Iron, Coal and Beerá á á á á á á á á á á áá

Ashton, Smith and Roberts Families á á á á á á á á of Tipton and West Bromwich á á á á á á á á á á á á á á á á á á á

Ancestors of Mary Amelia Skidmoreá

Mary Amelia Skidmore’s parents were Mary Ashton (1843 - 1890) and James Roberts Smith (1843 – 1890). They married on December 9thá1867 at St. James Parish Church, West Bromwich, Staffordshire. The original church building no longer exists.

Due to the rich natural resources of iron and coal,áWest Bromwich, along with other parts of the west midlands (nearby Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Walsall and Dudley) experienced rapid industrial and population growth in the 18th and 19thácenturies. Everyone, from worker to manager, lived amongst the myriad of collieries, iron foundries, nail works, brick and tile works, gas works, tube works, glass blowing works, saw mills, tar works and gravel pits. Lots of employment, but noisy and polluted - not called the 'black country' for nothing. Local governance had not kept up with the rapid population growth and many aspects of civil life had been impacted negatively, for example health, roads and public services. Here is a description from the Midland Mining Commissioners’ Report 1843:

'…..the houses for the most part are not arranged in continuous streets, but are interspaced with blazing furnaces, heaps of burning coal in process of coking, piles of ironstoneácalcining, forges, pit-banks and engine chimneys; the country being besides intersected with canals, crossingáeach other at various levels and the small remaining patches of the surface soil occupied with irregularáfields of grass or corn, intermingled with the heaps of the refuse of mines or the slag from the blast furnaces. Sometimes the road passes between mounds of refuse from the pits, like a deep cutting on a railway; at others it runs like a causeway, raised some feet above the field on either side, which have subsided by the excavation of the minerals beneath…..’

So this was the landscape our ancestors inhabited.


An idealised view of a ‘black country’ scene. Source:áGriffiths' Guide to the Iron Trade of Great Britain 1873.

Inns and iron

Mary Amelia’s father, James Roberts Smith (eldest son of Samuel Smith and Hannah Roberts) was born in 1843 at Dudley Port, Tipton (a parish next to West Bromwich). He earned his living as an iron roll turner, and would have worked at one of the local iron foundries. A roll turner rolls iron and steel to shape or mould it, and then creates objects (eg rails for the railways and various tools and engineering components). It was hard, hot and dangerous work.á

However, James had tried another profession albeit briefly. In 1871, a few years after he and Mary Ashton married,áalthough in the census James still describes himself as a roll turner, he had taken overáthe licence of the Swan Taverná(see below) in Eagle Road, Great Bridge, Tipton, from Mary’s father Job Ashton. This was their address when the census was taken that year, Job having retired and moved to nearby Dudley Road. Also living at the same address were Mary’s youngest sisters Emma and Harriet, and Mary and James’s first baby, 1 year old Edwin Alfred. Perhaps the sisters helped in the pub and with the new baby.

James only had the licence for one or two years, then returned solely to iron roll turning and moved back to John Street West Bromwich, the street where he had lived before marrying. There were numerous iron foundries in the area, many producing rails and other machinery for the South Staffordshire Railway Company (amongst other local and export áindustries) who were to open a new station at Great Bridge. Griffith’s Guide to the Iron Trade in Great Britain (1873) lists 28 iron puddling furnace companies ináWest Bromwich and 14 in Tipton alone. Most of these running multiple puddling furnaces, mills and forges, one in the same street as the Swan Tavern on Eagle Lane.


