A different path

William Henry Rhodes, photographed in 1911.

More than fifty years ago, when I first saw the musical Oliver!, I could not have imagined the discovery of an ancestor living in a Victorian-era workhouse in England. Robert Rhodes, my great-great-great-grandfather, died of “old age” on 23 May 1873 aged 78 at the Newton Abbot Union Workhouse. The same day, Robert’s grandson William Henry Rhodes (1854–1941) embarked on a journey that took him to the United States. Juxtaposing these events clearly demarcates two different life stories and the events that set them in motion.

Robert Rhodes’s entry as a pauper in the 1871 England Census provides a snapshot of life in this institution, a place of last resort where he was counted among 306 inmates, slightly more men than women, ranging in age from 4 to more than 80. Contrary to the norm of families with missing parents, the page below, where Robert is listed on line 18, shows one complete family, whereas most of the adult inmates were unmarried or widowed.

How then did Robert Rhodes come to spend his last years in this place?

A romantic notion that my Rhodes ancestors in Devon belonged to a class of sturdy property-owning yeomen soon evaporated through a trail of records slowly obtained via the Devon Council Trust. Five generations of this Rhodes family preceding Robert, illiterate farm laborers all, moved within a fifteen-mile area around Newton Abbot, leaving little imprint on records save baptisms, marriages, or burials in the records of the Church of England. They experienced high infant and childhood mortality rates. The rigid class structure of Georgian England offered little hope of education or upward mobility for those at the bottom. The youngest of eleven children, Robert Rhodes was baptized in Broadhempston on 24 March 1795. He married, at twenty, to Anne Allen, from the same village. They had six children; four died before reaching maturity. Following Anne’s death at age 33, Robert wed Mary Ann (Cox) Hellyer, a widow, with one surviving child from her first marriage. They had three more children.

In the next decade, Eliza disappears from history…

England’s census for 1841 finds Robert Roads, 45, occupation agricultural laborer; wife Ann, 45; eldest son William, 25; and younger children Eliza, 13, and Henry, 7, living in Highweek, Devon. In the next decade, Eliza disappears from history, and William gets admitted—twice—to the Devon Lunatic Asylum in Exminster. As counted in the 1851 census in the village of Wolborough, Robert Rhodes, 57, gardener, lived with wife Ann, 57; son Henry, 17, also a gardener; and John Rhodes, age 6, Eliza’s out-of-wedlock child. Still in the same location in 1861, Robert and Ann’s household now included two boarders but no other family members. When Ann died in 1868, it left Robert in the vulnerable position of having outlived all his children.

Detail of the 1895 Royal Atlas showing the villages of Broadhempston and Kingsherswell.

In the meantime, Henry Rhodes, 19, married Mary Voysey of Kingskerswell, both signing the church register with their marks. Four children, beginning with William Henry Rhodes, soon followed. As industrial change transformed villages and towns, Henry then sought work in a big city, as evidenced by his young family’s residence near London, where they were counted in the 1861 census. Only months after the census, Henry returned to Kingskerswell, where he died, age 27, the cause of death a gastric ulcer. His widow, Mary, outlived him by nine months, leaving their four children as orphans. One would expect the Rhodes children to have been relegated to a workhouse, but their Voysey grandparents intervened to take them in, as the 1871 census reveals.

Family record from the 1865 Bible.

Remarkably, even before the passage of compulsory education laws in England, William Henry Rhodes received an education at the Kingskerswell National School, founded by the Church of England. In October 1865, the school governors awarded William a Bible for regular school attendance. This treasured family possession has been handed down over four generations. On its flyleaf, William later made a family record, a personal milestone as well as an indicator of burgeoning literacy among a new generation.

Undoubtedly the ability to read and write opened more doors for William than his grandfather Robert could have experienced. In his teens William worked as a railroad porter and a telegrapher. The year 1873 proved pivotal. In January, William married Mary Jane Fragell. Right after the birth of their son Thomas Albert Voysey Rhodes on 17 May 1873, William left Liverpool aboard the ship Malta, arriving in Boston on 6 June 1873. I am struck by the timing of Robert’s death in the workhouse and William’s emigration to America. In the end, Robert Rhodes did not escape the grinding poverty into which he was born. Grandson William Henry Rhodes chose a different path. I wonder if William bade farewell to his grandfather in the workhouse? Curiously, though William fathered eight sons, the name Robert is not found among his descendants.

