16 January 2017

There's Something About Mary - A Tyneside Tragedy

For this week's Ancestory Story, I've chosen to write about the life of my great, great, great grandmother, Mary Thompson. I started researching Mary in 2007 and in doing so quickly hit one of those dreaded brick walls that I just couldn't even climb, let alone knock down altogether.  So before I start on her story, I will explain exactly what problem I encountered when I started to find out more about her.

When I ordered the birth certificate of my great, great grandmother Mary T. Peel in 2007, it came back stating that she was born in November 1874 in East Howdon, near Newcastle in the northeast of England. Her parents were recorded here as James Peel and Mary Peel Snr, nee Thompson.

Yet, when I tried to find a marriage for these parents, I couldn't, even after thorough searches of all the registration indexes. The only rather curious entry was for a James Peel and a Mary Turnbull, which was registered in early 1874 in the very same district (Tynemouth). Given this coincidence and even though Mary's surname was not the same one I had, I ordered the certificate and sure enough, the bride certainly appeared to be the same Mary. Her approximate year of birth (1850)  matched that to my Mary Peel in the 1881 census, the first census taken after the 1874 marriage.

Marriage certificate for James Peel and Mary 'Turnbull' at St. Nicholas' church, Newcastle (now Newcastle Cathedral).



 As the certificate shows, Mary was a Turnbull. We know that because her father is a Turnbull and she's a spinster. The 1871 census, taken three years before, tells us that James was running a pub in East Howdon called the Jenny Lind Inn, and if local newspaper reports are anything to go by, ran it rather well too. But this census throws up yet another mystery, because Mary isn't listed as a daughter at all. In fact, she's a Thompson again and is listed as a servant. Going back a further ten years still to the 1861 census, she is listed on that as James' niece!

I almost gave up with that, but after some perseverance and some help, I now know where 3x great gran Mary came from...

* * *

The truth as we now know it is this. Mary was born a Thompson, but she was raised as a Turnbull. As the graphic below shows, she was born in 1850 to Jane Thompson, an unmarried servant girl who was in fact Mary Turnbull's older sister.


Prior to giving birth to Mary, Jane Thompson had sadly found herself unable to manage, particularly as a pregnant woman without a husband. As this was a big social stigma at the time and her parents Robert and Jane had died years earlier, Jane was left with little alternative than to enter Tynemouth Workhouse in the city of Newcastle. It was here that she gave birth to Mary on May 3rd 1850.

Tynemouth Workhouse main building as photographed in the 1950's
Jane and Mary must have stayed in the Workhouse for some time, for they can be found there almost a year later on the 1851 census, listed as paupers. Interestingly, Jane's occupation is 'servant', meaning that was probably her job before entering the poorhouse. Perhaps she may have had a fling with the master of the house? Who knows...


Mary's father is not listed on her birth certificate, so sadly I'll probably never know the identity of my biological 4x great grandfather on this side.

Although the exact circumstances of what happened next are not known, I do know that Mary went into the care of her mother's sister with the same name and she and her husband James Turnbull raised her as her own, even employing her as a barmaid in the family house, The Jenny Lind Inn. Given the fact that Mary never knew her real father and James Turnbull had raised her as his own, it is not surprising that when she got married to James Peel in 1874, she put uncle James down as her father, and thus changed her name to Turnbull.

With James Peel, Mary had a total of eight children. She never forgot the kindness of the Turnbull's for raising her as their own and giving her all of the love and opportunity their own natural children got too. James and Mary Turnbull went on to have many children of their own too, so although on paper the family would appear somewhat broken, they were all very close and had a warm childhood in the Jenny Lind. This is evident by the fact that Mary's first son was given the name James Turnbull Peel when he was born in 1881.

Next, however, something rather strange happens in Mary's life, and it's only thanks to recently digitised newspapers on www.britishnewspaperarchive.com that I know about it.

On Friday, April 17th 1891, the Shields Daily News reported that Mary Peel was up in court in North Shields for assaulting her neighbour, Jane Lydon. It sees that the press even back then still had a knack for misspelling surnames, as the lady in question was in fact Jane Leighton. A look at the 1891 census, taken just six days before the incident was alleged to have taken place, tells us that this undoubtedly refers to my Mary.

As a side-note, the man who would become my 2x great grandfather, William Reay, is living in the house in between them.

The 1891 census for East Howdon showing Nos. 12 - 14 Pit Row


Although only a recent find, after viewing the holdings of Tyne & Wear Archives it appears that any further information on trails and offences at this time in North Tyneside have not survived, meaning this could well be all we have to gain an insight into just what happened. It seems like it came down to Mary's word against Jane's, and the jury found Mary to be guilty. Something must have led Mary to assault her with a rock, and if the curse used by Mary against her is accurate, it may well have had something to do with drink. Although one thing I am not too sure about is whether it was the mother or daughter that Mary assaulted.

This was an interesting time for Mary to have committed this alleged offence, for soon after she became pregnant with her final child, John Peel.  She had had a son called John before but sadly lost him in infancy. So that census image above gives a little insight into what was a fairly busy time in the Peel household!

Mary gave birth to John prematurely 125 years ago today at the Peel family home at 14 Pit Row, Howdon. She had not expected to give birth to him so soon and he was born prematurely. During this traumatic process, despite the fact that Mary had done it seven times before, she haemorrhaged and died, aged just 42. Cruelly, as premature as he was, John never made it either. His death certificate records he was just five minutes old. In the space of about ten minutes, James lost them both.


Mary and John were buried in Preston Cemetery, in North Shields on January 19th 1892. Their burial entry in the books of Preston tell us that they were buried together in the same coffin, and that even though he remarried after her death and been widowed again in 1916, James Peel was buried with them when he died in 1917. Interestingly, he did not purchase the grave until 1906, indicating that perhaps the grave was paid for originally by someone else. I suspect the Turnbull's of the Jenny Lind may have paid for Mary to be buried, which I find somewhat fitting.

* * *

When I first came across Mary, her life was a complete mystery. I have always found Tynemouth a difficult area to research, even more so for the fact that I was trying to track down a name like Thompson there. And that's before even uncovering the mystery of Mary's birth in the first place. 

But after 125 years Mary's story is now known and recorded to hand down to whatever generations come after me, if any. And in some way I suppose if it were not for the kindness and love that James and Mary Turnbull showed her when they took her in and raised them as her own, Mary may not have survived at all. Following on from that, I suppose my family owe them a lot. They probably gave her more of a home than her own mother Jane ever could. 

So, finally, the only obvious question you're probably wanting to know is, what exactly did happen to Mary's mother, Jane?

The answer to that is short: I don't know. No death seems to 'fit' in the area and she certainly didn't die in the Workhouse. A marriage in 1862 to a man called Thomas Routledge is certainly a good fit as her age and father's name are also accurate, but unless other clues present themselves, I cannot know for certain. But I do wonder if Jane ever saw Mary again after their time together in the Workhouse, or if the Turnbull's even knew what happened to her.

Something for a rainy day, perhaps...


Thank you to my distant cousin, who I know would not like to be named but who also blogs about his family history. He is a descendant of James Turnbull's sister Margery and helped me find Mary's true parentage. You can view his fascinating blog here, which he keeps updated quite regularly too: http://intertwiningbranchesfh.blogspot.co.uk/