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by Stuart Tilney

James Francis Tilney

Born Norfolk 4th October 1843.

In 2018 I found a scanned picture of James Tilney. It had been sent to me, along with copies of letters and a few other pictures by my brother Gerald living in Crete, and arrived as my house was being packed up prior to moving to Finland. The envelope lay unopened for 15 years. I had no idea who this man is, or indeed anything about his life and times. Suffice to say Wisbech was my home town, as it was my Fathers, and Grandfathers, and we lived close to the towns and area of Tilney. So finding him locally would be simple enough, he would just be another Wisbech boy. Then I found a scan of a letter in the same envelope sent to Gerald, by our uncle James (Jim)Tilney 1990’s asking “Who is James Tilneys Father?”

Gerald, Uncle Jim, and a cousin Christine had all been doing family research, and all three had the same question. “Who is James Tilneys Father?”

With modern computing, and digitised records in 2018 I decided to have a go at finding James Tilney. It would be an adventure into the lives of the people of Norfolk, their births, work, survival, marriage, deaths, hopelessness and success.

The biggest problem was actually “Where was James Tilney born ?” There is no sign of a birth in and around Wisbech, Cambs. or Walsoken, Norfolk. There is no sign of a James Tilney on any census 1841-1891 in or around that area. In fact James Tilney is a bit of a mystery man. The truth is we were looking in the wrong place for the wrong person. We should have been looking for his wife Eliza Dorcas Newby.

I am of course writing about the life of James Tilney with the benefit of hindsight. The blind alleys, the errors, the wrong lines, wrong people, wrong places wasted years of research, when the secret lay with Eliza Dorcas, a name which for some reason meant something from my earliest childhood, but I could not recall why.

In 1871 a young 15 year old girl Eliza Newby is working as a servant in a large boarding house in Wisbech. The census residents are mainly construction workers, but no James Tilney is there.

In 1881 a Mrs Eliza Dorcas Tilney is shown as head of house, with 4 children but no husband, but her marital status is shown as “m”, Wife of a Bricklayer but no husband shown. A James Tilney in the same census of 1881 is found in Sandringham, Norfolk. Sandringham House was undergoing extensive refurbishment and extension, and in the local accommodation are some of the people from the boarding house of 1871. There on the original 1871 census document is a Jaz Tilmy, Journeyman Bricklayer, place of Birth Market Dereham, Norfolk, age 27.

It was then simple to find the marriage of James Tilney to Eliza Dorcas Newby 1972, and James gives his occupation as a Journeyman Bricklayer, his father as James Tilney a Brick Maker and place of birth, Welborne, Dereham, Norfolk. Eliza marries with her fathers permission. The only problem now was to find out where Market Dereham or Welborne were in Norfolk.

Google answered those questions quickly. Welborne being a village near Dereham in Norfolk, so the 1871 census return was just another set of slightly incorrect information, by the head of the working mans accommodation in Wisbech.

In looking up Welborne, the Welborne FB home page featured the book “Welborne a place of no importance” by Joy Esberey and Brenda Baxter. It was a game changing find !! To understand who was James Tilneys father we have to go backwards, to come forwards as no James Tilney birth can be found in or around Welborne 1840-1850 which must have been James birth year.

In 1777 a young Robert Tilney marries an Elizabeth Thompson in Shipdham, they are both underage, and require parental consent. Roberts father gives permission and signs his name in the easily recognisable script, using a double L, as did his father, and grandfather for the previous three generations. Young Robert did not have the skill or trades of his father and Grandfather, and found employment difficult, even at the lowest level. Was this due to some physical injury or other debility I am unsure, but he is frequently found living on handouts, and referred to as a pauper in Parish records. One of the surviving children of Robert and Elizabeth Tilney (note the double L, has been dropped, and Robert is given to signing his name with a mark) was William bp. 1788 Shipdham. William is born into a very poor, hardly educated family. Many siblings fail to survive early childhood, but he does and goes on to marry a single mother Elizabeth Goring in 1817 in Shipdham. William and Elizabeth lives are a continuation of his father Robert and mother Elizabeth, and he starts life with a young child George Goring b 1816 Shipdham. In 1818 William and Elizabeth have their first child Susan, a half-sister to George Goring. William is of course an agricultural labourer, seeking what work was available, and living on Church Handouts during lean periods. William and Elizabeth relocate to Welborne in 1820. This is a distance of 8 miles, a walk of 3 hours, and during this period there seems to be a lot of movement of agricultural labourers (Ag Lab) between Shipdham,

Welborne, Garveston and Hingham. The workers were following the available work, as mechanisation slowly depleted the need for large farming work forces. It was the birth of Susan, that gave the first clue into the birth of James Tilney, as she appeared on two global Family trees as the mother of James Tilney, but still now trace of such a birth existed. William and Elizabeth had further children, Hannah b 1821, Elizabeth, Frances and William all born Welborne, and all destined for the Union Workhouse at Wicklewood in 1830. William appears in the Parish Alms Book frequently after this.

