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  • Writer's pictureSadie

The Simmonds Family

The Simmond's Children's Headstone

March is ‘Women’s History Month’, and Sunday 10th March is Mothering Sunday. To coincide with both these events, through the tragic deaths of five children from one family, this blog will explore the pain and grief that living in the nineteenth century brought mothers, fathers, and indeed the local community. Along the way the blog will also explore the living conditions, healthcare and disease.

There is a particularly poignant headstone in the graveyard at St. Margaret’s. Carved into the stone are the names of five brothers and sisters who all died within twelve weeks of each other. Their names read:

Charles Robert Simmonds died Feb 14th 1887 aged 12 years

Kate Simmonds died Feb 14th 1887 aged 4 years

Grace F Simmonds died March 24th 1887 aged 15 years

Elizabeth Simmonds died March 28th 1887 aged 7 years

and at the bottom, half covered by undergrowth and earth, Jessie A Simmonds died ? January 1887 aged 8 months.

This headstone prompts so many questions- What did the children die of? Where did they live?  How did the parents cope with this tragedy? What kind of life did they lead? What background did they come from? What became of the family?

Whittlesey 1871

In 1871, 22 year old Charles Simmonds was living in Peterborough Road, Whittlesey, Cambridgeshire.  He was lodging in the house of John and Elizabeth Templeman.   Charles was born in Ringwood, Hampshire and his occupation was brickmaker, the same as the other lodger listed, 22 year old Walter Holmes. The head of the household, John aged 49, was a brick and kiln maker. It would seem that Charles had come to Whittlesey to seek work, in the ever expanding brickmaking industry. At the time Peterborough, and the surrounding area, was home to many small brick companies and Charles was probably employed by Warboys Brick Works Company, Saxon Brick Company Limited, Itter’s Bricks Company Limited or Northam Brick Company, who were all operational in the Whittlesey and Yaxley area. Brickmaking brought a degree of job security, and it is likely that Charles had left his home village of Ringwood to escape the uncertain life of an agricultural labourer, an occupation that he had already been involved in since the age of 13.

But this was not an easy life, brickmaking was hard work. Until the invention of the steam shovel in 1879 brickmakers had to ‘win’ or mine the clay with hand shovels in the autumn. The clay was then left to the action of the winter frosts. Then in spring the clay was ‘prepared’ by hand. The clay was ground to remove any stones and soaked with water to obtain the correct consistency. It was then kneaded with hands and feet to mix all the elements together. The clay was then ‘moulded’ into the correct shape. The brickmaker would stand at his table for 12 to 14 hours a day and, with his assistants or ‘gang’, could make between 3500 to 5000 bricks per day. The bricks were then stacked so they could be ‘dried’ for up to 14 days. Finally, the bricks were ‘burnt’ which could take up to a week and it was the skill and experience of the brickmaker which would guarantee the quality of the end product.

Charles married Elizabeth Ann Templeman, John and Elizabeth’s daughter, in 1875 at St. Andrew’s church, Whittlesey. Elizabeth was already familiar with Fletton. Before her marriage she was a domestic servant, in Fletton, in the household of Thomas and Elizabeth Barrass. Reverend Thomas Barrass was a notable Baptist Minister, given the title ‘The Non-Conformist Bishop of Peterborough’.

Fletton 1881

In 1881 Charles and Elizabeth moved to Fletton with their children Grace, Annie, Charles, Jesse, John, and Elizabeth. As recorded in the census they made their home, rather vaguely, Near London Road. Their neighbours were also migrants to the area, coming from places as far afield as Norfolk, Lincoln and even South Wales. Many of the men were employed in the brickyards, perhaps at Hicks and Company Limited or Golling’s Brickyard. But there were also other occupations listed such as farmer, blacksmith and wheelwright which reflects the still rural aspect of the area at that time.

Also living with the family was Elizabeth’s brother, 18 year old John Thomas Templeman. He was also employed in the brickyards as a brickmaker’s engine driver. The eldest three children were all attending school, most probably, at the British School on Oundle Road which had been built in 1850.


By the time tragedy struck in 1887 the Simmonds family had moved to Mile End Road, Fletton, better known today as St. Margaret’s Road. Between the beginning of January and the end of March five of the Simmond’s children had died; Jessie on 7th January, Charles and Kate on 16th February, Grace on 24th March and just four days later Elizabeth on 28th March.  The cause of death on Charles’ death certificate was diphtheria and given the contagious nature of diphtheria it is reasonable to conclude that his siblings all succumbed to the same disease. It is almost inconceivable to imagine what Charles Senior and Elizabeth went though. Simultaneously caring for their sick children, sitting with them as they died, attending their funerals, working to put food on the table and hoping beyond hope that their other children, Annie 13, John 7 and Harry just 3, remained healthy.   

Diphtheria was a highly contagious and dreaded disease. It affects the upper respiratory tract. Symptoms are varied including fatigue, fever, mild sore throat, nausea, vomiting and chills. These could have been the symptoms of many illnesses and there were frequent large- scale outbreaks. Unfortunately for the Simmond’s children a treatment for diphtheria was not discovered until the 1880’s, in America, by Joseph O’Dwyer and an antitoxin was not developed until the 1890’s by, German physician, Emil von Behring. Vaccines were not developed until 1923 and antibiotics only became available after the Second World War. Even if treatment had been available would the Simmond’s family have been able to afford it? Towards the last part of the 19th century the endemic level of diphtheria started to rise, and this was directly linked to the malnutrition of children and their mothers.

