Edward Edwards – Gifted Sanitary Engineer and Welshman and his legacy
The first trace of the Edwards family is the marriage of two parishioners which took place in church in the parish of the Holywell, Flintshire on 9 May 1814. The vicar was J. Jones. The groom was Edward Edwards, and the bride Elizabeth Clement. She was underage and so the marriage was by licence with the consent of her father William Clement. None were educated people, the bride and groom and the witnesses, Edward Young, a shoemaker, and Margaret Clement, all signed with their mark, a simple, rather shaky cross. A son, William, was born in wedlock and baptised in November 1816 and they lived in the village of Greenfield, two miles away from Holywell on the banks of the Dee Estuary.
At the time of the first census in 1841, William Edwards (25) was an agricultural labourer. He was married to Ellen Williams, a labourer’s daughter, who had been born at nearby Northop, Flintshire, and they had a three-year-old daughter Mary. He had moved to Chester, for in 1849 they lived at Bridge Street, Chester (the United Parish of St Bridget and St Martin) and his occupation was recorded as stonemason. There their son Edward Edwards was baptised on 14 October 1849. William died within a year or so, for in 1851 we find his widow, Ellen (32) as head of the household and now innkeeper in Bridge Street, with her one-year-old son, Edward Edwards. Her daughter Mary was not present, but being 13 by then, she may well have been in service elsewhere. Interestingly the other occupants of the household were two other Northop born women whom she described as her sisters. One was Mary Edwards 39, and the other Elizabeth Roberts (17) a servant. There were also two lodgers: a hairdresser and a writing clerk.
In September 1852 Ellen was married again, to Wrexham-born John Roberts, a mason. He was the son of Samuel R. Roberts, who was also a mason. At this ceremony the bride, groom and witnesses could all sign their names. At the time of marriage John Roberts’s lived in Manchester, but he moved to Bridge Street, Chester with Ellen. She bore him two children, Emma Alma (1856) and Mary Ellen (1858), and in 1861 he is listed in the census as still at living Bridge Street, Chester but by now he was a Builder and Publican. Eleven-year-old Edward was at school. Ten years later John Roberts was a successful man, with a home at 13 Bold Terrace, Chester, he was a builder employing 25 men and four boys, and his stepson, Edward was builder’s assistant. Ellen (64) and John (60) appear once more in the 1881 census still at 13 Bold Terrace, Chester, with their 23-year-old unmarried daughter Mary Ellen and a Denbighshire-born general servant. John is listed as a master builder, and neither his wife nor daughter have a listed occupation.
It is a fair assumption that a city education and the influence of his stepfather put Edward Edwards, my great grandfather, in a good position to prosper in the building trade. In 1878 he married, by special licence, in the Church of St Peter, Liverpool, where he lived in Dale Street. His bride, master hairdresser’s daughter Catherine Fitch, had been born and brought up in Chester. The witnesses at the wedding in Liverpool were his sister Mary Ellen Roberts, and Jon Hughes. Edward Edward’s bold and confident signature on the marriage licence contrasts with that of his illiterate grandfather and namesake sixty-four years earlier. Intriguingly it was the bride who went to her partner’s home town to wed. Catherine’s parents were not at the wedding, her mother had died in 1870 and that same month her father was getting married again, to Susanna Broughton, in Manchester.
Three years later, we find Edward Edwards in 1881 living at 12 Seller Street, Chester, a 30-year-old builder’s assistant, with his wife Catherine and their first son, John, my grandfather aged 1. I wonder whether he was working for his stepfather John Roberts, or was he already working for Hughes and Lancaster? All Edward and Catherine’s seven children were born in Chester and I think that he may by now be working for the Chester firm of Hughes and Lancaster, which until 1892 operated out of their works in Chester. Thereafter the company outgrew the site and moved to Acrefair, near Ruabon. It is significant that by the time of the 1901 census Edward Edwards, my great grandfather, and his family occupied Plas Geraint, in Llangollen, just five miles from the Acrefair works. He was described as Engineer and Contractor, and Manager.
Hughes and Lancaster had become a company which specialised in the installation of state of the art sewerage systems in Britain and abroad. Their first installations in the early 1880s had been at Eastbourne and at the Houses of Parliament. Their success derived from holding sole rights to the inventions of Wrexham man Isaac Shone (1836-1918), who had patented “The Shone” Hydro Pneumatic Sewerage System. His system used compressed air, driven by steam engine pumps to raise sewage from a lower level to empty into a mains sewer pipe running nearer the surface, and thus enabled the collection of sewage in low lying cities.
