Henry Bishop: The Alternative Deacon

Henry Bishop is another example of a very distant non-blood relative who has grabbed my interest.  He was my 5th great aunt husband’s brother, and lived alongside my Downing Ancestors in Southminster.  I find building a picture of 19th century Southminster, the key figures in the village and how they all interacted with each other really helps me make my ancestors seem real.

Henry was born in 1826, the second youngest of eight siblings.  Two of his brothers, John and (the infamous) William married Downing women, which is how he fits into my family.

Grave of Henry and his second wife Sarah

According to his obituary in the Chelmsford Chronicle, Henry was a very well respected and kindly man.  He was a hard working carpenter and builder and apparently had built his own house on the field where he first went to work.  His first wife was a local lady, Sarah Starnes.  They were married for twelve years but had no children.

Around the time of Henry’s wife’s death, a new Congregationalist church was built in Southminster.  Henry became heavily involved with this church, particularly their charitable work, and eventually became a deacon of the church around 1880s.

Henry’s second wife was also named Sarah, and identifying her gave me a massive headache.  Sarah Two was born between 1840 and 1850 – her age differed wildly between the censuses and her death record.  The place of her birth was given as “Kingsland Road, London”.   Kingsland Road is not an actual recognised area, it is just  a big road in Shoreditch.  I looked at the many marriages between Sarahs and men named Henry Bishop that occurred between Sarah Starnes’s death in 1961 and Sarah Two’s first census appearance with Henry in 1871, but none were in Maldon or Shoreditch and none of those nearby seemed to fit.  I looked at infant Sarahs living in Kingsland Road in 1841 and 1851, but had no luck there either.  I thought I had a good lead when I obtained Henry’s will and found a bequest to several women by the name of Ellwood, described as “relatives of my second wife Sarah”.  I soon found the Ellwood ladies in London on the census, but they did not have a sister or other relative named Sarah and I could not fit her into their tree anywhere.

I finally cracked the mystery of Sarah’s identity with a little lateral thinking.  Sarah had given her birthplace on censuses as “Kingsland Road, London” more than once.  This was unusual as most people would have given their birthplace as “Shoreditch”.  I searched the 1861 census for the exact phrase “Kingsland Road” in birthplace, and up popped one Sarah Yates, a 20 year old school teacher, living in London.  Straight away this sounded right, as Sarah Two’s gravestone informs us that she was a Sunday school teacher.  Perusal of the GRO index confirmed my suspicions: Sarah Yates’s mother’s maiden name was Ellwood.  She was the cousin of the ladies referred to in Henry’s will.  The marriage entry which had previously eluded me had been there all along: they married in late 1861 in East London.   Henry’s obituary mentions that he was involved with the Salvation Army in London through the church, so perhaps this is how he met Sarah.

Henry’s second marriage did not result in any children either (are we looking at a case of 19th century infertility here?) but they seemed to have several relatives as foster children.  First of all, in 1871, there was nine year old Alice Bishop.  Alice was the daughter of Henry’s mischievous brother William and his first wife Mary Downing, who had died in 1866.  I do wonder why Alice was living with Henry when her own father and her brothers were living just down the road.  Alice was still living with Henry in 1881, married in 1885 and had one son, Victor Wisbey before sadly dying at the young age of 26 in 1888.  Victor Wisbey stayed with Henry until he was fifteen, when he went to stay with an aunt in Northamptonshire.  By 1881, Annie Bishop had joined the family.  Annie was another niece, the daughter of another of Henry’s brothers, James.  Sadly both of Annie’s parents had died and her older sister and brother had ended up in the orphanage and workhouse respectively.  in 1901 Annie had left for London, where she was working as a servant for Robert Ellwood, one of Sarah Two’s cousins!

Henry was once again widowed in 1898, but he wasn’t alone for long.  He married Annie Summerscales, a  Yorkshire-born nurse with the Salvation Army.  She was 29 and he was 73.  In 1901 they were living  together in Southminster, but it seems this marriage did not remain harmonious for long.  In 1902 Henry issued a summons against Annie for assault.  He eventually withdrew the summons, and the Chelmsford Chronicle commented that “they had not lived happily together for some time, an assault took place, and they had agreed the best thing to do now was to live apart”.

Henry died a year later, and according the the report in the paper, his wife Annie was not present at the funeral.  He was a very rich man when he died, and left instructions for his ten houses to be sold and the proceeds be split equally amongst ten nieces and nephews.  He left his work tools to his great nephew Victor, and there were a number of smaller bequests to other friends and relatives.  (The wills of people who died without a living spouse or children are often very interesting as they list a number of more distant relatives).  Annie received £10, which would be worth approximately £1000 in today’s money – quite a kind bequest for someone who had assaulted him, but very little compared with what Henry was worth, and the wording of this will implies the legacy was made more through legal necessity than kindness.

Henry will

Henry was buried with his second wife Sarah in the graveyard of the Congregational Church, and the inscription of the gravestone makes his affection for her quite clear.  Though the church itself was destroyed by a German bomb during WW2, the graveyard was unharmed and Henry’s grave, along with those of several of his relatives, can be seen to this day.


Original will of Henry Bishop, 1904.  Obtained from Find A Will

Chelmsford Chronicle, 19 February 1904.  From Find My Past.

Chelmsford Chronicle, 25 October 1902. From Find My Past.

Essex Family History Society.

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