Stitched up

John broke down in tears as Lord Denman passed his sentence. He knew he wouldn’t see his wife and new-born son again for 12 long, hard months. Although he deeply regretted the fateful mistake for which he was now dearly paying, John couldn’t help but think that he was the victim of a terrible injustice.

It was mid-June in the year 1843, and four men were talking and drinking ale in a private room at the back of the Heart’s Ease pub in the centre of Cambridge. Inspector Charles Thresher of the newly-formed Borough Police and his ex-colleague Robert Fynn were in deep conversation with two shadier characters called Frederick Shadbolt (aka “The Blackbird”) and Richard Cotton (known as “Lutterworth Dick”). Shadbolt had long been taking up to half a sovereign from the police for providing information about local criminals such as “Young Barn-door Jack”, “Doddy Shedd” and “Tambourine Sam”. But this time a plan was afoot to pocket a much greater reward. Despite innovations in coin production, counterfeiting was still a big problem throughout the country. Up until a decade ago it was considered high treason and punishable by hanging, and although it was no longer a capital offence, those found making fakes could still be transported for up to 14 years. To help catch the counterfeiters, the Royal Mint were offering a £50 reward for anyone apprehending an offender. It was thus that the four plotters hatched a plan that day for dividing such a sum between themselves, and all they needed to enact their nefarious scheme was an unsuspecting pawn to do their bidding. Dick said he knew just the man.[1][2]

John William Balls was born in 1821[3] and grew up in the shadow of St. John’s College in the north of Cambridge. Among the dirty, crooked streets were nestled beautiful academic buildings seemingly positioned at random, and low houses, with their upper stories sometimes projecting over the narrow pathways[4]. Unlike the well-heeled scholars strolling down nearby Bridge Street in their top hats, silk cravats and frock coats, John was a poor labourer’s son whose father had died when he was just 14[5].

John likely started work from an early age to support his mother and younger sisters. The growing University which dominated the town provided many opportunities for workers supplying its needs. It was also around then that law enforcement was starting to change. Previously policed by unpaid volunteers, Cambridge was one of 178 boroughs which was required to establish a professional force by a reform act of 1835[6]. The Cambridge Borough Police was thus formed and initially employed only 30 police officers. The force was still small by the 1840s, comprising 2 inspectors, 4 sergeants, and 22 constables, all overseen by Captain Bailey, the Chief Constable[7].

By 1841, at the age of 20, John was working as a French polisher[8]. This was a very labour-intensive job, involving the lengthy and repetitive application of many thin coats of shellac to wooden furniture with a rubbing pad in order to build up a high gloss finish. The resulting fine furniture would no doubt have adorned the well-appointed residences of local students.

In the same year, John married Eliza Wheeler, a shoemaker’s daughter, at the local church of St Sepulchre[9]. They lived together in a two storey house, with John’s widowed mother, on a lane opposite the medieval round church. Just over a year later, their first child, a son also called John William, was born[10].

Round Church Lane, looking towards St. John’s College chapel

It was perhaps through his father-in-law’s connections that John then got a job as a shoeblack at St John’s College, cleaning and polishing the shoes of the students and academics. John would have been paid directly by the college, reporting individual bills so that students could be charged on a quarterly basis for his services. His friends and fellow shoeblacks regarded John as a good man, honest and industrious[11]. But to some of his customers he was but a lowly servant, pitied for his apparent ignorance. One particularly moralizing correspondent to a local newspaper wrote of a proposed training college for servants:

“The shoeblack will be lectured in geology and chemistry, for it is plain unless he can at once detect the strata in which his master has been walking or riding, he will not be apt to take the best method for removing the soil; and if he have ascertained that the splashes upon the boot-tops are alluvial sand, and not galt, he might still be at a loss how to expunge them unless versed in the properties of vitriolic acid.”

Cambridge Chronicle and Journal 31 December 1842

Returning to the events of 1843, it may then be clear how John, a young impressionable lad with no father figure and used to being treated as a lackey, agreed to help make some counterfeit shillings when asked by his friend Lutterworth Dick.

It was now Saturday July 1st, and the four plotters were once again at the Heart’s Ease pub. Inspector Thresher gave Lutterworth Dick two shillings and sixpence to procure the equipment needed for the job – some spoons and plaster of Paris to make the mould. Dick then went over to John’s house to set up. He returned that evening with Shadbolt to try out the process, Dick holding the mould and John pouring the metal in. He then told John he would come back later to commence work, knowing that it would in fact be the police who would next enter John’s property. The trap was set.

Counterfeiter pouring metal into a mould

Dick gave the signal to Thresher who stormed in with PC William Robinson at 2am on the morning of Sunday July 2nd. John, wearing his dark shoeblack’s apron, working away by the light of the fire in the quiet of the night, jumped out of his skin when they entered. He dropped the mould and a shilling fell to the floor. The police searched the room and found more shillings under an ornament on the mantelpiece and a tobacco pipe in the fire. Eliza, and John’s mother Mary, came downstairs in a state of undress to see what the commotion was, as John was hauled off and taken to the station-house[12].

