I have written about my ancestor James Jesse Blake before. When he was about 70 (c. 1920), James wrote his life story for his children. In the family this story is known as “The Diary”. In The diary, James noted that his Blake grandmother “died at a very advanced age”. She was about 78 years old. I am not sure that people would consider that an advanced age now but I remember my Blake grandfather talking about living on borrowed time because he had passed his allotted “three score and ten” years. James Jesse Blake lived to be 81, even older than his grandmother. Having read James’ life story, I have noted numerous events in his life that make his advanced age seem like quite an achievement.
James Jesse Blake was born on 1 June 1848, in Aldgate, London. In the 1851 England Census, a nearly 3 year old James was living with his grandmother, Elizabeth Gilbert (formerly Blake and possibly nee Flower), in Limehouse. This may have been because his parents, who lived nearby, were busy with a one year old daughter, Catherine, with another sister, Eliza, about to arrive.
Not long after that, James Jesse Blake had a severe childhood illness and the doctor didn’t expect him to survive. Two sisters, Eliza and Sarah, who are not mentioned in the diary, sadly died in the summer of 1855 and I wonder if all three children had the same illness. James survived his illness and soon started school.
James went to a Grammar school that he described as being on the cutside of Regents Canal near a lock. One day, while “helping” the lock keeper, he was struck by part of the lock and knocked into the canal. Word quickly went around the school that “Blake had drowned”, however he was hauled out of the water and was fine, if wet.
At the time of the 1861 census, the student James Jesse Blake was living with his parents and siblings, in Park Street, Limehouse.
Having survived his schooling, James became an apprentice carpenter on the docks. While walking along a gangway at London Docks in a thick London fog, he missed his footing and fell into the Thames. He called for help and was rescued by a Swedish sailor who got him dry clothes, returned James to his parents and almost convinced him to migrate to Australia. James was keen but his mother was not.
James’ apprenticeship continued. He moved out of home until he fell ill and had to move back.
It might not be a surprise to find out that not too many years later, while rowing with friends on the Lea River at Hackney, James fell in the river. He had to swim for shore and then walk 3 miles home in his wet clothes.
James then managed to have several years without a memorable accident or illness. Around 1870, James moved north to Newcastle-upon-Tyne for work. Curiously, he is listed in the 1871 census living there as James Gilbert. I know it is the right person because the Diary records the family James boarded with in Newcastle and all the other information fits.
After a few years, James moved back to London to marry Eliza Todd in 1874. They soon had several children. In the 1881 census, the young family were living in Bromley St Leonard, London.
As for the next serious incident, at some time in the early or mid-1880s, James caught small pox. He was temporarily blinded by the disease and was sick and unable to work for three months. I have another ancestor, Mary Anne Simmons, who caught small pox around the same time and died from it.
A few years later, one January night, James was working late at the docks and managed to fall out of a boat he was trying to row against the Thames tide. He managed to scramble back into the boat and get back to his colleagues to dry himself out. James didn’t tell his wife what happened as the family were going through a difficult time (the chronology in this section of “the Diary” is confused). Eliza, however, found out about the accident because James took his water logged watched to a watchmaker to get it repaired and the story leaked out.
Another work related injury was accidentally running a piece of iron into his foot. James was also hit by a bike, injuring his knee cap, which left him laid up for several weeks.
James wife, Eliza, died in February 1890 (although he records the year as 1891). James continued to live in the East End of London for several years with different combinations of his children with him, as I discovered in the 1891 and 1901 censuses. Two of his children, Elizabeth and Edward, were born deaf, which was an extra challenge to deal with.
Around 1906, James fell ill and a cold climate was recommended. His children were all grown up and independent by this time, so he decided to move to Canada. James notes in “The Diary” that he had good health while he lived in Canada and was only sick twice, once when falling down some stairs and the other time he was injured getting out of an electric car, injuring his arm and shoulder. The electric car jerked as he was stepping out of it. As the driver was at fault, James received a small amount of compensation.
He may have only been ill twice in Canada, but James had another near death experience while living there. When working in a Manitoba winter, he got lost in one night the snow. Fortunately, he relocated the markers he was told to follow fairly quickly after losing sight of them. His 1.5 mile walk through the snow took 8 hours; he got home at 3am.
Also, while living in Canada, his lodging burned down. James lost everything other than the clothes he was wearing and was not insured. He somehow sorted himself out in spite of having no family or close friends in the country.
James lived in Canada until early 1925. I have found him in the 1921 Canada census, living in Vancouver. In 1925, he returned to England and lived here for the last 5 years of his life, dying in 1930 from senile decay.
James Jesse Blake’s life seems to have been full of incidents and disasters. I would guess that most people of advanced age would have had similarly eventful lives, but most of the time the memories die with them and there is no record left for their ancestors to appreciate the luck or effort it took to grow old. If life had only gone a little differently for James, he might not have survived to tell his story.
This post was written in response to two recent prompts from 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks – “Longevity” and “In the Census”. As I mention at least four ancestors in this post, I figure it is Okay to use multiple prompts for it.
Notes on Lineage: Me > Dad > John Edward Blake > James William Blake > James Jesse Blake