Josiah ~ escape from the cotton mills


Josiah was born on 2nd May 1846, the 2nd youngest child of an illiterate cotton weaver, James Pickles and his wife Mary Myers.  The family lived and worked in the cotton mill town of Barnoldswick which at that time was in the West Riding of Yorkshire.

Josiah’s mother died in childbirth in 1850 leaving the 4 year old Josiah and his 2year old sister, Rachel, to be cared for by their older siblings.

  Josiah did receive some basic education but followed his brothers and sisters into the mill as a weaver. The weaving shed was a very noisy place to work, the hours long and hard. Whole families would work in the mills in order to survive and very few had the resources or courage to escape  to a better life.

The supply of cotton was badly affected by the American Civil War and many mills closed causing great distress to the hundreds of workers. At some point in the mid 1860’s the Pickles family moved some 10miles south to Nelson, ,near Burnley, Lancashire. Perhaps Josiah was unable to get employment at the time but he had a plan that would take him out of the drudgery of the mills – his talent playing the flute.

First attempt

It was while living in Nelson that Josiah met Susan, the eldest daughter of James Kearns, a staff sergeant in the 5th Royal Lancashire Militia. Susan’s brother, Henry, was a travelling musician so perhaps that was the connection and inspiration, or possibly Susan and Josiah ran away together rather than tell her father she was pregnant. Whatever the reason Josiah and Susan travelled to Edinburgh where on 5th June 1868 Susan gave birth to their son, Joshua, and 3 weeks later, on the 26th, the couple were married. On the certificates Josiah gives his occupation as ‘musician’ and Susan as ‘lunatic asylum assistant’. In the 1861 census Susan had not been in employment but helped her mother in the home so we do not know whether the asylum was in Burnley or in Edinburgh, but there is little doubt that when the baby arrived they were unable to live on Josiah’s earnings and so the family returned to Burnley. Had there been any bad feeling over the relationship this was quickly put aside as by 1871 they were living at 6 Scarlett St, only one door away from Susan’s family at number 2, and Josiah was back working as a cotton weaver.

1871 also saw an addition to their family. In January of that year a second son, Matthias Alfred, later known as Alfred, was born. This was followed by the birth of a daughter, Mary Elizabeth Maud in early 1874.

A Big Step

  Josiah’s second attempt to become a full time musician was made sometime between 1874 and 1879.  The decision may have been forced upon him by further decline in cotton manufacturing, but the couple followed the economic migration south to London and settled in Rashleigh Rd Wandsworth where in late 1879 another daughter, Clarinda Florence, was born. And then, on 20th June 1883 tragedy struck the young family when Susan died in St Thomas’ hospital of Enteritis complicated by an intestinal blockage. Her age was given as 36 although she is thought to have been 2 years older. Josiah was left with a precarious occupation and 2 young daughters to care for. His sons Joshua and Alfred were 15 and 13 and already accomplished musicians and so the household duties and breadwinning would at least have been shared.

A New Beginning

In the 1891 census the family had not only moved to the Peckham area and were residing at 61 Ivydale Road, but had undergone a name change. Their new surname was Picton. What was the reason behind this? Was it simply a new beginning and the putting of bad luck behind them? It is more likely that with Pickles being such a northern name, they felt they were being discriminated against when finding work.

However this was to be a decade of mixed fortunes for Josiah. On 19th March 1894 Joshua died aged 25 of Ptithsis  -or TB as we would know it today. At that time the family were living at 4 Reynolds Road not far from their Ivydale Road address. Joshua’s occupation was given as ‘musician’ and it is almost certain that he played the flute as that was the instrument they had access to and would have learned from their father. Around this time Alfred moved up to Glasgow for work and met Beatrice Telfer youngest daughter of a prosperous grain merchant. The couple married on 25th October 1895 in Glasgow where they made their home and on 8th September 1898 a daughter, Beatrice Hope, was born followed by a second daughter on 20th March 1901,Constance Winifred.  Sometime after Joshua’s death Josiah, Mary and Florence moved to the Fulham area and it was here at 9 Merrington Road that Mary died on 18th March 1900, also at the tragically young age of 25 and of the same disease. Mary also had been a musician like her father and brothers.

The loss of a second child must have been devastating for Josiah.  Probably to recuperate he took a job in Bournemouth in 1901. Florence, who earned money as a dressmaker went with her father and they took a house at 9 Lytton Road. When they returned to London it was to Fulham and there in the Spring of 1902 that Florence gave birth to an illegitimate son, Henry Arthur, Josiah’s only grandson. Josiah’s youngest grandchild, Irene Edna, was born to Alfred and Beatrice on 10th June 1910 whilst on a summer season in Harrogate, Yorkshire.

   Ivydale Road, London SE15

Another victim

The nature of the musical profession was such that employment was often short term leading to a rather nomadic style of living and the necessity to have a back up occupation for the lean times. This is borne out by his frequent changes of address. In 1911 while Florence has settled in Fulham boarding in a house with her 8 year old son and supporting herself by dressmaking, Josiah is boarding in Hendon on the opposite side of London, and his occupation is entered as ‘ Lace Pedlar. It is likely that his stay in Hendon was transient. He was now 65 and perhaps his hard life was beginning to take its toll.

In December 1913 Florence married a 33 year old widower, Charles Frank Hersey. Charles lived close by in Fulham and was a builder’s foreman / plumber. He had a 6 year old daughter, Mabel, and so a stepsister for the now 11 year old Henry. This happy situation did not last long. Sadly Florence died of TB on 13th September 1915. What happened to Henry? I do not know. It is likely that he had changed his name to Hersey after the marriage.

His Legacy

Josiah seemed to have had more than his fair share of misfortune. TB was as much a killer in the mill towns as it was in London and so it would be wrong to assume that all would have been well had he not made the move south. His decision to leave an industry already in decline, and to uproot his young family so that he could follow his dream showed tremendous courage and initiative particularly at a time when failure could have landed them in the poorhouse. He gave not only himself but his descendants the chance of a better life than he had known as a young man.

There is verbal evidence that Josiah was also a flute maker, but he never entered this in any census return.

Josiah died in Fulham on 22nd October 1919 of Bronchitis and Heart Failure, aged 74. On both these last certificates his occupation is given as musician. Only one of his 4 children out lived him – Alfred. He was my Grandfather.

You can find out more about Alfred & Beatrice, their family, and their life in Glasgow.

      Alfred Picton

(standing) with friends.

     Buxton c1892

Joshua Picton


2 Victorian Mill Scenes