The mystery of John Davis: Part 1

For years I have been puzzled by the figure of my great-great-great-grandfather, John Davis, whose anonymous name, death and origins are as obscure as they can get. To explain why he represents such a mysterious to me, I should at least give you the few facts I know about his life (and by facts I mean anything which I have been able to piece together from the few available sources).

John Davis was born at the beginning of the 19th century in the small Herefordshire village of Colwall, on the fringes of the border with the neighbouring county of Worcestershire. He first appears on the census in 1841, a middle-aged man living on the Wyche Road in Upper Colwall with his first wife Ann and their three children, Ann (13), Hannah (11) and John (9). Unlike John and his daughters, John’s wife and son are listed as not being born in the county, i.e. they were born outside of Herefordshire. John’s profession on the form is given as carpenter, and he is listed as being 35 or over (i.e. he would have been between 35 and 39, as ages were rounded down in that census to the nearest 5 year span). This also means he could have been born at any point between 1806 and 1802.

I know I am descended from John’s second marriage, to my three-times great-grandmother Maria Parker, which took place in 1845 in Mathon, Worcestershire following the death of his first wife Ann in 1843. Their marriage certificate consistently lists John as a widower,  and his profession is once again given as a carpenter. The marriage certificate for his second marriage does not mention John’s age at the time (it only says “full age”, meaning he was 21 or older), but it does state his father’s name as John Davis, a labourer. Rather helpfully, the census form also states John was born in Colwall.

The details one can gleam from the the two census entries explicitly state that he was born towards 1803/1804 in Colwall, and that his father was also named John. This means he could well have been the John Davis who was baptised in Colwall on 5 April 1807, the son of John Davis and his wife Phoebe (née Shuter). But this John seems to have been born a bit too late to be our man. There is a possible alternative in another John Davis who was baptised in Colwall on 26 June 1803, the illegitimate son of Mary Davis. Mary Davis was herself the daughter of a farmer called John Davis – could he be the “father” our John included in his 1845 marriage certificate? After all, John was not married in his native village, so perhaps not everyone knew about his real parentage.

Fast-forward six years to the 1851 census and John still appears to be living in Colwall with his second wife and their four year-old daughter (his daughters from his first marriage are by now living in the parish of St Clement’s in Worcester). Again, John’s profession is given as a carpenter, and he is listed as being 46 years old (so, born in or around 1804-1805). If we care to look at the 1861 census, which is the last time John would be recorded on such a document, we will find that he is living in Colwall, still married and with his youngest daughter under his roof, working as a wood dealer. His age, again consistently with previous censuses, is 56 (so, born 1805).

John Davis does not appear on the 1871 census because he had died by then. This is confirmed by his wife’s remarriage to a man called John Maisey in November 1868. The couple are in fact listed, still living in Colwall, in 1871. This means that John Davis would have died sometime between 1861 and 1868, when his wife remarried.

So far, that is all I have been able to prove, and so here come the questions and doubts:

Rather usefully, or so I thought, the burials for Colwall up to 1863 are publicly available on an Internet website. This enabled me to look for a possible death for John Davis between the last census he was mentioned in and the end date of the source. No results matched my criteria, even if I looked for the alternative spelling of Davies. Thus I concluded he must have died after 1863 but before 1868. And so, several years ago I ordered the death certificate for John Davis. The likeliest candidate seemed one John Davis who died in the Ledbury registration district in 1866, aged 62 (given the ages stated on the census returns). I sent for that one, but the document I received has made me wonder whether I have the right man: the certificate is for a John Davis, who did indeed die in Colwall, and being 62 at the time, he would have been born in c. 1804, which matches my earlier deduction from the 1841 census, and so on. However, the man on the certificate is not a carpenter or wood dealer, but an innkeeper! Rather more surprisingly, the person who registered the death is a Mary Carless, of Back Lane, Ledbury. This woman, whoever she was, bears no similarity to any other name I have on the tree, and therefore I cannot conclude she was related to John Davis at all.

The coincidence of age, name and location seemed to confirm I was on the right track, but the disparity in profession has haunted me ever since. Could there be a second John Davis whose death was the one I was looking for? Another search on the FreeBMD index shows there are at least two other possible candidates who died within the right time-frame in the Ledbury registration district: John Davis, no age given, died in the third quarter of 1864, and John Davis, aged 66, who died in the third quarter of 1868 (so, born 1802).

While I cannot conclude that the first of these two alternatives is or is not my ancestor, the second one seems a bit more promising – again, his age at the time of death seems to fit the census entry of 1841, but not the ones of 1851 and 1861. However, ages are notoriously unreliable in the census, and it may well be significant to note that this John Davis would have died within weeks of his widow’s remarriage…

It seems a bit of a gamble to order a second death certificate without actual proof that I am on the right track, and I may need to ask someone to pay a visit to the Hereford Records Office and see if they can unearth a burial record, but if that doesn’t work out I may need to fork out the £9.25 for a new death certificate. Phew! Let’s start counting the pennies!

This entry was posted in 1841 Census, 1851 Census, 1861 Census, 1871 Census, Birth, Colwall, Death, England, Genealogy, Herefordshire, Marriage, Worcestershire, Work. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The mystery of John Davis: Part 1

  1. Have you perhaps looked for Mary Carless on the census or for a John Davis who is an innkeeper, just to rule things out. You could also look up John Davis in historical directories to see if there are two: one a carpenter and one an innkeeper. Mary could be a daughter, niece or fancy woman of John Davis. Just some quick ideas.

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