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Book 2: Cobley, William (c1826 - 1868) and son. SINS OF THE FATHER? 

Cobley, William (c1826 - 1868) and son. SINS OF THE FATHER?

One Sunday in early summer in 1842 a young woman was making her way to chapel in Ringstead. She was, according to the newspaper report a pretty girl and we can imagine her in her Sunday best, perhaps aware of how well she looked. Then, to her annoyance, a young man who had been drinking heavily, or as the newspaper reporter puts it ,in a heavy, sub Dickensian humorous style, ‘had been spending his time in the service of Bacchus instead of Cupid’ comes up to her. He then ‘coils his arm three times round her waist’. Even allowing for the tiny waists of the time this seems unlikely so we must assume it means on three occasions.

Hannah then continues with her evidence at the Wellingborough Petty Sessions:

“I says,” continued Hannah, “Bill just uncoil your arm will you? When he gives it another coil. Then I gives him a push, to make him uncoil his arm, when unbeknown to me, he flops into a ditch and begins a singing ‘Here I lies alone to die all hunder the willor tree.’ Then I says get hup, and don’t lay a roaren there you drinking brute, when up he gets, an kicks me and calls me names.”

The young woman was Hannah Houghton and the young man was William Cobley. Apparently, ‘he had kept Hannah company for some time.” William admitted the charge but thought:

. . . it very cruel on the part of Hannah to make the charge, and said “it warrant natural.”

We can see the law’s reluctance, until very recently, to get involved in, ‘domestics’. ‘The Magistrates advised them to make it up and settle the matter out of Court. They did so, and left the Hall as loving as turtle doves.’

I had intended following these star-crossed lovers to see what happened to them. The spoilt walk to chapel happened on the 4th September 1842, some fifteen months after the Census. Surely it would be simple to identify the parties and carry their lives forward. In the case of Hannah we cannot find her in Ringstead. Is she the Hannah Houghton who was born in Lowick in 1822, married Thomas Nutt of Wollaston and lived to be ninety-five? There is no sign of her in Ringstead and she seems some five years too old for our Romeo. Perhaps she is the Hannah Houghton born in Holcot in about 1822 who married Thomas Parker of Sywell in 1844, the same year as our Lowick girl?

There are also other possibilities. But the most likely Hannah is actually Anne Houghton, born in about 1827 in Lowick, who was the sister of Hannah Nutt. In 1841, she is living with her parents in Lowick and by 1851 is a servant in Thrapston. She marries Joseph Allen of Woodford in 1856 and lives there afterwards, bringing up a large family. It seems more likely that she would be walking to church in Ringstead. We also notice that, in the 1871 Census, she is living at 13 Pig Lane Woodford and her eldest son is George Houghton, who is 18 years old, and is recorded as ‘son of wife’. He had been baptised in Lowick, the son of Anne, on 23rd April 1854. This is long after William Cobley had left the area

Unfortunately we do not know which of these Hannah Houghtons was that girl, walking to chapel one September day in 1842. What we do know is that she did not marry the drunken young man who assaulted her. William Cobley was one of a wide family. The Ringstead Parish Registers are full of Cobley births in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries but, by 1851 there is only Elizabeth, widow of William Cobley (possibly a great uncle of our William) and her four children. She is now married to twenty-six year old coal; dealer, Lovell Warren, some seventeen years her junior.

We see the evidence of this flight from Ringstead in the 1881 Censuses for Northampton. Samuel Cobley (27) and his family; Samuel Cobley (51) and his wife and family (all born in Ringstead); George Cobley (25) and his wife, Joseph Cobley (38) and his wife and family are all there and all working in the boot and shoe trade. The new factories were drawing men and women from the outwork villages.

Our William Cobley was probably born in late 1826 and was baptised in Ringstead on 26th February 1827. He was, like many growing boys, to cause his parents problems. In all his run-ins with the law there does seem, however, a perversely likeable, sense of misplaced fun.

