Sarah Jane Howell

Sarah Jane Howell was born September 16, 1860, the first child of James Howell and Hannah Poole. Sarah is the only one of my England-born great- and second-great-grandparents to be born outside the Forest of Dean. Her place of nativity lies north of the Forest, in the county of Stafford in the English Midlands, specifically, in a hamlet called Dunsley Rock, on the outskirts of the village of Kinver (sometimes called Kinfare).

Gibraltar shown on a map of Kinver. Also shown on this map is Kinver Edge, location of a more well-known and now partially restored grouping of rock houses said to have provided inspiration for J.R.R. Tolkein’s hobbit holes!

Dunsley Rock, also known as Badger Rock or Gibraltar, was a community of rock houses situated in the sandstone cliffs above the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal.

Drawing from “English Cave-Dwellers of To-Day,” Cassell’s Family Magazine, 733 (1896).  By the 1880s, the Dunsley Rock houses were uninhabited.

The Canal follows the meandering River Stour and was built in 1772 to link the River Severn and the towns of Bristol and Gloucester to points north. Sarah’s mother was born and raised at Dunsley Rock, and Sarah’s maternal grandfather and both of her mother’s grandfathers were canal boatmen.


The Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal, livelihood of Sarah’s ancestors.

The Dunsley Rock cave houses are visible along the steep bank above the Canal.

Sarah’s father hailed from Lydney, Gloucestershire, in the Dean Forest, and followed an uncle to Kinver to work in the iron forges that were flourishing there at the time. James worked as an iron puddler, moving his young and growing family often in search of work. Between 1861 and 1871, the family moved from Kinver to nearby Cookley, Worcestershire, then north to Leeds, Yorkshire, then back to Staffordshire, to the town of Hanley. Two years later, by Sarah’s thirteenth birthday, James and Hannah had moved to the Forest of Dean, where James was born and raised, and where they finally settled in for a while. It was here that Sarah met her husband-to-be, James William George (commonly known as William). The two were married in the Lydbrook Chapel on December 24, 1878.

Sarah’s father moved his family quite often as he followed work in the iron forges. This map shows (in red) the places the Howells lived. Click to enlarge.

The 1881 England Census shows the young couple living on New Hangerberry Road in Lydbrook. Also present in their household were William’s nephew, James Knapp, and Sarah’s 9-year-old sister, Minnie. (Sarah’s parents ultimately had twelve children, including Minnie and her twin, Hiram. Sarah’s youngest brother was twenty-six years her junior.) Sarah would have been pregnant with my great-grandfather Arthur at the time of the census. I wonder if Sarah had a special bond with Minnie? She would later name a daughter after her little sister.

Over the next twenty years, Sarah and William would have eight children: My great grandfather, Arthur was born in 1881, followed by Hannah (1883), Allan (1888), William (1891), Minnie (1893), Harry (1895), Alfred (1897), and James (1899). The Georges raised their family in Lydbrook, just a few houses away from William’s mother and sisters. Sarah’s parents and eight of her siblings had moved to Rogerstone, in Monmouthshire, Wales, 40 miles to the south. Her two oldest sisters had married and were living near Lydney, 10 miles away.

In 1901, the George household consisted of Sarah, William, and seven of their eight children. Daughter Hannah, by then 18 years old, was working as a live-in house maid in Bristol. For all that the prior twenty years had been ones of relative stability for Sarah, the next decade would mark another whirlwind of change. In April 1903, Hannah married Harry Edwards. Four months later, Arthur set sail for America with two friends to seek work in the coal mines. In October, Hannah’s first child (Sarah’s first grandchild), James, was born. Four months after that, William followed Arthur to America.

The S.S. Cedric was owned by the White Star Line and was the largest vessel in the world at the time of her launch in August 1902.

In August 1904, Sarah and her six youngest children, ranging in age from 4 to 15 years old, followed suit. They packed all their worldly belongings and made their way to Liverpool (no small journey). There they stepped on board the S.S. Cedric, never again to return to England. Hannah and baby James were also on the voyage (Hannah’s husband made the trip some time earlier).

The Cedric’s passenger manifest showing Sarah and her six children. Next to Sarah’s name is the notation “Dr says corneal opacity.” We don’t know if that notation merited a chalk mark on Sarah, meaning further examination was required.

On August 14, 1904, Sarah and her clan disembarked at Ellis Island and made their way by train to Cuba, Illinois, to join William, Arthur, and Harry Edwards. The Cedric’s passenger manifest indicates that Sarah could not read or write, which would have added a level of disorientation in these new surroundings, even with a shared language. I am sure she was grateful to have her children by her side as the family navigated their way across the U.S.

Little is known of Sarah’s life in America. We do know the family settled first in Brereton, a small mining community about four miles north of Canton, Illinois. Arthur married his long-time sweetheart in the Georges’ Brereton parlor in August 1906. (Hannah, called “Anna” in America, was a witness.) In April 1908, Sarah’s first granddaughter, my grandmother Ruby, was born. Just a few weeks later, William, for reasons unknown, left for England. There is some lingering thought that he went for health reasons, and we know that William had severe and debilitating asthma, but it is baffling that he would leave his wife and children to make such a large (and surely expensive) journey. Whether or not his intent was to return, he never did. In April 1909, Arthur also left Fulton County and his family, traveling west to find work.

Cuba, Illinois, 1907

By the time of the 1910 U.S. Census, Sarah and her six youngest were living in Cuba, Illinois (about 14 miles southwest of Brereton), another coal mining town where several other families from the Forest of Dean had settled. Sarah reported herself as a widow, although William was still alive and well in England. Sons Allan and Bill (22 and 21, respectively) were working as coal miners, and apparently shouldered the burden of supporting the family. Minnie (18) and Harry (16) were not employed. Neither of them had attended school in the previous four months, but Alfred (14) and James (11) were students.

