Did she marry his best friend?

In the process of researching my 2x great grandmother Jane Ann Cowlin I uncovered a complex web of tangled roots.

I have previously talked a bit about Jane in a post about her husband Jacob Pilley who she married in 1880. Initially I had a bit of a time trying to find her prior to her marriage. This was in the early days when my skills were developing and I was starting to get into the mindset of a detective. On her marriage certificate her name was down as just Jane Cowlin and her father listed as James Cowlin – Labourer. The witnesses to her marriage were a John Horsley and a Sarah French. Over the few days I spent looking at Jane’s family on the 1901 census trying to locate my great grandmother Mary Ann – who turned out not to be on the 1901 census at all, I noticed that Jane’s daughter Lillian was with her grandmother Sarah French. So Sarah must be Jane’s mother – remarried.

I eventually located Jane in 1871 under the spelling Cowlan. She was living with her mother Sarah and stepfather Isaac French on the High Street, Earls Colne, Essex. She had a little half sister Kate who was one year old. What surprised me most was that Isaac – a Farm Stockman, was 65 years old, her mother was 40. Sadly little Kate died in November 1871 of Scarletina (Scarlet Fever). Isaac and Sarah went on to have two more children – Frederick born 1872 and James born 1874.

In 1881 Isaac and Sarah were still living on the High Street and Isaac was described as an Agricultural Labourer. On that census his age was given as 77 and Sarah was 50. Isaac and Sarah were to have another tragedy in their small family when their eldest son Frederick died in 1884 to the same illness his older sister had died from. Something I wasn’t expecting though was to find that Frederick had been in the choir of the local parish church and that his death was reported in the local newspapers.


Essex Newsman 23rd August 1884
“Flower Service – On Sunday afternoon a flower service was held in Earls Colne Church. The service was especially for children, and it was a pretty sight to see the little ones depositing their flowers in the basket trays around the font. On Tuesday of last week Frederick French, one of the boys of the Sunday School and a member of the church choir, died rather suddenly of diphtheria. The Rev. T. D. Chute addressed the children, referring to the sad event. He dwelt upon the boy’s bright and happy face and told how cheerfully he had always performed his duty at home, in school, and at church. The preacher very earnestly exhorted the children to follow the example of their late companion, so that if it should be their turn, like him, to be “cut down as a flower,” they might be ready to go. At the close of the service two hampers of beautiful flowers were packed up and sent to the Children’s Hospital at Shadwell.”


Chelmsford Chronicle 27th February 1885
“The Choir – The members of the Earls Colne Church choir, kindly assisted by the Revds. S Blackall and T. D. Chute, have erected a very neat stone in memory of one of their number, a boy named Frederick French, whose death took place in August last.”

What was also interesting is that his death certificate states he died of Scarlet Fever but the newspaper report states it was Diphtheria.

Then just four years later Sarah was widowed when Isaac died in August 1884 aged 84.

I had discovered that Sarah had married Isaac in 1868 in Earls Colne, Isaac’s home town. Sarah’s name was spelled Cowling on this record and her age was recorded as 42 – so a bit different to her saying she was 40 in 1871. They were both widowed, Isaac being apparently 60 years old, the son of James French a Husbandman. Sarah’s father was also named as James – James Horsley and he too was described as a Husbandman – basically a free tenant farmer. They married at the Baptist Chapel in Earls Colne with witnesses named George Dowde and Mary Ann Horsley (her sister).


Earls Colne Baptist Church – Built in 1861 and still standing today. (Image from http://www.echm.org.uk)

I knew that Sarah’s daughter Jane had been born around 1860 so I searched for Sarah and Jane in the 1861 census and I found Sarah living at Upper Stoneham Street, Great Coggeshall – five miles away from Earls Colne. She was a Silk Throwster (someone who twists or spins silk skeins to prepare it for weaving) – but she was a single lady aged 30 under the name Horsley with a nine year old son John Horsley and a one year old daughter Jane Horsley. I then located Jane’s birth reference under the name Jane Ann Horsley in 1860 in Witham district that covered Coggeshall. So where did the whole Cowlin thing come into it?


