A few years ago, thanks to one of the best genealogy websites available, I discovered that my great-great-grandmother was called Elizabeth Vickress. Her unusual, odd-sounding surname is apparently very old, but seems to have sprung out under its current spelling around the 18th century, in the form of an orthographical corruption of other, more common surnames like Vickers and Vicarage. In my family’s case, the surname alludes to someone who works in a vicarage, principally as the deputy of a priest.
Since the time I found the surname, I have had little difficulty in tracing some of my ancestors on Elizabeth’s side, mainly due to the unusualness of the surname and also because they came from a very small place called Hope-under-Dinmore, in the English county of Hereford. It should come as little surprise that practically all Vickresses I have found who lived in or around Herefordshire are, somehow or other, related to me.
Little by little I started to chart what eventually became a huge family tree, since generation after generation my ancestors would have eight, nine, ten children, sometimes even more. One of these countless children, who happened to be one of my great-great-grandmother’s youngest uncles, was called Henry Edward Vickress, and this is his very sad personal story.
Henry Edward Vickress was born in Hope-under-Dinmore around 1829; his sister Caroline was also christened on the same day as he the following year, which could imply that they were twins, though in the 1851 census their ages don’t exactly match each other’s, and, besides, it was not unusual for siblings to be baptised together. Be it as it may, Henry Edward grew up surrounded by a large family, but quite modestly, as his father and elder brothers all became carpenters and joiners. The death of several of Henry Edward’s siblings at a young age, including his sister Caroline, may have prompted Henry Edward to leave his home town in the search of a better life; for some reason, he relocated to Wolverhampton, an old market-town which by the 19th century had already become one of the largest industrial cities in the area. Henry Edward may have regretted moving there, because as it turned out, he seemingly did worse in the city than some of his siblings who had stayed behind in Hope-under-Dinmore.
In 1854, when he was not quite 24 years old, Henry Edward married Mary Davies in the nearby city of Birmingham, where the couple lived for a short time. Their first child, Caroline Ann Vickress was born there the following year. Not long after, the three of them settled in Wolverhampton, where Mary died two years later aged just 27. Although I have found no indication that Mary was pregnant more than once in her lifetime, it must be borne in mind that her death did take place at a time when women, particularly from the lower classes, often died as a result of complications during childbirth at home. Her death could also be attributed to one of the many epidemics which were rife at the time in 19th-century Europe.
Having been left a young widower with a small daughter to bring up, and probably with his own, long-lasting working hours as a carpenter to fill, it is not surprising that Henry Edward decided to marry again, which he did in late 1859. His second wife, Sarah Foizey, was roughly the same age as him; soon after his second wedding took place, Henry Edward’s new wife found herself pregnant. A year after the marriage, their first daughter, Mary Elizabeth Vickress was born in Pensnett, Dudley. Their next daughter, Mary Ann, was born in 1862, but the child died within a year. Shortly thereafter, Sarah had yet another daughter, who was christened Mercy. It seems that for another four years there were no more babies born to the family, but by the end of 1867 another daughter, Jane, had joined their household. Little Jane was soon followed by a little brother, Henry Edward’s first and only son, who was christened William Henry (William was the child’s paternal grandfather’s name, and Henry was obviously bestowed on him in honour of the baby’s father). Tragedy struck the family again in 1872 when both Jane and William Henry, who were aged 4 and 3 respectively, died within weeks of each other. The birth in 1873 of another daughter, Drusilla (so named after one of her many paternal aunts) gave the family a short-lived amount of happiness: Drusilla also died later that same year. In all, within 14 years marriage, Henry Edward and Sarah Vickress had lost four out of six children, surely a high proportion even for those days. By 1874 Henry Edward had only three surviving daughters: from his first marriage he had Caroline Ann, a domestic servant who was aged 19 at the time, plus Mary Elizabeth, then 14, and Mercy, aged 11, from his second.
Henry Edward Vickress died of pulmonary tuberculosis in September 1875, at the age of 44. If his children had died in such a quick succession and at such a young age, it is quite possible that they all or some had caught tuberculosis too, given the poor and probably unhygienic circumstances they lived in.
Henry Edward’s widow, Sarah, was probably left poverty-stricken and almost certainly without a pension to live on, which is why she would have had to start to work as a washerwoman. According to the 1881 census, she was living with her youngest daughter, 18 year-old Mercy, who was an unemployed house servant at the time. Meanwhile, Sarah’s eldest daughter Mary Elizabeth was living elsewhere, as was her step-daughter Caroline Ann, employed in Warwickshire as a servant at the house of a Mr and Mrs Joseph Priddey.
Later that year, Sarah died at the age of 52. This meant that her daughter Mercy was left to fend for herself; aged just 18, without a job, and still very young, I imagine she eventually “fell in the wrong hands” and became pregnant four years later, giving birth to an illegitimate son in late 1885. The baby, christened Arthur, lived only for two days, and Mercy herself succumbed to phthisis (tuberculosis) the following February, not having reached her 23rd birthday. Thanks to available probate records, we know that what little money and possessions she had left (with a total value of only 5 pounds, 5 shillings and 5 pence) were inherited by her elder sister Mary Elizabeth, whose fate remains a mystery, as she disappears from the censuses after 1886.
As for their older half-sister Caroline Ann, I have found out that she never married either, and died in King’s Norton, Birmingham, aged 36 in late 1891 (although tracing her on the census of that year is proving an impossible task; can anyone help?). Thus, this rather tragic side of the Vickress family came to a sudden end, after years of poverty, human loss and misery. I am grateful my great-great-grandmother’s parents decided to stay put in Hope-under-Dinmore, and thus escaped the dirt and pollution of the factories for a couple of generations more.