Five of Sarah’s eight children: Arthur, Allan, Harry, Alfred, Jim

Norris Cemetery

Anna, meanwhile, had disappeared from Cuba, apparently around the time her father and brother Arthur left. She would have been in her late twenties. Anna’s story is not fully known. I recently found a funeral home record showing a Wilfred Edwards, born March 1906 in Brereton, to Anna Edwards and Perry Edwards, both born in England. It seems likely that Perry Edwards was actually Harry Edwards, and that Wilfred was Anna and Harry’s second child. Sadly, little Wilfred died in January 1907 and is buried in the Norris Cemetery. (His grave is unmarked.) Though we know that baby James survived the ocean crossing, I’ve never found any record of him in the United States, and I think he probably also died young. Harry disappeared as well and, given that Anna later remarried and never identified herself as a widow, I suspect that Harry abandoned her. One particularly sad story that has passed down through the years is that Sarah’s sons took her to Chicago where they believed (or knew) Anna was lodging, but for whatever reason, Anna would not answer the door. Anna surfaced a couple of years later, in Miles City, Montana (which was, by chance or otherwise, very near where Arthur ended up “out west”), but family lore, true or not, is that Sarah never saw or heard from Anna again.

In early March 1911, Sarah suffered a ruptured gall bladder. Six days later, on March 12, 1911, she died of peritonitis, in Graham Hospital in Canton. She was 50 years old. Sarah was survived by all eight of her children and William. Arthur had returned to Cuba just two months earlier and was the informant on Sarah’s death certificate. Curiously, a record from C.D. Taylor Funeral Home in Cuba indicates that her son Allan arranged for Sarah to be buried at Norris Cemetery. Norris Cemetery would have been the closest cemetery to Brereton, Sarah’s first Illinois home, and where her young grandsons were likely laid to rest. Sarah’s death certificate, however, indicates that she was buried in Cuba, and there is a stone memorializing her in the Cuba Cemetery, placed by her sons some years after her death.

Sarah’s gravestone in the Cuba Cemetery

What to say of Sarah? She is one of my least-known second great-grandparents. In one respect, her footprint on this earth was light. She died relatively young, and there are no known photos or letters or belongings from which to glean a hint of her essence. But there is a resilience and vibrancy to Sarah’s lineage.  Sarah and her people were somewhat more itinerant than we’ve seen in other branches of the family tree, from Sarah’s grandfathers who traversed England’s canal system, to uncles and nephews who moved their families to Oceania, to her father, who moved his family around England and Wales, to Sarah herself, who sailed with her children to America. Driven mostly by economic need and perhaps a bit of pioneering spirit, too, the Howell-Poole line scattered far and wide. DNA cousins, related through Sarah, have materialized throughout the UK, Australia and New Zealand, and the United States.

We honor your memory and give thanks for that part of us that came from you, Grandmother Sarah.  Rest in peace.

10 thoughts on “Sarah Jane Howell

  1. A very informative insight into Sarah’s life, travels, and family. After following your links to the video of Dunsley Rock, and following further links contained therein, it would seem that Dunsley Rock is, sadly, all but gone.


    • Thanks for your comments, Andrew George-Myers! Yes, it appears that Dunsley Rock has mostly collapsed on itself and there isn’t much to see of the old dwellings there. Kinver Edge, on the other hand, which is just a few miles away (and home of the “hobbit holes”) is being restored and preserved by the National Trust (like our National Parks, I believe). It would be really cool to see. Txo


  2. What an interesting background to discover the canal boat men and the rock cave houses! I’m so glad you were able to find so much information in that era. I would love to visit what is left of some of those cave houses. We could really walk in our ancestor’s footsteps! I also love the fact that I know Cuba so well, having spent a lot of my childhood there with my Grandma Tot, Grandfather Arthur’s wife. I am sorry that I was never able to meet him as he died so young, but I am sure I walked many times in his footsteps. I am happy to know more relatives so much better and feel closer to them when I see their names. Great job Terri!! Love, Mom


    • Thanks, Mom! I would love to visit the rock houses, too, and it appears that there is a trail that still runs close to Dunsley Rock. A new addition to our bucket list! XO


  3. Very interesting! It is amazing the amount of information you have gathered from so long ago! I need to read this over a few times to absorb all the details! As always, great job!!! Love, Amy ❤


  4. I had only heard Sarah Jane referred to as “Ma George” during my childhood years so I had conjured up an image of a
    “Granny Clampitt” figure wearing a faded and tattered floral print dress accessorized with clunky lace up work boots.
    How lovely to read her in this context! What woman today would have the courage and fortitude she did? We would be hard pressed to find such a woman. Her most generous contribution to us was our Mother, Ruby, the ultimate lady!
    Thank you for this evolved perspective! What a gift for our family. Love, Aunt Carol


    • Hi Auntie! I found an old postcard from Fulton County that referred to “Ma George,” but, interestingly, it wasn’t our “Ma George.” (Who’d-a-thunk there would be two Ma Georges in Fulton County?) It seems such an informal way to address an elder (that evokes a stereotypical image for me, too), but maybe in the day not so much. Thinking that fully one-quarter of Sarah’s DNA made up our beloved Ruby makes me think about Sarah in a whole different light! I would love to see a photo of Sarah someday…I wonder if Ruby resembled her in any way? Thank you for commenting, as always! XO


  5. HI TK Jensen if you would like to contact me via email i can give you some information that may be of interest to you with regards to the Sarah Jane Howell story that relates to kinver and Dunsley rock houses and kinver Boatmen


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