Edmund Thornton Watkins

Edmund Thornton Watkins 1849-1929 (?)

Professional Singer and no relation to me whatsoever

Forever on the search for my fascinating name changing bigamist 4th great aunt, Leanor/Angelina Appleton/Collins/Moxon, I decided to try another tack and found myself researching a fascinating individual who may only have been tangentially linked to my family.

In 1891, Leanor is living with the widower of her sister, Lavinia, and three of his children at 5 Francis Terrace in Southend.  Two other people also reside at this address: a lodger named William Smith, from London, and a two month old baby named Olive Watkins.  Unsurprisingly, without a more precise birthplace or any other family members, William Smith has proved pretty much impossible to identify in any other records.  Olive Watkins, however, was much easier.  I easily found her birth registration, which included her mother’s maiden name – Redmond.  This led me to the marriage of an Edmond Thornton Watkins and Jessie Ada Redmond in Bethnal Green the previous year, and also the rather sad knowledge that both Jessie and little Olive died in 1893.  I decided to look into Edmond’s life a little more, to see if I could link him to my family at all.  I couldn’t – for all I know, Leanor could simply have been their babysitter! – but I did fall down a rabbit hole of a rather fascinating life.

Edmond Watkins

I  first found Edmond Watkins in the 1881 census, where he was a boarder with Jessie’s family.  This informed me that Edmond was a “professor of music” from Alabama.  How exotic!  Eighteen year old Jessie must have been terribly impressed by the family lodger, because by 1891 his living arrangements were unchanged, but he was of course now Jessie’s husband rather than her parents’ lodger.  In 1901, after the death of his wife and daughter, he was still in Hackney – at 250 Amhurst Road  (a road not too far from where I live now, though the house itself is gone) living with an assortment of random people of varying nationalities.    This seemed very typical of 2020s Hackney, but not at all of 1900s – Edmond was well ahead of his time.  Here his occupation was intriguingly listed as “missionary”.

I wanted to know more about Edmond’s life before he came to the UK but drew a complete blank.  I found a Thornton Watkins living in Coosa, Alabama and initially thought this was his father, but there was no sign of Edmond.   And then, finally, I found the one document that does exist, his passport application, which contained a big clue.  The application described Edmond as “colored”.   This made me even more fascinated by him, because it was the first time I’ve ever come across a black person in my research (well, that I know of – how would I know?  British censuses didn’t ask about ethnicity…)   I wondered how many black people my ancestors knew – so I did a bit of research and discovered there was a decent sized black community in London going all the way back to at least the 1700s, with English Heritage estimating 10,000 people by 1800.   However, outside London, it was another story with just 5,000(ish) black people throughout the rest of the country.  I imagine Edmond with his differently coloured skin, his accent and his talent for music must really have stood out.

20 Fremont Street
20 Fremont Street

When the genealogy sites fail me, the next stop is always Google and I got more than I bargained for when I plugged Edmond’s name in.  I found a page on the Africans of Yorkshire website which gave the following short bio of Edmund Watkins:

Edmund Watkins toured with the Jubilee Singers from their first tour to the UK in 1873 until their disbandment in 1878. He replaced Greene Evans and sang bass. He was born a slave in Coosa County, Alabama and picked cotton with his mother.

A slave!  Now it all made sense.  Slaves did not appear on the US censuses until the abolition of slavery in 1865, so it was no wonder why I couldn’t find any trace of Edmond before then (although he could have appeared in 1870).  The Thornton Watkins I found wasn’t a relative but his owner.  Slaves often took their owner’s names.

Annoyingly, though, while I found out a lot about the Jubilee Singers (a troup of a capella singers, founded at Fisk University, Tennessee, in 1871 – their history is really quite fascinating and worth another diversion if you have the time), there was very little about Edmond that I didn’t already know.  His date of death was given as 1929, but there was no information about what happened to him after he left the group.  I cannot find any trace of him after the 1901 census, and no evidence of his death in 1929.

Oh yes, Leanor.  After getting completely sidetracked researching Edmond’s life, I remembered why I had started doing this research in the first place.  Desperate for something to link Edmond and Jessie to Leanor, and to find out why baby Olive had been staying with them in the first place, I ordered Olive’s birth and death certificates and Jessie’s death certificates.  These only shed a small amount of light on the matter, but were interesting in themselves.  Olive was born in Albert Road, Southend, in January 1891, but I have no idea what the family were doing in Southend in the first place.  I wondered if Edmund could have been performing at one of the venues in Southend, but have no evidence to back this up.

Olive’s death, in August 1893, was due to tonsillitis and pneumonia – how sad that something so minor and treatable nowadays would take a child’s life.  Jessie’s death certificate – six weeks later, meanwhile, was even more disturbing.  Three causes of death were listed:

  1. Albuminuria (a sign of eclampsia)
  2. Puerpural mania 2 years (post natal depression)
  3. Puerpural convulsions – aborted in a fit at eight months five days previously.

Poor  Jessie!  Not only had she been suffering from post natal depression from the time of Olive’s birth (which might explain why Olive was with Leanor and not at home in 1891), she had to deal with Olive’s death while she was eight months pregnant, then her baby was stillborn at eight months as the result of the eclampsia which resulted in her own death.  Today, this seems like a freak, newsworthy tragedy, but at the time when Jessie lived, it was as commonplace as a black American freed slave singing acapella in Hackney was unusual.  I really felt for Edmond, losing his entire family like that, and I hoped that in the missing years after 1901 he found happiness again.  Maybe he even ran off with Leanor.

I went to look for Jessie and Olive’s grave in Chingford Mount Cemetery but unfortunately it is somewhere in the rather neglected and overgrown Plot F9.  It seems those responsible for the layout of this cemetery didn’t deem it necessary to put the graves in any kind of numerical or chronological order, or to record the details in any kind of intelligible way in the burial register.  With so many graves toppled, inaccessible or unreadable, there was no guarantee what I was looking for was even there to be found, and after an hour of scrambling through weeds I felt I was more likely to break an ankle than pay my respects to Olive and Jessie.  Nonetheless, I hope they appreciate the fact that went looking for them.  I think it is particularly important to remember the stories of those who don’t have descendants of their own.

Birth and death certificates for Olive Jessie Watkins (1891, 1893) and death certificates for Ada Jessie Watkins (1893) – General Register Office.
Census Returns – 1891 England Census for Prittlewell, Essex; 1881, 1891, 1901 census for Hackney, London.  Online publication – Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2005.  Original data – Census Returns of England and Wales, 1891. Kew, Surrey, England: The National Archives of the UK (TNA): Public Record Office (PRO), 1891. Data imaged from The National Archives.
US Passport Applications 1795-1925.  National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); Washington D.C.; Roll #: 191; Volume #: Roll 191 – 14 Mar 1873-10 Apr 1873  (via Ancestry)
English Heritage: Black Lives in 18th Century Britain  (Retrieved 12/2/20)
African Stories in Hull and East Yorkshire: The Early Jubilee Singers.   (Retrieved 12/2/20)
Wikipedia: Fisk Jubilee Singers.   (Retrieved 12/2/20)

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