Monday, July 31, 2017

The butchers of Syston (part three)

Fox and Hounds, Syston: author's print collection, origin unknown
This is the third part of the story about the family of Elizabeth Toon and her husband, William Holyland. (If you didn't read The butchers of Syston (part one), click here.) or (part two), click here.

On Whit Monday, 24th May 1847, a holiday, many men were in the Fox and Hounds public house, Syston, at the top of High Street, where it still is today. The landlord in 1847 was a Mr Bishop. The crowd included William Holyland, a man called Wheatcroft, William Needham, an older man called Adcock, who might have been William's neighbour from Cramp Street, Thomas Adcock, who would have been about 75 years old, but could have been any one of many other Syston Adcocks--they go back in Syston as least as long as the Toons, and there were three Adcock households on Cramp Street in 1841. Also in the pub that day was John Bevans--the brother of William Holyland's brother-in-law (William's sister Theodosia's husband's brother), the coal merchant. John Bevans was about thirty years old, in good health, and described as "stout". he'd been at the Fox since lunchtime, and was sitting with the guy named Wheatcroft. John Bevans and Wheatcroft ordered a glass of gin and water each, but before they could drink it, Wheatcroft and Mr Adcock argued; Wheatcroft, who was a big, powerful man, struck Mr Adcock on his hat. Adcock fell down; and a rather drunk William Holyland fell upon Wheatcroft, possibly in defense of old man Adcock. Wheatcroft and Holyland were then fighting, striking each other several times.

John Bevans then rose from his seat, saying, "Gently, my lads! Give over," but he didn't join the fight or interfere further. The three fighters--Wheatcroft, Holyland, and I guess Adcock--then rushed from the Fox and Hounds tap room into the passage, followed by John Bevans. They carried on the fight in the passage: Bevans was, at this point, talking to his sister (not sure if this is Bevan's sister, or Holyland's).

Holyland got up off the floor, and said to Bevans, "You! You'll take his part!" and punched him in the head. Bevans reeled, dropped to the floor, immediately unconscious.

Ten minutes later, John Bevans was dead. He did not utter another word.

The inquest was held at the Fox and Hounds--talk about revisiting the scene of the crime. Mr Dalley and his assistant carried out a post-mortem examination, where they found that the late John Bevan's brain was much distended with an "effusion of blood", in both parts of the brain, and at the base of the skull, which must have been caused by the rupture of one or more blood vessels. Mr Dalley said that the injury would have been caused by external violence such as a blow or a fall; that the man was otherwise healthy.

The inquest declared that the cause of death was manslaughter. William Holyland was arrested on the charge, and committed for trial at the Summer Assizes.

His trial was held on July 31st 1847, before Mr Baron Rolfe and a special jury. (Might have been this Baron Rolfe, but I'm not sure.) The first witness to be called was William Needham, who described what had happened in the Fox and Hounds that day. He knew both William Holiday, and the deceased John Bevans, very well, and had known them both for a long time. He'd never seen them argue before. Needham said that William Holyland had had "several jugs of ale", but still knew "what he was about". He testified that Wheatcroft and Adcock had started the disturbance, and that he had seen Wheatcroft, a powerful man, strike Adcock, but that he didn't know why Holyland had joined the fight.

Mr Macaulay, the defense for William Holyland, said that it was all very sad... but that there were different degrees of manslaughter. That the calamity would never have happened, if not for the bullying conduct of Wheatcroft. And that the final act would never have happened, if John Bevans had not interfered when William Holyland was defending old man Adcock. That the blow was not struck with ill-feeling, but from an impulse of self-defence. The defense did not deny that the blow had shortened John Bevans' life, but urged the judge and jury to consider the amount of drink that the deceased had also consumed, which predisposed the brain's blood vessels to rupture.

The judge summed up the evidence. The jury found William Holiday, related by marriage and friendship to his victim, John Bevans, and husband of Elizabeth Toon: guilty of manslaughter.

In passing sentence, the judge said that he agreed that there were some mitigating circumstances, but that he must meet the crime with a level of punishment that showed William Holyland that it was not conduct to be taken lightly... but William Holyland was sentenced to just four months imprisonment, with hard labour. Not very nice, but it could have been worse... he could have been deported to Australia and sentence to ten years, or more.

The Leicestershire Mercury remarked that the court "seemed to astonish the court".

But wait... there's more. There will be a (part four) to this story. It's not over yet. It gets worse in part four.

References: Leicestershire Mercury, Leicester Chronical, through and other sources.

The butchers of Syston (part two)

Image copyright the British Library Board.
Reproduced by kind permission of FindMyPast
This is the second part of the story about the family of Elizabeth Toon and her husband, William Holyland. (If you didn't read The butchers of Syston (part one), click here.)

The first sign that things are amiss are newspaper reports from 1842.

The Leicester Chronicle, 17th September, 1842, says that William Holyland, of Syston, was convicted at the Loughborough Petty Sessions court for assaulting Thomas Carte, also of Syston, on 6th of September 1842. He was fined 5s plus costs.

