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Chapter One 


This story properly begins on a January day in 1791, at Dudley St. Thomas Church, where Edward Humphreys married Martha Whitehouse. This is our first definite knowledge of Edward. He and Martha were described as bachelor and spinster respectively. Both were described as 'of the parish' but Edward's baptism does not appear to have been registered there That of Martha, the daughter of James and Mary was, on 18 May, 1777. This seems to put her in the 'child bride' category, and indeed she may have been younger than fourteen, but the fact is that we don't know how old she was. She may have been an adult or girl-child when she was baptised.

The witnesses to the marriage were William Nicholls and Joseph Bond. Although neither could sign their name, Joseph Bond was a 'regular' witness to marriages at the church and it is unlikely that he was a relative or particular friend to either bride or groom. It would be mistake to have family weddings of the later twentieth century or twenty-first century too much in mind: weddings in the late eighteenth century were briefer, much less lavish affairs.

So who was this Edward who came to the parish church of Dudley on the ninth day of the month to marry? He may have been the Edward, son of Edward and Susannah (Hannah) baptised on 11 December, 1785 at Wombourn, Staffordshire, a neighbouring parish. This Edward, like his brothers John (baptised 22 July 1781) and George (baptised 21 September 1788) seems to have been an adult of 25 when he was baptised. But the hard fact is that we have no definite proof as yet (Autumn, 2001) to say that these Edwards were the same person so we will say no more.

The name of Humphreys and its variants like Humphries, Humphrey, Humphrys, Homfray and Umfrey is a patronymic - the son of Humphrey. 'Homfray' sounds like a different surname - unless you say it with a Black Country accent! The earliest known reference to the name is that of a Norman knight, Hunfrid, who held lands in the Welsh Border Country. The surname is in fact quite common in that area and it is quite possible that our more remote Humphreys ancestors came from Wales or the Border Country.

This does not mean that we are descended from the 'noble' Hunfrid. In the early days of surnames, men often took the name of their lord. So Humphrey, Hunfrid's man, is more likely to have been descended from Hunfrid's sergeant-at-arms or one of his scullions as from the knight himself.

So, where are Edward's more immediate forbears likely to have been from? It is important to remember that Parish and County boundaries were not like National ones, and families often crossed and re-crossed them. There were some restrictions in that Poor Law Settlement Certificates were required in the new Parish to ensure that an incoming person did not become a liability there, but during the industrial revolution movement became easier. The industrial revolution was certainly gaining rapid momentum in the eighteenth century, and gave rise to a lot of mobility in the Humphreys family at a later date.

The Parish of Dudley should therefore be looked at in the context of the whole area rather than in isolation. Dudley is a northern 'Worcestershire island' in the South Staffordshire Black Country, and is also very close to the Shropshire border. So the picture is complicated by geographical as well as historical factors. The Black Country in the mid-eighteenth century was one of the focuses of the industrial revolution and showed a remarkable growth in population at this time. If England was the 'Workshop of the World' then the Black Country was the 'Workshop of England'. The industrial revolution may in fact be said to have had its beginnings further to the west in Shropshire, in Ironbridge and Coalbrookdale.

Edward's forbears may have been among those which came from further west, possibly Shropshire, to escape rural poverty. We do not have a profession recorded for Edward but his son was an engineer so it seems at least possible that he came from a background of rural millwrights or blacksmiths. They would certainly have been drawn to this important engineering centre. But back to the few hard facts we do have. Edward and Martha had two children, Joseph Humphries and Elizabeth Whitehouse Humphries. Joseph's story is told in the next chapter but his sister deserves a mention her. She was baptised in Tipton, Staffordshire, on 27 March, 1796. We have no idea why her mother's surname should have been used as a Christian name for Elizabeth, but it has been very useful for genealogical purposes. Whitehouse was (and is) in fact a very common surname in this party of the country, so it is hard to see why Martha would want it preserved in this way. Perhaps this Whitehouse family had some particular distinction or James and Mary Whitehouse had no sons.

In any event, Elizabeth Whitehouse Humphries seems to have kept up the use of her full name, or at last she used it when she married thirty years after her birth. Her husband was John Webb, who was a widower, although this was Elizabeth's first marriage. Elizabeth and John both signed their own names rather than making their marks. So, too, did Edward Humphreys, who was one of the witnesses to the marriage. If as was seems likely he was the same Edward who was her father, it seems strange that he had not signed at his children's christenings or his own marriage. Either he couldn't write at that time or wasn't allowed to! We do not know much of John and Elizabeth's history subsequent to the marriage, but they may have gone to Brierley Hill, a nearby parish. They seem to have at least one child, a son named John. It is unlikely that they had a large family, given Elizabeth's 'advanced' age at the marriage.

Although they were married at Dudley St. Edmunds and were described as 'of this parish' Elizabeth and her family may in fact have been living in Tipton at this time. The church at Dudley seems to have had an attraction for the family's early marriages. Perhaps it was seen as a more attractive option to Tipton.

We have no information on Edward after his daughter's marriage. If he was the Edward baptised in Wombourn then he went to live with his younger brother at 'The Level' and was buried, aged 67, at Brierly Hill.

Nationally and internationally, great events were afoot when Edward was a young man. In 1776 the American Declaration of Independence was signed; in 1783 Pitt the Younger became the Prime Minister of George III; in 1789 the Bastille was stormed; from 1793 to 1815 was the period of the Napoleonic Wars. Although these events would probably have seemed remote to Edward, they would have had an impact upon him. For instance, the lack of European supplies resulting from the conflict caused the price of wheat and therefore bread to rise substantially.

Something that may have had a more direct impact upon Edward's life was the development of steam engines. James Watt, now in partnership in the company of Boulton and Watt, built the first of a new type of steam engine in 1777. This was a considerable advance on the old Newcomen type engine as installed at Dudley. If he was a engineer it is easy to imagine Edward working on both types of engine. Whether he had this kind of involvement or not, industrial developments had a major impact on Edward's descendants, as we shall see in the next chapter.

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