Did William Colwill have an affair with the young servant girl Bessie Button? Is he the father of her illegitimate baby daughter? Later…the Colwills emigrate around the globe and become Colwells, Colvells and Colvilles!
To give this story some context…William Colwill 1835-1913 and Grace Beckley 1826-1891 are Nan Kemp’s great, great grandparents on Nana Hills’ maternal line and we descend from them through their eldest child, William Beckley Colville who emigrated to New Zealand in 1888. William Beckley Colwill changed his name to Colville on arrival in NZ & married Ellen Perry Phillips. They lived in Otaki and Manakau on the lower West Coast of the North Island.
William senior was born 1835 in Welcombe, Devon and wife Grace 1826 in Bradworthy, Devon. As far as we know, they had five children together; William (our direct ancestor), Elizabeth, Betsey, Richard and John.
Census records can reveal a great deal about long forgotten relatives and help put flesh on the bones of our ancestors.
In the late 1850’s the family moved to Kilkhampton, Cornwall where William was working as a farm labourer. Kilkhampton is a village which dates back to beyond Saxon times. Here the remains of a 12th century motte and bailey style Norman castle can still be seen and the church of St James the Great is at least 450 years old. It is one of many churches dedicated to this saint on a pilgrims’ route, which leads ultimately to Santiago (St James) de Compostela in northern Spain.
A decade later in 1871, William and Grace and children Betsey, Richard and John are living at a farm or hamlet named Ilcombe Moor near Four Acres Kilkhampton – William is working as a farm labourer.
1881 – William and Grace have moved to the tiny settlement of Splatt, near Tresmeer in North East Cornwall. The only child still living at home is their 19 year old son, Richard Charles. Also on census night, Marina Ann Beckley aged 11 (niece of William and Grace) is staying with them.
1891 – The servant and the baby!
1891 – see below census document. The family have moved again to Clan Furize near Bokiddick, Cornwall. The children have all left home. Note the age difference between William and Grace, she’s 13 years older. On census night there are five people living in the Colwill family home. William, Grace, granddaughter Emily 8 yrs, Bessie Button 17 yrs (servant) and Bessie Button’s three month old illegitimate baby daughter, Beatrice Ellen Button.
The family servant girl, Mary Elizabeth (Bessie) Button was born in 1875 in Cardinham, Cornwall. Cardinham is situated on the south eastern fringe of Bodmin Moor.
Williams’ wife Grace died this very same year. Was Bessie employed to care for her dying mistress when feelings developed between her and the elderly (but very sprightly) William?
Now that Grace has died, William was free to marry his young servant Bessie Button, almost 40 years his junior. He did so in 1892.
Fast forward 10 years…On the census below, the “illegitimate” daughter Beatrice is now 10 years old and William and Bessie have added another 5 daughters to their clan! Annie, Minnie, Mabel, Emily and Olive.
Was William the father of Beatrice after all? It seems likely – the “illegitimate” status beside Beatrice’s’ name on the above 1891 census has subsequently been removed, perhaps after William and Bessie married in 1892 and in every census thereafter Beatrice is referred to as the daughter of William rather than step-daughter. Years later, multiple documents from the USA refer to William Colwill as her father.
1911 – see below census taken two years before William died. William is still working as a farm labourer aged 76 and only three children remain at home. The Colwill’s have taken in a lodger. We can see William’s signature on the document below.
So what happened to the family following William’s death in 1913?
The Children of William Colwill and Grace Beckley
- William Beckley – 1857-1942, emigrated to New Zealand in 1888 and married Ellen Perry Phillips. The family name was changed to Colville.
- Elizabeth Grace – 1858-? working as a servant in 1871 in Morwenstow, Cornwall.
- Betsey Ann – 1860 – ?
- Richard Charles – 1862- ? Possibly married to Nora Bowerman in Cornwall, then emigrated to Gympie, Queensland, Australia in 1882 where he may have died in 1895. The family name was changed to Colwell.
- John Henry – 1867 – ?
Bessie Button and her brood
So just what became of Bessie Button and her children the year William passed away? The two documents below show Bessie and four of her children left England for Canada in May 1913. In the second document, Bessie is recorded as being married rather than widowed. Could she have left William or is this simply a clerical error?
Bessie later remarried an Englishman named John Martyn, who had arrived in the USA in 1902. He worked as a machinist on the railroads. Bessie died in Auburn, Washington, USA on 26th October 1934. There is more to research but evidence suggests several of Bessie’s brothers also lived in Utah.
The Children of William Colwill and Bessie Button
Beatrice Ellen Colwill- 1891-1968.
In 1912, a year before her mother Bessie and siblings leave the old country, Beatrice Ellen Colwill, servant, leaves England via Liverpool and arrives in New York USA aged 21 – destination Utah. Beatrice then married Thomas Brown Luke, copper miner who was also born in Cornwall. They don’t appear to have had any children. Beatrice died in Butte, Silverbow, Montana USA.
Annie – 1892-1945. Emigrated to the USA – unknown when. Married to Eric Hore (a miner & also from Cornwall) and had several children. Buried Santaquin, Utah County, Utah, USA.
Minnie – 1895 – ? Did she remain behind in England?
Mabel – 1896-1920. Emigrated to the USA. Name changed to Colvell. Married in 1914 to William Sleeman (a miner from England). Died Walkerville, Silverbow, Montana USA. Mabel died of pneumonia while 6 months pregnant with her 3rd child.
Emily Jane – 1899 – ? Crossed Canadian border into USA in January 1914 aged 15, occupation listed as “child’s nurse”.
Olivet – 1901-1984. Marries Claude Keys in 1919. He was born in the USA and an engineer on the railroad and later a miner. Lived in Seattle Washington and had at least two children. Died in Covina, Los Angeles, California, USA
William Frederick – 1902-1984. Married 1924 to Mary Stephens with 7 children. He lived and died in Ogden, Weber, Utah USA.