And according to both the Leicestershire Mercury and the Leicester Chronicle, earlier the same year, on March 5th, 1842, William Holyland was in court. He was charged with damaging a cart, which was the property of a Mr. Johnson, Ironmonger, of Cheapside, Leicester. However, it wasn't William who was driving, it was his servant, Joseph Green, and the cart belonged to a Mr. Bevans. Mr Johnson wasn't driving his cart, either: it was his servant, William Clarke, who was driving on the Melton Road between Thurmaston and Barkby when the collision happened. William Clarke told the court that the defendants were apparently drunk, and "were shouting and making a great noise". The defendant (not sure if at this point, the defendant is William Holyland or Joseph Green) said that their horse "ran away", and when they came upon the cart driven by Mr Johnson's servant, it was on the wrong side of the road.

It sounds like the court that day was an interesting place to be, because first there was confusion over who was driving and should be charged, and then, when Johnson and Green were asked to settle the matter amicably, they "seemed unable to do satisfactorily" and the case had to be left to stand over for a "short time".

The Leicester Chronicle commented: "... nor is it (we understand) the first time Mr Holyland's cart has come in contact with others". Though they might have been mixing-up their Holylands.

William's older brother, Thomas (born in 1810) was also having trouble driving his cart. Thomas was a man of many trades; a "higgler" (peddlar or seller of many things); a coal merchant (1841 census)... and yes, in 1851, he lists his trade as a butcher! (Later he moves to Derbyshire and works as a carter, so I have to check on his driving record there, too). The Leicestershire Mercury reported that on February 24th, 1842, a Thomas Holyland and a John Clarke were charged with driving on the wrong side of the road and crashing into a cart driven by Stephen Smith of Quorndon... and not staying to see if they could help when the cart went into the ditch and broke, and the horse ended up on her back. Leaving the scene of an accident, 1840's-style. But the night was very dark, a passenger in the "drug" driven by John Clarke says that he hardly felt a thing, a witness said that Stephen Smith was driving very fast... and after a lot of discussion about the fairness of fines, Thomas Holyland (who was not driving) was discharged, and John Clarke fined 40 shillings (two pounds). (A drug was pulled by two horses, who were guided by reins--much faster than a cart pulled by one horse alone.)

The Leicester Chronicle reports on June 25th 1842, that Thomas Holyland, higgler, of Syston, was charged by the Belgrave constable, a Mr Fielding, of trying to evade a toll payment. He said that Thomas Holyland had altered a turnpike ticket with the intent of avoiding the payment at Thurmaston Gate. Thomas was fined one pound--so it was four times more expensive to avoid a toll payment, than for William Holyland to assault Thomas Carte!

Leicester Chronicle, 4th October 1845.
Image copyright the British Library Board.
Reproduced with kind permission of FindMyPast
William continued to be pulled before the courts; on 29th September 1845, it was before the Mayor of Leicester (probably a magistrate's court), where he was charged with assaulting William Coley the previous Saturday afternoon, in Leicester market place, and then also a police officer, P.S. Sheffield. (William often had a stall on Leicester market.) The assault involved tripping Coley up, and ripping his clothes. P.S. Sheffield said that William had been "drunk all day" and had been disturbing the market. And the bruise on the defendant's head had been caused by P. C. Neale who had been trying to stop William from hitting out. In his defence, William had been serving with the Yeomanry all week, had been drinking too much to celebrate overnight to Saturday, and had tripped Mr Coley up as a joke. William was fined 10 shillings, with his defender hoping that the injuries William had received at the hands of the police were taken into account.

So... we have a history of assault charges, and of public drunkenness. Things come to a head in 1845. That will be Part Three of this story!

References: Newspaper archives, copyright the British Library Board, published through 

Saturday, July 29, 2017

The butchers of Syston: part one

Family history research is more than dates and ages and numbers of children and bloodlines; it's trying to find the stories, and always wondering: why did they do that? It's an enormous, multi-dimensional jigsaw puzzle, with many missing pieces, and some that have been forced into the wrong hole but look like they fit until you take a glance from another angle. Sometimes you follow the trail of your own blood; sometimes you find yourself researching the third-cousin of your great-great-great aunt's husband's brother-in-law. And sometimes you find information that makes you think, here's another story about a little too much time at the pub after a long hard week... until you find the part that breaks your heart. This story is one of those. I'll be writing it in installments. This is part one.

I'd researched the direct blood line of the Toons, years ago, and I'm still stuck at Christopher Toon, my eighth great-grandfather, who was born about 1600, probably in Rotherby, Leicestershire, or somewhere close to Rotherby. Not making any more progress with Christopher's ancestry, I decided to start filling in some of the gaps between myself and great-great-X-times-great Chris; and I found Elizabeth Toon, my great-great-aunt. Elizabeth was a daughter of James Toon (1767-1849) and Ann nee Possnett (1778-1834). Elizabeth was born in Syston, and was baptised there on 26th October, 1810, together with three of her older brothers, Richard (my great-great grandfather), William and Thomas.(Why all together? Why wait until Richard was nine years old?) Elizabeth was one of a family of thirteen children or more (James married twice: at least three children with Mary nee Sarson, ten with Ann nee Possnett, but still not quite as many as Richard would have).

Syston, at the time of this story, was a village, centered around the Green and the church of St Peter's and St Paul's. Syston's population was 1,264 in 1821, 1349 in 1831, and 1,421 in 1841.The 1851 census lists only 1,669 people. People had large families, and people were related, and people had done business with each other and grown up together all their lives. They might travel to Leicester, the big city, or to Loughborough or Melton Mowbray, the closest market towns, or they might visit nearby villages such as Barkby, Hoby, Rotherby, Queniborough... but it was a small community. And there were a heck of a lot of butchers for such a small community.

