I started researching my family history about 7 years ago and soon realised why so many people find it totally addictive. I have always been the sort of person who likes looking for things, the internet has made this so much easier and I jumped in with both feet!
My husband’s family came from Ashton so I started with them as I thought searching locally would be easier. It became a labour of love and these distant ancestors became real people to me – so much so that when reading about historical events I automatically view them in terms of which members of the family were alive at that time.
I started with basic information. My mother in law was born on Curzon Road, Ashton and I knew the names of her family members. This enabled me to find the family on the 1911 census which was my starting point. Tracking back the same names over the 1901, 1891 and 1881 censuses was fascinating. Addresses, occupations, finding family members living close to each other over the years and following their lives was absorbing. I realised that I was more interested in how they lived their lives than merely finding a list of names which stretched back a long way but held no substance, no imagery to me.
I have a favourite person in this family tree. She is my husband’s great, great grandmother Agnes Lee who was born near Kendal in the Lake District. She is my favourite because I found her in Belle Vue Gaol in Manchester in the 1851 census. Her husband and children were at 29 King Street, Manchester, where they were living in the cellar of a jeweller’s shop. Benjamin Lee, her husband, was a porter for the jeweller Henry Whittington and he allowed the family to live in the cellar.
I managed to find prison records showing she had been jailed for larceny and been sentenced to 6 months hard labour at Belle Vue Gaol but there was no more information. I researched newspaper reports from 1851 and managed to find details of the family being brought to the Borough Court
The Manchester Courier, and Lancashire General Advertiser Saturday 1 February 1851
Robberies from a Jeweller’s shop
A little girl, named Mary Jane Lee, having within the last two months pledged various small articles of jewellery at the shop of Mr Kenyon, pawnbroker, of Garside Street, that gentleman suspected they were not honestly obtained, and communicated his fears to Mr Beswick, the chief superintendent of police. In consequence, when the girl visited Mr Kenyon’s on Saturday last, she was detained until Inspector Maybury was sent for, and that officer (himself unobserved), watched her home, and found that she was the daughter of a porter, in the employ of Mr Whittington, jeweller and silversmith, of King Street.
From inquiries instituted, it came out that the girl and her parents resided on Mr Whittington’s premises, occupying a cellar under the shop, and a sleeping room in the attic, and the girl, after some evasion, confessed that the jewellery pledged by her was the property of Mr Whittington, and had been given to her to dispose of by her mother. When interrogated by Mr Beswick, the mother [Agnes Lee], confirmed her child’s statement, observing that she would not attempt to shield her own guilt; adding that she had stolen the property unknown to her husband, who was entirely innocent. Directing Mr Beswick to look in a certain spot, where the key of a Chubb’s patent lock was found, which opened an inner door leading into Mr Whittington’s shop, she said that, unknown to her husband, she had procured the key, and with it had frequently got inside the shop and stolen articles which she had sent her little girl to pledge. Notwithstanding that the woman disclaimed any guilty knowledge on the part of her husband, Mr Beswick took the whole family into custody, and on Monday they were brought up at the Borough Court to answer the charge.
Evidence of the facts stated above being adduced, and Mr Whittington having identified a gold pencil case, gold guard, six shirt studs, and two silver fruit knives, as his property (all of which were produced by Mr Kenyon, pawnbroker, as having been pledged by the little girl), the prisoners were respectively asked what they had to say. The husband [Benjamin Lee] (whom Mr Whittington, the prosecutor, said had been in his employment for seven years) said, he was quite innocent of the charge, and bursting into tears, said he could not tell whatever had induced his wife to act as she had done. She had ever been a kind good wife, and he was greatly distressed that she should have robbed Mr Whittington, for he had behaved towards the family like a father. Here the wife and girl began to cry – Mr Walker asked if there was any reason to suspect the husband – Mr Whittington: Oh no; I have every confidence in him. The father and daughter were then discharged, Mr Whittington telling the former to go back to his duty at once, and the wife Agnes Lee, was committed for trial at the sessions
Mr Whittington’s generosity meant the family could continue at 29 King Street where they remained for another 4 years. Mary Jane, who was 11, had a brother, also called Benjamin, age 9, who was not taken to court. Agnes was sentenced to 6 months hard labour in Belle Vue Gaol, on Hyde Road in Gorton, she was released on 13 August 1851. I wondered what had caused her to steal the items, from the report it seemed out of character. Why did Mr Whittington allow the family to return to the shop when Agnes had stolen from him, it didn’t make any sense?
