An Illustrated Family History Archive

The Pritchard Family

From the Black Country to Australia

© 2014 Garen C. Ewing. Last updated: Jun 2016
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Family stories

My mum had always told me that she was "one-quarter Welsh", but had never elaborated. Looking into the family history a few years after she passed away I decided this must be because her grandmother, Alice, was a Pritchard, and Pritchard is a Welsh name (Ap Richard, 'son of Richard').

Alice wasn't actually born in Wales, she was born over 200 miles away to the northeast in the coal fields of Easingtson, Durham, one of twelve children born to Benjamin Pritchard, a coal miner, and his wife Elizabeth. After a phone call to my great-auntie Noreen (Alice's youngest daughter) in August 2000, I had a few more stories about the Pritchards ...

There still seemed to be some resentment, perhaps inherited from Alice, that Benjamin and Elizabeth along with many of their children had gone off to Australia after the Great War. Alice had apparently found out they were going by accident, from their estate agent - who also happened to be a neighbour. Her father told her off for telling everybody they were leaving the country, despite the fact it was actually the gossiping neighbour! Alice was ill for three months after they'd gone.

The other main story concerned one of Benjamin's Pritchard forebears. Apparently the family had owned a very prosperous mine in Wales, but our ancestor was plied with alcohol and tricked into selling the mine for £100, leading to devastation of the 'family fortunes'.

Dudley and its iron and coal works from Dudley Castle, 1853

A murder, a collier and a huckster

I haven't yet found a Welsh origin for the Pritchards. Benjamin's father, Henry Joseph Pritchard, was born in Wellington, Shropshire (27 miles from the Welsh border), and his father, John, a collier of Coal Pit Bank, married his mother, Adey Aston, there in April 1814. A number of children were born to this couple, but as Adey's name is recorded in so many variations (from Adelaide to Hadegum), it's all still a bit fuzzy and unconfirmed at this stage. Adey's parents were Stephen Aston and Rose Holmes - the Holmes can be traced back at Oakengates into at least the 1680s.

At the start of the 1850s John Pritchard was an overlooker at the Cow Wood iron mine at Red Lake. On the morning of 6th December 1851 he was first into the basket to be let down the pit, as he was every morning, along with fellow overlooker Thomas Hayward and a mine boy of 14, Thomas Rigby. Suddenly, just 20 feet down, the rope snapped and all three plummeted 140 feet to their deaths. It was discovered that the rope had been deliberately cut, but no culprit could be identified. At the inquest the chartermaster, William Vaughan, suggested some suspicion upon a temporary worker called Enoch Archer, though it should also be noted that Vaughan was the last man to leave the pit the previous night, and five years later he himself was found guilty of manslaughter after he deliberately dropped a heavy timber down the pit shaft, killing Samuel Rigby, Thomas's older brother - he was imprisoned for just one month.

John's son, Henry, was in Netherton, Dudley by 1839, and was living there and working as a coal miner when he married Esther Gill just two days before Christmas of that year. Esther was the 17-year old daughter of Benjamin Gill and Sarah Spittle. The Spittles were a Dudley family, going back through Moses Spittle to John and Elizabeth, married in 1776. Many of them were involved in the nail-making industry, and some were residents of the eponymously named Spittles Fold, Dudley.

I know of ten children born to Henry and Esther at Sweet Turf, all between 1842 and 1865: Hannah (who married Benjamin Whitehouse and had family in Dudley), Mary, Thomas (who may have been a soldier), Sarah, Benjamin (my gg-grandfather, who moved to Durham and married Elizabeth Anne Bagnall in 1876), Esther (who married Joseph Broster in 1874 and had family in Dudley), Joseph, Henry, Eliza, and John Thomas (a shoemaker who married Sarah Elizabeth Cooksey in 1889 and moved north to Barrow on the Furness peninsula).

In 1862 something happened to Henry Joseph Pritchard which may or may not be the spark of reality that lit the story of the "prosperous Welsh mine". He and his partner, Thomas Biggs, under the business name of Biggs and Pritchard, were declared bankrupt (Esther's brother, Thomas Gill, of Gill and Sons, was also named). Henry was described as a butty collier, a huckster [small trader], and a shopkeeper.

A butty collier was not necessarily a popular man - he didn't own the mine, but was paid by the owner to employ groups of miners to work the seam, paying them himself, though not always in cash - sometimes it was in the form of goods at inflated prices from his own store. This was also known as the 'truck' or 'tommy' system. My own gggg-grandfather, Abraham Bagnall (whose granddaughter would marry Benjamin Pritchard), a miner, was fined for participating in a riot against just this system in early 1832.

Henry carried on as a coal and ironstone miner, but four years later, in 1866, Esther died of bronchitis, aged just 44 and with her youngest child just about to turn one. Henry remarried eight months afterwards to Elizabeth Hubball, though he was widowed again within a few years. Henry himself died from bronchial asthma, common to many coal workers, in May 1888 in Dudley.

