top of page
  • Writer's pictureSarah von Allmen

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks: Week 22.

Week 22 - Conflict


"Uncle Edwyn with the poker in the parlour"

It’s easy to view the past – and by extension our ancestors – through rose-coloured spectacles, but in reality, they experienced all the friction, sibling rivalries, and multiple other problems of modern families. In addition, any tensions were exacerbated by women’s financial dependence on their partners (or fathers) and the prohibitive cost of divorce.

Even superficially, my great-grandmother’s family doesn’t conform to the image of the respectable middle-class Victorian family. Her mother had a long-term clandestine relationship with a man above her own social class, which she concealed in part by adopting a pseudonym and pretending to be a widow. He provided conscientiously for her and the children, but at the same time that placed her in the scandalous position of a “kept woman” should the truth come to light. In this context, perhaps some family conflicts were inevitable.

Great-gran’s youngest surviving sister, Louisa Jones Dowding (also known as Louisa Jones or Louisa James) was born in Bath in 1856, and married John Robert Jennings there in 1875 at the age of 19 - although she claimed on the marriage record to be 21. Their only child was born in Manchester just over six weeks later, but the marriage quickly broke down, and by 1881 John was living with another woman and had at least one child with her. Did Louisa marry John just to give their child a father, or was this a case of marrying (too) young and regretting it? Impossible to say, but of the three siblings I look at here, this is the case with the least recorded conflict.

The next sister, Geraldine, was born in Bath in 1853 and married Richard Brodribb Harding there in 1875. Like Louisa, her marriage didn’t run smoothly, but her husband also had some problems with his own father.

“Richard Broadribb Harding, on bail, was brought up on warrant, charged with having done damage to the extent of £1 10s to the window of his father's residence. Prisoner when apprehended, by virtue of the warrant, by P.C. Newton, expressed great regret for his conduct, and upon being placed in the dock he expressed to the Magistrates his willingness to pay for all the damage he had done and promised not again to molest his father. The bench decided to adjourn the case for a month to enable the prisoner to carry out his promises; and admitted him to bail, himself in £10 and one surety of £5.” [1]

Richard made good on his promise, as reported subsequently:

“Richard Broadribb Harding, charged with having damaged a window belonging to his father, was bound over in his own recognizances in £20 to keep the peace for six months. The case was heard a month ago and remanded to allow the son to make good the damage. This it was reported he had done.” [2]

However, around this time Geraldine left her husband and went back to live with her family, leading to another incident which involved the police.

“Richard Brodribb Harding of 2, Berkeley-street, a respectably-dressed man, was charged with having been drunk, and having done wilful damage to the amount of £1 to a window in Cleveland House on Friday. From the evidence of Helen James, prisoner's sister-in-law, it appears that prisoner's wife has lately been residing at Cleveland House. On Friday prisoner went there, and said he wanted her; witness stated that she would not go with him as she went in bodily fear of him. Prisoner at once behaved in an excited style, commenced ringing the bell violently, and eventually smashed two panes of glass in a window on the ground-floor. Allen Ward of Lower Dover-street and PC Smith corroborated. In dealing with the case, the Magistrates stated that they had to bear in mind the fact that about two months ago prisoner was bound over to keep the peace in his own recognizances in £20. If they thought proper they could estreat that amount; but on the present occasion they would deal more leniently with him. They had determined to fine him 5s and costs, or 7 days for being drunk; to order him to pay £1 damage for the window breaking, in addition to which they would fine him £2, or in default one month's imprisonment.” [3]

The couple finally reconciled, and their second surviving child was born the following year. They moved to Manchester soon afterwards - perhaps to make a fresh start? - and there is no record of any further legal woes until Richard’s comparatively early death in 1897.

Then we come to the black sheep of the family, great-gran’s brother Edwyn. He was the first child born to Helen Jones and Edwyn Dowding, and his mother went from Bath to London to give birth to his discreetly in 1848. Young Edwyn then spent most or all of his childhood away from his family: placed as a “nurse child” with a foster family in infancy, and then sent to Weston Academy, a middle-class boarding school in Bath for children aged about 8-16.

With no immediate need to work for a living after leaving school and with time on his hands, Edwyn had his first run-in with the law at the age of 19, when a magistrates’ court found him guilty of being drunk and disorderly at the theatre.

“A respectably-dressed youth, named Edwin James, who was described as "a gentleman", was charged with being drunk and disorderly. On Tuesday evening P.C. 50 (Weaver) was called to the box entrance of the Theatre, and there he found the prisoner drunk and making a noise. The officer got him away as far as Westgate-buildings and tried to persuade him to go home, but he would not and the officer was obliged to lock him up. Mr. H. N. King, lessee of the Theatre, said he received information that the prisoner was in the upper boxes drunk, and that in consequence of his conduct two ladies left the Theatre; he got the prisoner down stairs and sent for the police. The prisoner's version of the affair was, that he was in the pit of the Theatre when he saw his sister and a lady friend in the upper boxes. He went up, and as he had a bottle of rum-and-water in his pocket he offered some to a young person in the lobby. The usher then came and removed him, and he was given into custody. He denied that he was drunk, and said that he did not go away when told as he wanted to have an explanation from Mr. King as to why he was removed from the Theatre. Mr. Jolly said that, although described as a "gentleman", the prisoner's conduct was anything but gentlemanly. It had been proved that he was drunk and disorderly and he would be fined 10s 6d and costs, or 14 days' imprisonment.” [4]

Shortly afterwards Edwyn was in rather more serious trouble, as reported in the local press.