Over the next 40 years Hughes and Lancaster Ltd installed the system at more than 500 locations around the world, including Wellington, New Zealand, and oral history has it that Edward Edwards travelled extensively in Europe, taking his family with him to supervise works in Hungary, Vienna and Oporto. He left the family in Llangollen when work took him to Rangoon Burma, (now Myanmar) and to India. We have portrait photos of him and his wife taken in Oporto where his son John and daughter-in-law Mabel, subsequently lived for four years before WW2. We have a fine Portuguese silver tea service made in the 1880s and either bought by Edward Edwards, or maybe by John Edwards, his son.
There is also a compelling story from Edwards’ time in Rangoon where the company built their largest installation over the period 1889 to 1913. Apparently while supervising the digging of sewers Edward Edwards witnessed a Buddhist holy man fall into the water, and through his prompt intervention saved his life. In gratitude the elderly man took the silver necklace from around his neck and gave it Edward Edwards. On his return to Wales, he gave it to his daughter Kate Ellen, my Great Aunt. The coin-like discs are each impressed with a Buddha figure on one side and some writing on the other. Until recently there were strands of red silk tangled with the chain.
Edward Edwards and his wife retired to a newly built Edwardian house on the Llangollen canal. They were there in 1914 when their daughter Marion travelled back from Trinidad accompanying her sister Kate’s two eldest children, Katherine and Douglas, to commence their education in England.
Edward Edwards’ two sons also worked for Hughes and Lancaster. The eldest, John served his apprenticeship 1894-1897, and continued with the firm all his life. The younger son, Arthur appears on the 1911 census as a 19-year-old draughtsman, lodging in Acrefair, so almost certainly at Hughes and Lancaster. We know only that he died in 1918 but where or how is not recorded.
John Edwards’ career is summarised in a 1951 obituary in the Journal of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers. After gaining further experience of sewerage and waterworks engineering in Germany, he became assistant engineer in Oporto 1904-1908, and then was in charge of the works at Concepcion, Chile for several years where my Uncle John and my father Jo (Pepe) were born. He also worked in Montevideo, Uruguay. In 1930 he rose to the board of directors on the firm. On his retirement he lived in Llangollen and is remembered for the active part he took in the community and his role as a translator, (English to European languages) at the 1st International Eisteddfod held in Llangollen
The Fitch Family – former gentlefolk?
The new couple must have left London soon after the wedding, and are found in 1851 in Chester, living at City Walls, as lodgers of William Waite, the 24-year-old lay Vicar of Chester Cathedral and his wife. William Henry Fitch’s career as a hairdresser was in Chester, where he lived in Duke Street (1853) and Bridge Street East (1861,1871), and their five children were born 1851-1861. Indeed, he seems to have been an upmarket hairdresser: styling himself master hairdresser in the 1861 and 1871 censuses and even more grandly, he is identified as Perfumer on his daughter’s wedding certificate in 1878. His first wife Hannah Maria had died in 1870, and in the same month as his daughter Catherine married Edward Edwards, he was married a second time, to Susanna Broughton. The censuses of 1891 and 1901 find him and Susanna at Hawthorn Villa, on the private housing estate of Upton Park, near Chester. When he died in 1903 the probate record styles him “Gentleman”. His total probate value of £3072 is equivalent to £241K today. The designation seems a little grand. A gentleman was taken to mean someone who could live on their unearned income. Perhaps he would have been better described as retired. However, we have already seen that in 1849 William Henry Fitch also styled his own father, Thomas as a gentleman, though he may have already been deceased at this time.
All we know about Thomas Fitch is that his widow, neé Mary Ann Vincent and her daughter Elizabeth (b 1818) were among the five household’s resident at Prospect Cottages, Hornsey, Highgate in 1861. While the widow Mary and her daughter stated no occupation, their neighbouring heads of household were styled ‘Landed proprietor’ “Member of the Royal College of Surgeons – out of practice’, ‘Lady’ ‘House proprietor’ and ‘commercial traveller’. This does look like an enclave of the middle classes at a low ebb. The surgeon, formerly in the East India Service, lived with his wife and an 11-year-old servant whose occupation is described as ‘Page’.