Ben and Elizabeth Pritchard in Durham, c.1884

A five-bar gate and the shooting of Colonel Thoms

My gg-grandfather, Benjamin Pritchard, had moved to Durham by 1876 where he married Elizabeth Bagnall at Shotton. The Bagnalls had hailed from the same general area of the West Midlands as the Pritchards, though by the time of the 1871 census Elizabeth's father, Henry Bagnall, had moved the family to Haswell Moor.

In 1877, after one child had died in infancy, twins were born to the couple named Benjamin and Esther (the girl after Ben's mother), and ten more children would follow in the next twenty years: John Henry, Winifred Page (named after Elizabeth's mother), Rachel (after Elizabeth's younger sister), Thomas Page (after an uncle), Alice (my g-grandmother), Clara Jane Page, Edith Salome (Salome came from one of Benjamin's Pritchard aunts), Joseph Wilfred, Walter Ebeneezer and George Gilbert (Gilbert was Elizabeth's maternal grandmother's maiden name).

By 1901 the family had made a big move west to Chorley in Lancashire. Benjamin still worked as a miner here, and later ran the post office at Birkacre where some of the daughters helped with delivery of the letters. It was said that Benjamin was a renowned athlete, able to stand by a five-bar gate and jump right over it!

The first of his children to marry was John Henry Pritchard, to Margaret Catherine Moon in Durham in 1902. In 1905, a few months after the birth of their first child, John and Maggie emigrated to the USA, settling in Booneville, Arkansas.

Sadly, things did not go too well for John and his family. By 1910 they had lost three children and John himself died in Booneville in May 1914. Maggie returned to England, losing another son, Lewis, in 1915. In 1918 Maggie died, leaving just her 10-year old son, George Wilfred Pritchard, to be brought up by her family in Hartlepool. In his early 20s, after a failed marriage, George returned to the US and married again, so, more happily, a US branch of the Pritchards still live there today through his two daughters.

The Post Office, Birkacre, Chorley, at the time of the Pritchards

Next to marry was the third daughter, Rachel, to James Alfred Large in 1904. They had one daughter, Nellie, before James died in 1906, upon which Rachel returned to Chorley to live with her parents. She married again, to Joseph Beddows, and had three more girls, one dying in infancy, one marrying and moving to the Channel Islands, and another staying in Lancashire.

Eldest son Benjamin Pritchard had the next wedding, marrying Maria Hele Bell in Wigan in 1906. Before that, at the turn of the century, he was working as a gardener at Haigh Hall, seven miles south of Chorley and the home of the Earls of Balcarres. This leads on to another tale told to me by my great-auntie Noreen, not concerning Ben, but his younger brother, Joseph - known by his second name of Wilfred ...

John Henry Pritchard and Maggie Moon, and Benjamin Pritchard and Maria Bell
As a young man Wilfred had been a footman "at Haigh Hall, the home of a military family and Colonel Thoms". One day the Colonel accidentally shot himself in the head but miraculously survived. Wilfred's sister (and Noreen's mother), Alice, had "helped the doctor sew the bits and pieces together again"!

Looking into this I think this must refer to one William James Thom, Colonel of the 3rd Lancashire Volunteer Artillery and a director of the Birkacre Colliery Company, who had his home and land at Burgh Hall in Birkacre, not the slightly further away Haigh Hall (of the Lindsay family). I have not been able to find any news reports concerning a shooting accident, though Colonel Thom certainly had shooting rights on his own land and saw a number of poachers in court.

Sailing south, soldiers and objectors

Ben's younger sister, Winifred, married Charles Smith at Coppull, just outside Birkacre, in 1907. Charles was a Boer war veteran and had also served with the South African Constabulary. They had two daughters in England before leaving for Australia in 1912.

35 French Street, Bentley, Doncaster Higsons and Pritchards c.1916
The next Pritchard marriage was between my great-grandmother, Alice, and Walter Higson. They had met at a cotton factory (see the story on the Higson page) and lived, at first, in Kelbrook, but by 1915 had moved east to Doncaster in South Yorkshire where their neighbours were Alice's parents and unmarried siblings, and where the couple added four more children to the two already born.

Benjamin and Maria didn't have any children, but Ben is thought to be the first of the Pritchard children to have emigrated to Australia, in November 1911, with his wife following a year later once he'd established himself. He ran a herb farm in Byford, supplying mint for confectioners.

Brother and sister Thomas and Edith were next to emigrate. They boarded the P&O steamer Geelong at London in December 1911, arriving in Melbourne on Valentine's Day, 1912. A month later Winifred, Charles, and their two daughters, travelled to Liverpool and boarded the Irishman - the first ship specially chartered by the Australian government at Victoria to bring emigrants to the antipodean colony. The Irishman was a White Star steamer, and just after it passed Table Bay at the Cape, in April 1912, one of its sister ships engraved itself into history when it collided with an iceberg and sank on its way to New York. It was, of course, RMS Titanic. Thankfully the Irishman encountered no such mishap, arriving safely at Melbourne in May 1912.

