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 School Master and Seed Cake

Aunt Sis, as she was known to her grand-nieces, is remembered for her seed cake and her marriage to a schoolmaster at King Edward’s school.  It isn’t clear how Lucy Charlotte Jones acquired her nickname, but the story of her marriage is true:

Marriage Certificate-James Turner & Lucy Charlotte Jones

Marriage Certificate-James Turner & Lucy Charlotte Jones

Bride: Lucy Charlotte Jones, 34, spinster
Groom: James Turner, 61, widower, school master
Date: 26 August 1903
Location: St James church, Edgbaston, Birmingham
Witnesses: William Taylor Jones [bride’s father], Ronald Turner

The School Master’s career

James Turner was indeed a school master at King Edward VI School in Birmingham.  Alison Wheatley, archivist for the school, kindly responded to my enquiry and provided details of James Turner’s career:

Year Position Age Annual Salary School
1854 Pupil monitor 12 Gem Street Elementary School
1859 Assistant Master 17 £25
1866 Writing Master 24 £80 King Edward’s Classical School
after 1866 Assistant English Master
1875 Took drawing classes in addition to other duties 33 £20 extra
1911 resigned due to ill health 69 £196 pension

Throughout James’ time at King Edward VI School, it was based at New Street in the centre of Birmingham.  The impressive school building was demolished in 1938 when the school moved to it current location in Edgbaston.  The old school building features in two short films which explain its architectural importance and memories of past pupils.

The First Family

Prior to his marriage to Lucy, James had raised a family of 5 children, born between ca. 1871 and ca. 1891, with his first wife, Elizabeth Fanny Pursall.  The family resided at Spooner Street, Aston (1871 & 1881 census), and Kingswood Road, Kings Norton (1891 & 1901 census). Elizabeth died in 1899.

At the time of James and Lucy’s marriage, James’ youngest child, Gladys Fanny was aged about 12.  The older children may have left home prior to 1903, but Gladys resided with James and Lucy at 55 Church Road, Moseley in 1911.

The Marital Home

James was included in the electoral register in 1868 (Spooner Street) and 1912 (55 Church Road).  Consequently, I can conclude the properties he occupied were rated above the minimum value, which suggests a comfortable economic position.  55 Church Road is a semi-detached house.  The adjoining semi, no 57, was described as a spacious 5 bedroom property with 3 reception rooms, 2 bathrooms, kitchen and cellar when offered for rental in 2011.  Both James and Lucy appear on the 1920 spring electoral register, published on 15 May, as occupiers of 55 Church Road.  The death of James Turner, aged 78, was registered in the July-September quarter of 1920 (Kings Norton district, Vol. 6d, page 38).

A Long Widowhood

The degree to which Lucy was supported by James’ pension after his death is unknown.  Having married a man 27 her senior, it is not surprising that she faced a long widowhood from the age of 41.  According to family hearsay, Lucy became a lady’s companion after James’ death and later lived with her brother Charles Bertram Jones.

The 1930 electoral register shows her living the household of Ewart Vane Parsons, with 5 adult women sharing the Parsons surname, at 106 Woodlands Road, Sparkbrook.  In 1911, Ewart Parsons and his sisters, aged between 22 and 38, lived with their mother Isabella Parsons, aged 64.  Lucy’s residence in the Parson household is consistent with the lady’s companion story.

The 1950 electoral register confirms that Lucy C Turner and Charles B Jones resided at 4 Torquay Terrace, Sparkbrook.  Charles had been widowed in 1946 and his children had all married and left home.  Lucy’s death was registered in the July-September quarter of 1952 (Birmingham district, Vol 9c, page 420).  Lucy’s grand-nieces, who sadly remember the seed cake she baked as dry and unpalatable, were no older than 12 or 14 when they last tasted the recipe on a visit to their ‘Grampy Jones’, Charles.

© Sue Adams 2013