Henry Downing: the effect on a young family of the death of a parent

Henry Downing, 1847-1898

Painter and Decorator of Southend-on-Sea, Essex, and my great great great grandfather

In the 19th century,  the death of a parent could spell financial disaster for a previously comfortably-off family, like the Downings.  Families needed a father to bring in money, and a mother to look after the home and children.  A widow had no income, a widower had no one to care for his offspring while he was at work.  This lead to a large number of hasty remarriages.  But what if things went wrong?  What if the second wife did not get on with the children?  What if both the parents died?   Here I will talk of my great great great grandparents and the effect their untimely demise had on their seven surviving children.

Leigh St Clements church (2016)

Henry Downing, like many of my ancestors, was born in the market village of Southminster, in the far end of Essex.  He was the youngest of six.  Unlike many of the other Downings, he decided to leave Southminster and can be found living somewhere different on almost every record – though always within Essex.

Henry and Harriet marriage

On 26th December 1870, he married Harriet Ann Appleton, the daughter of a local gardener, at St Clements Church in Leigh on Sea.  According to the marriage register, Henry was still living in Southminster, and working as a painter.  Their first daughter, Emily Florence, had been born six weeks previously, and Harriet already had an illegitimate daughter, Rose Elizabeth (1866)  Nine more children followed: Alfred Charles (1873), Harry William (1876), Annie Catherine – my great great grandmother (1877), Harriet Leanor (1879), Arthur Melville (1881), Lily Beatrice (1883), Ernest Richard (1885), Joseph Leonard (1888) and Edward Montague (1892).  From these children’s birth and baptism records (and death, in three cases), alongside the censuses, it was possible to follow Henry’s journey around Essex and his job CV, which included gardener, pub landlord, agricultural labourer and groom in various Essex villages.  In 1885, though, he settled in the growing town of Southend-on-Sea.


Henry worked as a painter and decorator throughout his time in Southend.  Southend was undergoing a boom at the time.  Previously a “suburb” of Prittlewell (the “south end”), the opening of the railway people had started to flock there from London the beach, pier and theatres that had opened up.  Not only did they come to visit, some decided to make Southend their home and the population ballooned from 3,000 in 1850 to 47,000 in 1900 and 120,000 in 1921.  One of the families responsible for building these houses were the Allens – a bunch of rich entrepreneurs from East London, including Frederick James Allen, the man who would become my great great grandfather when he got Henry’s daughter Annie pregnant.  I suspect Henry first came into contact with the Allens when he was employed to paint the new houses they had built.  He does not appear to have been a home owner at any point, but lived in a number of rented properties around Southend.

Henry’s three year old son, Arthur, died in 1885 from scarlet fever.  He was the first of three of Henry’s sons to die in childhood – he was followed by Ernest (aged 2, in 1887, of hydrocelphalus) and Edward (aged 3, in 1895, from diphtheria).  Harriet Downing died young too, aged just 50, on 28th October 1895 (two weeks before Edward).  The cause of death was given as “capillary bronchitis”.  I can’t help thinking that Harriet was rather young to die from such a thing, but one could perhaps put it down to general low life expectancy of the times combined with breathing their air from Henry’s cigars – but the cause of Henry’s later death might shed some light on why her health was so poor.

Henry himself became very ill not long after Harriet’s demise, but during the time of his illness got he married again – on 19th April 1897, to Emily Simmons, a spinster who, at 28, was 22 years his junior.  This union was evidently unpopular with his children, who must have thought Emily was after what little money Henry had.  Emily and Henry moved to nearby Thundersley, and I suspect a total rift with his family.  The wedding did not take place at the family’s usual church, and the witnesses were not family members.  At the inquest into Henry’s daughter Annie’s death two years later, it was mentioned that Annie believed that Emily was actually responsible for Henry’s sickness – she believed that Emily had been poisoning him.

Graves at the rather overgrown St Peter’s Thundersley. The site is on a steep hill and has been undermined by a badger set!

Henry died on 21st December 1898 and was buried six days later in an unmarked grave in Thundersley church.  I looked in the relevant issues of the Southend Standard to see if any of his children or his wife had placed a tribute to him, but the only indication of his death I could see was that his son Alfred had returned to Southend and was selling a bicycle – presumably a bicycle belonging to Henry.

The cause of death on Henry’s death certificate was given as “plumbism (1 year 6 months) gastritis (6 months) and syncope”.  Plumbism means lead poisoning, which you might think gives some weight to Annie’s theory that Emily poisoned Henry, except for the fact that many years later it was discovered that the lead in the paint that Henry used for his job contained highly toxic lead.  Lead poisoning had claimed the lives of many who worked with paint – and, it is postulated, its effect on the sanity of artists lead to the advent of many “mad genius” abstract painters.  Emily was not responsible for Henry’s death at all, and she went on to remarry and have two sons.

So what became of Henry’s family?  His three oldest children – Emily (27), Alfred (24) and Harry (21) -were fine – they were settled with families and/or jobs of their own.  Sixteen year old Harriet went into service, working for a local family.  Fourteen year old Lily went to live with her older brother Harry and his wife, later going into service like her sister and leaving Essex.   But there was no place for eleven year old Joseph.  He was sent away to the Bisley District Farm school, an institution for “homeless and destitute” boys and separated from his siblings.  He returned briefly to Southend in the 1910s, where he indulged in a highly suspect marriage with a woman apparently giving a false name, then left Essex for London, bigamously marrying another woman and producing seven children.

And my great great grandmother Annie?  You’ve probably worked out that it didn’t end well for Annie, since I’ve already mentioned that she was the subject of a death inquest not long after.  But the circumstances of Annie’s death are a matter for another entry.


12 thoughts on “Henry Downing: the effect on a young family of the death of a parent

    1. I’ve been doing some research into the school – the records are at the London Metropolitan Archives. I’ve not found anything specifically on him yet, but the school seems okay – lots of stuff about pupils forming a brass band and writing to their former teachers about the jobs they got when they left – better than the alternative of being stuck in the workhouse! His life will be the subject of a future entry 🙂

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