.jump-link{ display:none }

Monday, 9 August 2021

Great Grandfather John Matthews - A Man of Many Parts

My great grandfather John Matthews of Wolverhampton, Staffordshire was a man of many parts –  a third son in a large family; under hand roller, underhand shingler and hollow fireman  at an iron works;  a complete change of occupation to that of insurance agent and also shopkeeper; with his wife Matilda, parent to ten children,  and a prominent member of the local Methodist church where he was choir conductor.

Early Life - John Matthews was born in 1843 – his birthplace variously named in census returns  as Wolverley or Cookley, two adjacent villages, near Kiddirminster, Worcestershire. He was the  third of six brothers – Samuel, James, Charles, Richard and Arthur,  sons of James Matthews and Elizabeth Palmer. John's life  spanned the early death of his mother, a step mother with her two step siblings, and the birth  of a half sister. 

The 1851 Census saw the Matthews family at Horseley Row, Wolverley,  with father head James, a forgeman at an iron works, aged  34;  his wife Elizabeth was 32,  and sons Samuel at 13 already a forgeboy, young James 10, John 7, and Charles 8, with their grandfather, widower 75 year old James also in the household, along with a general servant aged 13  named Jane Palmer – was her surname a coincidence or was Jane some relation of Elizabeth?

Two more sons were born Richard in 1853 and Arthur  in 1857. But just a year after the birth of their youngest son, Elizabeth died in 1858 at the age of 41, leaving her young family motherless, with the boys ages ranging from a few months old to 20 years old – my great grandfather John just 14.  

 Within a year, the children’s father,  James  remarried in 1859  a  widow with two children Caroline Littlewood, nee Marsh, with her 7 year old son Wiliam Littewood, and 3 year old Kate Littlewood.  A half sister Caroline Matilda  was born to the Matthews family in 1860.   

The 1861 Census  saw a large household of 11 at Austcliffe Row, Wolverley  - James aged 46  now a refilner in an Iron works, with his second  wife Caroline aged 40, five sons living at home,     James 20, John 17, Charles 15 – all working in the iron industry, as an "under hand roller, under hand shingler" *, and labourer in tin works; young brothers Richard was 8 and Arthur 3;  plus their step brother and sister William aged 9 and Kate 6, and a half sister Caroline, 10 months – with a 15 year old general servant Mary White;  a large household of parents and eight children.   Only eldest son Samuel was no longer at home.  

 [ Cue to find out more about iron industry work - family history research can take you in all kinds of directions]

 A much depleted family was living there in 1871  - with no sign of my great grandfather John,  who was traced 15 miles away to the industrial hub of Bilston, Staffordshire where he was living in a lodging house on Salop Street and working as an assistant roller in an  iron works.

Marriage - A few months later in May 1871, John married Matilda (right ) in St. Andrew’s Church,Wolverhampton.  Matilda’s childhood was a complex one, - the youngest of three illegitimate daughters, with her father named on her  marriage certificate as William Simpson, but no record traced of an actual marriage – her life  told in the blog post Here.  

 Over the next twenty years, ten children were born to the marriage, listed in a weighty family bible which was passed down to me:  

  • 1872 - Alice Maud
  • 1874 - John Percy – also my father's Christian names.
  • 1876 - Mary Barbara born 1876 - my grandmother - research revealed her middle name probably came from her mother’s eldest sister.  
  • 1878 - Fanny Elizabeth
  • 1880 - Arthur William - his first name that of John’s youngest brother.
  • 1882 - Annie
  • 1884 - Samuel Albert, 1884 – his first name that of John’s eldest brother.
  • 1886 - Harry
  • 1888 – Charles – again the name of  one of John’s brother
  • 1892 - James Alfred -  the name of John’s father and brother. 


The 1881 Census saw  the young family of five children under nine years old,   living on Wood Street, Sedgeley, Wolverhampton,  with John aged 37 a hollow fireman. 

Ten years on the family, now with eight children,  was still living on Wood Street, at no. 37, with John having a change of occupation from heavy industry in an iron works to that of an insurance agent.  His wife Matilda was a shopkeeper general”  with 15 year old Mary Barbara helping in the shop.  Eldest daughter Alice Maud  was  a “plate polisher” and eldest son John Percy a “plate dipper”.

Kelly’s Directories of the period  listed, not Matilda, but her husband John  as Shopkeeper at Wood Lane, Lanesfield, Ettinghhall, Northampton

By the 1901 census the family had made short move to no. 1 Wood Street, with   seven children still  living at home.  My grandmother Mary Barbara, aged 25 was a barmaid in a café;  Fanny Elizabeth, 22  a mother’s help;   son Arthur William, 21,  was a blacksmith;  Samuel  17, a boiler maker; and Harry at 15,  a pupil teacher. No occupation was listed for 18 year old Annie, and youngest son James Albert was just nine years old 

By 1911,  the  household still at 1 Wood Street was a much smaller one, with John 67, Matilda,62 , married 39 years.  John was described as an insurance agent with the Royal Liverpool Company; 25 year old Harry an assistant teacher with the local authority and youngest son James a booking clerk on the Railways. Completing the family group  was 15 year old granddaughter Leah M. Wooten – M for Matilda perhaps?

