The maker’s plate of our BCN day boat, in raised sans serif, says it all: ELI . ASTON MAKER TIPTON. (I wonder why Eli Aston felt compelled to add the ‘dot’ between ‘Eli’ and ‘Aston’?)
The boat has presence. She’s a reservoir of memories and stories, a vessel, and ambient echoes thrum through her iron hull. Through association, and research I’ve been trying to piece together her history and find out more about the people who were part of her story. I’ve been helped in this by the huge generosity of a number of people who’ve volunteered memories and images, and by the fact that public records, once only accessible by visiting distant archives, are now increasingly available online.
Spurred on by a recent e-mail from Michael Ratcliffe, a grandson of Maud Mary, one of Eli’s daughters, I’ve returned to the archives with renewed enthusiasm to look again at the Aston family.
This is what I’ve found:
- Eli Aston was born in 1848 in Tipton Staffordshire, he died 29 August 1913 aged 65
- He was the eldest son of Isaiah Aston (b.1822) and Eliza Aston nee Chater (b.1820) who’d married in July 1841. According to the 1851 Census the family resided at Park Lane, Tipton. Isaiah (29) is recorded as being a Boiler Maker. The couple had a daughter also called Eliza (1)
- The census shows other Aston families living in Park Lane including Isaiah’s parents, the blacksmith Isaiah Aston (50) [for the sake of clarity I’ll call him Isaiah Snr.], his wife Mary (50) and six of their younger children; also a brother William Aston (22) engineer, with his wife Sarah (20) and daughter Mary Ann (1)
- By the 1871 Census Isaiah (now 48) is resident in Horseley Fields with a number of children still living at home, including Eli (23) who’s taken up his father’s trade and is recorded as being a boiler maker. Also resident in the household were Isiah J. (16) miner and George W. (10) scholar. The household employed a domestic servant Annie Cleaver (16).
- By 1871, Isaiah [Snr.] then 71 is also recorded as living in Horseley Field as an invalid. He and his wife (also invalid) are sharing their home with their grandson Jacob Shepherd miner, and their daughter Sarah Ann, who’d married James Bailey miner and had four children Benjamin, John, Marie and William.
- By the 1881 Census Isaiah and Eliza had moved to 21 Eagle Street Tipton with only George (20) remaining at the family home and working as a general labourer. The household maintained a domestic servant Sarah Ann Rudge aged 17yrs. Whilst Eli (33) still a boiler maker, is resident at 12 Canal Street with wife Phoebe (27, daughter of William and Comfort Parsons) and children Isaiah (8), William (11 months) plus Phoebe’s sister Sarah Parsons (17) working as domestic servant. In the 1880 Kelly’s Directory of Staffordshire Eli Aston is also listed as a beer retailer in Canal Street.
- In the 1884 and 1888 Kelly’s Directory, Aston is recorded as being both a beer retailer at 11 and later 12 Canal Street and iron boat builder, Workhouse Lane, Tipton.
- By 1891 Isaiah (68) and Eliza (70) live alone at 23 Park Lane Passage. Isaiah retired as a boiler maker is working as a Boat Man[?] Barge [the census entry is hard to read]. He died aged 71 years in 1894.
- The 1891 Census records Eli Aston’s (43, master boat builder) family expanding with Isaiah (18) boat builder, William (11) scholar, Gertrude (7), Edith (5), Maud (3) and Ella (2).
- According to the1896 Kelly’s Directory Eli Aston was by then working solely as a canal boat builder at Aston’s or Iron Boat Dock adjacent to Workhouse Lane. There’s also a reference to Benjamin Aston of Toll End Road and a Joseph Aston at Brades, Tividale both listed as canal boat builder – were they related?
- The 1901 Census shows Eli Aston (53) resident at 42 Waterloo Street. Phoebe (47), William (20) Boat Builder, Gertrude (17), Edith (15), Maud Mary (13), Ella (12), Eli (9) and Joseph (4).
“Maud Mary was my grandmother. She married John Edward (from another Aston family) in Dec. 1908, which explains her not being on the 1911 census in Waterloo Street. The couple had 4 children and lived in Coventry, then Leamington Spa. John Edward died of pneumonia at the early age of 38. Subsequently Maud Mary returned to Tipton, to be near her family. She lived in Locarno Road for 43 years and was manageress of the Tipton branch of the Co-op for many of those. One of her sons joined the police force and rose to the position of Chief Constable of Manchester. Maud Mary lived to be 84 years of age but never remarried or entertained gentlemen friends. She is buried with her husband in Tipton Cemetery.”
“Edith married into a family called Hammond, who had, and still have ties with Holdens, the brewing family. I visited her several times, as a child. She lived in Coseley.”
“William, in later life lived with his daughter, Ena, in Princess End, where Ena ran a clothes shop. I have a memory of being taken to see him, shortly before he died. I am certain of this. He died in 1958, age 78 and was cremated. His ashes were placed in his parents’ grave in Tipton Cemetery. Looking at
the date of death I would have been under 3 years old when I saw him!”
“Ella, Eli’s daughter lived to the age of 53 and Gertrude to 38. They are both buried with their parents.”
- By 1911 Eli Aston (63) is recorded as being an iron canal boatbuilder (Under the Commercial listing of Kelly’s Directory of 1912 Eli Aston iron boat builders, Alexander Road. Again an adjacent reference reads J&B Aston canal boat builders, Toll End) and he and Phoebe (57) [13 children, 8 living, 5 died), Isaiah (38) widower canal boat riveter, Gertrude (27), Ella (22), Eli (19) articled clerk – auctioneering, Joseph (14) canal boat rivet heater and Isaiah’s children May (9) and Horace (7) had moved a few door up to number 50 Waterloo Street.
“Isaiah returned to the family as a widower. His wife Agnes died in 1909. I don’t know the circumstances of her death but because of the date it was not in giving birth to the two children on the census.”
“May, Eli’s grand daughter is on the census return mentioned in the article, as a young girl. I remember her, as a fairly elderly lady, from when I was young. She worked for a Tipton company called ‘Lockerbie & Wilkinson’, as a caretaker. I had assumed her husband was in this position but my cousin is sure it was she who was. Anyway, I remember going to her house on many occasions and it was the caretaker’s house on the company site, which still exists today. This was situated next to the canal and directly on the opposite side of the road from what had been Aston’s boat dock. Every day she must have looked out on where her grand father had built his boats and where her father had worked. I have been unable to confirm any record of death for Isaiah, although there is a record of a death in Rowley Regis in 1953, of an 80 years old man, which corresponds date-wise. Curiously Isaiah is not buried with his wife.”
“Eli lived to the age of 65 and died in 1913. Phoebe, his wife, lived to be 73. There are tales in the family that they journeyed to Egypt as a comparatively young couple, where he worked on a dam, but I have yet to discover any details of this. Their gravestone in Tipton Cemetery is one of the largest there. I have attached photographs of it.”
“As for the house in Waterloo Street, I remember visiting it once as a child, with my father. This was a complete coincidence and no Astons were living there at the time. I can’t remember the reason we visited but I remember going there and being told that it was the house. I assume that this was No. 50. Why they moved, I don’t know. The suggestion that it was because it was a larger house and Isaiah had moved back with his children seems likely.”
(All comments in quotation marks and italics, and the three photos of the Aston gravestone, are by Michael Ratcliffe and are reproduced with his kind permission.)
What emerges from the records are tantalising glimpses of family life in the triangle of land bordered by canals that make up the heart of old Tipton. It’s a picture of the extended Aston family living in a stable community, a community dependant on the heavy industry of the Black Country, on iron, steel, coal and canal carrying.