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  • Searching for the "Mill English”: The Meadowcrofts of Lancashire

    David Curtis Dearborn

    Published Date : February 1991
    Starting in the 1840s thousands of immigrants from Europe settled in New England, changing forever the ethnic makeup of the region.  The mass migration was fueled both by social and political upheavals in Europe, and by the Industrial Revolution here, which provided the hope of economic betterment.  New England, which until this the had been a rural, agrarian, Yankee society, was transformed over the next eighty years into an industrial giant with a labor force dominated in most areas by the Irish and French-Canadians, but also containing elements of Germans, Scandinavians, Italians, Poles, Portuguese, Greeks, Eastern European Jews, Lebanese, Lithuanians, and other ethnic groups.

    The centers of New England industry were the mill or factory towns that developed mainly along rivers. Some, like Lynn, Haverhill and Springfield, Mass., had existed since colonial times, while others such as Lawrence and Lowell sprang up almost overnight with the harnessing of the Merrimack River.

    While most of the factory workers were Irish, French-Canadian, or from continental Europe, a small but significant number were English; specifically, from the industrialized portions of southern Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire. Because the so-called “mill English” were mainly Protestant, had English surnames, and spoke English as their native tongue, they often are confused or lumped with the native Yankees (especially when they bore such English surnames as Metcalf or Churchill), and generally ignored by social historians writing about the immigrant experience in mill towns.

    Over time the “mill English” have joined the melting pot, marrying into other immigrant groups and into the indigenous Yankee population. Many marriages crossed religious lines.  Thus it is not at all uncommon for a New Englander today (especially of the “baby boom” generation) to have a mixture of Yankee and nineteenth-century immigrant ancestry, in varying proportions.  In New England, at least, a person’s surname is not necessarily a true indicator of his or her ethnic background.

    Tracing nineteenth-century “mill English” ancestry is challenging but by no means impossible.  While all the resources necessary for extending the pedigree will not be found in one place, the majority of them are available at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City.  The Society’s annual fall tour to Salt Lake City is an excellent opportunity for participants to pursue their recent English ancestors, assisted by expert and knowledgeable staff.  Many of the basic classes of records are much easier to consult in Salt Lake than in England, where, depending on the type of record, they may be scattered in different repositories around London or even in different parts of England.

    Before visiting the Family History Library (or before making a trip to England, for that matter), there are two important steps that you must take to help insure success.  First, learn everything you can about the family in America, keeping alert to those types of records that identify the English town or parish of origin or otherwise extend the pedigree.  Such records might he surviving letters and photos among personal items, or public records like certificates of naturalization, ship passenger arrival lists, death certificates, gravestones, or newspaper obituary notices.  Second, learn all you can about English genealogical research and the various types of records that exist for the time period when your ancestor emigrated.  Some good how-to’s include George Pelling, Beginning Your Family History in Great Britain (Baltimore, Genealogical Publishing Co., 1989), Gerald Hamilton-Edwards, In Search of British Ancestry (4th ed., GPC, 1983), Angus Baxter, In Search of Your British, and Irish Roots (GPC, 1989), Anthony J. Camp, Everyone Has Roots: An Introduction to English Genealogy (GPC, 1978), and David E. Gardner and Frank Smith, Genealogical Research in England and Wales (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1956-64).

    One of my ancestral families, the Meadowcrofts of Lancashire, may serve to illustrate existing types of records and the level of success possible in nineteenth-century “mill English” genealogy.

    According to microfilmed ship passenger arrival lists available through the National Archives and the Family History Library, the widow Hannah Lees arrived in Boston on Christmas Day 1885 from Liverpool aboard the S.S. Iowa, accompanied by her two children, Raymond and Mary [1]. The family settled in New Bedford, Mass., and Raymond Lees (my great-grandfather) was naturalized in the Third District Court of Bristol County 16 October 1894.  He stated that he was born in Ashton-under-Lyne, Lancashire 20 January 1871 [2]. Through interviews with family members, I learned that Hannah Lees had two married sisters who came to Massachusetts from England about the same time, and settled in Lawrence, where the Lees family eventually moved around 1900.  All these people worked in the cloth mills, just as they had done in England.  From their death records in Massachusetts I found that Hannah Lees and her sisters were born in England in the 1840s and were daughters of John and Elizabeth (Whitehead) Meadowcroft. This information was [21] about all I knew, and now I was ready to pay a visit to the Family History Library.

