|It's Jesus. Hallelujah!|
We found him on a gravestone in the Radnorshire village of Nantmel, Wales, while looking for the graves of my grandfather's cousins, Mary and Joseph Hathaway.
We've just had a short break in Mid-Wales and were casually driving around after an Indian meal in Builth Wells, when I noticed a turning to Nantmel, a name which has fascinated me since the early days of my family history research because, for reasons not entirely clear, my maternal grandfather's uncle lived there, so we decided to go and look for these graves, or to see if there were any Hathaways buried there.
Mary's and Joseph's story is an interesting and sad little one but all too typical of the times, and it tells the social history of England and Wales in the 19th-Century.
Young Joseph Hathaway was a carter on a farm in the Wychwood Forest village of Leafield near Witney, Oxfordshire. He was born in nearby Crawley, the son of George Joseph Hathaway and Anne Greenaway. George Joseph Hathaway was the son of master blanket weaver George Hathaway and Sarah Early, the sister of the founders of the Early Witney Blanket dynasty.
The Guild of Witney Blanket Weavers, member of which served a long apprenticeship under a master, had been granted a charter by King James II and had exclusive title to the name 'Witney Blanket' which had to be made by guild members within one mile of the Witney market cross known as the Buttercross. To be a master blanket weaver was to be a person of some importance as Witney Blankets were an important outlet for wool produced in the surrounding countryside and Cotswolds, and a major export. It was often passed on from father to son (blanket weaving was an exclusively male occupation).
Sarah Early, born 1777, evidently married unwisely. Whilst her cousins and their descendants were getting richer and richer, receiving knighthoods and marrying into the aristocracy, Sarah's grandchildren were agricultural labourers at or near the bottom of the social pile.
By the time Joseph, my grandfather's uncle, was born in 1837, master blanket weavers were no more and Witney Blankets were being made on an industrial scale by first water-powered then steam powered and eventually electricity-powered looms. The Early factory was where the first flying shuttle was used. The Early and Marriott families had cornered the market and now held the trademark and exclusive manufacturing rights for Witney Blankets.
So, Sarah Early's grandchildren were agricultural labourers, having been driven out of their family trade by industrialisation with no real alternative employment available, ironically, just at the time when farms were starting to become mechanised too and the market for unskilled labour was beginning to disappear.
But, our Joseph was a carter on a farm - a man of some skill; not entirely at the bottom but not far off it. Carters looked after the horses and their tack as well as their carts. Joseph obviously had the respect of his boss, Thomas Busby, because, when Thomas decided to sell his Oxfordshire farm and buy one in Radnorshire, Wales, he took Joseph with him, maybe to drive the cart on which his possessions would have been taken to Wales, possibly along with his family.
So, in the 1861 census, 23 year-old Joseph Hathaway is a carter for Thomas Busby. Moving to Wales in those days would have been like going to the other side of the world. He seems to have lost contact with his family as my mother had no recollection of a 'Great Uncle Joseph', or any recollection of anyone ever talking about relatives in Wales. Until I did a little genealogy no one in my family was aware of this Joseph Hathaway. None of my cousins can recall my grandfather mentioning an 'Uncle Jo/Joseph'.
Church of St Cynllo, Nantmel, Powys
Photo © Martin Crampin
But, by the 1881 census, Mary is dead, having died in 1879, aged 49, and Joseph's two children are now living with their uncle, Evan Evans, still in Nantmel. Joseph is living as a boarder in Llantrisant, Glamorganshire, some 70 miles south of Nantmel, and working as a coalminer. Has he deserted his family? Has he been forced to go into the expanding South Wales coal fields to look for work because he's lost his job? This was a time when the Welsh countryside was being depopulated as former agricultural workers moved into the growing industrial towns and coalfields in England and South Wales. In the closed, Welsh community of that time, Joseph might well have been an outsider unwelcomed and unwanted. I simply don't know, but his two teenage children are living, probably by default, with their unmarried uncle, himself an agricultural labourer. It can't have been easy for them.
And in 1884, Mary Anne Hathaway died, aged just 17, on the brink of adulthood and maybe looking forward to a family of her own. From then on, there is no definite record of Joseph Hathaway, Jr. in any census or birth, marriage or death records. Did he die or emigrate? The only possible record is that of a certain Joseph Hathaway, born in 1869 in an unspecified place, who was killed in a WWII air raid on 23 June 1943 in Hull, Yorkshire. Possibly my grandfather's cousin but nothing definite to link to him though there were few Joseph Hathaways born in 1869.