At the trial a few weeks later, John’s lawyer admitted that the evidence was irrefutable, but he contended to the jury that Dick and Shadbolt were the real offenders and John was merely “a blind instrument”. Despite this, and several of John’s friends and PC Robinson attesting to his good character, the judge and jury were forced to convict – although even they did so with noted regret. The press reported that John was “a good deal affected and shed tears during the greater part of the trial”[13]. John was to serve 12 months in prison with hard labour, which at the time could have meant anything from walking on a treadmill for hours a day, carrying cannonballs up and down, or turning a crank handle thousands of times for no reason[14].

Lord Denman, who regretted having to send John to prison

Despite John being imprisoned, Eliza refused to accept that her husband was guilty. She employed the services of an attorney to bring a charge of conspiracy against the corrupt policemen, accusing them of entrapping John in order to gain financial reward. Unfortunately the case relied on the testimony of Shadbolt and the day before it was due in court, he was detained at Bury St Edmunds for allegedly stealing money from a pub. It wasn’t until he was released the following May that a packed and excited courtroom finally heard the case, but with no other witnesses and Shadbolt of such dubious character the magistrates unanimously dismissed it, despite vociferous support from anti-police protesters[15]. It may have been some small consolation that Inspector Thresher was suspended from the force for drunkenness only a few months later.[16]

Report of the case against the police, Cambridge General Advertiser, 1 May 1844

When he got out of jail, John got back to work and family life with Eliza. They had another son, Charles, in 1846 but after 18 years of marriage, Eliza sadly died from TB[17]. John would then marry again[18] and have another 6 children with a woman 20 years his junior. He remained in the St Clement area of Cambridge and built a career as a house painter[19]. He died aged 80 in 1901[20].


[1] The Yellow Trade,
[2] Cambridge General Advertiser, 1 May 1844
[3] Cambridgeshire Baptisms, FindMyPast
[4] “Student life at Cambridge”, Littel’s Living Age, Vol. 34, 1852, p.114-115,
[5] National Burial Index For England & Wales, FindMyPast
[6] “The 1835 Municipal Corporations Act”,
[7] Cambridge Chronicle and Journal, 7 October 1843
[8] 1841 Census of England
[9] Marriage certificate of John William Balls and Eliza Wheeler
[10] England & Wales Christening Records, 1530-1906,
[11] Cambridge Chronicle and Journal, 29 July 1843
[12] Cambridge General Advertiser, 1 May 1844
[13] Cambridge Chronicle and Journal, 29 July 1843
[14] Victorian Crime and Punishment,
[15] Cambridge General Advertiser, 1 May 1844
[16] Cambridge Independent Press, 14 September 1844
[17] Death certificate of Eliza Balls
[18] Marriage certificate of John William Balls and Mary Ann Lee
[19] Censuses of England, 1871-1891
[20] England & Wales, FreeBMD Death Index: 1837-1915,

Driven to distraction

My grandma never knew her husband Les’ maternal grandfather and all she could tell me about him was that he owned several lorries in Farnsfield, Nottinghamshire and that he was an alcoholic. “I don’t even know what it was that he drunk”, she said. “It’s usually spirits, isn’t it? But I’ve no idea.”

“The alcoholic”, as my mum referred to him, was called Sam Palmer (although that wasn’t his birth name) and he died from liver cirrhosis[1], a tell-tale sign of alcohol abuse, in May 1944, a few weeks before the Allied troops landed on the beaches of Normandy. Alcoholism is usually caused by a combination of societal and family factors, and can be triggered by stressful events[2]. The life of Samuel Palmer (1882-1944) provides an unfortunate case study of how circumstances, often outside of our control, can play a crucial, and sometimes damaging, part in our mental health.

Registration of Samuel Palmer’s death

To appreciate the full story we need to go back to the year before Sam was born. In 1881, 50-year-old framework knitter Samuel Hallam was living with his 23-year-old housekeeper Elizabeth on a row of knitter’s cottages in the large, straggling village of Woodborough, 8 miles north-east of Nottingham[3]. His wife Jane had died 8 years previously[4], and the young Elizabeth, daughter of Hallam’s friend Thomas Palmer was an attractive prospect for the aging widower. They started a relationship and had a daughter Rebecca, out of wedlock, followed by a son Samuel who died after only a few weeks[5]. Their third illegitimate child, another son and our subject, born in February of 1882, was also baptised Samuel Hallam[6] although he would later opt for his mother’s surname.

Over the first 10 years of young Sam’s life, he and his elder sister Rebecca suffered considerable trauma. They saw two more sisters die as babies[7] and although a brother, Harry, would survive, by 1891 their father was ill and unable to work to support the family. Things got so bad that the three children, along with their ailing father, ended up in Basford workhouse, while their mother went to stay with her sister’s family[8].

