If they lived in Warwickshire today, brothers Billy and John Gadsby would have played football for the "the Nuns" or "Boro" and would have been well known around the small towns of Nuneaton or Attleborough. This episode traces back to the earliest known stories about the Gadsbys in Nuneaton. John (b1770) and William Gadsby (b1773) were the 8th and 9th children of the Gadsby family from Attleborough in the county of Warwickshire.
Lets face it, John Gadsby senior (b1720) had enough children to form his own footy team! John my 4x Great grandfather had outlived his first wife Elizabeth Cope who died after producing his first 7 children. On 26/6/1770 after the reading of Banns at the Chilvers Coton Church the fifty year old John married for a second time to Martha Lingard who went on to produce at least 7 more children.
John was a road worker on the Attleborough/Nuneaton Road. Being poorly paid plus having a sizeable family saw the Gadsbys scrapping together and living in relative poverty. Nevertheless John Gadsby lived to the ripe old age of 96, dying in 1816 in Abbey Street Nuneaton. He had fathered 14 children and outlived Martha by 8 years.
Amazingly, for a poor road worker many details of his life and the antics of his young family are known. It seems his youngest daughter Nancy was critical in providing information which was documented in a Memoir written by his grandson John (Son of William) upon the occasion of William’s death. Then aged about 60 and still living in the Nuneaton area, Nancy was able to provide information to William’s son about the family, children and Attleborough in the early years. This is the story of two brothers and the Memoir provided a starting point.
John, their father, is said to have been a quiet man were as his wife Martha their mother was to have a reputation of being much louder as most mothers of seven children would be. Presumably there were children still at home from John's first marriage to Elizabeth. (Eleanor, Elizabeth and Sarah plus 4 others) Martha produced three boys John, William and Thomas (names which will be duplicated several times in future Gadsby generations) and a string of girls Anne, Fanny, Elizabeth and Nancy. Thomas the third son lived only a couple of months as was often the case in those times.
John Gadsby born late 1770 is the ancestor/patriarch of our line. His christening records show him as John GADGBY baptised on 20/1/1771. Gadgby is the provincial pronunciation of the name. His brother William Gadgby was baptised three years later on 17/1/1773.
As is often the case in large families, the boys were feeding and nursing babies as soon as they were able to sit up themselves. Their parents were so poor, education was out of the question. The children were left to run about the village bare footed and in ragged clothes until they were old enough to work. It is known William received a meagre education -learning to read but not write at the Nuneaton Church School. Attendance was for perhaps 2-3 days per week.
The townships of Nuneaton and Attleborough were well known for their cottage industry of ribbon weaving the industry which was introduced by French Protestant refugees. Weaving was mainly done in the homes of the workers. Most probably Martha was supplementing the family income by operating a loom from home. While the children ran around the streets the people of Nuneaton worked on their looms beside long windows in the upper story of their homes. This allowed for maximum light and a good view of the children in the streets below.
|A sketch from Ramsbottom's book of the Gadsby's Attleborough Home|
Having plenty of time on their hands the two brothers Billy and John repeatedly got up to all sorts of mischief and pranks. On a later visit to the village William told how they often they plagued the life out of two prim and elderly ladies who lived in a cottage nearby. Eventually the ladies got their own back by drenching William with a bucket of water.
There is one story documented in the memoir about the two boys. It was during the time of the Nuneaton Fair around 1890. "We'll cut across this field to miss the crowds,” said John who was about 20 years old about this time. When they reached Attleborough he suggested that they call into the Three Crowns Public house to partake of some "Queen's cordial". This is apparently no drink for the faint hearted. The recipe goes "take six quarts of Cherry Brandy, 2 quarts of sherry 3 pints of brandy, rum etc”. To this is added various herbs and spices. Curious to try it young William bought 3 half pennies worth. Basically they did what brothers do and got horribly drunk together. By the end of the night William was begging the landlady for a bed. "No" she said, "I'll not have some drunken fellows here!" William never forgot that night. Apparently William did not drink liqueur very much forever more. He was so mortified he prayed all night for God's pardon.
About that same time John enlisted in the Warwickshire Militia and served in the regiment for nearly 28 years. The Militia had been established in 1757 as a type of home guard during the years of the Napoleonic Wars. As insufficient volunteers would come forward, a form of conscription was introduced in which each parish would make lists of adult males in the parish and hold ballots to choose men for “compulsory” service. All men in the parish aged 18-45 were included in the lists. “Drawn men” who were unwilling to serve in the militia had to find substitutes to serve instead of them.
