This is the Case Study I had published in Your Family Tree magazine in March 2009
William Singleton – Perpetual Overseer
SINGLETON Wm yeoman/perp overseer/constable Low Esk Holm Muncaster (1829)
Finding an entry in the 1829 list of Principle Inhabitants of Cumberland and Westmoreland, for my ancestor William Singleton, was a journey into finding out what a yeoman, perp overseer and constable was, and was this the father of my great great grandfather, William born at Low Esk Holme in 1836. Along the way I was to find the intriguing life of my ancestor.
When I first started researching my mother’s Singleton family, I knew they were from Barrow in Lancashire and I duly found my great great grandfather William in the free online transcription of the 1881 census (www.familysearch.org), he was described as a 44 year old steam crane driver, living in Barrow, but born at Low Estham, Cumberland. Subsequent searches found him in other censuses, all showing a different place of birth, Ravenglass in 1891 and Muncaster in 1901, it was only whilst looking these up on a map, I realised they were three different descriptions of the same place, Low Estham was Low Eskholme, Ravenglass the nearest village and Muncaster was the parish.
On a visit to the Family Records Centre in 2004, I found William on the 1841 census aged 4 living at Low Eskholme with William, 60, Hannah 60, Hannah 15, William 40, Ann 35, and Elizabeth 10. I then made one of the classic mistakes of interpreting the 1841 census – the census gives no relationships, and family groups aren’t always what they seem. I assumed that William and Hannah were husband and wife and living with them was their son William, his wife Ann and their three children, I was to be proved wrong further down the track, but at the time, I went searching for more information on the three William Singletons. To further complicate matters, I looked up Low Eskholme in the 1851 census to find confusingly, a William Singleton aged 24 a farmer of 16 acres, born Muncaster and his wife Sarah aged 25 born Eskdale, who were they, they didn’t fit with any of the Singletons from 1841. This was the beginning of my journey into the life of William Singleton yeoman farmer.
I started out by doing a web search for William Singleton and Low Eskholme and found a fascinating web site Past Presented (http://homepages.tesco.net/~trochos/eskdale/) and the Eskdale project; this was to prove a fascinating glimpse into the world of 19th century Lakeland. From this I found out about Low Eskholme and its environs, there are extracts from the land tax and probate records for Eskdale, including the Muncaster Poor Rate for 1810, this stated that the overseers for this year were William Singleton and Isaac Jackson, included in the list of rate payers is Lord Muncaster, the owner of Muncaster Castle, who paid the staggering amount of £18 15s 0d, further down the list is William Singleton paying £0 9s 9d.
So far I’d found references to four William Singletons in the various records I’d looked at. I did further searches on familysearch.org and found William Singleton baptised in 1777 at Muncaster, his parents were William and Elizabeth, but much as I looked I could find no reference to William marrying and having a son about 1801. Frustrated I once more turned to the internet, to the Access to Archives website (www.a2a.org.uk), searching here I found references to both William and Low Eskholme in Muncaster parish in Cumberland, the records were held at the Cumbria Archives in Whitehaven. Cumbria Archives Service offers a research service, where you can pay for a one hour search of their records, taking advantage of this, I requested a search, and it was the results of this that sorted out the intricacies of this family and led to the discovery of more details about William’s life.
Cumbria Archives confirmed William’s baptism in 1777 and also his siblings, including a Hannah in 1779, it also provided a copy of William’s will dated February 1852 which noted that his heir and only child was Elizabeth a minor at the date of the will. Also included was a copy of an article of exchange dated 1783 relating to the property ownership of various stints in low marsh near Nether Hestholme (an alternate name for Low Eskholme), and a mortgage indenture dated 1827 where William Singleton had borrowed £120 from Benjamin Bibby for a period of 1000 years! I was staggered by the time period, but £120 then was a lot of money, William had inherited Low Eskholme from his father in 1823, and he obviously needed money, perhaps to do improvements to the farm, earning a living in the Lakeland Dales from farming was a perilous business.
