Someone asked my kids recently what their mum did for work. They both rolled their eyes (they’re seven and ten years old) and joked “she researches our ancestors and doesn’t stop talking about them!” The funny thing is that whenever I do talk about our family history, they secretly love it. They listen. They ask questions. They pass judgement. And maybe somewhere deep inside, they feel appreciation for their ancestors.
But for whatever reason, my kids have bought into the stigma that genealogy is only for old people; that it involves lots of old, dusty books, and adding names and dates to plain old black and white trees. I half-joked to my daughter a couple of weeks ago that she ought to come with me to a genealogy conference in Kelowna. “Ugh, no way! That would be soooo boring!” So I told her a story. This time about her four times great-grandfather on my grandmother’s side: William Henry Spring.
My grandmother Molly spoke with great pride about her great-grandfather William who became mayor of Swansea, Wales in the early twentieth century and had several shiny busts of himself around town. He certainly appears to have been well-regarded: “those who had had the opportunity of watching Ald. [Alderman] Spring’s public service could say that no ulterior motives had ever prompted him to carry out his duties which he fulfilled in an honest, straightforward manner, and to the benefit of the people of the town.”i
“Oh, that’s pretty good, eh?”, my daughter exclaimed, suddenly showing more interest than boredom in hearing about this ancestor.
Ah, but there was more to this guy. Not only was he mayor, but back in 1859 when he was a young man in Gloucestershire, England, he’d worked as a confectioner.ii “A what?” my daughter asks. “Someone who made sweets and pastries,” I answered. “Whoah, that is so cool!” In my kids’ minds, there’s nothing better than someone who makes sweets. Genealogy’s not so boring now, is it?
“But even before making pastries, guess what he was,” I asked. “What?” she eagerly asks. “A policeman!”iii She’s fully absorbed now: not only does he bake sweets, but he’s a hero.
Soon after this, William apparently thought things looked more promising the next country over in Wales. The port town of Swansea was booming in the mid-19th century and William became one of thousands who relocated there, probably hoping for more lucrative opportunities.iv He started off working as a railway guardv and then, after marrying his first wife Mary Ann, became a baker and flour dealer.vi
By 1861, they’d opened up a shop at 57 Wind Street, the old location of Sanguinetti’s tailor and drapery store, where they sold flour, baked goods and tea.vii
57 Wind Street, Swansea, Walesviii
He was a licensed refreshment house keeper,ix so he may have had a small sitting area for customers to enjoy a cup of tea and a pastry. William and Mary had two young children and they lived with their shop assistant, two bakers, two errand boys, two ships’ brokers and two house servants.x “That’s a lot of people! Servants?!”, my daughter cried. Doubtless, she wants servants of her own, forgetting how much mum actually does for her.
Unfortunately, William may have stretched himself a little too thin. By July, he was in court, ordered to pay “nine pence halfpenny in the pound” to his creditors.xi And three years later, he declared bankruptcy.xii “He lost all of his money?” My daughter is genuinely concerned.
A few years later, William had moved down to 28 Wind Street, still working as a baker and grocer. He and his wife had five children at home and were now managing with just one servant.xiii
But William still struggled and soon found himself in Court for selling adulterated tobacco.xiv “Adulta-what?” my daughter asked. “Well, tobacco’s not cheap so sometimes someone selling tobacco would mix in cheaper ingredients like licorice without telling their customers.” William was fined £25, the equivalent of about £1,500 in today’s dollars, or about as much as it cost to buy a horse back then.xv “But that’s so much money!”
That wasn’t the only time poor William went to court. In 1879, James Steele accused him of assault.xvi James had entered William’s shop and following an argument, William said to him “Walk out of my shop you — rogue” and then “struck him [James] twice with his fist, cutting his lip and skinning his nose”.
“Maybe I should stop boring you with genealogy,” I tease my daughter. She begs me to keep going.
Well, it turned out that James was a bit “tipsy” when he went into the shop and demanded that William settle a debt. According to witnesses, James was pretty uncooperative, so the Court took William’s side in the case and dismissed the charges. “I like this ancestor – he was pretty tough!”
He was tough, but that didn’t help him the next time he was in Court three years later on charges of smuggling.xvii Detectives had searched William’s home and found a number of concealed items for which he hadn’t paid duty, including tobacco hidden in a fire grate, a chimney, and underneath his mattress, as well as brandy in the fireplace. “Altogether they found 36lbs. of tobacco, 10ozs. of cigars, and a half-a-gallon of brandy.” This time, he was fined £50, or the equivalent of two horses.
