Jacob Pilley – an ordinary hero

Many years ago I traced my maternal line back to my 2x great grandfather Jacob Pilley – and it was because of this family that I began the long process of doing a One Name Study on the surname Pilley.

Jacob was born in 1843 in Chelmsford, Essex – he was the third generation to have the name Jacob – named after his father and his grandfather. His parents Jacob Pilley and Charlotte Horsnell had married in 1834 in Chelmsford – Charlotte already had a son John who had been born out of wedlock in 1831 – presumably not Jacob’s son.


Jacob and Charlotte went on to have five children including Jacob junior. Their first child was also called Jacob but he died aged 3 in 1837. They then had a son John in 1837 – but for some reason he is down as Joseph in the 1841 census, he died in the September of 1841 of Scarlet Fever – his death certificate and burial both give his name as John. They also had a daughter Mary born 1841 and their youngest child Eliza born 1846.

In 1841 Jacob and Charlotte were living on the High Street, Moulsham. Jacob senior was a Labourer, they also had Charlotte’s mother Mary living with them.

By 1851 the family were at 4 Glebe Place, Churchyard, Chelmsford – Jacob senior was a Coal Labourer. When Jacob senior’s father died in 1852 they were living at Lower Street in Chelmsford but I have never been able to find them on the 1861 census. There doesn’t appear to be any missing areas in Chelmsford census so it may well be that they never returned their form to the enumerator.

In 1871 Jacob junior was still with his parents at Wharf in Springfield, he was a Coal Porter. Presumably this involved unloading the coal from the boats in the wharf and taking them to the dealers.

Jacob was mentioned in the local papers twice in the 1870s – the first was in Essex Newsman on Saturday 11th March 1871:


Such a traumatic experience for all concerned – the tragic death of a young girl whose clothes caught fire against a stove after a playful shove from a younger cousin. It must have been terrible to see this poor girl aflame – to do your best to put the flames out but for her to still perish. Sadly deaths like these were common, often incidents like children pulling a bedside candle onto themselves or getting their nightgowns too close to the hearth.

The second mention was in the Essex Newsman on Saturday 6th September 1873 – this time for a less galant reason:


In some ways I feel pleased for Jacob that the case was dismissed!

In 1880 Jacob married Jane Cowlin. Jacob stated he was 29 – when in actual fact he was 37, possibly to narrow the age gap between him and his younger wife – who was only 20 and so had to marry with her parent’s consent. The witnesses at their marriage were her mother and her brother. Jacob was a Groom at the time of their marriage, living at Friars Place, Moulsham.

In 1881 Jacob and his new wife were living with his parents at 2 Mason’s Arms Yard. He was a Labourer as was his father. They also had their infant daughter Charlotte Sarah – named for both Jacob and Jane’s mothers.

Jacob’s mother Charlotte died in the November of 1881 aged 82 of ‘Old Age’. Then just six months later Jacob and Jane’s daughter Charlotte passed away aged 1 year and 7 months of Bronchitis.

It was then Jane’s turn to be mentioned in the local papers as she featured in the Chelmsford Chronicle of Friday 7th July 1882 giving evidence in an assault case:


Between then and the 1891 census Jacob and Jane had a further five children; William John born 1882, Mary Ann born 1884, Lillian born 1886, Sarah Ann born 1888 and Jane born and died in 1890 aged just 17 days – killed by the same disease that took her eldest sister. By 1884 the family had moved from Chelmsford to Maldon after a brief stint in Colchester where William was born. Mary Ann – my great grandmother, was born in the Maldon Workhouse. The family must have fallen on hard times as her mother who registered her birth gave her address as the Workhouse – so rather than being a patient in the workhouse infirmary – where I would imagine she would have given her normal home address, it seems they were in the workhouse as paupers.

Jacob’s father died in the Chelmsford Workhouse in 1886 aged 82 and was described as a Bargeman from Chelmsford.

By 1891 they were living at 97 High Street, Maldon. Jacob was a Jobbing Wharf Porter. Between the 1891 and 1901 censuses Jacob and Jane had a further five children – Ethel May born 1891, Frederick Charles born 1893 and died 1894 aged 8 months – again the dreaded Bronchitis took his life. At this time the family were living at 87 Wantz Road, Maldon. George Charles born 1895, Walter James born 1897 and died 1898 aged 2 months of Influenza and Bronchitis. By then the family had moved to 14 The Downs, Maldon. They also had a daughter Emily Jane born 1899. What I find interesting is that they did not christen all their children. The only ones I have been able to find were for George Charles in 1899 and Sarah Ann and Ethel May in 1900.


Wantz Road in the early 1900s (Image from The Book of Maldon by Ian Linton)


87 Wantz Road – although unsure if this was THE 87 Wantz Road as with renumbering and of course houses being knocked down and new ones built this is probably unlikely to be the same house – but it has a very interesting tree design on the house. It was up for sale in 2011 and said it was in need of modernisation. Considering the estate agents only listed a photo of the front of the house, the bathroom, hallway and garden – it speaks for itself! (Image from Google Streetview)

In 1901 they were still at 14 The Downs in Maldon. This time Jacob was a Labourer in a Factory. Their daughter Mary Ann was not with them and I have never been able to locate her in that census. Perhaps she was working away from home, or staying with friends or relatives who thought they did not have to include her in their census return.