We know that William’s drunken foolishness was not a one-off episode. In February 1844, he was again before the courts because of his drinking. One of the new police force had had problems with him. The Mercury reports that:

Police constable Tuckey brought a charge against Thos. Whittering and Wm. Cobley for being drunk and disorderly.

The behaviour of one of the drunken men seems to echo the dramatic gestures of William towards Hannah. We are told that:

One of the worthies, by the force of liquor, imagined himself so strong that he was calling on his companion to come and hold him up till he placed his feet on the globe and shoved it out of its place. His companion was preparing to lend him the necessary aid when Tuckey came up and prevented the accomplishment of his dire intention, which threatened the position of our little globe. The conduct of the defendant on the whole was proved to be of so harmless a nature that the bench dismissed the case.

When we look at the cases of the men and women from Ringstead that came up before the courts we see that drunkenness is the greatest cause. The others are mainly poaching, petty theft and assault. We know that the Temperance movement was extremely strong during the Victorian era and it had some cause. We see today the ‘binge drinking’ problems in our villages and small market towns. Then it was even worse, made more shocking by the poverty of the families of the drinkers. Originally, in the eighteenth century cheap gin had been the main ruin of mothers and fathers and the 1830 Beer Act had been brought in to allow beer and cider only public houses, aimed specifically at the working classes. These were often started in a front parlour of a house and sometimes could allow the landlord or landlady to buy their house and even move next door.

There was some regulation, as we have seen in Ringstead in earlier stories, with the prosecution of landlords for serving beer after time but in other ways, even by today’s standards it was very lax. It was not until 1886 that it became illegal to serve alcoholic drinks to children under thirteen. In 1854 an Act banned Sunday drinking between the times of 2.30 pm and after 10 pm. The following year another Bill proposed the almost complete cessation of Sunday trading in London. These led to two great demonstrations in Hyde Park with riots and many arrests.

It was not long after his second arrest that William’s parents, John and Mary took the family south to Canterbury. It is there, in 1851, that we find them. John had been an agricultural worker and after the1841 Enclosure of Ringstead it would have been more difficult for him to make a living. Perhaps there was a family member involved. Sarah, the wife of a William Cobley living in Lowick, had been born in Kent. This William had been born in Bromham in Huntingdonshire and of course Hannah Houghton had probably come from Lowick. It is all very tenuous but, for whatever reason, the family moved to Canterbury and John became a ‘Railway Engine Cleaner’. Perhaps the coming of the railway to Ringstead had opened his eyes to new opportunities to get out of poverty. His five-year-old son, Henry, had been born in Kent so it seems that the family probably moved there sometime around 1845 or 1846.

By the 1851 Census, William had already married and had a family of his own. His wife was a Whitstable woman called Mary Ann Nelson. Her maiden name was Perkins and she had married Edward Nelson in 1843. He had died in 1848 and, it seems, within months, she had married William. They are living at Goulding Court, Staplegate, Canterbury and William is working as a ‘cordwainer’ or shoemaker. There are four children, Edward N. (8), and three girls, Anne E. N. (7), Ellen (2) and Esther (8 months). They all have the surname Cobley but it seems certain that the oldest two children are from Mary Ann’s first marriage and the ‘N’ is for Nelson.

Did William now settle down to domestic life and forget his old ways? It seems that the couple moved to Whitstable, Mary Ann’s birthplace and their youngest child, Esther was born there in about 1858 but in the following year Mary Ann died. Did this send William back off the rails again? In January 1860 William came before the St. Augustine Petty Sessions in Canterbury charged with an assault at Whitstable. Unfortunately William had failed to turn up for his trial and the constable who had served him with the summons stated that he had told him that he did not intend attending.