I digress. We didn't get to the butchers, yet.

When Elizabeth Toon was 22 years old, on 8th July, 1833, she married a young man called William Holyland. William was two years younger, aged 20. And yes... he was a butcher, or at least he was a butcher by 1841, when the census was taken and the Holyland family, now with children Doubleday and Harriett, lived on Cramp Street in Syston. I'll come back to that name. 

I'm not sure where Cramp Street was: somewhere near Brook Street and Chapel Street, but it has either disappeared, or has been renamed. There were at least six butchers and their families living on Cramp Street in 1841: John Adcock, William Hubbard, William Swain, Thomas Chamberlain and his younger brother, and William Holyland. In 1841, a butcher most likely did his own slaughtering... maybe in the back yard. It was probably a good idea that all the butchers lived on one street.

Let's go back to that name: Doubleday. That was the boy's name, and the only first name that was given for him on the 1841 census, when he was six years old. (His full name was Thomas William Doubleday Holyland). Doubleday was a family name, and it came from his paternal grandmother: it was her maiden name. "Doubleday Holyland" has a special ring to it: he must have been very proud of his name! Can you imagine? All the other kids were John, or Thomas, or William, or Joseph... and he was Doubleday. That could make or break a boy. But it wasn't Doubleday who was to get into trouble, at least not in the 1840's and 50's. It was his dad.

William Holyland came from a family of four or five children (there might have been more, but I haven't found them yet... and there might have been fewer, his two sisters might have been just one, who switched names, or someone didn't believe what they'd heard, and wrote Phyliss instead of Theodosia). William was the second-eldest, with his brother Thomas (born 1810) the oldest; then sisters Phyliss and Theodosia around 1815, and younger brother Charles, born in 1817. Sister Theodosia married Thomas Bevan, same age as herself. Thomas was a Syston lad; his dad, also Thomas, had been a coal merchant, working Syston Wharf, somewhere near Lewin Bridge, and running a pub too (this was either the Gate Hangs Well, close to Lewin Bridge, or the Hope and Anchor, right on the canal). After Thomas Bevan's dad died in 1831, his mother continued running the pub, and his brother John, born 1817, was the coal merchant. Remember that name. John Bevan (sometimes spelled Bevans) was a coal merchant.

Thomas Bevans? Yes. He was a butcher. That's at least seven butchers in Syston in the 1840s, for a population of about 1400 people. 

I imagine that butchery in those days was hard, physical work. You'd have to subdue and slaughter the cows and pigs and sheep, and then use knives and saws to prepare the meat for sale. You didn't have power implements, nor did you have the refrigeration. (Makes me think of the account of the pig, in Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure, which was written many years later in 1894.) I imagine that all of these Syston butchers were burly, strong men, and I have evidence to suggest that at least some of them spent much time in Syston's many public houses. Syston had a lot of public houses: maybe one for every 100 or so members of the population.

But that story is for another day. For now, remember these names: Holyland, Bevan, Adcock. And Wheatcroft, whose first name is a mystery, as is his hometown, and whether or not he was a butcher. But Wheatcroft was in Syston, in a pub, with Holyland, Bevan, and an elderly man called Adcock, one fateful day in 1847.

Part two of this story can be found here

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.

Friday, July 21, 2017

James Toon (1845 - 1915), and a Syston murder: Murder On The Green

I have been trying, for years, to dig up dirt on the Toons, but they were either too good to be caught (or just too good), or too busy creating, feeding and clothing really huge families, to be seen doing anything naughty. I'll put family size on a back-burner and come back to it later, because there are some prolific dads out there (and some very strong, and then very replaceable, women).

The most notoriety I have found for any Toon (or Toone, depending on the day) so far, is for James Toon, 1845 - 1915. He's my second cousin, two times removed. This diagram sort-of shows the relationship; more basically, if you go back up my tree to my great-grandad Richard Toon (1801 - 1886, at least 15 children, two wives), his brother was James (1788 - 1864) and their dad was another James Toon, (1767 - 1849). Then you go back down the tree through James, Richard's brother. James' son William Toon, born in 1815, was the father of the James Toon in this story.

James Toon was born in Syston in 1845, the youngest of a very small Toon family--only one older brother, and two older sisters in the household in 1851! The family lived on Upper Church Street, Syston. By 1861, they had moved to Leicester Road, Syston: both his father and his sister Sarah were framework knitters, his mother a seamer. James, aged 16, was also working the knitting machine. But by 1864, James had been apprenticed to wheelwright Timothy Baum, who was then aged about 28. Our James' parents probably thought the chance for James to learn a trade was something to be celebrated; better than spending hours in the dusty, noisy, framework knitting machine, making stockings and being paid by the piece. No: to be a master wheelwright would be a good thing for James!

To be close to his master, James moved into the home of Baum (or rather, Baum's mother-in-law's home) on the Green, in Syston. The home was shared by Baum, his wife Jane, Timothy and Jane's two daughters, Emma (eleven months) and her older sister, and Jane's mother, Ann Shelton. The youngest daughter, Emma, slept in the room with Timothy and his wife; the older daughter, slept in a bedroom with Mrs Shelton, and James the apprentice had his own room.

