#2 – Those Troublesome Axfords

Who was Thomas AXFORD, shipwright, father of William (1) AXFORD ?
What became of William (1) AXFORD (husband of Emma WESTCOTT)?
What became of William (2) AXFORD (husband of Susannah CURNOW)?
Where were William (2) and Richard AXFORD at the time of the 1861 census?
Was Susanah STEPHENS a pseudonym of Susannah CURNOW?



Brian Pears

I was having very little success with the Pears family. Despite the fact that I knew the date of birth of my great-grandfather and that of his sister and had a reasonable idea of their place of birth, I could find no record locally of either their births or their baptism. I looked everywhere. A visit to St. Catherine’s House would, I assured myself, reveal all. How wrong I was. When I stepped onto the train at King’s Cross for the return journey I knew no more than on my arrival two days earlier.

Somewhat discouraged, I moved on to tackle my paternal grandmother’s family, the AXFORDs. Grandmother was one of eight children and at the time (1971) four of them were still living. There was even a surviving member of her father’s generation, his youngest half-sister, Margaret Ellen. There would be no shortage of information here. Full of enthusiasm once again, I visited these and other relations one by one. An interesting story emerged. [I have adopted the convention of calling my great-grandfather William3, his father William2 and his grandfather William1].

William2 AXFORD and his wife, Susannah Betty Spreg AXFORD formerly CURNOW lived in Plymouth in the early 1870s with their three children, William3 (born 14 April 1869), Lizzie (Elizabeth Mary) and Johnny (Joseph John Henry).

William2 lost his job so they all moved to Susannah’s birthplace, Callington in Cornwall. where they lived for a while in great poverty. Around 1876 they moved north to Cramlington in Northumberland where Susannah’s parents, brothers and sisters had already gone. They had travelled by ship from Plymouth to Newcastle and had a very rough passage; from that time onward Lizzie was afraid of the sea. They settled in Cramlington, but William2 was unable to find work.. He returned to Plymouth leaving his family behind and was never heard of again.

Soon afterwards Susannah married a Cornishman, James VOYZEY. He had moved from Callington to Cramlington at the same time as Susannah’s parents. Susannah had nine more children to James; the youngest of whom was born in 1893. At some point they had moved to Seaham in County Durham. James eventually left Susannah and she had to raise the children alone.

The obvious conclusion that Susannah’s marriage to James VOYZEY was bigamous had been reached by several members of the family. It also seemed more likely to me that Susannah and William2 had parted in Plymouth rather than Cramlington.

I was given some dates from memory: Susannah died in 1930 aged 79 years, Lizzie around 1934 aged about 64 years, William3 in 1939 aged 79 years and Johnny in 1945 aged about 70 years. I was quickly able to verify most of these dates by referring to church burial registers:-

St. James’, Burnopfield, County Durham:
Susannah Betty Spregg VOYZEY (sic) 13, Mountsett 20 March 1930 79 years

St. Patrick’s, High Spen, County Durham:
William AXFORD 6, Watson Street, High Spen 22 May 1939 70 years
Joseph John Henry AXFORD 8a, Strathmore Terrace 8 March 1945 71 years

At this stage the family tree would seem to be as shown in Fig. 1.

AXFORD (1) Susannah Betty Spregg
(1851)-1930 (2) James
VOYZEY (Fig 1)


1939 Elizabeth
1934 Joseph John
VOYZEY Margaret

I applied to the Superintendent Registrar at Plymouth for the birth certificate of William3, Johnny and Lizzie. William3‘s certificate confirmed his date of birth 14th April 1869, his father’s name William and gave his father’s occupation as brewer. The description of his mother, however, was not at all as expected. Her name was given as Susanna AXFORD, formerly STEPHENS! The birth had taken place at their home, 6 Salem Street, Plymouth. Johnny’s certificate revealed that he was the son of William AXFORD, a general labourer, and Susanna, formerly CURNEW. The birth took place at 44 Vauxhall Street, Plymouth on 31st July 1873: So William2 had apparently been married twice. The birth certificate of Lizzie (Elizabeth Mary) did not turn up immediately, so I did not know which of William’s wives was her mother.