John and Samuel Roberts Foundries, West Bromwich. From the New Illustrated Directory 'Men and Things of Modern England' 1858.áRoberts was a very common name in this area, so I don’t know if these Roberts were related to our Roberts or not.áSource: Local Studies and History, Central Library, Birmingham. á á á á á á á á á á á á á á á á á á á á á á á á á á á á á áá

1890 - a big change in the family

James only lived to 47 years of age, dying of heart disease in August 1890, and sadly for Mary Amelia and her siblings their mother Mary had died only six months earlier that year. Both are buried in the Heath Lane Cemetery, West Bromwich. So from that time Mary Amelia and her siblings were living under the guardianship ofáher eldest brother, 21 year old Edwin Alfred, now a carpenter and joiner. The 1891 census shows he was head of the family: his sisters Hannah 20 who would have been the main housekeeper, cook and substitute mother, Mary Amelia 12 a scholar, Emma Louisa 7 a scholar, and brothers James Roberts 18 an iron moulder, Arthur 14 also an iron moulder, Harold Augustus 11 a scholar, and 4 year old Samuel. Perhaps they may have had some help from their only living grandparent Samuel Smith, now a widower living with his three unmarried adult daughters in High Street not far away.

Common names

Mary Amelia’s grandfather, Samuel Smith born c1822 in Tividale (a village of Tipton), may be the son of Sarah and John Smith, a coal miner. Mary’s grandmother Hannah Roberts, born c1823 in Tipton, may be the daughter of Hannah and James Roberts, also a coal miner. There are so many Smith and Roberts families in the same area, working in similar occupations, it is difficult to know, from the available records of the early 19th century, who is who.

The marriage record of a Samuel Smith (engineer) and a Hannah Roberts marrying atáSt Mary’s Handsworth in 1840 is not conclusive. If these are our ancestors then the 1841 census of Samuel Smith apprentice engineer and Hannah Roberts, both living with their respective parents and siblings, is another Samuel and Hannah. Either the marriage record, or the only census records I could find, show a different couple.áRecords show several Samuel Smiths as coal merchants or dealers in Staffordshire, but I can identify our Samuel, Hannah and their family partly due to the use of Roberts as the middle name of some of their children and also by cross-referencing siblings’ records and working backwards from 20th century documents.

Coal master

What is certain is that our Samuel eventually became a coal merchant and coal master, the latter being defined variously as a person in charge of a coal mine, owner of a coal mine or lessee of a coal mine. Census records show that in 1851 he is an engineer, 1861 a colliery clerk, 1871 a colliery clerk and agent, 1881 a coal merchant, 1891 and 1901 a retired coal master, probably of one of the many small collieries in the area. But he was retiring at the right time as far as thisáindustry is concerned, for the second half of the 19th century saw theágradual decline of coal mining in West Bromwich.


The Jubilee Colliery, West Bromwich in 1893, one of the many South Staffordshire collieries near the Smiths in West Bromwich. á á á á á á á á á á á á á á á á á á á á á á á á Source:

James’s siblings

Samuel and Hannah livedáall their lives in parts of West Bromwich, including Swan Village and Carter’s Green where Samuel is recorded in Kelly’s Directory as a 'coal master'. áHannah was busy raising their eight children: James Roberts being the eldest, then Elizabeth Roberts c1845, Lucy c1847, Esther Roberts c1851, John c1853, Samuel c1855, Hannah 1858 (baptised at the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, West Bromwich), and Sarah Mary Ann c1860. At least one of the sons, Samuel junior, was not initially employed in the iron or coal industries, becoming a schoolteacher (but possibly later employed as a coal merchant like his father, as evidenced in the probate record). Samuel senior died in July 1901, had been retired for at least ten years, and was lookedáafter by his unmarried daughter Esther, his wife Hannah having died some time in the previous decade. Their daughter Elizabeth married Thomas Hill, a rate collector, Lucy married David Arkinstall, an iron galvaniser, and Sarah Mary Ann married her cousin Albert Ernest Roberts, a manufacturing chemist.á

An abused wife

Their other daughter, Hannah, married an engineer Herbert Alfred Ault, but in 1909 after a nine year marriage, she was granted a separation on grounds of cruelty. The case in the West Bromwich Police Court was reported in theáBirmingham Gazette and Expressáof October 30th 1909 under the headlineá‘Kissing a visitor’. The article described how the husband had taken a seventeen year old girl (that Hannah hadáintroduced into their house) out toá‘entertainments’ and kissed the girl in front of his wife and friends. He claimed he had his wife’s permission. Hannah however reported that her husband hadá‘on one occasion stripped her (Hannah) and thrashed her like a child’. Her husband admitted this, but said she had made up the case about the girl because she wanted to get away from him.Thankfully, and due to witness statements, Hannah was believed by the court.

