John I Chapter I

Hammerwich Stores (640x425)
Hammerwich Post Office

The Bible-style title fits with John’s strong connection with the Wesleyan Methodist Church, particularly Park View, Watling Street, Brownhills. The chapel was redeveloped for housing; the ironically named Deville Mews.

Family lore tells that John was sometime choirmaster. Some of the singers habitually decamped to the Prince of Wales pub across the road, but one evening John told them that anyone going to the pub need not turn up next week. Everyone went to the Prince!

Taking heed of the dire warnings of the various magazines, such as Your Family Tree, that offered advice and practical tips to genealogists, I first filled in the obvious gap that I had no documentary evidence that John was actually a direct ancestor. Consequently, I obtained a copy of the entry of birth for Samuel Dennis. He was born at Watling Street, Hammerwich, Brownhills, father John Dennis and mother Emma Dennis, formerly Jones. At least I would not be the next person to trace a family tree back to the sixteenth century only to find the ancestors were not really theirs! It seems there are countless examples of people not realising that the man they called “Daddy”, was not really their birth parent or that “auntie Mary” was nothing of the sort.

Hammerwich was the parish, but not the place people said they lived in. Being local I knew this, but, in urban areas, this can be confusing, especially when a sequence of local authority reorganisations mean that the same house could be successively in Lichfield Rural District, Brownhills Urban District, Aldridge – Brownhills Urban District, all Staffordshire, and then Walsall Metropolitan Borough, West Midlands.

I was contacted once by a distant relative via Genes Reunited who had been researching an ancestor who lived at Webb’s Row, Hammerwich, Staffordshire. The small village of Hammerwich sits on high ground to the north of Watling Street and has many of the features of a rural settlement. Surrounded by fields it boasts a hall, parish church, windmill (sail-less and now residential), cricket field, railway station axed after Beeching, primary school and post office, including stores and off-license.

He and his wife had travelled there, but found no Webb’s Row. This terrace of ten Victorian houses had been demolished long since, but actually stood on Castle Street, Brownhills, some two miles from Hammerwich. Like many of the houses in the area, I remember them standing empty, doorless, windowless shells, merely the shadows of family homes, now playgrounds for the local kids. In places shelves still bore half-empty bottles of tomato ketchup or Branston pickle. Condemned in the mid-1960s they were demolished to make way for altogether more salubrious homes for elderly folk, with ‘mod cons’ like running water and central heating. Howdle’s Cottages, Williams’s Row, Woodhouse’s Buildings and Fox’s Row went at the same time.

John and Emma Dennis were easily located in the 1901 census. They lived at Howdles Cottages. John, age 48, was a colliery checkweighman, born at Brownhills. Emma was 44 and born at Pontesbury, Salop. There were three children: John, 19, colliery horse driver; Henry, 20, coal miner/loader; and Samuel 14, colliery banksman. All three, it said, were born at Hammerwich – the parish again, the civil parish, not the ecclesiastical one. These were Dad’s father and uncles Jack and Harry.

Their older sister, Dad’s aunt Lizzie, like many young women, was in domestic service at Lymewood, Sutton Road, Erdington, Sutton Coldfield. Her employers were spinster sisters Catherine, living on own means, and Grace McBean, teacher in high school.

John’s occupation in 1881 was given as “check clerk” and in 1901 as “colliery checkweighman”. This was an important job that required the trust of both owners and miners. He was based at the weighbridge and recorded the weight of coal cut by each miner. At the end of the week he would hand his records to a clerk in the office who would then give John the wages for the previous week. John would then distribute the pay to the men.

According to my notebook the next thing I looked at was great grandfather John Dennis to find out about the move from Leicestershire and how Tom Dennis of the Railway Tavern fitted in.

tree building dennis john 1852 (640x453)
My tree was beginning to take shape …
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