I suppose that if you go back far enough in any family tree the chances are that it will contain at least one John Smith. In the case of my family history this happens to be the name of another of my great, great, great grandfathers.

Born in 1815 John Smith lived for much of his life in and around Nuneaton. His wife, and my great, great, great grandmother was Hannah Smith (maiden name unknown), who was also born in 1815.

John was a cordwainer by trade, i.e. someone who made shoes and boots. Back in the days when John was plying his trade, shoemakers were divided into two distinct categories - the cordwainer, who made footwear from brand new leather and the cobbler, who mended shoes and therefore only worked with old leather.

John and Hannah had at least three children - Elizabeth, born in 1838, John born in 1842 and my great, great grandfather Joseph Smith, who was born in 1845 at a time when the family was living in Galley Common, a village just outside Nuneaton.

I have been unable to trace Elizabeth Smith beyond the 1851 census. I believe she may have married and left the county of Warwickshire

As a teenager, John Smith junior went to work for William Bourne, a "woolstapler" living in Atherstone, Warwickshire. A woolstapler was basically a wool merchant, the word "staple" originally being a term used to describe the length of a fibre of wool when pulled out of the fleece. John Smith later became a weaver, married and moved to Newchurch, Lancashire with his wife Martha, who was originally from that town. Martha was also employed here as a weaver. They later moved to Little Marsden in Lancashire and had at least five children - Carey, Ernest, Bertha, Hetty and May.

By the age of sixteen John and Hannah Smith's youngest child, my great great grandfather Joseph Smith, was working as a servant at the home of John Passam, a gamekeeper, and his wife Hannah in the village of Chilvers Cotton, now part of the town of Nuneaton. He met and married Sarah Hill and they settled in Little Packington where, according to the 1881 census Joseph was working as a "shepherd and cow keeper" whilst Sarah worked in "domestic duties". Both would have been employed by the Packington Hall estate.

Joseph and Sarah Smith had ten children, eight of whom survived into adulthood - Emma, Thomas, Mary, William, Clara Elizabeth, Sarah, Harriett and Lucy.

Their eldest child, Emma, went to work as a servant at the age of fourteen at the home of Henry and Mary Aston, who lived in a tied cottage on the Packington Hall estate where Henry Aston was employed as a gamekeeper. From there she went to work as a parlour maid at Tachbrook Mallory, a beautiful 16th century manor house near Leamington Spa. The house was owned by Frances Kingsley, widow of the Victorian novelist and cleric Charles Kingsley, whose novels included Hereward the Wake, Westward Ho and The Water Babies (a book, incidentally, which I loved as a child).

According to the census return, Frances Kingsley lived "alone" in the house at this time but nevertheless employed two nurses, a cook, a ladies' maid and a housemaid in addition to Emma, her parlour maid. The house at Tachbrook Mallory is now a hotel. Emma's younger sister Sarah was also employed by Lady Kingsley for a time, possibly as a companion. Emma was married in the second quarter of 1893 in Meriden to Harry Mansell Wilkins, the son of Thomas Wilkins, an agricultural labourer, and they moved from Meriden to Sparkbrook, in Birmingham, settling at 24 Eton Road.  By 1911 they had moved to 327 Reddings Lane, Sparkhill. By now Harry was employed as a "grocer's packer" and the couple had three daughters, Doris (born 1895),  Rose Evelyn (1899) and Miriam Emma (1904).

Joseph and Sarah's second child, Thomas Smith became a general labourer on the Packington Hall estate. He married Martha Jane Thomas in 1895 and they settled at Ivy Cottage, Lea Marston. They had two sons, Arthur (born 1898) and Ernest (1900) and a daughter, Hilda (1904).

Mary Smith, Joseph and Sara's third child, stayed at home with her parents into her twenties, working as a parlour maid, probably employed on the Packington Hall estate. According to Peter Cotton (great grandson of Joseph and Sarah Smith), Mary was sometimes also known as "Polly". She later married George James, who was six years her junior. They moved to Horwich in Lancashire. At this stage George's occupation is given as "spring smith". This involved making and setting the springs used in locomotives and railway carriages in order to stop the carriages riding rough. Springsmiths were not classed as skilled workers like fitters and boilermakers and the work was manual, hot and heavy. The railway works at Horwich, where George James would have been employed, was opened in 1886 and it built locomotives and carriages for the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway. George and Mary emigrated to the United States of America on 4 January 1905, on board the Majestic, which set sail from Liverpool bound for New York.

