The Walmsley Family of Liverpool


Readers of the biography of Sir Joshua Walmsley by his son Hugh are told little more about his immediate family than that Mr and Mrs Walmsley (no christian names given) had a child called Joshua, who was born in 1794, and that a girl (again, no name given), one year the boy's junior, completed the household! As we have seen in the previous page about John Walmsley, this was far from the truth. John Walmsley fathered a succession of children, many of them illegitimate, during a series of relationships over 25 years. We may surmise that Hugh Walmsley, who must have been aware of much of this, deliberately decided not just to omit all but the barest details of his father's family but also to deny the very existence of various siblings whose personal circumstances were not consistent with Sir Joshua's reputation and status.

Precious little information is available about these less fortunate family members but their lives are none the less fascinating and present another side of Georgian and Victorian Liverpool. On this page we try to disentangle the complex web around John Walmsley, his women and their children but we have to confess that we are still well short of being able to present a neat set of individual strands. Conjecture has to make up for what cannot be deduced.

The wives and partners

Phillis. We do not know the identity of the Phillis Walmsley who gave birth to John Walmsley's first known son, William, in early 1787. John was 30 at the time and so, despite the absence of any marriage record, he could well have married Phillis and been widowed not long after the birth. Another possibility is that Phillis never actually existed and the entry in the parish register should have read Elizabeth (ie, Perry: see below). Equally, we do not know for certain what became of William. He might have died as an infant, though no burial record has been found; alternatively, he might be the glass merchant William Walmsley. The fact that this William started off as a glass-cutter and not a stone mason does suggest that, if he was the son of John Walmsley, he was either not legitimate or was not welcome with John's later wife Elizabeth Perry. The eldest legitimate son would have been expected to follow his father's trade as a mason, whereas the glass-cutter William Pilkington Walmsley had probably served an apprenticeship with a glass manufacturer in Warrington. The latter died in late 1851 at the age of 63, which suggests he was born in late 1787 or the first half of 1788: this is not a perfect match for the son of John Walmsley but at present there is no better option for his parentage. Unhelpfully, the 1851 census merely gives his place of birth as Lancashire. The middle name Pilkington might be a clue to his mother's surname or that of her mother.

Elizabeth Perry. We cannot be certain when John Walmsley married Elizabeth Perry: again, no marriage record has surfaced. Her surname Perry is only known from handbooks listing Sir Joshua either as a Knight or as a Member of Parliament. Based on the likely birth dates of their known children, the couple probably married in the late 1780s. For John, by then over 30 years old, it would have been quite a late age to get married for the first time. Nothing definite is known about Elizabeth's origins but John's business interests in Ireland offer the possibility that she may have been Irish; it is also possible (see below) that she was a Catholic. Four children are known but conceivably there may have been others. John was purportedly born and christened in 1792. The first Joshua died in 1793. Although there is no christening record for this child, he was probably born after John. (If John Walmsley was not going to name his first son after his own father Isaac, then he was most likely to choose his own name rather than that of his younger brother Joshua.) The second child to be named Joshua (later Sir Joshua) was born in 1794 but no christening record is known. A daughter was born in about 1796; her likely name Sarah is only known from John's will and, yet again, no christening record is known. This lack of documentation is unusual and challenging!

Ann. What became of Elizabeth is unknown but, at the time of John's death in 1811, he was apparently married to one Ann. Although the only reference to Ann is in John's will, we have to accept this as authoritative. Elizabeth and Ann may conceivably be one and the same person (Elizabeth Ann being a common combination of christian names). The biography of Sir Joshua merely states that husband and wife (presumably Joshua's parents) separated. In his last years John was cohabiting with Mary Harrison: he showed his feelings for Ann by leaving her just one shilling in his will. If Elizabeth and Ann were the same person, it is strange that, on his return to Liverpool after finishing schooling, Joshua apparently made no attempt to contact his mother but perhaps she no longer lived there and had returned to her family roots (in Ireland?).

The apparent absence of any more children born to John and Elizabeth after Sarah in 1796 suggests that any breakdown in their marriage happened soon after. Another interpretation of the scant evidence available is that Elizabeth died soon after Sarah's birth and John then took Ann as his next wife but, after a childless marriage, eventually separated from her. In any event, at some point after husband and wife had separated, Joshua and Sarah were sent to stay in Christleton near Chester for a few years. There they stayed with people who Hugh Walmsley, elliptic as ever, tells us were connected with the stage. This sounds very odd and can best be explained if the theatrical folk in Christleton were relatives of Elizabeth or Ann. John's own family does not seem to have had any branch in Cheshire and his known relatives all had down-to-earth trades.