It is unknown whether John was a willing volunteer, a drawn man or a willing substitute but Military service was probably seen as a stable income for a man from such a large and poor family. The Warwickshire Militia was therefore a type of reserve army. At the time John enlisted (1889) most men only served for 5 years. There was widespread dissatisfaction with the balloting of young men. John served for a total of 25 years- his long service shows he clearly enjoyed the benefits of being a Militia man. John rose through the ranks of Private after nearly 9 years to Corporal for just over 4 years and to Sergeant for a further 11 years.
|John Gadsby's militia service|
Therefore John was a Militia man when he married his first wife Elizabeth Smith on 20/11/1897. The marriage lasted a short 6 years as Elizabeth died in 1803. There are no records of offspring from this marriage in the surrounding Nuneaton parishes. A little over a year later when he had been promoted to Sargent he married Mary Brown in December 1804. This may have involved being involved in training of younger recruits or even relocation with Mary to another Parish. His longer absences away from home may explain the lack of children recorded in the local Nuneaton Parish records.
By 1814 John had left the Militia as a consequence of age and infirmity to return solely to his trade of ribbon weaver. At the time of his discharge his Militia papers describe him as grey haired with grey eyes and sallow complexion. He was a reasonably tall man at 5 feet 9 ¾ inches.
The only recorded offspring of his marriage to Mary was Damaris who was born some while later in 1817. Unfortunately the life of Mary Brown came to an end 5 months after the birth of her daughter. In what seems to be a bit of a tradition with Johns in the Gadsby family he married again. Within 6 months the banns were being read for the marriage of 24 year old Elizabeth Harris and John Gadsby. In June 1818 they were married. John was still ribbon-weaving most likely from a room in his home. At the height of demand for these highly decorative ribbons, ribbon weaving was the town’s main industry and weavers could earn good money.
John and Elizabeth went on to have 5 children, four of whom (2 x Rebecca, William and Martha) died in infancy. The only surviving child was our John who was born in 1826. He is first recorded in official documents in the 1841 census as “Jno” living in Hall Row with his half sister Damaris and her family. He was working in the family trade of ribbon weaving.
John and Damaris’ father, John the Militia man had died in 1833 when John was seven. His mother Elizabeth appears to have married a widower from the nearby Chilvers Coton, a hamlet of Attleborough. She and Thomas Clews had a couple of short years together. They married in 1836 and the 1841 census shows her living by herself as a ribbon weaver in Freer’s Row, Nuneaton not far from where John and Damaris were living. Freer’s Row was a narrow and very short street. Her neighbours were the Freer family a family of ribbon-weavers after whom the street was named. Her death is recorded as 1842.
So John, the thrice-married Militia man, and ribbon weaver lived to approximately 63 years old. What became of his only brother William? Why did his son see fit to write about William and the Gadsbys in a memoir which has survived until this time?
Life must have been hard for the growing Gadsby family. Plenty of time on their hands, little education meant they could get up to mischief but this was matched by a weekly dose of wrath and condemnation from the local clergy. William had serious thoughts about sins and God while still at school. Racked with guilt about stealing turnips from the field or his swearing and pranks , he would be regularly determined to reform and to be a good boy. On one occasion he decided to run away from home. Feeling sorry for himself he disguised himself by stuffing old rags and straw down his back to look like a hunchback. An anxious John and Martha dismissed the sightings of a hunchback boy of similar age saying “O No, that could not be our boy.”
As soon as children were old enough they began working on looms. At the age of 13, William was apprenticed for 5 years as a ribbon weaver to a Mr Copson. He was allowed to keep half of what he would earn from weaving. Even then he still got up to all manner of sin and folly and it bothered his conscience. However, Ramsbottom in his book on William Gadsby, 2003, describes him as “a born leader, friendly, humorous and popular”. In the workshop he would hold forth for an hour at a time on an old tub to fellow workers making them roar with laughter. Once when he tried to leave the employment of Mr Copson his fellow workers complained so bitterly that he returned to work there.
He attended the Independent Church with his parents and later he attended a church at Bedworth. He spent so much time trudging backwards and forwards to Bedworth that he and his mother Martha quarrelled. “O Billy, “she would say “You’re off again!” It wasn’t the fact that he was off to church so much as he only had one pair of shoes and his mother worried that unless he went barefoot his shoes would get worn out. “Never mind, mother” he would say, “I shall be able to keep you yet.”
