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  • Wendy Percival

The Perils of Industry

Several of my ancestors have worked in industries with a dodgy reputation for safety. My 2x great-aunt, Henrietta Benbow, died of consumption at the age of 22, a condition likely to have been brought on by her job as a china burnisher in a pottery factory – the pottery industry had above the normal incidences of respiratory diseases compared with the rest of the population.


Mining in Shropshire


Mining, of course, is renowned for its dangers and its health issues. My 2x great-grandfather, Timothy Roberts, was a coal miner in Shropshire. While a mainly rural county now, it was once covered in mines. Coal was the most mined mineral but metals such as lead, copper, zinc and iron were also mined, as well as clay, limestone and barite.


Abandoned mining works in Shropshire countryside © Max Fascione

The latter half of the 19th century saw mining decline and although there is no mining left in Shropshire today, evidence of its mining past can be found all over the county. The Shropshire Mines Trust has been set up to save some of these historic sites so that visitors can learn about the county’s heritage.


The census records show that many of the residents of Pontesbury, the village where Timothy was born and where he lived with his family, worked in the mines.


But by 1871, the situation had changed – not for the industry, which was still at its peak, but for Timothy.


Pastures new


The 1871 census shows Timothy and his family – my 2x great-grandmother Sarah (nee Meredith), sons Jonathan, aged 26, Thomas, aged 22, and my great-grandmother, Eliza, aged 13 – had moved to Shrewsbury. Timothy, is recorded as being “Out of Employment”. The family would be relying, therefore, on the labourer’s wages of Jonathan and Thomas to keep house and home together, as Eliza was still at school.


Sadly, just over 2 weeks after census night, Timothy’s wife Sarah died of bronchitis, aged 56. Within 4 years, Timothy would also be dead, taken – according to his death certificate – by “miners’s asthma” and, like his wife, bronchitis. One has to ask whether the reason the Timothy was unemployed was because he’d been too ill to work.




Interestingly, the surgeon who signed Timothy’s death certificate was William Eddowes. Timothy’s eldest daughter Ann had worked as a servant for Mr Eddowes and his family in previous years. Not in 1871, though, and I haven’t yet found her on the 1871 census. Another Roberts mystery yet to unravel!