A Matriarch’s Ordeal

Now that the weekend has slowly ebbed away, I can positively say that I wasted it away completely. Well, not entirely, because I spent most of it double-checking some collateral lines in my family tree which I had neglected for quite some time. You see, a family tree is like a bonsai tree, like a house plant: if you ignore it, you’ll forget it, and before you know it it will have become dated, aged, old, a stranger, and sooner or later, it will be as dead as the motives which led you to keep it in the first place. So please, people, don’t neglect your ancestors – or your house plants!

Colwall church, dedicated to St James the Great, 2010.

One of the many interesting things I have found over these last 48 hours is the story of Mary Willoughby, a very distant cousin related to me -I believe- through an 18th-century ancestor we both share. To be honest, I know very little about Mary herself. She was born in the Herefordshire village of Colwall in 1855, probably in spring or the summer, for her baptism took place in August of that same year. She had a younger sister, Sarah Anne, who died in infancy, and an elder sister, Martha, who by the 1870’s was enjoying (or enduring, who knows?) connubial life in nearby Staffordshire and churning out babies.

Mary herself soon ventured into matrimony, choosing as her companion a man almost a decade older than herself called Thomas Eacock. The Eacocks and the Willoughbys were close relations, as Thomas’s uncle John had married Mary’s aunt Elizabeth in 1840; this leads me to believe that someone in the family may have influenced Mary and Thomas to lure them into marriage.

Whatever the nature of the match, Mary soon became pregnant, and by 1884 had given birth to two sons , Harry and Gilbert, who were duly baptised in the local church of Saint James the Great. The next census, taken in 1891, revealed a drastic change in Mary’s personal circumstances. No longer the wife of Thomas Eacock, she is listed as the wife of a 70 year-old man named Adam Clarke, a butcher-turned-grocer from nearby Ledbury. Mary’s 9 year-old son Arthur is also living in the same household, while 6 year-old Gilbert is spending some time with his widowed maternal grandmother, Sarah Willoughby (née Smith). Despite their age difference (Adam was almost 30 years older than Mary), the couple also decided to start a family together, and by 1891 had welcomed two more babies into their household.

My next task was to try and find a marriage for Mary Eacock and Adam Clarke, whose wedding presumably would have taken place sometime between the death of Adam’s first wife (in 1887) and the birth of Adam’s first child from his marriage to Mary (1889). With such a narrow gap, it seemed odd that the marriage would be untraceable, and yet that is indeed the case. Considering the possibility that Mary’s second marriage may have gone unrecorded, I then thought of looking for her first husband’s death somewhere in the mid-to-late 1880’s. Again, I drew a blank.

I then decided to be a bit more open-minded about Mary’s story. Even at a time when social conventions were, to say the least, much more constrained than today, could her remarriage have taken place in some sort of unconventional way?

The1891 census again held some interesting clues. Not only had it revealed to me that Mary had started a new life by the side of old Adam Clarke, but it also showed that her first husband, Thomas Eacock, was still alive! Amazingly, Thomas and Mary’s marriage had broken down for some reason or another; the lack of existing records, as well as the improbable means that the couple would have had to cover the expenses for a divorce, make the idea of an official marital dissolution seem highly unlikely. There is a chance, I suppose, that the marriage was declared null and void for some reason, though the existence of two small boys discards any suggestion of sexual impotence on Thomas’s side.

Memorial to the King’s Royal Rifle Corps. Mary Willoughby’s son Reginald Clarke belonged to the 18th Battalion. He was killed in Flanders in 1916.

Whatever their reasons for parting, Mary and Thomas continued to live in Colwall (separately) for a while. We know that by 1901 Mary and her new, second family (together with her sons from her first marriage) had moved north to Yorkshire. In the meantime, three more babies had completed her common-law marital bliss with Adam. Meanwhile, Thomas Eacock remained in Colwall; his personal story seems to have been less exciting than his former wife’s, for he remained a constant companion to his widowed mother until her death in 1894, and never having remarried, died in 1904.

Mary’s “husband” Adam Clarke died in 1909 after fathering five children with her (he was also the father of at least five children from his previous marriage, some of whom were older than their new step-mother!), but Mary lived on ten more years. The Great War was very cruel to her, for one source mentions she lost two sons during the war (one loss has been confirmed, the other I need to check). In honour of one of them, called Reginald, Mary wrote a moving poem which commended her son’s comradeship, dedicating it to “A kind and faithful son. A good brother. A true pall. Was loved by all who knew him” and ends the short eulogy with the touching phrase “But watch and wait for me, dear lad, to meet in Paradise”. Her wish was granted in 1919, when she died aged 64.


This entry was posted in 1891 Census, 1901 Census, Bigamy, Colwall, Divorce, England, Genealogy, Killed In Action, Marriage, War, Women, Yorkshire. Bookmark the permalink.

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