John Edward Molloy: the Pedestrian

Recently I’ve been digging into my wife’s family history and uncovering several very interesting ancestors. One that I’ve been fascinated by is John Edward Molloy, whose story will take up more than one blog post.

My wife’s ancestor John Edward Molloy was born 27 April 1802 in Surrey, now South London, and christened at St George the Martyr parish church on Borough High Street in Southwark 6 weeks later on the 6th June, one of 13 children baptised that day. His parents were John Molloy and Elizabeth.

The baptism register tells us nothing about John and Elizabeth and there don’t appear to be any other children of that marriage baptised in the same church. They may be the John Molloy and Elizabeth Bonner who applied for a marriage license for St Mary le Strand parish in 1786.

In addition, a Cordelia Elizabeth Molloy (born April 21st) was baptised at St Pancras Old Church Camden on 9 Sept 1807 to a John and Elizabeth Molloy.

The next reference to John Edward Molloy is his marriage in 1823 (31st August) to Ann Wood in St Pancras Parish Chapel. He is a bachelor and she a spinster.

John and Ann’s first child appears to have been Elizabeth who was born about 1828. Elizabeth was recorded in the 1841 census enumerators book as being born in ‘Scotland, Ireland or Foreign Parts’ as was her mother Ann and younger sister Emma. At least that’s how it appears although the mark in that column is unclear and may be some sort of check mark. Subsequent censuses show John’s wife Ann as being born in Bromley, Kent.

There followed seven more children between 1830 and 1847. Five of them were baptised on the same day  at St Giles in the Fields Holborn on 9 October 1843. One, Charles had already died – at the age of 2 years 10 months in 1837. He had been born on the 11th May 1834 according to the baptism entry of 21 March 1837 at St Ann’s Soho where he was buried less than two weeks later. We can assume that young Charles was very ill when he was baptised and that John and Ann did not expect him to survive.

Charles’s baptism in 1837 lists John’s occupation as a shoemaker. But he also had a side-line, as recorded in the Hereford Times July 7th 1838.



This is the first of many references I’ve found in the British Newspaper Archive to Molloy’s walking feats. In the mid nineteenth century such endeavours were incredibly popular and this sport, an early form of race walking was known as pedestrianism. One of the early exponents was called ‘Captain’ Barclay and his record of walking a mile every hour for a thousand successive hours was something of a landmark. Molloy clearly bettered it in his efforts on Bromley Common, as reported in the Coventry Herald :



I love the idea that this feat was made even more difficult by not drinking alcohol!

The following month he attempted to walk one thousand miles in one thousand successive half-hours at the cricket ground in Camberwell but was unsuccessful. Undeterred, Molloy continued to perform feats of walking (and running) endurance over the next few months and years.

In September 1838 for example, it was reported in the Chelmsford Chronicle that he had successfully completed the task of walking 400 miles in six days while abstaining from strong spirits:

“He says the best regimen for a pedestrian is beefsteaks and wine, dividing the four ordinary meals into eight. To eat little but often is the maxim. Malt liquor and ardent spirits, he says, will knock a man up.”

His achievements spread to more than distance walking, like other pedestrians he built up a repertoire of novelty skills to retain the public’s attention. On one occasion in 1840 he undertook to walk 20 miles, run one mile, walk backwards one mile, trundle a hoop one mile, wheel a barrow one mile and pick up 40 stones with his mouth one yard apart, all in five hours!

On the 5th July 1840 ‘The Era’ reported on plans for Molloy’s latest match:



and the outcome was also reported:



And how wonderful to get a description of the man and what he was wearing: a slight built man, 39 years of age and the father of a large family,

‘he was dressed in a silk Guernsey, long tight drawers, belt, with a crimson handkerchief around his waist, crimson silk cap and a very neat pair of side laced boots’.

By 1842 John Molloy’s son Henry was starting to take part in walking events, at the age of 12. Usually appearing with his father.

