Jonathan Greatrex was baptised at All Saints Church, Sudbury, on 5th November 1741. He was the seventh child of Thomas Greatrex and his wife Elizabeth Greatrex (Martin). Both parents and two siblings died in 1754 when Jonathan was 13 years old. His older brother, Thomas, was now the head of the household.
After the death of his parents in 1754 Thomas, the eldest son, must have had great difficulty in caring for the rest of the family of five boys and four girls, some of them too young to work. It is probable that the older girls kept house and cared for the young children while the older boys worked to supplement the family income. If they were tenant farmers in Sudbury, and it is likely they were, it is doubtful that the farm would support the children as they grew older and they would have found it difficult to find work in a small village.
At this time Birmingham was booming and the mass production of cheap consumer goods, made possible by technological changes and the development of the stamp and the press in the 1760s, would have been a magnet for impoverished agricultural labourers looking for work. Jonathan almost certainly moved to Birmingham around 1755-1760 where he found work as a Button maker.
The largest Button maker in Birmingham at this time was John Taylor, who employed 500 people. At its peak his factory was producing buttons to the value of £800 a week and some of his more skilled employees reputedly earned £3.10s a week, a vast wage in middle of the eighteenth century. The reason for the success of the business was the skill of manufacturers in producing new compound metals which allowed them to be shaped by mechanical means. A skilled worker could produce over a thousand buttons a day and this new style of business must have put many of the traditional bone button makers out of work. When John Taylor died his property alone was worth £200,000 and his 'metal bashing' works had been one of the forerunners of the industry for which Birmingham became famous.
It is not known if Jonathan or Henry worked for John Taylor, or one of the many other works producing stamped metal items. People like Matthew Boulton, who opened his Soho works in 1761, introduced steam power to his business. This, with the linking of the town with its markets and sources of raw materials by heavy transport, was the main reasons for the success of the business. The opening of the Soho works in 1761 may well have been the time that Jonathan moved to Birmingham.
Jonathan married Caroline Bradbury on June 9th 1764 in the Parish Church of St Philips, now the Cathedral Church of Birmingham. The church was built by Thomas Archer, known as the 'gentleman architect', in 1715. Archer was influenced by a visit to Rome and he built the church in the Baroque style, particularly the concave sided tower.
St Philip's saw Jonathan and Caroline on at least 16 occasions at the baptism of their children over the next 16 years.
During the period 1766 to 1792 are recorded in the baptism registers the following children of Jonathan Greatrex and Caroline his wife. Thomas, September 13th, 1766; Ann, May 24th, 1768; Joseph, July 3rd, 1769; Henry, March 19th, 1771; Edward, February 19th, 1773; James, August 23rd, 1774; Jonathan, February 20th, 1776; William, July 28th, 1777; Elizabeth, September 21st, 1778; Ann, February 15th, 1780; Mary, May 14th, 1781; Sarah, January 10th, 1783; Charles, September 30th, 1785; James, July 2nd, 1787; Benjamin, November 5th, 1789 and Sarah Ann, January 2nd 1792.
It appears that Jonathan and Caroline had children continually from 1766 to 1792. It can be presumed that Caroline would have lost children either before birth or that she had some stillborn. This would have been the 'norm' during that time.
Little is known of the family but the births shown above would indicate that Jonathan was earning sufficient wages to provide for a very large family! The conditions in which they lived would not have amounted to much; however, most of the children survived into adulthood which would indicate relatively decent sanitary conditions for this period in the rapidly expanding city of Birmingham.
Henry Greatrex, and his sisters Elizabeth and Sarah, moved to Bedworth near Coventry sometime around the turn of the century. Henry married Ann ? sometime just after the turn of the century. I have found no record of the marriage though there are many records, including Parish records of the births of their children, that reveal that Henry's wife was Ann.
Henry was a ribbon weaver. Working from home, he would have had a hand loom on which he made ribbon. Bedworth was a town full of ribbon weavers, an industry that flourished from about 1685 when a group of French Protestant Huguenots arrived to find refuge from religious persecution in France, until 1860 when a treaty with France, negotiated by Mr Cobden, admitted French silks duty free into England and thereby ruined the ribbon weaving industry in Bedworth and the surrounding towns and cities.
