Most of us willl come across a brick wall at some point in our family history research. One of my most frustrating problems was with Robert ROTHWELL – all was going well with the ROTHWELL line until I reached Robert ROTHWELL born about 1820 in Bolton, Lancashire.
I have the marriage certificate of Robert ROTHWELL who married Betsy NORRIS at St Mary’s Church, Deane, on 16th December 1841. Betsy’s father was William NORRIS, a Weaver and Robert’s father was stated as Robert ROTHWELL, a Mechanic. Searching through parish records, I found 4 children of Robert and Betsy; Jane 1842, Robert 1845, James 1847 and William 1853. Sadly, Jane and James both died young. Robert married Mary Ann MCCLANE and had 1 son, Thomas. William married Sarah Ann BIRCHALL and had 9 children.
In the 1851 and 1861 census records Betsy and her children are with the NORRIS family and although she is described as married there is no sign of her husband, Robert. So where was Robert?
I searched the census records for Robert ROTHWELL born circa 1820 with a generous +/- 10 years (approximate age based on when he married Betsy) and a possible candidate was found in New Bailey Prison, Salford in the 1851 and 1861 censuses. Both entries showed a Robert ROTHWELL who was married and born in Bolton around 1820. His occupation in 1851 is a Turner and in 1861 a Mechanic.
Around this time the Guardian put its back issues online. Originally, the newspaper began in Manchester and was known as the Manchester Guardian so I searched to see if there were any reports of a trial for a Robert ROTHWELL. I came across an article describing the theft of iron and the conviction of a Robert ROTHWELL and from this I was able to find a copy of his trial. Unfortunately there was no mention of a wife, family or relatives so I wasn’t able to confirm he was my ancestor. The quarter sessions (from Bolton Archives) show that Robert ROTHWELL was imprisoned and kept hard labour in the House of Correction at Salford for 9 calendar months.
I next searched the 1841 census for Robert hoping I would be able to confirm his parents and siblings. The 1841 census returned 3 possible Roberts (in the right age bracket) in the Bolton area: 1) Robert aged 15, father William a farmer, living in Heaton: 2) Robert aged 15, father Robert, a Cotton Weaver, living in Shaw Street, Bolton: 3) Robert aged 23, father Robert a Schoolmaster, living in Foundry Street, Bolton. I followed each Robert through the census records.
Robert number 1 is married to Martha by 1851 and living with his family and wife in Heaton. In 1861 he is still married to Martha, with several children and living in the Halliwell area. In 1881 he is a widower living at Horrobin Fold with 3 of his children. This Robert dies in 1887 and is buried in St Peter’s, Halliwell with his wife Martha.
Robert number 2 is living with his father Robert and brother Edward in 1841; in 1847 he marries Betty DOBSON and in 1851 he is with his wife and brother in Shaw Street, Bolton; In 1881 Robert is aged 50 and married to Julia and living in Manchester with 3 children.
There is no definite sign of Robert number 3 – possibly he has died or he could be the prisoner in New Bailey, Salford in 1851 and 1861. So far I haven’t found a death or burial record for him – is this my Robert, the husband of Betsy? I also looked at emigration records but couldn’t find anything for Robert ROTHWELL.
Back to the census records: I looked at all the other Robert ROTHWELLS born in Lancashire around 1822 +/- about 5 years throughout the census years and slowly eliminated each one. I looked through the death records and ordered death certificates which helped to eliminate more Roberts but still no sign of Betsy’s husband. The only candidate left was Robert ROTHWELL, the Schoolmaster’s son. I looked again at the 1841 census and realised that the Norris family was only 2 or 3 entries on from the ROTHWELL family in the 1841 census so they were living in close proximity but, if this was my Robert why was his father’s occupation described as Mechanic on the wedding certificate? Mistakes were often made when copying the entries to the registrar so perhaps this was a mistake and a copy of the original parish entry might have different information. I ordered a copy from Bolton Archives and at the same time asked for a copy of the Robert ROTHWELL and Betsy DOBSON marriage in 1847. The only difference in the parish register entry is Betsy is described as a minor and not as of full age. However, it does show that Robert had signed his name and it’s not a shaky signature but a confidently written one; in the 1847 DOBSON/ROTHWELL marriage the other Robert had an x. Could my Robert write and was this because he had a father who was a Schoolmaster? But if Robert was an educated man why would he have turned to crime?