The Ashtons - breeze and beer in Tipton

Mary Amelia’s mother was Mary Ashton. The Ashtons were also employed in the coal, iron and related industries in the early to mid 1800s. Mary’s parents were Job Ashton b.1810 and Hannah b.1813 both from West Bromwich. Hannah may be Hannah Perry who married a Job Ashton on May 30th 1833 at St Mary’s Handsworth, but I cannot confirm this yet. Our couple had nine children: Sarah 1835, Mary b & d 1838, Selinah 1840 - 1841, Hannah c1842, Mary c1845, Eliza c1847, Joseph c1849, Emma c1851 and Harriet c1855. Job Ashton was recorded as being a caster (probably an iron caster/castor) in 1841, then a victualler (provisions dealer/inn-keeper) from at least 1851 to 1870 living at 1 Eagle Lane Tipton, the address of the Swan Tavern, to which he became the proprietor from 1860 until 1871 when his son-in-law briefly took over the licence. It seems Job had tried to leave the Swan Tavern in 1869 as this advertisement from Aris’s Birmingham Gazette of August 14th 1869 shows:


Around this time Hannah died and a few months later Job married his second wife Elizabeth. In 1871 they were living in Dudley Road, Great Bridge, very near Eagle Lane. The 1871 census describesáJob as a retired breeze* dealer of Dudley Road (also with them is a niece, Harriet Tay Jones). Ten years earlieráJob had been the victim of theft as was reported in local newspaper, theáStaffordshire Advertiseráof October 19th 1861:


Child deaths

Job and Hannah suffered what many parents did in those days - child death - so common in these times. The death of two daughters within a very few years was just one of life’s trials to be expected. Their infant daughter Mary died in 1838, and their 2 year old daughter Selinah in 1841.á

Inquest at the Swan Tavern

In the days when there were few other suitable venues, public houses, being conveniently located large indoor spaces, were often used for auctions, petty sessions' hearings and coronial inquests. On at least one occasion the Ashton’s Swan Tavern provided the space for an inquest into a death. On Sunday July 8th 1866, the body of a new born baby girl was brought to the Swan Tavern. She had been found in aá‘privy’ in Eagle Lane by a 12-year-old boy who reported it to the police who retrieved the body and brought it to the tavern. The body would have been kept in an out building or maybe the cellar of the Swan. An inquest was conducted at the Swan on the following Saturday where the surgeon who had conducted the post-mortem testified that the childá‘hadánever breathed’ (stillborn?). The mother said she didn’t know what to with the child’s body, and obviously distressed, desperate and lacking support, handed herself into the police. She was charged withá‘concealment of the birth of her child’, but the magistrate having some sympathy for her predicament decided toáallow heráto be released without a trial, pending any further evidence that may come to light.á

'House proprietor'

Job’s death certificate of September 6th 1876 shows he died at Dudley Road, age 66 fromá‘paralysis' (a stroke?) and his daughter Harriet Ashton was present. On his death certificate, Job’s occupation was given as 'house proprietor’.áI think Job had his hand in a few businesses, separately or concurrently: beer retailing, publican, victualler, breeze dealer, and landlord. This was not uncommon for those wanting and able toá‘get ahead’. In 1861 the Polling Books show he owned freehold houses in Great Bridge that qualified him to vote.áHis son-in-law, James Roberts Smith was one of the executors of his will bequeathing his effects, valued at under ú800. His second wife Elizabeth died in 1890.

Mary’s siblings

I have had some difficulty tracing Mary Ashton’s siblings: Hannah I discovered married William Baker in 1864, a railway station master and they moved to Stratford on Avon.áEliza died unmarried in 1870, but of the others I have found no trace after the 1860s andá‘70s.

1911 map of the West Bromwich area with Tipton, Great Bridge and Handsworth underlined. Source: Wikimedia

*breeze is the remaining ash from burning charcoal and was sold to brickmakers.

Click here to continue to Mary Amelia Smith and John William Skidmore’sástory.