In 1843, Molloy was once again taking on the 1000 miles in a thousand successive hours exploit which he had surpassed in 1838. The Morning Post  believed this to be something that no-one had done since Captain Barclay, although there are many reports of others achieving this as well as Molloy. On the face of it one mile each hour doesn’t seem too difficult, but the endurance element was explained thus:

“This wearisome task to perform which will occupy six weeks, night and day, wanting eight hours… has not been accomplished by anyone except Captain Barclay.” Molloy was described as of “middle height, and is an eight stone four man, of forty two years of age.”

Taking six weeks to perform the task certainly had to be worth Molloy’s while. He was still ostensibly a shoemaker, being described as such in the 1843 and 1845 Post Office Directories and at the marriage of his daughter Elizabeth in 1845. Pedestrian events though were heavily wagered on and many of the most successful participants became quite well off. Molloy along with many others was a professional! It’s not known how much money Molloy made from most of these feats but it was certainly enough to allow him to stop working as a shoemaker and to spend large amounts of his time competing.

In 1845 Molloy again made the papers when he completed a run across the seven bridges over the Thames and round St James’s Park, this was reported to be a distance of seven and three quarter miles, in fifty-five minutes.

There are a number of reported races where the two Molloy’s appeared together. In August 1845, Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper reported on the Molloy’s loss of a match against the Powell’s (also father and son) at Bedfont, West London. In 1847 the same paper recounted how the Molloy’s had earned more than 35 sovereign’s between them for walking 50 miles each in 12 hours on Edgware Road.

These pedestrian matches were often set up following a challenge in one of the popular papers. The match against the Powells for example followed the Molloys issuing of a challenge to any father and son in England to compete with them walking for 12 hours for 25 to 50 sovereigns a side.

In 1850, several newspapers reported on Molloy senior’s attempt to walk 200 mile in three days at Stroud. His age was variously said to be 41, 50 or 51! He was in fact 47. The Kentish Gazette provided the most complete description with added colour: saying the task was completed for a wager of £30, that “the poor fellow was out of work” and that he started at 5am after a breakfast of coffee and mackerel (which caused him to be sick). However, “the poor fellow, did not, after all, realise so much as he had anticipated.”

Towards the end of his pedestrian career there was a short piece in ‘The Era’ for July 1851, in which he was due to begin a match against Williams to walk a mile an hour every hour until one gave up. As yet I’ve not found a report of the result, but I’ll keep looking. The Era and other papers continued over the next few weeks to report on the ongoing long walks of Searle in Sheffield and Manks in Battersea but Molloy’s name failed to be mentioned for a while. It may be that he failed to maintain the interest of the reporters but in any event he doesn’t appear to have raced much again.

In 1853, there is one final report of a walking match involving ‘Old Molloy’. Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle reported on 27th March that he was due to walk to Cambridge and back in 24 hours, starting at Shoreditch Church.

Although this appears to be the end of Molloy’s walking exploits, he continued to be featured in local papers for other reasons, which I’ll cover in a future blog!

[Images reproduced with kind permission of The British Library Board, images available at Findmypast]


Finding a criminal in the family!

This week, Findmypast released a new set of 1.9 million historic criminal records, spanning 1779-1936, so of course I decided to see if any of my ancestors had a disreputable past. Finding a criminal ancestor is something that lots of family historians find fascinating. Generations of agricultural labourers seems somehow a bit dull so finding someone who broke the rules of society: a petty thief; a drunkard; a fraudster, can spice up the family history.

When I started searching these new records I tried looking for details of those ancestors who I knew had been in trouble in one way or another: Richard Billington had been guilty of an assault; William Dunderdale had spent time in a reformatory and his father had been fined for not paying for his upkeep. But none of them appeared in these new records. So idly, I tried searching for the surnames of those branches of the family who had suffered from poverty for many years to see if any of them had got into trouble, but nothing came up.

