Solving Family History Mysteries in the British Newspaper Archive – Stories of the Workhouse | The British Newspaper Archive Blog


Solving Family History Mysteries in the British Newspaper Archive – Stories of the Workhouse

We do love the stories you tell us about the people and stories you’ve managed to find in the newspaper archive.  We’re especially fond of the mysteries that were only solved as a result of suddenly finding information in the British Newspaper Archive

Sandy Gillians of Georgetown, Ontario, has been kind enough send us one of her ancestral stories. Sandy has recently taken on the family history research duties from her father. Her Dad is going to be a very hard act to follow, since he has succeeded in tracing the family’s origins back to a carpenter who arrived in ‘the New World’ aboard the ‘Mayflower’.

The mystery that Sandy had been looking to solve is a dark story that involves a Mr Joseph Thomas Pile and the workhouse in Lambeth. By chance, Sandy saw a mention of the British Newspaper Archive. She then visited the BNA website, did a search for his name and, ‘Eureka!’, the long-running mystery was suddenly revealed.

Sandy takes up the story…

I thought you might like to know about a discovery I made through your site. A pretty shocking one, at that.

My dad has had a lifelong passion for genealogy and as he is now 86, he has passed his work over to me. Ironically it has been a lot easier to trace my mother’s roots than my fathers. She’s from old United Empire Loyalist stock – refugees from the American Revolution – who are in turn descended from prominent early settlers in Massachusetts including a carpenter who sailed over on the Mayflower, early New England Puritans, and Quakers who came over with William Penn. Mix in some Protestant Irish refugees to New Brunswick from the potato famine and some Irish-Catholic cod fishermen from Newfoundland, and it makes for a lively family story of early America and pioneer Canada.

My dad’s side is English – both his father and mother were the children of London immigrants to Montreal. Mysteries on his mother’s side have long intrigued him, and now me as well.

Joseph Gore, my dad’s grandfather (and my great-grandfather) was a Home Child sent over from Liverpool to Knowlton, Quebec, Canada by Louisa Birt in 1880. And while this is also an interesting bit of Canadian history, the big mystery actually related to his wife, my great-grandmother, Esther (Hester) Pile.

Hester was born in 1862 in Lambeth. At the age of 9 the census shows her living at Lambeth workhouse school Norwood with ALL of her siblings. There is no mention of the parents. What happened to them? A family tragedy? By 1881 Hester is 19 and working as a housemaid at the rectory house for Oxford St Thomas. The clergyman’s wife is Eliza A. Kemp; the clergyman does not appear on this census.

10 years later Hester is a matron for the family of Percy P. Lascelles, a prominent London “toff”. She seems to have done well. A boarder in the home, Arthur Wood, later emigrated to Canada and became a minister at St. John Evangelist church in Montreal. He and Hester stayed in contact for many years.

How Hester ended up in Montreal, penniless and claiming that a man had scammed her out of 70 pounds, is still unsolved. It’s clear she was no longer in service to the Lascelles family, and she soon met my great-grandfather and married him. She was 32. Sadly it was not a happy marriage as he was a very troubled man and as I found out from your website, Hester’s childhood was even more horrific. These were two very strong but emotionally damaged survivors.

I was dogged in my determination to find out more about Hester’s early life; something in her hardscrabble story compelled me, and I wanted to know how all these children ended up in the workhouse with no parents. When I finally found Hester’s father, Joseph Thomas Pile, I was puzzled. In 1879 he married a woman named Emma Glynn and was working as a surveyor’s assistant. This is a full seven years all of his children had been living as inmates at Lambeth Workhouse, and Hester by this time would have been 16 years old. Where had he been? What had happened to his first wife Emma Scopes, the mother of his children?

One day quite by accident I came across a mention of your website, and curious, I decided to follow the link. The first search I made was for Joseph Thomas Pile. I certainly didn’t expect to find anything, but an article immediately popped up in front of my eyes. What I then read nearly made my eyes pop out of my head!

The Morning Post, Thursday, May 28, 1874. Lambeth.

‘Joseph Pile, 42, described as an architect and surveyor, was charged on a warrant with deserting his two children whereby they had become chargeable to the parish of Lambeth.

Mr. Aimes, one of the relieving officers of Lambeth, stated that in April last two of the defendant’s children, aged 13 and 11 years, were brought to the workhouse. They were in a destitute and very neglected condition. The defendant had before deserted his children, and been sent to prison from this court. His wife through his misconduct had become lunatic, and was in Hoxton House Asylum. After her removal to the asylum he brought home a woman, who lived with him, and he told the children their mother was dead, and that the woman was to be their mother in future. He left them one day, telling them he would soon be back, but the children had never seen him again until he was in custody. The woman also left them, and said they had better find their way to the workhouse. The children wandered about the streets for hours without food, and ultimately were admitted to the workhouse. On the first desertion he took the children from the workhouse, and directly he got outside he left them again on the doorstep.

The prisoner’s children, four in number, were in court, and the eldest daughter, aged 20, described her father’s conduct as cruel in the extreme. He had on one occasion left his little boy, aged nine years, in the street without a shirt and in a destitute condition. The defendant had knocked her down, kicked her, and turned her out of doors.

Another daughter, 16, stated that her father had told her and the other children that their mother was dead when he brought home the woman.

The prisoner denied the charge, and said he had sent money for their support He also added that he was a Baptist, and regularly attended his church, and that his eldest daughter belonged to the High Church party, and they were against him.

Mr. Chance observed that he had evidently not regularly attended to his children.

A former landlady of the defendant was called, and stated that he was frequently in the habit of getting drunk.

The magistrate said it was a very bad case. The defendant was evidently a man of drunken habits, and, not satisfied with deserting his children, he had in a cruel manner told them their poor mother was dead, while he knew she was an inmate of a lunatic asylum. He sentenced him to three months’ hard labour.

The relieving officer informed his worship that the prisoner’s wife was costing the parish 17s 6d per week while in the asylum.’

Wow! I immediately called my dad and he was as gobsmacked as I was by the discovery and delighted to have a truly notorious character in the family tree. I’m still musing over the days when a husband could drive his wife crazy and then consign her to a nuthouse.

Joseph Thomas Pile died in 1881, just over two years after he remarried and at the age of 48.  Painfully, one hopes.

Sandy Gillians
Georgetown, Ontario
May 2012


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