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

The Photograph


 By Jean Cooper


This article was originally published in the December 2006 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society


If you want to call me fanciful, you won’t be the first and I won’t be offended, but I have used my considerable imagination to try to understand and put meat on the bones.


I would like to think this photograph was taken in 1892, to celebrate the 30th Wedding anniversary of my great great grandparents. Their eldest son had been married for six years, their second son for two, and their eldest daughter was about to get married. Their youngest child was 8 years old. So, if we are indeed in 1892, most of the family were living in Lands Bank, Evenwood with Jonathan and John Thomas having their own households with their families, but close by.


Abraham Sewell was born in 1841, Hamsterley, Durham, where his family had lived for at least 2 generations before him, all with strong links to the pits. Abraham was a miner by the time he was 19 and at 29 was an engine driver at the pit. These were stationary engines, I think, doing such jobs as lowering the cages full of miners. Most of the pitmen in the family seemed to work above ground, but this was not necessarily less dangerous for them. Abraham’s brother Thomas Sewell was killed at the Rush Pit, Etherley. He was an engineman too, on 10 June 1878, “while screwing up the bolt broke, causing a rush of hot water, which scalded him severely”. He died the next day, aged 45, leaving a widow and one son, his other children having died as youngsters.


By the time Abraham died in 1909, he was a farmer at Cockfield. Abraham had 7 brothers (including Thomas) and sisters, all living locally, one sister, Tamar, marrying his close friend Jonathan Burrell, his brother George marrying Elizabeth Burrell. In the close knit mining communities, families must have often had close links like this.


In 1881 the extended family had moved from Hamsterley. The miners would take contract (Bond) with the pit owners and whole communities would often move, the mining population moving en masse in the April of a year. Movement was for the purpose of acquiring better pay, or better living conditions as the pit houses were maintained to differing degrees. Maybe they moved for a house with stairs rather than a ladder to the sleeping accommodation upstairs for the children? John, Abraham’s father, must have found the whole business a trial. He was living with his daughter Tamar and son in law Jonathan Burrell and their family, and moved with them after living in Hamsterley all his life. He died in September 1881 aged 82 at Land’s Bank, Evenwood, the certificate stating “asthenia” (loss of strength). The death was registered by son in law Jonathan Burrell. Of course, as an aspiring genealogist, I am grateful that the move happened in a census year with a family death later that same year, as I can pinpoint the family move more precisely! Abraham had already moved his family previously and Jonathan and Tamar possibly moved to join them.


I have tried to identify the individuals on the photograph by judging their ages as best I can.



Abraham married Hannah Armorey, a farmer’s daughter, at the Register Office in Aukland in April 1862. Both Hannah’s mother and Abraham’s mother were called Elizabeth Toward, I have not yet sorted this one out, but presume their mothers were cousins. They lived next door to John Sewell, Abraham’s father, in Cabin House, Hamsterley. I can’t find Cabin House, but there is a Cabin Hill on the OS map. However, I wonder if the name “Cabin House” is a generic term for a particular set of pit houses. I know in Sandsend, all the houses are “Cottage House” on the census returns, meaning one of the cottages in the village.


Johnathan Sewell was their first son, born in June, 2 months after their wedding. I wonder if he was named for Jonathan Burrell. JB was lodging with George Sewell (and his wife Elizabeth Burrell), Abraham’s brother, before Jonathan married Tamar Sewell, all the men working at the pit, it seems a plausible idea to me. Of course, he could also be named after his maternal grandfather Johnathan Armorey!


Young Jonathan Sewell married in 1886 in the Wesleyan chapel in Bishop Aukland, to a Sarah Heaviside. A family of Heavisides had lived next door to the family in 1881, but not a Sarah…was there a link? Jonathan also had been living in Middlesbrough before he married, but returned for the wedding and then stayed in his home area. Was he in Middlesbrough to earn a bit extra money to set up house maybe? Did the grass look greener? As far as I am aware, he was the only child to move out of the immediate area.  In 1886 he was a brakesman. In 1891, Jonathan and Sarah were living at Lands Bank, Evenwood, with Francis Heaviside 8, Ada 2 and Norman 1. I have yet to research to find out who were parents to Francis. (named for his grandfather?). Sarah was spinster when she married Jonathan, so he was either another family member taken in, or a son Sarah had before she married. If so, it is possible Johnathan could have been the father, but I need to send for Francis’ birth certificate to clarify this.


The next child for Abraham and Hannah was John Thomas, my great great grandfather, born Hamsterley 1864. I think he is directly behind the seated Abraham on the picture. John married Mary Ann Dent at the Register office in Teesdale, just 3 weeks before son Joseph (Joss) was born in November 1889.  Minnie followed in 1891, then Jane in 1892. Sadly, Mary Ann died in 1893, leaving 3 children, the eldest being 2 months away from his 4th birthday. Abraham registered his daughter in law’s death from cardiac failure/pneumonia. I can only imagine my great grandfather and his young family at this time, being supported by Hannah and the rest of the family. Minnie was my grandmother, I do not know what happened to Joss, excepting he had a daughter, Priscilla, who stayed with my grandmother after she had had my father, as she had a bad leg following the birth and needed help. Family tale has it that John was a highly respected engine man, with pitmen not wanting to go down into the pit after it had been closed for holiday unless John was on the engine. John married again in 1874 and had a daughter, Margaret Eva, who died young followed by 5 sons, Reuben, William Redvers, Edgar, Abe and Maurice. I have happy memories of visiting “the uncles” at Toft Hill and family members are still living locally. Redvers used to sit in his rocking chair by the fire; he was a very kind man. Maurice could talk for England!