    For nineteenth-century English research there are four basic classes of records: vital records (beginning 1 July 1837), parish registers (pre 1837, with some extending later), censuses (1841, 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881), and probates.  It is necessary to use all of these types of records to solve a pedigree problem because each provides information not available elsewhere.  In some cases, as we shall see, it would be difficult or impossible to find something in one type of record without having searched another.  In working from the known to the unknown, each new bit of evidence collected provides a solid base on which to continue the pedigree.

    Step one was to confirm the birth of my great-grand-father, Raymond Lees.  Most British record sources are vast and poorly indexed, making searching tedious.  This deficiency is certainly true of the VRs, for which the nationwide indexes each cover only a quarter year.  Thus, if you don’t know when a birth or marriage occurred, it may be necessary to search through many rolls of microfilm.  Because I already had Raymond’s birthdate, it was easy in my case.  At the same the, I searched for the marriage of Raymond’s parents, Jonathan and Hannah (Meadowcroft) Lees; Hannah’s birth record (about 1844); and the marriage record of her parents, John and Elizabeth (Whitehead) Meadowcroft.

    For English VRs the Family History Library has only the indexes on microfilm; actual certificates must be obtained directly from St. Catherine’s House in London.  It is very expensive for Americans to request English certificates through the mail, but the Family History Library can obtain certified copies for you at $10.00 each, provided you have the exact reference from the microfilm index.  Generally, it takes about six to eight weeks for the certificates to arrive at your home, so several trips to Salt Lake City may be necessary to pursue leads provided by these documents.

    In my case, the certificates provided valuable information.  Raymond Lees, my great grandfather, happened to have been born at the beginning of the census year 1871; his birth record showed the family residence as 38 Welbeck Street, Ashton-under-Lyne, Lancs[3].  Thanks to this clue, I could search the census, available at the Family History Library on microfilm.  For large English cities, the Library has a series of book street indexes, so with a street address, you can learn the enumeration district number.  As each enumeration district is only about twenty pages long, it can be searched rather quickly.  The 1871 census showed Raymond, only 13 weeks old, residing with his mother Hannah Lees, a maternal aunt Mary E. Lees, and his maternal grandmother Elizabeth Meadowcroft, age 55.  All the women are described as cotton weavers and their birthplace is listed as Ashton[4].  English censuses beginning in 1851 contain a very important feature not found in their American counterpart: exact town or parish of birth (the 1841 census simply indicates whether or not the person was born in the county of residence).  This account contains three errors: the aunt Mary, being unmarried, was a Meadowcroft, not a Lees; Hannah Lees’ birthplace is incorrect, and Raymond is called “Mayrnon”!

    The 1866 marriage record in Ashton of Jonathan Lees and Hannah Meadowcroft confirmed that she was the daughter of John Meadowcroft (described as a manager).  Jonathan was then 25 and Hannah 22, but the certificate does not ask for place of birth.  According to her birth record, Hannah was born at Broadbottom, Cheshire (three miles southeast of Ashton-under-Lyne) 17 November 1844, daughter of John Meadowcroft overlooker at weavers, and Elizabeth Meadowcroft, formerly Whitehead.  Hannah’s parents were married a Oldham, Lancs. 28 April 1839.  John is described as a weaver, son of Thomas Meadowcroft; both parties described their age as “full”, while Elizabeth’s father’s name is simply listed as “dead” (this last bit of information initially frustrated me, but was helpful when I eventually learned that her father, Aaron Whitehead, had died at Ashton in 1824).

