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Matthew Isaacs

Anne-Marie Ford    -    2 October 2016

The Western Gazette of 17th May 1889 recorded the inquest, held in the schoolroom of the Wincanton workhouse, of a “Gypsy woman, Sophia Duckett” in some detail, but failed to clearly identify her, or her baby, at the hearing. What we learn, instead, is information about the family she was travelling with:

Harriet Burch (sic), wife of Robert Burch, a licensed hawker, the first witness, stated that she first met the deceased at Chard Road, where she also met her brother, Matthew Isaacs, and his family. This was on the 2nd May and since then they had all travelled together. The deceased, who was 21 years of age, had a baby of four months old. On Friday, at Milborne Port, deceased complained of a pain in her jaw and in the evening Alice Isaacs went with her to a doctor. The next day, as she was worse, she took her to Dr Williams of Sherborne. On Sunday morning she again saw a doctor at Stalbridge and on Monday the party came to Wincanton, the deceased travelling in Jane Isaacs’ van. Deceased had a bruise on her nose and told her (the witness) that she had fallen on a shaft of the van. Mary Isaacs, the wife of Matthew Isaacs, said she had been in company with the deceased since the last day of April, when they met at Exeter. Alice Isaacs, aged 17 years, said for the past half year she had been travelling with a basket of wares [the report does not indicate whether this refers to Alice or to Sophia Duckett]. The inquest found that death was caused by lockjaw.

Matthew Isaacs certainly had a wife named Mary, and he also had both a mother and daughter named Jane, but the reference to this Jane is probably that of his daughter, aged about 21 years of age at the time.  Matthew himself had been baptised on 12th May 1833, the son of Thomas and Jane Isaacs, tinman and traveller, who claimed Marnhull in Dorset as home territory. However, like his siblings, he actually favoured Somerset and can be found there in the 1871 census, staying at Merrival Lane, Shepton Mallet, where he describes himself as a “hawker of Marnhull.” With him is his wife, Mary Ann, and children Samuel, 16? Louisa, 13? Georgina, 11? Joseph, 8? Thomas, 6? Jane, 3, baptised on 1st November 1868, “in a Gypsy car in Starborne Lane” and Trinita, a baby.

In 1881 he is at Penselwood, Somerset, a location much favoured by his brother, James, but manages to evade the census taker. As a result he is the only member of his family named and this note has been added, “travelling Gypsies, as pedlars, slept in the parish on the night of the third, but leaving on the fourth, before the enumerator could see him; this information received from his brother, who is residing in the parish of Penselwood. James had been, it seems, unable to give very much information; he could not name his sister-in-law, any of his nieces or nephews, nor where his brother was born, nor his correct age . . .

Harriet Birch/Burch, Matthew’s sister, had been baptised at Bray, Berkshire on 27th February 1831, the daughter of Thomas and Jane Isaacs, tinplate worker and traveller. Her union with Robert Birch/Burch resulted in a substantial family, and, although Robert is absent at the time, Harriet and her children can be found in the 1871 census at Frome, Somerset. She is listed as a licensed hawker, with Charlotte, 16? Robert, 14? Nelson, 12? William, 10? Jane, 8? John, 6? James, 4? Thomas, 2. Ten years later they are still at Frome, in a caravan, and Robert is recorded as a general dealer; they have also added young Alfred, 9, to their brood.

The 17 year old Alice (baptised at Nunney, Somerset on 3rd March 1872, daughter of a hawker), who took Sophia Duckett to seek medical aid, was to form a union with her cousin, Alfred Birch, son of Harriet and Robert, and the couple married in 1909, although by the 1901 census they already had a daughter, Amelia, 8, and sons William, 5 and Henry, 14 months. Alice and Alfred are at Crediton in Devon in this census and are travelling with Alice’s sister Georgina, who is married to Samson Hughes, like Alfred a licensed hawker. Georgina has a baby she has named Alice, after her sister, as well as children Walter, 18? Polly, 17? Joel, 12? Phoebe, 9? Elisha, 3? Ellen, 2. By 1911 Alfred, travelling hawker, and his wife, Alice, are at Chimney Down, Hockworthy, Devon and have added Sophia, 8; Nelson, 4; Harriet, 2; James, 7 months, to their family.