Finally a breakthrough as a James Tilney is located in Garveston and Welborne. He could possibly be the mysterious father of James Tilney. James Tilney snr. Is married, and it is possible to track his marriage and children. His occupation is given as an Ag Lab, not as a brick maker, but it is possible he changed work prior to James Tilney jnrs birth circa 1844. It was with some disappointment that I watch as James snrs children die one by one, and he disappears completely, with his wife remarrying as a widow. Only one girl child survived from all of the 7 children including a James Tilney, so another dead end.

The Tilney family of Welborne were probably living hand to mouth as usual and the 1841 register shows them in Welborne. This is where the book by Joy Esberey and Brenda Baxter, plus the incredible Parish Record Entries and diary notes by the Rev John Barnham Johnson provide the clues, and insight into the lives of the people of Welborne, especially the Tilney family. The typical house for an Ag Lab would be two or 3 rooms, often with other lodgers. Cold, damp, very basic and labour intensive to run. Life started before dawn, and ended in darkness. Children had no schooling and either worked at home or assisted on land work. We find William and Elizabeth with their children Hannah, Elizabeth, Frances, Sarah and William (aged 2) in one dwelling, but Susan the eldest is missing. The next house is occupied by the Greens, Henry Green (Ag Lab) with his wife and seven children, and then a major surprise. In the same dwelling is a William Filby (Ag Lab) and Susan Tilney, the supposed mother of James Tilney. Two doors away we find the Dales. James Dale (Ag Lab) with his wife, three daughters, youngest son but missing the three eldest sons, all had been deported to Tasmania in 1836 for stealing Grain seed. The Dales are sharing the dwelling with two other families, all are Ag Labs, in-fact every occupation on the two census pages for this area are Ag Labs apart from an elderly Brick Maker.

The book indicates that Susan was in the Wickelwood Work House prior to 1841, giving birth to a son William in 1839, and being unable to support herself. John Barnham Johnson in the baptism records adds a note and indicates the father to be a Daniel Leeds. No traces of Mr Leeds are to be found in Welborne, but he died near Kings Lynn a few months after the birth of William. So the young 2 year old William in the 1841 census is the Grandchild of William and Elizabeth Tilney not their son. His story is quite remarkable as we shall see.

In the book about Welborne, I find the same brick wall regarding James Tilney, as everyone else had. Several pages are given to Susan, and the Tilney family, but no mention of a James. However there is mention of two more children for Susan Phoebe and Amelia.

Checking Amelia’s baptism there is no surprise. “ 8th December 1844 Bastard daughter of Susan Tilney”, but the surprise is the date. Susan cannot be the mother of James Tilney unless they were twins!, and they were not. It was the entry above Amelia’s Baptism details in the Parish Register that was surprising, and the details

provided by the Rev John Barnham Johnson solved the mystery. “Francis Tilney baptised 8th December 1844, born October 4th 1843 Bastard son of Hannah Tilney”

James Tilney was born 4th October 1843, his mother was Hannah Tilney of Welborne, Norfolk according to later official documents, and family events.

James was born into a very poor family, even by the low Ag Lab living standards of those days. He was raised with his cousin William, as Susan and Hannah had set up a home together, trying to survive as dress makers, a skill probably learned in Wickelwood Union. The one saving grace for James and William was their grandparents lived close by with their aunts Elizabeth, Sarah and Frances who could help out. During this time the Rev John Barnham Johnson was pushing for a full time school in Welborne which was built in 1845-47. Unfortunately this would have been of little benefit to the boys, their days would have been busy enough helping out with chores and family needs as soon as they were able to. So both Susan and Hannah seem to be making a living with their two young boys, and appear as an unusual but happy family. However things change very quickly for this family, as Susan was already four months pregnant when James was born, and this is just the start of a downward spiral for all of the Welborne Tilneys. Amelia is born to Susan in March 1844, Susan and Hannah’s father William Snr. dies in April 1847, the main family breadwinner gone, even if his income was low, he was claiming alms, leaving his wife Elizabeth Snr with three teenage girls aged 12, 14 and 17 with an almost Zero income.

