and three more brothers: John (1802), Samuel (1804), William (1809), and Robert (1813), all born in Whitwick, Leicestershire. (They also had one more brother called John, though they might not have known of him.) John, Samuel and Robert carried on the family tradition of farming, in or near Whitwick; William was the innkeeper at Whitwick's Beaumont Arms.

Henry Bonnett was a wine seller, and ran his business from High Street, Leicester. In the early 1830's, young Thomas was living in Leicester too, probably with Henry.

The first mischief to be reported in the newspaper was in April, 1837. Both Henry and Thomas were called before the magistrates court, to resolve a dispute with a Mr George Wykes, who lived on Free School Lane, a street parallel to and just to the north of High Street, down at the Highcross Street end. (I worked for a while on Highcross Street. I walked in their footsteps, every morning.)

There must have been a gate at the back of Henry Bonnett's property, opening onto Free School Lane. Two panes of glass on Mr Wyke's premises had been broken; Thomas Bonnett had been messing around and firing a gun at the same time, and so Mr Wykes accused Thomas Bonnett of breaking the windows. Witnesses were called on both sides, but the court found for Mr Wykes, and Henry paid up for the damage.

A year later, Thomas Bonnett is back in court, but for something far more serious.

Thomas, aged 19, together with a friend, John Ottey, aged 24, were indicted for the manslaughter of a 12-year-old boy, William Bark Townley. They were accused of causing his death by giving him a quantity of "ardent spirits" (rum and gin) on the 13th June, 1837.

It was a Tuesday evening, early summer in England. Thomas and John Ottey were playing a game in the yard of Henry Bonnett's home--setting up "pins", which I assume meant they were playing something like skittles--and they invited in several other boys, much younger, one as young as ten. They were all drinking alcohol, either gin or rum or both, mixed with water, which Thomas Bonnett kept fetching from the house in a jug. The young boys were encouraged to drink, and of course, they became drunk, fell over, and tried to go home. (The sister of one of the boys, Charles Chamberlain, was brought to testify at the inquest about the smell of his vomit--she said that the contents of his stomach "smelled strongly of rum".) When Bonnett and Ottey told the boys to go home, William Townley was laying on the floor.

The doctor, surgeon Thomas Paget, was called to see the boy very early the next morning, the Wednesday, and he was unconscious, though the doctor thought that he was recovering from "an even greater insensibility". William seemed to gradually recover, though suffering from delirium at times... and then signs of "inflammatory symptoms" set in, and young William died at about 2 am on the following Monday morning.

By Monday afternoon, the surgeon had conducted an autopsy... and brave man, Henry Bonnett was there as a witness. The inquest proceeded (the examination of the body being part of the same process), witnesses were called to give evidence, describing how Thomas Bonnett and John Ottey encouraged all the boys to drink: not in a malicious way, but as if it were fun... and obviously, without much regard for the consequences.

Surgeon Thomas Paget, on examining young William's body, found inflamed stomach and lungs, and evidence of earlier problems... and he assessed that young William would have eventually have passed away, regardless of the alcohol, due to his ill health.

Leicestershire Mercury, 24 June 1837.
Part of the account of the William
Townley inquest.
Image reproduced by kind
permission of FindMyPast.
Image copyright The British Library
Early in August, Thomas Bonnett and John Ottey were before the judge, charged with manslaughter, and having spent some time in gaol (bail was refused, at least until the inquest results were known). However, after hearing the testimony of Mr Paget, the surgeon, the judge directed the jury to find the young men Not Guilty of manslaughter. Then he turned to them--his official judicial duties over--and gave them a very stern lecture. There was no doubt in his mind but that they had hurried the boy "into the presence of his Maker". He hoped that their narrow escape would be a warning, and that it would induce them to refrain from drunkenness themselves and to discountenance it in others. He encouraged them to pray night and day for forgiveness, and to make some atonement to William Townley's parents for the loss of their child.

On reading this story, you might wonder, "Why was nobody charged for giving drink to children"? "Why was Henry Bonnett, who must have been the supplier of the drink, either knowingly or not, not charged for allowing minors to drink on his property?" Or even, "Why the heck did anyone think it was OK to give 10 or 12 year olds rum, or gin, or any kind of spirit?"

This was England in 1838. The 1830 Beer Act had allowed any ratepayer (local tax payer) to brew, and sell, beer. Gin production outstripped that of beer. Drunkenness was enough of a problem for a temperance society to have been formed in 1831, but the concept of a legal age for drinking didn't even exist. The Licencing Act of 1873, which restricted the hours during which alcohol could be sold, didn't come for another 35 years: thirteen years later, in 1886, the Intoxicating Liquors (Sale to Children) act banned sale of alcohol to anyone under 13 years of age. Way too late to have helped William Townley. Way too late to have made a difference to any of these children.

I don't know if Thomas Bonnett took the judge's words to heart. I don't know if Henry Bonnett took new notice of how old his drinkers were. But... I do know that within another year, both Henry, and Thomas, Bonnett returned to their own Maker, whoever he might be. Henry Bonnet, aged 32, went first, on the 17th April 1838, as reported in the Leicester Journal on 20th April. He died from consumption (TB). His will left detailed instructions on the sale and distribution of his estate; unmarried, everything was left to his brothers and sister. By premonition, or because of something he knew, he included a clause for what to do, should young Thomas Bonnett not reach 21 years of age.

Thomas died in early October, six months after Henry, "in his 21st year". Henry was right.

Leicester Journal, 22 June 1838.
Sale by auction of the property of
Henry Bonnett, as stipulated in his will. 

Image reproduced by kind
permission of FindMyPast
Image copyright The British Library
Henry and Thomas' only sister, Catherine, who had married into the Leicester horse-dealing Hames family (High Street and Haymarket), also passed away soon after, in 1841.

Robert lived until 1864; Samuel, until 1866; John, 1868. William until sometime around 1880 (still trying to find that record). Their families were small. While the Whitwick Bonnetts created very detailed and caring wills, they didn't survive long enough to enjoy their inheritances (more on this topic, later).

But... if anyone has any Whitwick Bonnett farmland, farmhouses, horses, ponies, gigs or even bottled porter that they are struggling to find an heir for, I know at least one who can prove her bloodline back to John Bonnett of Whitwick, 1780-1823. I'm waiting to hear from you.

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