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Chapter Two

Engineers & Iron Puddlers

Joseph Humphries was baptised at Tipton, Staffordshire on 20 October, 1793, the eldest known child of Edward and Martha (née Whitehouse) Humphreys. The spelling of the surname did not become consistently 'eys' until the time of Charles Henry Humphreys in the second half of the nineteenth century. Elementary education was not introduced until 1870 and most of our earlier ancestors could not write.

Joseph by all appearances was one of those who could not write, but he was careful to point out that he was an 'engineer' for most of his life. He married on 3 October, 1814 at Dudley St. Thomas: the year before Napoleon met his 'Waterloo'. Again both bride and groom are identified as 'of this Parish' but Joseph may have been living in Tipton at the time. The marriage was to Sarah Smith, baptised in Tipton the daughter of William Smith. She seems to have been only around fourteen at the time, but we have to be careful not to confuse baptisms and births. History may have been repeating itself in another way: one of the witnesses was Mark Bond, who fulfilled that function regularly. Was he perhaps the son of Joseph Bond, who acted as 'professional witness' to Joseph's father, Edward?

The couple had a large brood: Thomas baptised before the marriage in Dudley, who married a Susannah and had six children in Wednesbury; Eliza, also baptised in Dudley who seems to have died in infancy; William and two Josephs baptised in Sedgeley; Sarah Ann, Louisa, Benjamin, Henry, Jane, Solomon and another Sarah Ann baptised in Tipton. Louisa and the older Sarah Ann probably died in infancy. There were probably others who died at an early age, too: it is hard to imagine the family naming two children Joseph unless the older one had died. Death in infancy was far from uncommon at this time, especially in the industrial districts.

The Black Country was certainly an industrial district, and it was growing very rapidly in the nineteenth century. Take this account of Wednesbury:

'...Wednesbury evolved into a true industrial town in the first half of the nineteenth century. The decade between 1851 and 1861 was one of the most impressive in the town's history when population grew more rapidly than at any other time, showing a fifty percent increase in the space of ten years. Wednesbury had become the chief centre in the British Isles for the manufacture of iron tubes. The industrial boom at the middle of the century was caused by the building of railways both at home and abroad. Two firms towered over the industrial scene in Victorian Wednesbury, specialising in constructed engineering for railways. Lloyds, Forsters & Co. at the Old Park Works (981957) made steam engines, wheels or locomotives and trucks, and turntables. The Patent Shaft and Axletree Co. had been founded in 1838 and after a period of rapid growth in the 1850s, covered twelve acres with its forges, furnaces, engineering-shops and storehouses. They employed 1500 workers, and a description of the time says that "twelve large steam hammers worked night and day in beating faggots for axles into shape, and in the manufacture of wheels, tyres, rails and boiler plates.'

The landscape of Wednesbury was shaped in these years of industrial boom. The back-to-back houses were built among the scores of pit banks and on land that was already suffering from subsidence...'

Or take this more exotic account of nineteenth century Bilston, taken from The Midlands (West) by R. Millward and A. Robinson:

'...The true Black Country that gave birth to the regional name is rapidly vanishing. To grasp its full meaning we have to dip into the pages of the Victorian guidebooks. The nameless writer of Murray's Handbook for Travellers in Staffordshire gives several vivid pictures of the Black Country in the 1860s. Let us turn to his account of Bilston (9496):

"It is one of the busiest towns in the district (population 24,192) and is almost surrounded by collieries and ironworks, the 'spoil banks' of the one and the 'cinder mounts' of the other presenting huge barren hills in every direction. Clouds of smoke perpetually hang over it, and the country at night time is lighted up with up with lurid flames from the neighbouring blast and puddling furnaces. The fires from the coking-hearths also occasionally burst forth like mimic volcanoes, and the whole scene in a time of active trade is wonderful and impressive. Owing to early and continued mining operations, the neighbourhood of the town, even some of its precincts are 'honeycombed', and occasionally subsidences to a considerable extent take place. Many houses and cottages stand awry and tall chimneys may be seen rivalling in their obliquity the celebrated tower of Pisa"...'

