A Census “In-Betweener” – The Story of Thomas Gavan

This tale focuses on a very brief six month period following the birth of a teenager’s child which, but for the opportunity to see the original parish registers, may have been overlooked. When I did my research into this family the registers of St Mary of the Angels RC church, Batley were held by the parish. No copy existed in any archives although I understand that they may now be stored in those of the Leeds Diocese.

Bridget Gavan was the daughter of William and Bridget Gavan (nee Knavesey[1]).  The Gavan’s were originally from County Mayo, Ireland but arrived in England at around the time of the Great Famine. They are recorded at separate addresses in Blackwell Street, Kidderminster in the 1851 census and married in the town’s Roman Catholic Chapel on 25 January 1852.

The couple moved to Batley, West Yorkshire in around the spring of 1860.  Although I cannot be sure the precise impetus behind this move, it was probably a combination of work availability and County Mayo friendship networks. By early 1855 Kidderminster was suffering a decline in employment. Billing’s 1855 Worcestershire Directory and Gazetteer described trade in the town as in a depressed state with shop closures.

In contrast Batley was booming. Its shoddy industry had stimulated the town’s rapid growth. Mill jobs were available for men and women; and the development of the town with its associated infrastructure, housing and public building works generated employment for many including stone mason’s labourers, the craft William was engaged in. There was also a significant and growing Irish population, predominantly from the County Mayo area, the region from which the Gavan’s hailed. This included the Fitzpatrick’s, a family it appears William lodged with back in Kidderminster in 1851.

Bridget was born in Batley in 1869, the eighth of the Gavan’s nine children. As yet I have not traced her birth certificate. However in the early days of General Registration, a proportion of births simply slipped the net. In the period 1837-1875 in some areas of England it is estimated that up to 15 per cent of births were unregistered[2]. It appears that Bridget’s may possibly be one of these. However the parish register helpfully records she was baptised at St Mary’s on 23 May 1869 and the entry also indicates a date of birth of 2 May 1869. So the parish register proved invaluable even during the period of civil registration. Especially so given that in later years Bridget displayed some judicious flexibility with her age when she married a younger man.

However it is in 1889 that the parish register proves worth the genealogical equivalent of its weight in gold.  Without it I possibly may not have traced the birth of 19 year old unmarried Bridget’s first child.  Her marital status combined with the spelling of the infant’s surname as “Gaven” in the GRO indexes and the fact that the child died before the 1891 census all would have conspired to present a type of brick wall, albeit one of which I was unaware existed.

Amidst the 138 baptisms that took place in the parish in 1889 there is an entry for the baptism of a Thomas Gavan, son of Bridget, on 21 April 1889. From this I was able to locate the birth certificate which showed the child was born on 6 April 1889 at New Street, Batley. This may have been at her sister Mary’s house as she lived in this area at roughly this time.   Bridget’s mother died in 1884. Thereafter, despite her father still being alive, Bridget apparently lodged with various family members.

There is no indication as to who Thomas’ father was in either the baptismal entry or on the birth certificate.

Sadly Thomas did not survive long. He died on 22 October 1889 age six months. The death certificate records that his passing was the subject of an inquest. This took place the day following his demise at “The Bath Hotel” in Batley.

Accounts of this inquest exist in the town’s two local newspapers at the time, “The Batley News and Yorkshire Woollen District Advertiser” and “The Batley Reporter and Guardian”.  Additionally West Yorkshire Archives hold HM Coroner, Wakefield records for the period. These records have been digitised on Ancestry.co.uk and they contain the Coroner, Thomas Taylor’s, notes on Thomas Gavan’s inquest. These notes include witness statements from Bridget, her sister Margaret Hannan, a neighbour Esther Elwood and Emma Hallas who laid out Thomas’ body. Yet again the spelling of the family name changes depending on which source is used – Gaven in the inquest notes, Gavan in the “Batley News” and Gowan in the “Batley Reporter”. Nevertheless from these records the events leading up to his death can be reconstructed.

Bridget was employed as a feeder of a carding machine at a woollen mill, an occupation also termed as a scribbler feeder. Described as the largest machine in the woollen industry, the carding engine comprised a series of large and small cylinders. These were covered in closely set wire spikes. The blended wool passed through the machine, enabling the revolving cylinders to reduce the entangled mass of fibres into a filmy web. Each set of carding engines consisted of up to four machines, the first of which was called the scribbler and it was in this process which Bridget earned her living.  Her job would be to spread a certain weight of wool onto each marked section of a continuous apron.  Once the wool had passed through the cylinders of the scribbler it would be disentangled. It was then drawn off in continuous threads or “slivers.”

