Just over two hundred years ago on a winter’s Wednesday, a baby boy emerged into a warm and cosy cottage in the small mining village of Moira, in north west Leicestershire. The blustery wind had calmed, but it was still a chill twilight that necessitated a candle or spill to work by, but the village was mostly lit only by intermittent moon and starlight. Light was expensive, to some degree a luxury, and used sparingly.
It was the 14th of December 1814. Moira was really a hive of activity as women (mainly) prepared meals for their men and boys who would soon be home and hungry, but the windows were mostly dark and blind. A few children played in the street that ran in front of the row of cottages whose menfolk were mainly underground, cutting black diamonds from the depths. As the clouds broke the waning, near-full moon silvered the thin trails of smoke rising from chimneys and the back room fires smouldered, barely alive.
William “Bill” Dennies had ended his second shift early and, as he emerged from the mine, drew in the fresh, chill air. Unlike the last, this winter had so far been mild, but, as the sky was clearing, there was sure to be a frost come the morning. There was just one thing on Bill’s mind, his wife Lizzie was expecting a child at any moment.
At the colliery gate, the usual greetings were exchanged: “Goodnight, Ted”. Warming his hands at the brazier, “Old Ted” replied: “Goodnight, Bill”. Often Bill stopped for a brief chat, but now was not the time.
Outside the gate three little girls played with a skipping rope. This was a treasured toy assembled by Bill’s younger brother Joe. Somehow he had found some bright red paint for the handles and this set it apart from the simple knotted ends that other children had. The girls were Bill’s daughter, six-year-old Mary, her seven-year-old cousin Eleanor and their friend, six-year-old Mary Finch.
Today, Mary Dennies had some special news and as soon as Bill was in sight, she ran breathlessly to bring the glad tidings. “Daddy! We’ve got a baby boy!”
“How’s your Mam?”, came the bluff reply. Henry was not one for small talk or nonsense at the best of times, but what concerned him most was the worry that it could all go so terribly wrong. True enough, Lizzie was a strong, healthy woman and just thirty one, but all too often childbirth was fatal to mother or baby, or both, and the consequences could devastate the whole family.
“Aunt Sarah says Mam and the baby are doing very well.”
“Come on, then”, said Bill, and lifted his daughter onto his shoulders. Despite being weary from a hard shift below ground Bill kept up a brisk pace for the few hundred yards between colliery gate and home, the little legs of Mary’s playmates struggling to keep up.
Bill Dennies was a typical miner. Shortish, by today’s standards, about five feet four inches tall, broad shouldered, bow-legged, and with a slight stoop from bending to cut coal where he was unable to stand. Like most of his family he had brilliant blue eyes and hair so bright it might have been drawn from pure copper. This was the Viking in his blood, or at least that is what his grandfather had told him when he was a boy of about eight. Bill always thought there was an uneasy tension between his family’s Wesleyan views and the reputation for rape and pillage that everyone associated with the Northmen. Still, he used to say, they had been saved by adopting Christian teaching.
Ahead, a break in the clouds revealed the moon following across the sky a bright orangey star, which Reverend Malpas had said was Mars. Although the vicar belonged to a different denomination, Church as opposed to Chapel, Bill had always got on well with him and admired his learning. Orion, the hunter, would soon follow, with his shiny belt and gleaming sword.
As Bill approached his house a small group of men walked in the opposite direction. One called out: “Will we see you wetting the baby’s head in the Rawdon?” They laughed.
Bill would not be drawn – his Wesleyan beliefs prohibited the consumption of alcohol. His pace was relentless. The Rawdon Arms was one place he had never entered and had no intention of entering. He hurried past the blind windows, causing Mary to jog up and down, like riding a horse she thought, it always made her giggle. Mrs Finch called out her congratulations. Soon they were home.
Putting Mary down he pushed through the front door and crossed the front room and into the back kitchen.
“Is that you dear?”, Lizzie called.
The fire gave out a reddish glow, with here and there a bright blue-yellow flame, which made the room too warm for Bill’s work clothes. There was a pot of stew simmering on the back burner. Across the courtyard he could see through windows the shadowy figure of Mrs Hart next door, fussing over supper. The stub of a candle still burned, giving more light than was usual – it was placed to maximise light reflected by the mirror above the fireplace, so Henry could see the glow in his wife’s face. Lizzie sat in her rocking chair, cradling the baby.