But then, continuing my disorganised searching, I put in the surname of my maternal grandmother and up popped a name I recognised: Benjamin Lyon. This was the name of my 4x great grandfather, but he had died in 1876 so this couldn’t be him. The record said this Benjamin Lyon was born in 1870 and the offence appeared to date from 1904 – it’s not a common name and I knew that my Benjamin had several children so perhaps this was a more distant relative. Checking my tree, there was one that seemed to match. Benjamin had a grandson, also Benjamin, born in 1870!

So back to the criminal records I clicked through to look at the transcription which said that Benjamin was a farm foreman and the case had been heard at Lincoln – the area where my Lyon ancestors were from. Clicking through to the image I was slightly horrified to read the particulars of the offence:

“Unlawfully did take one, Isabella Baldwin, an unmarried girl under the age of 18 years, out of the possession of John William Butler, the person who then had the lawful care of her, against the will of the said John William Butler, with the intent that the said Isabella Baldwin should be unlawfully and carnally known by him, the said Benjamin Lyon, at Cold Hanworth, on the 13th day of September, 1904.”

And further, the record said he had pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six months hard labour!

I kind of wished it’d been theft or fraud or even murder in a drunken fight. Perhaps this wasn’t the Benjamin Lyon in my tree, maybe I’d find some fact that didn’t match and then I could forget about it. I checked the British Newspaper Archive at Findmypast to see if the case was reported in the papers, and yes there it was in the Lincolnshire and Sheffield press, firstly at the committal before magistrates in September and then a very short report of the trial at Lincoln assizes in November.

The additional information in the newspapers confirmed the identity of the Benjamin Lyon in my tree, he was the right age, he was married with two children and had worked as a carrier between Harby and Lincoln before becoming a farm foreman – everything fitted.

The newspaper reports provided quite a lot of detail about the incident as recounted in the magistrates hearing.

This is one of the shorter accounts

[Lincolnshire Chronicle 17 Sept 1904 Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED]

[Lincolnshire Chronicle 17 Sept 1904 Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED]

Following his release from prison, Lyon obviously returned to his wife as they appear together in the 1911 census and they had a third child in 1906. I have not been able to find out for sure what happened to Isabella.

[Image reproduced with kind permission of The British Library Board, image available at Findmypast]

Letters from the trenches

When I was a young boy I remember visiting my great aunt and being shown the letters her brother, Arthur, had written home during the first world war. At that time I had little interest in the letters themselves but being a stamp collector, as many young boys were in those days, I was entrusted with the envelopes which I promised to keep intact. Many years later, I read photocopies of the letters themselves (by then deposited with Lancashire Archives) and found them to be largely mundane accounts of the weather, requests for cake or for a broken watch to be sent on once fixed, with the occasional reference to a girlfriend or fellow army private. Not at all the exciting accounts of battle I had expected. I had always known that Arthur had died in the war at the tender age of 18 and even had the envelope marked ‘war grave photographs – do not bend’. Once records were available online I’d checked for Arthur’s service record, which sadly had not survived second world war bombing and had to content myself with a copy of his medal card and the snippet of information available on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website.

Arthur Lancelot Lyon

Arthur Lyon

So all in all, I didn’t know very much about his war service beyond his regiment, service number, date of death and place of burial. However, with the 100th anniversary of the start of the first world war in 2014 and my participation in a workplace project to find out more about the service of those who are commemorated on the Ministry of Labour memorial, I decided to try a little harder to piece together what happened to Arthur.

My starting point has been to re-read those letters, and this time I’ve found them more illuminating. From his medal index card, I knew that he had served in the York and Lancaster Regiment, Hallamshire Battalion and that he had formerly been in the Manchester Regiment. His letters revealed more information: Arthur had written his reply address on the top of each letter, which gave me an indication of where he was at different points in time and which company he was in. This told me that he was in C company, 10 platoon of the 51st graduated battalion of the Manchester Regiment. From the long-long trail website I found out that the battalion was a training battalion formed in 1917. It was clear from the details Arthur included that he had been stationed in England until July 1918, undergoing training at Herringfleet camp near Great Yarmouth before embarking for France on the 16th July and then spending some time at H infantry Base Depot[1]. Now I understood why the letters were mostly concerning small domestic matters, the weather and conditions in camp – he hadn’t at this point been anywhere near the front line but been training, undertaking route marches and exercising. For the most part this must have been a fairly boring (although relatively safe) time for him, and from the sound of his letters home he was keen to get more involved in the action.


