My Family History - Phil Wilson

Former Sedgefield MP Phil Wilson recalls the fascinating research he has undertaken on his ancestor Gill Woods, former from Suffolk but travelled up north in search of pastures new. This is the story of his life in plenty of detail, and in Phil's own words.


His family knew he was from Suffolk. He had travelled to the North-east to start a new life. His descendants in County Durham called him Edward, Ted or even Ned. His real name was Gill.


Gill Woods was born in Wortham, Suffolk on Thursday, April 6th, 1861. Lord Palmerston was Prime Minister and the year would end with the death of Prince Albert. Across the Atlantic, Abraham Lincoln was President, the American civil war was about to begin and Gill Woods was two days old at the time of the 1861 census.


Gill’s birth was registered by his mother three weeks after the event. His entrance into the world was made official when his mother placed her ‘mark’ on the birth certificate where others would sign their name. The registrar, Mr Charles White, wrote next to her cross: ‘The Mark of Eliza Woods. Mother’. Gill Woods, whose mother could neither read nor write, whose father James worked the land to prevent the family sinking further into poverty, was also my great-grandfather.


Church of St Mary's, Wartham (Credit: Smb1001, Wikipedia)

Gill was one of seven children. Five boys and two girls. William, aged nineteen, was the eldest and joined his father working the land. Elizabeth, the eldest daughter, was thirteen. George, John, Eliza, David, and of course Gill, were under the age of 10. They all lived together on Spear Hill, on the edge of Wortham’s Long Green and shared their home with ‘nurse’ Mary Gooderham.


Mary was the widow of Robert Gooderham who had died in 1859. He kept donkeys and worked hard. Illness eventually put an end to that. Rheumatism would ‘seize him’ so that he couldn’t work anymore. He eventually needed to apply to the parish for a ‘medical ticket’ for relief. The medical officer of the Hartismere poor law union visited Robert with the local reverend, Richard Cobbold. According to the reverend the doctor told Robert as he lay on his bed: ‘Get up and go to work, for you are as able to do so as any man in the parish.’ To which Robert replied: ‘I have worked hard and my work is done. If you can give me no relief, I hope God will relieve me.’ He died a matter of days later. Mary, was also hard working. Her skills were as a ‘washerwoman and nurse’, at least one of those skills was appreciated by the family of Gill Woods as he was born into the world of Victorian, rural England.

Gill was born in a village significant to social historians because of the writing and paintings of the Reverend Richard Cobbold. His work, by pen and paint brush, brought to life the residents of Wortham and is filled with characters from his fifty years of observations. His anecdote about Mr and Mrs Gooderham and how Mary became the ‘nurse’ to Gill Woods, adds human interest to my great grandfather’s birth more than any entry in a census report could ever do. Richard Cobbold’s work fills five volumes and are deposited in Suffolk Records Library. They give a snap shot on the life of a nineteenth century English village, especially of the poor who would normally be forgotten. As Cobbold wrote in 1860, “We see monuments remaining in many parishes – but they tell of the Lords of the soil…not a single monument remains of the poor…they pass away. Their graves are made in the dust.” His observations, along with modern research, provide a unique blend of human and historical prospective and helps us understand the life Gill Woods was destined to lead until he made the decision to leave Suffolk and head North.


The Reverend Richard Cobbold was born in 1797, the twentieth of twenty-two children of a wealthy banker and brewer, John Cobbold. Richard was ordained as a priest and received ‘the living’ of Wortham parish bought for him as a wedding present by his father. He took over the running of the parish in 1824 and he eventually moved and lived there with his wife and three sons in 1827. He dies in Wortham, fifty years later, on January 5th, 1877, a few months before Gill’s sixteenth birthday.


Although Cobbold had travelled from Ipswich, in 1861 almost nine out of ten of Wortham’s population were born within five miles of the village. Gill’s father was born in Mellis, just down the road. His mother was from Bressingham, across the river Waveney. Wortham is a small, scattered hamlet on the southern side of the river which also forms the county boundary between Suffolk and Norfolk.


I’ve visited the village on several occasions, searching for Gill Woods. A stillness always seems to gather over the long greens known as the lings. Homes are there, distant from each other. The ancient church of St Mary’s nestles, out of sight, away down a lane with a farm across the way. It’s been said, if a visitor from Wortham’s past were to see the village today they would recognise where they were. Landmarks and houses in the same place as ever, continuity expressed through the stillness and the quiet. Perhaps, even as I search for Gill Woods on the lings and along the church lane, he can see me even though I cannot see him.