On the morning of the 25th November, 1864, James' master had been seen by his doctor, a surgeon, Mr Robinson, who had been treating him for several days. At the trial, Mr Robinson said that he thought Timothy Baum had been suffering from an "inflamation of the covering of the brain", with possibly some "slight effusion". He had prescribed a solution of opium as a sedative (but stated under questioning that it might have acted in the opposite way, with Timothy suffering from "delirium".

Anyway... whatever the cause, whatever the trigger, whatever the motive, or not... during the night of 25th November 1864, probably the most shocking and terrible crime that Syston had ever experiencd took place. Timothy Baum slit his wife's throat as she slept.. and also that of his youngest daughter.

James awoke to the sound of screaming: Mrs Shelton had been awoken by the screams of the baby. James found Mrs Shelton struggling with Timothy at the top of the stairs, the man trying to find his knife, saying he would "do for himself". With the help of next-door neighbour William Adcock (a surnname that you'll hear more of), postman and shopkeeper, and Thomas Toon (another neighbour: I haven't figured out the relationship yet, but there will be one!) they were together able to keep Timothy Baum confined until help arrived.

Witnesses said that the family had been happy. There had been no trouble. Timothy had been sick, weak and depressed; he had been unable to train our apprentice, James Toon, for about 15 days. Mr Robinson, the doctor, said that he looked exhausted and should rest. His mother-in-law, Mrs Shelton, said they were a happy, loving family... but for some reason, the man cracked, in the worst-possible way.

By the time of the trial, Timothy had been examined by the gaol's surgeon, who declared him competent to stand trial. But, on weighing the evidence presented to them, the jury found him not guilty of murder by reason of insanity. He was sent to Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, to be detained at Her Majesty's Pleasure. (He was there in 1871, and released on 5th October, 1878. By 1881, he was back in Syston, lodging with a widow and her family, whose surname was Christian, on Barkby Road. They were very brave Christians. He later married the widow and had two more children.) Timothy Baum died in Loughborough, 11th May 1909.

The murders happened in 1864; by 1871, James Toon the apprentice was living in Aston, Warwickshire, and working as a wheelwright. He married Louisa Crofts, also from Syston, in the church of St James the Less, Ashted in Warwickshire, on 19th March 1871. Doubting that he randomly found a Syston girl in Warwickshire, my assumption is that they moved away together... far away from the terrible scene that he had witnessed that night.

James continued to work as a wheelwright, and by 1891 he was working for the railways, as a wagon builder. In true Toon fashion, he'd already produced at least five children with Louisa (who passed away in 1882), and then started another family with second wife Sarah Ann nee Robotham, born 1861. In total: at least 12 children. (I still think my great-great-granddad Richard will win the Most-Toon's competition.)

James never returned to live in Syston. He and his family lived in Aston Warwickshire, Ibstock and Markfield in Leicestershire, Derby in Derbyshire, and once more in Aston, until his life ended in July, 1915 at the age of seventy.

I wonder how many times, over those years, he woke up in the middle of the night, thinking he heard screams? No matter how far you move, the memories stay with you... they just fade over time.

You can find writeups of both the crime story, and the court investigation/trial in newspapers including the Leicester Chronicle and the Leicester Journal for November and December 1864. There's also a short account here in Google Books, in an excerpt from a book called, Grim Almanac of Leicestershire, by Nicola Sly.

Henry Bonnett: guess what he stole?

All my mother had heard about her maternal grandfather, Henry Bonnet (1855-1905) was that he was a "bad guy who came to a well-deserved end"... or something like that. At the time I started this research, all we had to go on about the Bonnetts was that they might have been French, Irish, or even gypsies.. Soon put that myth to rest, after finding the Henry Bonnett family had lived in Portsea, Hampshire, but that a couple of generations earlier, all the family lived in Leicestershire. Just a slight side trip to Grantham, Aston, and the south coast.

The only "bad end" I'd been able to find until recently was on Henry Bonnett's death certificate. He died, aged only 49, from "epidemic diarrhea and cardiac failure". That sounds like a bad end, to me.

But... now that we can search online repositories of newspapers, for example here at FindMyPast, I have found some, but not a lot, of evidence of Henry being a Bad Lad.

The Leicester Journal, November 9th, 1877 tells the story. Henry Bonnett, shoe finisher of Leicester, was charged with stealing a standard rose tree, the property of Elizabeth Carr of Belgrave, on the 3rd of November 1877.  Henry was also charged with stealing flower pots and flower trees from a Superintendent Moore, also of Belgrave, on the 30th of October, 1877. The Superintendent said that the flowers and pots had been taken out of his window.

Henry pleaded guilty, and was ordered to pay one pound, twelve shillings and six pence in costs, plus one shilling, the value of the rose tree... or do fourteen days of hard labour. He did the hard labour.

The police officer, P.S. Hawkesworth gave evidence: he said that he went to Henry's home and found the flower trees. When he charged Henry with stealing the flowers and pots, Henry replied, "Yes, I did steal them; I stole them about eleven o'clock at night. I was drunk at the time."

Only stealing flowers? Maybe he was taking them home to his wife, Elizabeth Alice nee Gask, because he felt guilty about going home drunk? I can believe a man will do that when he has been drinking. I think I've received some flowers myself, in similar circumstances. Daffodils from the town park comes to mind.

