Evidence of Illiteracy among the Bargees of Britain’s Venice

Family folklore from my paternal grandparents stated that we descend from Bargees, people who lived and worked on canal boats.  It has often been said that Birmingham has more canals than Venice.  To this day, Birmingham is a hub of Britain’s canal and navigable waterways network.  In the early industrial revolution, canals were the transport backbone.  As an early industrial centre, Birmingham developed an extensive canal network between the 1760s and 1830s, with connections to countrywide destinations.  The Grand Junction Railway the first rail line to serve Birmingham, linking with Liverpool and Manchester, opened in 1837.  By the time of this marriage in 1874, canals were still an important part of the goods transport network, but were challenged by the rise of rail.

Marriage Certificate - Samuel Barton & Caroline Spencer

Marriage Certificate – Samuel Barton & Caroline Spencer

Bride: Caroline Spencer, aged 18
Groom: Samuel Barton, aged 21, Carter
Date: 5 April 1874
Location: Bishop Ryder church, Birmingham
Father of Bride: Edward Barton, Boatman
Father of Groom: John Spencer, Wood turner
Witnesses: John Cartwright, Mary Ann Barton

The occupation of the groom’s father, Edward Barton as a boatman supports the family story.  Census, marriage and birth records show both Edward and Samuel worked as boatmen, but also did other jobs.

Year Edward’s occupation Samuel’s occupation
1841 Labourer
1851 Boatman
1861 Labourer
1871 Boatman Boatman
1874 Boatman Carter
1875 Carter
1881 Barge boatman
1891 Labourer
1901 Coal carter
1902 Carter
1911 Coal carter

Notice that signatures of Caroline Spencer, Samuel Barton and witnesses Mary Ann Barton (Samuel’s sister) and John Cartwright are all recorded as his or her mark X, indicating that these people could not write.  The 1911 census return for Samuel and Caroline contains indirect evidence of their illiteracy, as the schedule was signed by their 19 year old son, Henry, rather than head of the household Samuel.

Name Birth Year Year recorded as Scholar
Edward Barton’s children
Samuel 1854
Mary Ann 1856
Edward 1858
James 1860 1871
Hannah 1865 1871
Ellen 1870 1881
Samuel Barton’s children
Mary A 1875 1881
John 1877
James 1880 1891
Louisa 1882 1891
Jane 1885 1891
Samuel 1887
Caroline 1890
Henry 1894
Ellen 1895

Unlike the 1871 Scottish census, English censuses do not directly record attendance at school.  However, ‘Scholar’ commonly recorded in the occupation column for children of school age, might be an indicator of some education.  Some of the children of Edward and Samuel Barton appear to have attended school after 1870.  As the absence of ‘scholar’ could be due to accidental omission or error, it is not strong evidence of a lack of education.

The Elementary Education Act 1870 established local school boards which could enforce byelaws requiring children to attend school between the ages of 5 and 13, where there was a school within 3 miles of the child’s home.  The school boards could raise funds from the rate payers, but still required fees from the parents.  Poor parents who could not afford fees or loss of the children’s income may have tried to avoid the compulsion to attend school.  Although the Bartons lived in back-to-back houses they were part of the canal boat community that distrusted officialdom.  In response to public health concerns two acts requiring the registration of canal boats were enacted in 1877 and 1884.  The legislation proved unenforceable and ineffective as Benjamin Browning, a Medical Officer of Health noted in 1879 due to

the reluctance of the boatmen themselves to have registration effected, since their children are at once brought under the ken and domination of the School Board.

© Sue Adams 2013

The Girl Next Door? Local History, Maps and Back-to-Backs

On first examination it would be easy to assume that the subjects of this entry in the 50 Marriage Mondays series had met through being neighbours, possibly from childhood.

Marriage Certificate - Thomas Adams & Mary Ann Barton

Marriage Certificate – Thomas Adams & Mary Ann Barton

Bride: Mary Ann Barton, of 1 Bk 89 Heneage str
Groom: Thomas Adams, of 2 Bk 89 Heneage str
Date: 29 March 1902
Location: St James Church, Ashted, Birmingham

Only a fragment of Heneage Street exists today, and none of the buildings along the street survive.  The parish of Ashted lay within the Duddeston and Nechells redevelopment area, first proposed in 1937 due to the unsanitary state of the housing. Redevelopment commenced after World War II when the area had suffered bomb damage due to its proximity to industrial targets, including St James church, which was demolished around 1956.