Prospect Cottages adjoined Prospect Terrace, which is described as grey brick 3 story 19th century housing, and Prospect Place, a yellow brick three story terrace dated 1811.
My paternal side
The history of my paternal family which follows, has been gleaned mainly from Lilian Williams who was married to my Uncle John Edwards until his untimely death at the beginning of the Second World War, and from records held in the Llangollen Museum. This is because from the age of seven I had no other relatives, that I knew of, other than my mother and my only cousin Martin Edwards. Both died prematurely aged fifty-four and thirty-seven respectively. My mother never divulged any information about her family. It wasn’t until her death when I was twenty-nine that I knew that my maternal grandmother was still alive.
My paternal great-grandparents, Jos and Jane Nanson, were a very well-respected family from the Vale of Llangollen in North Wales. My great-grandfather was a slate merchant and quarry owner and they produced four children: my grandmother Mabel Nanson; my great-uncles Joseph and Tom, and my great-aunt, Annie. My grandmother married John Edwards and they went to Chile as ex-patriates in the early 1900s. My grandfather worked as an engineer for the industrial engineering company, Hughes and Lancaster, that led the world in sanitary systems. They were building the city of Concepcion, south west of Santiago on the Pacific Ocean coast, which is where my uncle John was born in 1908, and my father Joseph, in October 1911. Grandpa Edwards was eventually to become a Director of Hughes and Lancaster.
My great-grandfather died before the start of World War One; he wasn’t to know about his son, Joseph, dying in that war. My great-uncle Joseph was a Second Lieutenant in the 25th Battalion of the Manchester Regiment and he and other junior officers went over the top first when the battle started to encourage the men. He died, along with nearly twenty thousand other allied soldiers on 1st July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme. His loss was mourned by everyone in the Vale of Llangollen and it was written up in the local newspaper. My great-uncle was twenty-three years old and he had started the Boy Scouts in Llangollen.
My grandparents lived in Concepcion, Chile, then Montevideo, Uruguay and when Grandpa retired, they lived in Oporto in Portugal for four years before they realised the Second World War was imminent. They decided to come home and took up residence in a hotel in Llangollen, as Granny wanted to return to the place she was brought up. When my grandparents came back from Portugal, Granny Edwards couldn’t boil a kettle, she’d always had servants as a young woman, as well as when she lived in South America. Granny Edwards, from what little I remember, was very Victorian and rather austere. You can see it in photos with John and Pepe (my father’s pet name) because she isn’t holding their hands. She seemed very aloof, probably because she didn’t really know them. She only saw her boys once every three years after they went to England for their education at a very young age.
I remember Grandpa taking me to Lyon’s Corner House in London once when I was quite young. He treated me to a Knickerbocker Glory, and I had to stand on my chair in order to reach the bottom of the enormous sundae glass it was served in. It was marvellous.
In the early 1950s, Granny Edwards suffered a terrible stroke and was taken to the cottage hospital in Llangollen where I had been born (demolished in 2014.) I remember visiting her when she lay in her hospital bed not able to speak and I gave her paper chains I had made in an attempt to make her laugh. Three or four months after her stroke, Grandpa who had been living in the hotel, died from tuberculosis. They wouldn’t tell Granny he’d died. My great-aunt, Aunty Annie, went to see her sister and asked the staff, “Have you not told her?” Granny couldn’t speak and was looking for Grandpa. “Why haven’t you told her he’s died?”
“Oh, it’s too upsetting for her. Look how upset she is because he isn’t coming to visit her. If she knew he was dead, that would only upset her more.” That was the mentality in those days – ‘Oh no, we mustn’t upset the patient.’
Joseph Edward Edwards
When my father was thirteen, he started at Westminster School in London, a famous English public school close to Parliament and Westminster Abbey. They wore formal tailcoats and top hats at school and apparently were jeered at during the General Strike in 1926 for being toffs. My father did well there; he won various books and prizes, and I discovered later that he was a keen rower and won quite a few rowing cups. His school report reads, ‘We are sorry to lose you’. He left school when he was around seventeen years old. The brothers spent all their school holidays each year with my great-grandmother, Jane Nanson, and her daughter, my great-aunt, Aunty Annie, near Oxford.
