January 12, 2018

Family history not worth pursuing because all your ancestors were mill workers? Think again!




The title of this article is ‘Victorian, Roman Catholic and Living in Sin’, although Mary Jane was cohabiting in the Edwardian period, I consider her to be a Victorian as the first 30 years of her life which were her formative years was during the Victorian period.

I feel that one of the reasons people do not embark upon their family history or stop when they get through the censuses is that they presume it is just a tale of cotton mill workers.  In this article I want to demonstrate that the occupation does not make the person.  People from all walks of life have fascinating stories if only we dig deeply enough for them.  It is the odd human being that gets through their life without any problems.  The deeper we search, the more chance we have of finding out our own ancestor’s specific problems – I believe there has to be some.  We simply have to keep on looking.


It was whilst looking at my grandfather’s (Percy Barber) birth certificate that I first came across his mother.  She was called Mary Jane Barber, formerly Dunn.  It was the days before the internet was worldwide and I was just beginning to show an interest in family history.  The date of the birth certificate was October 1909.  Whilst looking at the birth certificate with my mother, she told me that Mary Jane had been married before because my grandfather, Percy Barber had a half-brother named Sam Dunn.   Years later, that name but not that person was going be the basis of mystery and shocks.




My grandfather’s birth certificate told me that his father was Lewis Barber – a slater.  When I got my first subscription to a family history site, I typed in that name before any other. He came up on the 1901 census for England.  It was at that point that the mysteries started to unfold.


Lewis was a lodger in the household of a Mary Shay.  Mary Shay’s daughter was Mary Jane Dunn (my great grandmother) who had two children Mary Alice Dunn and Sam Dunn.  Lewis Barber, my great grandfather was a widower with a 10 month old son, William.    At the time, I surmised that my great grandparents met when Lewis became a lodger in Mary Shay’s household.   It seemed odd that Lewis was a male with a young baby in the household. Normally, a man in that situation would go to his family for help.  Would no one else help him?  Things were not what they looked like on the census.  When you look at it, it reads as if Lewis’s dead wife is William’s mother. This was my first presumption.


When looking at census forms, it is should always be remembered that people change their names, particularly women.  The surnames on that census form were Shay, Dunn and Barber but they all had one vital connection which was not on the census form.


                                                                          St Michael’s church where Lewis and Mary were married.





Searching for the marriage certificate between Mary Jane Dunn and Lewis Barber did not prove easy.  It was only when I looked as far as 1915 that I found it.  On the marriage certificate Mary Jane was down as a widow.  At that point, I surmised that because of Mary Jane’s Roman Catholic beliefs, she had had to wait for Samuel Dunn to die before she married Lewis.  The shadows of the past, however, were following Mary Jane.  This story proves that when researching family history, we must follow every person up who is involved in the story.  This is often where the most interesting events are to be found.




Mary Jane was of Irish descent.  The daughter of Mary Shay/ O’Brien and Peter O’Brien.  She grew up in Ancoats, Manchester which was probably one of the most poor and deprived areas of the city.  The Victorian Ancoats is renowned for its dreadful conditions, this meant that the poor who lived and worked there could expect low wages and unhealthy working circumstances.  Their home surroundings would have been too cramped to promote anything except ill health.  The lavatories were a hole dug into a yard.  At times in Ancoats up to a 100 houses could share the privy.  Cesspits were rarely cleared away and were known to overflow at periods of heavy rain.  Manchester is renowned for its rainfall.  The houses were not built to keep the weather out and so the homes would suffer from damp, often with water running down the walls.  By the 1850s clean drinking water could be had in Ancoats from the Longendale reservoir.   The poor would have to queue up in the street to get it from standpipes.



Ancoats was made up of 40% Irish immigrants and also had an area which became named ‘Little Italy’ because of the Italian immigrants.  It is supposed to be the world’s first industrial suburb.  It has been written about and the basis of sociological studies.  Probably the most famous study is that of Engels – “The Condition of the Working Class in England” (1844).  Official figures tell us that there were more paupers in the township of Manchester than anywhere else in England, even the east end of London.   Mary Jane lived and worked there until she met her first husband, Samuel Dunn.


On the 1891 census, Mary Jane was married to Samuel Dunn and lived in Farnworth near Bolton.  Samuel Dunn was a miner and the head of the household.   They had one daughter, Mary Alice who was one.  Also living with them was Mary O’Brien, Mary Jane’s mother.   Mary Shay and Mary O’Brien are the same woman.  Alice Dunn (Samuel’s sister-in-law) and her 4 children also shared the house.  Alice’s husband John was in the army. 


Although Mary Jane married and moved out from Ancoats, she was not escaping the hard toil of the cotton mills. She moved to Farnworth and so was still in Lancashire.  Lancashire was the place of the cotton mill.  It was chosen because of the damp climate which was ideal for keeping the moisture in fine cotton yarns.  Poor women of that time, even though they had small children, would have to work long hours in dirty, dangerous conditions.  Mary Jane was no exception; she worked in the cotton mills as a cotton polisher and a cotton winder.

