The Johnson Ancestors

The Johnsons

This page tells the story of the Johnson line of the family. If you want to see a detailed diagram of the Johnson ancestors, then click Johnson Tree. This will open in a new tab so that you can flip between this page and the diagram.

These are the ancestors on the maternal line of Grandad Bill Spencer. The surname Johnson is derived from ‘son of John’. As there would have been lots of Johns, it does not have any specific area of origin, and has a fairly widespread geographical distribution.

The Johnsons in our family came from Warwickshire. Then one of them had a roundabout journey via Cheshire and Lancashire before ending in Leeds. The earliest reference I have found to the Johnson ancestors was in 1799, so the story starts from there.

John Johnson and Sarah Butler

The earliest record was of John Johnson marrying Sarah Butler in Bedworth, Warwickshire in 1799. I have not been able to find out anything else about John. Sarah was born in 1765 in Bulkington Warwickshire which is two miles east of Bedworth. The main occupations in Bulkington were farming and ribbon weaving.

John Johnson and Henrietta Westley

John was a son of John and Sarah and was christened in 1808 in Bulkington Warwickshire. He married Henrietta Westley in 1829 in Coventry where they lived after their marriage. They had 3 children. Henrietta was christened in 1809 Coventry. There is some additional information about Henrietta’s family at the bottom of this page.

John is shown as a Tailor and Draper and in one census, it says he had ten employees, so he must have been doing well. Mass produced ready-to-wear clothes didn’t become generally available until the end of the 19th century, so there would have been a big requirement for tailors to make articles of clothing that couldn’t be made in the home. He would have been trained to do all his work by hand as sewing machines weren’t generally available until the mid-nineteenth century. He was still shown as a Master Tailor in the 1881 census at the grand old age of 78. (However, he was exaggerating his age as in the previous census ten years before, he was only 64!)

He made it into the local newspapers a few times. The first time, the following report appeared in the Coventry Standard in 1836 where he got into an altercation at his tailor’s shop one day and a George Bateman was accused of assaulting him.
‘John Johnson v George Bateman. Assault. Pleaded not guilty.
John Johnson – I am a tailor and reside near Mr Mercer’s, the watch manufacturer, whose apprentices very much annoy me. About 20 of them assemble around my door every day and did on Wednesday last. I went out and ordered them off; they went off but came on the step again; I ordered them off again and pushed one that was lame; and he fell; the defendant then struck me.
Mary Ann Westley – I saw the defendant strike Johnson.
The defendant – I did not strike Johnson at all; I said he ought to be ashamed of himself for striking a cripple.
Joseph Butler – I was present on Wednesday last when Johnson first came out; he brought a hand whip out and said he would not have any chaps there; Johnson shoved me down; we had a struggle; and Bateman the defendant came up pulled me off Johnson; I believe they had a struggle and they both went down; it was me that struck Johnson.
James Green – I stood at Mr Mercer’s entry talking to a man; Johnson came out with a whip and said he would not have any boys there; he then shoved Butler down; Butler caught him round the neck and they had a struggle; no blow was struck by Bateman.
Bateman was fined 1s and costs 4s, and in default of payment, to be imprisoned 14 days.’

As all the witnesses gave contradictory testimonies, the magistrate must have just used his experience to come to his verdict and found in favour of John.

John’s first wife died in 1840 and he married again in 1849 to Mary Ann Day. However, this, does not appear to have been a happy marriage as he finished up in court twice accused of beating her. The cases were reported in the newspapers in 1851 and 1854.
5th December 1851
‘Mary Ann, wife of John Johnson, tailor of Fleet Street, charged her husband with beating her and threatening to murder her, she therefore craved sureties of peace against him. Mr Royle, on the part of the complainant, elicited that he had committed a series of cruel, unmanly and cowardly assaults on her. She also produced a written document, drawn up and signed by Johnson in May last, wherein he promised never to ill-treat his wife again. The magistrates being satisfied that his conduct was censorable, ordered him to find sureties, himself in £20, and two others in £10 each, to keep the peace for six months.’
And then again on 11th August 1854
‘Mary, wife of John Johnson, tailor, claimed sureties of peace against her husband. Johnson said it was himself that was ill-used by his wife and that rather than ill use her, he would drown himself. A neighbour testified as to his frequently beating his wife, sometimes three times a day. He was ordered to find sureties to keep the peace for six months, himself in £20 and two others in £10 each.’

According to the census returns, Mary continued to live with John until she died in 1874, so perhaps they eventually sorted their marriage out. John died in 1885.

William Henry Johnson and Mary Ashton

William was a son of John and Henrietta and was christened in 1831 in Coventry. John married Julia Cadden on the 2nd Jun 1852 but sadly she died seven months later at the age of 20 and was buried on 23rd Jan 1853. I have not been able to find out the cause of her death.

William Henry Johnson did not follow his father’s profession as in the 1851 and 1861 census he is shown as a Watch Finisher. This is someone who puts together the various parts of the watch. The main period of watchmaking in Coventry was from the 1740s up to about 1920. During this period Coventry was one of the main centres of watchmaking in England and several hundred people were employed in the industry. Most of these would be in small premises. The 1874 Whites directory lists 130 watch manufacturers and watch finishers in Coventry.

