Coventry Slaters                                                                       

John William Skidmore 1878-1934

Mary Amelia Smith 1878-1952                                                    

Parents of John (Jack) Skidmore

Iron, slate and sewing

John William Skidmore was born at home in West Bromwich, Staffordshire England, on February 10th 1878, the second of the six children of John Skidmore a sheet iron bundler, and Sarah Jane (nee Colley). Both his parents were born in West Bromwich and were living in Witton’s Lane. The 1881 census shows the family had moved to 7 Pleasant Street West Bromwich and by 1891 lived at 13 Old Meeting Street. At the age of 13 John was working as a roller’s assistant in the iron industry. His mother died in 1900 aged 48 and by 1901 John was working as a slater and boarding with a foundry labourer’s family in Dukinfield, Chester (near Manchester). His siblings were still together living at Swan Village in West Bromwich. What happened to his father is unknown.

Mary Amelia Smith was born on April 21st 1878 at John Street, West Bromwich. Her father was James Roberts Smith, a roll turner in the iron industry, and her mother was Mary Ashton. Both parents were born in West Bromwich. Mary Amelia was one of 7 children, two of her older brothers were employed in the iron industry like their father. The census for 1881 show the family living at 61 John Street, Wednesbury, West Bromwich and by 1891 they are still at this address, however the eldest son Edwin a carpenter, is now listed as the head of the family in charge of his six siblings. The 1901 census shows unmarried Edwin, still head of the family but now living at 62 Old Meeting Street, West Bromwich. Around this time Mary Amelia attended a technical school in Birmingham (possibly run by Methodists) to learn sewing. What happened to the parents between 1881 and 1891 is not known.

'Great Flood’ in Spon Street

Whilst living at Old Meeting Street Mary Amelia met John Skidmore and on September 28th 1902 they married at Carter’s Green Wesleyan Chapel in West Bromwich.

At the time of marriage, John’s address was 126 Spon Street, Coventry, a street heavily affected by the Great Flood of December/January 1900/01 which inundated the low lying parts of the city.

 Spon Street Coventry, where the Skidmores lived, in flood, December 1900. Source: Historic             

Loss of baby Harold

Here in Coventry, John and Mary started their lives together and began their family. When their first child John was born at home on January 28th 1905 the family’s address was 372 Foleshill Road. A second son Harold was born in 1907 and another son Leonard on January 1st 1910. In 1911 Harold contracted measles and died at the age of 3 years.

Foleshill Road, Coventry, where John Skidmore was born at home. Source: Coventry City Council                           

Temporary separation

John had decided some years earlier that he could make a better life by migrating to Australia. His name was on a waiting list for two years for an assisted passage, and he finally made it to the top of the list in 1911. Mary begged him to postpone the trip whilst they were still mourning the loss of Harold, but John was determined to keep his place on the list and his passage to Australia. He set out alone, the plan probably being that Mary and the boys would join him as soon as he had made enough money to pay for their passage and had established a suitable place for them to live. En route to Australia he sent Mary a postcard from Cape Town expressing his disappointment that he had not heard from her.

Meanwhile, Mary with her two sons John aged 6 and Leonard aged 1, moved in with her brother Edwin Alfred Smith, a carpenter and joiner, and his wife Annie. The 1911 census of April 2nd shows the five of them at 63 Billhay Street West Bromwich.

By 1912 John had not been able to send money for his family so Mary borrowed the fare from her sister Emma Louisa Thomas and brother-in-law William Henry Thomas, and with sons John and Leonard accompanied her sister’s family to Australia. The ship called at Hobart in Tasmania en route and Mary had admired the place saying it was 'a little England'. She would have liked to settle there however John had employment as a slater and tiler with the firm Wunderlich’s in Melbourne.


Although he had this job, John had only been able to find one-roomed lodgings and not yet established a home for his family. So when Mary and the boys arrived they had to share a house with Emma Louisa’s family. The seven of them rented number 72 Mary Street in the inner-city suburb of Richmond. However on May 15th 1913, when the Skidmore’s daughter Maud was born, and also a daughter to the Thomas family, it was clear the Skidmores would have to move out for lack of room. By January 12th 1915 the Skidmores had moved to Coburg and at 9 Rodda Street their last child Arthur was born. Over the next 12 months they moved to 35 Carters Avenue, Toorak, and then 151 Brighton Street, Richmond.

