William and Jane Barnacle – Married or Living Over The Brush

“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’.

Frank Barnacle Birth Certificate clearly stating his parent’s names

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.

Interior of a watchmaking workshop about 1891

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.

Baptism record of William Barnacle – Left hand page one up from the bottom.

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.

William Barnacle Death Certificate
Jane Barnacle Death Certificate


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.”


Tears for Jane


I don’t know what I hoped to achieve when I started researching my family history back in 2000. My beloved Dad hadn’t long died and one of the last conversations he had with my mother in law, who had researched her family, was his regret of not keeping in touch with his father when his parents separated. He wondered what had happened to him and asked if this type of research would help him find out. Unfortunately not long after, he suffered a massive heart attack so never did find out. I suppose this got me thinking, I really didn’t know much about my father’s side of the family and my journey began.

I suppose most of us when we start our research wonder how far back we can get but real family history isn’t just about dates and skeletons in the closet, it’s about people, how they lived, what they did and how the world outside the family affected them. My interest in Social History definitely has arisen from all my research.

I would like to tell you about Jane, one of my paternal great grandmothers. It was her who really got me hooked into finding out all I could about my ancestors and what life had been like for them. It was her death certificate dropping through the letter box that set it all off. She was the first of my ancestors that I had managed to trace through her birth, marriage and death certificate and five census returns from a young toddler of 2 years old in 1851 to a 42 year old wife and mother in 1891. It was the 1901 census that gave me the clue to her death having occurred as her husband was listed on that as a widower. Sure enough that day I held her death certificate in my hand and I confess to shedding a tear for this woman I had never met but felt such a connection to. She was just 49 years of age and the cause of death on the certificate was breast cancer and exhaustion. I don’t know why the word exhaustion upset me so much. I probably had this image of a sick woman trying to carry on looking after a young family. Sixteen years later their are so many more names on the chart but what is really important to me is their lives and how they made their way through it all.So this is Jane’s story.

Jane was born on the 23 April 1848 in the lovely Oxfordshire village of Hook Norton. Her parents were James and Elizabeth Hall.She was baptized on 03 July 1848 in the local parish church. James was a Labourer on a farm, Hook Norton was a agricultural community. Elizabeth had already given birth to three other girls and would go on to have two boys after Jane’s birth. So Jane was to grow up in Hook Norton with her sisters and brothers. The 1851 census, when Jane was just 2 confirms James’s occupation as an Agricultural Labourer, the eldest two girls Louisa and Hannah being at school, leaving Jane and her sister Maria at home with Elizabeth.

Jane Hall Birth Certificate

The 1861 census we find Jane still living with her family in Hook Norton. During this year her youngest brother James is born and on a wider scale this is the year that Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert dies.

Eight years later, on 13 September 1869 Jane marries Ellis John Grey. This marriage takes place not in Hook Norton but in Marlowes Chapel, Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire. This was a Baptist Chapel and I have found no connection to the Baptists in either Jane’s or her husbands family. Her husband was registered on the 1861 census as living in Hemel Hempstead. The address given on her marriage certificate was Kings Langley which is 74 miles away from Hook Norton. Had Jane moved to be near her betrothed? Ellis at the time worked for the Post Office as a Rural Messenger. Did the couple meet on one of Ellis’s rounds? On there marriage certificate there is no occupation listed for Jane.

Jane and Ellis’s Marriage Certificate

Two years later, on the 1871 census the couple had moved on to Clifton on Dunsmore in the parish of Rugby in Warwickshire. Ellis had left the Post Office and is now listed as a Railway Policeman. Their first daughter Elena Maria was 11 months old and had been born in Kings Langley before the move. Jane’s occupation is noted as Policeman’s wife.

Jane was to have 10 children altogether. Her second daughter Rosetta was born while she was living in Clifton on Dunsmore. During the mid 1870’s the couple were on the move again to Nottinghamshire. Five of Jane’s children would be born here including my Grandfather, James George William Grey.

By 1881 Jane’s husband is now a Railway Signalman and the couple are living in the Railway Gatehouse at Linby in Nottinghamshire. On the census of that year we actually see an occupation listed for Jane as a Dressmaker. There are at this time 6 children in the family. Elena and Rosetta have been joined by Ellis John, Annie Christina Florence, Jane Elizabeth and Hilda Lilian.It wouldn’t be long before Jane was pregnant again with my Grandfather who was born in 1883.

The 1891 census is the last time we will see Jane. She is 42 years old and the couple are back in Hertfordshire in the village of Kensworth. Her husband has two jobs that of Publican and Farm Labourer. Jane has had two more children Laurence Percy and Septimus Henry since the move and was pregnant again with Camellia Violetta who would be born in December of that year. Why the move? It would have bought her closer to Hook Norton Just some 50 miles away. Her father had died in 1882 leaving her mother with a 22 acre farm to manage. Could it be they thought they could help out being nearer?

Five years later in 1897 Jane died on 09 November back in her home village of Hook Norton where her widowed husband settled. On her death certificate her occupation is listed as Wife of Ellis John Grey, Farmer. They must have made the move back to help with the family farm or was Jane’s health the reason? The cause of death was Scirrhous of Breast (Breast Cancer) and Exhaustion. She had died with her husband at her side aged just 49. Her youngest child was just a month short of her sixth birthday. The Hook Norton Parish Register has her burial date as the 15 November 1897.

Death Certificate for Jane Grey nee Hall

She would have seen three of her daughters marry but would not be there for the marriages of six of her other children. Nor would she witness the death of one of her sons during World War One.

The lovely Oxfordshire Village of Hook Norton