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THE FOLKS 1660 – 1720

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Finding Mary Higgins took quite a while.

For a very long time, the life and times of Mary Higgins began with her first conviction in 1784. Nobody knew anything before her sudden appearance in the records of the Old Bailey. There was no record of a birth under that name anywhere in England. Computers changed all that. The first mention of Mary Higgins in history came to light in the trial of her sister, a lass called Nora Whiston. Clearly, one of them had changed her family name. It wasn’t Nora.

In that same trial, there is note made of a third sister and that their family came to London around 1744. The task was to find a Whiston family, not from London, with three sisters, one called Nora and one called Mary born between **** and ****. Hours of bum-numbing research trolling the church records of every county in England produced the very family, a surname, a location and a history. Computers again. A search for Whiston led to Weston – and Weston led to a little town called Walsall.

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Mary Higgins’ great-great-grandfather, the melancholy William Weston, was born in Handsworth ‘about’ 1661 and lived with his parents, at least three sisters and a younger brother in or about the great metropolis. A map made two centuries later shows there’s nothing there, just a high street, a pub or two and a cluster of houses. In Will’s time there was a lot less; no town centre, no street, no store; the population grouped together in small settlements known as ‘ends’, each just a few scattered cottages set around a village green.

The closest thing to a focal point was the church of St. Mary’s, in those days a squat, uninspiring pile of stone perched beside the Walsall Road. It was to St. Mary’s that the families of Handsworth trooped with their deaths and births and tales of woe; it was in the registers of the church that their weddings were recorded, their children named, their indiscretions exposed – a coded procession of dates and times that lay dormant in the archives for three hundred years.

In 1686 Will Weston bedded Margaret. The christening of their daughter Alice was noted proudly in the new registers of St. Mary’s in mid-July 1687.

[EDDIE SPINK [see ALPHA WILLIAM] born in Walsall 10 APR 1687]

If he bedded her he most certainly wedded her – but of an extant marriage record – nuttin’. Which, given the patchy nature of the records, means not very much at all.

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Once married, most couples in this area produced an infant every eighteen months for twenty years or more, usually until the mother collapsed and died from exhaustion. Will and Mary were no exception to the rule. Eleven months after Alice, in early June 1688, John was conceived and on Sunday 24th February the little family trooped off to St. Mary’s for his christening. Life was fine.

They waited fifteen months for another sunny June day before the conception of William; he was christened on 2nd February 1691 – then came Edward, Susanna and Margaret – all this in exactly ten years of married life.

This was no random country rut; the Staffordshire Waltons, in all their endless variations through the centuries, ran a tight family ship. If there were illegitimate offspring, their existence is rarely recorded – the Walton lads kept any bad behavior strictly under wraps, almost always married a younger woman from the same, or neighboring town when in their early twenties and invariably, nine or ten months later produced their first child.

A year later they would conceive the next one, usually in either June or February and without fail, give birth, wait twelve months and do it all again. Of course there were accidents – human reproductive behavior has always refused a script – but the beat kept rolling on. Families of ten, twelve, even fourteen were common.

So Mr. and Mrs. Weston stood proudly on their decade of conception – children were their raison d’être. The real effort had to go into increasing the odds in their favor; having another child, and another – preferably boys – building up the labor base so that, by the time the kids were half-way grown, the family was regenerated, ready to continue the long Walton wander through the years.

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Will and Margaret had lousy timing; between 1690 – 1700 the British Isles experienced the coldest winters ever recorded; six of them were classified as ‘severe’ which means an average daily temperature of minus 3 C.

It wasn’t just freezing in Staffordshire; all of Europe was in the last extremities of what scientists now refer to as ‘The New Ice Age’, a rather pedestrian title for a truly awe-inspiring global event. The earth froze to a depth of four feet. Crops failed. The local economy dried up. Rivers and canals turned to solid ice. Trade and transport ground to a halt. The deaths began.

Inevitably, trapped in isolated hamlets surrounded by snow, families began to starve. The cemetery slid menacingly down the hill at the back of the church in Handsworth, steadily eating into the surrounding woods as the local death rate increased.