Two of Matthew’s daughters, Georgina and Louisa, had appeared in a report in the Western Gazette of 13th May 1883, half-a-dozen years before members of the Isaacs family were documented at the inquest. They are with a “James Grigg,” and are recorded as “Louisa Isaacs and Georgina Isaacs, Gypsies . . . [who] were brought up on remand, charged with stealing a gold watch, value £25 . . . the prisoners pleaded guilty and were each sentenced to three months’ hard labour.” James Grigg was Louisa Isaacs’ husband, and is with the family from at least 1882, when he and Matthew Isaacs, “Gypsies,” are charged with allowing their horses to stray on the highway at Nunney in the October of that year.

In the 1901 census Louisa and her husband, Henry (sic) Grigg, travelling hawker of basket work, can be found in Shepton Mallet, Somerset, with Theodore, 19: Mary, 16: Georgina, 14? Maurice, 12? Louisa, 10? Priscilla, 8? Harriet, 6? James, 4. The inclusion of a Priscilla may be a tribute to a sister; Matthew and Mary Isaacs had baptised a Priscilla at Cloford, Somerset on 20th November 1881, whilst “temporarily at Cloford, in a travelling van.” In 1911 Louisa is in Somerset, at Standerwick Frome, Berkeley, with husband James Grigg, who has reclaimed his forename, and they have added Robert, 10; Mary, 8, to their brood.

Matthew’s brother, Henry Isaacs, is also in Shepton Mallet in the 1871 census. Henry had been baptised at Little Somerford in Wiltshire on 26th March 1826, the son of Thomas and Jane, and in 1871 claimed to be 43 years of age, a hawker, who is with his wife, Harriet, and children James, 20; Caroline, 14; Ellen, 10; Thomas, 7; John, 5; Edward, 3, who had been baptised at Evercreech on 13th May 1868, son of a horse dealer. The family are still in the same location in 1881, and Henry is listed as a horse dealer, but by 1891 Harriet must have died, as he is recorded as a widower in the 1891 census, and remarries on 26th October 1891 as Henry Isaacs, 65, a licensed hawker, son of Thomas Isaacs, traveller, to Hannah Bennett, aged 31. In 1901 he and Hannah are still together, at Chapel Allerton, Axbridge, Somerset, where Henry gives his age as 75, and his occupation as that of Gypsy.

Whilst we learn a good deal about the Isaacs during the inquest hearing, therefore, and can trace their immediate family, of Sophia Duckett we know almost nothing; there is no mention, either, of Sophia’s unnamed child.  Sophia claimed to be 21 years  of age and it is possible that she is the Sophia Duckett, aged 12, born in Cricklade, Wiltshire, who appears in the 1881 census at Tetbury, Gloucestershire, with her mother, Louisa, and siblings James, 22; Amelia, 17; Elizabeth, 16, all “Gypsies.”

How well did the Isaacs family know the Ducketts? Well enough, it seems, for Harriet Isaacs and Robert Birch’s son, William, to form a union with a Camelia Duckett. Within a year of the inquest William and Camelia/Amelia seem to have a son together, Joseph, and subsequently another ten children, according to the 1911 census, where they are at Newton Abbott in Devon. In 1909, on 14th August, William Birch, aged 48, son of Robert, a licensed hawker, and Camelia Duckett, aged 44, daughter of James, a licensed hawker, marry in the registration district of Barnstaple, in Devon.

Is Camelia the Amelia of the census record of 1881, born in 1865, so making her 44 years of age at the time of the marriage? Is it a coincidence that this couple name their only known daughter Sophia?

Copyright © 2016 Anne-Marie Ford