Bridget began this work when Thomas was two weeks old, leaving him in the care of her married sister. Though she had three surviving older sisters the implication is this was Margaret Hannan, with whom Bridget moved in about two months before Thomas’ death.  Margaret and her coal mining husband, John, lived at 2 Bank Foot, Batley. This was the house in which Thomas died.

Bank Foot, Batley

Bank Foot, Batley

So began Bridget’s routine for the next six months: going to work in the mill early in the morning and returning home at mealtimes to feed her baby. The inquest revealed that she used a combination of breast milk, boiled milk and bread.

When Thomas was about four months old she also started giving him something she referred to in the inquest as “Infants Preservative”.  This was very probably “Atkinson and Barker’s Royal Infants’ Preservative”, a popular Victorian product for babies. Adverts played on the royal connection stating it was supplied to Her Majesty Queen Victoria. Promoted to be herbal, natural, narcotic-free, indeed the best and safest health tonic aimed at treating all manner of infant disorders ranging from teething and bowel problems to whooping cough and measles, what the adverts failed to mention was this medicine also in fact contained laudanum, an opiate.

Working mothers such as Bridget would believe they were doing the best for their children, giving them a good start to life warding off childhood illnesses and helping them flourish at a time of high infant mortality. At the same time the product may have had the seemingly added bonus of naturally calming the child whilst the mother worked long hours. And after all it was, according to the advertising, used by Royalty!

Interestingly it also claimed to give instant relief for convulsions which may also have been another factor in Bridget’s choice of product. For, on a Saturday afternoon about a month prior to his death, Thomas suffered a fit.  The Doctor was called and the child revived after being put into a bath of warm water. Despite suffering another fit about a week later he, in Bridget’s words, “continued lively”.

A few days before his death, Thomas was described as having a slight cough which affected his breathing. However by the Sunday and Monday he had seemingly recovered and there appeared to be no cause for concern.

On the morning of Tuesday 22 October Bridget arose and set off to work at 5.55am leaving Thomas in bed. However arriving at the mill “two or three minutes after the proper time” her employers sent her home. Back at the house she waited until 7am to wake Thomas and then brought him downstairs to feed him breast milk. There appeared to be no problem until 7.45am when she tried to take off his nightdress in order to wash him.  At this point he coughed and then suffered another convulsion.

Margaret now took charge, looking after Thomas whilst Bridget was sent to fetch a neighbour, Esther Elwood, and the doctor.  Within 10 minutes of Mrs Elwood’s arrival Thomas died very quietly in his cradle.  It was 8am. Bridget had not made it back in time. Although the Coroner’s notes make no reference to the arrival of the doctor the newspapers state that Dr Lauder turned up at about 8.30am but would not give a certificate, hence the inquest.

Thomas’ body was described as “very well nourished and free from any sign of disease and injury” by Emma Hallas, who undressed and washed him after his death.

The inquest returned a verdict of death from natural causes. Thomas’ death certificate records the cause of death as “probably pneumonia; convulsions 10 minutes”.

Bridget had taken insurance out with the Royal Liver Friendly Society for Thomas’ life within a short time of his birth. However even with this insurance, providing it was actually paid out, Bridget was still unable to afford a burial plot for her son. He was buried in a common grave in Batley Cemetery on 24 October. The burial register has yet another variation of the surname – this time Gavin.

By the time of the 1891 census Bridget was no longer with Margaret and John. Instead she was lodging with her sister Mary and family who now resided East Street in Batley. She was still employed as a scribbler feeder. She did not marry until 1897.

Without the parish register I may never have known about the inter-census birth and death of her first child, Thomas.

Bridget Gavan is my great grandmother.


[1] There are multiple variants of the surname Knavesey, but this is the one used on the marriage certificate

[2]Ancestral Trails” – Mark Herber

4 responses to “A Census “In-Betweener” – The Story of Thomas Gavan

  1. Yet another intriguing and fascinating story. Looking forward to the next one !

  2. Michael Kelly

    Jane, I’m researching the Mayo settlers in and around Blackwell St, Kidderminster c. 1850 and I believe I can pinpoint the parish where your Gavan ancestors originated. Email me and I’ll fill you in …

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