So, can we locate the residences of Thomas and Mary Ann?  A clue lies in the addresses.  The abbreviation ‘Bk’ stands for back, indicating the houses 1 and 2 were situated behind the house numbered 89 that fronted onto Heneage Street.  Behind the houses that lined the streets there were courts or yards serving several 2 or 3 story Back-to-Back or Tunnel-Back houses accessed by an alley or passage.  Many such houses on Heneage Street had only 3 rooms. The houses of each courtyard shared outdoor toilet facilities and water pump.  Birmingham Lives, The Carl Chinn Archive includes photographs of this type of housing, like Court 15 in nearby Adams Street.

The 1890 1:2,500 scale Ordnance Survey map shows Heneage Street stretched from Woodcock Street in the west to Great Francis Street in the east.  It also shows the confusing jumble of courts.  A larger scale map, (available at old-maps.co.uk, coordinates 408330, 287837) the 1: 500 Ordnance Survey Town Plan of Birmingham, dated 1887-1889, shows individual houses, but does not give house numbers.  However, the 1903 street directory[1] makes it clear that the house numbers ran from 1 to ca. 150 along the south side starting at the Woodcock street end, and from 151 upwards along the north side starting at Great Francis Street.  So number 89 was on the south side between Henry Street and Willis Street:

South side Heneage street
……… here is Henry st ………
Nicholls Harry, coal dealer
75           Smith Joseph, confectioner
81           Hayes Mrs. Elizh. shopkr
89           Heybeard Mrs. Dora, pawn-broker
90           Pearson Hy. painter & glazier
91           Hurst Mrs. Mary Ann, haberdasher
93           Avery Rowland G. grocer
97           { Gill Herbt. Edwd. chemist TOWN SUB-POST, M. O.O. & S. B
……… here is Willis st ………

Counting back from 97, the post office (marked in green) on the corner of Heneage and Willis streets, 89 is a house (marked in yellow) with a passage on both sides leading to courts 15 and 16 (marked in blue).  Each court contained 3 back-to-back houses (marked in red).

Back-to-back houses behind 89 Heneage Street

Back-to-back houses behind 89 Heneage Street

The street directory does not list everyone who lived in the street, but only those prepared to pay for an entry, such as businesses.  To answer the question of whether Thomas and Mary Ann met as neighbours, I turned to the 1901 census, taken a year before their marriage.

Neither Mary Ann nor Thomas lived in Heneage Street in 1901.  Pawn broker Dora Heybeard is enumerated at no 89 and the Bagliss, Tebbett and Browning families are listed at 1, 2 and 3 houses in court 16.  Court 15 is not identified in the address column, so I am not sure which census entries relate to those houses.

The most likely candidate on the 1901 for Mary Ann Barton, is a 26 year old pen grinder, enumerated as a boarder with the Kidner family at Court 23 house 1, Clifton Road, Aston.  The address again gives the clue that the house was a back-to-back.  I have not identified Thomas Adams on the census because there are several possible candidates.  Both Mary Ann and Thomas had moved more than once prior to 1901 with their parents, but apparently left home by 1901.  In 1901, Mary Ann’s parents and Thomas’ parents lived at 85 Adams Street, Aston and 5 Guthrie Street, Aston Manor respectively.

Year Mary Ann Barton’s address Thomas Adams’ address
1871 N/A 2 bk of 27 & 28, Barr Street, St Martin
1875 35 Brewery Street, Duddeston N/A
1881 60 Richard Street, Aston 13 Upper Hockley Street, Upper Hockley Street, Birmingham All Saints
1891 Court 2 House 4, Dartmouth Street, Aston Upper Hockley Street, Birmingham All Saints
1901 Court 23 house 1, Clifton Road, Aston Not found

It is clear that the Barton and Adams families moved around the poorer parts of Birmingham close to the city centre.  They may have been even more mobile than suggested by the census records presented here.  Several addresses indicate back-to-back houses.  Investigating the area has helped me understand my great grandparent’s humble origins.

© Sue Adams 2013

[1] “UK, Midlands and Various UK Trade Directories, 1770-1941”, Birmingham, 1903 Kelly’s Directory of Birmingham, image nos 141-142. digital image. Ancestry (www.ancestry.co.uk : accessed 18 September 2013)