As he was growing up, he would no doubt hear stories from those who could remember from within their own life time, the fourteen years transportation to Australia of William Searles for taking three pigs from nearby farms and the Hammant brothers for stealing corn from a barn in Mellis. There were others, all from Wortham, who would face a similar fate. Gill would have seen the gravel pits on The Ling, near his home, where the poor from the workhouse picked stone for road building. Or he may have experienced the kindness of his grandmother, Susan Woods, who took in ‘deaf and dumb’ Frances Howlett when her parents died. According to the Reverend Cobbold, “Mrs Woods was the only one who could make Frances understand by signs what she wanted her to do.” Frances died in 1852. The death certificate said she was an ‘idiot’ and in ‘decline’. Susan died in 1868 of ‘old age’, the catch all phrase in those days for death at 86.


Gill Woods was lucky. He had a one in four chance of dying within the first twelve months of birth. When he was two, in 1863, there were 31 burials recorded in Wortham at St Mary’s church, the greatest number recorded in a single year. They died of scarlet fever, croup, measles and diphtheria. Half were under the age of 11. Gill survived, but health remained a lottery. A quarter of deaths in the village were caused by consumption. Typhus and cholera were ever present.


The greatest social disease to visit many families was poverty. The first workhouse in Wortham opened in 1776 with thirty ‘inmates’. After the introduction of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, the village became part of the Hartismere Union, combining together thirty-two parishes to supposedly better administer ‘relief’ to the poor. The workhouse in Wortham was joined by another in Eye five miles away. Richard Cobbold’s work is full of Wortham people who found themselves in the workhouse. In one three-month period of 1861 the village sent seventeen people there for periods of between three and six months. Another fifty, for reasons of old age or infirmity, received ‘out-relief’, including Susan Woods, Gill’s kind and considerate grandmother. For the majority of Wortham’s 190 families the fear and humiliation of ending up in the workhouse was acute. I remember asking my grandad, Gill’s son, what work did his father do when he lived in Suffolk. ‘Like most of the family, he worked in the fields,’ he said. ‘But they seemed to spend just as much time in the workhouse as they did at home.’


Although there were tradesmen, landowners and retailers in the village, the vast majority of families depended upon farm labour for their income. Farming was becoming more intensive with new techniques, but it still relied on labourers doing the backbreaking work of tending the fields, planting crops and looking after the livestock. The work involved long hours for little pay, averaging 9 shillings a week in 1838. A wage that remained the same at mid-century. At the time of Gill’s birth, almost thirty per cent of boys between 10 and 14 worked on the land, for girls the figure was fifteen per cent.


In 1867, organised agricultural labour gangs employed women and children between the ages of 7 and 18 to work up to fourteen hour a day, with children under the age of 12 earning between 2 and 4 pence a shift. Parents were offered an inducement of between 1 and 2 shillings to allow their children to work. The cruelty of poverty would have encouraged them to take the money and put their children to labour if it stood between the family and the workhouse. In Wortham, 60 young people were working in three such gangs. One of the gangmasters was Ann Woods, whether she was related to Gill, I do not know. Richard Cobbold gave evidence to parliament against the practice. He believed children belonged in school. Later that same year the Agricultural Gangs Act was passed. The Act stipulated that no child could be employed in such gangs under the age of 8 and women could not be employed in the same gangs as men. At least the legislation was a step in the right direction.

Gill Woods was born into a changing world, where people were more aware of life beyond the village. The East Union Railway had opened stations in nearby Mellis and Diss in the late 1840s bringing the outside world just that little bit closer. In the 1850s almost half the population of Wortham was under the age of 20. Only one in ten were over 60. From the 1860s the population of Wortham started to go into decline especially as the young began to look elsewhere for a better life. Many of them headed North to the industrial and urban heartlands where labour was in demand and wages were more often than not an improvement on what they could expect as agricultural labourers.


Reverend Cobbold wrote about families leaving to work in Derbyshire and Yorkshire. The guardians of the Hartismere poor law union would encourage the poor to move out of the area. After 1834 the guardians assisted 500 to migrate to other parts of the country, with a further 300 emigrating to the United States. They believed the ‘condition and moral character’ of the remaining labouring poor had been improved. A hollow and ultimately misplaced assumption driven by prejudice would be found out as the years went by and the younger generation decided to move away. By 1871, when Gill Woods was 10, there was a significant decline in the numbers of 20 to 24 year olds living in Wortham. By 1881, 181 people had left the village, many moving to London, with a significant number travelling North to the cotton mills and coal mines.