The low lying nature of Fletton, with its associated damp environment, had recently been highlighted when several sites for the new board school were assessed. Several sites had been dismissed and the one chosen, by the railway line, was considered by some to be less than satisfactory. Even into the early twentieth century child mortality was high, (see blog 2). In fact, it was one of the highest in the country and in the admissions registers for the Fletton Council School death was listed as one of the reasons why children left the school.

Of course, the death of these children did not just affect the family. The local community feared that their children would catch the disease, friends and family could only watch on helplessly as events unfolded, unable to help, teachers and classmates grieved as children didn’t return to school and Reverend William Upton performed five burial services for what must have been distraught and exhausted parents who still had three children to care for.

Fletton 1891

The 1891 census gives a further indication of what the houses were like in Mile End Road, where the family lived when the children’s deaths occurred. Most of the houses had just five rooms, meaning they were traditional two up two down, terraced housing.

In 1891, living with Charles and Elizabeth, there was also Annie 17, John 13 and Harry 7. There were two new additions to the family Rose aged 3 years and Charles aged 1 year. Prior to the deaths of the five siblings there was potentially ten or eleven family members living together in extremely cramped conditions, a perfect breeding ground for disease to spread.

John and Harry were still attending school and Annie was making a contribution to the family income as a dressmaker. Charles’s occupation is now listed as brickburner. It is difficult to say if this change of occupation was a promotion as people were often vague about their job titles on censuses.

The Liveryman’s Arms 1901

On the 1901 census Charles and Elizabeth had taken on the Liveryman’s Arms in St. Johns Street, Peterborough. Charles was a publican and lodging housekeeper. This was a dramatic occupational change, and we can only guess at what the impetus for this was. It is hard to imagine that the brickyards did not require workers as many of Charles’ boarders were brickyard labourers and age could not have been a factor either as many of these brickyard labourers were older than he was at 52 years. However, only a few years earlier the London Brick Company was formed by John Cathles Hill. During this formation many small brick companies were taken over so this may have had some effect on employment. Another possibility may have been some kind of illness or accident, which Charles may have suffered, which forced a change. Or it may have been a desire to build a new life for his children away from the tragedy of the past.

Although at first glance it would appear that Charles and Elizabeth had improved their lot, life certainly would not have become any easier. Also living with Charles and Elizabeth were their son Harry, age 17, and their daughter Rose, age 13, together with a total of 11 male boarders of varying ages and occupations, including a tailor, brickyard labourers, rope makers and farm labourers. It was a full time job for Elizabeth, keeping house for so many people, although one can assume that Rose  assisted in some way, although her occupation on the census is not listed.

Harry was also helping the family, as a barman. Unfortunately, this was only temporary as he died in May 1902, and was buried in the Broadway cemetery. Charles and Elizabeth had lost another child.

The Future

Charles and Elizabeth continued running The Liveryman’s Arms until after 1906 when Charles was listed in the trade directory as a beer retailer.

Elizabeth died in January 1911, aged 61, and was buried with her son, Harry, in Broadway cemetery.

Charles senior and Charles junior moved in with Charles’ son John. John was a dairyman and Charles junior was a blacksmith. The house on Cavendish Street was a busy one as John and his wife, Gertie, had five children.

Charles died in July 1914, aged 65, and was also buried, alongside his wife and son, in Broadway cemetery.

Apart from John four of Charles and Elizabeth’s children went on to marry and have children. Annie married James Green in 1896. They were publicans and ran the Anchor Inn, City Road, Peterborough. Rose married Robert Letts, a store manager in 1906. Jessie married William Fincham, a coach painter in 1910, and Charles married Florence in 1918.  

This is a small insight into the lives of a very ordinary family who lived through extraordinary and tragic events. Charles Simmonds, age 22 years, came from Ringwood seeking work and married the daughter of the family where he was lodging, Elizabeth Templeman. Like any newly married couple they must have had great hopes for the future. Within a year their first child, Grace, was born. Over the next 23 years Charles and Elizabeth had a total of 13 children, that can be traced from the historical documents. Listed in birth order they were Grace, Annie, Charles, Jesse, John, Elizabeth, Kate, Harry, Jessie, Rose, Jessie, Charles, and Charles.  Following a move from Whittlesey to Near London Road, Fletton there came what must have been a tragic period when in 1887 5 of their, at the time, 7 children died within a few weeks of each other. There then followed the birth of 3 more children and a move to Mile End Road, Fletton and a possible promotion by 1891. By 1901 there had been a move to the Liveryman’s Arms, St. John’s Street, the birth of 2 more children and a dramatic change in occupation. In addition to the 5 siblings, Charles and Elizabeth also lost 3 other children, Jesse in 1884, Charles in 1894 and Harry in 1902.

Unfortunately, the Simmonds family were not the only ones to experience such loss. Child mortality was a harsh reality of everyday life. A loss that was no easier just because it was experienced more frequently than it is today.     

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