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Tuesday 24 October 2023

A Family History Mystery

The mystery of John Price, and our part in its solution.  

Neil Price: Dickens’s Favourite Blacking Factory
Neil Price: Dickens’s Favourite
Blacking Factory (The Conrad Press, 2023)  


I have mentioned before that my wife is descended from Henry Francis Lockwood, the architect of Bradford Town Hall and the mill and town of Saltaire. Much of her family history was pieced together by her father trawling through archives in the 1950s and 1960s, then a painstaking and laborious task demanding patience and perseverance.  

After retirement I filled in more details. It was much more interesting than my own family history, and I spent months on it like a full-time job, placing a lot of information on genealogy web sites.

One of Henry Francis Lockwood’s uncles was Charles Day, the boot blacking manufacturer, who made the kind of fortune that would easily place him alongside today’s richest rock stars. When he died in 1836, one estimate valued him at £450,000, the RPI equivalent of £40-£50 million today. But in terms of property price inflation, the value of his holdings in London and elsewhere would now be astronomical.

It was widely believed that Charles Day had just one daughter, Caroline, with his wife, Rebecca Peake. However, at the very end of his life, he added a codicil to his will:

    “I Charles Day of Edgware and Harley House being of sound mind so desire that the three Post Obit Bonds for £5000 cash which will be presented at my decease may be doubled that is made £10000 cash and that the same may be invested for the benefit of my three natural sons ...”

That was quite a revelation. Wills are public documents and the existence of three, secret, illegitimate sons would have been a real scandal. He left them each the equivalent of around £1 million today, producing incomes of perhaps £45,000 per year.

I tried hard to identify who these three natural sons might be, without success, but left a summary of the will and other details in various places online. This turned out to be crucial.

Around the same time as my father-in-law was busy with his research, a certain Hugh Price was struggling with his own family history. One could fancy them together in Somerset House (then the genealogical archives), two gentlemen, strangers, each unaware of the other’s connection, brief nods of acknowledgement, departing their separate ways, never again their paths to cross.

Hugh had long been troubled by his great-grandfather, John Price. He knew that John had had three boys with Sarah Peake, and that their names had been Henry, Alfred and Edmund Price; Alfred being his grandfather. But otherwise John remained a mystery. Indeed, some records named him as Charles Price rather than John. 

Hugh died in 1986 and the quest was taken up by Hugh’s son, Neil, who had been intrigued by the problem since boyhood. Like me, he soon had the immense power of the internet at his disposal, but this only added further questions. It revealed that the three brothers had lived quietly but very comfortably at the best addresses in London and Edinburgh, without ever having worked or followed any profession other than “fundholder”. Where had these funds come from? And John/Charles Price remained elusive as ever.

Very late one night in 2015, Neil was following up links to his great-great grandmother’s Peake family. You may have noted that the surname of Charles Day’s wife was also Peake. Neil had been tipped off that a family member had been extremely wealthy, and wondered whether this could be the source of the brothers’ funds. He came across my summary of Charles Day’s will:

    “After about 20 further minutes of scratching about and fumbling for more information as to how John Price fitted into all this (if at all), the penny suddenly dropped. It was about 1am and my shriek of recognition certainly woke [my wife] and probably some of the neighbours! The “Three natural sons” – it was too much of a coincidence – they had to be Henry, Alfred and Edmund Price! But how?”

Indeed they were. John/Charles Price and Charles Day were one and the same. The reason for the deception was that Day’s wife knew nothing of the boys’ existence, and even more explosive, their mother was her cousin, Sarah Peake. Furthermore, Day’s assistant and confidente in all of this was none other than his wife’s sister. The boys may later have known their father’s identity, and that they were illegitimate, but they maintained the secrecy and kept it from their own children. Illegitimacy was seen as a shameful stain on the character until very recent times.  

Their identities emerged only because the will was subject to lengthy litigation, in which Henry, Alfred and Edmund Price of Regent’s Park are sometimes named among the many respondents. Along with several other possibilities, I had even wondered whether they might be the three natural sons, but they were almost impossible to trace. Price is a very common name, and where I did seem to find them they appeared to be associated with Peakes rather than Days. You would have to be an unusually obsessive genealogist to delve into an ancestor’s brother’s wife’s cousins.

When Neil contacted me, I said he needed to look at the court papers at the National Archives. I had only seen newspaper reports. The initial case concerned an unscrupulous attorney who had attempted to write himself into the will as co-Executor on highly favourable terms, but this was ruled invalid. He contested the ruling, resulting in the boys being named, but their mother’s identity was never revealed. The ramifications went on for decades and the case became celebrated for its length and complexity. Dickens used it as the model for the case of Jarndyce v Jarndyce in ‘Bleak House’, in which he pokes fun at the Court of Chancery, its lawyers and the enormous costs involved.  

The Court papers provide a window into the lives of Day and his family, and how the three boys were hidden from Day’s wife, the rest of the family, the prying public, and the shame of illegitimacy. This, and how the firm of Day and Martin built up their business and became so successful, is a tale of Regency London, ruthless competition, inspired marketing, shameless counterfeiting, an eligible heiress and a vacuous playboy, and no end of other fascinating and entertaining detail.  

