#52ancestors (Wk8): I Can Identify – John Willie Simpson & Ellen Walton

I can identify John Willie Simpson and Ellen Walton as one of my four sets of great grandparents, but they are the couple with the least essential information associated with their profiles. In the case of Ellen, her family line goes no further back than this, and is the least well populated on my entire tree – I can’t say with any certainty when she was born, when she died, or who her mother was!

I Can Identify” is the Week 8 theme on #52ancestors, so I wanted to take the opportunity to share what I do know about my Dad’s Dad’s parents in case there is anybody out there who might be able to help me fill in some of the gaps, as well as to share some of the particular twists for which I do have a stories. I may know their names, but what do I actually know about them?

The reputation of my great grandfather John Willie Simpson [29 August, 1883 (Bradford, Yorkshire) – tbc (Leeds, Yorkshire)] is not, it has to be said, a towering one – if anything, he has the ‘whiff’ of being a bit of a malingerer. This stems in particular from remarks recorded about him within his ‘British Army WWI Service Records’, as well as personal testimony. They were far from impressed.

The statement that rings down the generations is “not likely to become an efficient soldier.” John Willie had tried to enlist on 14th August, 1914 to the 3rd Battalion (Special Reserves) of the Duke of Wellington’s West Riding Regiment, who were stationed in Halifax. He would last no longer than 86 days, discharged before that November was finished – all 5ft 2inches of him. It would appear from the record that he had previously enlisted in 1908, but there is little on that previous period of service, if indeed it did amount to much, although I may be doing him a disservice. It does go on to say that the ‘cause of objection’ was ‘running ears’ and a ‘heart weakness’.

Black and white screenshot from the original British Army WWI Service Record for John Willie Simpson, stating that he is "not likely to become an efficient soldier."
Screenshot from the British Army WWI Service Record for John Willie Simpson, stating that he is “not likely to become an efficient soldier.”

What we do know is that John Willie WAS responsible for bringing my Dad’s side of the family on the very short journey from Bradford to Leeds in West Yorkshire – something which until fairly recently was big news. I had always presumed my Dad’s roots were well and truly in Leeds.

Cover of Bartholomew Half Inch paper Map Series for West Riding (1969). Light blue, with central simplified map of area focusing on Bradford and Leeds, with modern globe logo underneath.
Cover of Bartholomew Half Inch paper Map Series for West Riding (1969).

On the WWI records, and his marriage certificate, John Willie’s occupation was listed as a forgeman – employed in the ironworks that Bradford (and its air quality) were particularly famous for, most likely the nearby Bowling Ironworks. His father had been a forgeman too, and his father before him!

Early life in Bradford

John Willie’s early family life was in Bradford. His birth certificate gives their home address as 4 Jewell Street, Bradford. His mother, Emma Swithenbank (1860-1886) died when he was just three years old. By the time of the 1891 Census, the seven year old John Willie, his siblings Sarah Elizabeth (8), Ann (10) and Spencer (12, a spinner) were living with their father Isaac (30, a widowed iron worker) in the household of his grandparents Crabtree Simpson (60, also an iron worker) and Rachel Gankrodger (60) in the address 18 Jewell Street, although the census is not as clear as it could be about the familial relationships. Also living with them is Everalda, the wife of his uncle John, a soldier who was away on service.

John Willie has so far not been found on the 1901 Census. He is not alone. It has not been possible to locate his father Isaac either. Isaac had remarried in 1882, and John had a half-sister Emily in 1894. By the 1901 Census, both Emily (aged 8) and Sarah Elizabeth (aged 17) were living with their 70 year old grandparents Crabtree and Rachel, at 16 Long Street, East Bowling, Bradford.

Where was their father Isaac, and their brother, my great grandfather, John Willie Simpson in that 1901 Census?

Another interesting aside appears to be the story of that uncle of John Willie’s from the 1891 Census – John Simpson. The soldier has returned home on furlough to the household of his parents Crabtree and Rachel by the 1901 Census, but by this point, his wife Everalda (29) is no longer living with him. Instead, she is now living as a lodger in a Woman’s Home and Shelter at an address near Westend Lane, Bradford, with her occupation given as a form of mill work. By the 1911 Census, she is still living separated from her husband, as a boarder (a spinner in a mill) in a household of pensioned weavers. Having such a distinctive name has helped identify Everalda, but there is no further clarity as to why the couple were separated. It does not appear good – I would really like to find out more about their personal circumstances and about the home itself.

