From a very early age I can remember frequent visits to my paternal grandparent’s rambling house in the small town of Reepham in Norfolk. Although born and bred Boltonians, work in the embryonic electricity supply industry had brought my grandfather and family from Bolton eto Norfolk some time in the late 1920s, where the family remained for the rest of their lives.
The house, once one of the many inns in Reepham, was a strange affair, with a back staircase leading to empty upper rooms that nobody used, complete with Victorian treadle sewing machine and china wash sets on stands, and a “back sitting room” that was rarely if ever used. But behind the ancient settee in that room lay a mystery. Wedged firmly between settee and wall was an oil painting – not one of your little ones but to me, as a five year old, an enormous one! “That’s Grandma” my mother joked. But who’s grandma? Not mine, as she was usually to be found sitting beside the coal fire in the everyday sitting room. I was too young to ask and somehow rather scared of the subject. It was a dark, dirty and very gloomy portrait of an elderly woman in dark clothing against a dark background.
Years passed, the painting was oft remarked on – mainly in a derogatory terms. The fact was that no one wanted to inherit it when the time came. As so often happens, my parents did inherit the portrait and I suspect my mother had a secret liking for it as she even tried to clean it up ( in a very unprofessional manner) and insisted it was hung in their house.
Roll on the years and now I have been the owner of this portrait for the last 18 years. It has, however taken a back seat again – not literally this time but has certainly found resting places in our garage and latterly the loft.
I have been researching my own family history for many decades, but have always tended to concentrate on the paternal line as a One-Name Study. I tend to get sidetracked navigating up maternal lines too far. But recently I decided to push the boundaries of my study and so embarked upon tracing all grandparents back at least five generations – with the aim of finding all 64. It was time to dust down the portrait and embark on a bit of genealogical and artistic research.
So, what do we know about this picture? The artist signs himself as “G Eccles”. On the back of the frame is affixed a piece of paper which states “Elizabeth Hall, 1796” in an old script, and a second label which is a restorer’s name and address from Altrincham, Cheshire but undated but probably from the early 20th century. I knew there were Halls on my paternal grandmother’s side of the family, so this was a start, although I was unable to find an Elizabeth Hall at that time. The other complication was that my family had always assumed that the date on the back of the painting was the date that it was painted.
I sent a copy of the picture to Bolton Museum and Art Gallery some years ago, after a chance email discussion with someone who worked there. The gallery was able to confirm that the artist was correct (George Eccles) but the painting was definitely Victorian and probably painted in the mid to late 1800s. The dark attire of the subject was an indication that she was in mourning. What was more exciting was that Bolton Art Gallery actually owns another portrait by Eccles – depicting John Crompton, the fourth son of the inventor of the spinning mule, Samuel Crompton. It is oil on canvas, as is “grandma” and was painted in 1863. The painting is on display at Hall i’ th’ Wood Museum, Bolton. They were unable to tell me much more as they had virtually no information about the artist himself. Apart from an image of this portrait and its attribution to Eccles on the ArtUK website there do not appear to be any biographies of the artist in existence despite some intense searching. I am coming to the conclusion that the portraits of John Crompton and Elizabeth Hall are perhaps the only ones in existence by Eccles today.
Betty (Elizabeth) Ashton/Hall , my 3X great-grandmother, was finally tracked down by meticulously working back through my Forshaw and then Hall ancestors, starting with those recent ancestors where I had very firm evidence of their parentage. It was not helped by two illegitimacies en route.
Betty (Elizabeth) Ashton was born in 1796 in Bolton, Lancashire. Her mother, Alice Ashton, was 21 at the time of Betty’s birth. There is no father mentioned on any baptismal records ( 1 Jan 1797; St Peter, Bolton) so it is assumed that Betty was illegitimate. The birth year corresponds with the date attached to the frame of the portrait.
Betty married Joseph Hall on 25 July 1823 in Bolton. They had four children during their marriage – Hannah, Mary, Elizabeth and Samuel. Hannah Hall (born 1826) gave birth to Alice Hall in 1851 ( no father recorded). Alice Hall married John Forshaw, son of Mary Forshaw (no father recorded) in 1870 (my great grandparents)
Census Records for Joseph and Betty Hall:
1841 Martin’s Houses, Bolton Le Moors
1851 152 Spring Gardens, Bolton
1861 110 Sydney Street, Bolton
1871 69 Sydney Street, Bolton
In the census returns for 1841 and 1851 Joseph Hall’s occupation is recorded as cotton/handloom weaver but in 1861 he is recorded as “beerseller” and in 1871 as “ retired beer house keeper”. In 1830 the Beerhouse Act allowed the sale of beer without the requirement of a licence from the justices, instead just a payment to the Excise authorities was required (as opposed to the sale of spirits, which were becoming much more tightly regulated due to the social problems associated with “Gin Houses”). These establishments were called beerhouses or beershops and their proprietors described as beersellers. From 1834 an amendment to the 1830 Act was created which resulted in two separate licences for the sale of beer either on or off the premises. It’s not clear from the census returns which service Joseph Hall performed.
