#52ancestors (Wk5): Oops – Thomas Backhouse

When I first started doing my family tree as a teenager in the 1980s, I thought my first mistake was pretty justified. Unilaterally, I decided that when it came to research, I was only interested in my Mum Mary’s side of the family. It was because my Dad’s Dad, Spencer Simpson (1914-1982) was such a brute. On the rare trips my Mum, Dad, sister and I made to visit his family in Leeds when I was younger, I was frightened and disgusted. More importantly, I saw the impact his abuse had on his wife, my Nan, Gladys Backhouse (1910-1997). Both get their own stories in future weeks.

First mistake

It meant that I became pretty blinkered about my own identity. I was only interested in researching the family lines of my Mum’s Mum and Dad. At one point, I even considered changing my surname to that of my Mum’s maiden name. I settled for using my Mum’s Dad’s nickname ‘Dutch’ as my ‘personal brand’ when I eventually went freelance, and still use it to this day (more on that in future weeks).

Dad (Tony) was one of eleven siblings. He was the only one of them to move beyond the city boundary of Leeds, West Yorkshire, heading for the area on the Surrey/Hampshire border between Aldershot and Camberley many miles away when he joined the army for six years. When I was growing up, he would recount that while it was with a view to broadening his horizons, it was in part with a view to escape the toxic domestic life back in Leeds fostered by his Dad. I probably never gave him enough credit for the drive that he had to break free of the brutal atmosphere, and the ambition to get more from life.

Second mistake

My second mistake flowed from that choice. I was so obsessed with the immediate families of my Mum’s Mum and Dad, I made too many assumptions about all of them being no more than agricultural labourers from the north east corner of Hampshire. There would be nothing wrong with that. Many of them were, and I was proud of that, but sloppiness, and lack of attention to detail meant I was missing so much. I soon learnt there is always something of more particular interest around the corner however small, the more you keep digging.

Third mistake – more of the first

Returning to that first mistake, I was to make a third error that reinforced the first. Towards the end of his life, my Dad was to find himself living with alcohol dependence. Despite repeated attempts to reach out to him, he was not able to admit he had a problem, and this had knock on effects for the immediate family. It meant we were not as close as we could have been, and it reinforced my lack of interest in his side of the family tree. He died in 2012 as a result of his dependence, aged just 69 years old.

As my energies became reinvested in the family tree, it coincided with deaths on my Dad’s side of the family. Despite having a ‘downer’ on his side of the family tree, we had always remained close to his sisters and brothers, and their partners (my Aunts and Uncles) and their children (my cousins). Irregular trips to Leeds for funerals, and contact via social media and the like started to tear down that self-imposed boycott, and I realised what a huge mistake I had made. The DNA from my Dad’s side of the family is as important to my story as my Mum’s, and the stories that I unearth on my Dad’s side of the tree are as valid a part of my tapestry too. If nothing else, it explains why I’ve always supported Leeds United, even though I live 200 miles away from Elland Road.

What I’ve been missing soon began to dawn on me as I extended my research. My Dad’s family’s horizons are not just about Leeds, but Bradford, the Yorkshire Moors, Halifax, and Ireland too, with many more twists and turns along the way, as I will share in future weeks. Iron, Textile Mills and Gas Works power a lot of that recent history over the last two hundred or so years on that side of the family, and there are plenty of stories.

Making too many assumptions and judgements

Not to be outdone, on my Mum’s side, there is much more than the Hampshire fields. It too reaches Ireland, but usually as a stop off, as well as reaching back to Derbyshire and Suffolk via Deptford. There is a focus on horses, specialist work with wood, brickmaking, and an important role for the army at Aldershot.

This week’s theme of ‘Oops’ has made me reflect about the mistakes I have made in my approach to researching my family history, making too many assumptions and judgements. While here, it seems appropriate to include an ancestor from my Dad’s side of the family. His is not a particularly outstanding story, but one that otherwise might have got missed out.

Introducing this week’s ancestor: Thomas Backhouse (my 2x great grandfather)

Thomas Backhouse [1845 (Leeds, Yorkshire) – 1893 (Leeds, Yorkshire)] was my 2x great grandfather – my Dad’s Mum’s Dad’s Dad. He grew up in the central Burmantofts area of Leeds, just north of the York Road. He was one of three siblings born to Benjamin Backhouse (1806-1862) and Martha Cook (1812-1875) – more on Benjamin in a future week.

