The story handed down about him was the usual; the ‘young master at the big house got a maid into trouble’. Unfortunately, I was told that the big house in question was near Chirk, which delayed progress in research. However, the stories had also mentioned that he ran away at 11 to be a stable boy, “rode in trotting races” and was a groom in WW1, so when I was idly searching the 1901 census for him, clicking on page after page of ancestry.co.uk, my attention was suddenly grabbed by a John Edward Morris of the right age working as groom at the Vicarage in Grinshill. He was born in Chirbury rather than Chirk – which also put my hunting instincts on alert, as it would be an easy mistake for descendants to make with a place name.
I duly sent off for the birth certificate and found that the birthday matched with the hearsay: he was born on 8th January 1878 in Bromlow to Eliza Morris, a Domestic Servant. The birth was witnessed and registered by Martha Morris, who could not sign her name.
I began scouring the 1881 census for Eliza and 3 year old John and also, now that I had established his birthplace and age, the puzzle on his marriage certificate could be cleared up. He had given his father’s name as William Lewis Morris, deceased, Woodranger, who I had been unable to find. It didn’t take long, however, to find John in the 1881 census. He was living with William Lewis and his wife Lucy in Tutshill, Walcot, as a 'nurse child'. Presumably, at the time of his marriage, he wanted to draw a veil over his origins, so added Morris to the end of William’s name. William may have worked as a wood ranger but on all census returns he was described more generally as a labourer or farm labourer.
By 1891 Jack had been adopted as William and Lucy’s son and they were living in Marrington Cottages, Chirbury, so if the stable lad story has any truth, he must have either been and come back in time for the 1891 census or run away fairly promptly afterwards.
Finding his mother, Eliza, was more problematical as I had no information except that she apparently had a female relative called Martha. Searching for someone of around 20 years old or so, two prime candidates cropped up, so I mapped out what I could of each. I favoured Westbury Eliza, a lead miner’s daughter, born in 1860 to James and Jane Morris and with an older sister, Martha. Jane Morris had been a widow for at least 7 years before Jack’s birth and therefore, I reasoned, would not have been able to pass off Eliza’s baby as her own to hide the shame of illegitimacy.
At this point I became electronically acquainted with a cousin, through Ancestry.co.uk, and in our eager exchange of information we found we had reached the same point in the search for Eliza. Diana (pictured), however, favoured Lydham Eliza, a farmer’s daughter. This Eliza had been born in 1858 into the comfortable family of Charles and Eliza Morris, farming 235 acres and employing 4 men. She had a sister Martha who was 4 years younger.
Diana’s reasoning was that as a reasonably well-to-do family they had more to lose socially by the disgrace of a baseborn child and they could afford to put the child out to a wet nurse, whereas the widowed Jane Morris would perhaps have been grateful to have a growing grandson to help in the house and provide an income later on. A strength of Diana’s case was that Charles Morris was born in Bishop’s Castle and so was William Lewis, John’s adoptive father. Diana also had a newspaper cutting from 1964 about Jack’s diamond wedding anniversary. It noted that “Aged 85, Mr Morris was born at Chirbury, and as a young man was a rider to hounds with the Harriers, a private pack owned by the late Lt Col Price-Davies, Marrington Hall [pictured], Chirbury” (Shropshire Journal).
This all gave tantalising credibility to the stories Diana had been told by her mother, who believed Jack was “the illegitimate son of a titled person. There was a quite startling facial resemblance between her and the 3rd Earl of Powys, who was the predominant landowner in South Shropshire in the 19th century. Certainly he was born on Powys land and William Lewis may have been an employee of the Earl…”
And so we carried on for some months; Diana researching the Lydham Morris line, including the maternal Amblers, and I resolved to find out more about lead mining in the Shropshire hills, but with no possibility of us knowing whether either was the real Eliza. Then came the 1911 census.
I was eager to find mention of Jack's son, my grandfather. Unlike Jack, who had been baptised just John and added the Edward later on, his son was baptised John Edward Morris in 1906. There are a lot of John Edward Morrises born in Shropshire and I have yet to identify him in the 1911 census but his mother, Jack’s wife, seems to have been working under her maiden name as a parlour maid in Juniper Hall near Dorking, which seemed astonishing. I then found his 3 year old sister, Florence May Morris (Diana’s mother, pictured), ‘visiting’ the Bradshaw family at 5 Back Providence View, Copthorne Road, Shrewsbury. Mystifying! His father, Jack, was living with his wife’s step-mother, not far away in Longner Street, Shrewsbury.
On his marriage certificate in 1903 Jack was a Brewer’s Traveller but his mother-in-law (filling in the census form as head of the household) had elevated him to ‘Brewer’ and, startlingly, given his place of birth as Wigan. A fevered search on Ancestry and – at last! as close to proof as one is going to get – in the 1881 census there was an Eliza Morris, born 1855 Bromlow, working as a general servant for a draper in Wigan. The poor woman is noted as being deaf.
Subsequent census-searching in Bromlow proved Eliza’s parents to have been John and Martha Morris – living in Bromlow from 1841 to 1881. Why on earth did we assume the Martha who witnessed the birth was a sister instead of mother? Perhaps because in the crucial 1861 census, John and Martha must have been on one of the missing pages. However, frustration at missing the vital year turned to delight as I found Eliza living in Worthen with her older sister Ann Davies nee Morris.
In 1841 and 1851 Martha’s mother, Mary Hughes of Worthen, was obligingly living in Bromlow with Martha and John, helping us to find Eliza’s maternal line back to the late C17th, in Chirbury and Westbury.
Eliza’s father – the most senior of our three John Morrises – was an agricultural labourer, born in Bilston, Staffordshire, to Frederick and Anne Morris, of whom nothing more has yet been found, other than the births of five other children.
Eliza has remained elusive after 1881. There is no other census return which seems to match her birth place and year closely enough to be convincing and there is no mention of her in any family stories – just that tantalising reference to Wigan on the 1911 census.
Happily, nothing has been found about Jack’s paternity to totally destroy Diana’s fond hope of a Powys connection! One wonders if the added ‘Edward’ by 1901 is a clue…
(PS: The 1911 census return gives an insight to housing at the time:
6 Longner Street,Shrewsbury, a 5-roomed house (3 up and 2 down, I would guess), was presided over by widowed Annie Elizabeth Lewis, the second wife (and fabled battleaxe) of blacksmith Edward Lewis, father of the absent Edith Martha, Jack’s wife.
Then there was Jack, aged 33,
Annie’s 21 year old daughter, Florrie,
her fiancé, Bill Dyer, boarding with them,
Annie’s middle-aged sister-in-law, Charlotte, a China Shop assistant and
Annie’s son, George, who was a meat salesman, and his 1 year old daughter – another Florence.)