VOWLES, Thomas John Milton

Thomas’s story is not a typical one of poverty in London. In fact, Thomas and his wife were descendants of Yeoman Farmers from the West Country.

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Farming beginnings

Thomas’s story is not a typical one of poverty in London. In fact, Thomas and his wife were descendants of Yeoman Farmers from the West Country. 

The Vowles, Milton and Gunning families farmed in the counties of Somerset and Wiltshire, covering the Somerset levels to the borders of the Mendip Hills, Burnham on Sea to Bridgewater, Sedgemoor and across to Cheddar, Wells, Frome and Trowbridge.

Being a Yeoman Farmer meant he owned his own house and the land that he farmed and also that he could employ workers. Collins dictionary definition reads,  ‘A man who farmed his own land.’  He was not Gentry but a well-respected man in the parish. Indeed, one Edwin Vowles was on the Board of Guardians for Bridgewater Union in1867; this could have been Thomas’s father.

Withy Farm 

Thomas’s father Edwin, a yeoman farmer, owned Withy Farm in Huntspill. This is approximately 6 miles north of Bridgewater on the A38 travelling to Burnham-on-Sea. Withy road goes east from the A38 at Huntspill and under the M5. There is still a farm called Withy Grove Farm on the Withy Road. Could this be the same farm?

Source :- Google maps. 

1886 Ordnance Survey

The map above reveals it could be one of three farms: Withy Bow, Withy Grove or Withy Farm. All were in the same location.

Edwin was born in 1813 in Rodney Stokes and his wife Ann Milton was born 1816 in Draycott, within the parish of Rodney Stoke. They were married in the parish church on 4 February 1845. 

Thomas was born in the 4th quarter of 1852 in Huntspill; he was the 4th of 5 children found born to Edwin and Ann.

Thomas’ siblings were:

Maria Jane 1845-1909

Edwin junior 1847-1918 

Ann 1849-1872

Henrietta 1857-1933

Thomas was baptised on 19 November 1852 in the parish of Huntspill. Maria was baptised in Rodney Stoke (but the address given was Mark). Edwin and Ann were baptised in the village of Mark, a village 9 miles west of Rodney Stokes and 5 miles east of Huntspill. 

The family would have moved sometime between Ann’s baptism date of 1849 and the 1851 Census which shows that the family were by then resident in Huntspill.


The 1861 Census tells us that Edwin senior, aged 48, was born in Rodney Stoke and was farming 320 acres on Withy Road, Huntspill. Also we find his wife Ann, aged 44 and children Maria aged 15, Ann aged 12, Thomas aged 8 and Henrietta aged 6 who are all scholars. Edwin junior is a private pupil in a school at Fern Bank, Redland Road, Bristol. Edwin senior was employing six men.

Sadly, Thomas’ mother Ann died before the 1871 Census. I am unable to verify her actual death, as none of the Ann Vowles’ deaths in the area fit her profile, but it may have been wrongly transcribed. I unsuccessfully checked the local newspapers of the time for her death announcement.


1871 finds Edwin senior now a widower aged 58, at Withy Farm, farming 600 acres, employing 6 men and 2 boys. All 5 children are living at home. Edwin junior and Thomas are listed as farmer’s sons.

On 21 April 1872, Thomas’ father Edwin senior died. Edwin senior’s brother Thomas and son Edwin junior are executors to the will. With a codicil, the effects were under £4,000.

On 27 February 1872 Thomas’ sister Ann married Frederick Robert Arthur Gunning. Ann gives birth to a son towards the end of the year, Gerald who is baptised 20 December 1872. Tragically Ann had already died before the baptism on 12th December and was buried on 19th December; I assume complications of childbirth. 

This marriage may have been how Thomas met his future wife, Harriette Sophie Gunning, She was the niece of his sister Ann’s husband Frederick, daughter of Frederick’s brother Francis. This was another family of yeoman farmers.

The Grand Order of Freemasons

On 23rd April 1875 Thomas was initiated into the Lodge at No 291, The Rural Philanthropic Lodge. Huntspill. This gives some indication of his social standing at that time.

11 November 1875 sees the birth of Victor Howard Vowles Gunning, the illegitimate son of Harriette Sophia Gunning and Thomas. The GRO index lists his mother as Parsons, which is Harriette’s mother’s maiden name. Was she trying to cover the illegitimacy?  No baptism is found. 


The 1881 Census shows that Thomas is visiting his brother Edwin, who is now married with a son and a daughter. They are residing at the family home at Withy Road Farm. He is farming 491 acres and employing 8 labourers. Thomas is listed as a visitor, a ‘retired farmer’. 

