This us the first part of the life of my great-grandfather. Subsequent chapters will follow. I would welcome any comments, corrections or additions Martis1@hotmail.co.uk
Williamís mother MARTHA BENNETT was baptised 1/7/1821 in the pariSh church of Midhurst, St Mary Magdalene and St Denys, the fifth child and third daughter of Midhurst butcher Moses Bennett born 1785 and Elizabeth Challen born 1784. They were married 3 December 1807 in Midhurst and had James born 1808, William born 1810, Jane born 1815, Elizabeth born 1818, Martha born 1821, Ann born 1823 and Moses born 1826. William, Jane and Moses died in childhood and were buried in the adjoining parish of Easebourne where the Bennetts had lived since the 1750s Marthaís grandfather James Bennett a shoemaker moved to Midhurst and married Ann Pollard in 1777. Martha would have known her maternal grandmother well as Ann lived until 1842.
Nothing is known of Marthaís childhood, apart from knowing that she received some education as she signed her name on her marriage certificates. What was Midhurst like whilst she was growing up? From a contemporary description Ďa quiet country town, gabled and venerable, unmodernised and unambitious, with a river, a Tudor ruin, a park of deer, heather commons, immense woods, and of the Downs only three miles distant. And being on no great high road, Midhurst is comparatively quiet. Nothing ever hurries there. The people live their own lives, passing along their few narrow streets and the one broad one, under the projecting eaves of timbered houses, reckoning little of London and the world. Sussex has no more contented town.í In 1831 the town had a population of 1,478. 1839 Pigots directory lists six schools in the town, apart from the grammar school and the National School (paid by subscription) for boys. It also lists the fairs which for Martha as a child and young woman must have been very important; the market was held every Thursday and fairs on 6 April, Tuesday in Whitsun week, and 19 October for cattle and stock. There was also a pleasure fair in the grounds of Cowdray park on the Wednesday of Whit week. Marthaís father Moses was one 6 Midhurst butchers listed in 1839.
On 15/3/1841 Martha gave birth to a daughter Emily Bennett. The baptismal register for St Mary Magdalene Midhurst 7/5/1841 records her as bastard daughter of Martha Bennett. (Did the attitude of the clergyman inhibit from having further illegitimate children baptised?) No father is recorded on birth certificate. The 1841 census shows Martha and three month old Emily living with her parents in West Street, Midhurst. West Street is one of the old streets in the town, full of 16th and 17th century buildings. Her father Moses is listed as a 56 year old butcher and his wife the same age. The butcherís had a baker on one side and shoe maker on the other. As well as Martha and Emily Moses and Elizabeth had living with them on 6 June Ann Bennett aged 17 and Elizabeth Leveret 23. Elizabeth was Marthaís elder sister. She had recently married on May 9th George Leverett in St James Paddington. George was on the marriage certificate described as a carter. The address of both Elizabeth and George as South Wharf Road Paddington indicated that Georgeís work involved canals and he is later called a bargeman. She and her family eventually ended up in the Limehouse area of East London, the men working as bargemen and lightermen on the Thames, but that is another story. Martha and Ann are not given occupations but Elizabeth is described as a female servant.
The next possible event in Marthaís life was the birth of a male child C Bennett in Midhurst in 1844. This little boy is a mystery. The only record of him is when he is listed as living with his grandparents Moses and Elizabeth Bennett on the 1851 census aged 6. This census is unhelpful as only initial for the first name is given, but I would imagine it was Charles or less likely Clement or Christopher. Was he Marthaís son? If she wasnít then his mother must have been either Rhoda Bennett, wife of Marthaís brother James or her sister Ann. James Bennett had married Rhoda Hopkins in Midhurst 29 August 1831. They had three daughter baptised in Midhurst church; Jane 1831, Elizabeth 1834 and Emily Martha 1836. Elizabeth died at 5 weeks. Between his marriage and the 1851 census Jamesís occupation fluctuated between labourer and butcher but after 1851 he settled as hog or pork butcher. It seems very unlikely that C Bennett was their son for several reasons; James and his family always lived in Midhurst and with only two other children their son would surely have been with them? In 1851 James was a butcher living in Wool Lane, Midhurst. Their daughters Jane 20 and Martha 15 were with them, no occupations given, There is no record of C Bennettís baptism or registration which there undoubtedly would have been if he had been Jamesís son. Also there would have been a long gap between his birth and that of his sisters. C Bennett might have been the illegitimate son of Marthaís younger sister Ann Bennett. If he was there is no evidence of him having contact with his mother or her subsequent family after her marriage to Alfred Miles in Heyshott 2 October 1847. Martha was a witness at this marriage and this is the next record we have of her following Emilyís baptism.