The coldest year ever recorded is believed to be 1695; the freezing temperatures, gales and heavy snow continued right through to mid-April before giving way to the brief grey shadow that was the Staffordshire summer.

The young family survived the year, battling, eking out an isolated existence. William was about thirty, his wife twenty-five – they should have been hale and hearty with ruddy country cheeks and a jovial country bark but three years of failed crops and the relentless cold had reduced them all to shivering husks.

Christmas 1696 was bleak; they must have been bitterly cold, snow-bound and probably broke – with no conceivable end in sight. Mum, Dad and six children huddled together in a farmhouse.

In February 1697 bubonic plague arrived.

Their first and only son was buried in St. Mary’s graveyard in March 1697, just turned six. When they tried to bury the boy the ground was frozen solid.

Three weeks later little Margaret went to God. She was only fourteen months old and had scarcely seen the sun. Her whole stunted, interrupted life had been a symphony of grey; grey skies, grey faces, grey walls, grey eyes. There had been no laughter in her life, she’d been awarded the bum steer and mewled and puked her way to heaven, complaining all the way. It was snowing in April when the infant slid into the earth beside her brother, still grey, still wet, still cold. She’d had enough.

Her parents turned away from the shallow grave and trudged slowly down the hill. There was nothing to say, no one to turn to, no one to particularly care. That same eternal winter ate at every household in the district with the same result, the same dead children, the same frozen tears. They still had four children. Their parents just sighed and got on with life in the same cloddish fashion they had learnt from their ancestors, farmed, fucked and farted their way through the seasons, rutting as furiously as their livestock, driven to breed more of the same. The graveyard was full of them.

Their life was a succession of certainties – summer, winter, autumn, spring, birth, marriage, children, illness, death, God, King and Country. Their position in the firmament was fixed; they did what their fathers did and, as an absolute article of faith, expected their sons to do the same. To do otherwise would be to rise above your station. God watched over them, exercised his tyrannical hand, bringing famine and disease whenever He chose, demanded obedience and suffering, in return promised something better in heaven. For many of these people this was the best they could hope for. It was certainly all they knew.

Perhaps there was a sunny June day that year, a brief moment of respite for the grieving parents, a chance to comfort and care – in those few minutes of pleasure the eighth Willy Weston was created and, for the briefest of brief moments, it was possible to forget. The result of their affections spent a comfortable Autumn curled up inside mother Margaret as she and her husband hunkered down for yet another brutal winter.

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Late 1697 was reported as ‘very cold with snow persisting and ice forming,’ and by December temperatures hovered below freezing most of the time. In a unique natural phenomenon the entire coastline of Great Britain was locked in by ice. Trapped inside an unheated cottage adrift on the Staffordshire farmlands, remote, pregnant, hungry and poor, their life can only be imagined.

William did what little he could in the fields but it was hopeless, nothing would grow, nothing had for years. They sold what little of value they owned, broke down the furniture for firewood, eked out those provisions that good fortune had provided.

In the middle of the coldest winter in recorded history she gave birth in their farmhouse attended, if she was lucky, by the local midwife. On 27th February 1678, the replacement Willy Weston was christened in Handsworth, surrounded by all the love and joy his parents could muster – which wasn’t very much at all.

Dad celebrated his thirty-first birthday two weeks later; his only gift the sweet luxury of holding his new-born son in his arms. This squirming bundle was the only tangible hope for a future Will possessed; his money was gone, his crops a frozen failure, his wife a skinny wreck, valiantly trying to squeeze milk from breasts that refused to comply. For a few kind hours he dreamed his ridiculous dreams and hoped and prayed for the miracle he knew would never come.

The latest Willy Weston passed away quietly on April 1st 1698, just five weeks old, an emaciated doll with huge eyes and matchstick arms, flopping sadly in his crib. He didn’t shriek or cry or kick as the end closed in, just lay there gaunt and still, two black pinpricks of accusation in his eyes.