Harriette Gunning aged 29 and single is living with her widowed mother Elizabeth in Trowbridge, along with her two brothers Frederick and Arthur, both Coal merchants, plus sister Alice and younger brother William 15. Was this Thomas’s home too? He was only listed as visiting his brother. 

Their son Victor is not included in the family home. Even after an extensive search and with a combination of names, I have not been able to find him in the 1881 census.

We know that Thomas was residing in Birmingham by the end of the year as he transfers to the Israel Lodge of Freemasons Birmingham on the 12 December 1881. He is a coal merchant, resident in Granville Street.

The 1883 Kelly’s directory of Birmingham shows Thomas Milton Vowles is listed in Oozells Street, Coal Wharf, Birmingham, less than a mile from Granville Street.  The change of occupation most probably came through the connections of Harriette’s brothers and he found work in Birmingham in the coal industry. 

The Oozells Coal Wharf was in the heart of the city on the Main Line Canal where the barges would be loaded to be transported along the vast network of waterways. It was a prime location.

In March 1884 Thomas resigned from the Grand Order of Freemasons. Does this signal a change in his fortunes?

Thomas finally marries

On 3 September 1884, nine years after their son Victor had been born, Thomas married Harriette Sophia Gunning at Holy Trinity church in Clapham London. Thomas’s address is Edgbaston, Birmingham and he is a Coal Merchant. Harriette’s address is in Clapham and she is a spinster. Witnesses to the wedding were Thomas’s sister, Maria Jane Vowles and Henriette’s eldest brother, Frederick Edmund Gunning.

In the July quarter of 1885 a daughter Ethel Mabel was born and registered in Fulham, London.  She was baptised on 11 Oct 1885 at St Barnabas Kensington. Father Thomas has continued working as a Coal Merchant living at 19 Gratton Road, Kensington.

In the first quarter of 1888 a daughter Grace Harriette Milton was registered in Wandsworth, London. She was baptised on 14 February at St James and St Stephen church, Trowbridge Wiltshire,  her birth having been on 26 December 1887. Her Father Thomas, a gentleman, was residing in Clapham.

On 5 September 1889 a son Hugh Gunning was born and registered in Wandsworth, London. No baptism can be found for Hugh.

1890s  The family back together

This is the first time I have found any record of Victor since his birth. The 1891 census

reads as follows: 

Thomas is living at 51 Lillieshall Road, Clapham, London. This is a 4-storey house. 

The occupation column is blank. Other occupants are his wife Harriette aged 39, son Victor 15, a clerk; Ethel 5, Grace 3 and Hugh 1. Also, Thomas’s unmarried sisters Maria and Henrietta are visiting. 

They also appear to have a domestic servant, Louisa Cheeseman aged 18. There is also a Maria Southwood aged 21 who is described as a governess. Was she a Governess for the family? 

Booth’s poverty maps of London 1889 refer to Lillieshall Road as a fairly comfortable to good earning area with some middle-class, well-to-do houses. If the family do have a servant and a governess this would support the theory that at this point the family were comfortable. The source of their income however is unclear.

There is sadness for the family as Harriette gives birth to another son, born in the 2nd quarter of 1892. Dennis Alexander died at approximately 6 months old and was buried on 14 September 1892 in Norwood Cemetery, Norwood Road, Lambeth.


In the next census of 1901 Thomas and his family had moved to 54 Friday Street, City of London, just 0.2 miles from St Paul’s Cathedral. Thomas, aged 48, is now stated to be working as a House Steward Domestic. Wife Harriette is aged 49 and Ethel aged 15, is a Milliner’s apprentice; Hugh is aged 11. Grace is a pupil in a boarding school called The Abbey School in Beckington near Frome, Somerset. 

Victor aged 25, is single, a company accountant who is boarding at 132, Abbeville Road, Clapham. 

Thomas’s sisters may still be living with the family but are recorded as elsewhere. Maria is visiting the Milton family and Henrietta is visiting Lydia Parsons, another family name. 

There are also 8 domestic servants living in rooms within the property. As a House Steward Thomas was employed to look after the building, which provided accommodation for local servants. 

Information given by Harriette on Thomas’s examination at Wandsworth Infirmary Thomas was a House Steward catering for 150 people. The family were living rent free at 54 Friday Street in one of the flats, with a sum of £150 per annum. Harriette also stated Thomas had been doing this job for 9 years, so this would give the date of 1900 for the move. This information may also explain why in some of the London Electoral Register 1832-1965 his address was given as 54 or 51 Friday Street. He may have overseen more than one building. 

During WW2, the London blitz of 1940, many buildings around St Paul’s Cathedral were raised to the ground, Friday street included. Bracken house, home of the Financial Times, remains from the post war rebuilding. It was refurbished and granted a grade 11 listing in 1987 during the redevelopment of the street in the 1980’s. 