Although the children received some schooling while they were in the workhouse, and were taken on occasional outings (including a trip to Skegness[9]), they were separated from their parents (and probably each other) and must have been scared and lonely as they first tried to sleep at night in the cramped dormitories. Flogging of young boys for minor infractions was common practice in some workhouses of the time, as were reports of systematic child abuse by depraved nurses[10]. To make matters worse their father died during their time inside[11], leaving the Palmer children (as they were now known) with only each other for comfort. A Poor Law Commissioner inspecting Basford in 1891 did consider the conditions there satisfactory and reported “favourably of the food and treatment, but made suggestions with regard to bathing and amusements”[12], so perhaps Sam was relatively well looked after, albeit a little bored and grubby. Some workhouses gave the boys half a pint of beer with their dinner and supper each day[13], so maybe this was where Sam first got a taste for it.

When Sam got out of the workhouse (possibly aged 14 when he was deemed old enough to enter employment) he worked first as a wagoner[14], driving horses on a farm, and later moved into the city to work in one of the many coal mines[15]. It was here that he met Nelly Davis, a lace mender from Bulwell, and they married in 1905[16] when Nelly was several months pregnant with their first child (a daughter, Gladys). Life seemed to be improving for Sam as they lived first with Nelly’s family and then moved into a small house of their own on the same street.

In 1913 however, tragedy struck. Nelly’s father Joseph, also a coal miner, whom Sam knew well and perhaps worked with, was killed in an accident late at night in the pit. Despite being an experienced collier, and all necessary precautions being taken, a part of the roof had fallen on him while he reached underneath[17]. Nelly and her mother must have been devastated, and Sam too who would have to keep going down into the depths to work with the thoughts of what happened to Joseph surely playing on his mind.

Report of the inquest into Joseph Davis’ death, Beeston Gazette and Echo, 1 Nov 1913.
Newspaper image © The British Library Board. All rights reserved. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive (

Perhaps not surprising then that Sam and Nelly, who now had a second daughter, left the city shortly after. Sam got a job at Rufford Colliery, and the family looked to be moving on from their loss as they moved into a nice cottage with a large garden in Farnsfield called Orchard House and were further blessed with a son[18].

The Plough Inn, Farnsfield where Sam spent many a merry evening

Around this time, Sam was making friends in the local community, playing cricket[19] and becoming the president of the ‘Farnsfield and Edingley Pig Club’. At the club’s annual dinner at the Plough Inn in March 1924, Sam was in charge of proceedings and contributed to the general merriment with songs and poetry recitals[20]. Later that same week, daughter Nelly and son Samuel Gilbert (known as ‘Sonny’) were receiving prizes at the church schoolroom. The packed audience, no doubt including a very proud Sam and Nelly, watched the children perform sketches from Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland and a Midsummer Night’s Dream[21]. With financial help from his brother Harry, Sam was also able to give up mining and start his own business as a haulier[22], taking advantage of the growing need for heavy goods transportation in the post-war housing boom[23].

The grave of Samuel Gilbert ‘Sonny’ Palmer

As with the rest of Sam’s life though, misfortune was never far away. In January 1926, their only son Sonny, who had suffered for a long time with a spinal complaint, took ill and died a few days later[24]. He was just 9 years old. If Sam had managed to keep a lid on his drinking until then, was this the moment that everything became too much? It must have been unbearable, sitting in the cold church, seeing the sprays of flowers sent by Sonny’s schoolmates, trying to stay strong for Nelly and the girls.

Sam was a keen gardener, and in the months and years that followed Sonny’s death, he won many prizes for his fruit and vegetables at local horticultural shows (at one he was commended for his “exceptional” onions)[25]. His young daughter Nelly also had success growing wildflowers – working outside together at Orchard House and tending to their garden perhaps gave them all some solace in trying times. He continued to work as a haulage contractor[26] and play cricket for Hargreave Park on summer weekends.

Evidently Sam continued to struggle with his drinking however, and there must surely have been occasions when he was driving on the roads around Farnsfield with a mind clouded by ale, or something stronger. Although there was no legal drink driving limit until 1967, Sam could still have lost his license for 12 months, or even been sent to prison, for being caught drunk in charge of a vehicle[27]. The consequences for his business would have been disastrous.

So although Sam may have seemed like the life of the party when he was singing songs into the night at cricket club suppers at the Plough[28], underneath he never quite escaped his troubled upbringing and a life punctuated by tragedy. He died aged 62 on May 18th 1944 when his heart finally gave in[29].

