Joseph and Hannah Downing: The Oldest Couple in Essex

Joseph Downing 1809-1899 and Hannah Willsmer 1808-1898

Thatcher of Southminster and my fourth great grandparents

My grandfather, Aubrey Downing, passed away last year at the grand old age of ninety-six, and I had the privilege of giving the eulogy at his funeral.  Of course, I just had to sneak a bit of family history into it by telling the congregation that it was no surprise to me that my grandfather had lived so long – he came from a long line of long-lived Downings.   The average life expectancy for a man born in the 1700s was about 35.  Our three Downing ancestors born in that century far exceeded that.   John Downing  (my 5th gg) lived to 88, Joseph Downing (my 6th gg)  lived to 77, and Samuel Downing (my 7th gg) lived to 73.  However, Joseph Downing junior (my 4th gg) took it a step further and made headlines with his old age.

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My grandfather, my mother and me in 2012. My grandfather is 92 in this picture.

Joseph was baptised in private on Christmas Eve, 1809.  At the time he was unnamed, simply “Son of John and Hannah Downing”.  There is a note that he was received into the church in March the next year.  What this usually means is that the baby was born sickly and not expected to survive; once its health had improved it would receive a public baptism in the church.  He was the second oldest of nine children, and unsurprisingly outlived all his siblings.

Joseph’s main occupation was as a thatcher and this is how he is described on the 1841 to 1881 censuses.  He appears to have branched out into the sale of alcohol, as the Chelmsford Chronicle reports that he was fined for having the establishment open outside licenced hours in 1846.  However in 1891 – aged eighty one – he was apparently working as a farm labourer!  Pretty heavy work for a geriatric!

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His wife was Hannah Willsmer of Tillingham, the niece of Robert Willsmer, who owned the Kings Head pub which was (and still is) at the centre of Southminster, hosting the horse market in its yard.  They married in 1833.  Hannah and Joseph had six children, who all survived to adulthood,  including Henry and Catherine whom I have written about previously.  Joseph and Hannah both outlived three of their six children – in fact, they outlived many of their grandchildren too.  Joseph Downing outlived both his son Henry and granddaughter Annie (my direct ancestors).

Joseph and Hannah’s fifteen minutes of fame came when a London newspaper printed an article about a Grimsby couple who had celebrated their sixtieth wedding anniversary, aged 84 and 87.  Joseph Downing’s brother-in-law William Bishop (remember that name, I’ve a tale or two to tell about William Bishop) promptly contacted the Chelmsford Chronicle to tell them that actually, Southminster had no less than three couples who had been married more than fifty years, the oldest being Mr and Mrs Downing, who were aged 89 and 90 respectively, and had been married 65 years.  The Chronicle promptly printed an article to this effect on 4th February 1898.  William was actually either mistaken or exaggerating; the couple were really 88 and 89, but it wasn’t so easy to check in those days!

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(As an aside, I rather like the way William Bishop muscles in on this article and appoints himself the authority on the residents of Southminster.  When you find out a little more about him you will discover this is rather in keeping with his character.)

Inevitably, it was not long until the Downings appeared in the Chronicle again, this time for less happy reasons:

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Hannah died on 31st July 1898.  The newspaper described the couple as “the oldest married couple in Essex”.  Oddly, I have not been able to find any record of her death certificate and only know of her death through the burial register and the Chelmsford Chronicle.  Seeing as it was illegal to bury someone without a death certificate and Hannah had many relatives who could have given her details to the registrar, I am really at a loss to explain this.

Joseph lived for another year without his wife, before dying in December 1899.  His death was registered, and the cause of death was given as bronchitis and senile decay – a fairly peaceful way to go considering the turmoil surrounding some of his relatives deaths.  Not bad for a baby who was not expected to live ninety years ago…

I share a tiny piece of DNA with all these Downings, and I like to think the characteristic they have passed down is the propensity to live a long and healthy life.  Of course, it could just be the fact we all have a really massive nose.

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