William Henry BILLSON - Alice EVANS's father?

  Puzzles ©2010-2017 Rosemary & Stan Rodliffe

Who was Nanna HAMSON's father?

Alice HAMSON was born at Kettering in March 1876 and registered with her mother's maiden name LOASBY. Louisa married Albert EVANS in 1879 and Nanna took the name EVANS at that time. No one ever mentioned that Albert was not her father although inconsistencies in dates must have been apparent. Alice must have been conceived around June 1875, a few months before Louisa's 15th birthday. It could have been a month or so later if Nanna had been born prematurely. And that was the full extent of our knowledge until a search through newspapers of the time revealed some surprising intelligence.

Northampton Mercury, 1875

Saturday 18 September

"(Kettering) Magisterial, September 11th. - Before Captain J. Borlase Tibbits. - William Henry Billson, grocers' porter, a young man about 20, was charged with attempting to commit suicide by taking laudanum, on the 9th inst. - Louisa Loasby, daughter of Warren Loasby, Rockingham-road, Kettering, said she had known prisoner about eight or nine months. Last Tuesday she had a few words with him. On Thursday she went towards Isham with him for a walk. They got into conversation about what had passed on the Tuesday. He then showed her a bottle; she could see it was labelled poison, laudanum. He asked her if they should make it up; she said she could not. He said in that case he should take the poison. Witness took the bottle away from him and ran down a field with it. After this prisoner fainted. After he came to himself he took the bottle away from her and drank more than half the contents of the two-ounce bottle, and staggered about. Then she made an alarm, and he was taken on to Isham public-house, where he was given some ipecacuanha, wine, and salt and water, but it did not make him vomit. Afterwards he was brought to Kettering police station in Mr William Coltman's cart. Dr Dryland said he was called to prisoner to give him an emetic, which had the desired effect. He was very ill all the forepart of the night. - Mr John Denston, chemist, said prisoner went to his shop with a basket of grocery, and asked for 1s worth of laudanum for his master, Mr Hales, which he gave him in a bottle, labelled poison, and directed to Mr Hales. - Inspector Wallis produced a razor he had about him and the bottle containing the laudanum. - Committed for trial at the Quarter Sessions."

Saturday 23 October

"Pytchley. - Attempted Suicide. - William Henry Bilson, 19, grocer, pleaded guilty to an attempt to commit suicide, by taking a quantity of laudanum, at Pytchley, on the 9th September. - Committed for One Week."

William Henry BILLSON?

Louisa would have been three months pregnant at the time of the trial and according to her testimony had known BILLSON since the beginning of 1875. They had obviously had a disagreement but there is no clue as to whether it concerned her pregnancy or some other matter. BILLSON is clearly a candidate for fathering Alice but based on nothing more than circumstantial evidence!

With a full name and age we thought it should be simple to track down his origins and fate. Just identify him in the 1871 census then back to 1861 to identify his family and forward to 1881, 1891 etc to discover his fate. How wrong could we be?


Candidate 1: In 1871 unmarried 15 year old William BILSON, a grocer's assistant born Leicester, was lodging at 43 Trumpington Street, St Mary The Less, Cambridge with 38 year old grocer Charles WHICHELLO, his wife, six children and four servants. He would have been 19 in 1875 and he had experience as a grocer's assistant.

Candidate 2: In 1871 unmarried 17 year old grocer William H BILLSON was living at 57 Junction Road, St Margaret, Leicester with 55 year old grocer master William BILLSON and his 53 year old wife wife Harriett. He would have been 21 in 1875 and clearly had experience as a grocer. He was born RICHARDSON and appears as such in the 1861 census with mother Harriett and stepfather William BILLSON. He is not immediately apparent as BILLSON in the 1881 census. It is possible that after his suicide attempt at Kettering he might have reverted to his birth name.

In the mid-nineteenth century it was not uncommon for laudanum to be implicated in deaths by misadventure, murders and suicides but this William must have had a very keen awareness because his mother had been involved in the death of a baby by laudanum poisoning.

