The following is an account of a branch of my own family whose fascinating story has captivated me since I began researching my family tree many years ago. It is, you might say, a family saga, as it covers several generations who lived over a period of almost two hundred years.
The story begins in the early days of the 19th century, with a young man called Joel Orchard. Joel lived in Tenbury, Worcestershire, and worked as a tallow chandler (that’s someone who makes candles out of tallow, which is a type of animal fat) – he is referred to as such in various documents, such as Pigot’s Directory of 1835 and the 1841 English census. In 1832 Joel married Hannah Rogers and a few years later the couple welcomed their daughter, who was also named Hannah. Sadly, Joel’s wife died a very short time after giving birth to their baby, and so Joel was left a widower at the young age of 34. Just a year later he married for a second time, to Mary Bean, but the marriage remained childless – the 1841 census states that Mary was 55 at the time, while Joel was twenty years younger – the difference in age would certainly account for the lack of further children!
In 1846 Joel died leaving his daughter in uncertain circumstances (his second wife Mary disappeared from the picture entirely). Eight-year-old Hannah was sent to live with her paternal aunt, Mary Orchard, who is recorded in the next census as “a landed proprietress”. Although Aunt Mary would have reared Hannah, and in spite of having enough resources to keep a dairy maid, Hannah is shown on the 1851 census as a house maid – perhaps Aunty Mary wanted to make sure Hannah would be able to survive in the world by herself.
Only a year later, Hannah’s life changed considerably when Aunt Mary married William Vickress (my great-great-great-grandfather’s eldest brother), and settled in the small village of Marden, Herefordshire; although the marriage did not produce any issue, it did prove key to Hannah’s existence, as we will see shortly. Hannah was kept on as a sort of adoptive-daughter and companion to her aunt and new uncle, and at first seems to have stopped working altogether – perhaps as it was no longer economically necessary. However, as she got older, and following the untimely death in 1870 of her uncle, due to asthma, Hannah appears to have gone into service once again, and by 1871, she was working in Bodenham, in the household of a Mrs Honest. For a time, life must have seemed to repeat itself for Hannah and her lonely aunt.
Hannah might well have ended up a spinster until the end of her days, were it not for the fact that in the late 1870’s she accepted the advances of Alfred Vickress. Alfred was probably an old acquaintance of hers, as he was the youngest brother of her late uncle-by-marriage, William Vickress. Despite the generational gap, the pair were relatively close in age (only eight years apart), and it is quite possible that her Aunt Mary helped to arrange what would become the second union between a Vickress and an Orchard. The pair were married in 1877, and from then on Hannah would be not only her Aunt Mary’s niece, but also her sister-in-law. The couple would remain in Marden for the duration of their lives, in the company of their widowed aunt/sister-in-law Mary, who died thirteen years later.
While her husband earned a living as a master carpenter, Hannah ceased to work in order to bring up her two children: William Alfred Orchard Vickress and Sarah Mary Jane Vickress. The years went by peacefully and largely uneventfully. Aunt Mary died in her mid-70s in 1883. A few years later, in 1900 Hannah’s husband Alfred passed away suddenly due to syncope, leaving her in charge of their house, Litmarsh Farm, and their two children. Her last years were brightened by her son’s marriage and the arrival of two granddaughters, who perpetuated the Vickress-Orchard line into the 20th century. In 1915, Hannah died peacefully aged 77.
Hannah’s only son, William Alfred Orchard Vickress, was a farmer by profession, and inherited Litmarsh from his mother. His marriage to Alice Maria Taylor, daughter of a local inn-keeper, seems to have been harmonious, and was soon blessed by the arrival of two daughters: Violet and Rose Jane. Then, quite suddenly, matters changed dramatically in the late 1920’s. On 30th April 1927 William Alfred went to the cider mill next to his house in Marden, where he was joined shortly after breakfast by Thomas Bown, a one-armed seventy-five-year-old man who had been lodging in Litmarsh for the last six months. The reasons for what happened next are left unexplained, but further circumstantial evidence could suggest Bown and William Alfred’s youngest daughter Rose Jane may have become intimate. According to press clippings from the period, money was suggested to be at the root of the problem, and the relationship between Vickress and Bown had consequently been strained for some time. Whatever the case, Bown’s subsequent actions were deemed by the coroner’s inquest to be the result of insanity.
Thomas Bown confronted William Alfred with a gun, and shot him in the face. Upon hearing the noise, William Alfred’s wife and daughter Rose Jane (twenty-one years of age, unmarried and heavily pregnant) rushed to the barn, where Bown attempted to shoot the latter. The young woman was able to escape unharmed and seek help from a Mr Taylor (likely a relation of her mother’s) next door, but by the time the neighbour arrived all he saw was Bown pointing the gun under his chin and pulling the trigger, killing himself instantly. William Alfred was badly wounded but miraculously still alive, and was rushed to hospital in Hereford, where he died on the following day, 1st May. Only a fortnight later, his daughter Rose Jane, who had narrowly escaped death, gave birth to her son Reginald. The identity of the boy’s father remains unknown – I suspect Bown may have been having an affair with young Rose Jane, and an argument between him and her father could have been the cause for the Marden double tragedy, but this is nothing more than speculation, and we may never know the truth.
Despite the tragedy, Rose Jane remained in Marden, where she brought up her son with the help of her mother Alice. In 1931 her sister Violet, who had been living in Hereford for a number of years, also gave birth to an illegitimate child, Iris Mary Vickress, but before the year was out Violet had died due to a “tuberculous ulceration of the colon”. It appears that there was some pressure to give both children (Reginald, 4, and his baby cousin Iris Mary) up for adoption. It seems Rose Jane refused to be parted from her son, but Iris Mary, on the other hand, was taken away and put into one of Dr Barnardo’s homes for children.
Letters written two decades later testify that Iris Mary and her aunt Rose Jane did not see each other often, but enjoyed a warm relationship. Iris Mary seems to have done rather well in the home she was put in, located in Woodford, just north of London. Her letters to her aunt relate how she was put through college and then began working for the civil service in 1949. Her last letter, dated 1951, was written in Cardiff on board the ship Campania, where Iris Mary was working. The vessel had been decommissioned following the end of the war and refitted to host the Sea Travelling Exhibition travelling from Southampton, Dundee, Newcastle, Hull, Plymouth, Bristol, Cardiff, Belfast, Birkenhead and Glasgow. In this letter, Iris Mary asks her aunt whether the latter would be able to travel down to visit the ship while it was docked in Cardiff. Whether Iris Mary ever got to see her aunt in Cardiff or Marden is a mystery.
Rose Jane Vickress died in the early 1960’s, leaving her property to her only son Reg. Her niece Iris Mary, on the other hand, seems to have settled down far from her birthplace, and in 1953 married Donald Toon; their twins Donna and Paul were born three years later. Communications between the Toons and the Vickresses seem to have ceased several decades ago. Today, Reg’s only son continues to live in Marden, close to the farm where his great-grandfather was fatally shot in 1927. Litmarsh Farm still exists, and is now a bed & breakfast.
I would like to thank Les Vickress and his family for graciously providing me with valuable information about this branch of the family, which has enabled me to write this article. I would also like to take this opportunity to reach out to Iris Mary Toon (née Vickress) or any of her relatives, if they are interested in reconnecting with her family.