John and Matilda suffered the early loss of four of their children:

  • Charles did not survive infancy, dying in 1889,
  • Fanny Elizabeth died aged 33 in 1909, following a tragic  accident when a lighted candle set fire to her apron and she died of the burns.
  • John Percy died aged 36 in 1910 - his namesake, my father,  was born in 1912. 
  • Arthur William, aged 35, was killed in action at Gallipoli, leaving a widow and two young children - remembered on the Helles Memorial  in Turkey.

John as a Committed Methodist  - I always knew from my father that his maternal grandfather John Matthews was a staunch Methodist,  but had not delved further into researching this aspect.  Then as a result of my blog, I was amazed  to receive an e-mail from a Matthews connection through marriage;  moreover with  the wish to give family treasures to a direct descendant.  As a result I received a   silver trowel and baton presented to John in recognition of his service to the church. 

On the 8th April 1903, "The Wolverhampton Express & Star"  reported:

"A New Wesleyan Chapel for Ladymoor.   Fourteen memorial stones were laid  of a new chapel at Ladymoor, to take the place of the present one which has been wrecked by mining operations.  There was a large attendance  at the site  which occupies a very central position.  .......The stone layers were.......Mr. J. Matthews (on behalf of the choir).....Each was presented with a silver trowel...on behalf of the trustees."

 The inscription reads:   Ladymore Wesleyan Chapel Stonelaying Ceremony.   Presented to Mr. J. Matthews April 7th 1903.
Following the ceremony, a public meeting and service  was held in the Bilston Wesleyan Chapel. at which the musical portion was contributed by the Ladymore Wesleyan Choir, conducted by John Matthews.   

Below is the silver crested baton also presented to John Matthews in 1904 in his role as conductor of the choir. 

The tiny inscription reads:  Presented to John Matthews by the Choir and Congregation of Wesleyan Chapel, Ladymoor:  28.11.04.

To hold the baton used by my great grandfather was a delight to me, as the love of choral music  has continued down through the family.   (Of course my small granddaughter thought it was Harry Potter's wand!). 

John Matthews'Death  -  The family bible recorded that:  John Matthews, born 21st July 1843 at Cookley, Worcestershire, died 17th September 1918, aged 75 at Lanesfield  Parish in Sedgley, buried in the family grave at Sedgley.

 His "dearly beloved wife" Matilda survived him,  living to the  age of 81, with her death  on 9th July 1929 recorded in the "Wolverhampton Express & Star".

 Sadly the  Sedgley graveyard is very badly overgrown  with the gravestones obliterated by the vegetation, though a  group of volunteers is now working  hard to reclaim the site, 


With grateful acknowledgements  to my fellow Matthews descendants for their contributions to this post. 

  • Nicky & Jenny
  • Linda & Mike 



  1. You know so much about this early ancestor! I especially like the accompanying photos.

    1. Thank you, Marian. The fact that John's life spanned the census returns made the research much easier. It is so much trickier when you are dependent on the chance of parish records for much older ancestors.

  2. Excellent post. I love how you told his story from beginning to end. I bet it fun researching all those siblings and children.

    1. Thanks, Diane, for your kind comment. I have yet to r research John's siblings, though I have made contact with some of his children, through my blog and DNA matches. Much more to keep me busy!

  3. What a well compiled story of this family! I love how you found so many facts from census records, which for that era apparently were excellent sources. I always look at any that are available when adding family members to my Ancestry trees. This has been a most enjoyable post to read! So glad you had other family members to fill in the Methodist info!

    1. Your comment much appreciated, Barbara. I love census records because they give so much information (not always totally accurate) and also they give clues to further research. I am a bit envious of the fact US census returns are available for such a longer period, Here in the UK we are eagerly awaiting the release of the 1921 census returns (100 years bar on their release); 1931 returns were destroyed in a fire and of curse no census took place during the Second World War - so we have a big gap in researching more recent ancestors.

  4. I like that you posted about an ancestor; I have never thought of doing that! I also loved that you showed pictures!

    1. Thank you, Diane, for your comment. I heartedly recommend trying your had at writing ancestral profiles, and a blog is an ideal tool to do this. I find just drafting something helps identify gaps in my knoweldge and gives pointers to further research. A series of blog posts on an ancestral line is also a great basis for producing a family history narrative - or even a book. Having photogrpahs does make all the difference, but so much harder of course the further back you go. Do give it a try!

  5. What a remarkable post! I always enjoy your ancestral stories, but this one in particular was so well documented -- with so many twists and turns John's family and career. Not to mention his church life. You are so fortunate to have that family bible. What a treasure. Likewise the baton and trowel. DNA connections can be helpful, but I find I do pretty well attracting cousins through my blog -- and apparently you do, too. Well done!

    1. Thank you, Molly, for your lovely comment - much appreciated. I do enjoy writing ancestral profiles - an excellent way to “get to know” an ancestor.

  6. My wife, Linda Matthews was direct descendant of John Matthews. He was not born in 1844! The particular of his birth are incorrect; I have his birth certificate. As are the assumptions regarding Cookley.

    1. Thank you, Mike, for pointing out my typo mistake with the date of John's birth - corrected to 1843 - the date I quoted at the end of my post, as given in the Family Bible. I noted that census returns over the years differed in listing his birthplace as Wolverley and Cookley - what does the birth certificate say?

  7. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


Thank you for your comment which will appear on screen after moderation.