one of the envelopes containing a letter home to Arthur’s parents

Round about the beginning of August 1918 Arthur had been sent to join the Hallamshire’s to help make up the numbers they had lost. His letters though remained sparse on the detail of his experiences now he was at the front. On 2nd August he wrote:

We have been having very exciting time lately but I have not been touched yet so I am still whole, and I do not intend to be hurt.

A few days later he said:

France is not a bad place altogether you know, but like every other soldier I would sooner be in Blighty, you see Jerry is a bit too frequent.

Amongst his requests for parkin and questions about the health of his grandma and the baby, Arthur rarely wrote anything about the war itself, at times it seems like he was just away at boy scouts camp. But one comment has intrigued me:

We are still going fine out here as you will see by the papers, what do you think of us getting that red cross train and reserves, not a bad stunt was it?

I must try and find out what that was about!

Arthur’s last letter home was dated 24th September 1918. Following which a letter from his 2nd Lieutenant dated 2nd October told his parents of Arthur’s death in action on 27th September. He had been with the Hallamshire’s only a matter of weeks, finally making it to the front before he was killed during an attack near the village of Ribecourt less than 6 weeks before the end of the war. Like many he had been incredibly unlucky.

A letter from Sgt Marsh to his girlfriend Agnes described how he had found Arthur’s body in a shell hole when advancing behind the infantry, saying: ‘I dare not describe his wounds… but he died instantaneously’, forwarding to her a letter found on his body. Later he wrote to Arthur’s parents describing his wounds in detail. He also described how his body had been moved a few days later:

Two days after I had despatched that letter I saw an Officer with some men come over to where we had found him, and they set to and dug him up, the Officer informing me that he was gradually collecting all the dead of his Regiment and burying them together in the Churchyard outside the village of Ribecourt which was only a few hundred yards away


this letter was returned to Arthur’s parents following his death (note where it says killed in pencil)

Without the family keeping his letters home I wouldn’t have been able to find out what little information I have, which I think demonstrates how important these historical documents are in helping to remember men such as Arthur who made what is often referred to as the ultimate sacrifice. The letters are held by the Lancashire Archives in Preston and the envelopes (with their stamps intact) are here in front of me as I write.

Arthur is buried in Grand Ravine Cemetery, Havrincourt close to Cambrai in northern France.

[1] The IBD was a holding camp. Situated within easy distance of one of the Channel ports, it received men on arrival from England and kept them in training while they awaited posting to a unit at the front. H infantry base depot was in Etaples.

Was my great grandmother a bigamist?

My great grandmother Elizabeth Burscough grew up in poverty in the back courts of Preston Lancashire. She was born in 1856 to William Burscough an engine feeder in a linen factory and Ann Turner a frame tenter, neither of whom could sign their name on the marriage certificate. They lived in Foster’s Square just off Canal Street – a notorious slum area at the time but now demolished and the area occupied by the University. In the Preston Chronicle 21 April 1849 the area is described by H Fearnside MD in his report to the Clerk of the Board of Guardians:

“Here the population is dense, the drainage imperfect, and the accumulation of animal and vegetable refuse often considerable… If fever exists in the town, it is sure to be met with [here].”