Health Problems

Henriette’s statement explained that Thomas had no relief from his job in the 9 years, and approximately on 14th February of 1909 the family moved to 7, Maxwell Road, in Northwood near Pinner.  

A few months later at the end of May, the family moved back to Clapham, 121 Kings Avenue, evidence supported on Thomas’s death certificate. 

Henriette says he had no relief in hospital but was an outpatient at St Bartholomew’s hospital from May until October.  

Thomas received £150 per annum when he was working but, with their 3 young children to support, they had no savings and he was not in any clubs. There was no revenue from the family. Therefore, he had no funds and he was now a pauper.

On 4 November 1909, Thomas was brought to Wandsworth Infirmary by an R ? Rutheylen   

(I am unable to find anyone with this name). He was examined by Dr John Breward Neal and G B Longstaff JP. on the 5 November and he is noted as being suicidal.

Observations by Dr John Breward Neal state,

‘He is in a state of profound melancholy, controlled by delusions of a religious nature, and chiefly in regard to perverted religious views. Imagines he is brought here for correction and says he is going to be killed by the almighty or the Saviour.’

And then on 6 November 1909 Thomas was admitted to Horton Asylum Epsom. Here he was examined by Samuel Elyee.  

He is recorded to be clean and had fair health.He had fading bruises on the left infraclavicular region (neck), right scapular, both forearms and wrists.

Sadly within seven weeks Thomas died and his death is recorded in the Lunacy Patients Admissions Register. The date of death was 22 December 1909.  UK FindaGrave records his burial on 30 Dec 1909, in Horton Cemetery, in grave no 653b.

Thomas died of General Arteriosclerosis and Fatty Degeneration of the Heart. Post Mortem. certified by J R Lord. Occupation, House Steward of 121 Kings Avenue, Clapham. His death was registered by  David Ogilvy, the Acting Medical Superintendent for Horton Asylum. 

Wandsworth claimed from the City of London for Thomas’s care at Horton Asylum. 

The Family after Thomas’s death

Daughter Ethel’s marriage was recorded in 1916 and stated that Thomas was a Gentleman deceased; on son Victor’s marriage of 1906 he had been recorded as a Farmer (retired).


In the 1911 Census, we find Harriette still living at 121 Kings Ave, Clapham. Her son, Victor is married, an accountant for a typewriter company. Ethel, a Milliner and Hugh is an Electrical Engineer. 

The 1921 census shows Harriette is living with her widowed daughter Ethel at 8 Madeira Avenue, Worthing. Harriette died in East Preston, Worthing 1934. Burial at Durrington Cemetery, Worthing on 13 December 1934. 

Victors’ wife Gertrude and son Philip Harrison Vowles were listed in 1911 as with her parents at Oakdene, Alexander Road, Epsom. Her parents moved to Epsom from Lambeth after the 1901 census.

Victor and his wife Gertrude were residing in Kent in the 1939 register.  He was an examiner of accounts in the Paymaster General Office. His death was recorded in Kent in 1940. Only one child, Philip came from the marriage.

Ethel’s husband Hedley Gordon Wiseman, an Oil company local manager died in 1919; his probate states the address as 8, Medeira Ave, Worthing. This is less than 3 years after their marriage. Ethel never remarried or had children.

Ethel died on 8 July 1957 at 35 Springfield Road, St Leonards on Sea, and was buried on 1 July in Broadwater Cemetery, Worthing. Her probate states her home is 9, Medeira Ave. I believe this to be a mistake and should be number 8 unless she moved next door. 

I am unable to find her in the 1939 register.

Grace remained a spinster and in 1921 she was living in Bexhill. Grace died on 25 Jan 1938 at 39 Mill Road Worthing; her probate states she is living in 8 Madeira Ave Worthing with Ethel. She was buried on 28th Jan 1838 in Durrington Cemetery, Worthing, the same cemetery as her mother.

Hugh married Florence Amy Old in Truro Cornwall in 1919; they were living in Wimbledon in 1923, according to the electoral register. The 1939 register shows Hugh, as a mechanical engineer and Florence in Roskear, Camborne, Cornwall. His death was registered in Camborne Cornwall in 1953. No children found from the marriage.  

What of Thomas’s two spinster sisters? Maria died in Lambeth in the second quarter of 1909. Henrietta died in 1933 in Wiltshire and left her estate of £97. 14s 9d to her nephew Harry Edwin Vowles Farmer and son of her elder brother Edwin junior.

Authors thoughts

I can only assume that Thomas and his sisters left some money from their father. Hence Thomas could live with no occupation after being a Coal Merchant and before the time when he worked as a House Steward. Maybe Harriette also inherited from her family and was able to live quite comfortably after Thomas’s death with the help of her adult children. 

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