Joseph Digs Deep

This is a story of one family whose lives were turned upside down by the irresistible and unrelenting forces of modernisation; the mechanised production of crops and goods that enabled the growth of empire in nineteenth century Britain. Joseph’s family was just one of hundreds of thousands, millions even, that were compelled to move from the countryside to burgeoning industrial towns, cities and pit villages.

Countryside beginnings

Second great grandfather Joseph was baptised at Temple Balsall, Warwickshire, on 14 Sep 1830, son of William (a labourer) and Mary Carter, residents of Balsall Common. This was intriguing:  I thought “Knight’s Templar”, and I was right, but only because the manor was gifted to the order following their courageous exploits in the First Crusade to the Holy Land. Some time later, by Papal decree the land became the property of the Order of St John, aka the Knights Hospitaller. By the time Joseph came along the Hospitallers had long gone, and the laregly agricultural manor was in the hands of the Leveson family.

The church of St Mary was first built in about 1290 for the Knights Templar, but later fell into disrepair. It was then restored as a home for Lady Katherine Leveson. In 1849, however, it was restored by the famous architect Sir Gilbert Scott and returned to religious use. It became the parish church in 1863. Evidently Joseph was not baptised at St Mary.

Joseph’s father William was also born at Temple Balsall in 1792 about ten years prior to the Inclosure of 1802. This gives the impression of some stability, but this was a period of rapid change in farming practice, with the introduction of new methods and machinery that made for greater efficiency and higher yields. There would be loss of employment and riots in which machinery was destroyed: who knows, Joseph or, more likely, his father might even have wielded a sledgehammer or torched the barn where some new-fangled machinery slept.

It seems obvious that Joseph’s parents, William and Mary, moved around this part of Warwickshire quite a bit and got rid of their children pretty early. As farm workers they were probably quite poorly off and children had to earn their corn. The parish records show William’s and Mary’s children being christened at Packwood, Baddesley Clinton, Temple Balsall (2), Berkswell, Temple Balsall, Balsall Street, and Balsall (maybe same place). I went to Balsall Common and Berkswell in Summer 2005, but there were no related Carters with memorials in the churchyard; still, it was a baking day out in the countryside, my search evoking Red looking for the box in Shawshank Redemption. In 1841 they lived at Berkswell Common (misheard?), where William’s occupation was “ag lab”. 9 year old Joseph was there, too, with siblings Mary, James, Catherine, Charles and Eliza.

By 1851 William and wife Mary were at Dockers Lane, Berkswell, where they remained through 1861 and 1871 and probably until the ends of their days in 1871 and 1883. All children had gone.

The Brickmakers Arms stood to the south of The Railway Inn, just about opposite the spot height at 370.   The Carters live further south, perhaps where the road bends.  Ordnance Survey reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.


I have not been able to trace Joseph in the 1851 census, but by 1861 he was at Brick Hill Lane, Hampton-in-Arden, still “ag lab”, with wife Mary A (Blythe), whom he had married in 1859 at his home parish of Berkswell. With them was a 4 year old son named William, but I have not been able to find a birth as either Carter or Blythe. The entry of marriage describes Mary Ann Blythe as a spinster, so there is no previous marriage to provide a clue as to William’s birth name, so I have given up on that one. There is some indication that he died later in 1861.

Berkswell, St John the Baptist

By 1871 the family had moved to Stechford, now a suburb of Birmingham, but then a farming community. The move had been recent as their last child, Mary Ann, was born at Balsall. Joseph and two 12 year old sons were agricultural labourers. I believe their home was where Birmingham International Airport is now.


Then came a sea change. When, exactly, is hard to tell, but by 1879, when grandson Enoch was born, Joseph had moved his family to Brownhills, and had become a coal miner. In the 1881 census the Carters are recorded at Howdle’s Cottages, at the end of a row of single storey dwellings of indeterminate age. Sons Joseph, George and Daniel were also coal miners. With them was a grandson: Enoch, aged 2, the son of their unmarried daughter Ellen, who was 19. The cottages stood in what is now Howdles Lane – there is only one such in the World, so it is easy enough to find. Of the 16 households at Howdles Cottages, three were respectively well-sinker, 82 year old widower no longer in work, labourer (who probably worked at the pit), and 13 coal miners. Just 3 were born locally.

The Heart of England Way near Berkswell.

So, sometime in his forties Joseph had brought his family from the wide open fields and woodlands of rural Warwickshire to a cramped cottage in Brownhills, set in a land of few trees, a land blackened by coal mining and its spoil heaps and steam engines, and work in the dark, low-roofed, damp heat of the bowels of the Earth. That must have been some shock! But it was probably his only means of supporting his family. It is known that son Daniel worked at Walsall Wood Colliery, and it seems likely that Joseph worked there, too. The colliery was sunk in 1874, so maybe that was when they moved, finding their traditional occupations as farm hands in less demand.

In 1891 the Carters occupied the same cottage, but now had the responsibility of looking after orphaned Enoch (12) and his younger sister Eunice, aged just 2 years. Eunice would turn out to be a handful for Joseph and Mary Ann – her sad story is told in a piece I submitted to Brownhills Bob, who was kind enough to post it with the heading Eunice the Menace.

In 1901 Joseph’s occupation was “highwayman labr”, presumably mending roads. Grandson Enoch and a boarder were coal miners. No occupation is given for either Mary Ann or granddaughter Eunice, aged 12, not even “scholar”.

In 1910 old age got the better of 80 year old Joseph, leaving Mary Ann, now 73, to look after Enoch and Eunice.

The widow Carter remained at Howdles Road (as she wrote in the 1911 census), along with the two grandchildren and another lodger. At the grand old age of 89 heart disease claimed her life on 1 August 1926.

Enoch never married, but lived to the ripe old age of 90. Eunice was left to fend for herself and seems to have vanished without trace.

howdles cottages os 1883.png
Where Joseph and Mary Ann would see out their lives.  Ordnance Survey 1883, reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.  I think the Carters lived in the last cottage on the inside of the bend.

Although we no longer rely on wells and hand pumps for drinking water, the local supplier South Staffs Water exploits the Lichfield Aquifer.

When the supply of water in England and Wales was privatised in 1989 one of my aunts said she would never accept privatised water, yet she had never used water from a public supply!

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