Stoneham Street, Coggeshall – from http://www.ebay.co.uk

I then found a marriage on Christmas Eve 1865 in Chappel, Essex between a James Cowling and Sarah Horsley. James was a Labourer – son of William Cowling – Labourer and Sarah was the daughter of James Horsley – Labourer. They were both of full age – so over 21. And who were their witnesses? Her sister Ann Horsley and…. Isaac French! I was pretty stunned to see that the man she later married had been a witness to her first marriage. Had he been a good friend of her husband? Both Isaac and James were from Earls Colne so it is a good possiblity!


Detail from James and Sarah’s marriage certificate – showing that James, Sarah and Sarah’s future husband Isaac all could not write to sign their names.

I found a possible mention of James in the local paper:


Chelmsford Chronicle – 6th February 1863
“Edward Marvin was placed in the dock charged with a violent assault upon James Cowling, of Earls Colne on the 1st August last. – Prisoner had absconded and was not apprehended until the previous day, but the police were not unable to discover the prosecutor. The bench discharged prisoner on his own recognizance to appear at the next court.”

Sadly James died in October 1867 of Phthisis – otherwise known as Tuberculosis aged 62 (seems she liked the older man!) And it was almost exactly a year later that Sarah and Isaac married.

But what I had wondered was about Jane. If she was born in 1860 before Sarah married James, then was she really his daughter? Or did she just call herself Cowlin to sound legitimate? I had a real job locating James in 1861 – in fact due to writing this post I thought I would try finding him again and struck gold! I found him living on the High Street of Earls Colne with his married sister Joanna Sadd. Findmypast.co.uk had horridly mistranscribed pretty much everything – which was why I had struggled. It listed Joanna as Emma, her surname as Ludd not Sadd, James’s surname as Carolin not Cowlin and a 14 year old Robert Cowlin down as Cowton! Needless to say I submitted plenty of corrections! Robert was Joanna’s illegitimate son but sadly he is listed as a lodger rather than being down as son, probably to cover up his illegitimacy.

I had searched for a baptism for Jane in Coggeshall and had come up with nothing. It was odd to me as Sarah’s son John had been baptised there in 1852 and another illegitimate child she had – Sarah had been buried there in January 1859 aged two. I decided to check the baptisms in Chappel where her mother had married James and there she was – baptised in the July of 1867 as Jane Ann Cowling, daughter of James and Sarah! It must have been important for Sarah to baptise her daughter as their legitimate child, and rather sad that just a few months later James died.

I may never know the full truth as to whether James was definitely Jane’s father, but to go to the trouble of baptising her at 7 years old after two years of marriage seems significant. Perhaps James was already ill with TB and they wanted to be sure she was legitimised in some way in case he died. I know I will probably never know who the father was of Sarah’s older children John and Sarah.

What else do I know about Sarah? I know that she was born in 1830 in Coggeshall, daughter of James Horsley and Naomi Willett and that she was living with her parents in 1841 and 1851 was at Robins Bridge Road with them and she worked in a Silk Mill.

Coggeshall had a history of weaving going back to the 12th century with wool weaving mainly at the abbey, but with the demise of the woollen trade in the mid 19th century silk and velvet weaving came to the forefront with almost half the population of Coggeshall working in the cottage industry of weaving from home. In 1860 a John Hall owned the largest silk weaving factory in Coggeshall – employing around 700 people. However the Free Trade Act was passed which allowed imports to come into the country free of duty which had a devastating effect on the local economy. Hall ceased production in 1863, re-opened in 1865 but ownership soon passed to Stephen Brown. In 1877 silk production ceased and Hall’s former premises closed for the last time. By that time Sarah would have been living in Earls Colne where the silk trade was limited to producing black crepe silk – used for mourning clothes – and in fact Courtauld’s Mill at Earls Colne supplied the black crepe used to make Queen Victoria’s mourning dresses after her beloved Prince Albert died in 1861. Her granddaughter Lillian Pilley was a Silk Weaver when she was living with her in 1901 so she probably worked at Courtauld’s Mill. Although Sarah had no occupation listed from 1871 onwards it might be likely that she did weaving work from time to time. By 1891 her son James was an Engine Fitter and perhaps helped pay the bills.