The landlord of the Hoy Endeavour public house had spotted a woman trying to pickpocket, ‘a countryman who was the worse for liquor’. He started to put her out of the pub by force. At this point William decided to get involved and threw landlord and woman out together. The following disturbance meant that the landlord was unable to clear his house until one o’clock the following morning. In his absence he was fined £2, or one month’s imprisonment.

Belatedly William arrived, claiming that the train from Whitstable was late and saying that he had never interfered with the landlord and had just thrown water in the woman’s face to ‘aid in her recovery’ from the hysterics. He pleaded for mitigation of the sentence but this was not allowed except to give him one week to pay the fine.

A year later he is living with his parents in 2 St. Radigund Street, Canterbury. He is still a shoemaker and the younger children of the marriage, Ellen (11), William (4) and Esther (3) are with him. Next door, with his wife and family, is his younger brother, George (26) who has followed his father onto the railways and is an ‘Engine fireman’. George too was having his problems On Tuesday 21st of that same year he brought an action against Canterbury Friendly Society of which he was a member. When he asked for sickness benefit, because of illness the Society said that he had not been a ‘sound man’ when he became a member, even though he claimed that he was, and so he was not entitled to benefit. In fact he was, ‘ruptured’. In these days before the Welfare State the Friendly Societies, run by their members, were a lifeline for many poor families. They relied on most people remaining healthy and so did not allow certain groups to join. These, of course, often the neediest were left to get through as best they could. The clause of the Canterbury Society which was used against George makes this very clear.

That no person shall be admitted a member of this society under the age of seventeen nor over the age of thirty years, nor shall at the same time, nor at any time after his admission into the society belong to, or be a member of any other friendly society, nor shall be afflicted with the gout, rheumatism, kings evil, consumption, asthma or any other disease which may tend to shorten human life or that may occasion him to claim any of the benefits of this society. But if at any future time it can be proved that any person was subject to one or more of the aforesaid disorders or complaints, or being a member of any other friendly society, he shall be immediately excluded this society without any return of money etc.

I am reminded of a Friendship Club in another village I know which removed the fuse each week from the plug of their cooker in the village hall so that no other group should use it. Friendly, up to a point! It seems however, that George won his case.

William’s son, also William began to cause problems for his widowed father. William appeared before the Canterbury Police Court on August 5th 1867. The Kentish Chronicle for the 10th August records that:

A young boy, named Cobley, was charged with being found lying in a coal shed for an unlawful purpose. On being found, the policeman asked him what he was doing there, and he said he had been turned out of doors by his father.

The father of the boy appeared and denied the truth of the boy’s assertion. He said that he had never turned him out, but he had got into the companionship of thieves and bad boys, and had left home, absolutely refusing to work. He was quite willing to take the boy home, and do the best he could for him.

The chairman severely reprimanded the boy for his bad behaviour and sent him home in company with his father.

The young William could only have been about eleven years old but his father was struggling, as his own father John, had struggled with him. It may be also that William, the father was not well, for in the spring of the following year he died. The grandfather, John, died a year later. [At the General Quarter Sessions at Canterbury on 2nd January 1866 a John Cobley had been sentenced to 3 months imprisonment for house breaking. We can only hope that it was no relation.]

William’s family was scattered by this double blow. Ellen had married Charles Kirby in 1864 who in 1871 is a City of Canterbury Corporation worker. Esther is staying with their father’s sister, Sophia who had married to James Howshaw. The whole family, including Esther, are working at a paper mill in Chartham, Kent.

Orphaned, and probably living with one of his aunts in Ruttington Lane in Canterbury, William, seems to be out of control. In a report of the Canterbury Police Court on Thursday 7th January 1869, we are told by the Whitstable Times and Herne Bay Herald that:

William Cobley, a youth under 14 years of age was charged with stealing a pair of female boots worth 5s 6d from the shop of Wm. Moore in Burgate-street.

