Random Find, Local Story

I am a (relatively) late convert to the wonder that is old newspapers, but I have to say that the British Newspaper Archive is a veritable gold mine when it comes to researching (right up there with Australia’s Trove, and the USA’s Newspapers.com and Library of Congress Newspaper Archive).

On a whim (because I don’t have enough of my own actual family stories to write up and share …), I recently searched for articles featuring the village in which I currently live. In amongst the articles about high pavements*, sewage problems** and upturned tractors***, I found a remarkable one that made my eyebrows reach for my hairline …

At Bath, John Alexander, Esq., aged 80, to Miss Bewley of Quemerford Common, aged 18. The youthful bride is grand-niece to the antiquated bridegroom
From London Evening Standard, Saturday 09 April 1842

Of course, finding this sent me scurrying to see what else I could find about this pair – and perhaps find what would possess an 18-year-old girl to marry her octogenarian grand-uncle (I mean, my first thought was money …).

Their marriage certificate wasn’t hard to track down:

Marriage certificate of John Alexander, widower, of full age, to Mary Ann Bewley, 21, spinster, on 30 March 1842 in the Parish Church in the Parish of Trinity Bath, Somerset

So here it states that Mary Ann was 21 – at odds with her age in the newspaper article. At 21 Mary Ann would have been free to marry without her father’s permission so perhaps this was the reason, but that is made somewhat moot by the fact that her father, William Bewley, makes his mark as a witness. Or someone purporting to be William Bewley, anyway. But still a curious fib. The baptism in Calne for Mary Ann Bewley, father William, in January 1822 gives her birth date as 10 Sep 1821, which would have made her 6 months away from being 21 at the time of her marriage. But not 18, as per the newspaper article…

It is also curious to note that John records his father as “Not Known”. This, to me, would initially imply that he was illegitimate, or that his father had died when he was young and he had no memory of him. If the former, it might also mean that the Alexander surname might be a stepfather’s surname, and not that of his natural father or his mother. But that was a complication that I didn’t need to worry about first of all. As my gran used to say, “Don’t go borrowing trouble, it finds you soon enough”.

I was able to find John and Mary in the 1851 census, living on Wood Street in Calne. John’s occupation says that he has an income from owning several houses and that he was born in Calne c.1769, which is slightly at odds with the age implied by the 1842 marriage announcement (1762). I was also able to find him in 1841, also on Wood Street, living alone, with an implied birth year of 1771 (+/- 5 years given the rounding used). I couldn’t find him in 1861, but given his age then maybe that wasn’t a surprise.

But nor could I find Mary Ann. Which was a surprise. As was finding that she had died in 1859. Her death certificate (because … of course I did) also contained a distressing surprise.

Mary Ann Alexander’s death certificate

I had to verify with a friend that what was recorded as her cause of death was indeed what I thought it was: internal hemorrhage during childbirth or pregnancy. Undoubtedly very traumatic for John.

But John wasn’t long in following his wife:

Death certificate of John Alexander

His death was (perhaps not surprisingly) attributed to natural causes – but I was interested to see that there had been an inquest. Now, Wiltshire inquests do not have a high survival rate, but as they were very often reported in local newspapers, it was back to BNA for me!

But before I share that, it is interesting to note that his age here (90) gives an estimated birth year of 1770. The associated burial record for John gives his birth year of c. 1767!

Indeed, there was a report on the inquest:

Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette – Thursday 19 April 1860

It is interesting to note that John’s housekeeper was also a Bewley. Was her husband also related to John in some way? It is John’s will that provided me with a little more key information in tracking down the husband, and also in opening up how John’s own wife was related to him.