Hannah is admitted to Wicklewood Union March March 1849, and condition given on entrance is “Pregnant”. James, William and Amelia are now looked after by Susan alone. It is unclear when Hannah was released from Wicklewood Union but it was after the birth of Elizabeth in Wicklewood, as Elizabeth was baptised there 13th April 1849, 4 days old. It must have been a difficult time for the young boys William and James, and one supposes they were kept busy at home not spending their days running through the country lanes chasing a hoop. A family of six, living like many of their time on the breadline, but I find no evidence of Susan or Hannah receiving alms from the parish. Things

1851 comes around, the village school is open to all young children, and education for all is available in Welborne. The tireless work of Rev John Barnham Johnson has paid dividends, and life in Welborne was on the up. In the census of 1851 Susan and Hannah are to be found living at “The Parsonage”, whether this is one of the workers cottages connected to the new rectory, or just in the area is unclear, but their next door neighbour is the new school mistress Miss Sofia Hibbard. Susan and Hannah are shown as dress makers, William aged 12 is a scholar, along with Amelia, and surprise surprise James is named as James, not Francis and is not shown as a scholar at school. In Welborne there is no sign of Elizabeth Snr. or the three sisters, Frances aged 15 is located nearby as a servant in the house of John Porrett of Welborne, and Frances aged 20 as a servant in Reymerston Hall.

Possibly Elizabeth Snr and her daughter Elizabeth were in Welborne in 1851, just omitted from the census; whatever, the family support group for Susan and Hanna and the children had melted away. I am very sceptical that William was a full time school boy, if he ever was at school at all, as in later life he signs his name with a mark. Children went to school when they could be spared, depending on family circumstances. Young girls were more likely to be free to attend, than boys.

One way or another two fit and healthy young boys would need to contribute to the household in some way; it simply was the way of those times.

On a more positive note Susan and Hannah had somehow raised 4 healthy children, which was unusual for those times, considering their hardships. Childhood deaths were very common, and so they were doing something right, or the children were just very fortunate.

In 1854 William was 15 and certainly working on the land, James would be 12 and also probably working in some capacity. The lives of this tight knit family seemed on the up, but it seems destined to once again go down the slippery slope to poverty.

In March of 1854 both Susan and Hannah fall pregnant. How they both became pregnant at the same time is alarming, and it serves no purpose to speculate. Both give birth in December of that year Phoebe is born to Susan in December 1854, and George is born to Hannah 31st December 1854. No fathers are named and no clues are given. At least New Year’s Eve would be celebrated, but I suspect for the other 4 children, William, James, Amelia and Elizabeth it would be a very meagre time. There are now eight mouths to feed in this house hold, and something needs to improve to support this family. Susan and Hannah are not only required to earn a living, but to nurse new-borns through a harsh Norfolk winter of 1855. The work load would fall to the children. I wonder how many Dress Makers a small village could support. ? It was generally a 10-12 hour day with needle and thread, or as long as there was daylight, and not the elegant work I think of today.

In 1856 the railway line from Dereham to Kings Lynn, and Kings Lynn to Wisbech and beyond opened. People from sleepy Welborne now had the means to travel and move for work, and many from that area did. Mechanisation had reduced the need for such a large Ag Lab workforce, and most of Welborns residents were Ag Labs or tied to the land in some way.

The answer to that question is answered in 1861, but firstly mid 1860 Elizabeth Snr dies and joins William Snr. in the Welborne All Saints Church Yard. In 1861 we find Susan and Hannah and all the children at home, shown as “The Common” Only Amelia is absent, at the age of 17 she would be working somewhere outside of Welborne. William is 22, and employed as an Ag Lab. James has become Francis again and is employed as a Groom. There would not be many people in Welborne who would employ a Groom, but one in particular is documented as employing a Groom, The Rev John Barnham Johnson. Once again the Welborne book delivers another clue. Susan is still a dressmaker, but Hannah is now a washer woman. A very hard, physical and demanding job, and a step down from Dress Making. Clearly there Is simply not enough work for both to survive as Dress Makers. Elizabeth, Phoebe, and George are all at school. There were now four incomes in the family and so things must have been easier, which is just as well as Susan and Hannahs sisters were no longer in Welborne to assist. They were for the first time alone with their joint families, but they had proved they were born survivors, raising their six children in difficult circumstances, and doing whatever it takes.

In 1863 at the age of 44 Susan Tilney marries William Wilson a widower of nearby Whinburgh, her sister Hannah is a witness, and Susan remains in Whinburgh. What happens to Susan Wilson, her husband William and her children is another story, but they all do well.

The same is not true for Hannah, as for the first time in her life she is truly alone, without family support, especially that of her strong sister Susan.

Around this time John Barnum Johnson decides not to replace his horse that pulled his trap. This is noted with displeasure by the reverends wife, in the Welborne book.

It may just be coincidence, but it looks as if James position is no longer required as a Groom. Pure conjecture I know, it maybe he saw a better opportunity.

None the less, Hanna and her children’s lives took a massive downturn. George the youngest boy was just 8 years old in 1863, Elizabeth 14, and James was 19. A washer womans income would never support a family, so James Francis would need to make a significant contribution.

