Alfred Wilkins Nicholson 1845-1888 with wife Frances and members of her family

The Story So Far

Thomas Nicholson 1732-1806 : the top of the tree

Thomas Nicholson was born in 1732 and married Sarah Cook at Christchurch, Spitalfields (just up the road from where Liverpool St station is now) on 31 August 1761. They had 7 children: Margaret, born May 1765; Sarah, July 1766; Thomas, February 1768; John, December 1769; Charles, July 1771; Robert, November 1773; and Joseph, March 1776. Margaret, Charles and Joseph all died as small children.

We don't know what Thomas did, but when he died in January 1806 the funeral cost £15/17/-, which is about £665 in today's money. When Sarah died in 1816, her funeral cost £21/12/2, which is about £980 today. They are both buried at St Mary's church, Chigwell - probably because John & Robert shared a house at Buckhurst Hill.

St Mary's Chigwell

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John Nicholson 1769-1841 : the silversmith

John became a silversmith, goldsmith and general jeweller at 52 & 53 Cornhill in the City of London. After he married Mary Ann Francis (from Crediton in Devon) all their children were baptised in St Peter's church, Cornhill, which was literally right next door.

St Peter's Cornhill

[Photograph by John Salmon, sourced on the website for the Deanery of the City of London]

The children were: Mary Ann, born August 1795; Sarah, October 1796; John, May 1798; Robert, July 1799; Mary Ann, January 1801; Harriet, July 1805; Caroline, December 1806; William Gregory, September 1809. Harriet, Caroline, William and the first Mary Ann again all died as small children.

In 1821 John the silversmith introduced his daughter Sarah to Edward Wright, obviously with the idea of him being a suitable husband. Sometime afterwards he changed his mind and forbade her to have any more contact with him, but they carried on writing to each other and meeting secretly. From somewhere John got the idea that they were already secretly married, and he believed that her brothers John and Robert had known about this and helped them. So round about March 1822 he made a Will, cutting them all off with a shilling each "from the severe unmerited & unfeeling affliction my children have given me", and leaving his entire estate to his brother Robert.

In May 1822 silversmith John was laid up with the gout at his house in Cornhill, called in his son John because he felt so ill, and they had a long conversation about things. Son John explained that Sarah wasn't married, and her brothers knew nothing about any secret meetings, and father John said he would destroy the Will when he got better and could find it.

Despite this, Sarah and Edward Wright were married, in August 1822, and father John quarrelled with them all again. Sons John and Robert left the house in Cornhill and started trying to make their own way in the world. Father John was on speaking terms again with son Robert by sometime in 1824, and allowed him a pound or thirty shillings a week until the time of his death (that's between £50 and £75 in today's money). He was also back on speaking terms with son John by the spring of 1825, and made him a similar weekly allowance, and also helped him out on various other occasions, so that over the next fifteen years he'd probably given John about £800 (the best part of £40,000 today). This might be because John had got married - to Mary Wilkins round about 1830. He was probably marrying 'beneath him' - maybe she was a servant or something - she couldn't sign her name on the registration when their children were born, she had to put a X. They lived in Rotherhithe, and he was calling himself an 'artist' or a 'clerk in an office' - which all feels like a bit of a come-down!

In June 1835 father John's daughter Mary Ann married John Witherby, with her father's consent (he gave her away and paid for the whole thing). They had two children, Mary and Elizabeth, before she died in 1838.

By 1839, son John and Mary (Wilkins) had three children - Horace, born about 1831; Mary Ann, born 1836, and Nicholas Wilkins (Nicholson), born September 1839.

Father John died at the house in Buckhurst Hill on 28 December 1841, and then the fun started. It was reckoned that he owned property worth £500 (about £24,000 today) and had a personal fortune of £11,000 (over £650,000 today)! About the end of January 1842 son John and his uncle Robert were searching through the Cornhill house and came across the original Will, the one cutting off all the children. John identified it as the one his father had intended to destroy, but Robert said "Never mind, if it is a good Will we will carry it through and throw out that thief Wright and defeat your brother's creditors". Obviously he thinks Sarah & Edward Wright and son Robert weren't to be trusted with money - it looks like uncle Robert is cooking up a scheme to get the whole estate for himself, but maybe there was an understanding that he was going to let son John share some of it?

