Monday, 3 July 2017

ALL MY GRANDFATHERS GREAT: 3. The one who was an inventor and went bankrupt

My Great Grandfather, Charles the cabinet maker
The third of my great grandfathers is on my maternal side, my mum's dad's dad.

Charles Mamwell was the eighth of nine children born to Christopher, a cottager (farmer) in the tiny village of Grainthorpe, a couple of miles inland from the bleak coast of Lincolnshire and Mary Townend, a lass from the neighbouring village of Marshchapel. The year was 1839 and the new Queen Victoria had been on the English throne for two years.

Charles's ancestors had lived in Lincolnshire, farmers, builders, fishermen since at least the 1590s. He was apprenticed as a cabinet maker and to better his employment prospects, moved north to the steel city of Sheffield in the West Riding of Yorkshire, at the height of the Industrial Revolution in the early 1860s.

There Charles met and married Elizabeth Oldfield, niece of Sheffield philanthropist and businessman James Howarth, an Edge and Joiner's Tool Manufacturer, her mother's elder brother who had founded the firm Howarth and Sons. Charles must have felt at the top of his game, with premises on Fitzwilliam Street and later a shop on Queen's Road at Heeley.

One of his nephews, his brother William's lad from Grainthorpe, came to Sheffield to learn the cabinet making craft from Charles as his apprentice at the beginning of the 1870s. However, this nephew, William, never became a rival cabinet maker in the city. Instead he wandered the country doing various carpentry jobs, before ending up in Blackpool, on South Beach, where he set himself up as a phrenologist with the tag-line: "Prof W. Manwell (sic); private sessions 1s/6d". Bump-feeling was a popular pseudo-science at the time.

Back in Sheffield, Charles and Elizabeth had three daughters: the eldest a skillful left-handed hosier and draper called Helen and her younger sisters Alice, a midwife and Ada, a cook. Another child, a son called Charles Arthur Oldfield Mamwell died in infancy of convulsions. Charles travelled back to  visit his folks in his native Grainthorpe regularly, and his younger children were baptised in the Parish Church of St Clement's there in the village.

Helen was born with a facial birthmark which, by the estimation of those times, disfigured her. Wanting the best for Helen, Charles paid for treatment from what we might call a 'quack' doctor, which must have cost him very dearly. Not long afterwards, he declared bankruptcy. The sad saga of his creditors and debts I discovered in the pages of the Sheffield newspapers, in stark contrast to the joyful announcements of his marriage to Elizabeth only a few years before.

This 'treatment' left Helen so damaged that she was compelled to wear a veil over the affected side of her face for the rest of her short life. Gradually, her face was eaten away as the mole grew cancerous and she eventually died at the age of 47, after many years of stoical suffering while carrying on her drapery business at a shop in Broomhall, of carcinoma of the larynx. Charles did not survive to see the final years of Helen' life, perhaps mercifully, as he never forgave himself for his well-intentioned intervention.

Two years after the death of their infant son, Charles' first wife Elizabeth also died at the age of 35. You can trace the course of Charles' grief by looking at his writing in the family Bible, where he recorded all the births, deaths and marriages of his family in the middle pages under tissue paper inserts. In the days before Elizabeth died, his looping copperplate script is a thing of beauty. Later, the letters crowd and sag, reflecting his grief and despondency as his life spiralled down from those first hopes and dreams.

Alongside his cabinet making, Charles was an inventor. He invented a hinge for a school desk. It never rains but it pours. When he showed his design to a man who promised he would take it to patent it for Charles, this same charlatan stole the design and passed it off as his own. I inherited the article in a newspaper cut out and saved by my great grandfather, praising this other man for "his" ingenious invention. One more nail in the coffin of Charles's high hopes of success and security for himself and his family. I also have his prototype model of the hinge, still in the original buff envelope in which he kept it ready to make his family's fortune, and an oak chest with his business plate lovingly hammered into the dovetailed wooden joinery.

Elizabeth Thompson Mamwell, b 1848, my great grandma and Charles' second wife

Charles hired another Elizabeth, Elizabeth Thompson, a cobbler's daughter, to help look after his young girls when he was widowed. My great grandmother was a sunny, capable, humorous lass, and they fell in love and married the following year. They went on to have another two daughters and, finally, a surviving son, my maternal grandfather, Chris, born in Tipton Street, Wincobank in 1889.

They moved further out into the Sheffield suburbs, to Chesterfield Road, Norton Within, where, at the age of 63, Charles died of apoplexy, a broken man. He is buried with Helen and my great grandma in the cemetery at Norton Lees, overlooking the gorgeous Peak District that was the backdrop to his hopes and his hardships.

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