Excavating the Cowley branch

boat gathering anglesey branch
Narrowboats on the Anglesey Branch Canal, May 2012.  Today the scene is quite rural, but when the canal was built the area was a busy colliery, with railways, weighbridge and workshops.

I am surprised that I have not blogged about most of this before.  These are not direct ancestors, being connected by the wedding in 1863 of Ellen Cowley to Thomas Dennis, long-time licensee of the Railway Inn / Tavern, Ogley Hay.  I thought Ellen’s father, also Thomas, would be interesting to research.  At one time I was in correspondence with Glennys, a descendant of Ellen’s sister, Ann Jane, so my interest was partly to help her.  Attached to my tree on Ancestry is a story, which I reproduce below with some modification to reflect more recent discovery.  For sure, it was no easy life.

Thomas Cowley (the man and the name)

Posted 08 Nov 2011 by AndrewsAncestors

I considered what might have had an impact on the Cowleys in Gloucestershire to see if there was some event that might have forced or encouraged Thomas and his family to move; first from Slimbridge and then to Ogley Hay. Children Ellen and John were born in 1846 and 1848 in Cheltenham and Walsall (this could have been Ogley Hay or nearby) respectively, so it’s likely they moved from Gloucestershire in about 1847-48. From the Census it is clear that Thomas had no settled occupation or trade and was, perhaps, more susceptible to the upheavals of the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions than some other folk. His occupation is given as: 1841 Labourer; 1851 Ag[ricultural] Lab[ourer]; 1861 Excavator; 1871 Labourer; 1881 Canal Lab[ourer].

The Gloucester & Sharpness Canal opened in 1827. This would have opened up various employment opportunities and the Census and IGI record a George Cowley, born / christened 1806 Slimbridge, who was a bridge keeper at Saul, a short distance north of Slimbridge. This would have been a swing bridge. It seems likely that George lived in a house like (if not identical to) the one pictured at Frampton (1). He may even have lived in that particular house, which is on the Saul side of the canal and may not have been included in Frampton on Severn, as there are other bridges nearby.

Splatt Bridge, Gloucester & Sharpness Canal Splatt Bridge is just south of the village of Frampton on Severn. Frampton church, at Church End is a few hundred metres north of here. Church and village can be reached via a lane or footpaths from the east side of the swing bridge. Note the classical style bridgeman’s house, with portico and doric columns. This is one of eight built in this in the 1840s – 1850s. Via Geograph, copyright Phil Champion, creative commons.

There were other Cowleys ranging from William b1798 through George b1806 to Sarah b1810 children of John Cowley and Mary Bick. I have not found a compelling record of Thomas being christened: could these have been siblings? Even if not it seems very likely that he would have known them. There are records of Cowleys in Slimbridge going back to the early 1600s, but I can’t make sense of the various generations and branches. The censuses only serve to confuse; implying birth anywhere between 1812 and 1821. Others have traced a Thomas born 1812 to another family, so I have, for now, changed to 1815, which is consistent with the 1851 and 1861 censuses. The references to baptism at Quinton, Gloucestershire in 1819, now Upper / Lower Quinton, Warwickshire (Genuki) are not relevant.

Update: Ancestry now has an image of baptism Thomas 20 May 1815 son of John and Mary Cowley of Slimbridge. I have therefore concluded, in the absence of any alternatives, that they were John Cowley and Mary Bick.

Further update: A recent hint from Ancestry has added one more piece to the puzzle.  When Thomas’s brother William married Elizabeth Bendall in 1850 his name was given as “William Bick Cowley”, which helps to confirm the Bick connection. (9 Sep 2018)

By 1841 Thomas had left Slimbridge and was a labourer at Aston-upon-Carrant. The Bristol-Birmingham railway opened in 1840. Perhaps Thomas found employment in its construction? An Enclosure Act for Frampton and Slimbridge was passed in 1815 and this could, with more modern work practices, have led to fewer jobs being available for farm hands. There were also Enclosure Acts for Ashchurch in 1808, 1814 and 1816, including Aston-upon-Carrant.

By 1861 the family was at Ogley Hay, Burntwood Road Square (the notorious Ogley Square of later times?) and were still there in 1871, though by then Ellen had married Thomas Dennis and Ann Jane had married George Cox. Anglesey Bridge is dated 1850 and the Anglesey Branch Canal opened in the same year. Work began in 1848. Is this what lured Thomas to the area? It seems likely that as agricultural labouring declined he would have been seeking alternative employment and may have travelled in 1848 (prior to son John’s birth in the last quarter of 1848) to find work excavating this branch canal, which had previously been simply a channel for carrying water from Chasewater (2). The 1851 Census records his occupation as “Ag Lab”, which suggests he went back to the land after the canal was completed.

In 1861, however, he was once again an excavator. This would have coincided with construction of the Cannock Extension Canal in 1858-1863 (3).

cannock extension canal 2
Cannock Extension Canal, April 2007.