At this point we must meet our subject William for around this time Martha gave birth to him in Midhurst. We have neither birth registration or baptism record to give his exact date of birth. Registration of births only became compulsory in 1875. However his obituary (West Sussex Gazette 22/8/1935) says when he died on 14 August he was two weeks short of his birthday so it fell approximately on 28 August. But in which year? The 1851 and 1861 census records him as being aged 6, so born August 1845, maybe a year to two years younger than C Bennett. Information on the 1851 census would probably have been given by William Blunden, whom I will refer to as William Blunden elder whom Martha married in 1850. It is possible William remembered the age wrong (am I being sexist in thinking men are less good than women at remembering ages?). However by the 1861 census William had died so Martha would have given her sonís age. We can only speculate whether Martha had met William the elder as early as the end of 1844 when William would have been conceived. if born in August 1845. My grandmother said her father had been ill-treated as a boy by his father as his father had been made to marry his mother. Of course this statement is ambiguous. Did it mean William the elder was the biological father (but still reluctant to marry Martha) or was William the elder called father as he had become the boyís stepfather and was treated by the community as his father?
It seems it seems certain that William the elder was living in Heyshott throughout the 1840s and would almost certainly have worked alongside Ann Bennettís husband Alfred Miles. I donít think we will ever know whether Martha met William as early as 1844 and Ann met Alfred through them or whether Ann met Alfred first and Martha was introduced to William maybe not until Annís marriage and move to Heyshott. It may be interesting to note that when Ann married she was not pregnant as many young brides from her class often were. Other possibilities are that Martha met William on one of the many occasions he would have walked to Midhurst, the nearest town, or Martha might have been visiting family members who were living in Heyshott.
From the age given on the 1871 census William would have been born 1847 from the 1881, 1891 ones 1848 and the 1901 census and death certificate 1849. If the later birth dates are correct I would be tempted to accept that he was the son of William Blunden, but if the earlier date as provided by William Senior or Martha is correct then I believe there is a possibility that William had a different father. Why did William become a few years younger? Was it because illegitimacy became more shameful in the late 19th and earlier 20th centuries or did he just remember it wrong? In those days people werenít asked to give their dates of birth as constantly as we are. But why wasnít his birth registered? Martha had both registered the birth of and had baptised her illegitimate daughter in 1841 and in 1849 would register the birth of her son John who was also born illegitimate.
Whatever Williamís exact date of birth was we know he was born by the end of August 1848. The first significant event we know of in the young Williamís life is 2a.m. on 21/10/1849 in Midhurst when his mother gave birth to another baby. Martha registered the birth on 19/11/1849 as John Blunden Bennett. No father is recorded on the birth certificate. Time of birth on a certificate is often indicative of the birth of twins. However in this case I have found neither a birth or a death certificate for Johnís twin, if there was one. The giving of Blunden as a middle name is highly significant. It was a common practice when a child was born illegitimate for the fatherís surname to be given as a middle name. This could be for different reasons. Frequently a couple could be Ďbetrothedí, have an understanding, but be unable to marry before the birth of their child. Usually the marriage happened soon after. On the other hand giving the fatherís surname name could also be a message to society informing it of the childís paternity and a way to put pressure on a reluctant father; name and shame in either words. We canít tell which of these applies in this case. Was the choice of the name John significant? it was not a name used in the Bennett family but it may have been in Williamís.
John was born in Midhurst so William and his mother were probably still living above the shop in West Street.. It may however have changed use by this time as the 1851 census records Moses as a beer seller rather than a butcher. He was to die in 1852 so he could have been forced to give up butchery due to ill-health.
Following Johnís birth it was still a year before Martha and William were to marry, on 30 November in St James, Heyshott, and so opening a new chapter in little Williamís life.