Sam Palmer with one of his lorries


[1] Death certificate of Samuel Palmer
[2] Alcohol dependence and withdrawal, drinkaware,
[3] 1881 Census of England & Wales
[4] England & Wales, Civil Registration Death Index, 1837-1915
[5] Nottinghamshire Baptisms, Nottinghamshire Family History Society
[6] ibid.
[7] ibid.
[8] 1891 Census of England & Wales
[9] Nottingham Evening Post, 14 July 1891
[10] Higginbotham, Peter “Children in the Workhouse”,
[11] England & Wales, FreeBMD Death Index: 1837-1915
[12] Hucknall Morning Star & Advertiser, 4 December 1891
[13] Higginbotham, Peter “Workhouse Food”,
[14] 1901 Census of England & Wales
[15] 1911 Census of England & Wales
[16] Marriage certificate of Samuel Palmer & Nelly Davis
[17] Beeston Gazette & Echo, 1 November 1913
[18] 1921 Census of England & Wales
[19] Newark Herald, various reports from 1922 to 1929
[20] Newark Herald, 8 March 1924
[21] ibid.
[22] Correspondence with Sue Palmer, 2011
[23] The history of haulage and road transport in the UK,
[24] Newark Herald, 30 Jan 1926
[25] Newark Herald, various reports from 1925 to 1929
[26] Marriage certificate of Gladys Palmer and Alfred Pearson
[27] A History of Drink Driving & Motoring Laws in the UK,
[28] Newark Herald, 2 November 1929
[29] Death certificate of Samuel Palmer

An unlikely traveller

Archibald McLean (1830-1915) lived within a few miles of his birthplace for over 70 years and did the same job as his father and grandfather before him. Strange then, you might think, that he should end his life over 3000 miles away in the Appalachian mountains of America.

Born in the Dunfermline area of Fife, Scotland in the winter of 1830, Archibald was the 7th child of Thomas and Gomry McLean[1]. They lived in the small mining village of Lochgelly with 4 daughters and a son, having lost another son also called Archibald in recent years. Lochgelly consisted of only a few scattered houses, mostly thatched, and was a pleasant place, quiet except for the clatter of a handloom[2].

His father, Thomas, was a coal miner, as the McLean’s had been for generations before, and by the time he was 10, Archibald and his older brother Alexander were accompanying him down the mine for up to 12 hours a day. They would work together in near darkness, probably naked due to the heat, ‘howking’ coal out with pickaxes which their sisters Christina and Montgomerie would then pull on heavy carts through low tunnels up to the surface[3]. Unlike in the west of Scotland, where up to half of the workforce were Irish immigrants, the coalfields around Fife were still mainly worked by traditional Scottish mining families like the McLeans and there would have been little question that Thomas’ sons followed him into the pits, possibly starting work as young as 6 years of age[4].

Children hauling coal up the slope of a mine; from an engraving of the 1840s

Mines in this period were cramped, poorly ventilated and highly dangerous with accidents and deaths commonplace – the most frequent causes being roof falls and gas explosions[5]. An 1842 investigation into child labour in some of the collieries in the area reported numerous injuries to children including a 12-year old Mary McLean (possibly a cousin of Archibald) whose legs were crushed by a 300kg coal cart[6].

The railway arrived in Lochgelly in 1849, which marked the start of a dramatic period of expansion, with many more pits opening up in and around town[7]. The McLean family had moved to the nearby village of Crossgates by 1851, with Archibald (now 20) still mining with his father (61) and his younger brother Thomas (18)[8]. His younger sisters, Helen, Elizabeth and Grace were spared the gruelling work and were able to stay at home with their mother since legal reforms had outlawed women from working in the mines a few years earlier. They were likely living in housing rented from one of the large coal companies operating in the area, which were often low-ceilinged, badly lit and damp, sometimes with the stench of open drains not far from the door[9].

In January of 1852, aged 22, Archibald married Jessie Thomson, the daughter of a miner from a poor family in Milesmark[10], around 6 miles away on the other side of Dunfermline. They moved in together in her home village, which was small with only a handful of cottages and collier’s houses, a school and a pub[11]. Over the next 13 years they had 7 children together until Jessie sadly died of heart disease at the age of 38 in 1866, 2 months after giving birth to their 4th son[12].

Archibald remarried later that year to Rachel Sneddon, who herself had been widowed and they lived together on Cottage Row in Milesmark for 36 years, having 2 further children together[13].

Archibald and Rachel with their 2 children, c. 1876

A newspaper correspondent, writing in 1875, described Cottage Row thus:

“[The houses] are uniform in style and internal arrangement – large rooms and kitchens, with lofty ceilings, lumpy stone floors, and ample window space on both sides … They are very well furnished, several of the rooms having tester beds with damask curtains, engravings on the walls, and on the tables family Bibles and other books, showing that the people do not belong to the lower class of miners.”

The Old “Fitpaths” and Streets of Dunfermline (Dunfermline Journal 27 Feb 1875)

It would seem as if Archibald’s skill and experience in the mines had allowed him to provide a reasonable standard of living for him and his family. The same perhaps could not be said though for two of his young sons-in-law, Thomas Beveridge and William Hynd, who had married his daughters Montgomery and Maggie respectively. They were also both coal miners but during the severe economic depression of the 1880s they had begun to look further afield for better opportunities. The decisive move came in 1886 when Beveridge packed up and made his way to Glasgow to board a transatlantic steamer bound for Philadelphia[14]. He, like thousands of others from across Europe, had been enticed to start a new life in America with the promise of land to farm. First though he would have to survive the wretched conditions as a ‘steerage’ passenger below deck where the minimal space, insufficient food, general filth and stench made the voyage “almost unendurable”[15]. Not the ideal beginning to a new dream life.