Back to the timeline of the story of our two protagonists, John Willie and Ellen married on 14 May, 1904 at Leeds Registry Office. It lists both their ages as 21 years, although I don’t think that information can be taken for granted. It confirms his occupation as forgeman, while she is working as a worsted spinner in a mill. It confirms his father as Isaac Simpson, a forgeman, and hers as Fred Walton, a general labourer. Most other people researching the family have ignored this crucial piece of information, and plumped for the ‘easy’ option, going for a line that identifies a ‘George Walton’ as her father, even though this does not fit.

The couple had four children. This information is confirmed in John Willie’s WWI records. They are Ellen (born 1904), John (born 1906), Harry (born 1911) and my grandfather, Spencer (born 1914). The 1911 Census lists John Willie as being two years older than his wife, despite their marriage certificate saying they were the same age. It also confirms that while he was born in Bradford, she was born in Leeds.

Despite extensive searching, I have not been able to track down a suitable candidate for Ellen Walton’s early family profile. The closest potential candidate I have been able to find is an Ellen Walton aged 5 in the 1891 Census. The entire family are lodging in a house at 15 Platt Street, Hyde, Cheshire. Despite living in Cheshire, the father Fred (36) is from Halifax, Yorkshire, the mother Ellen (35) is from Manchester, and the child Ellen – the best candidate for my great grandmother – is born in Leeds, Yorkshire. It all fits the bill, but nothing has yet been proved or established.

Children working in Bradford mill, Dad a sweet tobacconist working from home in Leeds

Returning to what we have established, in the 1921 Census, the family unit are now living at 40 Falcon Street in Burmantofts, Leeds. John Willie (37) is rather curiously now listed as a sweet tobacconist, working from home. That is quite some career change! He also lives with his wife Ellen (35), his daughter Ellen (16) a millhand/worsted spinner at a mill in Laisterdyke, near Bradford, son John (nearly 15) also a millhand at the same mill, plus Harry (10) and Spencer (7) both at school.

Widowed before WWII?

By the 1939 Register, a widowed John William Simpson (here his date of birth listed as 29 Aug, 1886 rather than 1883) is listed living alone at 38 Cross Stamford Street, Leeds, next door to the household of his son Spencer and his wife Gladys (my grandparents) living at 36 Cross Stamford Street. While John William is listed as a labourer, ‘Pensioned from Army Disabled’ has been added in red ink. Family testimony has always suggested a story of some kind of injury, possibly involving an eye, or possibly affecting mobility. However, as we have already seen, there is no record of such service, let alone such an injury but perhaps that is unfair – perhaps he was a hero after all? The pension surely came from somewhere? His son Spencer is listed as a Right General Labourer. We know from family testimony that this includes time as a Sanitation Attendant for the Corporation.

John Willie and Ellen's youngest son - with a cigarette, my granddad Spencer. Mean looking, posing in the garden, a baby is almost cut out of shot on the right.
John Willie and Ellen’s youngest son – with a cigarette – my granddad Spencer.

Although I can identify my great grandparents John Willie Simpson and Ellen Walton, many questions remain unanswered. First, did Ellen Walton die before WWII? As yet, I have been unable to confirm an identity for her death, although there are a number of potential candidates. Second, when did John Willie Simpson die? Others researching this family have presumed it was 1972, but it does not fit precisely with family testimony, and there are a number of suitable candidates which fit the bill anytime between 1939 and 1972 – quite a wide sweep. Third, what is Ellen Walton’s date of birth, and who are her parents. I have covered some clues above, but as yet I have been unable to make these jigsaw pieces fit together. Finally, what were they both like? Was the reputation of John Willie a fair one?

Obviously, I knew their son (my grandfather) Spencer. I had no love for him, and he died in 1982. When we would visit Leeds as a family, we often got to meet his brother, who we knew as ‘Uncle Harry’. He was much more lovable, although he unnerved us a children a little because he was extremely nocturnal, a loner, and as white as a sheet – there were almost glimpses of the Addams Family character Uncle Fester when he would turn up at the front door after midnight to be fed. Tales of their childhood have survived a century, and testimony about his ability to draw. There are some details of their sister Ellen’s family, and they will return in future weeks, but I have been less lucky tracking down his brother (my grand uncle) John.

My grand uncle Harry dressed for a Christmas party in his later years, wearing an orange paper hat and streamers. Smiling, but no teeth.
My grand uncle Harry – another of John Willie and Ellen’s sons, and my granddad’s rather nocturnal older brother.

So, yes, I can identify my Dad’s Dad’s parents but I need to know so much more. Please send help if you are able to! Or, feel free to correct anything I have written here.

Isaac Simpson, Crabtree Simpson, Rachel Gankrodger, Sarah Elizabeth & Emily Simpson, and of course, Spencer Simpson all return too in future weeks as subjects in their own right as well as others connected with these lines. See you next week for another #52ancestors post.


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