Jacob and Jane had their final child Fred in 1901 and a year later Jane again found herself in the local papers in the Chelmsford Chronicle of 20th June 1902 – again giving evidence in an assault case of one of her neighbours:


To me I am pleased that Jane was happy to stand up in court and tell people what she saw when she was a witness to such assaults.

Sadly when Fred was barely two years old, Jane died. I was surprised to find her death was registered in the district of Paddington in London. When I received her death certificate it stated she died at St. Mary’s Hospital in Paddington aged 45 of Aneurysm of Ascending Aorta Syncope. I often wondered why she had come to be in Paddington – more than 50 miles from home. It wasn’t until some years later when I managed to get in touch with Fred’s son who told me that apparently Jane had diabetes and had been on her way to London for treatment when she had collapsed on the train and had been rushed to the nearest hospital. Something I would never have known if I hadn’t tracked down her grandson and written to him and had a lovely long phone call with him.

By 1911 the widowed Jacob was living at 37 North Street, Maldon (just round the corner from The Downs) and was a Jobbing Labourer. He was 69 and boarding with the Mizzen family – his 9 year old son Fred was the only family member with him, the elder children either now being married with families of their own or working away from home. Interestingly my mother’s cousin lives next door to this house – he was born there and has lived there all his life – he is in his late 70s now.


35 and 37 North Street (image from Google Streetview)

Jacob died at the Maldon Workhouse Infirmary in 1913 of Aortic Reguritation. It stated he was a Labourer of High Street, Maldon. His son Fred was just 12. I believe Fred’s older siblings looked after him. Despite being the fourth eldest – Sarah Ann turned into the family matriarch and seemed to look after most of her siblings. She had married Alfred Clarke she went on to run a pub in Heybridge Basin.

Jacob’s youngest daughter Emily Jane passed away two short years after her father – she was just 17 and had been living with her married sister Mary Ann in Halstead. She died of tubucular meningitis. Out of Jacob and Jane’s 12 children only 7 survived into adulthood to raise families of their own. While this statistic would be shocking today, it was the norm back in those days, when disease was rife in crowded areas and were easily spread without adequate sanitation or healthcare.

So although to some Jacob may seem like an ordinary man, a Labourer – often getting work where he could from week to week, finding himself in the Workhouse, knowing the joys and the tragedies of love and loss, this man tried to save the life of a young girl and I have no doubt that the memory of that haunted him for much of his life, not something you could easily forget. And while he was a hard working man it seems he had good values, as did his wife, speaking up for people when perhaps others wouldn’t.


15 thoughts on “Jacob Pilley – an ordinary hero

    • Thank you! I have to say that when researching the Pilley’s I have found out some really interesting things. I will definitely be posting more about the extended family in coming weeks!

  1. Great Post and I loved reading it. I recognized the name of every street mentioned as my family have been living in Maldon, Essex for over 200 years.
    My 2x great grandfather ‘William Wood Janes’ died at number 57 North Street in 1906.
    My family have lived at ‘the Downs’, ‘Wantz Road’, ‘Maldon High Street’ (plus many others).

    I have walked past 87 Wantz Road a few times (I recognize the tree) 🙂

      • It’s very likely, some of the dates of when and where your ancestors lived match with mine, plus one of my ancestors owned a store in the high street too. Plus One of my ancestors lived at number 8 the Downs, and one of yours at number 14.
        All very interesting, thank you for sharing your post.

      • You’re welcome. Thank you for reading!

        I know my grandmother worked for the family that ran the butchers in Maldon High Street – they were called Bunting? And there was also a connection to the Balls family who ran a fishmongers. My grandmother’s uncle George Charles Pilley was working for the Balls fishmongers in 1911, I think that one of the Balls married a Bunting. I have some photographs of the family as my grandmother worked as a home help for them, her mother had also worked for them and I think my grandmother sometimes helped out in the shop. There was something about her helping out at a Grocers so no idea if it was something ran by either of those families or not.

      • My granduncle William Ernest Janes, married an Olive Helen Bunton (a different variation of the surname) so maybe there is a link in our trees.
        Maldon is a lovely little town with a lot of character, I still have a lot of family living there.
        I do remember a butchers shop as a child (not sure if it’s the same one)

  2. Thanks for the post Alex.
    We are related. My Father was Wilfred Pilley, son of George, who, as you say was Jacob’s son.
    If you have more information on the Pilley family, I would be very interested to find out more.
    Ray Pilley, New Zealand

    • Hi Ray

      So nice to hear from you.

      I have done quite a lot of research into the Pilley family and I’m sure that I will be writing some more stories about them, and I’m always happy to share my research. I will certainly be in touch!


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