I tried to obtain the certificates relating to both of William2‘s marriages, but neither could be found. Attempts to find the death record of a Susanna(h) AXFORD between 1869 and 1873 were similarly unsuccessful. Perhaps one or both marriages were of the common-law variety. The marriage certificate of James VOYZEY and Susannah AXFORD was found. They were married at Sighill (Seghill) Parish Church on 2nd April 1877. On this certificate the bride is described as Susannah AXFORD, 24 years, spinster, daughter of John AXFORD! She was lying – this adds some weight to the bigamy theory. On the birth certificate of her first child to James VOYZEY (George, born 3rd September 1877) she is described as Susannah VOYZEY, late AXFORD, formerly CURNOW. Quite a change in only five months.

Several abortive attempts were made to obtain the birth certificate of Elizabeth Mary AXFORD. The Plymouth Superintendent Registrar searched his indexes for the period 1869-1873 without locating the entry. However, while searching for this item, he came across the birth entry of Eliza Jane AXFORD, daughter of William and Susanna (formerly CURNOW), born at 59 Treville Street on 27th December 1871. He very kindly informed me of this and I purchased a certificate. Further enquiries revealed that she had died on 3rd September 1872, which explains why no one seems to have heard of her. Eliza Jane’s birth and death certificates were to be of some significance in my researches. The birth certificate gave the family’s address just eight months after the 1871 census and the informant named on the death certificate was a Louisa AXFORD of 19 Lower Street, Plymouth. Louisa must have been a close relative, perhaps William2‘s mother. It was early 1972 when I reached this stage in my researches; the 1871 Census was ‘open’.

At the earliest opportunity I returned to London and made straight for the Public Record Office Census Room in Portugal Street. This was to be a rather more successful visit; within an hour I had found the following:-

1871 59 Treville Street, Plymouth

William AXFORD Head Married 30 Brewer’s labourer. Devon. Plymouth
Susanna AXFORD Wife Married 21 Cornwall. Callington
William AXFORD Son 2 Devon. Plymouth
Elizabeth M. AXFORD Dau. 5 months Devon. Plymouth

(A note stated that Treville Street was previously called Bilbury .Street)

1871 19 Lower Street, Plymouth

Richard AXFORD Head Married 28 Labourer Devon. Plymouth
Louisa AXFORD Wife Married 25 Devon. Plymouth
Richard AXFORD Son 3 Scholar Devon. Plymouth
Louisa AXFORD Dau. 1 Devon. Plymouth

Well, Louisa certainly wasn’t William2‘s mother; the ages of William and Richard suggested that they might be brothers. A visit to Somerset House was called for but it was too late in the afternoon so I decided to have a look at the census returns for Callington. The 1861 census seemed the most promising and the search was fruitful:-

1861 Pengelly, Callington

Susan CURNOW Head Widow 42 Copper miner’s widow Cornwall, Callington
Andrew CURNOW Son Unmar. 21 Copper Miner Cornwall, Callington
Joseph CURNOW Son Unmar. 19 Painter Cornwall, Callington
William CURNOW Son Unmar. 15 Copper Ore Dresser Cornwall, Callington
Mary CURNOW Dau. 13 Copper Ore Dresser Cornwall, Callington
Susan CURNOW Dau. 11 Scholar Cornwall, Callington
John CURNOW Son 9 Scholar Cornwall, Callington
Jane CURNOW Dau. 7 Scholar Cornwall, Callington
Maria CURNOW Dau. 2 Cornwall, Callington

This confirmed the approximate birthdate of Susan(nah) calculated from her age at death; I could be fairly certain that she was born around 1850.

