Discovering my family in Victorian Preston Lancashire

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Margaret Eccles (Staniford, Etchells) in 1891

This photo always intrigued me. It was in a collection that once belonged to my great grandfather John Richard Parker who was from Preston. He was a notable footballer in the 1890’s and had a good career as a mill manager. He was an active participant in local life including the Preston guild. The photos were nearly all from professional studios in Preston alongside some football portraits from a Chorley studio. The only one from outside the area of the Preston family was this one.

The lady seemingly in mourning dress and holding a keepsake letter is my g/g/g grandmother Margaret Eccles born in Preston in 1826. It was remarkable to have a connection to that era. My g/grandfather John Richard I met and knew for a few years until his death in 1966. So, in sense I had a direct connection back to pre-Victorian times as John Richard certainly met this lady as she oversaw him courting her granddaughter Elizabeth Nightingale, a girl she looked after during the child’s teenage years. Sadly about two years after this photo was taken Margaret died just before the marriage of her young granddaughter.

Elizabeth Nightingale my Great grandmother and Margaret Eccles (Staniford, Etchells) granddaughter

My interest was further aroused by a posting online of a photo from the same Darwen studio of Lindsey. I had discovered during my family history research that Margaret’s son Bartholomew had settled in Darwen with his wife and family. He did well for himself and his sons and daughter made good progress in Darwen society. It was a far cry from the poverty surrounding the mills of Preston and a vast contrast to the life my other side of the family was leading at the time in the slums of central Darwen. It was presumably Bartholomew that arranged for the portrait of his mother to be taken.

Margaret had a long life but suffered much tragedy. She comes across as a strong person, one the family could rely on and she seems to have gone to great lengths to give the family a chance in life. In this she succeeded. Many members of her extended family must have relied on Margaret’s steady and determined efforts to look after their interests. As you pursue your family research you get a sense of and indeed make judgements on the character of your relatives from afar. Margaret comes across as someone I really wished I had met; she seems to exude a warm and loving character.

Margaret was married to Edward Staniford in Preston in 1845 and they had four children.

My next direct ancestor in line was their daughter Mary born in 1848. Edward worked in the cotton industry of course but unusually he became a policeman and the family lived in the police house in Cuerden Green near Bamber Bridge until his early death in 1858. Margaret, now without an income and head of the family moved them back to Deepdale Mill Street in Preston where she found employment as a heald knitter. Her two young daughters also go into the cotton mills of Preston. Her firstborn daughter Ellen marries George Isaac Willacy and their daughter who attended their wedding in the autumn of 1867 is born early in 1868. George is 17, about six years younger than Ellen. I sense they were taken to the alter at speed to maintain family honour. Young Hannah is looked after by her mother for the first part of her life before the ever-willing Margaret looks after her granddaughter as she also will for the children of her other daughter Mary. There is no indication in the 1871 or 1881 census that Ellen lives with George Willacy. They are found in separate houses, Ellen and Hannah are with her now married sister Mary’s family but George is elsewhere. He lists his employment as iron moulder but seems to have tried to pursue a career as a musician as did others involved with the Willacys. Ellen and George did though find time for each other. Ellen gives birth to six more children and they are baptized with George Willacy being named as the father. Tragically, all six die a short time after birth – imagine the pain of the mother. Hannah Willacy is the only survivor. Despite this dysfunctional, unsuccessful marriage the Stanifords are close to the Willacy family.

Margaret embarks on her second and clearly happy marriage in 1878 to a man who also seems to exude warmth down the years, Benjamin Etchells from Failsworth in Manchester. Benjamin has been of interest in my family story despite not being in my blood line. This interest was reawakened very much by a contact from a lady who also although not of his blood line had his daughter enter her own family story. This led to a much broader understanding of the life and times of not just Benjamin and Hannah but also my own extended ancestors. In fact I was also shown a photo from this extended family taken in the same studio with the very same plant pot which helped to date my photo.

She would have known Benjamin and Hannah for some years, they were neighbours in Gladstone Street, Preston. By 1881 they are living at Benjamin’s house with young Hannah Willacy at 6 Gladstone Street, Preston. At number 8 is Mary, my g/g/grandmother with her five girls including my g/grandmother Elizabeth. The youngest is two years old and Mary is eight months pregnant with another girl who would be named Hannah after Benjamin’s daughter and her aunt living next door but one.

It is now that tragedy strikes. Margaret’s daughter Mary gives birth to Hannah Nightingale but sadly dies in childbirth leaving five girls motherless. At this time her husband is not in the family home and he goes on to remarry a Blackburn woman with a chequered past, the estranged wife of the celebrated local poet William Billington, a quite extraordinary course to follow. How they met is a mystery but they end up marrying and living in Burnley. Margaret takes all the children into the home she shares with Benjamin although her son Robert and wife Annie in Darwen will care for the two-year-old Alice as they had no children. New born Hannah is christened at St.Lukes Preston with her father shown as having the unusual occupation of a Kasher, someone who renders meat to be Kosher by extracting as much blood as possible from the carcase. There seems to be Jewish heritage thread through the Etchells, Willacys and Nightingales but one that tantalisingly stays out of reach of provability. The names of children seem to indicate this but all their ceremonies of life are in the established church.