But William wasn’t the only one who was breaking the law, and compared to Benjamin Lewis, William got off lightly. Benjamin broke into William’s shop in October 1881 and stole a single loaf of bread, for which he was sentenced to “seven years’ penal servitude”.xviii “That’s seven years in jail with hard labour for stealing some bread,” I explain. My daughter gasps.
Things started looking up for William in the 1890s, during which time he became a municipal councillor in Swansea and served as vice-president for a model yacht building club. By then, he was working (legitimately, it appears) as a potato merchant at Quay Parade and lived at 39 Malvern Terrace, where he likely had a view of the beach by Swansea Bay.xix He volunteered extensively and then, at the age of seventy-nine in 1904, William became mayor of Swansea.xx
He received glowing accolades in his obituary a few years later and was fondly remembered as always “doing good – bestowing a genial smile here, an encouraging word there, and very often both were accompanied by a little financial help where needed.”xxi
By the time my grandmother Molly was born, all of her grandfather Spring’s earlier transgressions had been swept under the carpet and he was remembered only as the man who had once been mayor of Swansea.
My daughter summed it all up: “so he went from being a policeman to being a bad guy to being a good guy again!” Ten-year-olds clearly don’t often see the greys between good and bad.
The next morning, I overheard her telling her little brother the story of their great-great-something-grandfather who was a good guy turned bad guy turned good guy. I’m sure she still thinks that genealogy is incredibly boring, even if I “tricked” her into loving it by bringing William back to life with the true, colourful stories of his life.
i “Death of Ald. Spring, Swansea. Friend of the Open Spaces Movement. ‘The People’s Mayor’: Interesting Career,” The Cambrian, Swansea, Wales, 27 September 1907, p. 5, cols. 1-2; image copy, Welsh Newspapers Online (http://newspapers.library.wales : accessed 17 October 2018).
ii “Agents,” The Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian, 17 December 1859, p. 3, col. 2; image copy, FindMyPast (http://findmypast.com : accessed 17 October 2018).
iii “1851 England, Wales & Scotland Census,” database, FindMyPast (http://findmypast.com : accessed 17 October 2018), entry for William Henry Spring (age 24), Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, citing The National Archives, HO 107, piece 1973, folio 664, p. 45; Cheltenham registration district, Cheltenham sub-district, ED 1y, household number 170.
iv “Migration within England and Wales,” Morcom/Morcombe One-Name Study (http://morcom.one-name.net/InternalMigration.html : accessed 17 October 2018).
v Parish Church (Swansea, Glamorganshire, Wales), “Glamorganshire Marriages and Banns,” p. 90, William Henry Spring and Mary Ann White, 28 May 1853; digital images, FindMyPast (http://findmypast.com : accessed 17 October 2018).
vi “Slater’s Commercial Directory, 1858-1859,” GENUKI: UK & Ireland Genealogy (https://www.genuki.org.uk/big/wal/GLA/Swansea/slaters-swansea : accessed 17 October 2018).
vii “1861 Wales Census,” database, Ancestry (http://ancestry.ca : accessed 17 October 2018), entry for William H. Spring (age 35), Swansea, Glamorgan, Wales, citing The National Archives, RG 9, piece 4101, folio 11, p. 15; Swansea Parish, Swansea sub-registration district, ED 1g, no. on schedule 57.
viii “Old Photos of Wind Street Swansea,” Sarah Bennett, Visual Diary (https://sarahbennett475.wordpress.com/2012/10/22/old-photos-of-wind-street-swansea/ : accessed 17 October 2018).
ix Cardiff (Wales) Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian, 13 May 1864, p. 3, col. 3, “The Bankruptcy Act, 1861” (William Henry Spring); imaged in “Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian (Cardiff, Wales),” FindMyPast (http://findmypast.com : accessed 17 October 2018).
x “1861 Wales Census,” database, Ancestry, entry for William H. Spring, Swansea, Glamorgan, Wales.
xi The London Gazette (London, England), “Insolvent Debtor’s Court,” 9 July 1861, The London Gazette (https://www.thegazette.co.uk/London/issue/22528/page/2869/data.pdf : accessed 17 October 2018), p. 2869.
xii Cardiff (Wales) Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian, 13 May 1864, p. 3, col. 3.
xiii “1871 Wales Census,” database, Ancestry (http://ancestry.ca : accessed 17 October 2018), entry for William H. Spring (age 52), Swansea, Glamorgan, Wales, citing The National Archives, RG 10, piece 5450, folio 6, p. 6; Swansea Parish, Swansea sub-registration district, ED 1, no. of schedule 23.
xiv Cardiff (Wales) The Cardiff Times, 22 July 1871, p. 7, col. 3, “Adulterated Tobacco;” imaged in “The Cardiff Times,” FindMyPast (http://findmypast.com : accessed 17 October 2018).