When I got to Somerset House it took only a short while to locate what were almost certainly the entries relating to William2 and Richard as they were the only candidates. When I picked up the certificates I found that they were indeed brothers. William Thomas AXFORD, born 10th March 1840, and Richard Charles AXFORD born 29th November 1841, were both the sons of William1 AXFORD, a brass and iron founder, and Emma AXFORD formerly Westcott. The birth certificate of Susannah Betty Sprague CURNOW was also obtained. She was born at Callington, Cornwall on 11th August 1850, the daughter of John CURNOW, a cooper, and Susannah CURNOW, formerly Millett. No surprises here but at least I had the correct spelling of Susannah’s last forename which seems to have suffered quite a number of variations. A fourth certificate obtained that day was that of Elizabeth Mary AXFORD horn 7th October 1870 at 23 Bilbury Street, Plymouth, the daughter of William AXFORD, a labourer at a brewery, and Susannah AXFORD formerly CURNOW. It seems that the indexes at Plymouth Register Office are somewhat incomplete; one wonders how often such omissions occur.


= William2
1840- (2)(1)
= Susannah Betty
(1851)-1930 (2)
VOYZEY Richard

1939 Elizabeth
1934 Eliza
1872 Joseph John
The information I had at this point can be summarised in the tree – Fig. 2.
The Susanna STEPHENS part bothered me. William2 must have recovered from his grief at her death very quickly. Still, with a young baby on his hands, a second marriage may have been a necessity. I decided to look for references to William’s two marriages and the death of his first wife. Previous attempts to locate these events had been by correspondence with Plymouth Register Office, and I was somewhat unsure of that source. Back to Somerset House. First, Susan’s death. No luck; nobody called Susanna(h) AXFORD or Susanna(h) STEPHENS died in either 1869 or 1870. Next, the AXFORD/STEPHENS marriage; no luck here either after a marathon search of sixty indexes covering 1856 to 1870. Finally, the marriage between William AXFORDB and Susannah CURNOW. Yes – well, nearly. In the third index searched, June to August 1870, a marriage between William AXFORD and Hannah CURNEW.

I could hardly wait. The certificate was ready a day later. Marriage at Plymouth Register Office, 22nd June 1870. So she was carrying Elizabeth Mary when they married. Name-William AXFORD. Age-45 years. What, 45 years old? That can’t be right. He was only 30 on the census a year later. Status – Widower. Occupation – Brass and iron founder. I couldn’t believe it. He was a labourer in a brewery; it was his father who had been a brass and iron founder. Father’s name: Thomas AXFORD (deceased), father’s occupation Shipwright, H. M. Dockyard. Wrong age, wrong occupation, wrong father-surely it was the wrong man. What about the address? 7 Bilbury Street. Elizabeth Mary was born at 23 Bilbury Street less than four months later. What about ‘Hannah’ CURNEW? 19 years, spinster, 7 Bilbury Street. Father – John CURNEW, labourer. No it was too close to be rejected, but those discrepancies! Why did William get his age wrong? Why did he give his father’s occupation instead of his own? Do the details given of his father actually refer to his grandfather: Was William (the brewer) drunk when he got married? Did he misunderstand the question? Why should Susannah Betty Sprague CURNOW give her name as ‘Hannah’ and fail to mention that her father was dead? I was very puzzled – I had found plenty of information but it made no sense, had I made some basic mistake?

After a final unsuccessful visit to St. Catherine’s House to look for the death of William2 prior to Susannah’s marriage to James VOYZEY – I actually searched 1872-1880 – I returned north. Soon afterwards I visited one of my grandmother’s sisters, Eva Surtees, formerly AXFORD, and discussed the various certificates I had brought. She told me that she had already seen her father’s (i.e. William3‘s) birth certificate, in fact she had a copy. She quickly produced it. It was a very unusual form of certificate. Apparently a birth certificate was often required for some purpose connected with the 1911 National Insurance Act. Anyone requiring their certificate for this purpose obtained an application form, filled in their particulars and sent it to the appropriate Register Office. On the back of the application form was a blank birth certificate which the Registrar completed and returned to the applicant. The birth certificate itself was, not surprisingly, identical to the one I had obtained in London and gave William’s mother as Susanna AXFORD formerly STEPHENS. The application form however, which William completed on 16 Februrary 1925, gave his mother as Susannah Betty Spragg CURNOW. William must have been somewhat surprised when he received the certificate. His ‘mother’ was still alive – I wish I had been present when they next met!

From time to time, at increasing intervals, over the next ten years I took out the notes and documents relating to the AXFORDs. Each time I faced the same contradictions and made little progress. The problem with the Pears family was eventually resolved and I tackled other branches with varying degrees of success – but the AXFORDs… !

