“Living over the brush” most people, these days, recognise as a saying relating to a couple living together as man and wife who have not gone through a legal marriage ceremony. There are several suggestions as to where this saying originated. Does it have British Romani origins where a couple would literally jump over a broom, allegedly? Or has it come down from African American culture during the slave trade? However the saying started it is one I have thought of many times in relation to one of my maternal 2xgreat grandparents, William Barnacle and Jane Harrison. Numerous attempts to find a record of their marriage have drawn a total blank.
On the birth certificate of my great grandfather Frank Barnacle in 1865, his parents are clearly stated as William Barnacle and Jane Barnacle formerly Harrison. This certainly infers that they were married. William’s occupation is noted as ‘Watch Finisher’. Going forward to Frank’s marriage certificate in 1889 his father’s name again is confirmed as William Barnacle ‘Watch Motioner’.
Looking at the census returns of 1871 and 1881 Frank appears as a 6 and 15 year old respectively, living with his parents in Coventry. Both of these censuses have Jane listed as William’s wife and William employed in the Watchmaking trade. Watchmaking in Coventry enjoyed a peak period between about 1850 and 1890. In fact Coventry was the third watchmaking centre in England behind London and Liverpool. Quite a few of my Coventry forebears were employed in the industry.
Looking at the census returns before Frank’s birth I was able to find William and Jane on the 1861 census. They are at the same address as 10 years later, Spon Street, Coventry. William is a Watchmaker and Jane a Silk Winder. Again these occupations tie in with the 1871 census. So I’m sure a have the right couple and yes, Jane is listed as William’s wife.
If a marriage did take place, it would have been sometime before 1855, assuming they married before having any children but I have found in the past not to assume this. In 1861 they already had two children, Emily aged 6 and Thomas aged 8 months.
Going back in time to the 1851 census William and Jane are both still single living with their parents and siblings. William’s occupation is given as ‘Watch Motioner Apprentice’ and his age of 17 years fits in with his age on subsequent censuses. So do I now have the name of his parents, Thomas and Sarah Barnacle. Of course this is why a marriage certificate would be most helpful as it would confirm his father’s name. Likewise for Jane’s father, who I believe to be Joseph Harrison who in 1851 was living with his wife Amelia and their four children including Jane aged 17 and a ‘Silk Winder’.
Using the census information I have found William’s baptism at St.John’s, Coventry on 10 March 1834. His parents Thomas and Sarah Barnacle are living in Spon Street and his father’s occupation is a ‘Watch Maker’. Jane’s baptism I found in the England and Wales, Non-Conformist and Non-Parochial Registers, 1567-1970. I have a little more information for her than William as the register is more detailed. Jane was born on 28 August 1833 in the parish of St.Martin in Birmingham.and she was baptised on 02 January 1834 at Vicar Lane Independent in Coventry. Her parents were Joseph Harrison and his wife Amelia Jane.
The first census both William and Jane appear on is for 1841. William just 5 years old is with his parents and 5 brothers and 1 sister in Spon Street. His father is a Watch Maker so it appears William followed his father into that trade. Jane aged 8 is living with her parents in Spon End and her father is a Wood Turner. There are three more censuses that the couple appear on after their son Frank has left home to marry and start his own family. The 1891 census is strange in that they do not appear to be living together. Jane is found at 8 Chauntry Place which is where they appear to be living at the time of Frank’s marriage but she is alone, still stated as being married and working as a Charwoman. William I found in a lodging house in Spon Street.By 1901 the couple are reunited living in Birmingham with their daughter Rose, her husband John Clarke and two daughters Beatrice and Rose. William’s occupation has changed to Cycle Machinist. The watch trade in Coventry started to slump with the arrival of cheaper watches from America and Switzerland. However by the 1911 census William is back as a Watch Motioner and also back in Coventry with Jane.
Armed with all this information about this couple their marriage still alludes me, if indeed one actually took place. The search continues. Just to end their story Jane died on 26 August 1916. Her age according to her death certificate was 79 and the cause of death was Senile Dementia and Heart Failure. She died in the Workhouse Infirmary. William died just 17 months later on 11 January 1918 at the home of his daughter Alice. Cause of death was Senile Decay and Heart Failure. He was 80 years old.
On Jane’s death certificate it gives her occupation as Wife of William Barnacle. One day I may just track down that marriage until then I will keep asking that question “Are you living over the brush.”