Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Underground Ancestor

Following on from my previous post, this is the story of another ancestor with a connection to the engineering work of Brunel.

My ancestor Jesse Flower* was born in Timsbury, Somerset, the 7th of 8 children of Jesse Flower and Elizabeth Shore.  The younger Jesse was baptised 5 November 1786 in the church at Timsbury.  He was the second Jesse Flower born into the family, his older brother, Jesse, died three years before he was born.  While that might seem macabre to modern sensibilities, sharing a name with an older deceased sibling was not unusual at times in the past. Jesse Flower senior died in 1792, when son Jesse was only 3 years old.

In the late 1700s coal mining started in the Timsbury area and the industry became a major employer.  So Jesse Flower and at least one of his brothers, Benjamin, became coal miners.  Jesse worked as a navigator, the person who dug the tunnels.

Jesse Flower married Mary Ann Hoare in Timsbury on 18 May 1820.  While they were living in Timsbury, they had three daughters, my ancestor Catherine Elizabeth Flower, Amelia and Harriet.

In 1825, work started on Brunel’s tunnel under the Thames River in London, joining Rotherhithe and Wapping. Brunel was from Bristol and he recruited miners from his home county to help build the tunnel.  Jesse Flower was one of these miners.  His grandson, James Jesse Blake wrote of Jesse Flower’s work.
A new method of tunnelling had been invented to build the tunnel, known as a tunnelling shield, which allowed the construction of a tunnel in soft damp clay.  I found a public domain picture of illustrating the method on Wikipedia.  At this time, the Thames was little better than an open sewer.  While building the tunnel, water seeped in and caused illness among the workers.  It sounds like unpleasant work but then, so was work down the coal mines.  Work on the tunnel continued on and off, with disruptions due to floods, fires and leaks, until November 1841 when the tunnel was completed.
Above ground, life was not much better for Jesse Flower.  He and his young family lived in Southwark and then Rotherhithe.  In 1827 and 1829, he had two daughters, both Elizabeth, who did not survive infancy.  Then in 1832, his wife, Mary Ann, died.

Sadly, Jesse Flower did not quite live to see the Thames Tunnel completed.  He died on 27 Aug 1841, only 55 years old, and was buried a few days later at St Mary’s, Rotherhithe.  His death certificate says that he died of asthma, however I wonder if he was suffering the effects of his years being exposed to coal dust and filthy Thames water.

Other members of the Flower family had migrated to London, so Jesse’s three young daughters would not have been left to fend for themselves.  All three stayed in London and found husbands.

Next to the old tunnel entrance in Rotherhithe sits the Brunel museum.  I have been on a guided tour to the musem that went down the tunnel shaft.  The tunnel is now used by trains and can be seen from platforms at Canada Water and Wapping London Overground stations.  It is kind of cool to be able to see the tunnel and to think that my ancestor helped build it.

*Flower or Flowers.  I have used Flower here as it seems to be the more common spelling.

Note on lineage: Me > Dad > John Edward Blake > James William Blake > James Jesse Blake > Catherine Elizabeth Flower > Jesse Flower

Monday, 5 October 2015


Migrants are the hot topic of the moment, so I thought I’d write about two of my ancestors who migrated from Liverpool, England to Victoria, Australia.

I am a migrant.  It took me two months to migrate from Canberra to London but that was by choice and was an excellent adventure.  I was fortunate to have a round-the-world plane ticket and comfortable accommodation booked.  I also had somewhere to stay when I arrived and a passport that would let me stay.  Many others are not so lucky.

My two ancestors also took around two months to travel between England and Australia, leaving Liverpool on 16 February 1861 and arriving in Melbourne 75 days later.  They travelled on the most technologically advanced ship that existed at the time, Brunel’s SS Great Britain.  The SS Great Britain is now a very good tourist attraction in Bristol (see photo) so it is possible to get a good idea what life was like for migrants on the ship.  I visited the ship last year and learnt a lot.

SS Great Britain, in Bristol.
 So who was on board the SS Great Britain?  My ancestor Sarah Pilling nee Holden and her daughters Betsy (also my ancestor) and Sarah, aged 6 and 3 respectively.  They were travelling to join husband and father John Pilling who was already in Australia, having departed England four years earlier, also on the SS Great Britain, probably leaving behind a pregnant wife (I don’t know Sarah Pilling’s date of birth).

The Pilling family came from Haslingden, Lancashire, not far from Manchester.  At that time, cotton mills were the main industry in the area and the Pilling and Holden families worked in the mills, mostly as weavers.  Hours would have been long and the work was hard.  Like many in that part of England, they were Baptists, non-conformists, which may have led to some discrimination and disadvantage.  So life in England was not easy for them.

John Pilling was a book keeper and had gone to the goldfields in Victoria, perhaps to seek his fortune and a better life for his family.  I assume things worked out for him as his wife and children eventually followed.  I wonder if the long delay was due to the family waiting until they felt the younger Sarah was old enough to travel.  Whatever the reason, it seems to mirror what still happens with migrants today with one family member migrating in the hope of bringing the rest of the family along later.

First class cabin
Steerage cabin
Seeing the SS Great Britain was an eye opener for me.  While the first class cabins looked reasonably comfortable although not luxurious by modern standards (see photo), life for the steerage passengers didn’t look quite so nice.  I assume that Sarah and her children travelled in steerage; there is no indication that the family were well off.  In steerage, Women and children were accommodated in cabins whereas men were more likely to have been in long dormitories (see photo).  The cabins (see photo) were tiny, with four narrow bunk beds.  Some luggage would have been stored in a trunk under the beds in the room, the rest in the hull.  It is likely that Sarah and her two daughters would have shared one bunk.  The other beds would be filled by strangers.  It is hard to imagine just how cramped and uncomfortable that would have been.

Steerage dormitory style accommodation
When not in the cabins, steerage passengers had limited access to the deck and weren’t allowed near the first class passengers.  There was none of the entertainment or facilities that are available on a modern cruise ship, so passengers had to find ways to amuse themselves.  According to the SS Great Britain exhibition, drinking was rife so Sarah would have had to protect her daughters from unsavoury behaviour.  On the positive side, all the teetotaller Baptists on board would have held religious meetings and would generally have looked out for each other.

While this sounds like a challenging journey, it was probably the most luxurious and easiest for any of my ancestors who migrated from the United Kingdom to Australia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Other ancestors experienced things like epidemic disease sweeping through the vessel or ship wreck.  Some of my ancestors had no choice about migrating, being soldiers or convicts.  As for the others, I think they must have been very brave or very desperate to travel around the world in such conditions.  I am grateful that I can now do the journey in just under 24 hours in the relative comfort of a modern airplane.

Notes on lineage: Me > Mum > John Macdonald Charley > Constance Mary Macdonald > Besty Pilling > Sarah Holden