I was not entirely idle – while in London awaiting a certificate relating to one of my mother’s ancestors I decided to search the 1851 census for Plymouth. The only find of any significance was a barely legible entry for an orphanage in Catherine Street. One of the orphans was a William T. Oxford. He was 9 years old and was born in Plymouth. Could this be William2? Perhaps this might explain why he got his father’s name wrong, but he must have had some knowledge of his father as he gave his father’s occupation as his own. Prompted by this discovery I rechecked the General Register Office indexes – now at St. Catherine’s House – for the William AXFORD/Susanna STEPHENS marriage and the deaths of Susanna and William (b) under the surname Oxford. For good measure I also checked under Acksford and several other variations, but after several hours searching, I found nothing.

The 1881 census was ‘opened’ in 1982 and I decided to seek the entry relating to James and Susannah VOYZEY. At the Melton Park premises of the Northumberland County Record Office I worked through the returns for the Cramlington area without success. I knew the family had moved to Seaham at some time so I went to Durham City Library and searched that area too. Again I was unsuccessful. A new piece of information came from Mr. Robert Ainsley, son of Susannah VOYZEY -the fourth child of James and Susannah. He told me that his mother had won a prize at the South Hetton Flower Show when she was a child. A search of South Hetton revealed the following:-

1881 Cross Row East, South Hetton

James VOYZEY Head Married 27 Coal miner Cornwall, Callington
Susannah VOYZEY Wife Married 28 Cornwall, Callington
William AXFORD Son 12 Scholar Devon, Plymouth
Elizabeth M AXFORD Dau. 9 Scholar Devon, Plymouth
Joseph AXFORD Son 6 Scholar Devon, Plymouth
George VOYZEY Son 4 North’d, Cramlington
James H VOYZEY Son 3 North’d, Cramlington
Maria VOYZEY Dau. 2 Months Durham, South Hetton

No surprises here; at least something made sense.

My grandmother Susannah Pears, formerly AXFORD, died on 16th May 1982 and I went to Hexham Register Office to register the death. It occurred to me while giving the necessary information, that the register would merely record what I said. If I made a mistake or lied about, say, her maiden name, then that error would be there for ever. The chances of anyone checking the information were remote. I could really have confused future genealogists. It should have been obvious to me earlier; the AXFORD/VOYZEY marriage certificate contained definite lies and I knew why they had been told. Why not the other certificates as well? I would have to be careful. I could not simply assume that every inconvenient piece of data was a lie. Such a process would certainly simplify all historical research but it would hardly elicit the truth!

What about the mysterious Susanna STEPHENS? Did she exist or did Susannah Betty Sprague CURNOW give her maiden name as STEPHENS when she registered William3‘s birth? I would now hold that the latter is the case for the following reasons:-

a) William AXFORDA regarded Susannah formerly CURNOW as his mother even after he saw his full birth certificate in 1925 and presumably confronted her with it.
b) There would have been no obvious reason for concealing from William the fact that Susannah formerly CURNOW was not his mother if that had been the case.
c) There is no record of a marriage between Susanna STEPHENS and William AXFORD.
d) There is no record of a Susanna AXFORD (or STEPHENS) death at the appropriate time.
e) Only eight months elapsed between Susanna formerly STEPHENS registering the birth of William3 and the time when Susannah formerly CURNOW would have conceived Elizabeth Mary.

Surely Susannah Betty Sprague CURNOW and Susanna STEPHENS were the same person, but why did she lie? I will explore that later. Why did she choose STEPHENS? It may have been a random choice, the surname of a friend or possibly of a distant relation. A General Register Office index entry adds some plausibility to this last alternative a Nicholas STEPHENS CURNOW was born in Penzance in 1844.