Margaret Gwyneth Jones
Although Mummy was from South Wales, she didn’t have a Welsh accent. I have no idea where she was brought up or anything about her circumstances as she never spoke about them to me. I do know she went to London and made the grade to enter Dulwich Hospital to train as a nurse. She passed her State Registration and received her State Registration Nurse (SNR) badge and certificate in 1941, which I now possess, along with her letter of appointment from the General Nursing Council. I think this was quite an achievement for somebody who had run away from home in the 1930s; she did well and I’m proud of her and her achievements.
My father, Joe, joined the army in 1939 as a private in the Royal Army Service Corps. I know nothing about that time, but I do know that he contracted tuberculosis and was eventually sent to a sanitorium in North Wales where my mother was nursing. My father became somewhat better and they married in Wrexham on 23rd October 1944. I understand from one of my godparents that my paternal grandparents didn’t approve of this marriage. Late in my mother’s pregnancy, my father suffered a relapse and he died of tuberculosis on 18th November 1945 when I was just two weeks old. Because my father was still in the army when he died, my mother received a war widow’s pension, and he has a Commonwealth War Grave, which is in the cemetery at St John’s Church, Llangollen.
Uncle John, my father’s brother had already died during the first week of the war. I have his last letter to his parents, my grandparents, which he wrote on the evening that he went home from work, to Lilian his wife, and their two-year-old son Martin. The next morning, he was dead. This beautiful letter is funny and written in lovely handwriting. Sadly, Granny and Grandpa Edwards lived to see both their sons die in the war, one at the beginning and one at the end, and also Granny Edwards’ brother Joe on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
Uncle John had married Lilian in 1937 and she knew quite a bit about Granny and Grandpa Edwards, where they lived and so on, so she was the source of my limited information; Mummy never wanted to talk about the past. Lilian then married again to Charles Denis Blyss-Williams who was the most wonderfully gentle and clever person I think I’ve ever known. In the meantime, Aunty Annie married Godfrey Coldwell, Commodore of the P&O Line, who was retiring as World War Two was starting.
He was sent to Malta and I believe he was either the Harbour Master or held some other very senior role for the company during the Second World War when it was necessary to live in caves on the island as it was so dangerous with all the German bombing. Aunty Annie Coldwell started a hospital for mothers and babies in Malta as she had the money to do so and could see the need, and I remember being taken to see her and Uncle Godfrey, years later in Poole where they had retired. Uncle Godfrey wore a little smoking hat and smoking jacket and always had to have someone – Aunty Annie – running around after him – he didn’t understand how the post war world worked! They didn’t have any children and I remember at his funeral, the P&O flag draped over his coffin representing the seniority of his position in the Peninsula and Orient Line.
My mother taught me self-reliance, apart from anything else, but she didn’t teach me to cook. She taught me the absolute basics, but she was pretty hopeless in the kitchen really. She was such a plain cook having been a war-widow from the end of 1945 and living on a war widow’s tiny pension.
Aunty Una was extremely religious. I received a copy of Pilgrim’s Progress, my Book of Common Prayer, my Bible – all from Aunty Una. She took her religious duties as a godmother seriously and if she gave you a gift, it was going to be along religious lines. Aunty Una married very late in life, sixty maybe. It was so late in life that Graham and I thought it was hilarious, until Graham’s Aunty Nora married even later in life, at sixty-five.
Aunty Una’s husband, Charles Mansford, was lovely, and he helped her with her parents for four years until they died. Aunty Una stopped nursing and finally, she was free to enjoy her married life. Soon after her parents’ death they went to South Africa to visit Aunty Una’s sister and Charles suffered from some kidney problem. They returned to England and he promptly died; they had been married for only five short years. That is when my godmother lost her belief in religion. That was God as far as she was concerned, she was livid with Him.
On leave from Zambia one time we went to Swaythling to see her as we hadn’t heard from her for my birthday – most unusual, and I said, “I’d like to take you out for lunch Una, where shall we go?”
“Oh, to so and so,” came the vague reply. When we went to order from the menu, she said, “Oh you choose darling.” Graham thought she was a bit strange, and I thought she was maybe showing the early signs of dementia. A week later I received a letter from her neighbour which read, ‘We did notice you took your godmother out and thought we should just let you know, she has started to show signs of dementia’. It wasn’t so bad; she just seemed a bit odd as she had always been so cut and dried having been the matron of a big hospital. We understand her sister Pat came over and whisked Aunty Una away to South Africa. Two years later we tried to reach her through the address and telephone number we were given, but nothing. To this day we have no idea what happened to my godmother Aunty Una.