And that's it. No other dirt--other than in the flowerpots.

(There is one other story about our Henry Bonnett in the newspapers, about the death of one of Henry and Elizabeth's infants, Mabel Gertrude, in Portsea, Hampshire in 1890. It's just a sad obituary.)

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Boer war: finding family history where you don't expect

You can find family history information in places you don't expect to. Be ready to write it down!

After writing today's blog post about the William Frosts, I was watching TV and Googled the name, William Frost, during the adverts. What came up? This wonderfully-researched story, titled A Leicester Man in Talana - William E Bonnett, posted on a site dedicated to Anglo Boer war! It mentions William E Bonnett's father, William Frost Bonnett... the second son of Sarah Frost.

William Ernest Bonnett was born in Leicester, sometime around June, in 1876, and when he was five years old, the family were living at 134 Brunswick Street in Leicester.  Read the whole story here, including a photo of William Ernest Bonnett and pictures of the medals he was awarded.

And... if you scroll down into the comments, you'll find even more: a comment and thank you, and more information about the Bonnett family's military service and sacrifices, from John Bonnett, grandson of William Ernest Bonnett... and my third cousin, who I have never met.


Another naughty boy (or boys): William Frost

I am not yet 100% certain that this is "my" William Frost, nor that all the naughtiness can even be attributed to any one William Frost. I'm still searching the newspaper archives and, when possible, court records for evidence.

I have two Williams who might be the guilty parties, or it might be one first, then the other. Or neither, as there are several other William Frosts in and around Leicestershire at the same time.

My fourth great-grandfather William Frost, grandfather of Sarah Frost, was born somewhere in Leicestershire, probably Knighton or Wigston, in 1778. His son William, my fourth great-uncle, was born on in June 1805 in Wigston and baptised at Wigston Magna church on 23rd June. Sometime between 1812 and 1815, the family had moved to Blaby, and before 1841, they had moved to Leicester, living on Wheat Street on the night of the 1841 census.

In 1808, one William Frost was tried in the Leicestershire Summer court session for Highway Robbery. He was acquitted.

While William the younger was alive at this time, he's hardly likely to have been mistaken for Dick Turpin at three years old, so if indeed either of my Willam Frosts were brought before the judge, we have to assume it was William the elder.

Then on July 29th, 1848, the Leicestershire Mercury reports, in their Leicester Police Courts column, that:

"William Frost, framework-knitter, of Leicester, was charged with taking fish from a brook in Bradgate park, the property of the Earl of Stamford, on Saturday morning. Defendant had set a number of night lines in the brook, and was seen by the keeper about two o'clock in the morning in the act of taking them up; he had ninety lines in his possession, and seventeen fish, principally trout. Fined 40s., including the value of the fish, and costs: in default, one month to hard labour."

William the elder, having died in February a year earlier, can't be blamed for this one. William the younger, who in the 1841 census gave his occupation as a framework knitter, and in the 1851 census said he was a stocking maker (which meant he was knitting stockings on a framework knitting machine), he would have been 46, a good age to be a poacher.

Who wouldn't want to go and catch trout in Bradgate Park? What a nice evening escape from the city.

Corner of Providence Place and Christow Street prior to demolition, 1955: Copyright Dennis Calow, shared under Creative Commons licensing
William the younger didn't marry: he was living with his 85-year-old shoemaker mother Mary nee Bryan, in 1861, at 26 Providence Place. Providence Place was in the area of Wharf Street, connected to Christow Street, not far from Wheat Street. Remember: the houses almost new, then, not ready to be torn down.

By 1871, William was an inmate of the Union Workhouse... where many years later, Sarah gave birth to her son, also called William. Which makes you wonder if William the baby were named after his grandad.

(If you have found evidence to tie either of these crimes definitively to either of my Williams, or to another, please leave a comment! There were other William Frosts in the county, and so far I have only circumstantial evidence.)

Monday, July 17, 2017

A sheep's shed?

Shepshed, a village (now town) near Loughborough, Leicestershire, England, was home to many of my ancestors. Not quite as many as Syston, but quite a few.

It's the town whose name has been written in so many ways, either because the name of the town/village changed over time, or because someone wrote what they heard... here are a few varieties from census documents, parish records, etc. If you know of more, please add them to the comments.

One thing is clear: there were sheep!

  • Shepshed
  • Sheepshed
  • Sheeps Head
  • Shipshred 
  • Scepeshefede Regis (that's what it was called in the Domesday Book)

Friday, July 14, 2017

Mountney Mischief: a tale of canal boats, missing salmon, and a stolen ass

A few of my Mountney ancestors
The Mountneys come into my tree through my paternal grandmother's mother, Sarah Anne Mountney. Her father, and grandfather, were born in Shepshed, Leicestershire (AKA Sheeps Head and Sheepshed), but had moved to the Birmingham area before 1851. They were boatmen, working on the canals.

I imagine them on longboats, lying on their backs, moving the boats through canal tunnels using only their legs. I imagine brightly-painted boats, when they were probably covered in coal dust. I imagine the Mountneys as rough scoundrels, hard-working-and-hard-fighting men, with little time for women's frills and lace...When my great-grandmother Sarah Anne was 14 years old, in 1871, she was back in Leicestershire, staying with her maternal grandparents, the Goulds of Great Dalby, and working as a domestic servant. She later met and married George Riley of Queniborough, tying the knot on Christmas Day, 1875.