Passengers eating in steerage, 1890

Unperturbed by (or perhaps unaware of) the journey to come, Montgomery followed a few months later with their 4 children[16] and it wasn’t long before Maggie and William Hynd were also travelling over to visit them[17] and see what life was like in the hills of Clearfield County, Pennsylvania, 250 miles west of New York. The Hynds returned to Dunfermline after a year, with a new baby Archibald in tow[18], no doubt excited to introduce him to his grandfather and tell the old man all about their adventure.

Archibald meanwhile continued doing what he knew best, working down the mine, perhaps at the extensive Elgin and Wellwood Colliery near Milesmark, and when he finally retired he had worked in the pits around Dunfermline for more than 50 years. The work had changed dramatically in that time from a small family group toiling with hand tools, to a more industrial, mechanised operation, albeit still with a multitude of dangers for the colliers.

When his second wife Rachel died in 1902 at the age of 75[19], Archibald moved in briefly with his son Archibald Jr and his family, but reportedly did not get on well with his daughter-in-law[20]. It was thus in 1904 that he decided to leave behind all that was familiar and go with Maggie and her children as they set off back to Pennsylvania to join William, who had returned, this time permanently, the year before. This couldn’t have been an easy decision for Archibald and it perhaps took much persuasion from Maggie for him to go with her.

After saying a no doubt tearful goodbye to his family in Fife, the elderly Archibald made the 16-day trip from Glasgow to New York on the steamship the “SS Numidian”, travelling in second-class accommodation[21]. This would have been relative luxury compared to those on the lower steerage decks, although sailing across the stormy north Atlantic in February may still have been stomach-churning for the inexperienced traveller.

The steam ship which took Archibald to America in 1904

There must have been great scenes when Montgomery was reunited with her father after nearly 20 years in the States, and any misgivings he had about his new home may have been tempered by the familiar sight of coalfields dotting the Pennsylvanian landscape.

Having arrived safely in Clearfield County, Archibald lived there on the farm, amongst an extended family, until he died of heart failure on 27 Feb 1915 at the age of 85[22]. He was buried in Summit Hill Cemetery and was described in his obituary as “a Christian gentleman with a kind and gentle disposition that made him respected wherever known”[23]. He died a grandfather of 35 and great grandfather of 18.

Archibald (back row with the white beard), with the Hynds and Beveridges in America


[1] Old Parish Registers Births, Dunfermline
[2] “Bygone Life in Lochgelly: Stray Memories of an Old Miner”,
[3] 1841 census of Scotland
[4] The Mineworkers, Robert Duncan, Birlinn 2005
[5] ibid.
[6] Collieries in the Western District of Fife, Childrens Employment Commission 1842,
[7] Lochgelly Feature Page on Undiscovered Scotland,
[8] 1851 census of Scotland
[9] Notes on Miners’ Houses Part XII,
[10] Old Parish Registers Marriages, Dunfermline
[11] Fife and Kinross-shire OS Name Books, 1853-1855,
[12] Scotland Statutory Death register
[13] Censuses of Scotland, 1871-1901
[14] Pennsylvania, U.S., Arriving Passenger and Crew Lists, 1800-1962
[15] “Steerage Conditions,” in Reports of the Immigration Commission, Volume 37. 1911.
[16] New York, U.S., Arriving Passenger and Crew Lists (including Castle Garden and Ellis Island), 1820-1957
[17] Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Passenger Lists, 1800-1948
[18] UK Incoming Passenger Lists, 1878-1960
[19] Scotland Statutory Register Deaths Index, 1855-1956
[20] Recording of conversation with Mary Maclean, c.1978
[21] New York, U.S., Arriving Passenger and Crew Lists (including Castle Garden and Ellis Island), 1820-1957
[22] Death certificate of Archibald McLean
[23] Obituary of Archibald McLain (sic)

The dancing widow

Back to my mother’s side of the family again this time and I wanted to focus on the experience of a woman as so much of the information I have found during my family history research is about the men. The woman in question is Mary Jane Clifford, née Ballantyne (1870-1952), my maternal grandmother’s grandmother, who was widowed in a very distressing way but got through with the help of her family.

Mary Jane Ballantyne was born on 22 June 1870 in the Scottish border town of Langholm, in Dumfriesshire[1]. The second child of John and Janet Ballantyne, her father was a skilled tailor in the booming textile industry[2]. The family moved across the border to England when Mary was 4 or 5 and by 1881 she was one of 6 children at their home on Edward Street in Bishop Auckland, Durham[3]. Her parents went on to have 6 more children, an example which Mary would later follow with a large family of her own.