The next 8 years are drudgery for Hannah and her family, but the past is about to be repeated. It would be another test of this families resolve and closeness. Hannahs daughter Elizabeth gives birth to two illegitimate children. Frederick b 1868 dies shortly after birth, and Sarah Pearce Tilney was baptised 31st July 1871. Another mouth for Hannah to provide for.

1871 was the turning point for this family. Hannah was now living in the area of the brickworks known a Solomon’s Temple, Welborne, working as an Ag lab, the lowest of the employment for woman, and probably field stone picking. George was 17 and working as an Ag Lab, his sister Elizabeth an unemployed domestic servant. There is no mention of Elizabeth’s youngest child Sarah, but she survives for now. James Francis Tilney is not to be found in or around Welborne, and so we are back to the beginning Almost!!!

In 1872 after his marriage to Eliza Dorcas Newby in Wisbech, we find, James Francis sister Elizabeth also in Wisbech with her boyfriend Josiah Dack of Gressenhall. They marry and Elizabeth gives her fathers name as James Tilney – Bricklayer of Welborne. Witnesses were a James Tilney and Eliza Dorcas Tilney. Josiah did well and was a successful shoe and boot maker.

Prior to 1880 Hannah, her youngest son George W and a young Sarah Tilney aged 8 (daughter of Elizabeth) were also living in Wisbech. The whole family within a hundred yards of each other is far from a coincidence.

This leaves just one unanswered question “Who was the father of James Francis Tilney of Welborne”

I am afraid the true answer is hidden in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Wisbech where Hannah and James are buried. Susan would also have known, but she also took the knowledge to the Whinburgh Churchyard. The only James Tilney I can find is an Ag Lab, who married Rose Neave in Welborne 1829. He is Hannahs uncle, and 23 years older than her, so it is not impossible, but highly unlikely. He died between 1842-1849.

The other possible candidate comes from James wedding where his father is given as a brick maker and how he managed to get an apprenticeship. This would have been some achievement, unless you had contacts, friends or family. The Welborne book gives a clue again in its mention of the brick yards. In the 1840’s it was run and owned by a father and son. The book states how many employers there were, 2 Brick makers, 4 bricklayers. Only the owner and son are named. The son is the same age as Hannah, and his name is James. Is this the link to James Francis being given an apprenticeship 16 years later? Who knows, and does it really matter?

The story of the Tilney family of Welborne is unusual in some ways, but does reflect the lives of the working class in Welborne in the 1800’s.For many it was a daily fight for survival, to put food on the table, to provide the smallest essentials.

So if we look at the outcome of those two young illegitimate boys William b 1839 and James Frances b 1843, raised as brothers but were cousins what do we find.

William married in 1863, the same year his mother married. William and his wife Sarah (Loveday) raised 13 children to adulthood. They all attended school. How so many children survived is unusual. They married, some stayed in Mattishall, some returned to Welborne or Shipdham. His eldest Daughter Emma fostered over 100 children in her 96 years. His son Robert emigrated to New York, but returned to visit his parents before Sarah’s death. William died at the age of 78 in 1916.

James Francis Tilney and his wife Dorcas raised 10 educated children. 6 sons fought in WW1 and all survived. 5 children moved to the USA, Canada and Australia. 5 of his sons were Bricklayers. He died December 1919 aged 76. His death certificate entered by his eldest daughter Elizabeth reads. James Francis Tilney born October 4th 1843, Welborne, Norfolk.

Susan Wilson (Tilney) died Whinburgh 1908 aged 88

Hannah Tilney died in Wisbech, a respected “Widow” 1909 aged 86

Dorcas (Eliza) Tilney died 1912 Wisbech aged 56

George W Tilney married in Wisbech, a widow Margaret Morton, the 1890’s epidemic decimated their family with only George Snr. and George Jnr. surviving.

He died 1920 aged 65. His descendants are still in the Wisbech area..

Josiah Dack died young in 1885, leaving a wife (Elizabeth Tilney) and 7 children.

Elizabeth Dack (nee Tilney) died 1917 aged 68. Any surviving children are not found.

Phoebe Tilney married William Patiemore a soldier. They moved to London/ Dublin/London, where they had 5 children. Phoebe is buried in London.

Amelia Tilney Married James Cook of Mattishall, and raised 5 children there.

With endless thanks to:

Joy Esberey & Brenda Baxter “Welborne a place of no importance”

Welborne Village Hall Group

Welborne All Saints Church

Welborne Web Site

The Late John Barnham Johnson

Fenland Family History Group (Wisbech)

Wisbech Library


Eva Kajawa my Genealogy Guide (Also my cousin from South Africa)

Stuart Tilney 2023

We at Welborne Village thank Stuart Tilney for sharing his family story and history

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