The situation was starting to come clear, William Singleton born 1777 had no wife in 1841, no marriage having been found for him to a Hannah, but he did have a sister Hannah who in 1801 whilst a servant in Kirkby Ireleth in nearby Lancashire had an illegitimate son William, who married Ann in Kirkby in 1822. The family moved to Low Eskholme where this William became a labourer on his uncle’s farm, and where presumably his mother and wife attended to the domestic duties. William continued with his duties as overseer and constable for the parish of Muncaster. As so often in my researches, I turned again to the internet and this time a search for William Singleton Overseer returned an entry from the roots web Cumberland mailing list which reprinted an article that had originally appeared in the Cumbria magazine in 1981, by Barbara Newton. It was about the poor of Ravenglass and named William as the perpetual overseer. He was in office from 1815 until 1838 when the new poor laws took effect, and his salary was £3. 9s. 0d per annum, and the quote I love “he was a very busy man, but in addition to this he claimed expenses which were considerable, for self and horse.” I felt this gave an immediate impression of William riding off on his horse on one of his journeys to apprehend the father of an illegitimate child in his parish, or to see a vagrant to the extent of the parish.
This article gives a fascinating insight into life for the poor , they were required to wear a patch on their sleeves with a P for Pauper on it and the initial of their parish to identify them. This was usually restricted to inmates of the poor house in Ravenglass, its master being William Mossop. William Singleton was responsible for collecting the poor rate and distributing it, some of those payments are noted in Newton’s article, "paid to Dr. Patricks for takeing off Thos. Tyson`s legg £2.2s.Od." On November 6, 1816, is an item "paid for Thos. Tyson Wood Legg 5s Od." Other items include expenses for Wm. Gunson and Wm. Singleton, each 2Days to Hawkshead to take Isaac Saterthwaite for a Bastard Child £3. 1s. 0½d. I felt I was getting to know William, but I had one more surprise from him before I finished my research.
Having received a copy of William’s will, I found out that he had left everything to his daughter Elizabeth, as well as providing for his wife Sarah when Elizabeth came of age and inherited so long as Sarah was still “unmarried and remaining my lawful Widow”, in the event of Elizabeth’s death it was to revert to Sarah, unless she married when it would revert to other relatives (though interestingly not his sister Hannah and her family though his other sisters Elizabeth and Ann are mentioned). The name Sarah rang a bell with me and I remembered the entry from the 1851 census, revisiting the page (now available on www.ancestry.co.uk), I found it to actually read William Singleton, 74, Sarah his wife was aged 25 – a large discrepancy in their ages, what had induced William to marry at such a late age and to someone nearly 50 years younger than him. I suppose I will never know for sure, perhaps he wished to ensure the farm stayed in his immediate line, perhaps he fell out with Hannah’s family (she had died in 1849 and her son William in 1841, by 1851 Ann and her children were living Liverpool).
William and Sarah’s marriage certificate shows they were married by license at Muncaster parish church on the 29th March, their ages only given as full age; daughter Elizabeth was born in July 1851, giving perhaps one reason for William’s marriage so late in life. William didn’t live long to enjoy his new family, he died of influenza aged 74 on the 13th March 1852, leaving his daughter Elizabeth a considerable heiress.
On a visit to the Lake District in 2006 I visited the Muncaster parish church in the grounds of Muncaster Castle and found William’s grave. The inscription reads
Erected to the Memory of William Singleton of Low Eskholme in this parish who died March 15th 1852 in the 75th year of his age.
Also Sarah his wife, who died November the 6th 1862 Aged 37 Years.
Farewell my wife and child so dear
I am not dead but sleeping here
With patience wait, prepare to die
And before long we'll meet on high.
Sorting out the various William Singletons has been a challenge, but along the way I’ve discovered more about one of my ancestors who lived at a time of considerable change, poverty and hardship, but who lived until the grand age of 74, having had a positive effect on many peoples’ lives; and have learnt a lot in the process, not just about how to trace my family tree, but how our ancestors lived in an age before the Welfare State.