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Bridge at Askew Street - Jonathan Shadrach Emery.jpg
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Murton Colliery Miners.jpg



My Great Great Grandfather, Jonathan Shadrach Emery was born in Leigh, Essex on New Year’s Day 1st January 1840.

In that same year Queen Victoria married her cousin Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha in the Royal Chapel at St James's Palace. Other events in 1840 included the issue of the world’s first postage stamp, the Penny Black, and the laying of foundation stones for both Nelson’s Column and the new Palace of Westminster (as its reconstruction following the Burning of Parliament in 1834 began).

Jonathan was the fifth child of Matthew Emery, a Shoemaker and Eliza Emery (née Robinson), who would go on to have fourteen children together, sadly not all of whom would survive childhood.

In 1840 Leigh was a small fishing community on the north bank of the River Thames; the last port stop before London. The 1841 Census of England & Wales records a population of 954 persons inhabiting “all that part of the parish of Leigh which comprises the town extending eastward from and including the house occupied by Edmund Turridge and west to and including the house occupied by John Bell”.

Jonathan was baptised in the Church of England parish church of St Clements, Leigh on 23rd February 1840. Saint Clement is one of the patron saints of fishermen, so it is appropriate that he is the Patron Saint of Leigh, with the town’s long seafaring tradition and cockling industry.

The 1841 Census shows Jonathan, aged 1 living with his parents and two older siblings William (9) and Esther (6). Sadly, Esther appears to have died the following year in 1842. My research indicates there were other siblings of Jonathan who had died at an early age (Richard Matthew in 1838 age 4 and Sarah Anne in 1839 age 1)

The family was to suffer another tragedy on 14th August 1845 when the eldest son William was killed aged 13 in an accident on the river Thames whilst fishing the North shore. His small fishing boat, the Glory, was struck by a large Portuguese vessel, heading out from the port of London under Pilot. He died with the fishing boat's captain, William Clement Gilson, Age 26. The two Williams were buried at St Clements, Leigh and the Chelmsford Chronicle of 29th August 1845 reported they were “followed to the grave by hundreds of sympathising friends”. Would Jonathan have been amongst them? At age 5 he would surely have felt the pain of losing his older brother and now becoming the oldest surviving child of Matthew and Elizabeth, his other three elder siblings having also died at a young age.

The 1851 Census shows Jonathan living with his parents on Leigh Street, Leigh. He is the oldest child in the household, aged 11 and his occupation is shown as ‘Fishing Lad’, following in the path of his late brother, William; a very young age to be earning a living. There are three younger siblings; Richard (9); Esther (7) and William (5); all listed as Scholars.

The 1861 Census shows Jonathan, age 21 now living on Belfus (?) Row, Leigh and still with his parents. His occupation is listed as Fisherman. Also living in the same address are four younger siblings and Jonathan’s maternal grandfather, John Robinson age 70, whose occupation is also shown as Fisherman.

Jonathan’s parents Matthew and Elizabeth both pass away in the mid 1860’s (1865 and 1866 respectively). The 1871 census for England was taken on the night of 2 April and Jonathan, now age 31, is recorded as living in Alley Dock, Leigh with his younger sister Esther (now Frost); her husband Henry Frost and their three children Jonathan; Esther and Eliza. Jonathan and his brother-in-law Henry are both Fishermen.

At some point in the 1870’s Jonathan made the journey from Leigh in Essex to Anglesey in North Wales. Early in 1880, he marries Isabella Williams, born in Conway and living on Anglesey in Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch (Llanfair PG). Jonathan is 40 and Isabella is 13 years his junior, aged 27. Isabella is pregnant with their first child, Thomas Jonathan, who is also born in the first quarter of 1880 and baptised on 9th May that year. In the baptism register, Jonathan’s occupation is recorded as ‘Sailor’. Jonathan and Isabella are living in Menai Bridge, a small town on the coast of Anglesey where the island is joined to the mainland by the famous, world’s first major suspension bridge designed by Thomas Telford and completed in 1826.


The Quay at Askew Street

The 1881 Census of Wales, taken on 3rd April, records Jonathan, Isabella and Thomas living in Askew Cottage on Askew Street in Menai Bridge. I visited Askew Street in September 2020 and the building still stands. The street runs at 90 degrees from the main thoroughfare through Menai Bridge, High Street, for about 100 yards down to a small Quay where sailing and fishing boats would have been moored. Jonathan’s occupation in the 1881 Census is Fisherman, so he would have had a short walk to work, putting out to sail into the Menai Strait within sight of the famous suspension bridge. Jonathan and Isabella’s second child, my great grandfather, Matthew was born on 4th August 1882 whilst they were living on Askew Street.

