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There can be few challenges more daunting than setting out to trace an ancestor with the name of John Smith. Tracing such an ancestor, whose own father was also called John Smith must rank as one of the few. John Smith was the name of my wife's grandfather, and an air of mystery surrounded his origins. Fortunately a considerable amount of oral tradition was recorded by one of my wife's cousins, Monica Shepherd, without which my researches would have foundered.
John Smith (senior) was born around 1850 in County Meath, Ireland. His father was Joseph Smith, his mother's name is unknown. Although Smith is regarded as the archetypal English surname, it is in fact one of the commonest names in that part of Ireland. At some point John emigrated to England, along with many of his compatriots. The first record we have of him is from the 1871 census when he was boarding at the house of James Doudall in 5, South Street, Brandon. His profession was "Coal Miner (Hewer)". On 30th November 1878 he married Sarah Regan at St Cuthbert's Catholic Church in Durham City. His address was given as "Boyne". This is a potential red herring, for although the famous Battle of the Boyne was fought in County Meath the Boyne referred to in this instance is Boyne Colliery, located close to Langley Moor, where John was employed as a "Cinder Drawer".
Sarah was the daughter of John Atkinson of Durham, and was somewhat older than her bridegroom, having been born around 1841. She was also a widow, hence the surname Regan. The witnesses to the wedding were Bernard Harvey and Alice Byrne of Langley Moor, and the priest officiating was Edward Consitt RM.
Sarah had three children from her first marriage - Joseph (b. 1867), Mary (b. 1870) and Kate (b. 1873). It was not long before she presented them with a step-brother - John Smith, born on 10th July 1880 and baptised at St. Patrick's Catholic Church, Langley Moor on 16th July 1880. His godparents were John Brady and Alice Byrne.
At the time of the 1881 census the Smith family were living at Langley Moor. John (senior) was listed as a labourer and John (junior) somewhat remarkably was recorded as a scholar aged 8 years old! This is clearly a clerical error on the part of the enumerator. Having been born the previous July, John was actually 8 months old.
In 1891 the family were living at 11 Newcastle Street, Brandon. John (senior) was listed as a "Coke Drawer". Kate and Mary had left the family home by now, but his stepson Joseph was still living with them and working as a coal miner. The age of John (junior) was correctly recorded in this census as 10.
In 1901 John Smith (senior) was recorded as a widower, living at 75 Newcastle Street, Brandon. Living with him was a servant (presumably housekeeper) Hannah Feeley, aged 57. He was still working as a coke drawer. John Smith (junior) is not recorded in the census. According to family tradition he had by this time emigrated to North America to seek his fortune. He was in San Francisco at the time of its destruction by an earthquake in 1906, and appears to have then moved up to Canada, as we next encounter him in Quebec in 1914 when he signed up for the Canadian Army.
The 1911 census revealed the birthplace of John Smith (senior) - Yellow Furze, County Meath. This is a small village situated a little to the south of the town of Slane. The census also revealed that he had married Hannah, his former housekeeper.
Great Britain declared war on Germany on August 4th 1914. This declaration was also binding upon Canada because of her Dominion status. John Smith (junior) joined the 71st York Regiment of the Canadian Militia on 21st August. The Canadian Regiments did not mobilise as such, a new "Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force" being raised instead. The 71st York Regiment was one of several which combined to form the 12th Infantry battalion, raised at Valcartier near Quebec. John Smith joined this battalion on 26th September 1914 and sailed for England on 3rd October. His attestation paper gives his date of birth as 12th July 1884, and place of birth as Co. Meath Ireland. It may be that he lied about his age in order to meet the recruitment qualifications (many young men did the same, in their case claiming to be older than they were) But did he actually believe however that he was born in Ireland?
The 12th battalion was initially held back in England as a reserve unit. John may have taken advantage of this to make an unauthorised trip home as he was fined 4 days pay for going AWOL from 11th December to 15th December.