There was a period during the Industrial Revolution, and the development of the factory system, when the weavers of Bedworth suffered hardship; but, during the time that Henry was working in Bedworth weaving prospered.
The silk weaver could be identified by the characteristic stoop caused by stooping over the loom. He wore a tall hat, a cut-away coat with a white collar and black neckerchief finished off with corduroy breeches. He would collect and deliver his work from Coventry either on foot or, if he was really prosperous, in a cart. Some weavers dealt with middlemen who called at regular intervals to carry away the ribbon after purchase. Ribbon weavers were said to be haughty when they visited town. Some would wear a bank note pinned to their hat to show that, unlike the local miners, he was his own master, unlike the miner who worked for an employer!
To what degree of prosperity Henry aspired to is unknown. He lived in the Woodlands area of Bedworth which was south of the town and close to the Centre of the ribbon weaving industry at Foleshill, Coventry, which was just two miles distant. It can be assumed that the whole family would be involved in one way or another in the family business. Perhaps Henry ran two looms with his wife Ann, and their children, working the second loom.
The winters of 1829, 1831 and 1832 brought great distress amongst the people of Bedworth and no doubt Henry and his family suffered. This was due to the removal of restrictions on the import of foreign silks and the flooding of the market with cheap imports. Relief measures had to be taken to supply food to the inhabitants. These must have been particularly hard times for Ann Greatrex.
Henry died in 1830 aged 59 years old, right in the middle of the 'depression', and Ann would have been glad that her sons John, Henry and James were all of working age. They however were miners and not weavers! Perhaps the ribbon weaving industry had had its day and more money could be found underground. They would obviously have ribbon weaving skills and yet chose to be miners. It can only be assumed that there wasn't enough well paid work as a weaver at that time due to the import of silks.
Henry and Ann Greatrex had five children. Four of the children's baptism are recorded in the parish registers of All Saints Church. The fifth child, James, who was my G-G-Grandfather was born around 1821 and his baptism was not registered. It may well be that he was not baptised at all.
A new Rector was appointed to All Saints in 1816, the Rev. and Hon. Edward Finch, a younger son of the Earl of Aylesford. He stayed in the parish for only a short period before leaving and it was a number of years before the Rev. Henry Bellairs was appointed by the ecclesiastical authorities. He found a poor parish with the church empty and dilapidated and the schools of Bedworth without children. During this time the town was known as Black Bedworth on account of the street fighting; bull-baiting; cock-fighting; drinking and gambling and disorder of every description. It was said that it was impossible to pass free from insult from the mixed gangs of colliers and weavers.
Henry Bellairs was no shrinking violet. He had been a soldier and sailor and had been one of Nelson's officers in the Royal Navy. Wounded at the battle of Trafalgar it is said he received his 'calling to the cloth' in a naval sick bay. After being invalided out of the Navy he joined the cavalry as an officer, a post he relinquished at the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815.
He appears to have 'cleaned up' Bedworth with a mixture of might and right. He attempted to break up an organised fight between two women in the Market Place whereupon he was accosted by one of the male backers of the fight. Henry beat the man mercilessly before returning to his rectory. He seems to have won over the locals when, after Sunday service, a mob attacked his church. Henry challenged their 'best man' to whom he gave a good beating. As the curate, he had a seat on the local magistrate's court ,and he was able to take action against publicans and alehouse keepers who kept disorderly houses. He could be regarded as the 'Wyatt Earp' of Bedworth and no doubt my family benefited from his ministry.
Perhaps Henry Greatrex was the man he beat senseless in the Market Place. Who knows?
The parish registers of All Saints Church, Bedworth have the following baptism entries recorded during the period 1807-1818. John, Sunday January 18th, 1807; Hannah, Sunday September 15th, 1811; Elizabeth, Wednesday June 5th, 1816 (leap year); Henry, Sunday October 11th 1818; all children of Henry and Ann Greatrex. Given the state of the church at that time it is not surprising that James, born about 1821, was not baptised.
