Meet my ancestor, Mr Sidney JONES (1825-1891), my Gt Gt Gt Grandfather.
Sidney was a Master Tailor, with respectable and well attended business premises in Regent Street, Weston-super-Mare during the mid to late 1800s. This was a time when the town had become fashionable, and business was booming thanks to the tourism and interest of many well-to-do ladies and gentlemen flocking to the area eager to benefit from the health promoting opportunities of bathing in the sea, and keen to take in the fresh air in the then beautiful coastal resort.
During his lifetime, Sidney employed a number of local men and he was also well-known and respected thanks to his taking on various leadership roles within the Masonic St Kew’s lodge of the area. He was also known to be a little eccentric and for having an interest in astronomy as he installed an observatory on the roof of his tailor’s shop and allowed locals to visit where they could gaze at the stars. He led an interesting and productive life, but sadly he also suffered a number of personal tragedies.One in particular would see his later years take a very unexpected turn…
Sidney JONES’ Early Life
Sidney JONES was born in the rural village of Nether Stowey, in Somerset in 1825. At the time of his birth, Nether Stowey was a beautiful and picturesque village and was already well-known for having been the home of poet Samuel COLERIDGE and his family between the years of 1797-1800.
Samuel Taylor COLERIDGE had already become a published poet by the time he’d moved to Nether Stowey but he wrote several of his better-known works while living in Nether Stowey. The three years he lived there at number 35 Lime Street, is known to have been a very fruitful period in his writing career. The village community would undoubtedly have been proud of this. William WORDSWORTH, who collaborated and worked with COLERIDGE for a time, is also known to have visited him there among other significant poets and writers of the Romantic Movement. There would undoubtedly have been a buzz in the village about their works.
By the time Sidney JONES was born in the village, to his parents William JONES (1798-1866), a labourer, and Hannah JONES nee WHEDDON (1796-1845), COLERIDGE and the other Romantic poets were no longer living in the area, however, his mother’s family, the WHEDDONs, had lived in Nether Stowey for quite some time. It is likely that some of them, perhaps Sidney’s grandparents, would have been neighbours of Samuel Taylor COLERIDGE and his wife Sara and their young baby Hartley, as well as William WORDSWORTH during their time in the village. There was a very small village population at that time. In 1791 there were just 106 houses in the village and in 1801 the population of the parish was 586. Sidney’s parents, William JONES and Hannah WHEDDON were born around the same time as COLERIDGE’s wife had her young son so it’s possible that Sidney’s grandparents had been contemporaneous neighbours of the Coleridge family.
However, Sidney’s father grew up to be a humble labourer and was most likely illiterate (see marriage certificate below), so this suggests Sidney’s grandparents were actually of quite humble origins and most likely uneducated. This would have been in considerable contrast to the Cambridge educated COLERIDGE and many of their literary circle of friends, so I would think it highly unlikely that Sidney’s grandparents would have been very close friends with the educated poets residing in the area, if they had known each other, despite their wives having their young children around that same period. Nevertheless, it is interesting to consider the kinds of village news that Sidney’s grandparents would have been chatting about in the local public house or during church meetings in parish, since Coleridge and his works were well known at that time.
Sidney’s parents married three years before he was born in the parish church in Nether Stowey, on 9th April 1822.
When their son Sidney was born, they had him baptised, on 10th July 1825, in the same church, St Mary’s Church of Nether Stowey.
Sidney seems to have been William and Hannah JONES’s eldest child but he did grow up with several siblings as his parents went on to have more children together. Sadly, three children appear to have died in either early infancy or childhood so from a young age Sidney would have known loss and his parents would have undoubtedly been grief stricken at several points throughout his childhood, despite infant mortality being far more precarious in those days.
Sidney JONES as a Young Man.
Very little is known about Sidney’s childhood or early life but there are some clues as to how he spent his formative years. The 1841 census shows that a 15 year old boy named ‘Sydney’ JONES was a shop apprentice for a ‘Cordwainer’ business in Weston-super-Mare, which is about 25 miles north of Nether Stowey. It was being run by Lawrence COOMBES and his family. Sidney would go on to marry and settle in Weston-super-Mare so this was most likely how he ended up there.
A Cordwainer was a shoe maker who would craft shoes from leather. It’s probable that this was where Sidney JONES did his apprenticeship, learning the business of running a thriving shop and working with materials, though our Sidney went on to become a Tailor, Draper and Milliner himself.
Sidney JONES’s Family Life
On 13th April 1846 Sidney JONES married Maria JONES, a young woman who’s family were all from Weston-super-Mare. Maria was the daughter of Richard JONES (1785-1765) and Mary GOULD (1788-1883).
Some descendants who have researched the family believe that Sidney and Maria were first cousins, however I could find no formal evidence that their fathers, William and Richard JONES respectively, were brothers, even though they shared the same surname. JONES was quite a popular surname in the area of Weston-super-Mare at that time so it’s possible it was just a coincidence.
At the time of their marriage, Sidney’s occupation is noted on the marriage register as ‘Tailor’, and his father’s as a labourer. Maria’s father, Richard JONES, was also noted as a labourer. Interestingly, while their fathers both made their ‘mark’ rather than signing the register as witnesses on the wedding certificate, both Sidney and Maria signed their names. This suggests that their father’s were illiterate, but that they had both been better educated than their parents, despite their fathers’ rather modest occupations.
The bride and groom are also listed as ‘underage’ meaning that their parents would have had to provide consent to the union. Sometimes, younger couples who had a particular reason to marry in haste would marry before the legal age, and in deed, just six months after they had married, on 25th October 1846, Maria gave birth to their daughter, Hannah JONES (1846-1883).