The Great War saw a number of Pritchards involved in the armed services. Thomas, now in Australia, served as a sapper with the 16th (5th Section) Light Rail Operating Company. This saw him back in England in July 1917, where he was able to visit his family, and in France in October. In January 1918 he married Elizabeth Ann Hindle in Preston and they had a daughter, Clara, just a couple of weeks before Armistice Day. He returned to Australia in July 1919 with his wife and child and went on to expand their family with four more.

Walter Pritchard enlisted with the East Yorkshire Regiment in October 1915 (he married in the last months of the conflict, to Frances Harriet Parsons, in Woking, Surrey), while his younger brother, George (known by his second name of Gilbert) served with the 4th and 5th Royal Fusiliers and was wounded in action in France. Wilfred was strongly opposed to the idea of fighting and made an appeal for exemption as a conscientious objector on religious grounds. His appeal was turned down and he was assigned to the Non-Combatant Corps but was soon imprisoned in Durham Gaol for 112 days in 1916 for disobeying orders.

4th Bttn. Royal Fusiliers c.1915 - George Gilbert Pritchard stands in front of the rope on the left

In December 1919, with the war a year gone and just five days before Christmas, the estate agent's news came to pass and Alice's parents, Benjamin and Elizabeth, and the remaining unmarried siblings, Wilfred, Clara and Gilbert, left for Gravesend to board the Indarra for a new life in Australia (Indarra was the vessel that Tom had returned to Australia in a few months earlier). They already had four of their children and their families out there, but the story goes that Clara suffered from St. Vitus' Dance (Sydenham's chorea) and her doctor had advised that the Australian climate would be better for her. (Another story, probably more likely, says that she had an episode of rheumatic fever as a child which left her with a weakened heart.) The Indarra took them via Gibraltar, Toulon, Naples, Port Said, Colombo and on to Melbourne, where they arrived on the first day of February 1920.

Home and away

That left four of the Pritchard children in England, but soon there would be just three after Walter and his new wife, Frances, followed his parents to Melbourne aboard the Commonwealth, arriving in July 1920. The couple had sadly lost a baby the year before they left, but a few months after their arrival Gilbert Henry Pritchard was born, with two brothers following in the next few years. Gilbert would become a horticulturist and worked as the Superintendent of Parks and Gardens in Portland from 1949 up until three years before his death in 1985.

Advert in the Chelmsford Chronicle 12 Dec 1919
showing the departure of Indarra, 20 Dec
Most of the Pritchards found homes around Melbourne in Victoria, though some later moved westward to Perth and its environs. When Benjamin and Elizabeth first arrived, they stayed with Winifred and her family at their cottage, Beulah (named from the Book of Isaiah, meaning 'married'), in Portland. Later Ben found work as the caretaker at Maretimo House, overlooking Portland harbour, and living in the cottage there. Elizabeth died in 1924 and Ben three years later, in 1927.

Family lore says that Ben had cured Clara of her St. Vitus by grinding mistletoe into a liquid and giving her a spoonful a day. After he died, Clara moved in with Gilbert at Manjimup in Western Australia, but sadly she died from consumption just three months after her father, aged 37. One of the nurses at Jardee Hospital, where Clara was cared for, was Mabel Florence Greaves (Maylie), and she and Gilbert married in 1928.

Gilbert made a living by making jewellery from the semi-precious stones he hunted in the outback (he had studied jewellery making at Sheffield Art College). At one point he bought a farm very close to one owned by his brother, Wilfred. Wilfred, an artist, had also studied at Sheffield Art College and while there had met a girl from Styrrup, Nottinghamshire, Ivy Caroline Gregory. They married in Perth in 1921 - two weeks after she arrived in Australia. He died in 1947, aged just 54, leaving five children with the Pritchard name.

Alice stayed in Doncaster, in the old family home in French Street, and died there in 1973, aged 86. See the Higson page for more details on her family.

Despite the apparently strained circumstances under which Alice's parents left Doncaster in 1920, the family kept in touch. After great-aunt Noreen died in 2006, the last of Alice's children, I was kindly given a box of her photographs, many sent by the various Pritchard families in Australia. They had obviously been kept and treasured (as they are treasured now). In my own family album I have a couple of photos of a visit to my grandparents in the early 1970s with an elderly Gilbert and Maylie Pritchard. Today the Australian connection has all but broken, though I'm pleased to say a few threads have been retied, even if just very lightly, thanks to the Internet.

Alice Higson, née Pritchard, c.1970

Research into the Pritchard family is ongoing but I would like to thank all those distant relatives who got in touch and shared information.

If you have further information, stories or photos, or are a family member who would like to know more, please get in touch.

All photographs are originals from my own collection.