James William George was born on October 23, 1856 in Lydbrook, Gloucestershire, England. James William, who went by William, was the fourth of five children born to William George and Elizabeth Weaver George. He was their only son.
Lydbrook occupies the steep-sided valley of the Great Hough (pronounced “How”) Brook which is a tributary of the River Wye. Lydbrook is jokingly said to be three miles long and three yards wide. William grew up in an area of Upper Lydbrook called Hangerberry (sometimes spelled Hangerbury, and in times past called Anchorberry). William’s family had been in the Forest of Dean for many generations.
At the time of the 1861 U.K. Census, the George household consisted of 4-year-old William, his parents, and his two older sisters. (His younger sister, nearly nine years his junior, was not yet born.) When the 1871 census was taken, the George household consisted of William, his parents, and his oldest and youngest sisters. His middle sister had married and moved out. William was 14 years old and, like most boys of his age in the Forest, he worked in the coal mine with his father.
On December 24, 1878, William married Sarah Jane Howell. The 1881 census shows the young couple living in Hangerberry. They had no children yet, although Sarah would have been pregnant with my great grandfather Arthur at that time. They shared their home with Sarah’s younger sister Minnie, who was 8 years old, and William’s cousin, John Knapp, who was just a few months older than William. The 1891 census tells us that the Georges had moved to nearby Camomile Green, and their family had grown by four (Arthur, Hannah, Allan, and William). Four more children (Minnie, Harry, Alfred and James) would be born over the next ten years. In 1901, seven of the eight children, ranging in age from 2 to 20, were living at home. Hannah (age 18) was working in Bristol as a live-in domestic servant. William and Arthur were working as coal hewers. Minnie Howell and John Knapp were gone, but William’s oldest sister, Harriet, had moved in. Harriet never married and had lived her whole life with their parents. William’s father died in 1882, but his mother had only recently died, in 1899. William’s younger sister, Elizabeth, along with her husband and seven children (all close in age to William’s children), lived next door.
Within a couple of years, the George family would experience major life changes. Hannah married in April 1903. Four months later, Arthur set sail for America, headed for Wayne County, Iowa, where a Forest of Dean acquaintance managed several coal mines. However, Arthur stopped short of Iowa, in Fulton County, Illinois, another Midwest mining mecca. Six months later, William would board the same ship on which Arthur sailed, the R.M.S. Oceanic, and follow his son across the Atlantic.
When William arrived at Ellis Island, he would have been subjected to the daunting entrance procedures, including a medical exam. It was noted on the passenger manifest that William had “high stiffness of forefinger” and “reflexed eyes.” The immigrant inspector apparently deemed William’s defects minor and determined he was not suffering from a “loathsome or contagious disease.” William was granted entry to the United States. Before departing Ellis Island, William would have changed his pounds to dollars and bought his railroad ticket. He would then have been taken to one of the great New York railroad terminals and accompanied to his train.
William’s final destination was listed as Wayne County, Iowa, though like Arthur, he stopped when he reached Illinois. Surprisingly, I discovered that William’s middle sister, Mary Ann Probyn, had immigrated to Fulton County with her family twenty-five years prior. It would be strange if William was not in contact with his sister, but the Probyn surname is not one I have ever heard mentioned in our family history. (One of Mary Ann’s descendants has shown up as a DNA match to my mother and aunt!)
Six months after William arrived in the U.S., he was joined by Sarah and his six younger children, as well as daughter Hannah and her infant son (Hannah’s husband had immigrated some months earlier). William settled in the tiny mining community of Brereton in Fulton County, surrounded by family—his wife, all eight of his children, a grandchild, his sister and her family. Numerous acquaintances from the Forest of Dean had also put down roots in the vicinity. I assume that William worked in one of the many local coal mines to support his family, but he may have been unable to work steadily due to health concerns. One of his granddaughters remembered hearing that William suffered from chronic bronchitis and asthma. Thirty-six years of working in the coal mines surely took a toll. Little is known about this time period. We do know that Arthur was married in William and Sarah’s parlor on July 28, 1906.
I was mystified to learn that in April 1908, William packed his bags, boarded a train bound for New York, and booked passage on a ship back to England, alone. He never returned to America.
In the 1910 U.S. Census, Sarah reported herself as a widow and head of her household in Cuba, Illinois, which included six children, four under the age of 18. (Arthur, who had left his own family and moved west barely a year after his father’s departure, returned to Cuba in January 1911. Curiously, he told his employer he was resigning to live with his father, who was ill, in Illinois.) Sarah died suddenly in March 1911 of peritonitis resulting from a ruptured gall bladder. By then, William was living on Bell Hill in Lydbrook, very near Hangerberry where he had grown up. In the 1911 U.K. Census, he is listed as a widower, unemployed, and a lodger in the home of Emily Watkins, a widow with two sons. His sister Elizabeth and her family lived nearby.
William and Emily married in October 1911. The two continued to live on Bell Hill for the next thirteen years, until William’s death on May 4, 1924. William was survived by Emily, seven of his eight children, several grandchildren, and his younger sister. He was buried in the churchyard of the Holy Jesus Church in Lydbrook, where he had been baptized 67 years before.
William’s story leaves countless questions for which there are no answers to be had. For me, the overriding question is why? Why did he leave? My sincere hope is that William’s decision brought him peace and a measure of happiness in his remaining years on this Earth. RIP, Grandfather William.