Jane, the eldest daughter to Abraham and Hannah, is also linked closely to Jane, John’s daughter. They were aunt and niece who certainly never met. Jane married Jack Coatsworth and they had twin boys, James and Abraham. However, what should have been a happy event quickly turned to tragedy, with the boys being sickly from the start. Born in August, both boys died in September 1891, James from convulsions and Abraham from debility from birth. Jane died in the following August, possibly from TB and I can find no record of her husband in the area afterwards.


The day Jane died, her sister in law Mary Ann gave birth to a daughter, they named her Jane. Again, was it Hannah keeping the family together in times of distress and joy, making extra meals, always with the kettle on?? “Young” Jane later married into the Pearson family and, after selling their egg business, they left for Canada around 1925 on the Montcalm with their 3 children, a further daughter was born in Canada. My family is in touch with the family still, Minnie communicated regularly with her sister Jane and was full of excitement when a letter arrived from Canada. Greta, the girl in the photograph on the deck of the Montcalm, recalled how proud she was of her travelling outfit, but that she had left her hat on the last train as they arrived in Alberta and regretted it always.



George followed in 1868, again becoming a coal miner, a “hewer”. He married Mary Jane Armstrong in Aukland Registry office in 1894. As the couple lived in Evenwood, they must have formed part of the extended family of Sewells, who I feel must have been close….if only by geography!. The celebration of their marriage must have been a welcome celebration for the family following the loss of George’s sister Jane and sister in law Mary Ann over the previous 18 months. In such a small community, with both fathers being coal miners, it must have been some party! In 1901 George had 4 children between the ages of 6 and 3 months, all born in Evenwood.


William Alfred, born in 1870, I think lived with his parents as a single man, at least up to 1901 when he was 31. Perhaps single young men still living at home into their adult years was not just a modern phenomenon. Born in Hamsterley, he also went to the pit for employment, a stationary engineman at 21, and a colliery stoker at 31.


I have a particular attachment to Joseph Henry, as he was born with the same birthday as me, but a few years earlier in 1871, again Hamsterley. He died in Newcastle infirmary aged just 22, from a spinal abscess and pyaemia. I wonder if he would have lived with modern antibiotics to kill the infection. He was a colliery fireman at Stoey Lodge, Durham. In 1894, I can again only use my imagination to imagine the journeys to visit Joseph, the aftermath of losing him. Did my great grandfather name his firstborn after this younger brother of his?


I like to think I can tell something about the people in the photograph just by looking. Does anyone else think Joseph, taller than his older bothers, was, at 20, not yet comfortable with his height and growth? Sadly, he never had the opportunity to marry, have a family, or grow old.


4 Children Left


Sophia Elizabeth was born in June 1873, in Hamsterley. I have been able to find out very little about her as yet. In 1901, she was living at home, a dressmaker. I wonder, looking at the picture, if she was unwell in some way, she looks very thin and gaunt. I also wonder if this is in fact Jane and Sophia may be the lady on the right of the picture.


Abraham, known as Abe, was born in Butterknowle in February 1876, making the family move from Hamsterley somewhere between the births of Sophia and Abe. Abe began as a joiner’s apprentice, but soon joined his brothers, uncles and father in the pit. Due to an exciting and very recent connection via Genes Reunited, I know that Abe married Esther Hymers and they had 2 sons. I am hoping to work with Abe’s great great grand daughter, who still lives in the same area, to fill in the details of his life.


Robert Toward Sewell, born at Land’s, Evenwood, in April 1878 has the honour of his middle name being both his grandmother’s maiden names, if my research is correct. I am hoping to work with Abe’s great grand daughter Jacqui to find more about Robert. The family probably moved house again between Abe and Robert being born. However, if you check the map, the villages around Evenwood are very close together. My grandmother remembered walking easily from one village to the other for dances and other social occasions.


The youngest child on the photograph is Margaret Hannah, born in August 1884 at Land’s Bank Evenwood. She married in 1907 to a William Allison, at this time her father Abraham describes himself as a farmer. Evidently many of the farmers also had other jobs to eke out a liveable income. Abraham would have been 66 when Margaret married.


 I know there are purists who like to research the male line only, but the research I have undertaken so far into the family group on this photograph has solved family ‘mysteries’.


The twins, who we now know belonged to Jane, were just a rumour before. My mum remembered an Uncle Willie, who travelled by train from his home, Woodhead Farm in Stocksfield, to stay in Sunderland with my grandmother. He would wear his pyjamas under his clothes so he wouldn’t have a bag to carry, put his shaving kit in his pocket and get on the train into Sunderland. He would go and watch the football at Roker Park, stay overnight with Minnie and her family in Moreland Street and return home the next day. He is remembered as a man with a very deep, booming voice and the driest sense of humour that would have everyone in tucks. BUT we didn’t know who uncle Willie was until this research.


Margaret was aunt to my grandmother Minnie, although there was only 8 years between them. As Minnie’s mother died so young, there was possibly a great deal of caring done by Hannah, Margaret’s mother and Minnie’s grandmother, making the girls close. Also, living in such proximity to the extended family must have made for stronger ties. So, Willie was my grandmother’s uncle by marriage, making no real difference to my family tree, but fitting in a gentleman who is held in deep affection into his rightful place within the family.


I haven’t finished yet. I am finding out more about the youngest children in the photograph thanks to links through Genes reunited and will have to wait for the next census release to look at changes from 1901 to 1910. I am also waiting for 1941 to clarify Abraham’s father John Sewell born 1801 and his father, another Abraham, which is where I am stuck right now.


Thank goodness my father’s cousin gave us a copy of this photograph. Without it, I could have found out the facts, but would not have been able to embroider the facts so enjoyably without the picture to give my imagination a push. 


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