3 January 2015

The life and times of Henney; an ordinary but extraordinary woman

Lucky Horse Shoe courtesy of  www.indepthinfo.com
When researching your own family history, many ancestors are fascinating, interesting and their characters reach out to you across what can be hundreds of years. Occasionally you find someone that you would love to meet, to ask questions, seek motives and answers because their lives are so full of twists and turns and you can feel the force of someone who held on, no matter what. You suspect a strong personality, guts, determination and perhaps you see a little of yourself hidden by the generations. Henney Rowbotham Lloyd Mason Robinson is one such woman.

When I first came upon the identity of my Great Grandmother Henney I made an assumption that many have made; that her name was a shortened form of say, Henrietta. What I did not do, as many more have on their family trees on Ancestry, is to think she was a boy. Certainly the Rev. Fisher of St Giles Church, Willenhall thought that he was baptising a boy on 17 June 1849 and duly entered into his parish records that the baptism had taken place of Henry Rowbotham, son of Thomas, a lockmaker and Ann.  Either Rev Fisher didn't listen properly when asking the parents the child’s name or perhaps he had partaken of a little too much communion wine but Henney was Henney, not Henrietta and she was undoubtedly a girl. It is all recorded as such on her birth certificate.

Henney was born in Humpshire as Willenhall was (and still is if you are of a certain age) known locally, a name derived from the fact that many of the men in the town had a humpback derived from bending over their  lock making workbenches from a very young age. Her father Thomas was one of these lockmakers of whom by 1855 there numbered 340 in the town. Self employed, most workshops were backyard affairs and often whole families were employed in the business, down to young children filing keys. They worked long hours throughout the year, rising before 6 am to start work that would not finish until at least 7 pm. Locksmiths in Willenhall were paid less for their locks than elsewhere and yet they achieved worldwide recognition for their skills. This did not however detract from the fact that it was a hard life and that finished products from one week would have to be sold before the following weeks materials could be purchased. Despite this Thomas would appear to have made ends meet as he had at least two young men apprenticed to him over the years and advertised in the trade directories of the period. Furthermore at some stage he decided to retire from lockmaking and buy a pub in nearby Wednesfield. He was old by then but perhaps he considered the business of a licensed victualler to be less onerous than lockmaking.

Henney was the ninth child of Thomas and Ann who went on to have a total of twelve children that are known of. Alas for the couple, their three boys Thomas, Edward and John all died as very young babies but their girls flourished. All must have attended school or were taught to sign their names at the very least by their parents as they were no marks, when signing any documents of note. I get the feeling that these girls were proud of their father and of their name because there are several occurrences of children being given Rowbotham as a middle name, which what makes what happened to Henney puzzling. There are mysteries to which I will never know the answer but I do know one thing; Henney, my Great Grandmother was a survivor and she didn't always play by the rules that polite Victorian society kept or invented.

It is not known when and how Lewis Lloyd came into Henney’s life but he had been born and bred in Bilston, a few miles down the road. He was five years older than Henney and worked as a waggoner. He was illiterate, signing documents with the customary mark. Perhaps he conveyed locks that had been produced by Thomas or maybe they met at Willenhall market, either way it seems that fifteen year old Henney developed a passion for this young man and was headstrong enough to do something about it or perhaps she was led astray. We cannot be certain. What is known is that Henney removed herself to Bilston and satisfied the vicar of St Mary’s that she was 21 years old and therefore did not require her parent’s permission to wed and that she lived in Bilston. The banns were called. On Christmas Day 1864, when Henney was just 15 years old, she became a wife.

Where the young couple began their married life is lost in the midst of time but it is known that in the autumn of 1868, nearly four years later, they were in Caledonia Street Bilston long enough to baptise a daughter by the name of Anne Maria. Whether Henney had borne other children is a mystery. There appear to be no baptisms in the whole of Staffordshire for any other possible children of the marriage  prior to this, so maybe Henney did not have to marry so young but chose and wanted to do so, or maybe the stress and unhealthiness of her life in those years was such that any babies never went to full term. Poor Anne Maria didn't fair well; she died before the end of the year.