In 1891, Evan Evans is living alone, still in Nantmel and Joseph Hathaway, Sr. is still a coalminer, now living in Llanwonno, Glamorganshire, in the heart of Cwm Rhondda, with his new wife, Sophia. Sophia is Sophia Knight from St. Austell in Cornwall, the widow of John Allen, a former Cornish tin miner who went to South Wales as a coalminer probably when the tin mine shut down. Joseph and Sophia are childless, though Sophia had at least seven children from her first marriage. Joseph is still confused about his age and now says he's 50, i.e., born in 1841. He also gives his place of birth as Nantmel. Has he forgotten his birthplace or put it out of his mind, for some reason?
Living with them is a Mabel Jordan, 9 months old, born in Pontypridd and recorded in the census as their adopted daughter.
In 1901 Joseph and Sophia are living in Ystraddyfodwg, Glamorganshire with Sophia's son John Allen and his wife, Alice. Joseph is now a general labourer, gives his age as 65 (i.e.born in 1836) and gives his place of birth as Rhayader, (the main town near Nantmel) and Mabel Jordan isn't with them. Sophia died that same year and Joseph in 1905.
There we have the story of Joseph Hathaway from Crawley, near Witney, Oxfordshire, who went to Wales probably because it had at least as much to offer him as Oxfordshire did and who then seems to have been hostage to fortune; a life controlled more by the social and economic forces around him than by his own volition, and who probably went into the coal mines because there was no alternative (why else would anyone be a coal miner?). Did he desert his children and leave them to be raised by an uncle when his wife died, or did he go to look for work with which to support them? There is no way of knowing, of course. You could probably string these facts into any number of narratives but undeniable in it all is the fact that life for ordinary people in those days was, by and large, determined for them; they had very few real choices in life.
In Witney, the former skilled master blanket weavers had their trade deskilled by mechanisation and the surplus value of the factory workers served to enrich a few at the expense of the many. A job you once took a pride in was now a drudge - just a way to make ends meet in a town with no real alternatives.
In Wales, mechanisation of the farms freed up surplus labour to work in the coalfields while the ordinary working person lived in over-crowded conditions in which people, especially women, died young, men often had no alternative but to leave their families to go look for work and children died in childhood for any number of reasons, foremost amongst them being lack of medical care, poor hygiene and frequently under-nourishment or of conditions made worse by under-nourishment. Meanwhile, Bible thumping fire and brimstone ministers of religion told the people that this was what God intended; that their only hope of something better later was to accept their suffering humbly whilst thanking God for the privilege, and all because of Adam and Eve's sin, for which they were personally responsible - like it or else!
Joseph Hathaway, knowingly or not, live through that and had his life shaped by it, yet, for reasons we don't know, found the humanity to adopt a 9 month old child when the need arose. It would be nice to think it was because he was a good, kind, caring, humanitarian, and maybe he was. Maybe his deep regret at the loss of his family was what now motivated him. I do hope so, though I fear it may have been less noble.
When I began to research this about ten years ago and found out some of these details, my enthusiasm for genealogy was at its height and I was becoming immersed in my family history - much of it new to me. I have often heard others say that when you research your family tree, people previously unknown to you and long dead come alive and become real people again in your mind. I sometime feel that finding out about them and putting their story online is recognising that they were real people with real, interesting lives who deserve to be remembered in ways other than a mere mention in official records somewhere, no matter how humble.
The story of young Mary and Joseph Hathaway really got to me; a mixture of anger, helplessness and love for these two young people getting such a rough deal. These were my people; they could have been any of my ancestors. What people could have been alive today if they had drawn a longer straw in the lottery of life?
It affected me so much that on one occasion I woke up in the middle of the night and, in that strange world between asleep and awake, decided it was up to me to do something about those two poor little kids whose mother had died and whose father had left them with an uncle; to show them that somebody cared. I actually got out of bed at about 3 in the morning, intending to drive to South Wales to sort things out when I realised that this all happened 150 years ago.
I got back into bed not sure if I was relieved or not; relieved that it wasn't for me to sort the problem out but sad that probably no one had.
We didn't find Mary Anne's or Joseph Hathaway's grave or that of there mother, Mary Hathaway nee Evans. Many of the gravestones were too eroded to read and many were mere token headstones with initials and a year - graves of poor people who no-one thought worthy of remembering with anything more substantial. There were lots of Evans, of course but no Hathaways that we could read. I wish I could tell Mary Anne and Joseph Hathaway that someone cares!
And presiding over all this, so we are assured by Christians, is a god of love and mercy upon whom we can depend to love and protect us, and for whom there is about as much real evidence as there is in the pattern in the lichen on a Nantmel gravestone. Where was this Jesus thing when little Mary and Joseph Hathaway needed him?
I guess it was all their fault for just being born as human beings in the wrong place and at the wrong time.