One who works with iron

Smith, “one who works with iron”, is an occupational name for a worker in metal, from Middle English smith (Old English smið, or smid, probably a derivative of smitan ‘to strike, hammer’). Metal-working was one of the earliest occupations for which specialist skills were required, and its importance ensured that this term and its equivalents were perhaps the most widespread of all occupational surnames in Europe. Medieval smiths were important not only in making horseshoes, plowshares, and other domestic articles, but above all for their skill in forging swords, other weapons, and armour. With this background in mind, all Smiths should wear their name with pride.

Wales to Gloucestershire: David Jones Smith

Our ancestry research has so far traced this particular family line back to Haverfordwest in Pembrokeshire, Wales, where David Jones Smith was born in 1807 of John and Briget Smith. Jones is another very common surname of English and Welsh origins, meaning “John’s son”. It is most common in Wales and south central England.

Coleford Market Place
Coleford Market Place

David was by occupation a carpenter and cabinet maker who moved to Coleford, in the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire, just a few miles from the Welsh border and he is to be found in the 1841 Census married to Hannah Hawkins, with two children, one of whom is our great-grandfather John, an apprentice and a domestic servant. Having an apprentice suggests he ran his own business.

Coleford was a market town and a manufacturing centre by then, long-established as an iron-making centre with local iron ore and coal works, although soon to be over-taken by other British iron and steel centres. Our family in 1841 lived at Whitecliff where there had been an iron furnace. Wood would have been in plentiful supply for wood-working and traditionally was, as charcoal, an energy source for iron smelting.

John Smith, his Irish bride and London town

Mary Jane McSheehy
Mary Jane McSheehy

David’s son John, our great-grandfather, next appears in Ireland in 1860, why we do not know, except that it is where he finds love since he marries Mary Jane McSheehy in Tralee, Co. Kerry. Her mother, Jane Gloster had married John Sheehy, as he was called, a saddler with premises in Russell Street, Tralee (according to Griffiths’ Valuation of 1852) and Mary was born in 1841. Jane’s father, Maurice Gloster was from Tralee but he served for a while as a sergeant in the Tarbert Fencibles formed in Limerick during the Napoleonic Wars. When he married his wife Mary Jane Flaherty on 2 July 1800 he is shown in the Church of Ireland (ie Protestant) register as a sergeant. Mary Jane McSheey received a Catholic baptism, it should be said, Catholics by then freed from the prohibitive restrictions under Catholic Emancipation in 1829.

Here is the Smith-Gloster family line (Click to enlarge)

One year later we find John Smith in the 1861 census in London with Mary, her sister Morgiana (probably really called Margaret according to baptism records), and a baby daughter Lily, in the Regents Park area of St Pancras. He describes himself as a house decorator.

victorian interior design living room

While we do not yet know any detail about John’s activities, a house decorator of the mid-19th century was a far cry from the painter and decorator of today. Aristocratic dwellings were being joined by an emerging and increasingly affluent middle class in choosing to elaborately furnish and decorate their houses, frequently with very decorative wallpaper and even directly-painted pictures. It is interesting to note that John’s father was a cabinet-maker, since such people did carry out decoration projects as part of an interior design whole. One profession links with the other. Also, later on, John is found in the 1871 census as a lodger in Kent, one may perhaps infer working away from home as a decorator, and later still he describes himself as an “artist” in his children’s baptism certificates. The use of the words “art” and “artist” can be found in literature of the time about this work. Where they lived, in and around Fulham, was a centre for artists to gather. William Morris, perhaps one of the most well-known interior designers, furnishers, fabric makers and decorators of the period, was far more than simply a painter and more akin to an artist, himself one of the founders of the Arts and Crafts Movement.

An emerging suburban middle class

One of the great social changes of 19th century Britain was the growth of a suburban and educated middle class. Aided by the construction of railways into conurbations, big cities became surrounded by outer rings of large, solid detached or semi-detached “villas” employing servants and where the breadearner would commute by train, tram and omnibus to the centre to work.

Hammersmith Grove

Our family lived at first in multi-occupancy houses next to Regents Park but by the 1871 census are to be found in Fulham, then on the edge of an expanding London, in terraced houses in not so salubrious areas, in Shuter’s Terrace, in Mund St (see on Booth’s map, 1898) and then in Pownall Road. However, leap to the 1891 census and the family are in Hammersmith Grove with a servant, a distinct social advancement. Mary has now renamed herself Maud, styles herself as “living on own means” and is with her four now-adult children. Lily is a school teacher, John Henry, our grandfather and currently-named “Harry”, and his brother Herbert are clerks and Sidney is a foreign correspondent. Mary is now a widow and as yet we do not know John’s fate, there being far too many John Smiths!