“Edwin James, a youth, was brought up on a warrant and charged with using threatening and menacing language to Harriet James, his mother. On the 26th November the prisoner wanted his mother to give him her watch and chain to raise money for himself. She had supplied him with money till she could do so no longer, and she had also given him things to raise money, and when she refused to let him have her watch and chain he threatened to knock her ---- head off. On the following day he threatened her with a poker. She was afraid he would do her an injury, and she therefore obtained a warrant for his apprehension. In answer to the Magistrates' Clerk as to what he had to say in answer to the charge, the prisoner replied "Nothing at all". The Mayor said it was as bad a case as could come before the Bench. It was a case which called for a severe punishment, and the prisoner would be bound over, himself in £50 and two sureties in £25 each, to keep the peace towards his mother for six months. If he did not enter into the recognizances he would be sent to gaol for that period.” [5]

Unfortunately matters didn’t improve, and there was a similar confrontation 18 months later which led to a short prison sentence for Edwyn.

“Edwin James was summoned by his mother, Mrs. Mary James (sic), for doing wilful damage to a chimney-glass and other articles to the extent of £3. Defendant did not appear. Mrs. James resides at 5, Nelson-villas, and her son lived in her house. On Monday last he came home and asked for money, but she refused, and on this he took up a poker and smashed a chimney-glass in the parlour; he also broke a decanter and an oval glass vase. On the following day Mrs. James charged him with having broken the things, and he replied that if she had given him the money he would not have done it. The defendant was committed for two months, with hard labour.” [6]

Despite this, the 1871 census shows Edwyn living back at home with his mother, and still apparently financially dependent on her, as at the age of 22 he had “no occupation”.

Edwyn married in 1878 but seemed to find it hard to abandon some of his old habits.

“Edwin James, a young man, was charged with having been drunk in Bollwell's-buildings, Widcomb on the 13th inst., and there was a further charge against him of wilfully damaging certain panes of glass, of the value of 3s, the property of George Hacker. P.C. Tuck said on the previous night, about 10 o'clock, he was on duty in Bollwell's-buildings when he saw the prisoner coming along Claverton-street in company with several other young men. Outside Mr. Hacker's shop, Bollwell's-buildings, prisoner was staggering about so, that in a lark with the young men in his company he fell through Mr. Hacker's shop window. He was helplessly drunk and could not control himself. He then took him into custody. P.C. Noble and Sergt. Curtis gave evidence. Prisoner was fined 2s. 6d. and costs, or 5 days' imprisonment with hard labour. The charge of wilful damage was abandoned.” [7]

Edwyn’s first wife died in 1894 and he remarried the following year but was widowed for a second time in 1901. He worked as an auctioneer’s porter from at least 1881 onwards, and this led indirectly to his final appearance in the local press.

On the evening of 26 June 1903, Edwyn was working at one of the Bath auction rooms and went out during a break for half a pint of ale. In the Rainbow Inn, he bumped into an acquaintance, a fellow-porter named James Seth Bullock, and commented to him that there had been some good bargains in the early lots, but Bullock (who was not working that evening) was drunk enough to be quarrelsome and accused him of talking nonsense. Edwyn left to go back to work, followed by Bullock, who chased after him and hit him in the face for no apparent reason. A brief scuffle ensued, and Bullock fell heavily, hitting his head either on the kerb or against a lamp post. He seemed to be partially stunned, and Edwyn returned to work, leaving him there. A policeman came upon Bullock shortly afterwards, but he refused to go to hospital: in fact he had fractured his skull, and he died the following day. At the inquest, the coroner said there was no evidence to justify Bullock’s attack on Edwyn, and the jury duly returned a verdict of “Death from Misadventure”, but “considered that the heartless conduct of the witness James in leaving the deceased was deserving of censure”. [8]

I have to say I feel considerable sympathy for Edwyn. He was brought up more or less as a gentleman, but without a gentleman’s means. He spent much of his childhood and youth separated from his family, making it difficult or impossible to develop close ties with them. I suspect that the court cases brought against him by his mother were just the tip of the

iceberg and there were less serious clashes and tension between them over a period of time. By the end of Edwyn’s life his mother and sisters had all moved to Manchester and contact was lost completely: my grandfather was unaware that he had cousins living in Bath, while Edwyn’s children were equally oblivious of their Manchester relatives.

Happy Families? Not really, but at least Edwyn limited himself to empty threats and breakages, and the Cluedo scenario never materialised!

[1] Bath Chronicle & Weekly Gazette, Thursday 22 January 1880 [2] Bath Chronicle & Weekly Gazette, Thursday 19 February 1880 [3] Bath Chronicle & Weekly Gazette, Thursday 22 April 1880 [4] Bath Chronicle & Weekly Gazette, Thursday 1 October 1868 [5] Bath Chronicle & Weekly Gazette, Thursday 3 December 1868 [6] Bath Chronicle & Weekly Gazette, Thursday 30 June 1870 [7] Bath Chronicle & Weekly Gazette, Thursday 17 April 1879 [8] Bath Chronicle & Weekly Gazette, Thursday 9 July 1903

27 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page