In February 1915 the Canadian forces took up positions along the Western Front in France and Belgium. On 29th March 1915 the 12th battalion was disbanded and John was transferred to the 14th battalion at Rouen. He took part in the 2nd battle of Ypres which commenced on 2nd April 1915, in which the Germans used poison gas for the first time. John received a dose of this, though apparently not a serious one, as he was still in the trenches on 27th May when he was fined 10 days pay for being drunk (who can blame him?). Sometime during August his vision was damaged by a shell explosion, and on 31st August he was sent to a military hospital at St. Omer. He was transferred to the 23rd reserve battalion at Shorncliffe Training camp near Folkestone on 30th September, and was eventually discharged from the army as medically unfit on 18th April 1917. His medical discharge stated: "The above-mentioned disability was determined as lessening his capacity (at the time) for earning a full livelihood in the general market for untrained labour to the extent of: 1/2 to 3/4"
Upon discharge John returned to Brandon, initially to live at 41 Newcastle Street. He had received a disability pension on discharge, as in April 1917 an application for a First Renewal of Pension was granted. In the application he stated that he had been working an average of 45 hours per week as a labourer since his discharge. His employer was Straker and Love, Brandon Colliery, however he was residing at 44 Victoria Terrace, Cornsay Colliery. On 22nd August 1917 he married Ellen O'Hara.
Like John Smith, Ellen O'Hara was of Irish descent. Her grandfather, James O'Hara was born around 1834 in Swinford, County Mayo. He married Bridget Riley (b. 1841), also of Swinford, and at some point they emigrated to England where James found employment in the coal mines of County Durham. In the 1871 census he was living at 62, Russell Place, Willington. Their eldest daughter Margaret was born in 1864, and two further daughters - Winifred and Sarah were born in 1866 and 1869 respectively. All three were born in Willington. A son, James, was born at Crook on 2nd September 1871, and was baptised on 24th September at the Church of Our Lady Immaculate and St Cuthbert. The godparents were William Hughes and Winifred McLoughlin. The family moved to Brandon not long after, as two further daughters, Agnes and Catherine, were born there in 1874 and 1878 respectively, but by 1881 they had moved to Yorkshire, and were living at Swinden Yard, Morley, near Leeds. James, now 47, was still working as a coal miner and his two eldest daughters were employed as mill hands.
The final piece in this jigsaw concerns yet a third Irish family with links to County Durham - the Murphys. John Murphy, son of Martin Murphy, was born in County Mayo around 1831. He probably emigrated to England in the aftermath of the Great Famine, which hit the west of Ireland particulary badly. On 17th May 1856 he married Rose Lynsk* (sic), at St Cuthbert's in Durham City. Rose, the daughter of John Lynsk was also from County Mayo and was born around 1839. The address for both John and Rose, and their witnessess Philip and Maria Monaghan was "New Durham".
* The handwriting in the register is poor, and this is the best rendition I can give. Later records give Rose's surname as Lynch, Linsley and Lindsay. These are almost certainly anglicized versions of the Irish name Ó Loinsigh.
John Murphy was a coalminer, one of many of his countrymen who worked the pits which dominated the landscape of County Durham. In the 1881 census he was recorded as living at 15, College Terrace Brandon, together with his wife Rose and 10 children (5 boys, 5 girls). The birthplaces of his many children testify to the fact that he had worked at Spennymoor, Shincliffe and Willington before settling in Brandon around 1880. At least three of his sons - Martin (b. 1857), John (b. 1861) and Francis* (b. 1880) followed him into the pit.
Francis Murphy died in the explosion at the Brandon C pit on 15th August 1899. He is commemorated on the website of the Durham Mining Museum. The report of the accident states: "A powder shot, on being fired by the Deputy, William Carr, blew though a parting in the stone and ignited some firedamp in an old place, and the effects of the explosion caused the deaths of these six men: Enoch Griffiths and Frank Murphy were killed outright, Ralph Robinson died on the 16th, William Carr and George Robinson on the 17th and Frank Robson on the 18th Inst."
We can now begin to pull the various pieces together. Despite the distance separating them the Murphy and O'Hara families must have been well-acquainted, sufficiently so for James (junior) to fall in love with Sarah Murphy. On 21st February 1892 they married at St Patrick's Langley Moor. James took his bride back to Morley where the first of their nine children, Thomas, was born in 1893. The following year they had a daughter, Ellen.
The parish records of St Patrick's throw up a mystery - James and Sarah were married on the 21st February 1892, but a child Francis, the son of James and Sarah O'Hara (formerly Murphy) was baptised there on 16th February 1892.