The crowded house at number 6 suffers a further devasting blow in the summer as Benjamin Etchells dies. Margaret is now on her own once again with a house full of children. One consolation for Margaret is that Benjamin leaves a substantial sum for the time and she is now as the census will state ‘living on her own means’. At least she can concentrate on doing her best for the children and it would seem that Benjamin has made arrangements for the extended family to take an active interest in the family. Also the young baby Hannah Nightingale dies before her first birthday. A double tragedy as her mother died to give her life.

Benjamin’s daughter Hannah Etchells moved with her widowed father to Preston and cared for him before his marriage to Margaret. She marries James William Walmsley in 1878 the same year that his father married Margaret. After Benjamin’s death they move with their four children next door to Margaret and no doubt the closeness of the families help Margaret bring up the girls. The Etchells must also have looked out for the interests of young Alice in Darwen as she is set up as a confectioner/baker in Failsworth, the home town of Benjamin.

Margaret Eccles and Hannah Willacy in 1891 Preston
Margaret Eccles in 1891 with grandchildren

The two Hannahs fair well in life, Benjamin’s daughter has a successful life with a good man in James Walmsley. The four children in the family are in fact stepchildren to her as James has been married and widowed twice before. His two previous wives had both died in childbirth, an unimaginable tragedy. Hannah is clearly loved by the children and the feelings must have been mutual. In her old age and after losing her husband in 1897 she is cared for by her stepson Thomas in Chorley. A nice touch is that they refer to her as mother in the census of 1911, not stepmother.

Young Hannah Willacy, the granddaughter of Margaret Etchells stays with Margaret until her death. She was a clever girl. At 13 she is a school monitor which in Victorian times was a pupil who was given extra lessons to take a class herself and improve the teaching in the school. She goes on to become a teacher and marries in her 30’s Thomas Bleasdale and they live in Great Harwood where Hannah teaches. She, like Hannah Etchells does not have children of her own but they leave a fine legacy of care for the children in their immediate family. My grandmother Elizabeth would have a great love and affection for these two women as she made her way into adulthood.

The families of Etchells/Staniford seem to stay close to the Walmsley family that Hannah Etchells marries into. This seems clear from looking at the family lives in Darwen where two of Margaret’s sons Bartholomew and Richard live and members of the Walmsley family also make their home. Margaret’s granddaughter Margaret Ann Staniford marries William Thomas Leach in Darwen. The Leach family are printers and in fact publish the local newspaper and did so right up to my generation. John Walmsley and his son also work in the printing trade and it is most likely that they would have been employed by the Leach operation in Darwen. Their paths seem to cross often in this story and one would hope that they all assisted in making life as comfortable as possible in industrial Darwen. It seems so, the influence of Benjamin Etchells I conclude was a beneficial one for these families and Margaret Eccles his widow and my great grandmother certainly played a vital role in caring for her extended family. It is so interesting to put flesh on the bones of a story, this one inspired by a single photo but the story behind gives so much more value to that studio portrait from so long ago.

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Published by Neal Atherton

My passion is writing about travel and particularly French travel. I have traveled extensively in France and wine and food has always featured on my travels and now in my books. My friends always await our return from France with the latest new finds from the vineyards and I was more than happy to keep sampling. I am from Lancashire in the north of England but have now relocated to Somerset (nearer to France) and able to enjoy devoting my time to writing and new discoveries. France came late to me as a destination, in fact so conservative was my travel upbringing that it was a long time before I even ventured to Cornwall. I have more than made up for the slow start and have enjoyed helping many others with their travel plans to France and especially to Paris and Provence. I have written a series of four books on France - Three are now on Amazon:THE FIRST TIME WE SAW PARIS about our first steps in French Travel, THYME FOR PROVENCE our discovery of that glorious region and the people and places we met and discovered, A DREAM OF PARIS a personal memoir of our times in Paris with friends. France has been fun, we have been burgled on our very first arrival, we discovered the best cafe that changed our travel lives on the very next day, we learnt about French wine, we escaped from the most horrendous gite, we found the best of gites, B & B's and people, we laughed and cried with dear friends in Paris, I was hosed down by a crazy owner to cool me down in Provence, our breakfast in a remote village was served by the French army, we stepped totally out of our comfort zone and discovered the best of French culture. The experiences are varied and many and please come with me as I retell the stories and my footsteps are there to follow. I am also writing about ancestry and genealogy and my first book about our incredible family story themed around war and the military is now on Amazon - A BULLET FOR LIFE. I love the English game of cricket, golf, soccer, photography, walking and cooking. Oh, and travel of course.

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