Aunty Peggy, always known as ‘Putney Peg’
My other godmother, Peggy Wigens, was one of five sisters and she married Philip Smalley who came with his own fascinating history. Peggy had a twin sister, Betts, in Canada; and another sister Cath, lived with a very avant-garde, broken-tooth, crazy Irishman from Northern Ireland – he looked like the comedian Charlie Drake. I don’t really know what her other sisters did. Peggy wasn’t a nurse, but she met Mummy through somebody else. She’d lost her first fiancé; he was a rear gunner in a bomber that was shot down over Germany in World War Two.
It was Peggy’s parents who took me and my mother in when we moved from Wales. My mother was almost destitute, and Peggy looked after her in Folkestone where the Wigens family lived, and where I lived for the first ten years of my life. Folkestone is a cross-channel port town. Peggy was extraordinarily kind and generous. Peggy then moved with Philip to live in St Goar Cottage, Manfred Road, Putney in London. It was the most amazing cottage with a beautiful triangular garden and a whole row of garages. They drove their own old, black, London taxi that we travelled in everywhere. This was hugely exciting for me because by this time we were living in Morehall Avenue in Folkestone; a household with no vehicle as Mummy never learnt to drive. My mother was still living on three pounds a week, the war-widows’ pension. We were fortunate in as much as I inherited money from my great-aunt and grandparents, but it was in trust until I turned twenty-one. Out of the trust my mother was able to claim all my clothing, school uniforms and school fees as I attended a private school; she managed incredibly well, but she herself only had three pounds a week. If we went anywhere, we walked, bussed or went on the train, that’s how most people managed in those days.
We often visited St Goar Cottage where Peggy and Philip lived, by train from Folkestone. Peggy and Philip were always very welcoming; he was a very clever fellow. Philip was demobbed after the war and with his gratuity he procured a Brownie Box camera and started taking photographs of holidaymakers whilst walking up and down the seafront at Folkestone. Very few people owned cameras then. He would have the photos developed and then sell them to the holidaymakers before they left at the end of their holiday. He ended up with a massive photo works in Putney, but it was in Folkestone that he met Peggy. When she and Philip eventually decided to move out of London, St Goar Cottage was featured in Country Life magazine. It was the most desirable property in the middle of Putney with a lot of land and when they sold it, they made a good deal of money.
Philip had an exciting naval history during the war and was a talented potter. He was taught by Bernard Leach, the famous potter; then he took up painting cityscapes, and when he retired, he turned his hand to growing grapes at their home, Green Pastures, near the village of Holton in Somerset. Philip built a vine house and, having now taken up mosaic work laid the largest mosaic seen in Great Britain for centuries. The theme was Bacchus, the Roman God of Agriculture, Wine and Fertility, and the Mosaic Society of Britain came to view it and have lunch in their espaliered orchard. Philip gave the grapes to a local wine maker and asked for three hundred and sixty-five bottles each year for himself, one for every day! Peggy didn’t drink as she possessed a very delicate constitution.
Philip never spoke of his time during the war, but about twenty years before he died, he thrust a sheaf of papers into Graham’s hand, and said, “I know you’re interested. Read this but we won’t discuss it.” He had volunteered for the navy on the outbreak of war and joined as an ordinary seaman. He was on the battleship HMS Prince of Wales when the battlecruiser HMS Hood, pride of the Royal Navy, was sunk by the Bismarck. He was one of only sixteen people on deck who watched the disaster unfold and had to go before a naval board to describe what he had witnessed. He was still on the HMS Prince of Wales when she sailed out to help protect Singapore together with the battlecruiser HMS Repulse. They were both sunk by Japanese bombers, but Philip survived and was taken into Singapore. He was incredibly lucky as he and other survivors were put onto a tramp steamer going to Ceylon, just days before the Japanese invaded Singapore which was considered ‘the impregnable fortress’. He spent the rest of the war as a naval diver in Ceylon.
The inscription at the bottom of the memorial reads:
Our P/1 pom-pom gun was useless as the hydraulics had gone, so we stood around watching the Japs hit us with bombs and torpedoes. The call “Abandon Ship” had me running forward and I jumped off right at the bows into very oily water, we got into clear water only to go back at the cry of ‘sharks’. I was picked up by HMS Electra.
– Philip Smalley HMS Prince of Wales