X marks the spot

Prime Minister from Liverpool to May

I have featured this coin before. These pictures were the first I took with a new lens that acts as a short range telephoto (90 mm) and macro, or close-up. But what was going on when it was minted two centuries ago?

As mentioned in my blog about the year without a summer, 1816, the country was suffering. Wages were in decline, harvests failing, the price of grain rising and with it the cost of daily bread. There remained a surplus of labour following the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. Continue reading “X marks the spot”

Private James Onion – Remembrance

War Graves at Etaples, via Find A Grave

ONION, Pte. J., 18020. 7th Bn. S. Staffordshire Regt., attd. 33rd Bn. Machine Gun Corps. 14th Oct., 1916. Age 26. Son of James and Annie Onion, of Bishop’s Wood, Brewood, Stafford. VII. F. 3. (From 1914-1918, War Dead of the Commonwealth, Military Cemetery Etaples, France, Part 5.

Like many of those young men who perished in France and Flanders in World War I James Onion had little time or opportunity to make his mark. All that remains are a few sheets of paper and a lump of white stone near Etaples-sur-Mer, on the north coast of France. And maybe three medals and their bright ribbons.

James was born in 1891 at White Pump Farm, on Watling Street, a short distance from Bishops Wood, Staffordshire. His father, also James, was an agricultural labourer, but by 1901 had become a roadman, working for the County Council, filling potholes and resurfacing local roads. At that time they lived close to the Royal Oak pub, which is now in the centre of the village. Back then there were few houses.

Bishop’s Wood.  Ordnance Survey 1900 Revision.  Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.

The 1911 census records James at the Star & Garter Hotel, Victoria Street, Wolverhampton, employed as a billiard marker. Apparently, the hotel was quite luxurious and I imagine James in some splendid, crisp livery, shiny shoes and white gloves attending to his duties in the billiard room. Still, it probably seemed like a dead-end job and when the call came for young men like him to join the army that is what he did. Whether through some sense of duty or the promise of adventure or just swept up by the propaganda and misguided excitement that brought wave after wave of raw recruits he was never to tell.

James joined the local South Staffordshire Regiment and its 7th Service Battalion. Earlier, I blogged about Private Joseph Adams, who is commemorated on the Ogley Hay Cenotaph and who served in the same battalion! They may have served together, but James was attached to 33rd Battalion Machine Gun Corps and I have not been able to trace his whereabouts or how he came to be fatally wounded.

The wounded James would first have been treated at a casualty clearing station before being moved along the evacuation chain to the General (Base) Hospital at Etaples. These hospitals, hurriedly constructed of wooden huts and tents, were staffed by the Royal Army Medical Corps, nurses from the Queen Alexander’s Imperial Military Nursing Service and the Territorial Force Nursing Service. Auxiliary support was from the Voluntary Aid Detachments of the British Red Cross Society and Saint John Ambulance Brigade. In addition to providing unskilled nursing support, the VADs also provided domestic staff, chefs, administrative and quartermaster’s personnel. VAD and a few First Aid Nursing Yeomanry ambulance drivers also played an important role in the evacuation of soldiers to and from the hospital. The intention was that wounded men would be transferred to the United Kingdom for longer term treatment. Sadly, James didn’t make it and died of his wounds on 14 Oct 1916.

This next picture I find quite moving. True, it is a set piece occasion with everyone in clean, smart uniforms. There must be thousands of people, but they are a tiny fraction of those engaged through four years of destruction. And the living are greatly outnumbered by the “crosses row on row”. I wonder if one of these marks the last resting place of Private James Onion.

Scene of the great memorial service held in a British military cemetery in Etaples, France commemorating the fourth anniversary of World War I. Many of those attending line the war graves there. A contingent of nurses is visible. Civilians are also present. Photograph taken 4 August 1918 by Henry Armytage Sanders. Credit: Royal New Zealand Returned and Services’ Association Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Effects £9 14s. 2d. War gratuity to father Jas. £7.

Awarded BW & V and 1915 Star.

As I wrote: all that remains are a few sheets of paper and a lump of white stone and maybe three medals and their bright ribbons, but add to that our undying will to remember Private Onion and millions like him.

