On Boxing Day 1852, Bernard and Alice Victor (nee Rowe) stood in Paul Church, Cornwall, for the baptism of their son John. Bernard was a fisherman, and Alice was a fisherman’s wife, formerly a domestic servant.
During John’s childhood the family lived in various streets in the small village of Mousehole. A smart new granite pier was built in 1870-71 but he didn’t stay to become a fisherman, instead in the first half of the 1870s he moved east to Devon, and lived in Stoke Damarel, near Plymouth. There was a smallpox epidemic in Plymouth in 1872 when hundreds died; hopefully John was still in Mousehole at that time or his parents would have been going frantic. Also in 1872 horse-drawn trams were introduced but I suspect labourer John, a fisherman’s son, would have walked around Devonport. His married older sister Mary Wright Victor had by this time also moved away to Devonport but had come back for an extended stay with her young family when her husband Edward Kelynack was away at sea.
John met a girl called Eliza Jane Crews, a carpenter’s daughter, and they married around February 1877 and their first child, Alice, was born on 28 May of that year when John was 25 and Eliza only 18. They maybe had a concern for Alice’s health, as she was baptised two days later in St Stephen’s Church, Devonport. At this time new dad John was working as a labourer.
Their second daughter, Eliza Hutton, was born in March 1880; the young family were living at 12 Clowance Street where they were to stay for at least 13 years. A year later, at the time of the 1881 census, John was working as an assistant boiler maker, and in December 1882 when their third child Agnes Kate was baptised aged approx 10 months he was described on the record as ‘Hammer man’.
On 11 December 1884 their fourth child and first son, William Robert, was born. Maybe William was in good health to begin with, as they weren’t in a hurry to get him baptised. Sadly when they did get round to it; when he was 18 months old in June 1886, it was likely urgent as William died two weeks later and was buried in Stoke Damerel parish.
Mum Eliza must have been early on in another pregnancy at that time as she gave birth six months after that, on 28 December 1886, to a daughter called Harriett Ruby, who was always referred to after that as Ruby. When Ruby was born John was working as a boilerman in HM Dockyards. Working in the Dockyards was the dominant industry in Plymouth at that time. A later writer described how:
“It is impossible to convey any idea of the varied activities which are to be witnessed at the dock sides and in the many workshops. The visitor should not fail to visit the large Smithery, however much the smoke and soot may drive him to the open air. Here anchors and other heavy metal work are dealt with and the great Nasmyth steam hammer may be seen.”
From the Devonport Online transcription of ‘A pictorial and descriptive guide to Plymouth, Stonehouse and Devonport with excursions by river, road and sea’  Ed. 5, rev. Published 1914 by Ward Lock & Co Ltd. London.
John’s father Bernard died in summer 1890. Unusually for my Cornish ancestors John didn’t choose his father’s name for either of his own sons. Maybe they weren’t close, or maybe someone just hated the name Bernard. John and Eliza’s second son John Ernest was born later that year, on 13 November 1890.
Daughter Mary Ann was another winter baby, born on 22 December 1892. I fear that Mary Ann also died young as I haven’t found a trace of her anywhere after that.
Their eighth and final child, Ethel May, was born on 1 December 1894.
At the end of the 19th century the family moved to Ker Street, Devonport. Around that time, in 1899, the horse-drawn trams being just so 19th century, were starting to be replaced with the introduction of electric trams. The family were definitely in Ker Street for the 1901 census, a year which also saw their first of their children get married: 24-year-old Alice Victor, a tailoress, married Scottish shipwright James Mathie in autumn 1901 in Devonport. As far as I know they didn’t have any children.
By March 1901 their third daughter Agnes was working as a servant for Church of England clergyman William & Isabella Allin & their family. In the summer of 1902 Agnes, aged about 19, married skilled labourer William Avery (also working in HM Dockyards) , and that year John and Eliza became grandparents for the first time when Agnes had her first child, a boy called William.
In late 1902, second daughter Eliza married James Edwards.
The next few years weren’t very kind to John. In summer 1903, when he was 51, his mother Alice (nee Rowe), aged almost 80 and still living back in the Penzance area, probably Mousehole, died. The following year in Stoke Damarel, John and Eliza would have been scared and horrified when their daughter Ruby, then aged 18, started having fits.
In spring 1904 Agnes had another baby, named Agnes Kate for her mother, but I think the baby must have died soon after birth.
In early 1904 their third grand-child was born, this time to Agnes’ sister Eliza and James Edwards; they named the baby Ruby for her aunty. Three years after that, in summer 1907, the baby’s granny Eliza Snr died at around the time of her 49th birthday. It also looks like James sailed for the USA in 1907.
On 13 August 1907 poor Agnes and William stood at St Mary’s Church, their newborn daughter Eliza Honor in their arms for Eliza’s baptism. Eliza had been born that same day so can’t have been well; I don’t have the exact death date for Eliza but it was August/September that year. Agnes and William went on to have another lost child before the 1911 census.
In June 1908 their daughter Eliza and grand-daughter Ruby sailed from Southampton to New York on the SS Majestic. She and Edward had had a son Wilfred, born c November 1909 in New Jersey; by 5 May 1910 they were living in Elizabeth City in Union County, with James working as a cabinet maker.
Back in Devonport, John’s daughter Agnes had her fifth child in August 1911; hopefully this baby was stronger as this time there was no rush to get little Samuel to be baptised.
That October, Agnes’ younger brother John, who was a plumber, joined the Royal Navy. He served on the Vivid (the cadet ship I believe rather than the Naval base), but in November 1911 was invalided and spent four months in Plymouth Hospital. I’m love to know the background to these intriguing remarks, perhaps about a gratuity: 10/- Grat. for raising/saving the Vivid” Nov 1911.
Blue-eyed, brown-haired John left hospital in March 1912 and perhaps fancied a new start as in July he headed for New York on the White Star Line’s Majestic. After that I lose track of his story.
17 June 1916 saw the marriage of his youngest daughter Ethel to a blacksmiths apprentice called Francis McCalley. Francis was the only child of a seamstress called Alice Rowlings who worked for the government in the dockyards, sewing flags. Alice’s sister had also lived with them, so Francis lived in a female household, it was maybe a shock to go work in a blacksmith’s shop!
In 1920 the census finds Eliza, James and Ruby Edwards renting a house in Elizabeth, NJ, but by that time James was working for the church as a sexton. That census suggests they naturalised in 1912 but the scrawl on a later census seems to contradict that. Eliza and James had a daughter named Jean in 1923, when their son was 13, must have been a bit of a shock after a gap of several years! James was still a sexton in 1930; the census tells me that they not only owned a house by then but that they also had a radio.
This is of course the point in John’s family story where I run out of UK online registration resources to access. I do however know that despite what must have been very hard physical labour John lived until the age of 81, dying in Devonport in spring 1934, less than a year after the the death of his eldest daughter Alice.
Ruby didn’t marry, she lived on until 1855; Agnes died in 1961 and Ethel in 1973.
Back in Elizabeth, USA, in 1940, Eliza and sexton James’ family had grown following gas fitter Wilfred’s marriage to beautician Lillian; Wilfred’s younger sister Jean was an office worker. How strange to get such recent online records; I wonder if Jean’s still over there in New Jersey. Such a difference in the world since her grandfather John Victor’s birth in Cornish Mousehole, almost 90 years before.
© Lynne Black, 27 September 2015
First published: https://starryblackness.wordpress.com/2015/09/27/john-victor/