Dead Willy wasn’t first of his line to go to God. A generation earlier the same thing had happened. His grandparents produced a little Willy Weston in 16** then watched helplessly as their first born son died at the age of three. They, just like his father in turn, had to make another one, impelled by some unwritten family law to shove that name through time. The fifth recorded William Weston since 1635 needed to make the sixth – but his task was a little more difficult.

Margaret’s resolve simply collapsed; faced with this latest tragedy she gave in to all the grief that had built up inside her and tumbled headlong into a profound despair. Will was left floundering in her wake, bewildered, numb and unable to bring her back. Margaret retreated to her own private inner sanctum, a place where food, drink and husbands are not required. She swayed at the grave like a thing possessed when her third child was lowered into the pit. The coffin was tiny. So was her world. Now it was even smaller.

Within three months she was dead too.

It was July 23rd 1698. They hacked away at the frozen earth once again. She was thirty-three years old when she joined her two children on the icy slope of St. Mary’s.

The widower Weston was understandably distraught. But more was to come.

In September his daughter Alice died.

A fortnight later her brother John died.

He had just two children left; Edward, four years old and Susannah, three.

The profound melancholy that must have hovered over him, the particular depths of that icy despair can have been no different for a man in his situation then as now. He could give up and grieve, sit and drink alone in an empty home, treat his life as over and slide into a bitter Staffordshire sunset – or grasp the hollow opportunity that fate had provided, look to the future and survive. For a time he probably did both.

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ALICE: 17 JULY 1687

Buried 13 SEPT 1698

JOHN: 24 FEB 1689

Buried 04 NOV 1698

WILLY: 02 FEB 1691

Buried 20 MAR 1697

EDWARD: 10 NOV 1692

SUSANNA: 11 OCT 1693

MARGARET: 25 FEB 1696

Buried 11 APRIL 1697

WILLY WESTON: 27 FEB 1698

Buried 03 APR 1698

MOTHER MARGARET age 33

Buried 23 JUL 1698

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Enter Lettice Harris, full of hope and happiness, entirely unburdened by the tragedies of life. I thought her first name was really Letitia – but I was wrong: Lettice is a real name, still in use till the mid 20th century. I’m glad. If ever a man was in need of a crisp, green vegetable – it was now.

She was twenty-one and raring to go, one of a sprawling family of Harrises and exactly the breath of fresh air that Willy needed. She knew no more of death than the next girl nor cared to find out more, in her perfectly simple, sensible way knew that life was grief already and needed no more evidence on that front. She was life-affirming, life-enhancing and great in bed – just the medicine that a lonely, troubled soul like Will Weston needed.

Despite the difference in their ages there were smiles all around when they announced their intention to wed – even the weather showed it’s approval. The terrible winters, the frosts and ice were slowly replaced with a grudging sunshine and the harvest began again.

In the first months of the new century, on Sunday July 28th 1700, William Weston and Lettice Harris were married in Handsworth. Within a week she was pregnant and in the fullness of time little Willy Weston, their first son and heir, arrived with much fanfare. He was christened with his father’s first name, as was the family custom, in St. Mary’s on May 18th 1701.

Records are patchy at this time but it’s fairly safe to assume that about 15 months after little Willy’s birth he was presented with a brother, Walter, born late in 1702. The two Weston lads shared more than their genes and upbringing; they both developed an interesting predilection for adolescent girls.

Actually, ‘adolescent‘ is being generous. Children would be a better word.

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In early March 1719, just two months before his eighteenth birthday, the now not-so-little Willy Weston slept with a lass called Mary. Mary’s birth is recorded as ‘about 1707’ which would make her the ripe old age of twelve when she and Willy conceived their first child, an age seen as young but not particularly unusual. Every second of a country girl’s fertility was an asset in an age of easy death, the more children that could be squeezed out a lass in her child-bearing years the more likely a fair percentage would survive – the more that survived, the more prosperous the family.

The blushing couple was married soon after.

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Walter waited till he was nineteen before tying the knot with Elizabeth Chatterton in October 1721. Elizabeth, another Walsall girl, was just twelve years and four months old at the time of their nuptials. A year later the child had a child of her own and by the time she was fifteen she had two.

© NIGEL TRIFFITT 2010

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