Hannah died and was buried on Sunday October 9th 1814 aged 3 years old and her sister, Elizabeth, was buried on Sunday January 8th 1826 aged 9 years old. Both children dying from Smallpox.
Smallpox is a viral infection spread from person to person. Market towns and cities became the breeding ground for disease. In rural areas, small towns and villages epidemics of smallpox broke out frequently and young children and infants were the most susceptible and most likely to die from the disease. After 12 days of becoming infected, Hannah and Elizabeth would have gained a high fever. Three or four days later a rash would appear on their faces, palms and the soles of their feet. In the next six to ten days the return of fever and toxicity would occur and the pustules could become infected by bacteria. Another strain of the disease was Fulminating smallpox which acted so quickly that the classic symptoms were never present and the patient died of convulsions. This may well be the strain that killed Henry's two young children.
Edward Jenner had heard of a Dorset farmer, named Jesty, who purposefully gave his wife and sons cowpox in order to protect them from smallpox. Country folk had noticed that milkmaids rarely, if ever, contracted smallpox and Jesty successfully vaccinated his family. In 1796 Edward Jenner inoculated an eight year old boy with cowpox. Six weeks later he injected the boy with smallpox to which the boy had no reaction. The boy was immune to the deadly disease!
It is sad to think that my G-G-Grandfather's two young sisters had died of this disease thirty years after the breakthrough in a cure had been established!
Of the three remaining children, all boys, John, born 1807, may well have also died young. After his baptism was recorded there are no further records in Bedworth, including parish, civil or census, that refers to him. It is possible that he married, raised a family and had a life in another town.
Henry, born 1818, married Elizabeth Smith on Sunday December 25th, 1836. Henry and Elizabeth had five children, four of whom died young. Hannah was baptised Sunday 25th June, 1837 and died of Consumption, or TB, aged ten years old, and was buried on Friday 21st January, 1848. Elizabeth was baptised on Sunday 30th June, 1839 and may have survived childhood; Joseph was baptised on Friday 2nd July, 1841 and died aged one year old and was buried on Saturday 1st October, 1842; Ephraim was baptised on Tuesday 16th May, 1843 and died aged one year old of Measles and was buried on Wednesday 11th December, 1844; Henry was baptised on Thursday 2nd January, 1845 and died aged one year old and was buried on Sunday 16th August, 1846.
Henry was a miner and, although he is recorded in the 1841 census, he is missing from the Bedworth census of 1851. It is probable that Henry left Bedworth in the late 1840's for a life elsewhere. Maybe to another town in England or Wales or maybe he emigrated, like many at the time, to Australia or one of the other countries of the British Empire. Maybe one day his descendents may trace their line and the mystery of what happened to Henry and Elizabeth Greatrex will be solved.
James, who was my G-G-Grandfather, was the youngest son of Henry and Ann Greatrex. Born about 1821 (The census records of 1841 and 1851 gives his age as 20 and 30 respectively) he, like his brother Henry, became a miner rather than a weaver which was his father's occupation. James married Sarah Johnson on Sunday 15th May 1842 in All Saints Church, Bedworth.
Bedworth had been a coal mining town for centuries. In 1680 there were 290 houses occupied by coal miners. Before 1560, when coal was retrieved from the surface, there were only 14 families living in the area.
A Royal commission was appointed in 1832 to enquire into the condition of the children employed in coal mines. James, at this time, would have been 11 years old and may well have been working underground. John Lawrence, a Bedworth man, giving evidence to the commission stated that boys as young as 8 years old were employed in mining. One of the greatest injustices, was the 'Tommy Shop' where miners were forced to buy from their employers goods on account of their wages. Miners were also obliged to receive their wages in beer shops where, there is no doubt, wages were spent on ale before the thirsty miner went home. Wages were 3 shillings (15p) a week , a quart of ale a day and 12 cwts of coal per month. If time was taken off work, for any reason, it was regarded as unpaid leave. Wages were paid on a Saturday and some miners hid a little money in their shoes, and when the wife goes to settle with the baker and the butcher, the men slip back for a further drink of ale.
It took a further 10 years before children under the age of 10 were forbidden to work underground.
