The Sole Society, a Family History Society researching Sole, Saul, Sewell, Solley and similar names

Mary Ann Sole (Bowen)

A Misunderstood Women

By Robert Sheldon

This article was originally published in the August 2005 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society

Mike Reeve is a recent new member with Kentish roots who has solved a little mystery that had me puzzled for some time. 


It began with the 1901 census when I was checking up on the entry for my grandparents living at 5 Princes Crescent, Margate.  I noticed that next-door at No 4 there lived Mary SOLE and her 4 children. I wondered whether there was any connection and did some further research.  In the 1891 census she was living at the same address with 3 children and was described as a widow.  So I assumed she had been the wife of an unnamed SOLE who had died leaving her with a young family to bring up.  Mary had stated her birthplace as Deptford and I was surprised to find a birth certificate which appeared to be hers as being born there in 1855 the daughter of John and Elizabeth (née CASTLE).  We knew about John from our records as being the son of Thomas, a master sail-maker who had died in Deptford in 1853 but we have not been able so far to trace him further back.  In any event he did not appear to be related to my branch of the family and if Mary was his granddaughter neither was she. 


However I was still intrigued at the coincidence of Mary and her family being the next door neighbours of my grandparents so I sent for some more birth certificates and discovered that Mary, variously described as a domestic servant, housekeeper and lodging house keeper, had given birth to six children between 1882 and 1894 but none of them had named fathers on their birth certificates.  Further research through our marriages and deaths indexes did not disclose any more clues about either Mary or her children.  So I decided that she had been a girl of easy virtue, she had tried to hide this by describing herself as a widow in the census, and left it at that pending further information.


Then Mike made contact and I had to change my opinion of Mary who he had discovered was his G-grandmother.  From Mike’s research it appears that Mary had lived with her common law husband John William BOWEN, a stonemason, from the birth of their first child in 1884.  The reason for John not marrying Mary was that he had two previous wives, the first of whom died at the age of 32 leaving him to bring up 7 children, and the second “disappeared” from the scene but presumably she was still alive so John and Mary could not legally marry.


Mike drew my attention again to the 1901 census, which showed John BOWEN living as a boarder with Mary and her family.  I had missed this in only accessing the census index of SOLEs that the Society had extracted from the Internet.


Mary (on the right) holding her grandson Roy BowenThe third of Mary and John’s children was Ethel Ella who was Mike’s grandmother.  Like her brothers and sisters, she was brought up and married under the name BOWEN, hence my fruitless searches in the SOLE indexes.  Mary had become known as Mary Ann at some stage and according to Ethel Ella, her mother was also known as Polly, a common nickname for girls called Mary apparently.  The children of John’s first marriage always referred to her us ‘Polly’, never as ‘mother’, even though she had brought them up in addition to her own.


Ethel Ella also threw some light on the gap of 2 years between the birth of Mary’s first child in 1882 and the birth of her second child, Ethel Bowen SOLE, by John in 1884.  According to Ella, John was not the father of the first child and we can only speculate.


Mary Ann did move around after she left home in Deptford.  In 1881 census she was working as a housemaid at a hotel in Cockspur Street, St Martin in the Fields, London.  It is not known why she moved from there to Margate but the birth of her first child was definitely in Margate in October 1882.  Could this imminent birth have been the reason for her leaving London, and why did she choose Margate?  Sometime after the birth of her last child in 1894, she moved to the Isle of Sheppey in Kent. This move was probably because John had found work there in H M Dockyard (according to his death certificate).


Mary Jane died in Sheerness, Sheppey in 1925 at the age of 70 and was described in her death certificate as ‘Mary BOWEN, Widow of John William BOWEN’ although no record of a marriage has been found.  Her photo shows her shortly before her death holding her grandson Roy BOWEN after his baptism.  Also in the photo are (standing) Mary’s daughter in law Mary and (sitting) her mother Mary Ann RANSOM.


I regret now that I had such a low opinion of Mary Ann before Mike came along to put me right.  I was clearly a bit too hasty in coming to judgement from the very limited number of facts available initially.

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