Of all the documents and records obtained, the AXFORD/CURNEW marriage certificate is the most problematical. There are but two possibilities: either it refers to the marriage of William2 and Susannah Betty Sprague CURNOW and contains a lot of lies, or it refers to a marriage not connected with them. For the reasons stated below, I believe the former to be the case.
a) AXFORD and CURNOW were not common names in Plymouth – the census records testify to this. It would be quite a coincidence if any other couple with those surnames from Bilbury Street, Plymouth just happened to marry at a time when Susannah Betty Sprague CURNOW was carrying a child to William AXFORD – a natural time for them to marry.
b) If this was not their marriage, when did they marry? There is no record of any other AXFORD/CURNOW marriage. Perhaps they never married, but Susannah had four children to William. Surely no woman would have four children without the security of marriage, and, of course, the 1871 census does show them as being married – but that might be a lie.
c) Even allowing the surname coincidence and the location coincidence what about the other details? The bride’s age and father’s name are those of Susannah CURNOW. The bridegroom’s occupation, while not William’s2, is that of his father, and it is not such a common occupation.

It seems to be stretching credulity too far to accept that this could be anything other than the marriage of William2 AXFORD and Susannah Betty Sprague CURNOW; but why did they lie?

I wrote down in chronological order the basic details of each recorded event. One thing struck me immediately: every event from the birth of William3 to that of Johnny was at a different address. Six different addresses in four years – 6 Salem Street, 7 Bilbury Street, 23 Bilbury Street, 59 Treville (Bilbury ) Street, 44 How Street, and 44 Vauxhall Street. Why so many moves? Were they trying to avoid being traced, changing their address after every visit to the Registry Office in case someone saw the entry? Who? Perhaps Susannah’s family. Had she run away from home? Could this explain the lies on the certificates as well’? The false name on William3‘s birth certificate, perhaps, but on the marriage certificate it is mostly the bridegroom’s details that are false! While on this flight of fancy I might as well go as far as I can before my wings melt! Perhaps when they married they were worried that the Register Office staff might connect the birth of William3 on 14th April 1869 to William AXFORD, a brewer, and Susanna, formerly STEPHENS, with the subsequent marriage on 22nd June 1870 of William AXFORD, a brewer, and Susannah, formerly CURNOW. If they did connect the entries they may have investigated further, with serious consequences for Susannah. With sufficiently disguised details, however, no connection was likely. Hence William gave details of his father and Susannah gave her name as Hannah. What about his age? Perhaps he looked 45 years old!

Was the original story correct about the move from Plymouth? Did William2 lose his job and then take his family to his mother-in-law’s at Callington? Unlikely. Living as he did in Plymouth, he must have been aware that miners from the Callington area were streaming to the North-East, via Plymouth, following the widespread closure of the copper mines. Callington was hardly the place to find work and he could not even claim poor relief there. As I stated previously, I think it more likely that William and Susannah parted in Plymouth. It would be natural then for Susannah to take her children to her mother’s home. The story of William2 travelling to Cramlington and then returning to Plymouth could merely be ‘Whitewash’ designed to hide the marital breakdown.

When Susannah and her children arrived at Callington did she find that her relations had already gone to the North-East England? If this was the case she would presumably have obtained temporary accommodation with someone she had known there until such time as she could arrange to follow the family. If they were still at Callington when she arrived it would seem more probable that she would have travelled north with them rather than follow them. The former agrees more with the original story.

The marriage to James VOYZEY took place when she was four months pregnant. As we have seen, she claimed to be a spinster, the daughter of a fictitious John AXFORD. This would seem to be a most foolish claim in view of the fact that her mother lived nearby, and then there were Susannah’s three children. She was claiming that they were illegitimate and what did that make her? Why should she stigmatize herself? If she had claimed to have been a widow of the absent William2 AXFORD, as she did in effect when she registered George’s birth, who could have refuted it? No shadow would have cast on anyone’s character although, of course, it would have been just as untruthful. However foolish her claim might have been, she seems to have escaped retribution: after all, she was an old hand at lying to registrars.

Enough of speculation. I know there are many flaws in my various theories. Those addresses in Plymouth, for example. Three are in the same street and indeed the last five of them at least (I couldn’t locate Salem Street) are in a tiny area measuring about two hundred yards square – hardly consistent with moves designed to avoid being traced!

Have I missed anything obvious? Are there more plausible explanations of the inconsistencies? Can I test my hypotheses further? These are not meant to be rhetorical questions – In other words……Help!.


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