In February 1867 the Leicester newspapers carried the inquest into the death of twenty month old George MORTIMER, the son of unmarried Harriett AYTO and her partner Thomas MORTIMER. At 9 am on Friday 15th, Harriett AYTO went to her work, washing and charring, leaving baby George in the care of his fifteen year old step-brother Wilson MORTIMER, her partner's son. In order to soothe the baby and relieve the pain of colic, she had been giving him Godfrey's Cordial twice a day since he was three months old, so she gave him the remains of the bottle, about a teaspoonful, before she left. She instructed Wilson that if George was troublesome before she got home he should fetch a halfpenny worth of Godfrey's from Billson's grocer's shop on the corner of Junction Road (her usual source) and give him a little.

Baby George had a hearty lunch of meat, soup and potatoes before going to sleep until about six that evening. When he awoke he looked up to the shelf where the bottle of Godfrey's was kept and became very cross. Wilson went to the grocer's, purchased halfpenny worth of Godfrey's from Mrs BILLSON and on his return let George drink from the bottle as much as he chose - about half the mixture. George had some tea and seemed very thirsty before becoming drowsy and restless.

Wilson began to worry and called in Mrs PEET, a neighbour, who tasted the contents of the bottle and identified it as laudanum. He returned to the grocer's shop and asked Mrs BILLSON what was in the bottle she had given him. She kept a bottle of laudanum in the glass case behind the counter as well as Godfrey's; although both were labelled they were a similar size and shape. At the time she had been distracted by repairs to the shop window panes which had been broken by boys earlier in the day. She assumed that she must have confused the two bottles when she served Wilson and realised that she had probably poisoned the child. She returned with Wilson, called Mr MASON, a druggist, who administered an emetic and then Mr J.T. CLARKE, a surgeon, who continued treatment. George became increasingly drowsy, entering a coma alternated with convulsions. He died around two or three o'clock on Saturday morning.

[Wikipedia notes: 'Godfrey's Cordial, a simple mixture of morphine and treacle, was particulary sinister, since it had a tendency to separate after time, with the morphine sinking to the bottom. Pharmacies sold Godfrey's Cordial out of large jugs to any adult or child who wanted some, so anyone who bought the last few doses from the jug were probably getting straight morphine. Kids got so addicted to it that infants would recognize the distinctive bottle of Godfrey's Cordial and doggedly chew the cork off. Older children who were sent to the chemist to buy a week's supply would often drink it all before they made it home.']

So was Wilson sold the settled sludge from a Godfrey's bottle? Or did Mrs BILLSON make a genuine mistake dispensing from the laudanum bottle rather than Godfrey's? The coroner recorded accidental death although he censured Mrs BILLSON for keeping the two bottles close together.

William Henry was aged about thirteen at the time of George's death so had he been a friend of Wilson MORTIMER, George's stepbrother? More to the point, had he become addicted to opium and/or laudanum if his mother had used Godfrey's on him as a child?

Candidate 3: In 1872 19 year old William Henry BILSON was in court for having stolen a horse. He had appeared earlier at Nottingham Quarter Sessions on 26 June 1871 charged with cattle stealing and was sentenced to 12 months imprisonment. He was born towards the end of 1852 and his birth was registered at Melton Mowbray. The 1861 census records him living with his uncle at Melton Mowbray born Sutton Bonnington. Sentenced to 3 months imprisonment on 1 July 1872. Parish records show a burial of William Bilson age 20 at Sutton Bonington 25 May 1873. Since Alice was not conceived until about June 1875, this man can be ruled out!

Candidate 4: In 1871 fourteen year old William H BILLSON was living at 2 Braunstone Gate, St Mary, Leicester with parents John and Elizabeth BILLSON and unmarried sixteen year old sister Isabella. William and his father were frame smiths and his sister was a machine hand. All had been born at Stoney Stanton. This William remained associated with the manufacture of clothing and shoes and married Alice CRESSWELL in 1878. Unlikely candidate because he was slightly too young with no obvious connection to the grocery trade.