The few bits of information about Joshua's upbringing in his son's biography allow a rough chronology of John's domestic relationships to be constructed. Born at the end of 1794 Joshua, at the age of seven, attended dancing classes in Liverpool, where he met his future wife, but soon after what he termed the state of my father's affairs meant that the children had to be sent into the country. This is too early for it to be a reference to John's failing business and so probably relates to the separation from his wife and the despatch of Joshua and Sarah to Christleton, perhaps in about 1802/3. After two or three years the children returned to Liverpool, in about 1805. The obvious inference is that John Walmsley's domestic situation had improved and he felt able to take the children back. Joshua and Sarah then spent some time at day schools in Liverpool but this did not work out well for Joshua, who was impetuous and chafed against discipline, and so he was despatched (as a boarder) to Mr Baron's school in Knowsley at the age of about 10 in 1805. This chronology ties in neatly with the arrival in John's life of Mary Harrison in about 1805 and the subsequent arrival in rapid succession of a whole new family of children. Despite the affection for him felt by his father, it was quite likely time for Joshua to be removed from the Liverpool menage.

Mary Harrison. Little is known about Mary Harrison, with whom John Walmsley cohabited for the last years of his life. She was a widow but we do not know the name of her former husband or when she was born (or died). She probably bore John Walmsley four children: John Forshaw (b c1806), Amelia Sophia Forshaw (b c1808), Mary Ann (b c1810) and Elizabeth Forshaw (b 1811). The first three are mentioned in John's will but no christening records have been found. Elizabeth was born and christened within days of John's death. Amelia Sophia is the only child who definitely reached adulthood (see below). John's will mentions five children as beneficiaries in what seems like chronological order of birth: Joshua, Sarah, John Forshaw, Amelia Sophia and Mary Ann. John Forshaw is almost certainly Mary Harrison's child, since the child of that name purportedly born in 1792 is not known to have had the middle name of Forshaw (from John Walmsley's mother Sarah Forshaw) and, for whatever reason, two of the other three of Mary's children, Amelia Sophia and Elizabeth, were given it. John Forshaw was probably listed in the will with his full name (unlike Amelia Sophia) precisely to distinguish him from his elder half-brother John. On the assumption that Mary Harrison had four children born in the order given in the will and from knowledge of the age at which Amelia Sophia died and when Elizabeth was born, the approximate years of birth of the children can be calculated as shown above.

We can also estimate that Mary's relationship with John Walmsley developed in about 1805. John's business was probably still prospering at this time: he had been in his grandiose new premises in Berry Street for less than a decade and it was not until about 1807/8 that worsening trade obliged him to draw in his horns. However, by the time of John's death and the christening of the last child Elizabeth, Mary gave their address as Mill Street in Toxteth Park. This was a good address in a newly developing area of mixed quality but it cannot have matched the Georgian elegance of the Berry Street premises. Mary was fortunate that John acknowledged his children by her in his will and made provision for them until the age of twenty-one on the same basis as for Joshua and Sarah but there cannot have been much money for any of them with no principal breadwinner around. In years to come, Joshua and Sarah had - in their very different ways - highly successful lives. Their elder brother John fared differently again and Amelia Sophia, the only one of Mary's children about whom we have subsequent information, did not marry well. Mary's own fate has yet to be discovered. Hers was a common name in Liverpool but she may just be the Mary Harrison who was buried in St Peter's churchyard (where John Walmsley was interred) in 1813 at the age of 36.

The children

William (b 1787).   See William Walmsley.

John (b 1792).   It is now time to return to John Walmsley's eldest son John, reportedly born in 1792. With no indication of his very existence given in the biography of Sir Joshua, most of the scant information available derives from records of the marriage of John Walmsley and Isabella Slater in 1806 and of the baptism of their children between 1806 and 1814. It appears implausible that the child born in late 1792 could be the same person that got married in early 1806 and fathered five children in quick succession. After all, the legal age for a male to marry was 14 and most bridegrooms were considerably older. (Isabella was born at the very end of 1788 and so was over 17 at the time of the wedding.) The correlation of identity is based on a combination of family tradition and circumstantial evidence of John's trade and address. A death notice for John and Isabella's daughter Susannah asserts that she was Sir Joshua Walmsley's niece. Similarly, the daughter and a granddaughter of Susannah's sister Elizabeth were both given the (unusual) name Adeline after Sir Joshua's wife. The various parish records relating to John and Isabella's family reveal John's trade as stone/marble mason. The addresses given vary but in 1808-11 John was living in Mill Street, Toxteth Park, the same street as John Walmsley and Mary Harrison at the time of the latter John's death in 1811. Taken together this evidence seems conclusive.

If the younger John's identity is not in serious doubt, his date of birth has to be. His marriage in 1806 followed the reading of banns in 1805 and, although the first child of the union arrived just eight months after the wedding, none of this suggests a necessarily hasty marriage of a thirteen-year-old. John's signature in the register also looks to be of an older person. On the face of it, we have to conclude that John was probably born several years before 1792 (but later than the birth of William in 1787). There are two possible explanations: either the date of birth entered for the 1792 baptism was wrong or the entry relates to a different child (leaving us without a record for John). Given that we know a child called Joshua died in 1793, could he be the child born and baptised in 1792? Resolution of this issue probably requires the discovery of John's burial record, which might well indicate his age at death.

