»  The Virtual Attic — People — My Father's Parents


Robert and Elizabeth


Robert Derbyshire and Elizabeth Daniels married sometime in the middle or late 1890s. I have no precise dates here, but they were married for well over fifty years.

They had four children:  Polly, John Robert, Thomas Noel, and Elizabeth. John Robert was my father.

Thomas was killed in a motorcycle accident at age 22 or 23. Polly, John Robert, and Elizabeth all lived into old age.

Elizabeth was called "Cissie" by everybody in the family except her husband. It stood for "little sister", but was always spelt with a "C," e.g. on the backs of photographs she sent to Dad.

The family originally lived in or near Wigan, in Lancashire; though neither Grandad nor Grandma seems to have nursed any loyalty to the Red Rose. Neither (according to Noel) had much Lancashire accent.

Sometime in the early or mid-1900s they moved to Oakengates, a small mining town in Shropshire.


Robert Derbyshire

Robert D. Derbyshire (I don't know what the "D" stood for) was born July 9th 1871, in the Standish district of Wigan. I know nothing about his antecedents.

Grandad Derbyshire got mixed reviews from family members. My father spoke of him as a drunkard who beat his wife — on one storied occasion, coming home drunk late at night and setting fire to the bed she was sleeping in. Of his drinking, Dad reported that: "He used to drink a bottle of whiskey a day. He drank till the blood spurted out of his ears." However, (still according to Dad) all the drinking made him ill at last, and the doctor told him if he didn't give it up he'd die. So he gave it up; but (said Dad) always resented having had to.

My brother Noel, on the other hand, who was raised by Grandad and Grandma Derbyshire, speaks well of them, and has always expressed deep gratitude and affection toward them for taking him in and bringing him up when nobody else wanted the job. Noel does allow, though, that Grandad was a stern and distant master of his house in the Victorian style. "Try reaching for anything across the dinner table without asking permission. Grandad's big old knife would come down on your fingers before you could blink. The blunt edge, of course — but he didn't stop to check before striking."

There are signs that Grandad Derbyshire had some kind of inner life. He was a great reader, according to Dad, particularly fond of any sort of popular science books, of almanacs and collections of wonders.

The family's religion — much more important as a social indicator at that time than now — was an odd mix. Grandad was staunch Church of England. (Though Dad thought his father took up religion as an alternative consolation, when he was obliged to stop drinking.) Grandma Derbyshire, on the other hand, was a Catholic, who (according to Noel) used to "sneak out" to attend the nearest Catholic church, which was in Wellington, three miles west of Oakengates. Dad told me that Grandma's people were originally Irish:  "I think they came over early 1800s but I don't know the details …" Auntie Polly, through what influence I don't know — probably marriage — became a Methodist, attending the church at the bottom of Albion Hill. I have a book, Charles Dickens' Sketches by Boz, given as a prize to Uncle Tommy in 1922 (when he would have been fourteen or fifteen): the name plate says "Oakengates Primitive Methodist Sunday School." Perhaps this was Polly's church.

The family's politics were Liberal, in the old English, not the modern American, sense. ("Progressive" would be the contemporary equivalent term, though there was more "respectable radicalism" in England at the time than in the U.S.A.) They were strong supporters of David Lloyd George, the charismatic Liberal leader and eventually Prime Minister. Auntie Cissie told me her father actually ran for office on the Liberal ticket — this would have been for a local election, town or county council — and can remember seeing posters around the town saying Vote for Derbyshire.

Robert Derbyshire was an engineer in the coal mines, and eventually rose to some kind of supervisory position in one of the Oakengates collieries. All the local collieries belonged to the Lilleshall Iron Foundry Works, the main employer around Oakengates, with its own foundry, collieries, railway lines etc. There were three collieries nearby: the Grange just off the Watling Street, the Granville half a mile away, and the Woodside. The Woodside closed first (around 1939) when its seams met with the Grange's. The Grange closed in the 1950s.

Noel:  "Grandad was not tall, but he was well-built. [Note: I think this is almost the definition of a working coal miner …] Twice I remember the pit van bringing him home after being involved in underground accidents with coal tubs."

My own memories of Grandad Derbyshire are exceedingly dim. I can remember him coming to visit us at 62 Friars Avenue when I was small, perhaps four or five. He wore a flat cap and big black boots laced all the way up the ankle. I rode into town on the Number Seven bus with him and he bought me a cricket set (bat, stumps, bails). I have another very dim memory of him sitting me on a wall somewhere — in Shropshire, I believe. He was laughing and I felt happy.

I have Grandad's gold watch in my possession. There are pictures and details here.


Elizabeth Derbyshire

Grandma Derbyshire was originally Elizabeth Daniels, born December 6th 1872. The Danielses came from the Pemberton district of Wigan.

I have only the remotest, most shadowy and unreliable memories of Grandma. She came to the house in Friars Avenue and there was some unpleasantness. The unpleasantness took place, or is associated with, the path in front of the house, between the gate and the sidewalk; but I can't remember why, or any details. I suppose I was very small. The entire memory may, in fact, be false, made out of something my mother told me. My mother did not get on with Grandma. According to my mother, Grandma disapproved of Dad's marrying Mum, and acted spitefully towards her; but I don't know why, or even if this is true.

Dad used to say that when Grandma reached her menopause she became slightly unhinged, and he had to stay up all night with her, walking round the house.

Noel:  "Grandma Derbyshire was a very busy lady. She loved cooking and kept us all well fed. She was social and liked to go to meetings of the various women's societies around Oakengates. Once or twice a year she would visit the 'Round' Catholic church in Wellington. She presided over the 'back chat' about the one absent by the one present: Polly over Cissie, Cissie over Polly, then when Dad married, of course Mum became a topic. I used to sit and listen to it all. I was included in all the outings: Blackpool, Rhyl and Llandudno on annual holidays, Llangollen and Ludlow on Women's club outings."

[Added Feb. 2010]   Judith Rothwell, a hitherto-unknown second cousin, has just got in touch with me. Her paternal grandmother was Sarah Ann Daniels, older sister of Elizabeth.

My Daniels great-grandparents (i.e. parents of Elizabeth and Sarah Ann) were James Daniels and Jane Suthers. They were married in St. John's Chapel, Standishgate, Wigan on 12/21/1859. Judith has not yet been able to determine the exact number of their children, but there were at least eleven.

Jane Suthers

Jane (the photograph at the right here), the mother of all these children, suffered an unhappy fate. While pregnant with Alice, she was bitten by a rabid dog. The shock brought on Alice's birth prematurely. Jane did not develop rabies until December that year, however. She quickly died of it, 12/31/1880, age 40. Sarah Ann, as the oldest girl (not quite 14), was left with the responsibility of looking after at least nine children, from a newborn to an 11-year-old. My grandma Elizabeth was just eight years old.

Great-grandad James Daniels died ten years later, 10/8/1890. James' father, by the way, was named William Daniels.

I have a very dim memory of my father telling me about the rabid dog incident that killed his grandmother. I had completely forgotten it until I read Judith Rothwell's email.

The Daniels family were all Catholic — recusants, is my best guess, from the names they gave their kids, and Dad's Irish story notwithstanding. Judith Rothwell tells me: "Some married in the Church of England to conform, but went on to have a Catholic ceremony to put it in the Parish records.One of Sarah Ann's daughters, my Aunt, became a Carmelite nun. And there are several nuns in the Diamond branch. In fact, my father was a monk for 4 years."