Her first child was a daughter, Nellie, born in 1890 when Mary was 19 and unmarried[4]. She was followed 3 years later by another daughter, Jessie[5], before Mary married Granville Clifford, a brickworks labourer, when she was 26[6]. They lived together initially on Edward Street, just down the road from the Ballantyne family[7], and later moved to a slightly larger property on Durham Chare, a steep and narrow road leading down to the river[8].

Durham Chare in the snow, c1910

Mary had seven children with Granville over the next 14 years and her life would likely have been one of domestic drudgery as her husband was out working and she cooked, cleaned and cared for all the little ones. At least her parents and many brothers and sisters were close by to help out and provide some escape. One can imagine the relief as each child reached 5 years of age and was required to start school, or maybe Mary would have preferred them to go to work and bring in some much needed extra money for the family.

By February 1910, at the age of 39, Mary was giving birth to her 10th and final child[9]. But her husband’s behaviour was becoming erratic and sometimes violent. Within a few weeks, Granville’s mental state deteriorated rapidly and his anger worsened, at one point seizing Mary by the throat and nearly strangling her[10]. She must have been terrified and confused by this sudden change and desperate to protect herself, her new-born baby and her older children. She must also have feared for Granville and the family’s future as she admitted him to the Durham County Asylum in nearby Sedgefield for treatment, his expression dull and his tongue stuck out and quivering[11]. She must have known that his diagnosis meant it was highly unlikely that Granville would recover.

Extract from Durham Asylum casebook

Mary was left at home in the small cottage in Bishop Auckland with 8 children to look after, and must have struggled through the following days and weeks, keeping her family together by day and lying alone with worry at night. When their father passed away 8 months later[12], Mary told the children that he had died in a railway accident[13]. Did she really believe his illness had been caused by a blow to the head at work or was she covering the embarrassing truth that he had succumbed to “general paralysis”, a condition that had recently been linked to untreated syphilis?

Times got harder for Mary in the years that followed, and she initially made ends meet by doing laundry work from home while her daughter Jessie earned money as a machinist in the local lithographic works[14]. Despite her diminutive size – she was under five foot and wore a size 2 shoe – Mary showed great strength and resilience to survive as a single working parent and she later found work cleaning the local newspaper offices and theatres, with help from her daughter Beth[15]. In 1921, Mary’s house was home to 8 other family members, some working and some helping at home, so although life was a struggle and they were all crammed in to only 3 or 4 bedrooms, she was always surrounded by loved ones[16].

As her children started families of their own and finally all left home, Mary lived out her days in ‘Bishop’ and enjoyed Scottish dancing and month-long visits from her grandchildren in the summer holidays[17].

She died aged 82 on 27 Nov 1952 from liver cancer[18], leaving behind 9 children and at least 11 grandchildren. Mary’s life was turned upside down by her husband’s sudden and shocking demise, but her spirit was undimmed and she never stopped dancing.

Mary Clifford


[1] Scotland, Select Births and Baptisms, 1564-1950,
[2] 1871 Scotland census
[3] 1881 census of England & Wales
[4] 1901 census of England & Wales
[5] ibid.
[6] England & Wales Marriage index
[7] 1901 census of England & Wales
[8] 1911 census of England & Wales
[9] ibid.
[10] Winterton hospital casebooks, admission number 15032
[11] ibid.
[12] Death certificate of Granville Clifford
[13] Recording of conversation with Mary Pearson, 2010
[14] 1911 census of England & Wales
[15] Recording of conversation with Mary Pearson, 2010
[16] 1921 census of England & Wales
[17] Recording of conversation with Mary Pearson, 2010
[18] Death register entry for Mary Jane Clifford

Working-class boy made good

My next subject is on my father’s side of the family and is the first in our history to be born with the name ‘Ball’ (more on that another time). His story is one of a working class Yorkshireman whose determination and astute business sense brought financial success. But ultimately it was his job that killed him.

Charles Edward Ball (1875-1934) was born in Attercliffe in the “East End” of Sheffield, the eldest child of a railway worker and his teenage wife[1]. Attercliffe was the largest area of Sheffield at the time, owing to the extensive manufacturing industry which had built up around the nearby railway and canal, and was at the heart of the city’s Industrial Revolution[2]. One writer described the area at the time as “masses of buildings, from the tops of which issue fire, and smoke, and steam, which cloud the whole scene, however bright the sunshine.”[3]

Sheffield factories in the 1800s

As a young man Charles looked set to follow his father into manual labour and worked first as an apprentice wagon wheel maker, aged 15[4], and later as an iron worker[5]. This was hard physical work but Charles was in good shape. He competed in foot races, specialising in the quarter and half mile distances, and in his peak was beating the local competition and running the 440-yard dash in around 52 seconds (only a few seconds off world record pace)[6]. Sheffield was world-renowned for athletics in the Victorian era and these races were prestigious affairs with a large number of entrants, thousands of spectators and prize money up to £10 per race, which would have equated to around a month’s wages for Charles at the time[7].