Probably the eldest son, John would have been expected to inherit his father's business, while his younger siblings Joshua and Sarah were afforded the benefit of a good education but expected to fend for themselves. At the time in about 1802/3 when we believe the younger children were sent off to relatives in Christleton because of John Walmsley's domestic problems, the young John would probably have been in his teens and so of an age to be working for his father as a stone mason. When his father died, he was probably in his early twenties and had a trade, a wife and two children. He is probably not mentioned in his father's will because that was concerned with the upbringing of the children still in education and the infant children of Mary Harrison. It would have been understood that John inherited his father's tools and what was left of his business. This did not amount to much since the son does not feature in any trade directory as an independent mason.

John and Isabella's children were all born in Liverpool: William John (b 1806, d 1811), Susannah Slater (b 1808), Edward Waters (b 1810, d 1814?), Elizabeth Slater (b 1812) and the second William John (b 1814). The children's names are interesting: Susannah and Elizabeth were clearly named after Isabella's sisters and John was the name not only of the father but also of both grandfathers; William seems to be from John's elder step-brother; Edward Waters is a mystery. In about 1814 John's family seems to have moved a short distance away from Liverpool to Wavertree, then in the parish of Childwall. John himself probably died a short while later and his widow Isabella remarried in 1818 to James Guy. After the latter's death Isabella worked as a milliner, living in Little Woolton close to her daughter Susannah. William John became a journeyman joiner in Liverpool and married Harriet Smith in 1839. Their one child, John, probably died as an infant and William John himself died in 1846. In the same year Harriet married again to William Gradwell, a tea dealer, but she then died in 1849. A few months later in 1850 Gradwell took a new wife, William John's elder sister Elizabeth (by now in her late thirties)! They had one child, Harriet Adeline, before Gradwell died, leaving Elizabeth, like her mother, to ply her trade as a milliner. Meanwhile, Susannah had married a journeyman bricklayer called William Smith in 1832. They had a large number of children but William died relatively young and Susannah was left to run a beerhouse in Wavertree to a ripe old age. Early deaths blighted the lives of most branches of John and Isabella's line and there was clearly little money amongst them. It is hard not to think of the vast wealth that was accumulated in this period by Sir Joshua, whose wife's name was proudly carried by several of his brother's descendants.

Joshua (b 1794).   See Sir Joshua Walmsley and Joshua Walmsley's Schooldays.

Sarah (b c1796).   Like her brother Joshua, Sarah was given the benefit of an education befitting the daughter of a gentleman. We do not know which school she attended but it was in Liverpool. Following the death of her father, when she was about 15, she stayed on at the school in which she had been a pupil and became a teacher. She may have been encouraged in this by her father's sister-in-law Elizabeth Walmsley, who was not only a teacher but also ran her own night-school. Nothing more is heard of Sarah till her death notice appeared in the newspapers in September 1856. The same notice appeared in The Times, Liverpool Mercury, Gentleman's Magazine and Cork Examiner and was clearly placed by Sir Joshua. It simply read: On the 1st inst. at Paris, aged 60, Marie de St. Cecile, Abbess of the Convent of St. Elizabeth, and sister to Sir Joshua Walmsley, M.P. This is a quite extraordinary (and most helpful) piece of information. It strongly implies that Sarah was brought up as a Catholic, which in turn suggest that her mother Elizabeth Perry was a Catholic. The placing of the notice in the Cork Examiner further implies that Sarah lived for a while near Cork and/or had family connections in the area. It is tempting to suppose that this is where her mother Elizabeth had her origins and retired to after separating from John Walmsley. Could it also be that the missing marriage and christening records for John Walmsley and his children are to be found in Catholic parish registers? In the case of Joshua, there is a further twist. He himself got married in Liverpool in an Anglican church and he was a noted champion of Non-Conformists but might he have been baptised a Catholic at his mother's wish? Had he maintained the Catholic faith, he would have been unable to hold any public office before the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829.

Amelia Sophia Forshaw (b c1808).   Amelia Sophia took her grand name from the royal princesses. Nothing is known of her upbringing. When she married Robert Jones in 1837, she was living in Liverpool and she must have been in her late twenties. This was probably Robert's second marriage since he had a son who was born about two years before his marriage to Amelia. Unlike her husband, Amelia was able to write. Robert was originally from Flintshire. He worked as a labourer, then as a boilermaker and finally as a coal dealer. They had at least five children together. Amelia died in Liverpool in 1880 at the age of 71. Again, one wonders what she made of the fame and wealth of her step-brother Sir Joshua.

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