“You look very well, Mam”, bending to kiss her forehead and then his new, sleeping son’s forehead. “I hope the light is not deceiving me.”
“No, I am very well, Pop. This one was much easier than the others. Your Sarah was an angel.”
“Well you rest a while Mam.”
Bill went out into the back yard to find his sister Sarah working hard at the wash tub, plunging and turning the dolly to clean the towels she had used to help deliver the baby. Steam rose from the tub and Sarah glistened from the vigorous work, strands of coppery hair trailing across her face. She worked in near darkness, by the feint glow from the kitchen window and the lengthening bursts of moonlight.
“Congratulations, brother. You have a fine boy there. Nothing wrong with his lungs, that’s for sure.”
“Thank you, sis. It really is a relief. And thanks for helping out.”
“What will you call him?”
Bill knew from past experience that the expected answer was that he would leave that decision to Lizzie, but decided to spar. “I hadn’t really thought about it much. I mean, you never know …”.
“Perhaps so, but I think uncle Harry felt a bit left out after Joe. And he does look after us pretty well.” Uncle Harry was Henry Dennies, a butcher who plied his trade in High Street, Measham, a walk of about an hour. From time to time he would visit and leave behind a cut of beef or a brace of coneys (as they called rabbit in those days) and every Tuesday Sarah and Lizzie, Mrs Finch and some other ladies, would walk over to the market in Measham to purchase groceries and other provisions.
“Naming a newborn is a tricky business”, said Bill. “You don’t want to offend Nan and Granddad or uncle Harry or aunt Sarah, but do we really want so many Bills and Jacks and Marys and Lizzies? There must be going on for five hundred folk in this village, about half of them men, and there must be a hundred named either William or John. And Tom can’t be far behind. The same goes for women. I reckon two thirds or more women are called Mary, Elizabeth or Sarah. And it’s not just here. If you go to Measham market and call out John or Mary half the town turns to see who is asking after them.” Sarah kept on plunging the dolly into the steaming water and twisting it to force out the dirt. She beat out a rhythm as the three-legged dolly drummed against the wooden tub.
Bill continued. “When our Joe came along I suggested we should go for something different, you know, from the Bible. Other people, I admit not many, name their kids Daniel or Job, Hannah or Esther. In the end, though, Lizzie insisted we name him after her favourite uncle.”
“Well, we women raise them, so we ought to be able to choose their names. You just stick to cutting coal and growing veg.”
“Henry it is then. Subject to Mam’s say so.”
So it was that, on Sunday, the 8th of January 1815, William and Elizabeth Dennies had their child baptised at the parish church of St Laurence in Measham. St Laurence was a typical parish church. made of dressed grey stone. At the west end a square tower was topped by finials in each corner. At its base they passed into the nave, flanked by two aisles.
Gathered round the font, in their Sunday best, were William, Elizabeth holding the baby, uncle Harry and aunt Sarah. The other children remained in their pew. The christening party was completed by the Reverend John Henry Malpas. Rev Malpas was new, only incumbent for a year or so. Henry’s four older siblings were baptised by his predecessor Tom Jones. It was a normal Sunday service, though the Dennies family, being Wesleyan, would have chosen different hymns. As they and the rest of the congregation left the church, bells rang out the glad tidings. The bells were very old. The tenor bell, it was said, was hung more than five hundred years before. Some more bells were two hundred years old.
These bells can all be heard even today, a further two centuries on.
It would be a few years yet before baptisms were allowed at the Wesleyan chapel.
So his name was Henry, starting out on a life of eighty years. Only one more Henry was baptised at Measham that year, but baby Henry Peace was resting in peace not three months later. It was a fact of life that many children died in infancy or childhood from diseases and ailments that are easily treated or unheard of today, but, without vaccines and antibiotics, children, and people generally, were vulnerable to diseases that rarely kill today, such as scarlet fever, measles and tuberculosis.
In 1841 (little changed in the first half of the nineteenth century), Henry was not the most commonplace name in Moira; there were only about twelve in the village. Nonetheless, what Bill had said was about right, with four males named John, Thomas or William to every one Henry.
Clearly, the narrative is imagined. The phase of the moon is based on the algorithm that powers Starry Night Beginner, a small bit of software that shows where heavenly bodies will be at any given time.