In 1871 he was a labourer at “Cannock Chase” and in 1881 a canal labourer at Norton Forge, still working at 69. This was probably the same place. I believe the forge was off Wharf Lane, near Anglesey Wharf (my father told me there was once a forge there). The site is under the motorway now.

Ann Jane

Like many children of the time it seems likely that Ann Jane’s childhood was punctuated with various moves as her father sought employment and there would have been little money available for treats or playthings. What did this mean for her education? (In 1851 she was a scholar age 7; but, oddly, no occupation at age 17 in 1861.) Could she read and write? Did she sign her name when she was married?

The name

I also thought about the origin of the Cowley family name. This is probably associated with a place named Cowley (4). There is a Cowley in Gloucestershire today a few miles south of Cheltenham, which could be the ancient origin of the name, though the IGI has no Cowley christenings between 1595 and 1812. However, if the family lived at Slimbridge since the early 1600s a more likely candidate would Coaley, about 3 or 4 miles east of Slimbridge. Although its modern name is Coaley, it was known as Cowley in “ye time of Samuel Winney, who had possession of ye Vicaridge of Cowley, January 1st, 1654/5” (5), though there are no Cowley baptisms listed there either. Nonetheless, there were also many baptisms in places near to Slimbridge, including Fretherne, Eastington and Frampton all going back to the 1600s, so Coaley looks the more likely origin. There are other places named Cowley, of course, but even in Cowley, Oxfordshire the IGI 1689-1854 records no Cowley baptisms and only one Cawley marriage in 1835.

November 2011

1 For example http://www.gloucesterdocks.me.uk/canal/canal.htm
2 For example http://members.lycos.co.uk/brownhillspast/anglesey.html.
3 http://www.jim-shead.com/waterways/Chronology.php?dt=1861 – at 1863.  See also Navvy Army.
4 Reaney and Wilson, 2005, Oxford Dictionary of English Surnames, Oxford University Press, p114.
5 http://www.glosgen.co.uk/coaley.htm


So when did he die, then?

motor and butty trent and mersey
Motor and butty boat on the Trent and Mersey Canal near Fradley Junction

This is the sort of question that crops up in discussion about family history.  Usually, the question goes unanswered until a little research has been done.  Most of my recent posts have focused on my Evans ancestors, boatmen of the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal.  All too frequently, the trouble is that when searching the General Register Office (GRO) index of deaths a large number of possibles appear.  So how can the “right” ancestor be found? Continue reading “So when did he die, then?”

Giggetty Bumble, Giggetty Bratch

Giggetty Wharf
Giggetty Wharf, Wombourne, Staffordshire (2018).

My travels on the cut continue.  I passed this spot a while back, and again the other day.  The significance for my adventures in family history is that boatmen in Andrew’s Kindred were recorded at Gigetty in the 1841 census (already covered in Evans the Boat).  In 1851 they were at Ounsdale, a short haul to the north.  I stopped for a pint at the Round Oak pub, next to Houndel Bridge, and contemplated the scene some 160-odd years ago. Continue reading “Giggetty Bumble, Giggetty Bratch”

Two weddings and a railway

Two weddings

Recently, I was near to Tettenhall, now a part of the city of Wolverhampton, and decided to visit the scenes of two weddings on the Evans side of Andrew’s Kindred.  These weddings have featured before:  Nan’s wedding, and Lilian’s wedding.

To recap, Nan’s wedding took place on 16 September 1912 at Tettenhall Wood Congregational Church.  But where was it? Continue reading “Two weddings and a railway”

More Onion peeling

Peeling back my Onions, a follow up to Getting to know my Onions

After visiting Lapley, I took a walk across parched, cracked fields of wheat (the long, hot summer of ’18) to Bishops Wood, perhaps to find some family history.  Perhaps just travelling the same paths and lands; perhaps finding something more obvious.  Well, there was an Onion in the churchyard to St John the Evangelist.  To be precise, Albert Charles Onion, below (literally). Continue reading “More Onion peeling”


I’ve not been finding time to post of late, but I have visited a few places associated with family history.

On 24 June 1742 6th great grandparents Elizabeth Swan and William Martin were married at All Saints, Lapley, Staffordshire.  Continue reading “Lapley”

V is for …

The latest in my ad hoc series on surname origins.

Based on: Reaney, P H, (ed. Wilson, R M), 1997, Oxford Dictionary of English Surnames, 3rd ed., OUP, Oxford, unless otherwise stated.

Van Dyck

Earliest in Andrew’s Kindred: Georgette Van Dyck, who married Allan James Dennis (my 3rd cousin, about whom I know only the rudiments of hatch, match and despatch) in 1945, registered Cannock.  I suspect they met in the Netherlands during the war.  In 1939 James and his mother lived at the corner of Brownhills Road and Norton East Road, Norton Canes, Staffordshire. Continue reading “V is for …”