He eventually joined the Baptists at Coventry and was baptised in late 1893. Mr Aston who baptised him said “he could see something in the young man, although so illiterate and uncouth, that seemed blessedly to prove that he would some time or other be made useful to God’s dear family.” He trudged 8 miles each way to attend the Sunday services. It was during this walk that he composed the “8 Mile Hymn” one of his many. The experience of the drunken night with his brother John and witnessing a hanging of three young men in Coventry had profound effects on William when he would eventually become a preacher.
After meeting a girl named Elizabeth Marvin she persuaded him to give up ribbon weaving and take up stocking weaving in the nearby town of Hinkley. They married on 16th May 1896 when he was twenty-three and she was twenty-five. Having set up home in Hinkley the first of his children Rachael, Sarah and Phoebe were born. Here he became a preacher using the old barn at Hinkley and then building the Hinkley Chapel.
|Church built by Gadsby at Hinckley c 1803|
Later he moved his young family to Manchester where his other children Ebenezer, John and William were born.
Here, he was a Minister for 38 years, widely known and respected as a remarkable and passionate preacher who had “a gracious effect in the hearts of men and women.” He championed the cause of the poor, especially over the Corn Laws. He is well known for the many hymns that he wrote some of which are still in use today. His influence also came from his publication of the Gospel Standard magazine that he set up and which is still published today. He was the founder of many churches, which spawned the term “Gadsbyites” in the 1820s. A.C.Underwood in the “History of the English Baptists” described him as “a pulpit genius” and his great friend J.C.Philpot said of him “he spoke with such power and authority that it seemed almost as if he had been in the third heaven.”
William Gadsby (npg.org.uk)
It is documented that he was always a little stretched for funds for his preaching and good works but that the Lord always provided. He was used to being poor and with his family of 6 children he had many providential difficulties as his income did not support his family let alone other projects. Gadsby always believed that “My every need He richly will supply.” Later when he received funds in praising God he would preach “He has heard my prayer and helped me, and I will trust Him as long as I live.”
|William's son John documented his life in"A Memoir of the Late Mr William Gadsby" 1844|
One little lasting memory of our relationship with the famous preacher occurred when Thomas our great grandfather came to Australia in 1912. His brother John gave him a Gadsby Hymn book when he was leaving- a lasting reminder of our Nuneaton history. Thomas who told the story of bringing it to Australia to his children and grandchildren treasured this hymnbook and reminder of home. He, having little else to give passed it on to his oldest grand-daughter, Betty for safe keeping and our heritage has been in her safe hands ever since.
|I like to think this street in Nuneaton is named for us all.|
There are two streets in Nuneaton visible from the train. William Street and Gadsby Street both named in honour of their famous ex-resident, William the preacher. I like to think that William Gadsby shares the honour with those who lived there too and the generations who came after – the humble, honest townsfolk who went about their business worked hard and served their country. They also bore the “famous” Gadsby name.
I have received much help from complete strangers in researching this part of the history of our family. BA Ramsbottom’s book was invaluable and he has tried to put me in touch with others researching Gadsby relatives. He is still heavily involved with the Gospel Standard originally set up by William. Some of the pictures have been supplied by him.
Peter Lee from the North Warwickshire Family History Society has also been of assistance. He lives in Attleborough and has volunteered to take me on a tour of the town hopefully sooner rather than later. His family developed some properties on the famous Gadsby Street. Peter provided me with the first article on William the preacher when I enquired about Gadsbys living in Nuneaton in 2010.
We have befriended Chet Gadsby in the USA who has numerous records of Gadsby births, deaths and marriages- he claims their purchase of them as religious tax deductions! Thanks Chet.
My partner in crime , Leane Lawrence has been a great little researcher sifting through Parish records and keeping me posted on her many finds in the family tree.
For more information on Gadsby’s hymn’s there are free copies in e- book format or PDF on the internet. John Gadsby’s Memoirs of William Gadsby and some of his own writings are also available as PDF or e- book for free.
If you search William Gadsby on Youtube you will get a couple of his famous hymns set to modern music. Here's one Gadsby Hymn
At first glance we thought we had nothing to go on except a hope that we might find someone famous in our tree and that we might be related to this preacher whose hymn book we had and who had the same name.
So in answering “Who do you think you are?” I think we came from pretty hard working and honest working class people- something to aim for.
Should you find any more information or if you have any questions please email me
#52 Ancestors "Going to the Chapel"
#52 Ancestors "Going to the Chapel"