Further research revealed that Agnes was about 7 months pregnant at the time of her court appearance and the baby was born in prison on 8 March 1851. The baby, called Thomas was baptised in September and his date of birth given on the baptism record. He is the only one of Agnes and Benjamin’s children not to have a birth registered.
I was able to trace other children born to Agnes and Benjamin before Thomas was born. Her youngest child at the time of her court appearance was Benjamin, then age 9, born in 1842. In the following years she gave birth to 2 children who died before they were 2 months old. This would probably explain the reasons for acting as she did. Agnes had a sister, Jane whose husband was a joiner at the Manchester Royal Infirmary when it was situated in Piccadilly Gardens, and the family lived at the Infirmary. Maybe Agnes wanted the money to provide help for the new baby?
Mr Whittington would also be aware of the deaths of the babies, perhaps this was the reason he let Benjamin keep his job. I had originally thought that Thomas had done well to survive in prison, but maybe he was lucky that he was in prison. Women who gave birth in prison could keep their babies with them, providing they were breastfeeding, sometimes until the end of their sentences and they would have had access to regular meals.
My mother in law had always told me that the house she was born in was owned by rich relatives who lived in Lytham but she had no further knowledge of them. I was interested to see how family members who came from such a poor background could have ended up owning blocks of houses in Ashton. I tracked forwards to 1856 when their youngest daughter Hannah was born in Cowcill Street and Benjamin’s occupation was now Railway Porter, they had moved nearer to Oxford Road Station, perhaps he worked there? By 1861 they had moved to Gorton and Benjamin was still listed as a Porter. His son, also Benjamin was now 19 and was working as a Solicitors Clerk. Was this their route out of poverty?
It was. Benjamin Lee continued to work as a Solicitors Clerk for his whole career and he moved to the outskirts of town, first to Stretford and then to Levenshulme. He started buying property and in 1871 and 1881 he owned the properties where his mother and father lived in Gorton. Agnes’s husband Benjamin died in 1884 and it was not long before Agnes moved to Ashton under Lyne, where two of her daughters were already living. She lived in Bengal Cottage on Alfred Street and her daughters were around the corner on Curzon Road. Her youngest daughter Hannah ran a draper’s shop on Curzon Road. Her son Benjamin owned 10 houses on Curzon Road and also owned property in the Levenshulme area. Benjamin’s daughters later moved to the Lytham area and my mother in law’s family were living in the properties on Curzon Road until the 1950s.
The one person missing from this story is the baby born in prison in 1851, Thomas. He lived with his parents in Gorton and worked at the London and North West Railway yards at Longsight as an engine fitter. In 1874 he joined the Royal Navy and stayed there until 1895. He then worked as Acting Assistant Prison Warder at the Royal Naval Prison in Lewes in Sussex and became Principal Warden.
Now you can see why Agnes is my favourite person. I could never have imagined at the start that I would ever be able to find out so much detail about events that happened over 150 years ago. The shop at 29 King Street has been a jeweller’s shop ever since. Mr Whittington died in 1874 and his son took over the business, various others followed and now it has been in the Hancock family from 1900 to today. It is not the same building but it is in the same place. It was a very strange feeling standing looking at it for the first time, imagining all the things that had happened.
Perhaps this story will tempt you to research your own family history, I cannot promise you will find anything but hopefully you will have as much fun as I have had!
1851 Census Agnes in Belle Vue Prison
Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser 1 February 1851
Benjamin Lee 1851 Census 29 King Street, Manchester
Belle Vue Gaol 1870
Manchester Rate Books
Tameside Local Studies and Archives
Michelle Higgs. Prison Life in Victorian England
GRO Birth Marriage and Death Indexes
Manchester Central Library and Archives
Lancashire Online Parish Clerks http://www.lan-opc.org.uk/index.html