Friday, 25 December 2009

Thomas Clayton - my great grandfather's brother

.Very little was known about William's older brother Thomas, eight years his senior. The 20 year old twine maker recorded in the 1881 census seemed to have disappeared from the collective memory, apart from one memory provided by my father’s cousin Bill Clayton:

“I think Granddad Bill’s older brother lived in Sheffield, I’m sure it was Thomas and I’ve a feeling he was his half brother. He once came down from Sheffield and he went with Granddad Bill to a football match at Villa Park”.

There is in the family an old children’s story book called ‘Mischievous Jack’ which has a presentation certificate on the inside cover which reads:

“Presented to Thomas Clayton by the School Board for good attendance at Cowper Street School in 1895”

For some time I tried to work out who this book might have belonged to, i.e. which Thomas Clayton was of school age in 1895? The answer seems to lie in the 1891 census. There is a reference to the family of a Thomas Clayton and his family living at 4 Court, 1 House Cowper Street. Thomas is listed as a 29 year old spring maker and he is the right age, give or take a few months, to have been the older brother of William Henry Clayton.

‘Mischievous Jack’ - the Cowper Street school book presented to Thomas Clayton in 1895 for good attendance

Thomas Clayton’s wife at the Cowper Street address in 1891 was Mary Clayton aged 26. The couple had two children, Thomas aged 2 and Violet 12 months. The oldest of these children would therefore have been 7 in 1895, making him the right age to have been the child named in the aforementioned Cowper Street school story book.

The same family are also recorded in the 1901 census, but this time residing at Chester Road, Sutton Coldfield. Thomas is listed as a spring fitter, aged 39 from Birmingham. Mary is aged 36, Thomas junior is 13 and working as a jeweler (gold) and Violet is aged 11 and at school. There are two additional children named Harold (aged 8) and May (aged 5), all born in Birmingham.

Only Nance has been able to recall actually seeing Granddad William Clayton’s father, Thomas Clayton the blacksmith from Willenhall and even her memory of him is a fleeting one:

"Granddad was a very tall man, much taller than his brothers, but his father (Thomas) was a little short man. I remember seeing him when I was a little girl, dressed in black, huddled up next to his fireplace".

If we speculate that Nance may have seen her great grandfather perhaps in the early 1920s, this would have aged old Thomas in his early to mid eighties at that point.

My dad’s cousin Bill told me that he believes Thomas Clayton was definitely from Willenhall near Wolverhampton and that he used to frequent a pub in the town called The Ring O Bells, which amazingly still exists in the back streets of Willenhall. Bill also told me that Thomas was a keen long distance runner.

The Ring O Bells, Willenhall
Thought to be the Clayton’s favourite haunt in the 19th Century and still standing today

Willenhall incidentally is a typical but even so, distinctive Black Country town which lies midway between Walsall and Wolverhampton, 3 miles from each. In the 1850s Willenhall had about 10,000 inhabitants who were mostly employed in the manufacture of locks, keys, bolts, latches, chafing dishes, gridirons and currycombs. It was said that more locks were made in Willenhall than any similar sized town in Europe.

It is suggested that my great grandfather, William, always maintained an interest in the blacksmith trade, a fascination which he would certainly have inherited from his father's profession, having grown up around the sounds and smells of the blacksmith's yard. It is said that William would often take his grandchildren to watch the local blacksmith at work.

I have found no evidence from any of the records to substantiate the family myth that my great grandfather, Henry William was not actually the real son of Thomas. The story has it that his mother Emma had an affair with a wealthy guest whilst she was working as a chamber maid in a hotel. The inference was that Thomas married Emma to protect her honor and to provide her illegitimate baby with a father.

However, we now have evidence that Thomas and Emma married some 5 years prior to the birth of William and already had two children, at least one of whom was born before they married. On William’s birth certificate, Thomas clearly identifies himself as the father. On the other hand, it is intriguing to wonder how such a story might have originated if it did not have some factual basis. It is still quite possible that an extra-marital affair took place or it could be possible that the story refers to the birth of the oldest son, Thomas. Perhaps this is another mystery which may remain unsolved.

Willenhall was Europe’s greatest lock making town—commemorated by this art work in the town centre

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