Family working in the mills, living in Burmantofts, Leeds

Working in the ‘Mill’ was a big focus for the family for much of the time. Indeed, Thomas was already a ‘gigger’ (somebody who works on the machine that raises surfaces on textiles) by the age of 15 years old in the 1861 Census. In that same census however, his father was listed as a ‘herb beer manufacturer’ just a year before his death, so not necessarily your typical mill working family home at 6, Cranberry Street. The Leodis website is a great resource for old photos of this area of the city around this time (for example, here and here).

A faded black and white photo of a church with an angled roof in the centre, and a circular stained glass window to the centre, and a spire attached to the right.
St. Stephen’s Church, Nippet Lane, Burmantofts, Leeds. Where Thomas Backhouse and Jane Winterburn were married (Public Domain).

Marriage – to Jane Winterburn

Thomas married Jane Winterburn [12 May, 1849 (Leeds, Yorkshire) – Spring 1899 (Hunslet, Yorkshire)] on 23 August, 1869 at St. Stephen’s Church, which was on Nippet Lane, Leeds. That particular church was demolished in 1939. On their marriage certificate, it lists both their fathers as coal dealers. As well as being home to a pottery, Burmantofts was also a rich source of coal.

Gas Stoker

Thomas and Jane had six children between 1872 and 1888, including a son called George Backhouse (1877-1918) – my great grandfather. George would follow his father into the same occupation – that of gas stoker. Gasworkers produced gas by burning coal, and that was used to light homes, streets and businesses. The furnaces were stoked by hand, and stokers added coal to the furnace. There is more about his George’s story in a future week, as his life was cut tragically short in the flu pandemic of 1918.

Pitching up south of the River Aire in the final years

While the 1891 Census lists the family still living within the relative poverty of the Burmantofts area of Leeds at 6, Waterloo Place, just off the York Road, by the time of their deaths, both Thomas and his wife Jane were listed as living south of the River Aire, much closer to my beloved Leeds United’s Elland Road stadium, and also to the home of Slung Low, a remarkable theatre company who have been able ‘to do good in a divided world’ using determination and imagination, as well as culture and a bit of space in their local community. They came to my attention during the pandemic, and I devoured the book by their artistic director, Alan Lane, ‘The Club on the Edge of Town.’ It was amazing to discover in their burial records at Beckett Street Cemetery, Thomas’ final home (1893) was nearby 17 Green Place, Holbeck, and Jane’s (1899) was 17 Flaxton Street – both a stone’s throw from Slung Low, and from Leeds United! The family gravestone records that Thomas was ‘accidentally killed’ aged 48, but no further detail than that. Always something new to discover.

The rather grand, but dark gravestone of the Backhouse family. It is slightly leaning to the right hand side. The inscription is difficult to decipher, but reads: In Memory Of/HANNAH Daughter of BENJAMIN and/MARTHA BACKHOUSE who departed this life December 15th 1846/a 7 years and 4 months old./Sweet virgin thou hast reached thy rest./With everlasting glory blest; /Sweet flower/ transplanted to a clime,/Where never come the blights of time./ Also the above named BENJAMIN/BACKHOUSE, who died July 28th/1862, A 56 year old./ Also MARTHA,/ wife of the above who died August 7th/1875, A 64 Year old./ Also THOMAS BACKHOUSE son of the/ above who was accidentally killed on/ November 29th 1893, A 48 Year old./In the midst ... / Also GEORGE WILMAN, son in law of/the above who died October 12th 1895. / a 62 year old.
Gravestone of Thomas Backhouse (1845-1893) in Beckett Street Cemetery, Leeds, where he is buried with his Dad (Benjamin), Mum (Martha), Sister (Hannah) and Brother-in-Law (George Wilman).

Beckett Street Cemetery has much more to reveal in a future week – but having overshared this, I will bid you farewell. It seems fitting that I should send massive love to my Dad’s sisters Jean, Marlene and Valerie, and extend my arms in a loving embrace around all my cousins of a Leeds inspiration – those sons and daughters of all my Dad’s brothers and sisters living and departed.


One thought on “#52ancestors (Wk5): Oops – Thomas Backhouse

  1. I would be interested in talking to you about Benjamin Backhouse. My great-grandfather’s father was supposed to be a Benjamin Backhouse who never married his mother. His name was Robert Baker,born 1834 in Batcombe, Somerset, England, mother was Emily Baker. Please contact me if you think this might be your Benjamin. Thanks. Deborah Gannon

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