I was moved by a recent post from the Legal Genealogist, Judy G Russell, about the loss of children in her extended family. I knew that my great-great grandparents, James and Emma Purcell, had suffered a shattering blow and when I realised that today, 164 years ago, had been the birth of the first of those children, I felt their story had to be told.
James Purcell had married Emma (sometimes Emily) Billington on 23 March 1851 at St. Mary’s in Nantwich, Cheshire. James was a cordwainer in Nantwich’s notable little boot and shoe manufacturing industry, as were his father and father-in-law. Indeed, even Emma was involved, being recorded in the census of a week later as a shoe-binder. When their first child, Edwin, was born on 22 June 1851, no doubt everyone would have been pleased (provided they didn’t count the months back to the wedding and care about the answer).
Two years later, their daughter Mary made her way into the world in Beam St., Nantwich, on 23 September 1853, followed sometime in 1857 by Thomas.
Sadly, in April 1858, Mary caught measles and died from the effects of this and pneumonia on 19 April. Mary’s grandmother and namesake, Mary Purcell, was with her when she died, registering the death two days later, on the day of her funeral. Somehow, seeing that extra detail of family support, adds to the poignancy of the occasion, especially when you understand that the elder Mary had previously buried three of her own children.
Burying a child was hardly unknown in those years of infant mortality – but it was what happened next that chills. Two years later, in February 1860, Thomas caught scarlet fever and died on 22 February after four days. Once again, it was grandmother Mary Purcell who was there when he died and who registered the death for his parents.
The other grandparents were also helping out, for it seems that 8 year old Edwin, James and Emma’s eldest, had been sent to stay with his Billington grandparents in Beam St., across the fields from the hamlet of Vauxhall where his parents now lived. It seems likely that he’d been sent there when Thomas had been diagnosed – whether to save his parents work or to try to get him out of the way of infection, we cannot know. But in the final, sickening blow, Edwin went down with scarlet fever as well and died exactly one week after his little brother, on 29 February 1860. This time it was the children’s maternal grandfather, Thomas Billington, who had the melancholy job of registering the death.
As March 1860 came round, whether there was weeping or stoic silence in the Purcell’s house in Vauxhall we cannot know. What we do know is that my great-great grandparents, James and Emma Purcell, had buried all of their children – and that’s not the way it’s supposed to be.
All three were buried in the cemetery at The Barony, just across from the houses at Vauxhall. Across from a house that had no sounds of children.
Unlike some families, there were no swift replacements – the census of 1861 shows James and Emma, both 30 years old, both quietly working in the boot and shoe industry. On their own.
It wasn’t until young James (Jim) was born in 1862 that they had children again. Jim was followed in 1865 by William John (Bill), then finally in 1870 by my great-grandmother, Elizabeth Frances Purcell. And this time no-one made the journey across the road into the cemetery until Emma’s own death in 1901.