In Flanders’ fields the poppies grow …

The Farmer’s Boy


Just like most folk a substantial proportion of my nineteenth century kindred worked the land, mainly in back-breaking drudgery, and pretty much until they dropped. Some managed to scratch a living on farms even into the twentieth century (perhaps even into this one, though I don’t know of any). But what of those whose livelihoods were displaced by advances in technique and technology?  Where did they go?

The eponymous traditional song was one I grew up with, often sung at harvest festival time, though I think not in that chill, stone chapel on Sunday! Today, it is usually sung in a jolly manner, evoking those good old days of traditional methods, of sunlit harvests and halcyon days of plenty. It is easy to fall for this idyll, by, for example, looking at famous artworks, such as The Haywain, by John Constable, or my favourite for its golden shining, Harvest, by Vincent van Gogh, which I had the pleasure of seeing at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. These don’t convey the hardship, hard graft, icy winds, blazing sun, the dark, isolation of night, scarcity of fuel and barely adequate food. Maybe it sounds different, now? I appreciate there is considerable variety in lyrics, but this is what I recall:

The sun had set behind the hill, across yon dreary moor,
when weary and lame a boy there came up to a farmer’s door.
Can you tell me if here it be that I can find employ
to plough and sow, and reap and mow, and be a farmer’s boy,
and be a farmer’s boy.

Me father’s left, me mother’s ill, with children great and small.
And what is more, for me worse still, I’m the oldest of them all.
Can you tell me if any there be who will give me employ
to plough and sow, and reap and mow, and be a farmer’s boy,
and be a farmer’s boy. 

Sure, it is a rousing tune, often sung with considerable gusto.  In the song things work out well for the lad, but I wonder how many spent the night in a barn or under a hedge before trying their luck at the next farm or over the next hill. I wonder if that is what happened to my kinsman John Onion. In 1844 his brother James succumbed to consumption, which implies a degree of poverty.

John Onion was born about 1812, probably at or near Black Ladies, Bishops Wood, in the southern Staffordshire countryside, where his father, Edward, was an agricultural labourer. By the time of the 1841 census, young John had moved out, and appears to have sought employment in the fledgling industrial town of Wolverhampton. In 1848 he had spent the night at a beerhouse on Union Street, the remnant of which is now overshadowed by the railway and elevated ring road: a shadowy place round the corner from one of the finest Victorian public houses anywhere, the famed Great Western, after Brunel’s railway. Back then it was still beyond the edge of town and largely undeveloped, but would soon be swallowed up by the burgeoning town (now a city).

Wolverhampton Chronicle and Staffordshire Advertiser 29 Mar 1848


[Magistrates, Wednesday, March 21]

John Onions, charged with stealing a pair of trousers, the property of William Williams, of Union-street, was committed to the sessions. The prisoner had slept alone one night at the house of the prosecutor, a beershop, and Mrs Williams had given him leave to put the trousers on the bed to increase the warmth. This permission, however, he extended to wearing them when far away from his dormitory, which he left early on the following morning. He was taken into custody several days afterwards at the Rose and Crown Inn, Penn, the trousers in question enveloping his nether man.

Presumably, not doing very well, he made off with his host’s trousers and was eventually arrested, wearing the stolen trousers, at the Rose and Crown Inn, Penn, then an agricultural area to south of the town. The word nether simply means lower.  The pub, apparently much changed, stands beside the main arterial road south (A449), but is surrounded by suburbs of the modern city.

Staffordshire Advertiser 8 April 1848



JOHN ONION pleaded guilty to stealing a pair of trousers, at Wolverhampton, the property of William Williams. To be imprisoned two months.

The England and Wales Criminal Registers via Ancestry records: John Onion, Imp, 28, County Sessions April, Larceny, 2 months.

I notice two records on the same page, both for larceny, with the sentence “1 month and whipped”. The prisoners were aged 14 and 17 respectively.

I have not been able to trace John through all of the censuses, though I think perhaps he fared not so badly in the end.

In 1861 he lived at Church Street, Tipton, occupation sinker, with wife Jane, many years his junior, and he is the pit and well sinker recorded at Sedgley in 1881.