Queen Victoria in (one of her many) mourning dress (image from Getty Creative)

I know that after Isaac’s death she remained living on the High Street in Earls Colne until her death in 1904 aged 75 of Cerebral Apoplexy (these days known as a Stroke) and Coma. In all she had six children, John b. 1852, Sarah b. 1857 d. Dec 1858, Jane b. 1860, Kate b. 1869 d. 1871, Frederick b. 1872 d. 1884 and James b. 1874. That of those children only three survived to have families of their own and that she had 32 grandchildren from just three children! Both John and Jane had 12 children and James had 8.

She must have had a rather hard life, struggling with being a single mother, providing for her family, losing one of those children at a tender age. To then marrying a man some twenty years her senior only to lose him to TB two years later and to then marry another man of a similar age and to lose two more children before eventually being widowed a second time. I wonder how it was for her children to have such elderly fathers and how much James Cowlin really had to do with his daughter Jane up until when he married Sarah in 1865? But at least in some way it seems nice that Isaac married Sarah – if he and James had been good friends, to look after his widow. Or perhaps he had fancied her all along? Who knows!


12 thoughts on “Did she marry his best friend?

  1. Some great detective work! I know that illegitimacy is not uncommon in many places in the world but I run into it far more frequently in my Scottish research than anywhere else. Any thoughts on the illegitimacy rates in the UK?

    • As my mother would say – there is nothing new under the sun. According to some sources illegitimacy in England and Wales around 1845 was around 7% and by the end of the century down to around 4% – by the 1960s it had risen to 6% and in more recent times up to 30%! But it is worth remembering that in the early days of civil registration in England and Wales which began in 1837 that it is estimated that up to 1875 only about 50 – 60% of births were registered because it wasn’t something that was legally enforceable. After the Births and Deaths Act of 1874 it became a legal requirement to do so. It is thought that in some areas of England up to 15% of births were not registered in that 1837-1875 period. So it may be that there were markedly more illegitimate births in that period but that mothers didn’t register their births so readily. Originally the rules around putting a father’s name for an illegitimate child were that he could not be named on a birth certificate – until 1875 when he could be named if he attended the register office with the mother and it wasn’t until 1953 that he could be named without being present.
      The Legitimacy Act of 1926 allowed children who had been born out out wedlock to have their births re-registered if their parents subsequently married (provided that either parent hadn’t been married to a third party at the time of the birth) – which is what happened with my Mum and her older sister albeit under false pretences! (Long story and another post one day perhaps!) and in 1959 the act was updated to allow a re-registration even if either parent had been married to a third party at the time of birth.
      And these days the ‘illegitimacy’ rate is so much higher because I suppose modern life has shown so many people chosing not to marry and to live together, as well as teenage pregnancies etc (which last year in the UK the figures were an all time low since records began of under 18 year old mothers in 1969.)
      But interestingly I saw on the news today that cases of Scarlet Fever are the highest they have been for 24 years with 868 cases reported in the first 8 weeks of this year. It is great to know that that sort of illness is no longer fatal for children here, but sad to think how many children died of this in the past.

    • Thank you! I have lots of roots in Essex. My maternal grandmother was an Essex girl and I really do love the Essex Ancestors archives online via the Essex records office, great for people like me who can’t visit!

  2. Hi Alex, great read. I think we are related even somewhat distantly. Naomi Willett was my 3 x great grandmother. Don’t know what that makes us lol.

    • Hi Andrew. That’s great! With her being your 3x great grandmother and her being my 4x great grandmother, that makes us 4th cousins once removed! I’d be more than happy to share my Willett and Horsley research – will send you an email to get in touch.
      All the best. Alex

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