So in March 1842 uncle Robert brought a legal action in the Court of Probate against everybody else - his nephews John and Robert, their sister Sarah and her husband Edward Wright, and Mary Ann's two children Mary & Elizabeth Witherby. He claimed everything for himself, on the grounds of the original Will. They however had produced a further Will, allegedly written on 24th September 1840, again leaving almost everything to uncle Robert, but with unsigned, unwitnessed and undated additions leaving bequests to John's children (the same weekly allowance he'd been giving his sons for some time, but still only a shilling for daughter Sarah) and specific gifts to his servants.

In May and June 1842 Sarah & Edward filed a counter-claim against uncle Robert. They said they didn't believe that father John had written the original Will, but even if he had, at the time he was "highly prejudiced against and displeased with his children, and while unjustly labouring under greatly excited feelings, and therefore not of a sound mind" (basically he was so furious he didn't know what he was doing!) They also said that, even if he had written this Will, he'd wanted it destroyed, he believed it was lost, nobody had ever seen it again until uncle Robert magically produced it after he was dead, and he didn't mean it to be carried out (they're going as far as they can without actually saying they think uncle has forged the whole thing!) They further re-stated the authenticity of the second Will, and so claimed at least part of the estate.

Late in October 1842 uncle Robert and nephew John were back in the Cornhill house and made a thorough search through all the remaining papers they could find, collected them from all the desks and cupboards in the place, and started sifting through. On the evening of 1 November John, on his own, discovered a whole batch of family papers tied up together and labelled in his father's handwriting. There was a list of the births of his children, all the papers relating to his parents' funerals, a lock of his dead baby son William's hair, and all kinds of other stuff. This is where we get most of the information about the funerals and the births of the children - and the blond hair's still there tied up in a twist of paper as one of the exhibits. Most important, amongst all this was yet another Will (the third so far), made in July 1825 after father John was back on speaking terms with his sons. All it said was:

I John Nicholson do hereby revoke any former Will or paper made by me to the detriment of my Sons John & Robert Nicholson & I do hereby further declare my intention wish and will that the law shall make a just & equal share & distribution of all my personal property to my surviving children at my death to the true intent & meaning of this paper. July 18 1825 Signed: J Nicholson

So Sarah Wright filed a new claim against uncle Robert in December 1842, on the basis of the newly-discovered third Will, and produced witnesses to swear that all these papers really were in her father's own handwriting. These were neighbours and business colleagues from Cornhill, and they all agreed. Uncle Robert had to withdraw his claim, and in February 1843 the court granted probate to Sarah and nephew Robert. The final judgement doesn't say anything about the Witherby grandchildren or about eldest son John. Maybe the court thought that the children still had their father to look after them and didn't need a bequest; almost certainly it thought that John had been too much involved with the uncle to warrant getting anything! Basically it looks as though he'd backed the wrong horse and ended up with nothing...

But the story doesn't end there. All that was in February 1843, and in June uncle Robert made his Will. Judging by what he can leave, he was worth at least £15,000 in his own right (nearly £900,000 today) - and he makes sure that not a penny goes to nephews John and Robert or to niece Sarah and her husband. It all goes to the sons of his late sister Sarah, and to Thomas, the son of his late brother Thomas, if he can be found - he's 'believed to be resident in America although he has not been heard of for some time'. Thomas' younger brothers get a fair whack too. Anything left after various specific bequests goes to four charities - the smallpox hospital at King's Cross; the London hospital on Mile End Road; the RSPCA; and the Society for the Suppression of Vice in Lincoln's Inn Fields. Uncle Robert died in July 1850.

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John Nicholson 1798-1846 : the "gentleman"

'Our' John and Mary Wilkins had had two more children - Elizabeth (born 1844) and Alfred Wilkins (Nicholson) born 1845. They were obviously very short of money and friends, because when John died in 1846 he only had his wife to leave things to, and when Mary died in 1849 she hadn't made a Will at all. By the time of the 1851 Census their son Horace is either dead or has disappeared elsewhere, and all the other children were orphans and in the Greenwich Workhouse. The image below shows the building around this time, and you can read explicit descriptions of conditions there on this website from which the image is borrowed.

