Getting to know my Onions

When I found this news clipping about Thomas Onion, I thought he must be related, but the connection was not as straightforward as I had hoped. Once again this would take me back to country lanes in southern Staffordshire that I had travelled many times.

onion-thomas-obit-sa-25-sep-1948
Staffordshire Advertiser 25 Sep 1948

Historically, the area is famous for supporting the Catholic monarchy, helping King Charles II to flee the country after defeat at the battle of Worcester in 1851, the final substantial act of the English Civil War. As as child I was taken to Boscobel House to learn about King Charles and the Royal Oak, the inspiration for many pubs named the Royal Oak. This local quirk would make things difficult.

The key bits of information for the genealogist are that he was born about 1878 and lived at Bishops Wood. It was a simple matter to find Thomas in the 1911 census at Bishops Wood, age 33, road labourer, born Stretton, with his mother, Ann Maria, 75, widow, born Wolverhampton.

Ten years earlier Thomas was at a hamlet named Horsebrook, where Thomas was a “roadman labourer”, living with mother. This was near to the Bell Inn, a landmark on the south side of Watling Street (A5). I have passed this pub so many times! According to the gable it now incorporates “THE NOTED HAM ‘N’ EGGERY”.

It seemed clear that this was the Thomas featured in the news article, but how did he fit in?

horsebrook-1882-83-1884
Horsebrook, with aqueduct top left. Ordnance Survey 1884 (surveyed 1882-83). Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.

Two year old Thomas was at Aqueduct, Horsebrook in 1881 (this was the only household at Aqueduct), together with father Charles, born about 1832. Sadly, I was unable to find a baptism, and that issue would dog this investigation. Carrying on with censuses I found various siblings and parents, Edward Onion, born about 1806 and Jane. In 1841 nine year old Charles was with family at Great Saredon, and I wondered if that was where he was born.

slow

These days most people dash through the hamlet along the Watling Street at 50 mph or more, ignoring the SLOW painted on a ramrod-straight road (it was built for the Romans), but if you take the trouble to turn off you enter a network of narrow, hedge-lined lanes that wend through undulating fields, and sporadic farm buildings. On either side you find young, green cereal crops, or garish rape, or neatly ploughed red-brown fields awaiting their destiny. Here and there are small wooded areas, copses and spinneys, for game birds to take cover. If you are lucky you may spot a pheasant or partridge. To the west along the A5 is the aqueduct carrying the Birmingham and Liverpool Canal (now the Shropshire Union Canal), built by Thomas Telford in 1832. This is the only aqueduct in the area, so they must have lived close by.

aqueduct-horsebrook-os-1882-83-1884
Zooming in on the aqueduct carrying Shropshire Union Canal over Watling Street (A5). Ordnance Survey 1884 (surveyed 1882-83). Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.

The difficulty with baptism records is linked to the history of the local landowners, the Giffards of Chillington Hall, who for generations, remained steadfastly Catholic, somehow surviving the upheavals and brutality of Tudor and Stewart times. They allowed use of the family chapel for church offices. Between 1787 and 1844 such offices were carried out at another of their properties, Black Ladies, originally a Benedictine priory, in the chapel dedicated to St Mary the Virgin.

Oddly, FamilySearch throws up just one Onion (and no Onions) baptism at Brewood in that period: Oliver Onion, 20 Jun 1831, son of Thomas Onion and Sarah. I already had Oliver in my tree. He was the brother of second great grandmother Maria Onion, who married William Greatrex, my Darwinesque ancestor. This Thomas Onion was born about 1808 and I suspect that he was brother of Edward, but the absence of baptism records prevents this conclusion.

But there is another link. Maria’s brother Thomas married Mary Onion, respectively son and daughter of Thomas (1808) and Edward (1806), so they would be first cousins; unconventional, but not illegal.

The breach

What I had missed was the requirement to legalise marriage through a ceremony in an Anglican church, and I am indebted to Ciderdrinker via Rootschat for reminding me.

I also found online Susie’s Tree, which develops the Onion tree further. The acknowledged absence of citations, however, discouraged me from copying without testing things out. In my view, there are far too many trees on Ancestry where it is obvious that the owner has blindly copied someone else, without any attempt at verification. Some even manage to copy impossibilities such as parents who are long-deceased, or as yet unborn.

On Ancestry is a private tree owned by sarahking01, which includes Thomas Onion born 1781 and refers to an image of the Black Ladies register. I have sent a message, but have yet to receive a reply.

Even without seeing this, I am happy to proceed on the basis that three other people have looked at this and reached the same conclusions. The full dates of baptism on Susie’s Tree are another indicator that these really are from the records.

So, Thomas the road mender was some kind of distant cousin. Does that matter? Of course not, it is just idle curiosity. It appears that Thomas had no children, so there are no contemporary cousins with whom to compare notes. My Onions were labouring folk, working at hard, strenuous tasks for long hours with little pay (though the Council probably paid better than the old, Georgian farmers). In Thomas Onions’ early days in the seventeen eighties almost everything on the farm would have been done by hand, plough and sow and reap and mow, sometimes with the assistance of horses or oxen. By the time his grandchildren came along many tasks about the farm would have been mechanised, with continuous advancement in the replacement of manual labour by machines. The house Thomas grew up in would have had a thatched roof and an earth floor; dingy, draughty and damp, with scarce winter fuel. I imagine something like February Fill Dyke, by Benjamin Williams Leader (1881). I’ve had a print of this above my sideboard for several years.

Leader, Benjamin Williams, 1831-1923; February, Fill Dyke

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