Trade union achievement

Mary’s husband John continued to work for Wunderlichs, and he also became a union representative and secretary for the Slaters' and Tilers' Union. While he held these positions, the union achieved the right for workers to be paid at the worksite instead of having to travel to the firm’s office on the Yarra bank in the city to collect their weekly wages.

151 Brighton Street, Richmond, another home of the Skidmores.                               Photo: Ann Hurley 1999

Life in a stable

In 1916 the Skidmores were living in Florence Street Mentone, in  a stables that was converted into a home. It had an earthen floor, hessian walls and the parents’ room was in the loft. The family of six had their diet supplemented with duck meat and eggs provided by a well-populated duck pond on the property. Mary took in ironing from the boarding house next door to help make ends meet. During this time their 3 year old daughter Maude contracted measles which must have brought back the worry and tragedy of the loss of their son Harold at the same age in England.

Thought to be the converted stables at 124 Florence Street Mentone,  the Skidmores home in 1916. Photo: Corinne Hurley 1980s.                                                                                                                              

J. Skidmore and Co. Tile Works 'boom and bust'

Maude survived which must have seemed like a good omen for the family. Three years later they had saved enough money to move to Cheltenham near the corner of Point Nepean and Charman Roads. John set up his own tile-works, J. Skidmore and Co. and the boys John and Leonard were soon old enough to join their father’s business. By 1921 the family were experiencing good times and were able to purchase some quality furniture, a horse, cart, a Brougham (buggy), and a piano.

The good times were not to last however as John was experiencing poor health exacerbated by a drinking problem. The company was soon in financial strife and was bankrupted in 1924. They lost all their assets including a Phaeton, the horse and wagon, and the piano. So Mary took a lease on a boarding house in Beach Road Sandringham hoping to make some money from summer holidaymakers. Unfortunately that summer was wet and customers stayed away. The Skidmores had to give up the lease before a year had passed.

On December 23rd 1924, the eldest son John married Valdis Muriel Rogers, an attractive and vivacious woman from a well-off middle class family. The wedding took place at St. Agnes’ Anglican church, Black Rock. Valdis had to move in with her parents-in-law at 9 Karakatta Street Black Rock. Five months later Mary ans John’s forst grandchild was born, John Kenneth, in May 1925. 

In 1926, the Skidmores moved again, this time to Elm Street Brighton. That year, at this address, the next grandchild Renee Valdis was born and financial circumstances seemed to be improving. Skidmore and Co. was operating again with sons John and Len as tilers. Their first car, a T model Ford, was purchased and son John was able to rent his own house on the Nepean Highway. Economic progress continued and both families were able to buy houses in Robert Street Bentleigh. John and Mary purchased number 57 and son John and Valdis bought number 52 opposite. Whilst in Bentleigh, two more grandchildren were born, Brian Leonard in 1928 and Corinne Shirley in 1930. Around this time John (senior) joined the Cheltenham branch of the Masonic Lodge.

The 1930s depression 

Then, the economic depression arrived and they had to give up their home. By 1933 they had moved to 137 Balcombe Road Mentone. It was here on August 31st1934 that John died at the age of 56 years. The cause of death was given as 'sigmoid carcinoma and cardiac failure'. He was buried at the New Cheltenham Cemetery but there was no money for a headstone. Eventually in 1984, on the 50th anniversary of his death, his granddaughter Corinne organised for a plaque to be placed on his grave. At its instalment were Corinne and her husband, John’s daughter Maud, his youngest son Arthur, and also a very sudden torrential downpour!

Mary’s final years

After her husband’s death, Mary went to live with son Arthur at a house built by Arthur and his brother Len on South Road, Moorabbin. By the early 1950s, Mary had become ill and in her last weeks, after coming out of hospital, she stayed with her eldest son John and his second wife Dorothy at 28 Austin Street Oakleigh. Here on November 25th 1952 Mary Amelia Skidmore age 74 died. Her death certificate states the cause of death was 'cardiac failure, uraemia and hypertension'. She was cremated at Springvale Cemetery and her ashes placed under a rose bush there.

Mary with daughter Maudie, granddaughter Sandra and son Arthur in the 1940s. Source: family collection                                                                                                                                  

Click here to continue to John (Jack) Skidmore and Valdis Muriel Rogers’ story