49.55 – The Laithwaites (or Leithwites, or Lethwhites…)

This plot marker started a spiral down countless search term variations and speculative rabbit holes, as we tried to trace the lives of the people most likely buried here – James, Elizabeth, and John James Laithwaite. Many thanks to the recordkeepers of the 1800s for their many creative spellings of this surname. We appreciate it. Truly.

James Robinson Laithwaite was born in 1820 in London, although he would be baptised two years later in Oldham along with his younger brother, the family having moved back north in the interval. A few James Laithwaites of various alternate spellings were born around this time, including one in Wigan, but we’ve narrowed the candidates down to this chap. His father James was a “founderer”, ie. a smith of some sort, and James would grow up to become a moulder. Moulders created, well, moulds, using sand with a high clay content for molten iron to be poured into. A useful trade post-industrial revolution. The elder James travelled around for work but his wife Mary’s roots were in Cheshire and so the family returned north by late 1822, and there they stayed.

James Sr. had little time left with his family and had died by the time 1851 rolled around. A lot had happened by then though; James Jr. had met and married Mary Ann Lynch in Middleton in 1841 and two sons had been born in the space of those ten years; John in 1842 and Samuel in 1844. In 1851 Mary, James, his much younger sister Elizabeth (born in 1837) and the two boys were all living together on Baker Street in Middleton. Where was Mary Ann? Mary Ann was in Oldham, separated from James. The year before he had viciously assaulted her and – probably luckily for her – was determined to be separated from her.

Manchester Courier, August 17th 1850

All well and good, but it was hard to support two young sons without a husband in those days, and perhaps she may have chosen freedom from him over further entanglement and seeing her two sons impoverished. But then it’s all speculation, because apart from a possible mention of Mary Ann in Rochdale in 1864 (for assaulting a female neighbour over an issue of jealousy) she disappears from the record.

In 1861 James, John and Samuel were living with Elizabeth Fox and her five year old daughter Emma. James calls himself a widower, and Elizabeth calls herself a widow, but only one of them was telling the truth.

Elizabeth was born Elizabeth Mellor, the illegitimate daughter of Thomas Henthorn and Betty Mellow of Holebottom in Shaw. In 1840 she married John Fox, also an iron moulder, and the couple had two daughters and a son before John’s death in June 1854. He’s buried in Oldham at St. Peter’s but his gravestone was removed at some point so don’t try and visit him. You know these things matter to us. At what point James and Elizabeth met – and whether Emma existed before James and Elizabeth met – is unknown. But on May 9th 1856 Elizabeth gave birth to a daughter named Emma Fox, and that is far too late for the father to be John Fox, even posthumously. She’s also born in Manchester, not Oldham – another clue? As Elizabeth wasn’t yet living on Baker Street when Emma was born there’s still a chance that her father was someone else, and she and James met later and she moved in with him. We’ll never know.

Sadly for poor Elizabeth, Emma was her second chance at motherhood; also buried at St. Peter’s are her first three children, William, Mary Jane, and Sarah Ann, who died on March 25th, 29th, and April 2nd 1854 respectively and were buried in that Oldham grave before John joined them in June of the same year. Three, ten, and five. Again, you know these things matter to us…

Emma may or may not be James’s daughter but she took his surname over time. Elizabeth certainly did; by 1871 she was going by Elizabeth Laithwaite, although no marriage ever took place.

1871 also found the Laithwaites, finally, in Todmorden. James was now a lodging-house keeper along with Elizabeth and Emma, although Emma would soon become a cotton powerloom weaver. They had three lodgers and…that’s all. No more mentions of James being awful in the newspapers, no information about the family at all – even with surname variations. Now we only hear about deaths. And the first one came in December 1873, with James, and our old friend chronic bronchitis to blame.

Is James here in this grave? Good question. Row 49’s marked graves hold initial burials ranging from 1873 to 1877. They go 1876 – 1873 – 1878 – this one – 1877. 1873 isn’t out of the question. At the very least, James Laithwaite owned this plot, and so his initials are here.

Poor Emma’s life was about to get worse. In 1875 she had a son out of wedlock, John James Laithwaite. He was born in February of that year but he died in early December 1876, three years after the grandfather he never met but whose middle name he had. His cause of death was “probably bronchitis”, a little vague but probably true. Meanwhile, Elizabeth had died in September 1876 and was buried at Christ Church too, likely in this plot. It’s a surprise that she wasn’t buried in Oldham but Emma might not have even known the grave existed.

So in terms of who’s here in this particular plot, we don’t know which person went into the grave first and if any of the others are in penny or pauper graves elsewhere in the yard, but we can assume, probably safely, that at least one Laithwaite is here. All offcumden apart from little John James, but part of the town’s past nonetheless. They weren’t famous, but that doesn’t matter. We all have a story.

What happened to Emma after this? A good question. She married James Crewe on April 1st 1876 – her father’s birthday. But this is a surprise, right? Because her surname is given as Laithwaite on John James’s death registration in late 1876. Maybe this was an unintentional April Fool’s.

And we never hear about her again. In 1881 she wasn’t living with her brother John (he had died in 1878) or brother Samuel (he would die in 1938 having never left Oldham). Her at least at one point once-husband James Crewe is also impossible to find. So what happened to her, and him? A marriage certificate is pending and we’ll have more to share (hopefully) once it arrives. In the meantime, the story of these Laithwaites ends here.

…a few weeks later…

The marriage certificate is here, and it sort of helped. Sort of. We can at least now determine that James Crewe was a bit of a one.

James was born in Preston in 1846, although he would later lie about his age. The son of a relatively well respected overlooker at a cotton mill, James grew up to get a reputation (and criminal record) for petty larceny. In 1870 he married Mary Ann Breakell, another Preston girl, and with her and her younger brother William moved to Rochdale in time for the 1871 Census.

What happened to Mary Ann? Good question. Just as with Emma Laithwaite, she disappears. No BMD entry for her death anywhere in the country or for another marriage. But when it cames to Todmorden in 1876, James listed himself as a bachelor on his marriage certificate. His address is the same as Emma’s, the lodging house at Roomfield Lane her father had once run, so that must be how they met.

In 1881, James was living in Burnley, again in a lodging house, and with his wife…er, Margaret E. Crewe. Margaret was only 19. No marriage registration exists for them, and again, no death or onward marriage information either. Was James a serial bigamist? What on earth happened to Mary Ann and Emma?

And what would happen to Margaret? Because in 1887 James married again in a registration office, to Alice Swarbrick of Burnley. Alice was at least not nearly underage when they married – she would have been 23 – and the pair remained married for the rest of James’s life.

He died in 1904, living at Lonsdale Street in Burnley, and without leaving us any clue at all as to his motives beyond what we can guess (perhaps unfairly?) from these records.

BUT WHERE IS EMMA LAITHWAITE??? The true crime enthusiast in all of us does wonder about these three missing wives. One hopes that Emma went off and made a life of her own, under a new name perhaps…she had many in her time after all. Fox, Laithwaite, Crewe…what else? This “mystery of the graveyard” might have to stay just that.

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