One uncanny coincidence was this. For his last two decades, Charles Day was blind. You can see this in the portrait on the cover of Neil’s book. One of Day’s many acts as a benefactor was to found a charity called The Blind Man’s Friend. Eventually, the charity and the portrait passed to the Clothworkers’ Company. Neil Price, during his working life, sat through many meetings in the Clothworkers’ Hall, never aware that, there, all the time, on the wall above, the portrait of his mysterious great-great grandfather, John Price, i.e. Charles Day, had been watching over him.  

If anyone is interested in Neil's book I can pass on his contact details if you email me via my profile page. 

Tuesday 17 October 2023


In answering the question on Yorkshire Pudding's blog: "How much money have you got stashed away in your house and where exactly do you keep it?", I said none because my wife puts it in the didlum. Did anyone know what I was talking about? It's all right. I'm used to it.

When I was little, my mother paid each week into Nanna Fenwick's didlum. Nanna Fenwick (that's Fenwick with a voiced W) was a fearsome but trustworthy woman who lived across the back lane. Her didlum started each year around the beginning of February, and if you paid in, say, ten shillings a week, you would have about £20 when it paid out in time for Christmas. You only got back what you paid in, without interest, but it was safe from the temptation of a tin on the mantlepiece. I don't know how many people paid into her didlum, but I suppose Nanna Fenwick put it all in the Post Office and got a bit of interest herself for running it, not that there was much interest to be had anywhere then.

I guess they are too posh to have any didlums in Sheffield.

Monday 9 October 2023

Hello, Cheeky!

Do you ever wake up in the night giggling uncontrollably about something remembered from long ago?

What set me off last night was a story from someone I worked with soon after leaving school.

At his junior school they had a class budgerigar. Its name was written on a sign on the front of its cage. It was easily detached. 

It was in the days when nearly all children walked to and from school, as did their teachers because they all lived locally. Not all cars then. The teacher used to leave her outdoor coat over the back of her chair in the classroom.

One day, she walked home with a sign saying, “My name is Cheeky”, fixed to the back of her coat.

That middle of the night giggling got me a thump in the ribs.

Wednesday 4 October 2023

Half a Brick

This is a blog post about half a brick: the half-brick on which we have been standing the food for Foxy in the hope that he gets it before the slugs do.

It has been in our garden all the time we have lived here: over thirty years. It has weathered a little during that time.

It is an interesting half-brick, with a rounded end, rounded corners and edges, and a round hole through the centre. Is that natural weathering, or has it been shaped like that deliberately?  

One suggestion is that it might once have served as a loom weight.

What do you think?

Sunday 1 October 2023

We Know Where You’re From

New Month Old Post (revised): first posted 10th March 2019.

The British-Irish Dialect Quiz

Not such an old post, but most followers came after this date. Recent discussion of accents and language on this and other blogs reminded me of it. Yorkshire Pudding wrote about it around the same time. The results show me to be more East Yorkshire than he is.  

I can no longer access the quiz directly without hitting the New York Times paywall, but if I search for “The British-Irish Dialect Quiz” and go in from Google or Bing then it works. There is also an American version, “The U.S. Dialect Quiz”, but that always hits the paywall however I try to enter. 

Growing up in a unicultural Yorkshire town (as they nearly all were in the nineteen-fifties), I’m not sure when I first realised there were variations in the way people spoke. I remember a boy climbing around on Filey Brigg with a hammer who said he was “Luckin’ fer forwssls”, and the pen-friends from Bingley, organized by one of the teachers at junior school, who, when we met them, sounded different and used strange words. To my childhood eyes, they even looked different. Goodness, even people from across the river looked and spoke differently, even though they lived only a few miles away.  

Later, meeting different people and living around the country, accents fascinated me. I love hearing Buchan Scots and Yorkshire Asian, and used to have great fun winding-up my South London mother-in-law.  She could give as good as she got.

So, when I heard about the British-Irish Dialect Quiz, it was irresistible. I was bound to try it out and join the thousands of other bloggers writing about it.

It asks 25 questions about how you pronounce various words, such as “scone” or “last”, and what words you use for certain things, such as for feeling cold or for the playground game in which one child chases the rest and the first person touched becomes the pursuer. It then gives you a map of Great Britain with your area of origin shaded in. If you want, you can continue with a further 71 questions to refine the results further.

It got me pretty much spot-on. Words like “breadcake” and “twagging”, and the way I say ‘a’ and ‘u’, give me away most.

The explanation of the results is interesting too. It mentions that in Britain and Ireland, unlike North America, local dialect sometimes changed wildly within ten or twenty miles. Village-by-village distinctions have now eroded, but the article suggests there is no evidence that regional differences are disappearing, even in the face of technological influences. I find that reassuring.

My wife’s results were interesting. She answered the questions twice, once using her words and speech growing up in Hertfordshire, and then again how she is now. It got her pretty much right on both counts. Living in the north and working as an occupational therapist, she soon realised it did not go down well to go into peoples’ homes and ask how well they could manage in the “baarthrums”.