My Favourite Ancestor
Percy May Sewell 1835 - 1921
By Glennis Sewell
This article was published in the December 2015 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society
My favourite ancestor is probably a little different from the usual - he is my ‘black sheep’ of the family! From a research point of view he was difficult – years of painstaking tracking (yes, pre computer days!) as he moved about through several counties and also had a name change.
I researched hundreds of people in my Sewell research and they were all just ordinary, law-abiding citizens – no skeletons in the cupboard! But Percy was a real challenge and I became determined to find him (a little obsessed maybe?) until I finally had him worked out. On one very memorable day in 2004, I visited Ipswich Cemetery, and with the help of the staff, was able to find his unmarked grave, on which I stood and ‘had a little chat’ to Percy. Hope he was listening!
Percy May Sewell was born in 1835, and was the first child of Decimus and Keren Sewell of Halstead, Essex. Just after he had turned nine years of age, his mother died, leaving him with one younger sister and a distraught father, who then moved to Altrincham, Cheshire when Percy was about thirteen years of age.
Percy was brought up by his father and an older cousin, who helped out in the household. In due course he was apprenticed to his solicitor father in his law office in Cheshire. Soon after he appears to have had a teenage rebellion and so began his life of turmoil.
In 1853 when he was just seventeen, he ran away with the local minister’s daughter, Elizabeth Docker Sevier. They married in London – giving his age as 21 and his occupation as solicitor! (Imagine the furore this must have caused in the local village!). Percy was employed in and around London as an Actuary with various insurance companies and they duly had two sons and a daughter.
As if a wife and three children were not enough, in 1865 Percy ‘married’ Ann Girdlestone Currie in Surrey, setting her up in a cottage in Brixton. They had a daughter born in 1866, and somehow, Percy managed to keep both his families happy.
Apparently two families are never enough, and in 1870 Percy ‘married’ Lucy Amelia Penney in Woolwich. They were together about three or four months and Lucy was pregnant, when someone (unknown who) discovered his secret life and he was duly charged with bigamy in 1871. By this time he was calling himself a stockbroker and he can be found on the 1871 census in Newgate Gaol. He received eighteen months hard labour.
After his release from prison in 1872 he took up with Harriett Sarah Potter in a de-facto relationship which was to last for 47 years and produce twelve children. During this time the family moved constantly from London, throughout Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk. During this time Percy changed his name to Edward May Sewell. He had tried an honest living as a farmer, but had simply gone broke and he had been employed by two companies, both of which had gone insolvent and left him without a job, which didn’t help his cause.
Almost each of the twelve children (one died in infancy) were born in a different location, as they constantly moved each time Percy reeled from one disaster to the next. He was in and out of gaol on about five occasions, always charged with fraud. Usually his modus operandi was to try and sell insurance illegally. He seemed to have the gift of the gab – a smooth talker. A large number of his victims were women and one can imagine he must have had good looks and been very attractive to the opposite sex. Unfortunately, no photograph of him has come to light; though there may be a ‘mug shot’ somewhere still to be found.
Just how his wife managed while he was locked up on so many occasions is unimaginable. The older children were, of course, set to work as soon as possible and none of them had very much schooling. Somehow Harriet kept the family together, but they must have been extremely poor and one can imagine that there were many days when there was not enough food on the table. Despite deprivation as children they all grew to adulthood, and none, as far as I know, ever got into any trouble with the law – all but one married and they were always employed.
In 1901 Percy’s first wife Elizabeth died. Two years later in 1903 – the news of her death no doubt took a while to filter through – Percy and Harriett married in Ipswich. Percy was by now 68 years of age and Harriett 54. He used his correct name on the marriage certificate and is described as a retired insurance inspector! The couple moved to Essex for a time, before finally returning to Ipswich.
Percy died in 1921 at the age of 86, registered under his correct name, with his son Mark as a witness. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Ipswich Cemetery, with Harriet joining him in 1922.
His first wife Ann Sevier must have had a very hard time raising their three children and it is known that Percy’s father Decimus, did help her a little – though he refused to help his son. For a time in her later years she lived with her daughter, but at the end of her life seemed to be alone and ended up in the Leytonstone Union Workhouse at the time of her death. It is unknown why she did not receive help and support from her son and daughter (the other son died young).
His second ‘wife’ Ann Girdlestone Currie reverted back to her maiden name and eked out a living as a dressmaker until her death in 1908 at age 67. Their daughter May died at the age of six and Ann never married, but had some support from her brothers during her lifetime.
His third ‘wife’
Lucy Amelia Penney had a daughter named Edith who was brought up by Lucy’s
mother as a Penney. Lucy later married and had a son. She died in 1926.
Wife number four, Harriet Sarah Potter, having stuck by her man through the toughest of circumstances, was finally in a legitimate marriage after nearly a lifetime of waiting. She died in 1922, just five months after Percy.
Why did Percy go off the rails when he came from a good family background? This is an age old question to which there is no answer. I know he was a criminal – committing offences over and over – but did he do these silly things just out of a need to care for his family, without thought to the consequences? He did not need to cause himself so much grief and time in gaol, but seemed, for some reason, to be unable to avoid it. No doubt a psychologist would have an answer.
In any case, Harriet seemed to love him, no matter what – and so do I.
Leytonstone Union Workhouse today, where Percy’s first wife ended her days. Photo with permission from David Boote, Leyton and Leytonstone Historical Society