Sunday, 2 July 2017

ALL MY GRANDFATHERS GREAT: 2. The one who spelled his name wrongly and whose bones went to chalk

The second tale of my grandfathers great kicks off a little further south, in the Erewash Valley in the English Midlands, on the border between Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire.

Last blog, you met my ancestor Thomas Barrass. My other paternal Great Grandfather was James Ellis, born in Awsworth in Nottinghamshire in 1874, the eldest boy in a family of eight siblings in a mining family in a mining community.

I have no photos of James, but I'm told he was tall and spare, and according to my dad's cousin, I am the spitting image of him, which I take as more of a compliment than she perhaps meant it to be!

The nearest I can come to knowing what he looked like, short of looking in the mirror and cutting my hair in a short back and sides from the start of the last century, are these photos of James's younger brother William Henry, whose lovely granddaughter I went to school with, still my dear friend, who lent me this picture:

William Henry Ellis, my great granduncle b 1884 in WW1
James's surname, "Ellis" was wrongly written as "Ellies" on his parents' wedding certificate, and on James's own birth certificate. His siblings had no scruples about shruggling off this error, but it seems James was more wary. On the 1911 census, when James was sharing a house with his younger brother William's family, William fills in his bit of the return as "Ellis" but no! Great Granddad James dutifully writes "Ellies". He doesn't want the men from the ministry making trouble, now, does he?

James worked as a miner down the pits of the Nottinghamshire Coalfield and married a local lass, from nearby Ilkeston, Mary Ann 'Big Polly' Stenson. The Stensons had given their name to Stenson's Lock on the Erewash Canal, as many of Polly's ancestors had worked on the canal as wharfingers and lock keepers. They had two children, my paternal grandma Mary Elizabeth 'Little Polly' and her younger brother Lambert. Sadly, Lambert died of tubercular meningitis and exhaustion when he was just six years old. James was present at the death in Nottingham General Hospital. There were no more children, and I grew up imagining my grandma was an only child, like me.

When the Barnsley coal seam was discovered in the later years of the nineteenth century, new pits began opening on the South Yorkshire coalfield. Some of James's family, including some of his brothers and inlaws, moved north to work in these new areas.  James and his two Pollys, big and little, left the scene of the loss of their beloved Lambert and settled close to where his relatives were already telling stories of Yorkshire hospitality, in the village of Goldthorpe, nestled in South Yorkshire's Dearne Valley.

James worked as a dataller (a worker hired or paid by the day) at Hickleton Main colliery until crippling rheumatoid arthritis confined him to a water bed upstairs in their cramped terraced house. He never left that bed again. As my gran always told me:

"His bones went to chalk" 

which I learned as a fact till his death certificate told me the full truth many years later. Cerebral hemorrhage, arteriosclerosis and his long-term rheumatoid arthritis ended James' life at just 56 years old.

He is buried in Bolton-on-Dearne cemetery with his Polly and close to other members of the family. From the Erewash Valley to the Dearne Valley. My grandma was always proud of her Ilkeston roots, and so am I. Going back there once I had unravelled the history was one of the most moving of my genealogical adventures. I can't explain how much it felt like home from home.

One bonus discovery I made along the journey to discover my great grandfather's story: James's elder sister Charlotte was aunt by marriage to the successful and popular Ilkeston-born jockey, Elijah 'The Whippet' Wheatley, who won the 1913 St Leger on Night Hawk, and married famous music hall star Marie Lloyd's sister Maud. We genealogists have to grab our claims to fame with both hands, whenever we find them, you know!

Mary Elizabeth "Little Polly" Barrass, nee Ellis, my paternal grandmother, only surviving child of James Ellis and Mary Ann "Big Polly" Stenson Ellis 

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