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Woman of the Waterways

Tom East | A Welsh Canal Scene

This article previously appeared in

the September, 2015 issue of Your Family History

and in Cronicl 103, the journal of Powys FHS.

    Life could be hard for anyone sucked into the early industrial revolution. The story of my great-grandmother, Hannah Evans, illustrates this. Hannah was born on a canal boat near Guilsfield, Montgomeryshire in 1848. She was the second of the four daughters of William and Mary Evans (née Williams). William worked on the canal network between Mid Wales and the Black Country. In Guilsfield, a branch of the Montgomeryshire canal began.

    There were over 4,000 miles of canals built before the middle of the nineteenth century. In centres of industry like the West Midlands, waterway densities were high. But, by the date of Hannah’s birth, the system was already beginning its long decline in the face of competition from railways.

    Canal people were of low status, even among their fellow industrial workers. Living space competed with cargo space. Hannah would have done her share of heavy canal work like ‘legging’, the practice of propelling the boat through tunnels by means of using the feet against the tunnel walls. It might have fallen to her to take care of the plodding horse upon which the family’s livelihood depended.

    Small wonder, then, that Hannah took the opportunity when she was only eighteen to marry outside of the waterways fraternity. She made an unwise choice with John Humphries. John’s family had slipped down the social scale.


    His great-grandfather, Edward Humphreys, had, in the late eighteenth century, come from Shropshire to work on the Newcomen steam engine in Dudley Castle. But his son, Joseph Humphries, ended his days as an ‘engineer pauper’. His fifth child was John’s father. This son was also called Joseph and in his short life he never made the status of an engineer, only an ‘oiler and dresser’. The younger Joseph was baptised in 1823 and died in 1853, when John was only seven. His widowed mother, Mary née Meek then married a Charles Maybury in 1854 at West Bromwich.

    On 28th July, 1867, when John Humphries and Hannah Evans married in the Church of St Luke, Bilston, he was described as an ‘iron puddler’. Iron puddling, the process of producing malleable wrought iron in appreciable quantities, was perhaps the crucial step in the industrial revolution, taken in the late eighteenth century. It was also one of the most gruelling jobs in an era of heavy work.

    There was only one child of the marriage of John and Hannah, Charles Henry Humphreys. As one of the early beneficiaries of the 1870 Education Act, he later chose to spell his surname in this way. My grandfather was born on 19th June, 1868 at Woods Bank, Darlaston, another dark industrial area of the time and region. The marriage was short lived. The census taken on 3rd April, 1871 records John living alone as a boarder in Skidmore Buildings, Wednesbury, not far from his birthplace of Old Moxley. We assumed he’d have been living a solitary life for the rest of his days.

    We were soon to find this wasn’t so. Later, he went to Sheffield, where in 1883 he bigamously married Elizabeth Houghland, falsely declaring himself to be a widower. Together, they had a family of four children. John’s end on 29th June, 1898 is enough to make anyone reading his death certificate shudder. This tells us that he died in South Yorkshire County Asylum of ‘exhaustion following uremic convulsions’.

    What of Hannah and her son? We couldn’t find them anywhere in the West Midlands on the 1871 census. We knew my grandfather had been living in Newtown, Montgomeryshire during the early eighteen-eighties, before he was attracted as a young man to the then thriving coal industry in the Rhondda Fach. Eventually, we did find them on the 1881 census, living in Canal Basin, Llanllwchaiarn with a man called William Woodhouse and several of Charles’ step-siblings.

    As the result of a chance encounter, my sister made contact with descendants of these step-siblings. They told her their family legend. William Woodhouse was supposed to have brought my great-grandmother and grandfather from The Black Country to Newtown ‘on a boat’ and set up home with her. Some of my grandfather’s step-siblings, including the eldest, born in 1873, followed my grandfather to the Rhondda Valleys and settled there.

    The idea of the ‘rescue’ of Hannah and her toddler son by boat sounds romantic but seemed to fit in with the facts. We were confident we’d now find Hannah and Charles somewhere on the 1871 census for Newtown. We readily found William Woodhouse on the entry for Canal Basin, although at that time he was living with his mother and working as a labourer, though not on the canal.

    Later still, we discovered Hannah’s parents on a canal boat called ‘Morn Robert’ in Whittington, Shropshire on 3rd April, 1871. Had the Woodhouse family legend become garbled over the years? Was William Evans the one who ‘rescued’ Hannah and her son from the West Midlands? Perhaps mother and child were even on the boat moored in Whittington in 1871, although undeclared for the census? This must remain pure speculation.

    There are happier outcomes to this story. My grandfather married on 2nd June, 1888 in the Rhondda Fach. He and his wife, Emily Ann née Jones, had a large number of children, one girl and seventeen boys, of whom my father was the youngest. Charles lived until 1945, dying whilst my father was still on army service in Belgium.

    After setting up home together, Hannah and William Woodhouse had seven children. In the later nineteenth century, she became a nurse and a respected member of the local community. The 1901 census night records Hannah going about the work of her profession. She died whilst attending a case on 27th August, 1906 and reports were made in both the County Times and the Montgomeryshire Express.

    ‘With startling suddenness, death removed from our midst on Monday, a well known and much respected inhabitant of the town in the person of Hannah Woodhouse, wife of William Woodhouse, Old Church Place. Deceased who was 57 years of age had been a nurse for many years and she was following her employment on Monday when taken ill suddenly. Dr Trumper was immediately summoned but the patient passed peacefully away within a very short time, the cause of death being heart failure. The funeral took place at the Parish Churchyard on Thursday.’

    This report, from the latter newspaper, seems the natural way to end Hannah’s story.

Tom East | Woman of the Waterways
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