Smallpox and Scarlet Fever were particularly prevalent in the area.
Foster’s Square was dominated by the brick malt kilns of Matthew Brown brewers – these buildings were 60 or 70 feet high according to contemporary sources and towered over the neighbouring cottages. In 1872 one of the malt kilns collapsed and destroyed the nearby houses in Foster’s Square, killing two of the malt store employees. One of Elizabeth’s cousins narrowly escaped injury or worse, having just left one of the buried houses moments before.

map of Foster's Square

Foster’s Square 1892

From the 1861 census returns it’s clear that Foster’s Square was crowded, many of the occupants were working in the local cotton mills or other labouring jobs and several of the houses were lodging houses for poor Irish Immigrants. This was the time of the Lancashire cotton famine (1861-5) with widespread lay-offs, wage cuts and mill closures. A crisis that dominated Preston for four years. Times had never been tougher for the working class inhabitants of the town.

During the 1860’s Typhus epidemics tore through the industrial Lancashire towns. And in 1862 when Elizabeth was 6 years old her father died of Typhus fever at the age of 52.

In an article in March 1863 the Chronicle reported on the case of a poor family from Fosters Square under the heading ‘how some people live’: a girl was brought before the magistrates on a charge of begging, her sister accounted how they were in destitute circumstances and must either beg or starve. Further inquiries revealed that the family, three girls and a boy, were fatherless and motherless, living on 5s 6d per week mostly received from the Garstang Union. The Relief Committee had refused to give them anything on the grounds that the oldest girl was considered to be of ‘loose habits’. Elizabeth was not quite in such dire straits, but without a husband Ann and the children had to find a means of support.

In December 1865 the Chronicle reported the comparatively good news that:

“The number of deaths [from smallpox] since the commencement of the disease in the district being only 3,-one a woman aged 36 in Anson’s-square, and a child aged 6 in the same square, and 1 two weeks old, in Foster’s-square. The locality chiefly affected has been that principally occupied by the Irish, as Canal-street, Back Canal-street, Anson’s-square, Foster’s-square, Back Fylde-street, and Hope-street.”

In that year (1865) the parish register for St John’s records six burials of children under 10 living in Fosters Square alone, and there may have been more as not all burial entries included the address of the child.

The census return for 1871 shows that Ann had moved in with her eldest daughter, Mary, and her husband William Fell and was working as a charwoman, while Elizabeth was living in the neighbouring Friday Street as a 15 year old servant in the beer house of Thomas Turner (The Fylde Tavern).

By the time she was 19, Elizabeth had a daughter, Mary Ann born in 1875. On her birth certificate, no father was recorded, but when Mary Ann married in 1896 her father’s name was given as Alexander Ellis, a bolt and screw maker.

By the time of her marriage in 1877 to Richard Seed, Elizabeth was six months pregnant with her second daughter (also Elizabeth) and living at 45 Byron Street, just the other side of St Peter’s Church (now also part of the University) where they were married. Byron Street was the home of her sister Mary and also where her mother was living.

In the 1881 census, Elizabeth was once again in the house of William Fell and his wife Mary along with their mother Ann. Her husband Richard, had gone. He was to be found in the army based at Shorncliffe barracks in Kent! By now, Elizabeth was 25 years old with two young children and another on the way – William her first legitimate child was baptised in November.

It seemed that her marriage was over already, for in 1883 she had a further daughter – Jane, but no father was recorded on the birth certificate. Elizabeth and Richard were still married, so I assume he was not the father (although when Jane herself got married she gave her father’s name as Richard Seed.)

It may be that Jane’s father was John Dunderdale who Elizabeth went on to marry in January 1885 although I have no evidence of that. But this marriage throws up even more issues – Elizabeth was not free to re-marry: Richard was still alive and they had not divorced. What’s worse, John was actually Richard’s younger brother!
Her marriage to Richard had lasted hardly any time at all. Whether she ever saw him again I don’t know, but he died in the Punjab in 1892 as a private in the border regiment.