Gill’s mother died on December 23rd, 1872. She was 55, he was 11. She died of ‘acute bronchitis’ according to her death certificate. James was at her bedside as she passed away. His ‘mark’ can be seen on the certificate as the ‘informant’ of her death. Mr Charles White, who registered Gill’s birth also registered his mother’s death when he was informed on Christmas Day. Eliza was buried at St Mary’s church the next morning. The family had memorial cards made, a Victorian tradition. The size of a postcard, on a black background like a reverse silhouette, a weeping willow is draped over a tombstone. To one side a child kneels in pray; on the other a woman stands in tears her face held in her hands. On the tombstone is written a funeral verse:


‘Beloved husband and children,

I hope you will not weep for me,

Because it was the will of God,

My soul should flee away from thee.’


The Reverend Cobbold may not have led the funeral service, as by 1872 he was crippled with gout and was growing steadily deaf, but Gill would have been there, comforted by his father and brothers and sisters.


Over the coming years Gill Woods decided to move away from Wortham. I can imagine it must have been a difficult and emotional decision to make. His family would have lived and laboured on the land there for generations. To leave the familiar for the unknown without the immediate communications we have today, must have been unsettling for many migrants, but I suppose that depends upon what they were leaving behind.


Gill’s destination was County Durham. He started his journey knowing he would be leaving family and his friends behind. He also knew he would be leaving behind poverty, the constant presence of the workhouse and the threat of ill-health. At least new opportunities were ahead but so were fresh brutalities.


He arrived in Sedgefield, in the south of County Durham around 1880, perhaps by railway to the station built more than a mile outside of the town because the local squire didn’t want it too close. Gill would have found, unlike Wortham, the church was not tucked away down a country lane. Instead, thirteenth century St Edmunds, with its solid stone tower, stood full-square at the centre of the terraced cottages marshalled around the perimeter of the green known as Cross Hill. What attracted him to Sedgefield specifically we do not know. But there he lived, or thereabouts, for the rest of his life.


Sedgefield High Street, 1910's (Credit: Hypnogoria)

Like Wortham, Sedgefield relied on agriculture, except Sedgefield was granted a market charter in 1312 by Bishop Kellawe and was a town rather than a village. Like Wortham, Sedgefield had a workhouse. Unlike Wortham, the population was growing, almost tripling in size during the nineteenth century. The town also boasted a racecourse, where National Hunt races had been held since the 1840s on land provided by Mr Ord of Sands Hall. Horseracing had been a favoured Sedgefield pastime since the 1730s.


1880s Sedgefield was a thriving community. Almost cosmopolitan, with people from all parts of the country, from Ireland to Leicestershire, Norfolk to Scotland. And Suffolk. In 1881, there was reports of the town being overcrowded. There were butchers, blacksmiths, gardeners and masons and along with many agricultural labourers were coopers, shoemakers, a cartwright, shovel maker, opticians and postmistress. There was a brewer and ten pubs. A Mechanics Institute was founded, opening a permanent building in 1859 and included a reading room where books from the Institute’s library of 700 books could be read. The annual subscription of £20 restricted membership to the more affluent, but still revealed a thirst for knowledge amongst local people.


Just to the north of the town, on the way to Fishburn, at Far Winterton, a new three hundred bed county asylum had opened in 1858 for ‘pauper lunatics’. By the time Gill Woods arrived in the area, Sedgefield Asylum accommodated a thousand patients. Over 340 acres stood the wards and offices serviced by three farms, a cobblers, laundry, work rooms, a fire brigade and St Luke’s chapel consecrated in 1884. The plan was to make the asylum self-sufficient. In 1888 the medical superintendent for the hospital noted that perhaps some of the patients were there for the wrong reasons: “many…. have been admitted who require no asylum treatment, but only careful nursing which any old woman with average workhouse brains could have bestowed upon them.”


The first workhouse in Sedgefield opened in the Seventeenth-century and accommodated up to one hundred of the town’s poor. Situated towards the east end of the town, by the mid-Nineteenth-century the old workhouse was a shambles and in need of repair. A new workhouse was built on Station Road and opened in 1861. By 1880 the building could accommodate 120 men, women and children. For all the relative optimism and energy Victorian Sedgefield seemed to possess, there was always the other side of the coin.