William Smith, the fourth child of Joseph and Sarah, was born in 1874. He became a servant at the home of George Willis, a farmer in Fillongley, about midway between Coleshill and Bedworth. He later married and moved to Bright Street, Aston Manor with his wife Ada. In those days Aston Manor was not part of Birmingham (it became an Urban District in 1903 and was only finally absorbed into Birmingham in 1911). In the 1901 census William is recorded as being employed as a brewer's drayman. This would have been for either the Ansells Brewery Company, which had a brewery in nearby Lichfield Road, Aston Cross or for the Holt Brewery Company based on the corner of Lichfield Road and Rocky lane. (Interestingly, the Holt Brewery was later taken over by Ansells, although its squirrel logo lived on, becoming incorporated into the Ansells logo). William later gained employment as an underground repairer in a coal mine and he and Ada  relocated to Atherstone, Warwickshire, with their children Elsie (born 1899), Ethel (1902), William (1903), Albert (1905) and Mary Ann (1909). They had another child, Sarah, who died in infancy.

Joseph and Sara Smith's fifth child was my great grandmother, Clara Elizabeth Smith , who was born in 1875. At the time of the 1901 census she is recorded as living at Church Road Little Packington, with her parents Joseph and Sarah, her youngest sister Lucy (ten years her junior) and her nephew Frank, who was four years old at the time. Within a year Clara Elizabeth Smith had given birth to an illegitimate daughter, my grandmother, Gladys Smith on 4 February 1902.



birth certificate of my grandmother, Gladys Smith, with the father's details left blank


Although the birth certificate does not state the name of the baby's father, during the course of my research into the family tree I have found some strong circumstantial clues to his identity.

Six years after the birth of her daughter Gladys, Clara Elizabeth married for the first time in early 1908. Her husband, Charles Coton, was the second son of Abraham Coton, a farmer based at Manor House Farm in Little Packington. Charles was nearly seven years younger than Clara

Did Charles Coton know at the time that Gladys Smith was his wife Clara's illegitimate daughter? Of this there can be no doubt, for reasons I shall explain later. Furthermore, I believe that Charles Coton was in fact Gladys' biological father.  If my theory is correct, Charles Coton would have been just sixteen years old when Gladys was conceived, Clara some six or seven years older. The birth of Gladys Smith in such circumstances must have been quite shocking.

Had their wedding received parental approval it would be reasonable to assume it would have taken place in Little Packington, where both families lived. But it took place instead some twelve miles away, at St Barnabus Church, Balsall Heath on 26 February 1908. Their wedding may have been delayed until this date because one or both sets of parents disapproved of it and so the couple had to wait until Charles was of age.

On their wedding certificate, both Charles and Clara are listed as living at 26 Eton Road, Sparkbrook, Birmingham. In other words they were already living together as man and wife at the time of the marriage.

The witnesses to the wedding were Harry and Emma Wilkins. Emma was Clara's eldest sister, and it is clearly no coincidence that she and Harry happened to be living at the time  at 24 Eton Road, next door to Clara and Charles.

Gladys Smith did not go to live with Clara and Charles Coton following their marriage in 1908. Instead she stayed with her grandparents Joseph and Sarah, who moved to another rented smallholding, Woodbine Cottage, owned by the Packington Hall estate.

So, at the time of the 1911 census nine year old Gladys Smith is recorded as still living in Little Packington with Joseph and Sarah, along with their daughter Harriet, and she spent all of her childhood there. In the 1911 census record for the household there is a column for each member of the household which asks "relationship to head of household". Next to Gladys' name a word appears to have been originally inserted which has then been overwritten by the word "relation". (The 1911 census form is "signed" by Joseph Hill with his mark, an "X", so he must have been unable to read or write).

During the time that Gladys Smith grew up there, Little Packington would have consisted of only a few scattered farms and cottages along with a rectory and a small church, St Bartholomew's, which has since been converted to a private residence. Its total population would have been no more than around 490. Since those times it has dwindled to about 250. To this day it remains a tranquil, rural, unspoilt part of the Warwickshire countryside with deer still freely roaming the huge Packington House estate. Gladys told of how she once got into trouble here when she was caught by her grandparents riding a cow bareback.