1869 was a momentous year for Henney. She and Lewis moved to Moseley Hole lying just south of  Portobello, close to Willenhall. By this time Lewis had become a bolt maker, so perhaps he had found a job at the colliery there where his skills would have been needed. During the summer, cases of smallpox began to increase in the Wolverhampton area, becoming a full blown epidemic killing thousands during 1870 and 1871. Lewis became one of the first to succumb during that damp, stormy but warm summer. Poor Henney was left a very young widow at the tender age of 20, worse she was pregnant again and gave birth soon afterwards to  Elizabeth Rowbotham Lloyd in Heath Town. Henney had a couple of sisters that had married and moved to the area and her parents were also by this time living in close proximity, so presumably she was relying upon their support rather than entering the workhouse, which must have loomed large as a real possibility following her husband’s death. I cannot think that Thomas and Ann had been agreeable or happy at Henney’s marriage at such a tender age because her sisters all waited until at least their twenties before embarking upon this change in status. Perhaps the intervening years had softened their disapproval and they were willing to help this child who now found herself in such dire straits.

I hope that Henney welcomed the advent of 1870 praying that the year could not work out as badly as the previous 12 months, losing a child, then her husband and then giving birth to young Elizabeth. Maybe she had already met William Mason or was there a whirlwind romance? William had been born in 1837 in Penn, so was a good 12/13 years older than Henney. He was one of eight children and had spent many years of his life following work in the wider Wolverhampton area. In 1870 he was still a bachelor at 32 and worked as a miner as he had since 14 years of age. Later he became a colliery horse keeper, beginning a line of work with horses and a love of horses that was common within the family for a couple of generations.

On 9 October 1870 Henney married William at Holy Trinity Church in Wednesfield. What attractions did this young single mother hold to lure a confirmed bachelor of 32 into marriage? William would have proved a shrewd choice of husband for he was hard working and no longer would Henney have to rely upon her family for what effectively was charity to keep her out of the workhouse.

Henney,William and young Elizabeth set up home in Deans Road Wednesfield. I hope that they enjoyed a decent quality of life for a while as disaster was about to strike for Henney once again. Towards the end of April 1872 young Elizabeth developed flu like symptoms and then began vomiting. Shortly afterwards the tell tale spots of smallpox erupted on her skin and in her mouth. She would have been highly contagious at this time as Henney would know from her previous experience of this disease. Henney must have been distraught to see her second child fighting for her life but I have questions for Henney. In 1867 vaccination against smallpox had been made virtually (the act ‘required’) compulsory for all children within 3 months of birth and was free. If parents failed to get their child vaccinated then the Registrar was required to deliver a notice of vaccination and if this was ignored then the parents were liable to a summary conviction and a fine of 20/-. Henney wasn't stupid, she could read, she knew how devastating the disease could be having lost Lewis and yet  Elizabeth, just two years old, died after suffering from smallpox for 12 days. William who had been present when his step daughter died registered her death on the very day of the event.

Fate left cruelty behind for a decent period whilst Henney and William got on with ordinary life. They stayed in Wednesfield for a few years and their first daughter Annie was born there in 1873. There was then a gap when they moved to Moseley Village and their second and third daughters Clara Leah born in January 1877 and Mary Ann Amelia (known as Millie) was born in November 1879. The 1870s saw the decline of mining in the Willenhall area, mines were closed and presumably in search of work William moved the family to Littleworth in Cannock where at the end of 1882 my grandfather John Thomas Mason was born. He was followed quickly by Henry in 1884 and very shortly afterwards the family moved to the Pool Green area of Aldridge, just a few yards down the road from where I live now. William was by now a colliery horse keeper but I am uncertain as to which colliery in the area he worked.

At some point towards the end of 1885, William hurt his leg and he developed a fever. On 21st January 1886 Henney became a widow for the second time when William died and was buried in the cemetery by Aldridge church. He was nearly 50 years old, whilst Henney was now approaching 37 and had five children to feed and clothe including a babe who was yet to celebrate his second birthday. Times were desperate and needs must to evade the workhouse but Henney was living in a small conservative village where everyone did know everyone and transgressions would be noticed and remarked upon.

