Joseph Leonard Downing: Another Bigamist Ancestor

Joseph Leonard Downing 1888-1961

Boot maker of Southend, London, Dover and Reading, and my third great grandfather.

Joseph is a relative that I still have many unanswered questions about – so you may find this post resurfaces in future with some updates.

Joseph was the youngest surviving child of Henry and Harriet Downing’s eleven, and found himself an orphan at the age of ten after losing his mother to bronchitis, and his painter-and-decorator father to lead poisoning, a side effect of the paint he used for work.  While his siblings were all either old enough to look after themselves or taken in by an older relative, Joseph found himself sent away to the Bisley Farm School, a refuge for homeless and destitute boys near Woking in Surrey.  I have looked at some of the records of the school at the London Metropolitan Archives, and while I could find nothing specifically about Joseph, I got the impression that the school was not an unpleasant place to be.  The boys formed sports teams and played music, they kept in touch when they left and were helped to find work.  Nonetheless, Joseph must have missed his family and Southend and I do wonder why no one in the family was able to find room for him, especially when they had accommodated his sister Lily and nephew Frederick, both of whom were still children.


Whatever the reason, Joseph was back in Southend by the time of the 1911 census.  He was a visitor at 2 Stanley Road with a couple called Frederick and Marion Gibbs-Jones.  I can find no connection between this couple and the Downings at all, but it does say on the census that Mrs Gibbs-Jones works in “lettings, apartments” so perhaps she was simply renting Joseph a room.

More interestingly, Joseph has a “wife” in tow.  According to the census, Minnie Downing was twenty-five years old, also from Southend, and said that she had been married to Joseph for three years.  But there were several things about Minnie that didn’t add up.  First and foremost, there was no record of a marriage between them in 1908.  They actually married in 1911, at Rochford Register Office, three months after the census was taken.  Why did they pretend to be married already?  Perhaps it was something simple, like the Gibbs-Joneses not wanting to let a room to a couple “living in sin”.  But there was more.  Minnie, or Mary Josephine Richardson, as she called herself on her marriage certificate, did not exist anywhere other than these two records.  There was no one of her name (or anything like it) born in Southend (or anywhere near it) in 1886 (or any time around then).  She named her father as Thomas Richardson, engine maker, but I could find no Thomas Richardson with a daughter called Mary or Minnie of the right age.  I wondered if the marriage might have been a red herring – a namesake – but the age and father’s name on the marriage tie up and I couldn’t find another Joseph Leonard Downing of the right age.  I began to suspect that Minnie had been rather economical with the truth when giving out her details.

The clincher in this very confusing tale is that just two years later, Joseph married Harriet Maud Wilson in Brixton, South London.  On his wedding certificate, Joseph claims to be single, not widowed or divorced.  Where was Minnie?  She had completely disappeared.  I had almost given up on her, or assumed she had run off with Leanor, when I decided to give Ancestry one last go.  And then I saw it:

“Mary Minnie Downing” married Thomas Sharp Johnson in 1918 in Sydney, Australia.  Thomas Sharp Johnson was a sailor and thirty four years older than her – though on the certificate he knocks ten years off his age!  Australian marriage certificates are a bit more informative than their British counterparts and I was intrigued to compare Minnie’s second marriage certificate what I already (thought I) knew about her.  This time, Minnie claimed to have been born in Wigan, Lancashire, and that she was a widow.  She gave the same details for her father, and said that her mother was Margaret Ball, deceased.  It took a while for me to track down this family in Wigan – there was no Mary Josephine born to a Richardson/Ball partnership in 1886, but there was a Mary born in 1881 – and I think this is Minnie, who must have been lying again, this time about her age.  The Richardson/Ball family had rather a lot of children, some born in wedlock and some not, which makes investigating them rather confusing.  Although the  discovery of the Australian marriage certificate answered some of my questions, I still feel there is more to this story that I need to know.  Why did Minnie run off  to Australia with Thomas Sharp Johnson?  What was with all the lies – was she hiding something?  How did Joseph meet a lady from Wigan (the deep north, nearly 250 miles from Southend) in the first place?

Joseph went on to have several addresses in London – in Brixton, Lambeth and Tottenham.  He served in WW1 with the West Kent Regiment and later moved to Dover and finally Reading.  He died in 1961, survived by his wife Harriet.  They had had seven children, three of whom emigrated to Australia – I wonder if they ever had anything to do with Minnie?  Joseph is buried in Henley Road Cemetery in Reading and next time I am out that way I will be searching to see if he has a surviving gravestone.  But it appears that for now, at least, he has taken the mysterious story of his first wife with him to his grave.


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