There were a number of mines in Bedworth, but by far the largest was the Charity Colliery coal mine which was owned by the Chamberlaine charity. The income from this mine, in which James may well have worked, was instrumental in funding the fine Almshouses and schools which, no doubt, ensured James's only son, John 1846-1905, received his education.
Nicholas Chamberlaine was Rector of the parish for 52 years from 1663-1715. He was the son of a wealthy family and he bought a large part of the land in and around Bedworth. On his death in 1715 he bequeathed his fortune to a trust which was empowered to establish almshouses for the old, and schools for the young. Almshouses and a school were built but the 'new' buildings and further schools were not built until 1840 with money earned from royalties from the charity mine.
The people of Bedworth owe a great deal to the benevolence of the once Rector of Bedworth, Nicholas Chamberlaine. He provided work for James which put a roof over his families head. This provided food for the table and provided the school which educated my Great-grandfather, John, enabling him to find work , not in a mine, but as an photographer in an age when photography was relatively new.
James must have left Bedworth to live in Wales sometime after the 1851 Census took place, and before 1861 when the next Census was undertaken. Why did he leave his home town? I believe the answer to be in the problems that faced the weavers of Bedworth in 1860 when the treaty with France, negotiated by Mr Cobden, admitted French silks duty free into England and thereby ruined the ribbon weaving industry in Bedworth and the surrounding towns and cities.
As a result of this treaty, thousands of weavers were thrown out of work. The impact this must have had on a town like Bedworth, where 80% of workers were directly employed in the industry, must have been catastrophic. With weavers out of work the tradesmen would see a slump in business; the labour market would grow; jobs would be scarce. This would force down wages; Employers would take people on at lower wages, out of work weavers would take any job that paid wages.
I believe that James either lost his job, or that wages were reduced to a level that he couldn't provide for his family. Additionally his wife, Sarah, was a weaver and may well have been thrown out of work. This loss of the second household income must have had an effect. The North Wales coalfields were not affected by the slump in the weaving industry and new seams were being found and worked. An experienced miner like James would no doubt find better paid work there so that's where he went.
It is difficult to confirm where and when James left Bedworth for North Wales. James died in 1868 in a mining village called Cefn Mawr. In my research I checked the 1861 Census for the area. I could not find his entry on any census record in Cefn Mawr or the surrounding villages. That does not mean he wasn't there, only that I didn't find him. As more census records are placed on indexed CDs I will, no doubt, find him.
Many other Bedworth people took a different route away from poverty and emigrated to Australia. One of the first to go was John Tibballs, his wife Harriet, and their eight children who left in July 1861 for Hobart. On January 31st 1862, 45 people left Bedworth for Freemantle. This means of escape was championed by Nona Bellairs, daughter of the late Rector Henry Bellairs, who helped and supported many Bedworth families to find a better life in Australia. It is strange to think that I myself have fallen in love with Australia, its people, and its lifestyle. Over recent years, due to holidays there, I find that I wished I had emigrated as a young man, Alas it is too late for me now but, had James decided to emigrate rather than find work in North Wales, I might have been born an Aussie!
James died at the age of 47 on Thursday 13th February 1868 at Cefn Mawr. The death certificate records the cause of death as Asthma. I believe he died from Pneumoconiosis which was not understood and recognised as a disease that affected miners at that time. He was buried two days later on Saturday 15th February, at Rhosymedre church burial ground.
James's wife, Sarah, died on Sunday 11th September 1881 in Nantwich and was buried at the new parish cemetery situated at the junction of Barony Road and Middlewich Road (finger post lane). This cemetery was opened in 1849 after an outbreak of Cholera that killed so many Nantwich residents that the burial ground by the parish church was full and a new burial ground had to be found. Her death certificate states that she died of Congestion of the Lungs/Bronchitis and that she was living with her son, John, who was by now a photographer/fairground owner. She is described as the Widow of James Greatorex a hawker (Deceased).
It appears that James ended his days as a seller of wares. But what wares? Did he travel with his son John as a travelling photographer? Did his son John get the travelling lifestyle by accompanying his father as a hawker? We may never know but what we do know is that the Midland family is no more and we can now talk about the Showman family.