Samuel Dunn, like Mary Jane had Irish parents.  He worked in a factory and then in a coal mine.  On the 5th of April 1891, the census tells us that the Dunn household were all together - Samuel, his young wife and baby daughter.  On 1st September, 1891 Samuel had been called up for twelve years service in The Cheshire Regiment.  On the form which asks if he is married he states ‘no.’  I have read the army document with his marriage certificate to my great grandmother in front of me.  The date of their marriage is 24th May 1888.  They married in St Anne’s Roman Catholic Church, Ancoats, Manchester according to the rites and ceremonies of the Catholic Church.   Samuel gives his next of kin as his mother, Bridget Dunn on his army declaration.  The form specifies that anyone found lying about any of the questions will be liable to a punishment of 2 years imprisonment with hard labour.








Often we have no idea what our ancestors actually look like.   This can make it difficult when trying to imagine them, especially when following a story which is fraught and intimate.  The army records give a good physical description.  Samuel Dunn was 5ft 5¼ inches tall and weighed 126 lbs.  His chest measured 34½ inches.  His complexion was fresh. He had hazel coloured eyes and his hair was light brown.  His distinctive marks were a scar from a boil near his nose and a scar on the front of his right shoulder.  Most telling of all though are the numerous colliery scratches on his back. 


                Life for Samuel as a miner would not have been just about the hard work but the danger of the pits also.  Every work day would be filled with the dark, the fear of rock falls, flooding and gas.  Past, painful deaths of members of the community were a constant reminder of the risks being taken.  The pit could be at least 300 yards deep with the work extending a distance of about a mile from the shaft.  Miners had little protection; Samuel’s army records show that he had already been hurt in the pits.  He moved from risking his life in the mines every day and living in a two roomed house with eight other people to being in the army.  It was not exactly a life of sunshine and beaches for Samuel.




As I scrolled through Samuel’s army records for 1892, I stopped dead.  The moment when you read the word ‘desertion’ is one of shock.  It takes a while to think about it.  Samuel joined the Cheshire Regiment at Chester on the 6th September 1891.  He became Private Samuel Dunn 3437.  He was transferred to Sheffield on the 14th of November 1891.  By the 18th of November he had reported in sick as the army form B115 declares ‘no admission’ into hospital.  By the 9th January 1892 there was a court case


“The court declares that no. 3437 Private Samuel Dunn of the Cheshire Regiment is still absent and further that he is deficient with the following articles : 1 belt, 1 cleaning rod, 1 sight protector, 1 flag,  3pairs of boots, 2 jerseys, 4 pairs of trousers, 1 frock, 1 cap, 1 pair of mitts, 1 set collar, 1 great coat, 1 haversack, 1 cape, 1 helmet 1 pair of leggings, 1 kit bag, 1 tin of blacking, 1 pair of braces, 1 clothes brush, 1 shaving brush, 1 polishing brush, 1 blacking brush, 1 button brass, 1 bible and prayer book, 1 comb, 1 knife and fork, 1 pipe clay sponge, 2 towels, 1 pocket ledger and other items but the writing cannot be deciphered.”


At a later court hearing on the 3rd of February, 1892 Samuel was still absent with his whole army kit. 

                Samuel had disappeared from Mary Jane’s life.  Or had he?  By September 1892, Mary Jane had given birth to Sam Dunn, my grandfather’s half-brother.  Sam would have been conceived in January 1892, the time when Samuel senior deserted the army.  Did he return to Mary Jane to hide or did Mary have a lover?  Mary Jane had given the appearance that young Sam was Samuel’s son but it was 1892 and she was a Roman Catholic.  We know that she would lie on official documents to keep up appearances.  She puts herself down as Mary Jane Barber on the Barber children’s birth certificates and also on the 1911 census.  Times were hard for Mary but she had to be able to hold her head up where her children’s births were concerned.


In the 1901 census for that household, there were the names Shay, Dunn and Barber.  There was one vital link between them all – the name O’Brien.  There was Mary Shay who was the head of the house.  Mary Shay was her maiden name, she was O’Brien by marriage.  I do not know why Mary reverted to her maiden name and suddenly became the head of the household.  It could be that they simply wanted to make a new start.  It would have been tough for them being related to an army deserter in those days.  Mary Jane Dunn was O’Brien by birth.  Further research led me to the fact that Lewis Barber was married to Catherine O’Brien who was a relative of Mary. With further digging, I learned that Catherine could not be William’s mother as she died in 1896, three years before William was born. He proved to be Mary’s baby as well as Lewis’s. This demonstrates that we cannot presume the relationship between people without checking upon it. Sometimes our ancestors massage the facts for personal reasons. When filling in the census form, Mary did not want to admit to having an illegitimate child and so the cohabiting couple acted as if the child was from Lewis but not from her. 


Both Lewis’s and Mary Jane’s lives were hit by dreadful troubles with their first marriages.  The strangest thought is that if Lewis’s wife Catherine O’Brien had not died tragically young and Samuel Dunn had not deserted from the army, I would not be writing the article about them because I would not be here.


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