In 1894, at the same time as the publication of a report in to the workhouse by the British Medical Journal, Sedgefield residents were preparing Christmas treats for the ‘inmates’. They enjoyed a dinner of roast beef, plum pudding, wine, beer and fruit. The children received toys, dolls and picture books. Maybe the splendid meal was to compensate for the content of the Journal’s report into the running of the workhouse, the guardians of which were volunteers who had stepped forward from the local community.


The British Medical Journal’s report stated: ‘the small workhouse and infirmary, if the latter deserves the name, as it is only composed of a few yards under the same roof as the workhouse and is deficient in everything that the sick require.’ The Report went on ‘the men are located in two rooms….in the ward proper we saw an old man dying of old age and he was also blind; there was no one at hand to see to his requirements, not even a pauper….a sad picture of lonely helplessness.’ The women had no ‘indoor closet’. The men did, but the water supply was inadequate and ‘it was in an insanitary condition.’ The workhouse had one bath situated ‘at the foot of the staircase, unscreened, in the lobby.’ The Journal’s report concluded: ‘The management appeared to be humane... but no officers, with the best intentions in the world, can undertake duties for which they have neither time or training.’

The workhouse catered for the dispossessed of other parishes forming the Sedgefield poor law union, similar to the arrangements for the poor of Wortham, and included the parishes of Fishburn and Trimdon. A little way passed the asylum, across the river Skerne, or the ‘beck’ as it is known locally, lies Fishburn. In those days a hamlet of a few cottages, farms, a mill and a manor house gathered around a crossroads. Another 30 years would pass before Fishburn could boast a colliery. Trimdon was a different story.


Trimdon lies on top of a high ridge a mile or so on from Fishburn. From there, looking south, beyond Sedgefield’s church tower and when the sky is clear, the far off beauty of the Cleveland Hills and Yorkshire Moors covers the horizon. A view as old as the high up village with its Twelfth-century church. There would have been something of the familiar about Sedgefield for Gill Woods. Pleasant countryside and tough farm labour. Something that probably felt a little like home from home. Trimdon from its vantage point surveyed the scenery Gill now called home and also stood like a sentinel looking down on another world.

Trimdon, with the humble St Mary Magdalene’s church standing on the green with terraced cottages on either side, had started to multiply. To the north, down the steep hill known as the Watch Bank, in the valley where the river Skerne rises from the limestone escarpment lay a darker, more recent landscape, geared to life beneath the earth. The quest for coal had brought Trimdon new purpose. Trimdon Grange and Trimdon Colliery, had appeared as if over night in the 1840s when pits were sunk. To Trimdon Station, also known as Deaf Hill, came the railway and in the 1870s another pit. During the early years of the 1800s, the population of Trimdon was around 250. A hundred years later, 4,500 people lived there for the sole function of digging coal from the ground. Trimdon became the Trimdons and entered a new era.


Away from Sedgefield’s lanes and hedgerows, pastures and trees, away from the sun and the changing seasons determining when to bring in the crops, stood steep slag heaps, pit wheels and terraced houses not fit for human habitation. Coal hewing was the only season beneath the earth for the men and boys who worked there because coal was the only crop. No sun, just night. No chance to look to the sky for a moment’s respite before returning to their toil. No country lanes between hedgerows, just tunnels through rock and coal. In the closing years of the 1800s, one thousand seven hundred men and boys entered the earth down the Trimdon’s three collieries. They had claimed the lives of at least 73 men and boys by the time Gill Woods arrived at his new home in Sedgefield.


That number was to double on February 16th, 1882, when an explosion ripped through the Harvey seam of Trimdon Grange killing another 74 men and boys. The youngest were 13 years old. The eldest were 60. Burials lasted for three days. Mrs Burnett buried her three sons. George Robson, a survivor, could draw the ‘picture to this day’ of those who ‘lay weeping while the others tried to pray’ and ‘all the little ones could say’ was ‘Oh, take me to my mother’. George Robson, 26, was originally from Sedgefield.


As south Durham attempted to come to terms with the disaster, another struck three months later on April 18th. Another explosion, about 10 miles north west of Sedgefield at Tudhoe pit. Another 37 men and boys killed. This was a different world for Gill Woods. Death was always there in Wortham, but not in these quantities or so sudden, or so brutal. Gill never ventured down the pit.


For Gill Woods, ‘working on the roads’ filled his working day, or so family memory says. The roads were in constant need of repair. They were either dry, dusty or muddy and always dangerous. Most roads were regulated by turnpikes. The Sedgefield turnpike, with a tollgate and cottage, was situated just down from the Golden Lion giving access to Stockton Road. With the arrival of the railway, turnpikes were seen as inefficient if not corruptly managed by trustees who wouldn’t necessarily used the tolls collected on maintaining the roads and were eventually abandoned.


