"Every Genealogy tells a Story" by Stuart Robinson
An Extinct Genealogy
If you are you in the mood for dusting down a piece of history I will take you back in time to the eighteenth century and relate the tragedy of an extinct genealogy. The past, as L. P. Hartley famously wrote, is a different country where they did things differently. Nevertheless we can all empathise with characters in this drama, which begins a few miles away from the Black Country. Imagine that it is now the winter of the year 1749.
On Tuesday seventh November Elizabeth Beardsly otherwise Beasly (sic) and her two daughters were apprehended in Kidderminster for vagrancy, lodging in the open air and begging. Mary was an illegitimate daughter who was baptised at Halesowen in October 1746, 'daughter of Elizabeth Beardsley' while the younger, Elizabeth, was only about fourteen weeks old and presumably also illegitimate. Their mother was questioned by Thomas Lea, the bailiff, an official who was both borough treasurer and secretary. Elizabeth didn't have a settlement certificate, but she claimed on oath that her place of settlement was in the Parish of Halesowen. However, she died very soon after the examination otherwise she might have been punished by a term in a House of Correction or even whipping before removal to Halesowen. Since the sixteenth century vagabonds had been stripped to the waist and whipped in a public place. The law had been reaffirmed only a few years before the above incident by an Act of Parliament of 1744 and whipping of women was not abolished until 1792.
Three days after the examination the bailiff issued a removal order for the children with a duplicate copy to accompany them as they were taken, possibly in an open cart, to Parish officers in Halesowen passing through Churchill and Hagley on their way. The copy survived in Halesowen Parish chest and 'Elizabeth Beardsley an infant of the town' was buried there on the seventeenth of November. So it seems that the Parish officers in Halesowen didn't contest the right of settlement and presumably Mary arrived there safely and was raised as an orphan.
It is a harrowing and incomplete story as we know next to nothing of the mother's earlier history. However, she was almost certainly the child baptised in Halesowen in December 1724 as the daughter of Richard and Eleanor Beardsly 'of the town'. Eleanor must have died when Elizabeth was a child because Richard took up with a new wife Sarah, not that any records of marriages exist for either Eleanor or Sarah. Elizabeth was thus only about twenty-four years old when she died in Kidderminster.
It is impossible to imagine today why a mother, her child and especially her baby were wandering about in winter without shelter from the weather and no means of support other than begging, which was illegal and severely punished. Elizabeth was hardly a chaste woman, but I can't say anything further. Encumbered by the two children, she could not have travelled very far without some help and it is surprising that anyone survived the ordeal. Any conclusions about the deaths of the mother and infant would be speculative, but the circumstances are very relevant to any discussion and I do not suspect 'rendition'. Living rough in November meant inadequate nourishment, poor hygiene and danger of exposure, a likely cause of the mother's demise. The mother could hardly have been expected to feed her baby properly and the situation might not have improved much after she had died. Specialised proprietary foodstuffs were not available and the infant probably needed a surrogate mother to stand a realistic chance of survival.
This human drama was played out against the background of the old Poor Laws. It was accepted that people who could not support themselves were deserving of support by their community through local taxation when no one else, such as a husband or father, could be held responsible. At the time community meant the Parish and the concept of settlement was established in 1662 to define where people belonged in case they became paupers. It was the bailiff's duty to ensure that the rate payers of Kidderminster only supported those who had a right to settlement in their borough. Parish Officers usually made stringent efforts to identify the father of an illegitimate infant and if successful they issued a bond making him responsible for the child or failing that the Parish would have supported them. Thomas Lea acted within the law, but forcing an infant to travel such a distance in winter seems particularly harsh. There were no Macadam roads or pneumatic tyres in the eighteenth century and it would have been a very uncomfortable and even risky journey.
There is neither a record for the burial of the mother Elizabeth in the Parish registers of St. Mary and All Saints in Kidderminster nor at St John the Baptist in Halesowen so Thomas Lea probably decided that she was not entitled to be buried in consecrated ground. If Elizabeth was indeed the daughter of Richard Beardsly then she had been baptised into the Anglican Church and the bailiff decided quite wrongly.
