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


  1. Hi Susan,
    I hope you contact me at your earliest convenience.
    Happy Holidays,
    Patrick Flower
    Ionia, Michigan, U.S.A.

    1. Hi Patrick, thanks for getting in contact. You can e-mail me at It might take me a few days to get back to you as I am away from home at the moment. Susan