xv “Currency Converter: 1270-2017,” The National Archives (https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/currency-converter/#currency-result : accessed 17 October 2018).
xvi South Wales Daily News, 22 April 1879, p. 3, col. 9, “Alleged Assault;” imaged in “South Wales Daily News,” FindMyPast (http://findmypast.com : accessed 17 October 2018).
xvii Cardiff (Wales) Western Mail, 6 October 1882, p. 4, col. 6, “The Seizure of Smuggled Goods at Swansea – Heavy Penalty;” imaged in “Western Mail,” FindMyPast (http://findmypast.com : accessed 17 October 2018).
xviii Cardiff (Wales) Cardiff Times & South Wales Weekly News, 7 January 1882, p. 6, col. 6, “Pleaded Guilty;” imaged in “Cardiff Times & South Wales Weekly News,” FindMyPast (http://findmypast.com : accessed 17 October 2018).
xix “Wright’s Swansea Directory, 1899,” pgs. 26, 95, 182; image copy, University of Leicester (https://leicester.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p16445coll4/id/340482 : accessed 17 October 2018).
xx “Mayor-Making at Swansea – Alderman Spring Chosen by a Substantial Majority,” The Cambrian, Swansea, Wales, 11 November 1904, p. 7, col. 1; image copy, Welsh Newspapers Online (http://newspapers.library.wales : accessed 17 October 2018).
xxi “Death of Ald. Spring, Swansea. Friend of the Open Spaces Movement. ‘The People’s Mayor’: Interesting Career,” The Cambrian, Swansea, Wales, 27 September 1907, p. 5, cols. 1-2; image copy, Welsh Newspapers Online (http://newspapers.library.wales : accessed 17 October 2018).
8 thoughts on “Is Family History Boring?”
Good to meet you. Did you get the message I sent a few minutes ago? I am not sure it went through. Anyway, my grandmother (now deceased) was a Spring, and lived in Swansea. The oil painting you show in your article was on the wall in her house for many years.
We may have a lot in common. I am a psychologist (now retired) and have lived in Boston and Vancouver.Best Wishes, Michael Apter
Thanks for your message, Michael! Sorry, no, I didn’t get another message from you, but I’m happy to see you here. It’s fantastic to know more about that painting and where it lived. Nice to meet more Spring descendants too and anytime you’re on the West coast, drop us a line! Marie
I also am a descendent of William Spring. My maternal grandmother (Eileen Liddon) and your grandmother Molly, I believe were first cousins. I remember your grandparents well when they lived in the Vancouver area when I was young. In fact they were my Godparents. I have fond memories of both Uncle Frank and Auntie Molly. One year for my birthday they bought me the biggest teddy bear I had ever seen, I loved and cherish it for years. Most of my immediate family still lives on the west coast and I visit often as I now live in New York.
It is so interesting to read about my ancestors, thank you for all your hard work.
All the best
It’s so good to hear from you! My grandparents also had fond memories of their time spent with your family. Since I wrote this article, I’ve uncovered more about our William Spring, but have yet to write it all up and add it here. I’d be very happy to email you what I’ve found – just drop me a line anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All the best,
I am also a descendant of William Henry Spring. My fathers mother Marie-Claire (Mahaney) Kirby was the daughter of my great grandmother Marie-Claire (Deburaux) Mahaney who was the daughter of my great great grandmother Flor Née (Spring) Deburaux who was the daughter of my great great great grandfather William Henry Spring. I am retired US army and back in 1996 as was in Swansea and was able to visit the court are where the mayor held court. I saw great x3 grandfathers name on the wall and was able to visit my great grandmothers home. My Grandmother and her sister Helen Mahaney ( my great Aunt) always talked about William Henry Spring and Swansea South Wales and I next thought I would be able to visit. I am very surprised to see other descendants as well and am very excited to extend the family tree. Thank you so much for sharing and I look forward to hear from you.
Thanks for getting in touch! It’s always nice to hear from more relatives. There is more to William’s story: it appears he was born as William Richards, the illegitimate child of Mary Richards and John Spring. Mary and John eventually married and John refers to William as his illegitimate son in his will. My grandmother would’ve been shocked by that news! I’m happy to share more – feel free to drop me a line anytime at email@example.com.
We have a plaster bust of W H Spring I am related through my father’s mother Lilian.
Thanks for your interesting research.
Thank you for your message, Graham! It’s so nice to see so many Spring descendants here! My grandmother’s name was also Lillian (she went by her middle name Molly) – she was Florence’s daughter who I believe was a half-sister to your Lilian. Feel free to drop me a line anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org. Take care!