Samuel Warren, who had a clothes shop saw William steal the boots from outside the shop and gave chase. He caught him and handed William over to the police. With some of the common sense of his father, when young, William said, ‘I stole the boots, but I did not steal your trousers yesterday’. William was also charged with stealing the trousers which Mr. Warren had missed but had not known until then what had happened to them. The trousers were said to be worth 16s 9d, [some £40 today], although Green, a pawnbroker, only gave him five shillings for them. Green was warned by the court about accepting new articles into pawn and, probably unfairly, one thinks of Fagin and Oliver Twist Another boy, called Rogers also gives evidence that he did not see who took the trousers but that he, like all the boys in the gang, took a share of the profits.

William was sent to the Quarter Sessions which seem to have been very soon after his first appearance. He pleaded guilty on both counts although he still maintained that he had not been the one who had stolen the trousers. He was ordered to be ‘imprisoned and kept to hard labour for a period of three weeks in the gaol, on the expiration of that term to be sent to Red Hill reformatory for five years’.

Did the Recorder, J. Deedes feel that he was doing the right thing by a young orphan who was going wrong or was he moved by the figures that he had read out at the start of the session his regret at the number of crimes and prisoners during the past year. Did he feel that removing William for five years would improve the statistics? Does some of this strike a chord?

William served his time in Canterbury City Gaol and was taken into Redhill Reformatory on 26th January 1869.

In 1788 a small group of men had met in St. Paul’s Coffee House in London and decided to try to do something for the children who lived, and often died, on the streets of London. This became the Royal Philanthropic Society. They started an institute for these homeless boys and girls in Southwark and gradually widened their activities. In 1845 it was decided only to take boys and to move into the country. Of course, as would be the case today, residents around possible sites were not happy at the prospect of having delinquent boys on their doorstep and one offered a thousand pounds for it be located elsewhere. This money was accepted.

In 1848 the institution moved to Redhill, near Reigate, in Surrey and a Farm School was established. At first it was a voluntary scheme and some parents even paid for their wayward children to go there. The Reformatory School Act of 1854 changed this and Redhill became Redhill Reformatory School and only received boys sent there by the courts. In many ways this was a progressive measure, and was supported by Charles Dickens, because it was in place of prison for young offenders. By 1857 there were five houses at Redhill with some 250 boys, each house having a master and a matron, rather on the pattern of the public schools.

As well as the farming, crafts such as basket making, tailoring and shoemaking were taught. There were sports teams and a choir and a ‘Harvest Home’ Open Day when the great and the good came to see the work of the school. For many boys it may have been a happy, organised time away and many lives were turned around, but others would have resented the uniform of brown corduroy with a forage cap and all that went with it.

There is a record of what William looked like when he entered Redhill. He was 4ft 10½ inches tall, had a ruddy complexion with dark brown hair, and large brown eyes. He also had large ears and eyebrows and a very hairy upper lip with a deep dimple in his chin. He was ‘very red around the bridge of the nose from blows in fighting’. We have a picture of a young boy who was a stereotype of a street urchin. To complete the picture we are told in his Redhill file that he could only read in easy (underlined) monosyllables and could write very little.

His age was given as thirteen years and he had attended the National School in Canterbury, although one suspects he had not been a regular attender. He had also worked with horses on a farm at Shalford near Canterbury, where he earned four shillings a week. Both his parents and his grandfather, John Cobley were dead. His grandmother, Mary Ann Cobley (nee Whiteman) seems to have cared for him most for she visited him on August 8th of his admission year. As one would expect, perhaps, misdemeanours and punishments are entered on his record over the next three years. But only at the rate of three or four a year. He was impertinent, noisy at work, caused ‘disorder’ and was idle and shirked school. On one occasion he was find three pence for,’damage to school wall’. Perhaps he was trying out newfound writing skills. We get a picture of a boisterous lad used to the rough-and-ready give-and-take of the street.