Greenwich Workhouse

The 1880 USA Census lists a Thomas Nicholson in Pilot Grove, Hancock, Illinois - aged 74, single, born in England and describing himself as 'Gentleman' - who is probably the missing nephew - but as he is lodging with a farmer and his wife it's unlikely that any money had found its way to him.

The real hero of the story is John & Mary's son Nicholas Wilkins (Nicholson). Over a period of 16 years, between 1869 and 1885, he went back time and time again to the Court of Probate to establish his claim to anything left from all these various estates. (His youngest brother Alfred is still alive at the time, but we don't know whether he was aware of his grandfather's estate.) Nicholas was a racquet and ball maker, living near the Angel, Islington; he had a wife and eight children to support; and obviously needed the money. The legal documents all use the same phrase about what his mother and his aunt Sarah had done with the money that came to them - they'd 'intermeddled' with the estate and then died leaving parts of it unclaimed. Totalling up what was left from his father and mother, his sister Mary Ann, and even their grandfather John - whose Will started all this - he managed to get the Court to award him a total of £271 outstanding (more than £16,000 today). Sadly when Nicholas died in September 1922 he seems not to have left a Will himself!

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Alfred Wilkins Nicholson 1845-1888 : the shoemaker

Alfred was the youngest of John & Mary's children, born in 1845. He seems to have been dogged with bad luck all his life. His father died when he was just over a year old, and his mother was dead by the time he was just four; with his siblings Mary Ann, Nicholas and Elizabeth, he was sent to the Greenwich workhouse. Mary Ann died there as a teenager, four years later.

In 1870, at the age of 25, Alfred married Frances Priscilla Garland. In the 1871 census they are living in Payne Street, Deptford, and the man who is "father to us all", Alfred William, was born two months later. Alfred Wilkins was a "cordwainer", or worker in leather.

However, by the time we reach the 1881 census, things have clearly gone very wrong. Frances has gone to live in Poplar with her own parents, Thomas & Ann Garland, taking young Alfred William with her. She's calling him simply William, and she's reverted to using the name Garland.

So where is Alfred Wilkins? He's in Islington, at 24 Gillespie Road, with his "wife", Mary Ann. However, we've searched the relevant periods for a marriage, and there certainly isn't one. There are four children, who appear to belong to Mary Ann by her first marriage to Mr Ward. So, for whatever reason, Alfred has abandoned Frances and their young son, and moved in with Mary Ann. Until recently, this was all we knew.

The children of Mary Ann's first marriage were Thomas, Edward, Mary Ann and Henry. By pure chance, we found a message on a genealogical noticeboard which led us to contact Kim Redford in Canada, who is Henry's great-granddaughter. Henry had emigrated to Canada as one of the "Home" children who were shipped out of the UK in the late nineteenth century to find a hopefully better life in other countries. What was especially exciting - if depressing - was the report giving us the reason for Henry's acceptance by Dr Barnado's:

Henry's father died of consumption in Essex Road, Islington… the wife, a charwoman, married again; her second husband, Alfred Nicholson, being a shoemaker, who cut his throat on August 20th 1888, and left her quite destitute with four children (two by each husband)…

Looking up the index of death certificates, there it was: Alfred Wilkins Nicholson, in the September quarter of 1888. We ordered the certificate, and found that his death (on the 30th, rather than the 20th, of August) was caused by Excessive Haemorrhage from self inflicted would in the throat with a knife. Suicide while of unsound mind. Inquest held 4th September 1888.

A visit to Colindale - the British Newspaper Library - yielded, as we'd hoped, graphic reports of the event. The Comet for Hornsey, Crouch End and Highgate, of Wednesday 5th September 1888, reports:

The deceased was a shoemaker and had been steadily at work throughout the day… He left his work-room, taking his shoemaker's knife with him, and went to the water-closet, situated in the garden, where he leaned over a pan, and cut his throat from ear to ear. Having staggered about for a few seconds he came out of the closet and fell prostrate upon the ground. His peculiar movements attracted the attention of his little children… they cried out to their mother saying "something is the matter with papa"… Dr Groves, the divisional surgeon, was called immediately, but found life to be extinct. Indeed it would not have been possible to save life as the jugular vein and the windpipe were both severed, and a little heavier pressure on the fatal knife would have been followed by decapitation.

