Ancestor of the month

Robert Preston

Robert Preston was born in Lancaster, where his father Michael worked in the textile trade, probably as a home worker in Market Street. The family had moved to Lancaster from Ellel, a few miles further south where there was a large silk mill, but Michael was a wool carder. Born in 1835, Robert was the 6th of 7 children born to Michael and his wife Mary.

Hardship visited soon enough, with the death of Michael in 1842, followed by that of Mary in 1851. The family did what they could in the circumstances; Robert and his elder sister Ann stayed in Market St. for a while, Robert working as a cordwainer. Mary, the youngest, was taken in by her married sister at Wray. Robert's two elder brothers, though, travelled further afield and were to have a big influence on Robert's future life.

Joseph and Richard Preston found their way across the Pennines to County Durham, where the expanding coalfield had plenty of work to offer. At Brancepeth Joseph found work as a banksman working at a coal pit on the surface, sorting and loading coal. Richard became a coke burner. Coke was manufactured by the partial burning of coal to purify it, rather as charcoal is made from wood. In the 1850s in Durham this was usually done in conical brick "beehive" ovens. It had become a hugely important resource because coke could be used for smelting iron without carrying in the impurities which raw coal contained, and which weakened the iron. Coke production in Durham expanded 25-fold from 1847 to 1855.

We cannot be sure when Robert joined his brothers in Durham, and when he did it was not to work with them at Brancepeth. Instead, he joined the works at Shildon, where locomotives were built for the Stockton and Darlington railway, as an engine fitter. There now followed a rather inexplicable event, for in 1857 Robert married a local widow, Margaret Softley. Although there seems no great puzzle in that, we can note in passing that Margaret gave her age as 30 while Robert was 27. Sadly the marriage was destined not to be a long one, for just two years later Margaret died at the slightly riper age of 56! There is no explanation of how this sudden ageing came about, nor of how Robert missed the fact that his blushing bride presumably had more than the expected number of wrinkles. We only note in passing that Robert's circumstances suggest that he did not marry Margaret for money.

Robert was now single again. He moved to join his brother Richard, who had moved from Brancepeth to nearby Brandon Colliery. In 1860, a decent year after the death of his first wife, Robert married Mary Ann Garget - and perhaps took a little care to see that she was two years his junior.

Robert now became a coke maker alongside his brother, but the family was clearly making its best efforts toward upward mobility, and both Robert and Richard seem to have been part time shopkeepers as well. Coke making in the mid-nineteenth century cannot have been an easy or pleasant living, and much of the work was done by Irish labour. The grim life in Brandon Colliery has been described by Laurie Moran in his The History of Brandon Colliery. Alongside the poor housing, with only ladder access to the upper room, we learn that the only water available for any purpose was that pumped out of the pit workings for drainage, which carried a foul taste and smell. In this unpromising environment, Robert and Mary Ann had five children and raised them all to adulthood. They did not stay in Brandon all the time; at least one of their children was born at Shotton, but there seems to have been little to choose between the living conditions in these pit villages.

Robert advanced his career by degrees, describing himself as a coke maker, contractor or agent at different times. But the living conditions in Brandon were compounded by the bad working conditions in coke manufacturing. It was a trade notorious for the high rate of tuberculosis among workers, and in 1874 Robert succumbed to this disease. He was 38 years old.

Mary Ann, his wife, moved to Gateshead with the younger children, eventually re-married and had another child. She lived on beyond 1901.

Robert's son John continued in Robert's trade as a coke maker and as the industry expanded he became a foreman and then manager. He travelled around England and South Wales in this role and ultimately his daughter married into the Sage family.