Harriet Elizabeth Mason was born in Aldridge in the late spring of 1888. Her mother was Henney, her father? Well the surname she carried belonged to a man who had been dead for two years.The mystery is solved by examining the census of 1891. At 108 Albert Street Wednesbury one Thomas Robinson a 32 year old blacksmith born in Aldridge, is found living with his wife, Henney, his two stepsons John and Charles and also  his daughter Harriet, presumably named after her paternal Grandmother and a long dead sister.

Thomas Robinson was the son of Pool Green blacksmith John Robinson and his wife Harriet. John must have been making a decent living from his smithy as not only did Thomas serve his apprenticeship with his father but there were other apprentices too and a servant to attend to the family. When Henney and William had moved to Pool Green with their young family, Thomas would have been in his early twenties. He probably got to know the family well through William and his connections with horses and would have been near at hand when Henney was widowed. Clearly a close bond formed between the two and the result was Harriet. For some reason however Henney and Thomas did not marry despite the fact that legally there was no impediment and yet Harriet was openly acknowledged as Thomas’s daughter and Henney his wife, but not in Pool Green, they moved out of the village. Presumably Thomas’s family were not happy with developments and a young 26 year old getting together with a woman at least 11 years his senior with four children in tow. In other places Henney and Thomas would just be accepted as a married couple with no questions asked whereas in Aldridge there was history and the village gossips no doubt had a field day on the scandalous goings on!

By 1897 the gossipers had probably moved on to other subjects and Henney and Thomas moved back to Aldridge for a brief period. In the their time away Thomas’s mother had died and his father was now living alone in Pool Green. What made Henney and Thomas now decide to place their union on a legal footing is not known. Henney was now 48 approaching what was then old age, maybe she pestered Thomas for marriage knowing it offered her a little more security with him effectively still being a bachelor and not yet 40 years of age or perhaps Thomas wanted to do the right thing and make his father a little happier now they had returned to the village. Whatever the reason was, on 29th November 1897, Henney and Thomas married at the Register Office in Walsall and Henney’s oldest daughter Annie was a witness.

Clearly there was not enough work in Aldridge for Thomas and so the family moved to Hamstead Cottages next to Hamstead Colliery where he worked as a shoeing smith. In 1901 on census night the whole family were together. Annie was working in Birmingham as a domestic servant, John was home from the army, Charles was working as a blacksmith striker at the colliery and Harriet was at home with her Mother.

By 1911 Henney and Thomas were living on Hardwick Road in Streetly with Thomas now working for himself as a general and shoeing smith. Annie had married and had her own brood of four children living in Handsworth, John was also married with a child and living in Aston and Charles was working as a blacksmith in a foundry in Kilburn, Derbyshire. Only Harriet now 23 but still single remained at home. I am hoping that in these years life had been kinder to Henney and that she took comfort in the fact that she and Thomas had now been together for nearly 25 years.

One more move was on the cards, this time to Dudley Port where Thomas continued working as a shoeing smith. Henney became a widow for the third and final time in the spring of 1920 when Thomas died. She outlived him by five years. In January 1925 now approaching her 75th birthday Henney developed bronchitis and without the aid of antibiotics to fight the infection, it weakened her heart and she died of heart failure on 2 February. Her daughter Annie was with her.

I do not have any photograph of Henney and so do not know what she looked like but I imagine an attractive and maybe in her younger years voluptuous woman who was passionate and a little wild, willing to follow her instincts. Her every day activities would not have marked her out from the millions of other working class women of her day, cooking, cleaning, caring for her children but she was long lived for her time and left behind a remarkable story of surviving against all the odds, despite heartbreak and despair throughout her life. I am proud to call her my Great Grandmother.


  1. Hello Linda. Enjoyed reading your post on your familytree, i also have ancestors that were locksmith and latch makers in Willenhall, as you say its facinating finding out were we came from, and how much things have changed. Some of the decoverys i have found have put a smile on my face and other finds have made me angry on how they were treated by folk in control of there lives.
    Cheers Clive

  2. Thanks Clive, I'm happy that you enjoyed it. I agree researching does encourage anger and happiness in equal measures!