The paper reports further that

.. the deceased had for many years been a heavy drinker… almost a fortnight before death, he took a resolution to abandon his drinking habits, and went so far as to sign the pledge, which it appears he kept faithfully… While in a state of intoxication he was very disagreeable and would beat his wife, who is a hard-working and industrious woman, dreadfully. Her outcries under these beatings have often aroused the neighbours in Nightingale Place. On the other hand, in the brief intervals of sobriety, he always expressed penitence and treated his wife kindly.

The newspapers always refer to Mary Ann as Alfred's wife. However, given the absence of any record of a marriage, we can't help wondering how much of Alfred's depressive, abusive and alcoholic nature can be attributed to his knowledge that he had a wife and son still living, and his own disenchantment with family life. We know from the Barnado's document and from a reference in the newspaper that he was an atheist, and an enthusiast for the weekly publication The Freethinker: an anti-Christian publication of mental, moral and social philosophy. Alfred had even left a note, incomprehensible to the inquest, which simply said Dear Mr Foote - Love better than death - Alfred Nicholson (with the words No - no - no - yes written at the foot of the paper). A juror pointed out that G W Foote was the editor of The Freethinker (the publication still exists today).

The Journal Inquest Report

In writing this, it's hard to forget the song The Cobbler from the 1916 musical Chu Chin Chow: For prince and commoner, poor and rich / Stand in need of the cobbler's stitch / Why then worry what lies before / Hangs this life by a thread - no more...

An important update to this story, in the shape of a new photograph, came to light in summer 2005. Paul Garland, from Frances' side of the family, generously shared with us, through his contact with Lorraine, a photo which includes Alfred and Frances - clearly very early on in their marriage. The photograph below is annotated on the reverse by Thomas Rockliffe Garland, Frances' brother, which clearly identifies Alfred and Frances as the couple standing at the top left hand side of the photograph [would that all photographs were annotated so clearly!].

Photo of my father and mother, my father's step mother, my father's step sister Sarah, my sister Fanny and her first husband, Alf Nicholson, my sister Sarah sitting on my Father's step mother's knee, and my brother Dick sitting our mother's knee. Taken about the year 1870.

To have a picture of our shoemaker is a thrill we never thought we'd have, and I am very grateful to Paul for providing us with this valuable link to the past.

The Garland Family

So what of Frances Priscilla and our ancestor Alfred William? Frances married again in 1896, to the widower Edward Page, whose wife had died some years before, leaving Edward with a three-year-old son, Andrew. In the 1901 census, Edward and Frances Page are to be found living at 321 Queens Road, West Ham, each aged 50, together with Andrew aged 14, and Frances' parents, Thomas and Ann, now in their seventies. This ties in with the inscription "Granny Page" on the reverse of a photograph of a little lady in black, found by Alfred William's grandson John. One hopes that she found happiness in these later years.

Granny Page, aka Frances Priscilla nee Garland

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Alfred William Nicholson 1871-1836 : my great-grandfather

The son of Alfred Wilkins Nicholson and Frances Priscilla Garland must have had an unsettled childhood. By the age of 9, in 1881, he was living with his mother and grandparents in Poplar, his father having disappeared to live with Mary Ann. In 1891 he is in Canning Town with the same family, and like his uncles is a general labourer. On Christmas Day 1891, he married Harriet Tilley. We know nothing of any children they might have had; the only reason we have to believe there may have been some is that Alfred William's eldest son was always said to be "one of thirteen children". We've only accounted for ten of them with his second wife, Alice Eastland, so it's just possible that if the other three existed, they were Harriet's children.

Harriet did not live long. She died on 1st October 1904 in Rochester Hospital of a heart attack, at the age of 38. Alfred William remarried within the year; he and Alice married on 23 July 1905. They produced ten children between 1906 and 1928, all in the East/West Ham and Canning Town areas.

Alfred William Nicholson & Alice (nee Garland)

In 1934, when the eldest child (Alfred) was 28 and the youngest (Johnny) not quite 6, Alice passed away in Whipps Cross Hospital, at the age of about 49 (we've never been able to prove her exact age). Alfred William followed her just two years later, aged 65. The family seems to have split into small groups, each staying in touch with only one or two of their siblings. We've gradually traced the families of most of these children.

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