I don’t know if it was a reaction to losing his wife but William then left Coventry and started moving round the country. He moved to Macclesfield Cheshire where he married his second wife, Mary Ashton in 1858. They had 9 children.

Mary was christened in 1838 in Warburton Lancashire where her family lived. Mary’s parents were Isaac and Maria Ashton. In the 1851 census, it says that Isaac was a farmer with 7 acres of land. At that time, Warburton was mainly a farming community. However when she married she gave her father’s occupation as shoemaker. Perhaps this was his original occupation as her grandfather, Thomas Ashton, also gives his occupation as shoemaker in the census.

After Macclesfield they moved again, in 1861 they lived in Ashton under Lyne, in 1867 in Oldham, in 1869 in Bolton and finally in 1877 they moved to Yorkshire, living in Holbeck. In the 1871 census he is shown as a watch finisher and jobber. A jobber is someone who distributes goods to retailers.

But then tragedy struck in 1879. The following report appeared in the Leeds Mercury on July 17th 1879.
An inquest was held on the body of William Henry Johnson who was a watchmaker and lived at no. 6 Binkes Street. It appeared the deceased had had considerable trouble with his wife who about two months since attempted to commit suicide. She was in the habit of pawning all articles she could lay hands on, and she was remanded on Monday to Armley Goal on a charge of stealing a ham. That afternoon he went to see her and when he returned home, he was in a very drunken state and asked one of the neighbours to take his wife something ‘nice’. He went to bed and when his daughter went to awake him about eight o’clock, she found his body suspended by a rope from a beam in the ceiling. The jury returned a verdict of ‘Suicide whilst suffering from temporary insanity’.

It does not say which daughter had the horrific experience of finding her father hanging there. Some of the resulting effect on the family can be seen in the following census in 1881. This census shows that William’s wife Mary is in the Holbeck workhouse with her daughter Henrietta Johnson (Grandad Spencer’s mother), another daughter and two sons. I have not been able to find out how long Mary stayed in the workhouse or what happened to her. There are no surviving admission and discharge records for Holbeck Workhouse and I cannot find her in the 1891 census.

Life in the workhouse was pretty grim, intentionally so to deter scroungers. Mary must have been desperate to have to resort to this. Everyone had to wear a uniform. Children were separated from their parents and husbands separated from wives. Adults had to do work and children received some form of education (although this was of poor quality as the job of teaching them was poorly paid). Food was tasteless and basic. Inmates could be punished for misbehaving, usually a reduction in food, although boys could be beaten. For the elderly, the prospect of dying in a workhouse held out the grim possibility of a pauper’s funeral in an unmarked grave or even worse, being despatched for anatomical dissection.

Holbeck workhouse was erected in 1863-4 at a site to the south of Elland Road at its junction with Lane End Place in Holbeck. Designed by William Hill of Leeds, its construction cost over £6,000. The building had a T-shaped main block with males accommodated at one side and females at the other. The rear wing contained a dining-hall-cum-chapel.

After 1930, the Holbeck workhouse became an old people’s home and later accommodation for homeless families. In its later days, the establishment was also known simply as “2 Lane End Place” to avoid embarrassment for its residents. All the Holbeck Workhouse buildings have now been demolished.

Holbeck workhouse
Holbeck Workhouse

There is some information about the Holbeck workhouse on the Workhouse Website.

Henrietta Johnson and Wilfred Spencer

Henrietta was a daughter of William and Mary and was born in 1877 in Holbeck.

After being taken to the workhouse with her mother, the 1891 census shows Henrietta Johnson is aged 13 and a pupil of the Leeds Moral and Industrial Training School. This was a school for paupers and children from the workhouse, so it looks like Henrietta stayed in the workhouse until she was old enough to be moved to the training school.

The Leeds Guardians were responsible for poor relief and one of their first acts was the erection of the Leeds Moral and Industrial Training School in 1846-8, which was located on the north side of Beckett Street in Leeds.

Leeds Moral and Industrial Training School
Leeds Moral and Industrial Training School

The school experienced early problems because of the ineffectualness of its headmaster, the Revd William Taylor Dixon, and also the Guardians insistence that children should work at shoe-making for nine hours a day. Dixon resigned but his successor, the Revd Charles H Nicholls, fared little better. It was reported that he ‘allowed himself to get in such a state with the children that he foamed at the mouth’. In October 1853, another master of the school, Joseph Linsley Kirk, was accused of habitual drunkenness, swearing and fighting. After an inquiry, the school’s rules and regulations were overhauled, so things might have improved by the time Henrietta was there. The building still exists. It is known as the Lincoln Wing and is part of the St James’s Hospital complex.

There is some information about the training school on the Leeds Workhouse web page

After being in the Training School, things must have improved for Henrietta, because in 1898, she married Wilfred Spencer.

I have covered Wilfred Spencer and their marriage in the Spencer page. They are the parents of grandad Bill Spencer so I have come to the end of the Johnson ancestors.

John Westley

Henrietta Westley was the first wife of John Johnson. Her family came from Coventry. Her parents were John and Sarah Westley.

At the age of 14, John went into an apprenticeship with a grocer called James Shaw.

In 1808, James Shaw decided he wanted to go into a different line of business, so he asked John to take over his grocer business.

John announced this in the local paper (see the announcement on the left).

Sadly John died when he was only 45.