I don't know why Sarah Anne went to stay with her grandparents... maybe she was being saved from the mischief cooked up by her brothers. (When her grandfather, John Gould died in 1872, he left Sarah Anne a legacy of five pounds to be given to her at 21 years of age. There is no explanation in the will as to why she was singled out for this.)

Sarah Anne was the eldest child, and her siblings were William, John, Henry, Mary Elizabeth, and George, all born between 1859 and 1865, all in or near Birmingham, Warwickshire. Mary Elizabeth returned to Leicestershire too, living in Queniborough in 1881, where she worked as a housemaid at The Coppice: the big house at the end of the very-same long avenue of horse-chestnut trees, Coppice Lane, where my dad often took my sisters and I to collect conkers! By 1887, Mary Elizabeth was in Philadeliphia, USA, married to Alfred Woolston of Rothley, Leicestershire. Another mystery: I'd love to know what drove their emigration... a desire for a new life in a new country. or a business opportunity, or horses? (Alfred was a groom.) Or... further away from the naughty Mountney brothers!

And why do I think they were so naughty?

  • William and John were sent to trial for larceny in 1878, and received sentences of eight months and six months. I think this was for the theft of four cases of salmon from the London and North Western Railway (here's a transcript of the newspaper article in the Birmingham Post, see article 658. Thanks to
  • John came out of jail and then went back in, in 1879, this time charged with petty larceny and being asked to serve four more months inside (I haven't found the crime, yet)
  • And Henry? Henry... in 1879, our Henry was in Brownhills' prison, Birmingham, Warwickshire, for committing simple larceny after a previous conviction for a felony. At 17!!! Guess what he stole. It's OK, they recovered the property. An ass. He stole an ass.
The Birmingham Police Gazette newspaper stated that Henry was "fresh-faced", all of 5' 5" tall (without shoes), with grey eyes, slender build, and a cut mark near his right eye. Henry said that he had recently been at the Dog and Gun public house in Belgrave, Leicester, but it's not clear whether he was so drunk that he stole the ass by mistake, or if he had missed his boat and decided to take the ass instead of walking the long way home to Birmingham. Whatever the reason, there he was, in jail, a villain with a scar near his eye.

Birmingham Canal. Image by
But Henry made good. At least, he tried. On 15th August, 1881, Henry signed up to join the Leicestershire Regiment. He'd grown 3/4" and now measured five feet, five and three-quarter inches tall, weighed 140 pounds, and had the blue-grey eyes that many of the Toon family have today, myself included. He had light brown hair, and was considered fit to sign up and serve Her Majesty (Queen Victoria) for twelve years (seven years in Army service, five in the Reserves). He served in Malta, Egypt and Gibraltar. Apart from a few days AWOL and an incident of "resisting" early in his service in 1881, his conduct was noted as good by his commanding officer, according to his military paperwork. He was transferred to the Oxfordshire Light Infantry in 1882, and then to the South Staffordshire Regiment in August of the same year, which is where, as far as I can see, he remained. Henry received a medal for his participation in the Egyptian campaign of 1884-5. Henry was released to the Reserves on 18th May, 1889, and then discharged from service on August 8th, 1893. He did, indeed, serve a full 12 years. 

In April, 1890, Henry had married Ann Grimmett nee Butler, a widow who had already given birth to three children: a daughter, Anne Grimmett, and two sons, Joseph and William. Anne was several years older than Henry, and as far as I know, they did not have any children together. They lived on Tyndal Street in Birmingham, with Henry back to his trade as a boatman... but on 24th May, 1902, our Henry was arrested in Hopwas, Staffordshire, for being drunk and disorderly, and fined 5 shillings plus costs, according to the Tamworth Herald newspaper. Hopwas is on the Birmingham and Fazely Canal and had the usual canal-side public houses. You can't keep a good man down.

Henry passed away in late 1918, in Birmingham, aged 56. I bet he still carried a sparkle in his blue-grey eyes.
There are some wonderful stories about boatmen, and the canal boat life, including more villany, here on Spellweaver. Congratulations to Alan and Angela for pulling all of this information together--the newspaper articles are so very helpful!

(Note: Mounteny is a name that is often spelled differently, or is incorrectly transcribed. I've found Mountneys, Mounteneys, Mountains, Mauntenys... and they are not all found with a "similar" search.)

Sarah Frost (1830-1885)

Sarah Frost, her parents and children, Denman St, Leicester, 1851
I wish I could travel back in time, and talk to this lady, my great-great grandmother on my mother's side. She experienced so much of life's hardships during her 55 years. And yet she saw some of the country, worked as a seamstress, raised a number of children. I wonder what she looked like?

Sarah Frost was born in Leicester in June, 1830, to John Frost and Elizabeth nee Kilby. They lived on Eaton Street, which was part-way along Wharf Street. John Frost was a framework knitter (click here to see a video about framework knitting, which was the trade of many people in the East Midlands, either in factories, or in their homes). Sarah had a brother, William, two years her elder, and in 1832, a sister arrived--Elizabeth. (I have been unable to find Elizabeth, with any certainty, after her birth. There are several Elizabeth Frosts in Leicester, including one who is working as a domestic servant, aged 10, in the 1841 census, but I suspect that Sarah's sister did not survive infancy, although I have been unable to find any record of her death or burial. Whatever happened, Elizabeth was not present in the Frost household in 1841.)

