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  • Writer's pictureSarah von Allmen

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks: Week 27.

Updated: Jul 25, 2022

Week 27 – Extended family

Our ancestors didn’t exist in isolation – they had brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, and so forth who all played a part in their lives. Looking into this extended family can not only help with research, but also shed a light on our direct ancestors’ familial, social, and economic environment. In this blog I look at my paternal grandmother’s siblings and their contribution to a fuller picture of Gran’s life.

My father and his older sister told me they had three aunts and uncles on their mother’s side:

Mary Ann – the oldest of the family; helped raise Gran after their mother’s early death.

James - disfigured in World War I and consequently something of a recluse.

Jane - known as Jinny; the youngest of the family.

However, after research I found that Gran was actually the eighth of nine children:

  • Charles Potts Nesbit 1867-1874

  • Mary Ann Potts 1869-1944

  • William Potts 1871-1872

  • Eliza Jane Potts 1873-1873

  • Charles Henry Potts 1874-1931

  • Robert Potts 1876-1898

  • James Potts 1878-1932

  • Sarah Ellen Potts 1881-1965

  • Jane Potts 1883-1963

So why didn’t Gran talk about her other siblings? It’s feasible that she never knew about the older children who died in infancy, but she was 17 when her brother Robert died and in her late 40s when Charles Henry died. To add to the mystery, my father (born in 1923) and his sister (born in 1909) were totally unaware of their uncle Charles. There was obviously a story to investigate here!

One possibility is that the children who died in infancy were not mentioned in the family through a sense of reserve, although this would have run counter to the fascination with death demonstrated by the late Victorians. Indeed, the family may have been embarrassed or ashamed that they couldn’t afford the trappings of death beloved by the upper and middle classes (and to a lesser extent the working class) such as mourning clothes, elaborate funerals, and family graves: the little Potts children were all buried in separate common graves in Weaste Cemetery in Salford, as was their mother Jane when she died in 1890. At the time, the family’s sole income was their father Charles’ wage as a labourer in a rubber factory.

Charles Henry, as I suspected, was a different case. Following the death of his wife at the age of 30, he appears to have gone through a difficult period during which he became estranged from much of the family. He took his own life in 1931, and although an inquest brought in the habitual well-meaning verdict of “suicide while temporarily insane”, anything touching mental illness was still very much a taboo subject, while suicide remained a crime in England until 1967. (I’m not going to elaborate further here, as I intend writing about him and his family in more detail in a separate blog.)

What else could I learn about Gran’s life from her siblings? I looked at the ones who died young and their causes of death.

  • Charles (3) Typhoid fever

  • William (11 months) Convulsions

  • Eliza Jane (1) Broncho pneumonia

“Convulsions” is rather vague as a cause of death, and could be a symptom of various illnesses, but both typhoid and pneumonia were all too common in Manchester and Salford at the time. Most ordinary working people lived close to their place of work in shoddily-built houses with no running water or indoor sanitation. Water for drinking, bathing, and cooking came – for the more fortunate – from communal standpipes in the street, and for others from wells or streams, often polluted by sewage and industrial waste. Matters improved gradually in the second half of the 19th century, but it wasn’t until 1892 that clean water was available to all in the inner cities. The lack of clean drinking water combined with poor food preparation hygiene led inevitably to diseases such as cholera and typhoid, and diarrhoea was the main cause of death among young children.

However, respiratory diseases such as bronchitis, pneumonia, asthma, and influenza were even bigger killers, and pulmonary tuberculosis had the highest single mortality rate in Manchester. These diseases were caused by the smoke from factories and homes which hung permanently over the city, as well as the dust and cotton lint which hung in the air in the mills. Inevitably, the worst-affected areas were those inhabited by the working poor in the inner city.

Manchester c.1870

Robert died at the age of 21 and his death certificate gives the cause of death as uraemia coma. Uraemia is a term used loosely to describe the illness accompanying kidney failure, where urea and other waste products, which are normally excreted into the urine, are retained in the blood. Early symptoms include anorexia and lethargy, followed by decreased mental acuity and eventually coma. There are several possible causes, including diabetes, hypotension, and chronic kidney infection, most of which would be treatable today, but which were equivalent to a death sentence in Victorian times.

The birth and death certificates of Gran’s siblings also told me that from at least 1871-1876 the family lived at 44 Sovereign Street, and more precisely at “Under” 44 Sovereign Street. What does that mean? Until the Public Health Act of 1875, damp proofing courses were not routinely installed in constructions, and many urban houses were built with cellars as a rudimentary means of containing rising damp. However, under the dual pressure of a rapidly growing population and a need for cheap accommodation, these cellars were frequently let to sub-tenants who lived there in cramped and insalubrious conditions. Fortunately, by 1878 Gran’s family was able to move to another house on Sovereign Street where they were the sole tenants, providing better conditions for all. In addition, the older children were gradually reaching working age and could add to the family’s income, relieving some of the pressure on their father.

I’ve written previously about Gran’s oldest sister Mary Ann, who helped to bring her up, and intend writing more about Charles Henry in the future. The last sibling I want to mention here is her brother James, whose experience of World War I must have marked her (and the whole family) considerably.

James enlisted in the Border Regiment early in the war on 2 November 1914 and after training was drafted to France on 26 September 1915. He was wounded in action the following spring, and was invalided back to England, spending three months in Southwark Military Hospital. After a spell of light duty in the UK, he returned to France on 29 March 1917. He had a short spell of home leave in early 1918, but his war ended definitively when he was shot in the face on 22 August 1918 and invalided back to England a week later. His upper and lower jaws were fractured, and his nose was largely destroyed.

James spent the next two years under the care of pioneering surgeon Harold Gillies and his team at The Queen’s Hospital, Sidcup. Gillies, considered the father of modern plastic surgery, was a New Zealand surgeon who developed new techniques of facial reconstruction in response to the appalling injuries he encountered in servicemen of the First World War, notably through the use of skin grafts. I can only imagine how severe James’ initial injuries were, as even after treatment he remained badly disfigured, and his journeys to and from home on leave over the period of his hospitalisation must have been a real ordeal. He was finally discharged from hospital – and from the army - with an invalidity pension on 11 December 1920.

Back home in Chorlton-on-Medlock, James understandably preferred to avoid leaving the house. He was happy for the family and friends to visit him, although Gran chose not to take her children with her when they were young, and I’m not sure that my father ever met him. Obviously, his injuries affected his own wife and children the most, but they must also have been very hard to bear for his father and siblings. James died in 1932 of acute pulmonary tuberculosis, with "gunshot wound of mouth and nose (war wound)" given as the secondary cause of death.

In conclusion, by looking at Gran’s siblings I discovered that her family initially lived in much poorer circumstances than I had realised, and that she and her youngest sister were fortunate to have avoided the worst of this. Living conditions in working-class districts of Manchester and Salford were still notoriously poor, but thankfully changes were slowly arriving under pressure from social reformers. She was from the generation who lived through World War I as adults, and although her husband was among those who came through safely, her brother’s dreadful injuries would have been a constant reminder of its horrors. Yes, I could have deduced some of this by concentrating solely on her, but the lives and deaths of her siblings help paint a much fuller and more accurate picture.

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