On May 6th 1872 it is noted that his grandmother wanted to see him but she ‘was too infirm to travel’. He was given leave until 18th May. Perhaps it was to visit his grandmother and family in Canterbury before he left because on May 29th it is simply written in his file, ‘Emigrated to Canada’.

Perhaps with the best of intentions, as many as thirty-five young men were sent each year to various parts of the British Empire. William was one of these and was sent to Canada. This practice of sending children abroad had started as early as 1619 when the Virginia Company took 100 street children to work on their plantations. This migration of child labour continued to the colonies on a small scale but it was from about 1870 that the large movement of children and young people to Canada began in earnest. In part it was a response to the overcrowded cities with their unemployment, poverty and epidemics of cholera and typhoid.

The children came from local government workhouses as well as ‘philanthropic’ charities. Two women, Maria Rye and Annie Macpherson, set up schemes in the 1860s to send children abroad, especially to Canada. By 1880 it was the Dr. Barnado’s Homes who became the largest ‘exporter’. Some 80,000 children went to Canada between 1870 and 1914 and the Barnado schemes sent over 35,000 of these.

There was a critical report of the practice by Andrew Doyle in 1875. He told of children going to a distribution house at a place called Marchemont in Canada and the farmers coming to pick which children they wanted. Doyle believed that the farmers were mainly after free child labour to replace paid help and he alleged that many of the houses had no washing facilities, there was rarely any training and in some cases there was evidence of cruelty. After a few years, however, it was considered that the problems had been sorted out and the schemes started again and did not decline until the 1920s. This traffic was resurrected during the Second World War, as part of the evacuation policy, to take children away from the dangers of bombing and invasion. It was originally intended to take some 20,000 children to Canada but on 17th September 1940 the City of Benares, was torpedoed and seventy of the children on board were lost. This halted the evacuation of the children to Canada but the sending, by charities, of vulnerable children to Australia continued on a small scale, until 1967.

William left aboard the S.S. Scandinavian from Liverpool on 30th May 1872 when he was sixteen years old. Apparently it was discovered that he had not been baptized in Canterbury as had been thought, and on 22nd February 1872 he was baptized in the school chapel. Was John being prepared for his journey? He went as part of Reverend Herring’s party of 32 children, mainly boys and young men between the ages of ten and eighteen. The Reverend A. Styleman Herring was a leading light in the Clerkenwell and Central Emigration Club and Society for London and the Provinces which aimed to assist the poor to find a new life. The Scandinavian arrived at Quebec on 11th June 1872.

We cannot find what happened to William next. Did he make a better life for himself? His Redhill file records that he wrote to his sister in 1873 and to his grandmother in 1874. There was one final letter recorded in the year prior to February 1876 in which he said that he was doing well in Canada. His grandmother died in 1876 and the letters seem to have stopped.

Did William really ‘do well’ in his new land? Some of the ‘Home Children’ would have found happiness and new hope but we know that this was not always the case. As the online history of the Royal Philanthropic Society briefly notes:

Some may have bettered themselves and lived long lives, others may not have fared so well in foreign lands



BMD. Northampton Record office (Ringstead): (Ringstead): (Canterbury etc)

Censuses : .

England & Wales Criminal Registers 1791 – 1892: . . Northampton Mercury Saturday 17th September 1842; Saturday 10th February 1844: Kentish Chronicle; Saturday 21st January 1860: Kentish Gazette Tuesday 31st May 1861; Saturday 10th August 1867: Whitstable Times and Herne Bay Herald; Saturday 9th January 1869.

Researching the history of pubs, inns and hotels:

Demanding the Right to Drink. .

Royal Philanthropic School Redhill: Register of Admissions. .

File 54 on William Cobley. Redhill Reformatory. (Surrey Record Office)

The Golden Bridge. Marjorie Kohli (Natural Heritage Books, Toronto2003)

The History of the Royal Philanthropic Society: .

Child emigration to Canada.  Roger Kershaw. .

Home children (1869 – 1930): .

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