I wonder what the relationship between Sidney JONES and his wife Maria was like. Rather unusually for the time, they only had the one child together. Given that there was no contraception in those days, this suggests that either the marital bed was a cold one, or that there were some difficulties with regards to fertility. However, given that it seems likely Maria fell pregnant quickly, and most likely unintentionally, before being married, the latter seems a less likely scenario to me.
Nevertheless, by 1851, the census shows that Sidney was now living at No. 18 Saint James Street, Weston-super-Mare, with his wife, Maria JONES and their young daughter Hannah JONES, who was by this time aged 4 years old. .
Sidney’s occupation, again, is stated as a Tailor, and, despite their young ages of just 25 and 24 respectively, they seemed to be running a busy household. Sidney is listed as the Head, and they had three lodgers living with them, James SHEPPARD aged 33, also a Tailor, John REES who was a 45 year old waiter and Francis DELAY aged 25 who was a plumber.
Sidney JONES’s Occupation as a Tailor in Weston-super-Mare
Sidney went on to operate as a Tailor and Draper for many years. He is known to have had a distinguished establishment in Regent Street, Weston-super-Mare.
Sidney JONES’ Observatory
In addition to his main occupation as a Tailor, it would seem that Sidney was also a keen astronomer. He was known to have an unusual “observatory” in the roof of his tailor’s shop and this can be seen on the illustration of his business establishment and home which was shown on his business marketing material.
Local historian, Brian Austin, told me in 2019 that Sidney had installed his observatory in 1872 and that it was described as:
“50ft above sea level with an uninterrupted view of 20 miles around, with a telescope on a brass stand, of 4ft 8 ins focal length with rack focus and vertical movement. 4 ½ inch object glass with 50-300 magnifying power and a revolving dome”.
Austin also told me that “He also had a ‘Camera Obscura’ and his building was “two doors west of High Street”. There was some consternation when people realised that one could spy on people below. Sidney also purchased the old weigh-bridge adjoining in 1873 and he tried to extend the cellar, but the road fell in!”
Sidney JONES the Mason.
Sidney JONES the Grandfather
In 1878, tragedy struck Sidney’s family when his son-in-law Alfred JAMES died of “a lingering illness” which was thought to have been contracted through his work as an undertaker as he had to walk in funeral processions in all weathers. He was just 34 when he died.
Sidney’s only daughter Hannah JAMES (nee JONES) was six months pregnant with her third child at the time of her young husband’s death and family legend has it that she was utterly heartbroken. It’s believed that she became melancholic and turned to alcohol.
Tragically, just five years after her husband’s death, in 1883, Hannah also died in tragic circumstances. Most likely, though hard to prove, following a protracted period of alcoholism.
This tragic turn of events left her already widowed father, Sidney, bereft of his only daughter, and it also left her three young children, Sidney, Alfred and Eleanor JAMES (aged just 5 years old), tragically orphaned.
Sidney’s role as a Grandfather therefore became key in 1883. He took in his two young orphaned grandsons, Sidney JAMES and Alfred JAMES, and their younger sister Eleanor, and cared for them until his own eventual death.
The 1891 census shows that he has Sidney, Alfred and Eleanor JAMES living with him in his house in Wellington Lane, which was just off Regent Street in Weston-super-Mare.
However, it’s unclear how long his granddaughter Eleanor resided with him as it’s believed that she was adopted by one of Sidney JONES’ employees, his head cutter, and was subsequently raised in Cardiff, Wales. Whereas his two grandsons became his apprentices and trained to be tailors under his guidance.
Sadly, Sidney JONES died in 1891, before his two grandsons were able to complete their apprenticeships. Hence, they never reached the level of Master Tailor as their Grandfather had done before them.
The young Sidney JAMES’ grandson in years to come, Brian JAMES (my father) told me that his grandfather only ever learned to make trousers and therefore he would make these, but not jackets, but it’s not clear if this was just a family joke. Anne Wolforth, another of Sidney’s grandchildren, told me that her Grandfather never reached the level of master tailor, and her uncle, Alfred JAMES, who had been even younger at the time of his Grandfather Sidney JONES’ death, was only ever able to mend clothes rather than becoming a tailor. In later years, it was Alfred who passed on much of the family history and stories to Anne and hence if it wasn’t for him, much of the JAMES family history would have been lost. Anne Wolforth told me she remembers Eleanor JAMES and that she gave her the only existing photographs and pictures of Sidney JONES her grandfather, and other family members.
I would love to find out more about Sidney JONES, his business and his family and I would also love to hear from fellow descendants. Please do get in touch, and comment below, if you are interested in this family or have any further information or research. Furthermore, if you are a family historian or have other expertise which could add to my understanding regarding his life and times I would love to hear from you.
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Credit and References
I am extremely grateful to Anne Wolforth (a fellow descendent of Sidney JONES) who tirelessly researched the JAMES family history for fifty years using traditional and laborious methods and who has collated a wealth of documents, photographs and facts in the process. I am also very grateful to Pat Hase and the Weston-super-Mare Family History Society for all their help. Thanks also are due to Brian Austin a local historian in Weston who is a wealth of knowledge regarding the families and history of Weston-super-Mare. He very kindly sent me a great deal of valuable information in 2019.
Resources such as censuses and certificates were gathered using a variety of family history resource sites, primarily Ancestry.co.uk, The Genealogist, Family Search and The British Newspaper Archives.
Information about Nether Stowey was found at British History Online.