Reaching back further into the past and pursuing the identity of Elizabeth I discovered that it was not the first time that she had been caught up in the Poor Laws. The previous occasion was twenty years before in January 1729/30 (1729 on the old Julian calendar and 1730 on the new Gregorian). On that occasion it was her father Richard who was examined by Justices of the Peace in Old Swinford. Richard did not prove his right to settlement there and he put his mark to the paper which authorised his own removal to the Parish of Halesowen together with his 'wife' Sarah and his daughter Elizabeth, aged about four years. Clearly Elizabeth was the daughter of Eleanor and not Sarah. Nothing more is known about her until the events in Kidderminster described above though it appears that she was left to fend for herself at an early age. Notice that the removal order only specified the Parish and not the place. In those days Halesowen Parish incorporated many other settlements including Cradley.
There was yet another removal involving Sarah in October 1740, this time from Old Swinford to Cradley. A wife and children automatically acquired legal settlement in the same place as the husband as head of the family and Richard was last legally settled in the township of Cradeley (sic). This removal order included three children: Sarah aged about seven years, William almost six and Elizabeth aged about one year. The Beasleys were ever fond of using the same forenames and it was not surprising to find a second child called Elizabeth. Meanwhile Richard was a prisoner in Stafford county gaol for a felony. It appears that the family were destitute and Elizabeth, the daughter of the first 'marriage' was not mentioned. She was then only fifteen years old, her father was a criminal in gaol, her mother had apparently died and her step-mother was in a desperate state of affairs. Elizabeth's own situation became really desperate too when her own daughter Mary was born a few years later. Though only a fragment of her life has been recovered we can be sure that she didn't enjoy a comfortable childhood in a conventional nuclear family. Her step mother and sisters disappeared without trace though that doesn't necessarily mean that they didn't find support in Cradley.
That is really the end of the tragedy of a disreputable family at the foot of the social ladder. Their circumstances were very different to those of the Beasleys in Cradley who shared the same alias and whose genealogy is still extant. There were two separate dynasties of Beasleys in Cradley and though I have been unable to find the missing link between them the patriarchs of both were a William Beasley alias Beardsley. The Richard in my story was christened in Halesowen circa 1700 and was the son of William and Mary 'of the town'. In other words Richard was born in Halesowen town itself and not one of the outlying settlements in the large Parish. Richard's legal settlement in Cradley suggests there was a connection with the Cradley families, but the evidence is inconclusive.
The three families also shared the same alias. Linguistic aliases arose because surnames were pronounced differently. When they were written down the writer spelled it the way it was heard and this gave rise to a variety of spellings. Actually most people used a kind of phonetic spelling anyway. There is plenty of implicit evidence for the above alias in the Parish registers of Halesowen where different spellings obviously referred to the same person. Aliases are seldom written down and the removal order of 1749 is the sole explicit reference to this one. However, it is something of a mystery as to how that came about. Thomas Lea's clerk used it to establish Elizabeth's identity beyond reasonable doubt. By contrast spelling would have meant nothing to her as she was almost certainly illiterate given her circumstances and the fact that her father Richard could only make a mark. The family were known in Halesowen, Cradley and in the neighbouring Parish of Old Swinford, but it was a surprise to find one of them in Kidderminster which was not part of their 'country'. Since it was unlikely that Elizabeth told him, Thomas Lea must either have already known about the alias or he had made a full enquiry in Halesowen.
The simple explanation for the alias is that when the Beasleys of Cradley and Halesowen spoke their surname it sounded more like Beardsley than Beasley to the clergy and clerks of Halesowen. The corollary is that all three families spoke with a very similar voice, possibly the legendary Cradley dialect, and they shared a common root long before the ancestral forest of Beasleys flourished in Cradley in the 18th and 19th centuries. Several family historians, including myself, are researching the Cradley Beasleys and we are all descended from one of the two unions: William and Elizabeth or William and Martha, who married in 1690/1 and 1732 respectively. The Holy Grail of all family historians is to discover the original sapling, the origin of their surname, but that remains elusive where the Cradley Beasleys are concerned.
I have brought you home to Cradley. It has been a pleasure to be your guide, but I will let you find your own way back to the twenty-first century.
Parish Registers of St John the Baptist, Halesowen and St Mary, Kidderminster.
Quarter Sessions Records, Worcester Record Office: 1/1/325/4 22 October 1740.
Removal Order, copy of Parish of St John the Baptist, Halesowen, accession 8643, Dudley Archives and Local History Service.
Settlement examination, Old Swinford, Worcester Record Office: BA 9150
Cole, Anne (1993) Poor Law Documents before 1834, Federation of Family History Societies, Birmingham.
Slack, Paul (1995) The English Poor Law, 1531-1782, Cambridge University Press.
Redmonds, George (2002) Surnames and Genealogy: A New Approach, Federation of Family History Societies, Bury.
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