William Henry Rhodes did not find the streets of America paved with gold. As a stonecutter and mason, he moved frequently before settling in Westerly, Rhode Island in 1890. Having outlived three wives named Mary, he enjoyed a vigorous life amid children and grandchildren. He continued to work at his trade until weeks preceding his death at age 87. Among the many memories shared by family who remembered him is that he always poured out his tea from the cup and drank it in the saucer, a habit that came with him, along with his dropped H’s, from England.


For more on this family, see Michael F. Dwyer, “Mary Rhodes: An Arduous Journey to Westerly, “ Rhode Island Roots 37 [2011]: 17–27; and “Remembering Alma Rhodes and a Haunting Family Tragedy,” Vita Brevis blog, 16 September 2019.

About Michael Dwyer

Michael F. Dwyer first joined NEHGS on a student membership. A Fellow of the American Society of Genealogists, he is a contributing editor of The Maine Genealogist and The American Genealogist. His articles have been published in the Register, American Ancestors, and Rhode Island Roots, among others. The Vermont Department of Education's 2004 Teacher of the Year, Michael retired in June 2018 after 35 years of teaching subjects he loves—English and history.

15 thoughts on “A different path

  1. Excellent family summary. If all family works could be this complete and well written, we all would benefit. Thank you. It’s a great read.

  2. The habit of pouring tea from the cup into a saucer (shaped more like a bowl then) seems to have been common in New England.

  3. Thank you for an interesting article. It must have taken a lot of persistence to trace these details.
    Having a great-great grandmother from Tiverton, Devon, I wanted to learn more about the Devon Council Trust that you mentioned, but I couldn’t find that entity with a web search. I did find Devon Archives. Do you have a contact address for the Devon Council Trust?

    1. I am always delighted to find Devon names close to home like Tiverton. I have sent to your email (from Rhode Island Roots) the last correspondence I had in 2005 from the Devon Record Office.

  4. Thank you for sharing your moving story about your family’s fortunes. I am married to a natural born Londoner and was grieved, as I started investigating his family’s genealogy, to find so many of them living in East London who spent their final years in workhouses. Like most of us, I’ve read enough (or seen films) of Dickens’ socially critical novels from the second half of the 19th century to know that this was a dreadful fate. Who can’t hear the voice of Scrooge calling out: “Are there no orphanages, are there no workhouses to deal with the excess population?”
    The only comfort is that their descendants were able to “make it good” as the 20th century brought tremendous social change and more humanity to the country, even for those who didn’t emigrate.

    1. Thanks for your response. For many of our marginalized poor in this country, it was equally sad for them to spend their days in town poor houses or when they were “kept” as paupers in households that gave the lowest bid at town meetings.

  5. Great post, Michael. You’ve touched on an almost universal theme, particularly as it relates to families that immigrated from the English Midlands in the mid-19th Century. There is the usual embellishment of the career, character or background of the English ancestor by his American descendants, often within a generation. My grandmother recorded in a journal how her great-grandfather was a prominent and wealthy landowner, an “English squire.” Records show Richard Lightfoot was the miller (and possibly baker) in a small village in Nottinghamshire, with many daughters. Widowed by 1861, the census shows him as an inmate in the Basford Workhouse, age 74. The history of the Basford Workhouse is well documented, and the Workhouses.org site notes that “in bad weather, the men were employed in stone breaking.” Hopefully, the 74-year olds were given a pass. Curiously, in 1851, he was living with one of his daughters and son-in-law in Ruddington, about 8 miles south of Basford. Best guess is the family put him in the workhouse, because in 1861, the daughter and son-in-law are still residing in Ruddington without him, perhaps they just could not afford another mouth to feed.

    1. Thanks, Tom. My Rhodes great-uncles used to say they heard that we must be related, somewhere along the way, to Cecil Rhodes. Before I knew any better, I thought it was cool to have a country named after yourself. Of course, with time, and what I discovered about Imperialism, I thought otherwise. And I did verify that Cecil’s ancestors came from a different part of England.

  6. How to deal with poverty and homelessness has been a challenge for all communities. Then the workhouse, today, often, the street. it is a dilemma for which there is no easy solution.

    1. So true! Over the last 30 years or so, I have seen a greater willingness among family historians to examine all aspects of their ancestors’ lives and not just accomplishments of those who were most successful.

  7. Michael, as a longtime genealogical researcher and blogger, I greatly appreciated your in-depth time line of factoids about your family’s history. Moreover, I welcomed your recounting and reticulation of their life events within a very thorough, interesting, and meaningful saga about your heritage. Thank you for sharing.

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