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The Girl Who Was Counted Twice
The Intriguing Tale of Alice Wheelwright 

An updated version of an article published in the December 2008 edition of The Midland Ancestor, published by the BMSGH.

In the late 1840's two Wheelwright brothers, Josiah and George, moved to Sheffield, apparently in connection with the silver trade which was on the rise in both cities. Josiah settled down to a quiet life and can be traced at the same address for over 50 years, from the 1860's through to his death in 1914. For George, however, life was much more colourful.

Things went well for George for a while and he too joined the silver industry as an electro finisher, operating the new technology of electroplating. In 1859 he married a local Sheffield girl, Dinah Sarah Barratt, and the 1861 census shows them living in Cemetery Road, Ecclesall Bierlow. Two children soon followed, Alice, born in 1862, and Sarah, born in 1866. The couple ran a public house, the Union Hotel in Cherry Tree, for a while and it's possible that George started to give way to drink. Dinah died in 1868 and from then on George's life appears to have unravelled.

In the 1871 census George and young Alice, aged 8, are living with George's mother Sarah Parkes (she had re-married after her husband's death) at 46 Burgess Street, Sheffield, and are correctly recorded as Sarah's son and grand-daughter. The younger Sarah, aged 5, is living with George's brother Josiah and family. But by 1881 George is on his own, in a lodging house in the back streets of Sheffield. Several census details - such as his age and place of birth - are recorded incorrectly, so he was obviously not well known to his landlord and housemates. He died in early 1885, aged 52.

While searching the 1871 census I was surprised to find another Alice Wheelwright, also 8 years old. This one is living in the household of an Elizabeth Wardle and is described as her 'niece' and born in Sheffield. Also present is a young boy, George Silke Wardle, aged 3. I was pretty sure mine was the only Wheelwright family in the Sheffield area at the time. So who was this second Alice?

Working forward, there were no further references to Alice Wheelwright within the Sheffield area. The 1881, '91, and 1901 censuses all drew a blank, as did marriage records. But a chance discovery for 1881 showed a person of the correct age and birthplace living in the household of a George Silke in London. From this I was able to identify the second Alice's marriage, also in London, in 1889. After a painstaking week's wait, the marriage certificate arrived from Kensington & Chelsea Register Office. The bride was 'Alice Wheelwright, 26, spinster', and her father was stated as: 'George Wheelwright (deceased), Silversmith' - all the facts fitting what was known about my Alice.

Time to take stock of the situation. On the one hand, in 1871 I had Alice Wheelwright, with her father, listed in the household of her grandmother. She was clearly linked to the family. On the other hand, I had evidence that the girl living with Elizabeth Wardle was also linked to the family in some way, but how? Could George have had two daughters with the same name?

A trawl through the censuses and FreeBMD eventually provided an explanation. Dinah Sarah, George's wife, was the daughter of John & Sarah Barratt. John was a publican and in 1851 lived at 3 Castle Green, Sheffield. He died in 1857 and soon after Sarah remarried, to George Mortimer Silke, a commercial traveller who had been born in Dublin. Sarah died in 1865 and Dinah, perhaps conscious of her husband's weaknesses, must have asked her stepfather, George Silke, to look after the children if anything happened to her. Elizabeth Wardle was originally George Silke's bar-maid and later became his mistress and mother of his son.

Hence, the two Alice Wheelwrights in the 1871 census are, in fact, the same person. This suggests there was a custody battle over Alice between the two sides of the family - with grandmother Sarah Parkes, perhaps backed up by George, on the one side, and George Silke, acting on Dinah's wishes, on the other. Where young Alice actually was on the night of the census we shall never know, but when the enumerator came knocking and asked 'Who lives here?', both households were obviously under the impression that Alice lived with them. It leaves us with the highly unusual situation where a person is listed twice in the same census.

An Irish Scally Made Good

Whether her mother's family, in the form of her step-grandfather George Silke, ever had legal custody of Alice is not clear, but it turned out to be a good move. Sometime in the early 1870's George came into money, big time. After many years as a publican in Sheffield, suddenly, in 1881, he turns up in London at a big house in Camden Road, Islington, and describes himself as 'an annuitant'. Living with him are Alice, aged 19, and his own children George and Lottie, though no sign of second wife Charlotte Hutchinson.

When he died in 1892 George left an estate worth over 36,000 - equivalent to around 2.5M today. So where did the money come from? A clue comes from George's third child, who he named Richard Kavanagh Silke. He was born in 1873 in London, showing that the move from Sheffield - and the windfall - must have occurred sometime between then and the 1871 census (late 1871 or 1872). Richard Kavanagh was a friend of George's from Dublin and one of the executors of his will. In later years he is listed as 'a gentleman' but trade directories from the 1870's show his original profession as a 'turf accountant' - a bookie! So it seems likely that George's money came from a big - indeed huge - win on the horses facilitated by Richard, and in return he named his new-born son after him!

The picture that emerges of George Silke is something of an Irish scally. At 38, he married (apparently for the first time) Sarah Barratt, who was several years older than him, probably for her money. As soon as she died (and possibly before) he took up with his barmaid, Elizabeth Wardle and had a child by her (they had worked together for at least five years before Sarah died). He then married Charlotte Hutchinson, who was some 30 years his junior (the marriage certificate says she was 22, when in fact she was just 16). Meanwhile, he gambled on the horses and ingratiated himself to his friends by naming his children after them. What a character!

Charlotte died less than a year after George, around Jun 1893, at a seaside lodging house in Brighton, aged 39. Of the children, nothing more is known of George jnr. Lottie (full name 'Lottie Russell Silke' - another example of ingratiation) married a well-off chap called Harry Martin and raised a large family in Twickenham, Middlesex. Richard attended Scaitcliffe School in Egham, Surrey and probably went abroad.


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    Silke Family Graves, Kensal Green Cemetery