Having a servant would typically be a major distinguisher of social status and also of great practical value, since such a person would clean and cook and thus free the woman for other activities of a more cultivated kind. The occupations of the children are also major statements of the changes of the period. All would be dependent on an education, now nation-wide since the Forster Education of 1870. Being a school-teacher was a sign of the growing independence of women in the age just before female suffrage became a big issue. Lily appears to have been employed by the local education authority, and thus we see a manifestation of the growth of state-provided education. Employment of clerks was also a major development of the period, as office work massively expanded and reliant on an educated workforce. Both men were in fact in finance, John Henry in banking and Herbert a stockbroker both in the globally important financial centre of the City of London. Finally, the press was now established as a major source of nationwide news and information, and linked with growing political awareness as the suffrage was being extended. With Britain’s status as a major world power and with a global empire, foreign correspondents reported from around the world using telegraph communication.

Wealth, empire and war

As we move into the 20th Century, our family leaves the parental home, all that is except for Lily who remains single and lives with her mother, with ever more exotic ideas about their origins being given to the hard-working census workers in 1911 at The Grove. Otherwise Mary’s family are busy building their own lives elsewhere.

John Henry Smith

This part of the family went on to develop a strong connection with parts of the British Empire in the early part of the 20th Century, John working in South Africa and meeting his future wife there and his younger daughter returning to live there later.

John Henry Smith
John Henry Smith

John, our grandfather, worked for the Standard Bank of South Africa (now part of Standard Chartered) and was posted abroad, including South Africa and Germany. In the process, he met and then married Edith May Norris in 1904 at the British Embassy in Lourenço Marques, Mozambique. The marriage certificate gives his father’s occupation as “doctor”, which myth got passed down to future unsuspecting generations. Perhaps one felt one had to present a sufficient status to the ambassador.

Edith May Norris
Edith May Norris

Edith’s family line will be covered in a separate section, but her father was a railway clerk attached to South African railways. Britain was heavily involved in building and developing the railways of its colonies, much of the equipment coming from Britain and its people involved in working the lines. Edith’s father Stephen came from a family based in and around Ledbury, in Herefordshire and were publicans and hotel owners. Her mother’s side came from Barnsley and Huddersfield, with links to the Yorkshire woollen industry. Thus we find connections with two great industries of 19th century Britain.

Two of John’s children were born in South Africa, and baptised in the Catholic faith, their parents having converted at some point before. His son was born in Germany, where he was posted on the eve of war. In the year in which Edith gave birth to her first child Lilian, she also tragically lost her younger brother who dived into the shallow end of a swimming pool and broke his neck. She had also lost her sister who died aged 7 of meningitis. Death was far more present in families than we are accustomed to today. One might wonder as to how much their faith was tested and can understand just how important it might have been for them.

Hopton Road, Streatham today

John and his young family returned to Britain on the outbreak of war and in 1918 are found living in Hopton Road, Streatham Common, then a genteel suburb on the edge of London with large Victorian “villa” style houses. They employed one or two servants as “maids” and the children were educated at private, feeing-paying schools, Lilian at Cheltenham Ladies College and my father at the Roman Catholic St. Edmunds, Ware. Lilian went on to a “finishing school” in Catholic Belgium while my father was unwillingly dispatched to the same bank as his father, deemed a solid profession during the uncertain economic times of the Depression.

Thus we see the classic pattern of the early 20th Century middle class, private education, strong established professional activities and links with Empire and the sense of entitlement inherent in people’s upbringing and outlook.

In the midst of this genteel way of life, their younger daughter Veronica was married in 1934 to Todd McCulloch and went to live in South Africa. At her wedding, we can see a meeting of prosperous middle class respectability. (Click on the picture to enlarge)

John is on the far left, next to his mother Mary and seated in front is Lilian. Lily is seated on the far right, with Herbert standing behind her.

Herbert George Maurice Smith

Herbert married his wife Lizzie in 1902 and went to live in Mortlake, on the outskirts of London, where we find him in the 1911 census with three children. He is classed as a “stock jobber” and was fast becoming a stockbroker. He had been initiated into the Adelphi Lodge of the Freemasons in 1897, often a necessary move for advancement. In 1917 he becomes a member of the London Stock Exchange. By the 1939 register on the eve of war he has been able to retire to Downderry in Cornwall and leaves on his death in 1950 the tidy sum of £47,700.

Sidney Charles Smith

At the time of writing, there is no further information about Sidney, who died before the end of World War One, in March 1918.

As we reach the middle of the 20th century, our family is looking vastly more affluent and has indeed moved a long way from the essentially rurally-based traditionally land, craft and manual labour-based economy and society of 1807.