I searched for deaths for Robert ROTHWELL which occurred anywhere in England and Wales at any time. After 1865 the ages are shown in the death indexes which helped to eliminate some possibilities but I still did not find any correct death entry for my Robert ROTHWELL. I did end up with a death certificate for Robert ROTHWELL, the Schoolmaster who died in 1857 and subsequently found he was buried in St Mary’s, Deane. I then tried to find out about the grave details hoping it would be a family grave and Robert junior would be there too. However, it has proved impossible to get further details despite the help of the MLFHS list and the burial officer for St Mary’s.
I did find further convictions for Robert ROTHWELL and a helpful researcher at Bolton Archives also found a further conviction where he also used the name Thomas JOHNSON.
So we now have the name of Thomas JOHNSON thrown into the mix! Interestingly there is a Thomas JOHNSON living in Westhoughton aged 50, described as a Broker in the 1871 census. The writing is hard to make out but possibly he is described as married but there is no family listed with him – could this be Robert using his alias?
Recently findmypast.co.uk, with the Manchester and Lancashire Family History Society, added the Manchester Collection where I found details for the conviction of Robert ROTHWELL in March 1861. This confirms Robert the Prisoner is indeed my ancestor as his address is given as Foundry Street, Bolton. This is where Betsy is living with her father William NORRIS in the 1861 census. It is also where Robert the Schoolmaster’s son was living in 1841. There’s no getting away from it – we have a criminal in our family!
Also now he has another alias – Robert ROWDRY – as well as Thomas JOHNSON. He is 5ft 9 (relatively tall for that time), brown hair, hazel eyes and several front upper teeth missing. He also has 6 previous convictions! It looks as though I have found 4 so far.
I must admit to being quite pleased; I have the usual hurried marriages but this is my first criminal ancestor. After all a distance of 150 years helps and a bit of petty theft to stop his family from starving is not as great a crime as murder. Then I read what he is incarcerated for on this occasion – exposing his person at Great Lever! Robert is no longer The Prisoner but has become The Flasher of Great Lever. Maybe a distance of 150 years isn’t enough after all!
But what started Robert’s path to crime? If he is the Schoolmaster’s so, why would someone from a seemingly respectable family resort to crime? Maybe he was just ‘born that way’ or another possible reason could be the economic climate of Bolton during Robert’s life.
- 1842 Great depression of trade; dearness of provisions; fearful increase of pauperism; riots; provision shops plundered by mobs; 10,000 claiming parochial relief
- 1846 Panic in the iron trade
- 1847 depression in the cotton trade
- 1855 Great distress in the iron and cotton trades; soup kitchens established 7,000 unemployed
- 1857 during November and December depression in the iron and cotton trades
- 1863 Over 6,000 operatives out of employment
- 1867 saw a reduction in wages of spinners, moulders, mechanics and millwrights
Once it was known Robert had spent time in prison he would have found it hard to find any sort of work in Bolton to support his family – his reputation would have been known and coupled with a depressed economy and no benefits system, it would have been a precarious time for his family. His time in prison would not have been pleasant and it wasn’t meant to be. The Victorians were strong believers in strenuous punishment as a deterrent to crime. During the 1840s the ‘Separate System’ was in use. Prisoners were kept in solitary confinement and when they were allowed out of their cells, they were not allowed to see other prisoners. When they went to worship, they would have sat in seats which were like wooden boxes with the front missing – they would only be able to look forwards. Unsurprisingly, this led to suicides and was condemned as cruel at the end of the 19th century. Another way to punish prisoners was by the ‘Silent System’ where the prisoners were not allowed to talk to each other under any circumstances. Prisoners were given meaningless jobs such as the treadmill or oakum picking or turning a crank handle. Robert’s head would have been shaved including his beard if he had one and the diet would have been poor and monotonous, the same every day. Who knows what Robert’s state of mind would have been once he had served each of his sentences.