Joseph Hall died in the second quarter of 1871. He was aged 71 and he had been married to Betty for 47 years. Betty died in July 1882 in Bolton, aged 86.
Why did Elizabeth/Betty have her portrait painted and when?
It has seemed unusual that the wife of a handloom weaver and latterly beerseller would have the resources to commission a portrait, especially as it undoubtedly represents the sitter in mourning attire. Since Joseph Hall died in 1871 and Betty died in 1882 the portrait must have been painted between these dates. Was there some connection between the Hall or Ashton families and the artist? The next step was to investigate the life of George Eccles and his family.
George Eccles was born in 1823 in Wigton, Cumberland to Elizabeth Eccles nee Alcock age 23 and William Eccles, age 22. At some time before 1841 George and his parents moved to Bolton. The 1841 census records the family living in Deansgate, Bolton, where William Eccles’ occupation is described as “gaiter*”.
* Gaiter: overlooker, loom overlooker (weaving) ; loom gaiter, weaving master, weaving mistress, weaving overlooker – is responsible for efficient running and for output of power looms, or of a section thereof; directs and controls weavers…
The 1841 census record of the Eccles family residing in Deansgate, Bolton Le Moors:
There are several points of interest in this 1841 Census record – firstly the occurrence of Thomas and George ASHTON ( Betty/Elizabeth Hall’s maiden name). Is it mere coincidence that there are two members of an Ashton family residing in the same premises in Deansgate as George Eccles? Is this indicative of a family connection between George Eccles and Elizabeth Ashton? What is the relationship between Thomas and George Ashton. The 1841 Census is unfortunately very sparse in detail compared with the later census records. In addition, one of the residents is an Ann Walker age 9 – see the section regarding Mary Walker later in this document.
Thomas Ashton is described as a “whitesmith”. ( A whitesmith is a metalworker who does finishing work on iron and steel such as filing, lathing, burnishing or polishing. The term also refers to a person who works with “white” or light-coloured metals, and is sometimes used as a synonym for tinsmith ) He was born around 1816 but it has proved very difficult to trace his parents or much about his later life. He occurs in the 1851 Census, again in Bolton ( but born Warrington) and occupation blacksmith. There is a degree of uncertainty in these two census records. Do they actually represent the same person? Thomas is probably too young to be a sibling of Elizabeth Ashton however.
George married Ann Creer in Bolton, on 4 May 1846 when he was 23 years old.
The marriage register records the following:
Marriage: 4 May 1846 St Peter, Bolton, Lancashire, England. George Eccles – Full, Portrait Painter, Bachelor, Great Bolton Ann Creer – Full, Spinster, Little Bolton Groom’s Father: William Eccles, Gaiter Bride’s Father: Matthias Creer, Publican
George and Ann had at least four children:
Phoebe Ann Elizabeth baptised Jan 1847 Bolton died 1885 Bamber Bridge, Lancashire
William Creer Eccles baptised Oct 1848 died Oct 1849 Bolton
Angela/Angelia baptised Jul 1850 Bolton
Georgiana baptised 1854 Bolton
Between 1851 and 1855 the family resided at 6 Moor Lane, Bolton. George is recorded as a portrait artist. Phoebe and Angela were resident in 1851 but William has died two years previously.
George’s wife Ann died in early 1856 and was buried on 11 February 1856 at St Peter’s, Bolton le Moors.
By 1861 George had moved to 10 Barn Street,Great Bolton, where the head of the household was his mother Elizabeth. His children Phoebe, Angela and Georgiana were also living at this address. George is described as “artist”.
On 18th November 1861 George, widower, married Mary Walker, spinster at St Peter’s, Bolton le Moors. Mary May have been born about 1821 at Wigton, Cumberland according to the 1871 census – the same place as her husband George. This could however be a recording error by the census enumerator or could more likely have been born in or near Bolton. Was Mary a long standing family friend? Is there any significance in the fact that an Ann Walker age 9 was living with the Eccles family in 1841? (see above)
George Eccles died in October 1881 and was buried in Tonge Cemetery, Bolton on 13th October.
