The curious private life of Mary Willoughby

The grounds of Colwall church, where Thomas Eacock married my relative Mary Willoughby in 1880. Photo: private collection.

On 23rd December 1880, a wedding took place in the church of Saint James the Great, Colwall, at the foot of the Malvern Hills which separate Herefordshire from Worcestershire. The bride was twenty-five-year-old Mary Willoughby, my great-grandfather’s third cousin and contemporary (both grew up in Colwall, and therefore it is very likely that they knew each other). The groom was Thomas Eacock, a fellow Colwallian general labourer who had recently turned forty.

The couple must have known each other for a long time. Mary’s aunt Elizabeth had married Thomas’s uncle John in 1840, and as they were both alive in 1880, it could be supposed that they may have had some hand in bringing the couple together, particularly as John and Elizabeth’s marriage had remained childless.

Both the Eacock and the Willoughby families were modest, well-established, prosperous members of the tightly-knit Colwallian community and a long-time part of the fabric of the local society – their presence in the village went back several generations. The match would have seemed, therefore, as a logical step toward cementing ties between families of equal standing.

We cannot know, given the lack of documents such as private letters and diaries, whether Mary Willoughby entered the marriage willingly, or whether she was in any way forced into connubial life. The fact that she became pregnant almost immediately, and welcomed a son a mere year after the wedding, may suggest the couple were content enough with each other at first.

However, within three years, the situation began to change. In 1881 uncle John passed away, followed by aunt Elizabeth the following year. Within months, the two individuals who may well have been instrumental in bringing about the marriage and supporting the couple through a plausibly rocky start, were out of the picture. In 1884, twenty-nine year-old Mary gave birth to another son, Gilbert.

In light of the circumstances, we would expect Thomas and Mary to appear living together on the 1891 census. And yet, this is not the case. Fifty-year-old Thomas is shown living with his widowed mother at The Terrace, near Yew Tree Cottage, in Colwall. His marital status, surprisingly, is given as S (single). And what of Mary and the children?

A search for Mary Eacock, or even a Mary Willoughby, yields no results, but by searching for Gilbert -the couple’s second-born son- we find her living in Evendine, in Colwall, listed as the wife of Adam Clarke, a local seventy-year-old grocer. It would appear that by then Mary had rebuilt her life in the company of another, much older man, and while there is no trace of a marriage between her and Mr Clarke -whose own wife had died in 1887 after providing him with five children- they do appear to have been genuinely fond of each other.

By 1891 Mary and her new “husband” had become the parents of two children, Leonora and John. What is striking is that the children were born within close distance of where Mary’s first husband Thomas Eacock lived. The fact that a marriage for the couple cannot be found may explain why neither Leonora nor baby John seem to have been recorded in the local registry office in Ledbury – at least, not under the surname of Clarke, Willoughby or even Eacock. But in time this rather unusual -and, dare one presume scandalous?- set-up may have become too much to bear for the local inhabitants of Colwall, and Adam Clarke packed his family and his bags, moving them all to Pershore, in neighbouring Worcestershire. They arrived just in time for the birth of their next child, Francis James Clarke – who, perhaps not coincidentally, was registered in the registry office, with his mother’s maiden name as Willinghby (sic). It seems likely that, without close acquaintances living nearby, the couple were able to start afresh and pose as a married couple, churning out children every couple of years, possibly under the cover of the mother’s assumed maiden name.

And that seems to be precisely what they did. By the mid-1890s the family had settled in Alderminster, and in 1894 and 1896 the couple welcomed two more sons, Reginald Edward Clarke and Edwin (in the first case, the mother’s maiden name is recorded as Willoughby, while in Edwin’s case it appears once again as Willinghby). The family’s somewhat impermanent existence continued until the end of the decade, when in Northamptonshire Mary gave birth to her and Adam’s sixth -and last- child, Wallace Evelyn Clarke.

In 1901 Mary Clarke and her second family were recorded living in Darton, West Yorkshire. While Adam continued to work as a grocer/shopkeeper, their children attended a local school. Happily, Mary was able to continue living with her children from her marriage to Thomas Eacock, who in turn was listed as a boarder living in Barton Villa, in Colwall – and, curiously, gave his marital status as married!

The Clarkes’ constant movements from county to county, first into Worcestershire, then Northamptonshire, and finally to Yorkshire, leads one to wonder if perhaps stories of Mary’s private affairs had caught up with them. Whatever their motives, the family seems to have found some sort of respite in the North. In 1904 news must have reached them that Mary’s first husband, Thomas Eacock, had died, having spent the remainder of his life tending to his ageing mother.

In 1909 Adam Clarke himself died in Belper, Derbyshire – what motives had taken him there remain unknown. Mary remained in Yorkshire, settling in Huddersfield with most of her children – including her son by her first marriage, who now went by the name of Harry Clarke, and not Harry Eacock.

1916.11.08 (PRESS) Reginald Clarke, Leeds Mercury

Notice published in the Leeds Mercury in November 1916, reporting the death of Mary’s son Reginald. Simultaneously, her other son, Edwin, was reported wounded.

In 1914, the inevitable Great War broke out, and like many other millions, several of Mary’s sons were called up by a needful nation. Her twenty-two year-old son Reginald joined the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, and was sent overseas to France, where he saw action in one of the bloodiest battles of WWI: the battle of the Somme. There, on 15 September 1916, during the battle of Flers-Courcelette, Reginald was killed in action. His name is today remembered on the Thiepval Memorial.

Mary reflected the pain of her loss in a touching poem she wrote in memory of Reginald. Several family trees online state that another of her sons, John Clarke, died on 1 August 1917, but the soldier with that name who died on the said date is another man altogether. However, one of her younger sons, Edwin, did fight in WWI and was reported wounded at the end of 1916 (at the same time when the local newspapers reported his brother Reginald’s death). What became of Edwin remains, at least for now, a mystery.

What we do know is that Mary did not live much beyond the end of the war itself – her death was registered in Huddersfield in late 1919 -, and she may well have been a victim of the Spanish Flu epidemic which raged across Europe at the time.

Thus drew to a close the life of an unusual, seemingly headstrong and by the look of it courageous woman. I would love to see a photo of her, and to get in touch with any possible living descendants. If anyone out there is related to Mary Willoughby Eacock Clarke and wishes to contact me, feel free to do so by leaving a comment below.

Poem written by Mary Eacock “Clarke” (née Willoughby) in memory of her son Reginald James Clarke, who was killed in action in 1916.

This entry was posted in 1881 Census, 1891 Census, 1901 Census, Birth, Colwall, Colwall Soldiers, Divorce, France, Genealogy, Herefordshire, Marriage, Worcestershire, World War I, Yorkshire. Bookmark the permalink.

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