When the pieces don’t fit

Tracing family history is sometimes like completing a jigsaw puzzle without the box. To make things more difficult one sometimes encounters the equivalent of a patch of sky where there should be part of a bowling green or a circle of standing stones resting on a cloud. No matter how hard you try it just won’t make sense. It also casts doubt on things that seemed to be undeniable truths. Peeling back the layers of my Onion pedigree has not yet brought me to tears, but I am unable to let the incongruities go unreconciled.

Take, for example, John and James Onion, brothers born at or near to Black Ladies Farm in the Bishops Wood area of southern Staffordshire, respectively in about 1812 and 1817. What evidence is there for this?

In April 1848 John, of Brewood, aged 35, was imprisoned for larceny (another post to come). At first sight that would suggest birth in 1813, but further thought indicates a roughly two thirds chance that it was 1812. I have so far been unable find John in the 1841 or 1851 censuses, but In 1861 he lived at Church Street, Tipton, occupation sinker [of wells and pit shafts], with wife Jane, some 15 years his junior, and he is the pit and well sinker recorded at Sedgley in 1881. John’s age is recorded as 42 and 68 and his birthplace as Bishops Wood and Brewood. There was, as far as I can discover, no other John Onion born at about the right time and place.

So it would be reasonable to expect him to be in the Sedgley or Tipton area of the Black Country in 1871. His wife, Jane, was born at Wednesbury in about 1834 and just such a Jane Onion is to be found at Sedgley in the 1871 census, but she was wife of James Onion, 54, labourer, born Bishops Wood.

This is confusing! Brother James Onion was born about 1817, so would have been 54 in 1871.

Now for the floating stones. On Ancestry are several trees that say James died in 1844. If that is true, he could not have been in Sedgley 27 years on. But wait! The details are 23 Mar 1844 at Vol, Khabarovsk, Russia. No source is cited on public trees.

What on Earth was a farm boy from Bishops Wood doing in Russia? And where was Vol? Consulting the Times Atlas of the World, I discovered that Khabarovsk is a city close to the north east extremity of China, where the Trans-Siberian Railway (TSB) turns south for Vladivostok. According to Wikipedia the land on which the city stands, initially a military outpost, was ceded to Russia in 1858, but was under Chinese rule in 1844. Until 1916, when the Amur was bridged, the TSB used ferries to cross the river. In 1844 the TSB was not even a pipe dream, so what was he doing there?

My instinct was to look closer to home. The General Register Office index included the death of James Onion, 1844, registered Penkridge (which was the official place). I obtained a copy of the entry of death. It records that he died on 23 Mar 1844 (spot the coincidence!) at Bishops Wood, aged 24 years, of consumption (tuberculosis). The informant was Sarah Upton also of Bishops Wood. His age suggests birth in 1819 or 1820.

Apparently, this records that James Onion died at 5 a.m. on 23 March 1844 at Khabarovsk, Russia!

The informant is significant. In 1841 and 1851 Thomas Onion and family lived at Bishops Wood with Thomas’s aunt Sarah Upton. I believe Thomas was James’s brother, so Sarah was also James’s aunt, who it seems safe to assume, nursed him through his illness. As for the age quoted, would aunt Sarah have been sure of his age? I have not discovered another James Onion that could fit.

And, as James was deceased, I conclude that the 1871 census entry was mistaken and refers to John and his Wednesbury-born wife.

I am not sure whether this is a shaggy dog story or a wild goose chase, but it seems, just like Perry Mason or John Rebus, that in the end, I got my man!  It was not a stone circle that I saw in the sky, but a pie!

Don’t tell

Everyone of us has been in this situation. Usually, it is something from the school playground, but in times of war, especially when it is in your own country, it can be more serious, fatal, even. “Be like Dad, keep mum” was a World War II poster. Toadying up to the enemy might save you in the short term, but it might not save you from your “friends” later. In a land ravaged by almost a decade of war this is what some of my ancestors faced.

White Ladies Priory, near Tong, Shropshire, via Geograph, copyright Richard Croft, creative commons.

On 30 January 1649, King Charles of England was executed. From that point his son, also Charles, pursued his claim to the throne on the battlefields of England and Scotland, the monarchy having been abolished by Parliament on 17 March. The final defeat came at the battle of Worcester on 3 September 1651, when Charles was forced to run for his life.