This, then, was the landscape against which Joseph Humphries and his descendants went about their lives. Although he may have started out as an engineer, the pull of the industrial revolution was strong and gradually the family slipped even further down the social scale. Joseph may have been an 'engineer' in his youth but by the time of the 1851 census for Moxley, Wednesbury he was described as a 'fitter of engines' and by 1861 in Wednesbury he was firmly a 'labourer in iron foundry'. The descent down the ladder may also have had something to do with his advancing age. There was no such thing as an old age pension until David Lloyd George introduced them in the twentieth century. Joseph was aged 67 at the time of the 1861 census, and living with his wife, 61, at Darlaston Road.

Joseph Humphries, the son of Joseph and Sarah, was baptised at the Parish Church of Sedgeley on 24 August, 1823. The family were actually living at Coseley, or 'Coseley in Sedgeley' at the time. He married Mary Meek on 14 July, 1844 at St. Edmunds, the Parish Church of Dudley. At his marriage he was described as was his father as a 'fitter up' and was living in 'Netherton, Parish of Dudley'. The witnesses were William Smith (Joseph's maternal grandfather?) and Eliza Meek (probably the elder sister of Mary, baptised on 18 January, 1819 at Darlaston). Both made their mark.

Mary Meek was described as a minor, though she appears to have been a minor of about 20 rather than one of more tender years as were her mother-in-law and, further back, her maternal grandmother. The Meeks seem to have been a family very much local to Darlaston. They were also an engineering one: Mary's father John Meek was described at the wedding as an 'Engine Man' and at the 1851 Census Joseph and Mary were living at 35, Moxley, Wednesbury with John who was described as an 'Engineer Pauper'. Joseph was described as a 'Fitter of Engine Work'. This is the last definite reference we have of Joseph Humphries, although he was not described as deceased at his son's wedding in 1867, when he was called a 'dresser' and may then have been living in Bilston. Joseph and Mary had only one child as far as we can trace: a son called John Humphries. His birth was registered at Moxley, Wednesbury (he was probably born at his maternal grandfather's house at number 35) as taking place on 2 February, 1846. This was the year in which the Corn Laws were finally repealed. John's mother registered the birth on 7 February, 1846. His father was described then as a 'moulder' - a step down the scale from an engineer.

After an appearance as a five year old at his maternal grandfather's house in Moxley we next find John at his own marriage, on 28 July, 1867 in St. Luke's Church, Bilston to an unmarried Hannah Evans. John was 21 and Hannah gave her age as 20, but could have been a little younger. She was the daughter of William Evans, a labourer who we believe heralded from Newtown, Montgomeryshire. The witnesses were Frances (a male) and Sophia Illsley. Bride, groom and witnesses all made their mark. John just about kept his connection with engineering: he was described as a 'driller'.

The couple only had one son: Charles Henry Humphries born nearly a year later, on 19 June, 1868 at Woods Bank, Darlaston. By then John was a 'forge labourer'. The birth was registered by Hannah who 'made her mark' on the last day of the month.

The marriage seems to have been very short-lived; it was over certainly by 1873 and perhaps soon after the registration of Charles' birth. At all events, the 1871 census for Wednesbury shows John as 'married', but living without his wife as a boarder with another family at No. 7, Skidmore Buildings. His age was given as 25, his birthplace as 'Old Moxley', and his profession was recorded as [iron] puddler. This was back-breaking work.

What happened to the marriage? We have oral evidence to say that John left Hannah who returned to the place of her birth - Mid Wales - with her infant son 'on a boat'. Whether Hannah really left John we have no way of telling at this time. But, since such a dramatic break was made with the West Midlands it seems a good time to start a new chapter.

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