One can imagine Charles being careful with his money and perhaps saving his winnings for a rainy day, as although metalworking was a skilled job, employment was inconsistent and wages often varied on a sliding scale linked to the prevailing market prices for iron and steel[8].

A turning point in Charles’ life came in his mid-twenties when he met a young ostler’s daughter by the name of Emily Moore. Emily was living with her grandfather, George Carr Jessop, in Rotherham at the turn of the century[9]. Jessop was a seed and corn merchant and had previously been a grocer in Attercliffe and a Baptist deacon[10]. Charles fell for Emily and they married in October 1901[11], at which point he decided to pursue a more stable living, perhaps with the influence of Jessop who was protective of his granddaughter.

He took up work at the seed shop and became a partner with the aging Jessop. By 1904 the shop was named ‘Jessop & Ball’ and was situated between a hosiers and a paint & wallpaper seller within the Market Hall in Rotherham[12]. They sold all manner of seeds for bird food, gardens and flowers, as well as other products such as dog food[13]. They also sponsored local pigeon racing[14] and Charles showed his competitive nature again by winning prizes for his poultry in the “Fur and Feather Fanciers” show[15].

Charles in front of his seed shop, Rotherham

Charles was probably already in charge of the day-to-day running of the shop when George Jessop died shortly after[16], but continued trading under the Jessop & Ball name until tragedy struck a few years later. Emily took ill and died suddenly of appendicitis in 1908[17]. The couple had been married 6 years, without seemingly producing any children.

It wasn’t long however before Charles fell in love again. Clara Mattock, a dressmaker from Lincolnshire, came to Sheffield regularly to visit her brother Charlie who worked in the steel industry[18]. It may have been on one such visit that her path crossed with Charles and they got together and married in 1910. The local paper reported the occasion as a “pretty wedding” and that afterwards the happy couple proceeded by train straight to their honeymoon in Scarborough.[19]

Charles and Clara would stay in Rotherham for another 15 years, raising 2 sons, Ted and Ron. The seed business, now run by Charles alone, went from strength to strength and the family were able to move to a larger property on the outskirts of town[20]. The transition from skilled working class to the respectable lower middle class was complete. But Charles’ health was deteriorating. Years of moving and processing seeds for the shop had exposed him to harmful grain dust which when inhaled can cause serious respiratory illness[21].

Charles with son Ted in leafy surroundings

In 1926, at the age of 51, he was forced to sell up and move his young family to Clara’s home village of Helpringham. They lived at the beautiful Rose Cottage which Clara’s widowed mother was renting and later used their considerable savings to buy the cottage themselves. As Charles’ condition worsened they built a special wooden outbuilding for him to sleep in, with big windows to let in plenty of fresh air[22].

After a long and painful illness, Charles died in 1934 from heart disease caused by his chronic bronchitis[23]. Described as a strict father by his sons and still proud of his working class roots (he didn’t want them to go to university), Charles had worked hard to change the fortunes of the Ball family and he left Clara, his “dear wife”, with almost £14000 which would be worth at least £1 million today[24][25].


[1] 1881 census of England & Wales
[2] White’s Directory of Sheffield, 1879
[3] Burngreave Voices, Sheffield Galleries & Museums Trust,
[4] 1891 census of England & Wales
[5] 1901 census of England & Wales
[6] Sheffield Independent, 2 July & 21 August 1895. Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 28 May 1896
[7] Wages in the United Kingdom in the 19th century, Arthur Bowley, 1900
[8] Evans, A. D. (1909). An Iron Trade Sliding Scale. The Economic Journal19(73), 122–133.
[9] 1901 census of England & Wales
[10] Malcolm Bull’s Calderdale Companion,
[11] Marriage certificate of Charles Edward Ball and Emily Moore
[12] White’s Directory of Sheffield & Rotherham, 1905
[13] Photo of Charles Edward Ball outside his seed shop
[14] Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 15 Aug 1904
[15] Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 5 Nov 1909
[16] UK and Ireland, Find a Grave Index, 1300s-Current
[17] Death certificate of Emily Ball
[18] Recording of conversation with Dina Maclean, 2010
[19] Sleaford Gazette, 17 Sep 1910
[20] 1921 census of England & Wales
[21] 1988 OSHA PEL Project – Grain Dust, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health,
[22] Recording of conversation with Dina Maclean, 2010
[23] Death certificate of Charles Edward Ball
[24] Will and Grant of Probate of Charles Edward Ball
[25] Purchasing Power of British Pounds from 1270 to Present,,

A credit to his country

The first story I want to share is that of William Pearson (1875-1944), my great great grandfather on my mother’s side. He certainly had some hard times but was clearly a man of great fortitude and honour. He went from being branded a “failure” to being commended on the front page of the local newspapers. William’s story begins in 1896, a few months after his elderly father Luke had died.

William, who had just turned 21, took over his father’s beerhouse and grocer’s shop in the small village of Edingley in north Nottinghamshire[1]. A few years later he married local girl Annie Cope and they had 5 children together, including my great-grandfather Alf. By 1911, all the family were still living together in Edingley at what was called the ‘Railway Tavern’[2].