Peter Cotton recalls his grandmother Sarah telling him that towards the end of his life Joseph Smith suffered a debilitating stroke. He died at the age of 70 in 1915. My cousin Malcolm Preston recalls Gladys telling him of a trip to a hospital in Birmingham with Joseph, where they found the hospital full of injured soldiers. The hospital in question was almost certainly the one set up in the Great Hall at Birmingham University, which had been requisitioned in 1914 by the War Office for use primarily as a military hospital.

Joseph's wife, Sarah Smith, died in 1929, aged 85.

My cousin Malcolm Preston remembers that Gladys expressed a strong dislike for Charles Coton.

But Charles and Clara's relationship must have been regarded as quite scandalous at the time, and perhaps some of the disdain it generated filtered down and coloured the young Gladys' view of that relationship and of Charles Coton in particular.

Despite this, Gladys not only maintained contact with her mother Clara and Charles Coton but as a young woman moved from Little Packington to live with them.

The 1911 census records Charles and Clara living at Pear Tree Cottage, Yardley Wood Road, Solihull. Charles Coton is listed in the 1911census as working as a "cowman". He would have been employed at Pear Tree Farm which occupied the land between Yardley Wood Road and the Stratford upon Avon canal. There was for many years a distinctive old windmill known as Bampton's Mill on the site. Malcolm Preston can remember this windmill. The farm is long gone and the area was redeveloped in the 1960 and the site of the farm and is now occupied by Pear Tree Crescent, Yardley Wood.

Later, Charles was employed as a labourer at the Cadbury's site in Bourneville, working as a "cocoa mixer" and the couple moved to 72 Warstock Cottages in Prince of Wales Lane, Yardley Wood. It was while they were living here that Gladys Smith came to live with them.

The cottage next door  was occupied by Thomas and Ellen Dent and their three sons - Charles(Geoffrey), Leslie and Lawrence, and that explains how my grandparents met - they were next door neighbours!

Clara Coton died on 17 February 1925 from complications following a three week bout of influenza. After her death Gladys and Charles remained living at 72 Warstock Cottages until Gladys' marriage to Leslie Dent on 26 September 1925.

Charles Coton died the following year, at the age of 41, from an apparent brain tumour, although his death certificate records that no post mortem was carried out on his body. 

Church records show that Charles and Clara were buried together at St Bartholomew's church, Little Packington.

The church is now a private residence. I visited the graveyard there some years back, with the permission of the owners, but unfortunately their gravestone has not withstood the passage of time. However, thanks to Gregory Coton, who has extensively researched the history of the Coton family I now know that their gravestone was inscribed as follows: "In loving memory of Clara Elizabeth beloved wife  of Charles Coton who entered into rest February 17 1925 aged 48 years. Also of Charles Coton who died July 31 1926".

I do believe that Charles and Clara were indeed devoted to one another.

In census surveys up until 1901, Joseph and Sarah's sixth child, Sarah Smith is recorded as living at home with her parents in Little Packington. In the 1901 census she is captured in the returns for Horwich in Lancashire because she happened to be visiting her sister Mary on the day of the census. According to Sarah's grandson Peter Cotton, it was on this trip that Sarah met Willis Bryars, a Methodist minister, whom she subsequently married in 1903. After moving several times because of her husband's profession, Sarah eventually settled in Croydon where she died in 1963. She had two daughters, Monica and Enid. Peter also recalls Sarah describing an incident where, as a young girl, she was spotted climbing trees with her brothers, with her dress tucked into her knickers. When this was reported to her parents her mother, who was evidently very strict, sent the younger Sarah to bed for a week.

Harriett Smith, seventh of Joseph and Mary's children, married William Henry West, an agricultural labourer, in 1900. They settled in Fillongley, near Coventry and had five children - Harry (born 1902), John (1903), Olive (1906), Roland (1909) and Frank (1910).

Of the Smith siblings, only Lucy, the youngest, and Clara were still at home with their parents by the time of the 1901 census, along with Sarah and Joseph's grandson Frank.

Frank is a mystery. He has the surname Smith. Whose son was he? Perhaps Frank, too, was an illegitimate child of one of the Smith daughters?

 Lucy Smith married John William Morrison in 1903, but the trail runs cold after that. I have been unable to find them on the census return for 1911, nor on passenger lists of those emigrating from the country during this period.