The road between Sedgefield and Fishburn was in such a state of disrepair, in 1883 complaints were made to the Stockton and Hartlepool Highways Board. Although the railway had arrived, the road between station and town was not suitable for walking and another complaint was placed with the Highways Board in 1891. There were similar complaints about the route between Sedgefield and the Asylum. Gill, it would seem, had plenty of work, work he would need as he entered married life.


He married his first wife, Mary Ann Curtin, in Sedgefield, in 1885. They had two children, Eliza and Simpson, before Mary Ann’s premature death. He then married Hannah Johnson. She was the daughter of Robert and Margaret Johnson. Robert was a cartman and carried coals to the Asylum. Margaret was a hawker travelling miles each day to outlying farms. At the end of one working day, Gill met his mother-in-law on one of the Sedgefield roads. He offered to carry her backpack, he recalled later he couldn’t wait to get home since ‘the damn thing weighed a ton’.


Margaret Johnson’s maiden name was Mullen. She had a brother Harry, Hannah’s uncle, who made the headlines for all the wrong reasons in 1887 when he had to answer for four charges of ‘riotous conduct in Sedgefield’. Harry had been drunk and disorderly and was fined 5 shillings with 8 shillings and 6 pence cost. The alternative was 14 days in jail. For refusing to leave The Hope Inn when asked by the landlord he was fined 5 shillings with 8 shilling and 6 pence in costs. Or 14 days in jail. For throwing jugs and glasses through the window of the Hope Inn the fine was 2 shilling with £1 damages. Harry apparently then moved on to The Nags Head where more glasses were thrown through windows, this time incurring a 1 shilling fine and 18 shillings in costs. The total length of imprisonment recommended was 1 month. From family memory he wasn’t averse to spending time in prison.


Hannah and Gill set up home, with Hannah helping to raise Gill’s two children as her own. They proceeded to have 9 children together, including my grandfather John Woods, born in May, 1900 and who died in 1991. He started his working life down Fishburn pit, but asthma put an end to that. Like his father, he ended up working on the roads until he retired in 1965. John’s daughter Ivy, my mother, was born in 1925. She is still going strong as she approaches her 96th birthday.


Gill and Hannah settled at Holdforth Cottage, with its gardens and pond, near the Bishop Middleham and Fishburn crossroads. The house is long since demolished. My grandfather was born there. He could remember a time before Fishburn pit opened and there was no slag heap overlooking his home. He also remembered Harry Mullen, who he called uncle, being a frequent visitor to their house. Although Harry never seemed to work he was never short of a bob or two and was ‘good fun to be around’. Gill and Hannah raised their family, with Gill a bit of a handful himself according to family legend. However, I remember one of Gill’s grandchildren, a cousin of my mother, telling me that there was always plenty of laughter when they all got together around ‘grandpa’s’ house on a Sunday night. Hannah died in 1937 and from then on, Gill would be on a 6 month rotation between his daughters’ homes, they would care for him for the rest of his life as he entered old age.


I have a photo of Gill Woods, aged 82, taken at the ‘While You Wait Studios’, Wellington Terrace Promenade, Blackpool in 1943. He stands, almost to attention, in a three-piece suit, shirt and tie with a trilby sitting snuggly on his head. Not a man, it would seem, dressed ready for the beach. Round rimmed spectacles rest on an untidy beard. The beard wasn’t there for aesthetic reasons, but for a more medicinal purpose. He had brought with him from Suffolk the belief that a beard would help prevent ‘quinsies’ or inflammation of the tonsils. The affliction would visit him from time to time. He insisted the illness would be even worse without the beard. How he thought women coped with tonsillitis, I do not know.


Gill died on Wednesday, January 4th, 1950, and joined Hannah in Fishburn cemetery. He was 88. His story is obviously personal to me and there is still a lot more to learn about his journey from Suffolk to Durham, not least why he was called Edward or Ted or Ned, and not Gill. In 1925, he contacted his sister Eliza who lived on Burgate Little Green near Wortham asking her to send him a copy of his birth certificate. He was wanting to claim his pension. She replied, with a copy and pointed out in her covering letter, ‘you will see that you whear (sic) registered as Gill Woods’ as if to remind him of his real name. The mystery continues.

Gill’s journey is not unique. Many people living in the North-east will have ancestors who made the move to Durham to seek out a new life during the 1800s. I hope Gill’s journey reveals that there is a human story behind the steps they took.