The 1891 census record for James O'Hara (senior) is a little confusing. Firstly, he was recorded as James O'Harra. Secondly, his wife's name was recorded as Ellen. Fortunately the details of the two children still living at home - Agnes and Catherine make it clear that this is the right person. In 1891 the family were living at 37 Hunger Hill, Morley. This street can be found on a modern-day map of Morley. Living with them was a grandson, James Thomas O'Hara, aged 4. (The same person appears in the 1901 census as a son aged 14. The 1901 census also reveals that his wife was called Bridget E. - presumably Ellen was her second name.)
We now jump forward to the 1901 census. James O'Hara (senior) was still resident in Morley, at 7 Oldroyd Buildings. The present day Morley railway station occupies the site of the LNWR station shown on the linked map, but the Morley Main collieries and gas works are long gone. James (junior) and Sarah O'Hara appear to have been in the process of moving back to Brandon. James is recorded as a visitor in the house of Thomas Kelly at 113 Office Street, Browney (a small village with its own pit adjacent to Brandon). With him were three of their children - Ellen, John (b. 1886) and James (b. 1887). We have no knowledge of the reason for this move, however it may have been related to ageing or illness of Sarah's father John, who died on 30th November of the following year aged 76. He was buried in St Bede's, Durham City. His wife Rose survived him by 11 years, dying on 9th December 1923. She is buried in Meadowfield Cemetery. James O'Hara senior and Bridget continued to live in Morley, Bridget dying there in May 1912. She was buried in Bruntcliffe Lane Cemetery on 22nd May 1912.
We have no further information regarding the childhood of Ellen O'Hara, or when she first met John Smith, but in 1917 they married, despite a large difference (14 years) in their ages. At the time Ellen was in service at Etherley Lodge, West Auckland, and the marriage took place at St Chad's Chapel in Witton Park. Her father James was serving in France with the 3rd Battalion, Northumberland Fusiliers. The picture below shows him with some of the Company Commanders during the Battle of the Somme.
James O'Hara is standing second from left. The identity of the Staff Officers is unknown
From Brandon to Blaydon
John and Ellen moved to Horden where John worked in the local pit. A family was not long in arriving, with the birth of John in 1918. Over the course of the next twelve years a further six children were born - James (1919), Joseph (1921), Mary Patricia (1923), Dorothy (1925), Margaret Sarah (1927) and Ellen (1930). In 1919 they were living at 3, Second Street, Horden, but it is likely that they moved around during this period.
Around 1931 John's health was deteriorating, and in order to get away from the coastal climate the family moved to Greenside near Ryton. The village was not blessed with much in the way of amenities, and a year later they moved to Blaydon to be nearer to shops and schools etc. John died of stomach cancer on 24th October 1935 and was buried in Blaydon Cemetery. His illness was said to have been linked to his exposure to poison gas in 1915, and after an interval of about four years Ellen was able to secure a war widow's pension from the Canadian Government.
Ellen's father, James O'Hara, worked for a time at Marley Hill Colliery, near Sunniside. He was reputed to have walked there from Brandon in search of work. This was probably during the depression in the 1920's. He later lived with his daughter Rosie and her son Dennis at 5, Alwinton Gardens, Lobley Hill, dying there on 11th April 1956. There was no Catholic Church in Lobley Hill at the time and consequently his Requiem Mass was held in a local house.
left to right Ellen Smith, Laurence Mooney, James O'Hara, James Smith, Florence May Bell, Margaret Smith, Stanley Bell, Florence Bell
After John's death the family continued to live in Blaydon, moving around 1939 to a better house at 3, Evelyn Terrace. As the children grew up and married, some of them spent the early days of their married life "living-in". The house at Evelyn Terrace became a family institution, and a centre for all kinds of family reunions. A regular, if erratic visitor was her brother John, who was a bit of a character and was reputed to have spent some time on the road as a tramp. I remember the house from Christmas visits in the 1960's, when it was evident how much Ellen enjoyed the company of her children and grandchildren, even if her tongue sometimes gave the opposite impression. She died in 1974 at the age of 80 and was buried beside her husband in Blaydon Cemetery.
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