On first reflection, it is hard to understand why Jonathan, a fisherman all his life, left the pleasant town of Menai Bridge, within sight of the beautiful mountains of Snowdonia on the Welsh mainland to relocate to the heavily industrialized North East of England with his wife and two small children. This happened sometime between August 1882 and 27th October 1884, when Jonathan and Isabella’s third son, Richard Henry, was born in Murton Colliery, County Durham.

In the early 19th Century, Murton was a small rural village with a population of 70 in the East of Durham, about two miles inland from the North Sea coast. Murton Colliery as a town did not exist until the first sinking of the mine there in 1838, with a multitude of basic housing, mostly back-to-back terraces of miner’s cottages, quickly springing up around the Colliery to accommodate the large, mainly migrant, workforce who flocked to the town. By 1851, shortly after mining in the town began, the population had swollen to 1,387.

It is clear, however, that Jonathan had accepted the call to Murton and no doubt the prospect of ready gainful employment at the Colliery, from his younger brother, Richard, who had already migrated from Leigh, Essex to the North East in the 1860s and was living in Murton in 1881, working at the Colliery as a Rope Repairer. Another younger brother, Matthew, would later join them, moving from Leigh to the nearby County Durham village of Easington in the late 1880’s.

Jonathan and his family lived on Princess Street in the Greenhill area of Murton Colliery. Greenhill consisted of 12 rows of miner’s cottages, North of and immediately adjacent to the Colliery. The streets were known locally as ‘Cornwall’ because of the large population of Cornish former tin miners living there and working in the coal mine. Research of the 1881 Census for County Durham reveals around 400 Cornish-born colliery workers, many of whom had distinctive Cornish surnames such as Chynoweth, Penhallurick and Trebilcock. The streets of Greenhill were demolished in the 1950s and the council estate which replaced them, and stands today, has streets all named after places in Cornwall. The 1891 Census reveals residents of Greenhill originating from all parts of the United Kingdom and it must have been a melting pot of accents and cultures. Jonathan and Isabella, with their Essex and Welsh accents, would not have felt out of place.

Sadly, shortly after moving to Princess Street in Murton, Jonathan & Isabella’s eldest son, Thomas, passed away at the age of six. When the 1891 Census was taken on 5th April, the inhabitants of 49 Princess Street were recorded as Jonathan & Isabella and three sons, Matthew, Richard and Jonathan junior aged 8,6 and 1. Their first and only daughter, Eliza Ellen was born on 9th March 1893 when Jonathan would have been 53 years old.

Testing for firedamp near roof

Jonathan’s occupation in the 1891 Census is recorded as ‘Colliery Fireman’. The Fireman was the predecessor of the modern Deputy and was responsible for testing for the presence of firedamp (mostly methane) in the mine workings. In early industrial coal mines, the accumulation of firedamp due to a lack of proper ventilation was a common cause of explosions. The Fireman would have originally tested for firedamp holding a long pole before him with one or more lighted candles at its end. This ignited the firedamp and produced an explosion more or less violent according to the quantity of gas accumulated. Development of safety lamps early in the 19th Century would lead to a ‘Deputy’s Lamp’ being used to detect for the presence of gas with the Fireman skilled in reading the colour and height of the flame to determine the concentration of firedamp in the air.

Being a coal miner in the late 19th Century was a hard life. It is not surprising Jonathan passed away at what would now be considered an early age, 59 years. It was reported in the Sunderland Daily Echo on Friday 30 June 1899 "Last night Jonathan Emery, aged 60 years [sic], employed as a fireman at Murton Colliery, died suddenly on his way to work. He leaves a widow and four children". The short walk to the Colliery gate from Princess Street was a mere 100 yards. His daughter Eliza was only 6 years old (she would go on to become a well-known figure in Murton working as the village post mistress). Jonathan was laid to rest at Holy Trinity Church in Murton on 2nd July 1899.

His three sons; Matthew, Richard and Jonathan, all Coal Miners themselves, and daughter Eliza would support their mother Isabella until she died in 1929, aged 76. They were all living together 12 years later at number 55 Princess Street when the 1911 Census was taken on 2nd April. At her death on 13th March 1929, Isabella was living with her eldest son, Matthew, his wife and second child, Doris at 1 Model Street, Murton. Her daughter, Eliza, was also living at the same address.

Other information taken in the 1911 Census for the first time under the heading “Particulars as to Marriage” records, during the twenty years of Jonathan and Isabella’s marriage, they had seven children ‘born alive’, four of whom were still living and three who had died.

Richard Jonathan Emery

3rd August 2021

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