Most of the fleeing Royalists were quickly rounded up, but Charles was more fortunate. He headed for the Catholic stronghold of southern Staffordshire and eastern Shropshire, where he would be helped by local houses. In my junior school days the story of the king hiding in an oak tree while Parliamentarian troops marched beneath as they scoured the land was a staple of the curriculum.

What did this mean for my Upton and Onion ancestors who lived in the area? They must have known that Charles was on the run and, doubtless, some people would have at least claimed to have taken some part, however small, in the excape. The country would have been crawling with soldiers hunting down the fugitive Charles. There would be a knock at everyone’s door, the inhabitants questioned as to whether they knew anything. I imagine the soldiers would be none too friendly, knowing that at least some of the men had fought against them and might have killed or maimed one of their own, or, perhaps, burned down their farmstead. Houses, barns, cowsheds and other outbuildings would be searched without ceremony.

Naturally, the labourers employed by their Catholic lords and masters would keep anything they did know to themselves. Why risk angering them, when it could cost them their meagre livelihoods? It could mean destitution, starvation, even.

In escaping from Worcester Charles was accompanied by, among others, Charles Giffard and Lord Derby, both powerful Catholic landowners. Lord Derby had previously been helped by the Pendrel family, of Boscobel House, Shropshire, tenants of Charles Giffard. He suggested White Ladies Priory, nearby and also on Giffard’s estate, as a safer refuge. They arrived in the early hours of 4 September.

According to English Heritage, the priory dates from the late twelfth century and operated largely unaltered until the 1530s, when its days were ended by the Dissolution. It was still used for Catholic burials up to 1844. In 1651, then, it would be unoccupied?

Ordnance Survey 1973.

On my copy of a rather beaten-up map, White Ladies, is in the lower left. Chillington Hall, seat of the Giffards, is lower right. My Onion and Upton kindred lived at various places on the map, including Langley Lawn (just west of Chillington), Tong, White Pump Farm on Watling Street (red line, east-west), Aqueduct, where the canal crosses (top right), places just east of the canal, and at Black Ladies, more or less in the centre. The places in the escape story would have been familiar to them. Giffard was the man from whom most of them rented their farmhands’ cottages and on whom their livelihoods depended.

The story goes that a man named Pendrel came from Hobbal Grange near Tong and he helped to disguise Charles as a farm labourer. In pouring rain Charles and Richard Pendrel moved out of White Ladies not long before a party of local militia turned up. The occupants said they had missed him by some considerable time and they seemed to buy it. Charles and Richard hid in a nearby wood, Spring Coppice, and it is thought the rain put off any search.

Boscobel House, via Geograph, copyright Rob Farrow, creative commons.

They waited until dark and went to Hobbal Grange for a meal before setting off for Wales, where they knew someone who they thought would help, but the River Severn was so heavily guarded that they were forced to return to the Giffard estate and Boscobel House. The following day Charles and another supporter spent the day high in an oak tree while the neighbourhood was searched.

Moseley Old Hall, near Featherstone, Staffordshire, via Geograph, copyright J Scott, creative commons.

The next day, 7 September, Charles was taken to Moseley Old Hall, the home of another Catholic. There he received dry clothes, and a meal and the family priest (a dangerous occupation!) attended to his injured feet. Charles stayed there for two days and when Parliamentary troops arrived he was hurriedly concealed in a priest hole. The Elizabethan Moseley Old Hall is currently a National Trust property. If you have a mind to visit you can enter by the same door as the fugitive Charles and see the four-poster bed in which he slept, as well as his letter of thanks to Jane Lane for her part in his escape. Various events are held, for example this coming weekend you can play games from the seventeenth century.

The next leg was to Bentley Hall, near Walsall, home of Colonel Lane and his sister Jane Lane, one of the celebrities of local history, from where Charles was taken, disguised as Jane’s servant to a friend’s house near Bristol, hoping to take ship. In my time working for Walsall Council I went to Bentley a number of times. The land on which Bentley Hall stood is now open space, but there is a cairn that commemorates Jane’s role in Charles’ epic escape.

One of the illustrations at Bentley Cairn, near Walsall.   Charles makes off with Jane Lane.

Eventually, on 5 October, after 32 days on the run, beating the pursuers by just two hours, Charles sailed from Shoreham for France and the home of his mother, Queen Henrietta Maria. He became King Charles II when the monarchy was restored in 1660.

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.

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, 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.


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.

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