So was Elizabeth a bigamist? Even had Richard died by the time of her marriage to John, the marriage would still have been prohibited at that time due to the two men being brothers. Their marriage certificate perhaps deliberately covered up the facts: she was recorded as a spinster and her father was shown as William Seed rather than Burscough.
Divorce at the time was expensive and difficult to obtain, so desertion was much more likely to happen and it would not have been unusual for the deserting husband to join the army and be as far away as possible. Bigamy therefore happened more often than now and in some cases with the collusion of all parties. Whether this was the case I don’t know but Elizabeth had led a very difficult life up to that point. After Jane’s birth, Elizabeth and John had five other children and lived together until her death in 1912. I like to think she was happy in the 27 years she was married to John, whether it was legal or not!

Edward Bannister, the innkeeper

Elizabeth Ann Bannister married Richard Billington on the 28th June 1877 in St Anne’s parish church, Woodplumpton near Preston. On the same day her sister, Margaret married Richard’s twin brother John[1]. Elizabeth was recorded as being 19 on her marriage certificate but she was actually only 17 yrs. 9 months, while Margaret was recorded as 17 but she was only about 15! The sisters were the two youngest children of Edward Bannister and Mary (nee Rose), innkeeper of the Boars Head, Barton.

Elizabeth had been born on the 27th September 1859 in the Stevenson’s Arms pub, 7 Butler Street, Preston, on the west side of the street just by the railway station, where her father was the beerseller. Her baptism though was held almost two months later at St Paul’s church, Farington, which is south of Preston. She was the sixth of seven children born to Edward and Mary, all baptised at St Paul’s. The family had moved from Farington to Butler Street in the early 1850’s, presumably so Edward could take on the pub. He had previously been recorded as a platelayer and labourer.

In the early and mid-nineteenth century, alcohol was all pervasive in Britain. Alcohol consumption peaking in the 1870’s. The social consequences of drinking were of increasing concern, especially to the middle classes which led to the formation of the temperance movement aimed at reducing the consumption of spirits rather than beer. However, in Preston in the 1830’s Joseph Livesey, extended the movement as one of seven men signing a ‘total abstinence’ pledge. The movement spread rapidly with several temperance publications reaching wide circulation, while temperance halls were built to provide recreation for the working classes other than beer-houses and pubs.

It was against this background that Edward Bannister applied for a spirit license in 1859, shortly before Elizabeth was born. This was reported in the Preston Chronicle of 27 August 1859:

Edward Bannister applied for a spirit license but was refused by the borough annual licensing session in the police court (along with other applicants) this being opposed by a large deputation from a public meeting held in the temperance hall.

“Mr Blackhurst appeared for the applicant, He said the house was same as last year, and he (Bannister) thought that he was entitled to a license on account of being near the railway station, and for the purpose of affording accommodation for travellers. – (Laughter). There was also a great increase of traffic. – (Laughter.)

The magistrates decided not to grant any more new licenses.”

On 21 March 1874 the Preston Chronicle advertised the lease of the Boar’s Head Inn and Provision Shop in Barton near Preston and it seems likely this was when Edward Bannister moved there. Certainly he was there by 1877 when Elizabeth and Margaret were both married. Around about this time the Stevenson’s Arms was demolished to make way for the widening of the railway.

Only six years later Edward died at the age of 53 in Barton. He was buried on the 30th January 1880 in Leyland, at St Andrew’s parish church. According to his death certificate Edward died on the 26th January after being ill for 9 days with diarrhoea. Edward’s illness then appears to have begun about the time that his son Thomas Bannister was summoned for being drunk on the licensed premises of the Boar’s Head Inn Barton, (on the 16th) – He was fined 5s and costs.

For more information about the old pubs, taverns and beerhouses of Preston, this site is a mine of information.

[1] Richard and John, a year earlier had been found guilty of assaulting a man outside the Boar’s Head along with several others. (Preston Chronicle 1 July 1876)

Beginning to blog

Hello! This is my first blog. After ten years researching my family history I’ve decided to write about it, primarily for my family far and wide, but also of course for anyone else who is interested.

This blog will feature stories of family members and ancestors that I’ve discovered in my research but also updates on what I’m working on and thoughts about what I’ll do next. It will be irregular, as I have a full-time job but I aim to publish something as often as time allows.