Not long after though William fell on difficult times. Clearly not making enough money from his father’s business to support his family, he had also been working as a market gardener and as the local postman to make ends meet. In 1912 however things started to unravel. He was sued by a brewery company for non-payment of a loan and 12 months later was in front of the ‘Official Receiver’ in Nottingham having filed his own petition for bankruptcy. One newspaper reported the case under the headline “local failure”[3].

Headline about William Pearson and another local innkeeper in the Nottingham Daily Express

But it wasn’t just a downturn in trade which did for William. In his bankruptcy hearing he told of “illness of himself and his wife and family”. It transpired that for several months William had been in a sanitorium for consumptives and Annie and the children had also been sick for a long time, requiring medical attention[4]. Consumption, now known as pulmonary tuberculosis, was still a major public health issue in the early 20th century and the BCG vaccine was yet to be developed. Working in a crowded indoor environment such as the tavern would have increased the risk of exposure for William and Annie[5] and having contracted the infection they, and their young family, would likely have suffered from persistent coughs, extreme fatigue and night sweats[6]. Little wonder then that he was unable to keep the wolf from the door.

After such a debilitating illness and public humiliation, you could forgive William if he had quietly retreated to Edingley to spend his days eking out a meagre living from his small garden. But not William. When war broke out shortly after, despite now being over 40, he joined the army and served for nearly five years, performing “excellent secret service” in India.

On his return, although still in poor health, he was keen to get back on his feet and applied to the County Court to be discharged from his bankruptcy. He wanted to use a Government grant to buy some land and set up a market gardening business, and offered to pay back some of his debt in monthly instalments[7]. Once again William found his story reported in the local newspapers, but this time they related his “struggle against misfortune” and quoted a glowing tribute from the judge:

“[Mr Pearson] was the subject of misfortune, taking the shape of illness and, with regard to his subsequent career, he is a man of whom it may fairly be said that he is a credit to his country, deserving every consideration that can be extended to him and every expression of commendation and every honour that can be paid to him by a grateful country.”

Nottingham Evening Post, 16th October 1919
Headline in Nottingham Evening Post

The judge granted William’s request, but it seems that once again his business didn’t work out, and he ended up working out his days as a banksman at Clipstone colliery, supervising the miners as they entered and exited the pit[8]. Although it may not have been his first choice, it was a crucial job to ensure the safety of the workers and William was entrusted with a high level of responsibility. His bad luck continued when he and his son Lester found themselves ‘locked out’ of the pits for 3 months during the 1921 mining crisis for refusing to accept wage reductions[9]. Once again, in the face of adversity, William Pearson acted with bravery and integrity.

In the end, William retired from the colliery due to incapacity[10], perhaps suffering from the long term effects of his bout of TB. He died in 1944 at the age of 68[11], but will be remembered as a man of honour and a credit to his family and his country.


[1] Newark Advertiser, 29 April 1896
[2] 1911 census of England & Wales
[3] Nottingham Daily Express, 16 July 1913
[4] Nottingham Evening Post, 16 October 1919
[5] Working conditions and tuberculosis mortality in England and Wales, 1890–1912,
[6] Tuberculosis (TB) – Symptoms,
[7] Nottingham Evening Post, 16 October 1919
[8] 1921 census of England & Wales
[9] ‘Census 1921 – Baby it’s Cold Outside’,
[10] 1939 Register
[11] England & Wales Death Index

In the beginning

I’ve been researching my family history for years. I began in 2006 and got started by talking to older relatives and inheriting past research done by others. I bought the ‘Family Historian’ genealogy software and signed up to I collected lots of names and dates and worked my way back successfully along multiple lines using online census records and certificates ordered from the GRO. I produced a family tree for my grandmother’s 80th birthday which she proudly hung on her wall.

But eventually, all the names and dates began to lose their interest. My inner desire to catalogue, in this case applied to my ancestry, could only go so far. I started wanting to know more about who these people were, what they did and what their lives were like. I wanted to share what I found out with my family and write everything down so my children would be able to read about their roots when they were old enough to care.

I set a goal to write biographies of as many of my ancestors as possible, containing not only the dry facts of their births, marriages and deaths, but a broader, more colourful picture of who they were, the events and decisions which shaped their lives and the times in which they lived. I wanted to put all of this together in a book, illustrated with photos and pictures of original documents, embellished with historical context and smartly printed and bound.

I gradually realised that by doing this I was falling into the trap of ‘completeness’ again, and the project became more about finishing all the biographies and less about actually sharing the stories with those who may want to read them. So my new plan is to publish the things that I find out on this site as I go along, without worrying if they are ‘complete’, and to slowly build a collection of interesting posts for my family, and anyone else who’s interested, to read and hopefully enjoy. And maybe one day I’ll bring these together and finally produce the big book of Balls that can sit proudly on my sons’ bookshelves, just as my first family tree hung on my granny’s wall.