    Although I now knew that John Meadowcroft’s father was Thomas, I had to find John himself in a census in order to learn his age and place of birth.  It was relatively easy to locate John and his wife living in Church Court, Ashton-under-Lyne in 1841, with both described as 20, born in the county, he a cotton over-looker and she a weaver, with a year-old son Thomas [5].  Finding them in 1851 proved more difficult.  I searched many rolls of microfilm of Manchester and its suburbs in vain (my research on the Meadowcrofts began over fifteen years ago).  Over the last several year the Manchester & Lancs. Family History Society began producing a series of pamphlet indexes (by surname only) to the 1851 census; these are available at the Family History Library.  Thanks to one of these indexes I located John Meadowcroft and family living at Hollingworth, Cheshire, only a mile and a half northeast of Broadbotton, on the Derbyshire border.  The census listed John, then age 33 and born at Middleton, Lancs. (a northern suburb of Manchester 161), his wife and children, all with ages and places of birth.  It seemed sensible to search the 1861 census for Hollingworth also, and indeed I found Elizabeth Meadowcroft still there, now a head of household with marital status described as “wife”, and two children under age 10 [7].  John and the older children were not to he found.  Because Elizabeth was also a head of household ten years later in the 1871 census and is not described as a widow, I suspected that John Meadowcroft was still alive but I had no clue as to where to look for him.

    Before proceeding to the search for John Meadowcroft’s parents, it is necessary to ask what became of John and his wife Elizabeth.  The due came from their daughter Mary Elizabeth’s marriage record.  On 9 September 1883, at Ashton, she married John Howard.  Within a few years they had emigrated to America, settling in Lawrence, Mass., where they stayed in close contact with the Lees family.  From information from family members I found this marriage record easily.  It gives Mary Elizabeth’s residence as Glossop, Derbyshire which, although in a different county, is only about six [22] miles southeast of Ashton-under-Lyne.  The 1881 census listed the family in the village of Hadfield, just outside Glossop.  We find Elizabeth Meadowcroft, age 66, born Ashton, again called head of household, now “widow”, along with daughters Mary E. Meadowcroft, unmarried, 22, and Hannah Gregory, widow, 34, and grandchildren Raymond and Elizabeth Lees, ages 10 and 8 [8].

    To my knowledge, Elizabeth Meadowcroft did not come to America with the rest of the family when it emigrated in 1885.  It seemed likely that she died before this date, and her death might even have been the catalyst that spurred the others to abandon their native land.  Assuming that Elizabeth had died in or near Ashton, I had previously searched the death indexes without success.  Now that I had found the family in Derbyshire, I tried again.  Indeed, I quickly discovered that Elizabeth died at Glossop on 13 August 1882, aged 67, of cancer.  By American standards, English death certificates are not very helpful, as they list neither birth-place nor parents’ names.  However, one bit of information was important: the informant on the death record was her son Thomas Meadowcroft, whose address was given as 252 Bury Road, Rochdale.  Rochdale is a city about seven miles north of Ashton, and like Ashton, a center for cloth weaving.  A search of the 1881 census revealed not only the son Thomas living in Rochdale [9], but his father John, just a few blocks away.  As I suspected, John Meadowcroft had indeed remarried, and was living with his second wife Eliza and son Aaron (Aaron’s mother was Elizabeth [Whitehead], and he was named, no doubt, for his maternal grandfather, Aaron Whitehead).  The census described John as age 63. born Middleton, Lancs., overlooker of cotton looms [10].  I still do not know where John was in 1861 or 1871.

    Having established that John Meadowcroft was living in middle age at Rochdale, I decided that the next step was to “kill him off’, if possible, by searching death indexes, hoping that he did not move again. At the rate of four quarterly indexes per year, this could mean quite a bit of searching, as I had no idea how long he lived. Beginning in 1866, the death indexes give age at death as well as the registration district, so it was possible to eliminate persons of the same name who didn’t fit. After much searching, I found a match. The death certificate revealed that John Meadowcroft died at the Union Workhouse at Dearnley Wardle, Rochdale, 4 November 1898, age 81, a cotton loom overlooker. The informant was his son, A[aron] Meadowcroft.

    What of John’s ancestry? From two censuses I had good confirmation that he was born in the parish of Middleton, Lancashire ca. 1818, and from his marriage record I knew that he was the son of Thomas Meadowcroft.  The Middleton parish register, recently filmed by the Family History Society, confirmed that John was baptized there 25 May 1818, eldest child of Thomas and Mary (Cheetham) Meadowcroft [11].