In 1841, the Frost family consisted of father John, mother Elizabeth, son William and daughter Sarah. They lived on Mill Street, Leicester, about a mile's walk from their previous home. By 1851, they were living at 12, Denham Street in Leicester, another street that no longer exists. It was the next left turn after Manitoba Street, going north on Christow Street, back in the area of Wharf Street. Important to remember: this was a time when the "slum" housing, the streets of terraces in Leicester, were just being built. The homes were all new! In 1851, the household contained Sarah, her parents, a new "brother" Richard, and Sarah's baby, William Frost, aged eleven months. (Richard Frost is listed as the son of John and Elizabeth: he was Sarah's son, born when she was seventeen years old. He later takes the name of Sarah's husband, Bonnett, but returns to Frost by the time of his marriage to Eliza Worthy, where his father's name is listed as "Fr N K", father not know.) So far, I have not found documentation of his birth or baptism--unlike the baby, William Frost, where there is no doubt at all that he is Sarah's son.

Sarah gave birth to William on 17 April, 1850, in the Union Workhouse, Leicester. There is no father listed on the birth certificate, just an empty space where his name should be. The workhouse was on Sparkenhoe Street, to the north of Conduit Street, and at the time of William's birth was undergoing a major rebuild. Many workhouses had infirmaries for the poor: you didn't have to be an inmate, and as Sarah was back home with her parents and baby shortly afterward, it's likely that she went to the workhouse infirmary to give birth and then returned home to her parents in Denham Street. That's where she was on 30 March 1851... but on 31st August of the same year, she is in Grantham, Lincolnshire, marrying Emmanuel Bonnett.

I'd like to think that Emmanuel was William's natural father, and that he'd been sent to Grantham to pursue his work as a blacksmith: in the 1851 census, while Sarah is at home with her parents, Emmanuel is living as a lodger with a baker's family in Grantham, and working as a striker: the person who hits the metal with a big hammer while the blacksmith heats and shapes the item they are working on. In 1841, Emmanual had been living with his father, blacksmith John Bonnett North, on Thames Street in Leicester, about half a mile from Sarah's home. Did they make the baby, and was Emmanuel then sent away to Grantham? Did he take advantage of her, then leave, and did she follow? Or was the baby from another father? Without that time machine, we'll never know.

Although railways were becoming established in England in the 1850s, it's unlikely that Sarah travelled to Grantham by train, though it would have been a huge adventure, with steam engines and the brand-new experience. (The Belgrave train station didn't open until 1882, and in the early 1850s, trains in the Midlands were mostly used for transporting coal.) If you compare the speed of travel by horse and cart to a bicycle, it would have taken about three hours to go from Leicester to Grantham, a distance of about 37 miles, passing through some beautiful, rural countryside, maybe travelling along the hilltops to Melton Mowbray, or along the valley through Frisby and Asfordby and Eastwell and then the Vale of Belvoir, passing close to Belvoir Castle. However Sarah, and Emmanuel before her, travelled to Grantham, they were married at the parish church, Grantham, by banns--so a wedding announced publicly for several weeks. Both were residents of Grantham at the time of the marriage, so Sarah must have arrived there a while before. Emmanuel signs with his signature: Sarah, with her mark X.

Marriage of Sarah Frost and Emmanuel Bonnett, Grantham 1851
Sarah and Emmanuel Bonnett's son John was born in Westgate, Grantham, on 28th May,1852, exactly nine months after the marriage. By the time of the birth of son George on 24th May, 1854, the family are living at Cattle Street, Aston, in Warwickshire, where metalwork was much in demand. Sadly, George did not live to be a year old, but died in February 1855.

Sons Henry (1855) and Thomas (1862), and daughter Elizabeth (1860) were all born in Aston, Warwickshire. Thomas: another child who did not survive his first year. Infant mortality was so much higher then. So much sorrow... and mothers who had no choice but to continue producing children, year after year, until they either ran out of time, or could survive no longer.

By 1871, the family had returned to Leicester, living at 192 Birstall Street. Emmanual had completed his blacksmiths' apprenticeship by 1860, and was a journeyman--well on the way to becoming a Master Blacksmith. (Birstall Street ran parallel to Syston Street, which is where Sarah and Emmanuel's granddaughter, Florence Bonnett, would eventually live with her husband, Joseph Arthur Carvell, several decades later.)

Part of Birstall Street prior to demolition, 1964. Copyright Dennis Calow, shared under Creative Commons licensing
Sarah was widowed at the age of 48, when Emmanuel passed away in Leicester in 1878. By 1881 she is living in the home of her son John, at 221 Birstall Street--just across the road from her old home. She was working as a seamstress, a trade she continued through her lifetime. Never believe that women were creatures of leisure!!! She outlived her son Richard Frost--he died in 1882, aged only 35.

Sarah died on 28 September, 1885, at 138 Upper Brunswick Street, Leicester, probably the home of her daughter, Elizabeth, whose husband William Cawthorne witnessed the death certificate and who was present when Sarah passed away. She was buried on 28th September in Welford Road Cemetary, most likely in an unmarked grave in the company of several other people. The cemetery has 10,000 headstones, but 35,000 graves, so there's a lot of sharing going on (and you can still be buried there if you are willing to share your final bed with another!)