First I give and bequeath to Mary the wife of Alexander Bewley of Quemerford in the said county, wheelwright, all and everymy household goods and chattels personal estate and effects whatsoever which I may be possessed of my death … for her own absolute use and benefit …

Apart from the above, Mary also received:

… the rents and profits arising from my said real estates for and during the term of her natural life to and for her own separate use and benefit independently of her current or any future husband …

Not too shabby a deal out of being John’s housekeeper for less than a year. Her father, identified as John, a poultryman, and another gentleman (Nathaniel Orchard, tailor) were to act as trustees on her behalf, but were not to interfere in her collection or receipt of the said rents and profits, and nor could any debtors of her current or future husband claim the income to pay off what was owed (this was somewhat prescient as in 1865 Alexander was declared bankrupt). In a time before women were allowed to hold property in their own name, this was a bold choice on John’s part. If I were a cynical person, I might begin to wonder why she wasn’t keen on calling a doctor when the old man was ill …

Bewley family in 1890s – Alexander standing with beard, his wife Mary Ann sitting

Alexander Bewley had married his cousin, Mary Ann Bewley in 1848 as his second wife (his previous wife Ann having died three years before). Mary Ann Alexander was one of the witnesses. It was Alexander (and Mary Ann’s … and Mary Ann’s …) grandfather – Edward Bewley – who proved to be the key. He had married Mary Alexander in February 1785, thus making John his wife’s great uncle.

I have no reason as to why Mary Ann would marry her great uncle, especially given the age difference. Both of her parents were alive – her father also received an army pension (her brother John also served in the Army, fighting in “the Punjab” before being retired due to ill-health) – so it can’t just have been about the money, can it?

I am trying desperately to pull myself away from researching both the Bewley and the Alexander clans as they seem to be quite interesting – a possible relation was present in the town whose widow was a mantua maker (by this time likely a general dressmaker as mantuas had fallen out of fashion) and apprenticed a local girl to assist her – and there are still Bewley family members in the area today.

But it’s interesting to note that I didn’t really get a bead on the Bewley family as a whole until I looked at John’s will and obituary and identified his housekeeper’s husband and looked at them as a couple and their shared family. Which goes to show that you never quite know from where your next break is going to come!

*An old lady fell off it in 1933 and broke her wrist – it had been warned about since 1904 when a man fell off and broke his leg – and remains without railings today

** Complaints about sewage discharging into the river, from 1875-1939

*** A suffocated 16-year-old boy was found underneath one in a ditch


  1. Hi there. My name is Stephen Bewley. I have found this article absolutely fascinating as I have been researching the Bewley family tree for the past 50 odd years. Most of what you have written I have also unearthed but you confirmed some questions regarding properties in Wood Street. It would be great to exchange our findings if you are interested in emailing me. Yours Steve Bewley

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Steve. Thanks for the message. I don’t think that I have anything of use to tell you! I *may* still have a copy of John Alexander’s will somehow, but if you’re hunting properties then you’ve probably already purchased it! What other kind of info were you hoping to find? Dom


      1. Hi Dom. Many thanks for reply.
        Your research has helped confirm a “Family Legend” of owning property in Wood Street. My dad had often told of his father (he’s the little boy stood in front of Alexander) collecting rents in that area during his courting days; early 20th century. The legend also says that the family were “relieved” of their property after Alexander’s death by Mary Ann signing a document that she couldn’t read. Like all legends, no doubt embellished by time!
        I had always assumed the property was owned by Alexander, and it was news to me that he was declared a bankrupt. I know he owned land in Quemerford as he donated a plot for the building of the Plymouth Brethren Meeting House. It’s the conical roofed house that stands next to the site of the former Jolly Miller pub.

        There is a book in the Library and Heritage Centre entitled “ Accidents, Inquest and Crimes in and around Calne 1817-1901”, by John Osborne. Which list the inquest that you have quoted. It also reports the death in 1875 of an Elizabeth Nichols , an unmarried woman of 68 years of age who had been a respectable monthly nurse. I surmise that this is the same Mrs. Nichols who was sitting with John Alexander during the night of his death, and decided that a doctor wasn’t needed. Sounds a bit of a “Mrs. Gamp”.

        Again, many thanks for all your efforts in researching my Family History. It has been a fascinating read and a great help in my own investigations.
        Cheers! Steve.

        Liked by 1 person

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