    Thomas Meadowcroft’s later children were baptized in the parish church of Ashton-under-Lyne, but the parish register calls him “of Newton or Hyde [Cheshire, overlooker [of weavers” [12].  In the 1840s he became proprietor of an inn, “The Queen’s Arms” at 2 Back Lane (now 77 Victoria Street), Newton.  The building was still standing when I visited in 1977, and at that time was home to an upholstery business.  A local resident told me that The Queen’s Arms had been an active pub until at least World War II.  The 1851 census shows Thomas at Back Lane, Newton, described as an inn-keeper, age 54, born Tottington, Lancs., with wife Hannah (apparently a second wife) and one servant [13]. Thomas died there on 23 March 1860, aged 63, of hemiplegia, according to his death certificate.

    The Family History Library has microfilmed copies of many English probate records, and is currently filming those of the Principal Probate Registry, whose records begin in 1858.  From the already-filmed indexes [14] I learned that Thomas Meadowcroft left a will, which for a small fee I obtained from Somerset House in London.  Thomas signed this document with an “X”; while not rich, he did own a number of cottages in Newton, which he left to his wife Hannah and three children John, Samuel and Harriet, the wife of George Gaunt.

    Although this account of my progress on my Meadowcroft ancestors is somewhat simplified, it well illustrates what you can hope to find on your own nineteenth-century “mill English” ancestors.  As with all genealogists, my research continues.  On a visit to the Family History Library last fall, using microfilmed parish registers of Tottington and Bury, Lancs., and probates from the Consistory Court of Chester (which had jurisdiction), I successfully extended the family into the early eighteenth century.

    The Meadowcrofts were typical working-class people in nineteenth-century industrial southern Lancashire; they were also typical of the “mill English” of southern New England.  While they provide less than glamorous ancestors, they do present a genealogical challenge.  Many Americans share this kind of ancestry, and the Meadowcrofts serve to show how much can be accomplished at the Family History Library.  Not all research can be accomplished on one trip, but each visit will provide new bits of information that lead to the next source.  Among the things I learned from my research was the high degree of mobility of my family within a small area - they didn’t stay in one place very long.  I also learned how nearly every record I found provided a clue to finding another record that would reveal more information.


    1.    Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at Boston, 1820-1891 (National Archives Microfilm M265-381); (Family History Library [hereafter FHL] Film #0419993 [note: “Mary” therein should read “Elizabeth”]).
    2.    Naturalizations, Third District Court of Bristol Co. [Mass.], 1894, Petition #2622, at National Archives, Waltham, Mass.
    3.    Copies of all certificates cited are in the author’s possession.


    4.    1871 Census, R.G. 10/4073, p. 82 (FHL Film #0846352).
    5.    1841 Census, H.O. 107/532, E.D. 3, p. 37 [folio 211 (FHL Film #0306917).
    6.    1851 Census, HO. 107/2239, P. 172 (FHL Film #0087251).
    7.    1861 Census, H.O. R.G. 9/3004, p. 72 (FHL Film #0543063).
    8.    1881 Census, R.G. 11/3460, P. 140 (FHL Film #1341828).
    9.    1881 Census, R.G. 11/4111, P. ~ (FHL Film #1341983).
    10.  1881 Census, R.G. 11/4112, P. 25 (FHL Film #1341984).
    11.  Middleton, Lancs., Parish Register Baptisms, p.273; Marriages, P. 170 (FHL Film #1545699).
    12.  Ashton-under-Lyne, Lancs. [St. Michael’s] Parish Register Baptisms, 1814-32 (FHL Film #0547823).
    13.  1851 Census, HO. 107/2236, p.99 (FHL Film #0087248).
    14.  Calendar of the Grants of Probate and Letters of Administration Made in the Principal Registry and in the Several District Registries of Her Majesty’s Court of Probate [1860] (FHL Film #0215237).

    David Curtis Dearborn is Head Reference Librarian at the Society and a Fellow of the American Society of Genealogists.  His recent articles are listed on p. 12 of this issue.  He is compiling a genealogy of the descendants of the immigrant Godfrey Dearborn of Exeter and Hampton, N.H.  An early version of his ancestor table, since improved but including John and Elizabeth (Whitehead) Meadowcroft, appeared in TAG 57 (1981):26-29.

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