Mary Walker – George Eccles second wife?
In the 1851 Census, Elizabeth Eccles (George Eccles’ mother) is living in a Walker household:
|Mary Anne Eccles||17||“|
Is Mary Walker in this record the same Mary Walker who was to become George Eccles’ second wife? The 1851 Census record above shows Mary Walker age 20 so born 1831. This does not fit with the estimated age of Mary after she married – the 1871 Census estimates her birth year as 1821. The other problem is that the birthplace records for Mary Walker in 1851 state Bolton Lancashire rather than Wigton, Cumberland in 1871. However, the above 1851 census record also lists an Ann Walker aged 19. Is she the same Ann Walker that has been noted in the 1841Census record discussed? The respective ages seem to fit. Could Mary and Ann, as sisters, be 20 and 19 respectively as suggested by the 1851 census? Possible but needs more research!
In 1841 the following census returns have been considered:
|First name(s)||Last name||Sex||Age||Birth year||Birth place|
|First name(s)||Last name||Sex||Age||Birth year||Birth place|
It is known from Mary Walker’s marriage record that her father was William Walker. It is therefore possible to reduce the number of potential records in the 1841 Census ( on the assumption that Mary was still living at home in 1841). The above records are some of a few possible records. However, both these records contain a child Ann Walker. If we are to accept the 1841 Census record for William Eccles (see above) as being correct then Ann Walker should not be registered at both addresses and therefore the two 1841 records discussed in this section can not be correct. It is not unknown for census records being incorrectly submitted and therefore there is a small possibility that Ann could have been recorded as a visitor at one place and a resident at the other place. Later census returns clarify this but the information recorded in 1841is more rudimentary. All the significant 1841 returns mark the person as being born in Lancashire rather than in another county, so this may be an indication that the birth location in the 1871 Census of Wigton Cumbria is a census enumerator’s recording error and was incorrectly applied to Mary as well as correctly to George Eccles.
The above is what I have deduced so far. I will update the document as and when I am able to provide further information!
George Eccles – miscellanea
The Bolton Chronicle, Saturday, September 27, 1862. Inauguration of the Crompton statue
On Wednesday last the statue errected on Nelson square in this town in honour of Samuel Crompton inventor of the spinning mule, was publicly inaugurated, the occasion being one of the most imposing ceremonies ever witnessed in this good old town and infinitely surpassing, in the grandeur of its pageantry and the enthusiasm of the inhabitants all previous conception. Before however proceeding to note the events of the day let us briefly refer to the circumstances which gave rise to this public ceremony of one of our countries greatest men, – one of whom this neighbourhood especially may well be proud in claiming him as it’s own. …………(long section not transcribed describing various people, displays and floats)
The clock and patternmakers free gift society.
This very important branch of industry was right worthily represented. And exceedingly beautiful banner was followed by the splendid brass band of the Hoddlesden Shepherds. then came the lurry belonging to Mr Everitt Cooper fruiterer of Old Hall Street decorated gorgeously to the height of 18 feet and a half with laurel flowers, festoons of ivy, artificial circlets and other ornamentation. In front was a magnificent design by Mr George Eccles to whose artistic skills most credibly we redounded. it consisted of a carefully painted figure of Britannia, the left hand resting on the world wide tricolour shield, the right hand grasping a gilt tripped spear, and the British lion, couchant but wary, on the right, the whole enclosed so beautifully that it became a perfect bed of posies.
The Bolton Chronicle, Saturday, February 28, 1852. Employers Strike
Mr George Eccles, artist, of this town, considering the destitute condition of so many of his fellow-townsman, who have been thrown out of employment in consequence of the above strike, has generously given a beautiful landscape, painted in oil, by himself to be balloted for by an unlimited number of subscribers, The proceeds derived there from to be applied in aid of the Non-society men, Hammermen, and labourers; the arrangements having been concluded, the drawer took place last evening, at the house of Mr Hartley, the cross keys in, little Bolton; and the party is holding tickets are respectfully informed that the winning number is 211, and the individual possessing such ticket can obtain the picture on application to Mr Hartley. The number of tickets sold were 466, which amounted to £11 13 shillings, which sum will be handed over to the parties named on Monday, the first day of March 1852.