I still have a lot of questions about Sarah. Who was Richard's father? And William's? Where was Richard born? Was she treated well in the workhouse--was it a good place to go, to be cared for while giving birth, or was it a place to hide away from the shame of illegitimacy? Did she follow Emmanuel to Grantham, or did he bring her there? Were they in love? How hard was it to work as a seamstress while taking care of the family of a blacksmith, in an environment where children went to work, so young? (Her son, William, was working in 1861, aged 10, as a horse-hair carder, brushing horse hair to prepare it for use in upholstery; the same year, Richard, aged 14, was a spoon blank roller, working with sheet metal for use as spoons.)

And most of all... what stories would you tell your great-great-great grandchildren, Sarah Bonnett nee Frost? I wish I had known you. I think you were a fine, strong woman.

My direct ancestors

My direct ancestors: lots of stories to tell!

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The slums of Leicester: homes or hovels?

Many of my ancestors were born, lived, worked and died on the streets of Leicester and Belgrave, streets that we now label "slums", and which have, for the most part, now all been demolished, paved over, and replaced by car parks and shopping centres and traffic flyovers.

The houses were tiny, often built with single-brick walls, had outside toilets shared with multiple homes. They were overcrowded and unhealthy and yet they were home to so many people.

There's a collection of photos here on Radio Leicester's website. This book by Ned Hewitt documents the now-disappeared streets and living conditions. There are many photos in the Vanished Leicester, a Leicester University special collection. The Leicester Mercury has a gallery of old photos from the city, too.

Of the now-long-gone streets, Wharf Street, for example, is remembered by many in Leicester as a terrible slum area--probably because it was one of the last parts of the centre of town to be demolished--but that's where several generations back, some of my family lived. John Bonnett (1800-1863), blacksmith, lived on Wharf Street in 1861 (much more about him later--he had me banging my head against a wall for years).

I still question the sanity behind demolishing old buildings and replacing them with concrete and high-rise apartments, breaking up the community of the street rather than taking the time to enhance what already existed. A very few of the remaining slum homes have now been preserved and renovated... wouldn't it have been better, if they could all have been repaired and restored and built into better homes? Old barns in the countryside become fashionable abodes... why not a street of "slum" housing? Couldn't two or three tiny houses have been converted into one home, with a bathroom and heating? If those same houses were there today, would the same decision be made?

Leicester has some beautiful Victorian housing, too: tall and imposing houses with soaring roofs and wooden trim. Every time I return to the city, I want to take out a power washer and a paint brush and a tool kit, and restore them to their original beauty.

Leicester: your homes are part of your history and of your peoples' heritage. Please take good care of them!

NOTE: There is a wonderful book about the terrace housing of Leicester, by Dennis Calow, available as part of Leicester University's special collection.

Tracing the family tree; who, what, how, and why?

When I first started seriously researching my family tree, it was many years ago, before, before, way before I lived in France, and all my family, and family history, was in England. I wrote letters and put them into paper envelopes with stamps on, and trusted them to the postal services. I tried to gather information from aunts and uncles, and I engaged the services of a nice gentleman in England who would nip off to the Registry Office to track down and purchase birth, marriage and death certificates.

As the internet started to grow, I found people through LISTSERVS and online forums who were chasing their own roots. When I moved to the USA, I discovered the amazing microfiche libraries maintained and shared by the Mormon church through their Family History Centers, and spent many a long our staring into a reader in a darkened room, trying to decipher handwriting on deteriorated paper which had been photographed in less-than optimum conditions.

Over time, the online repositories and search engines have blossomed into a wonderful store of knowledge. TV programs promote the myth that it's easy to trace your way back to a King or Queen. And DNA testing connects you with people whom share genes from a common ancestor, maybe five or six or more generations ago. My own DNA shows 83% "Great Britain" and most of the rest Scandinavian... so there's probably a Viking or two in there way back, but little or no French, Gypsy or Irish in the mix... much to the opposite of the stories about the Bonnetts!

One of the triggers to starting my research was the desire to find out more about my mother's maternal ancestry. As the youngest child of a large family, whose mother passed away just days after she was born, she knew very little about her mother's family--the Bonnetts--other than family rumours. The Bonnets' proved to be the most difficult of my grandparents' ancestry to trace, and yet one of the most fascinating. You'll see that name again, along with Toon, Carvell, Mountney, Riley, and many more. The Hughes family--the family of my daughters' father--is another fascinating branch, with many stories to tell.

While my "tree" is public on, under the username alisontoontree201009, this website will share the stories of some of the family, and some of my experience and learnings while researching.

I encourage everyone to find out more about their ancestry. Our forefathers have shaped us into who we are, for better and for worse. If you know where you've come from, you have a better chance of knowing where you're going.

I go from researching families with ten or fifteen children, living in small homes, starting work at 12 years old or worse, working in factories or as domestic servants or farmhands or down in the dark of a mine, to my other guilty secret--House Hunters on HGTV--and see spoiled people refusing a house because each child doesn't have their own bathroom... The family research helps keep me sane in this consume-all world.

What would my great-grandmother say to my kitchen and laundry room? All the bedrooms? All this space for so few people? Would she complain that she doesn't have two walk-in closets and a personal dressing room? Somehow, I don't think so.

It's all relative!!!