Phoebe Burrows story from about 1850 to the present day

A family story which goes full circle

Written and researched by Bob Olley, his wife Andrea, and assisted by additional material from Robert Burrows

My great-grandmother, Phoebe Ann Ladbrook, was born in Fingringhoe in 1833.  In 1851, she was married, in Fingringhoe, to John Burrows, born about 1830 in Langenhoe. John was the son of another John Burrows and Martha (nee Bibby) of Fingringhoe.

They had four sons:

  • John Wesley Burrows, born 5th May, 1852, Peldon.
  • George Golding Burrows, born 5th February, 1854, Fingringhoe.
  • William Burrows, born 19th October, 1856, Wivenhoe.
  • Joseph Leonard Burrows, born 7th February, 1860, Wivenhoe.

On the 7th April, 1861 census, Phoebe was living with her four Burrows sons in East Street, Wivenhoe.

East Street (highlighted in yellow) in 1897

East Street (highlighted in yellow) in 1897

So, from the birth of the two youngest boys, and the census, Phoebe and the boys were living in Wivenhoe between 1856 and 1861. On each of the son’s birth certificates, John Burrows occupation is shown variously as “seaman” or “mariner”.

Phoebe’s husband John Burrows

John Burrows, himself, was recorded on the 1861 census as being cook and steward on a ship called “Corcyra”.

At this point in 1861, we lose track of John Burrows. There is no record we could find of a death or burial, so, in view of his occupation, and what happened next to Phoebe, we assumed John Burrows had been lost at sea.

Phoebe goes into the Workhouse

In support of our conclusion about John Burrows, The next record we have of Phoebe is that, in 1863, she is in the Union Workhouse, Stanway, with the four Burrows boys. Not only that, she gave birth to my grandmother, Agnes. Agnes’s birth certificate names her as Burrows (Phoebe’s married name), but no father is shown. The Masters Report Book in Stanway Union Workhouse Log Book for 29th July, 1863 says “female, illegitimate to Phoebe Burrows, 42, of Langenhoe – confined.” To this day, I have no idea who my great-grandfather was.

There is also an interesting entry for 3rd July 1863: Phoebe Burrows is named among 13 women, “all change of diet (presumably bread and water), 48 hours, for disobeying the orders of the Medical Officer”. The mind can only boggle at what the Phoebe and the other ladies had been up to just three weeks before my grandmother was born.

Unfortunately, not many of the workhouse records survive, and the Essex Records Office in Chelmsford only has records from April 1863 , so it is not possible to find out when Phoebe and the four boys entered the workhouse, but it must have been between the 7th April, 1861 census and April 1863. While in the workhouse, Phoebe did, in 1865, get all four Burrows boys (but not my grandmother, Agnes), baptised at St. Albright’s Church, Stanway. This is the church that served the workhouse.

Phoebe gets married again

In April 1866, Phoebe married a Samuel Layzell in St. Luke’s Church, Tiptree. Her marriage certificate to Samuel Layzell shows her status as “widow”, confirming that John Burrows was no longer alive.

Phoebe had two children by Samuel Layzell. After Samuel’s death in 1869, Phoebe then had another daughter of unknown fatherhood.

Phoebe gets married for a third time

In 1878, she married for a third time to a George Meadows, again in St. Luke’s Church, Tiptree. But there were no further children by this union.

In the meantime, William Burrows, the third son of the John Burrows and Phoebe’s marriage and born in Wivenhoe, had died, 1870, aged 13, in Lexden Registration District. I can’t be more precise than that. But the other three sons, John Wesley Burrows, George Golding Burrows and Joseph Leonard Burrows had, at separate times, gravitated to Devon.

Phoebe dies in 1912

George Meadows, Phoebe’s third husband, died in 1904, and my great-grandmother, Phoebe, bless her, died in 1912 and is buried at St. Mary The Virgin Church, Kelvedon.


So, is that the end of a story which is interesting to me, but few others?

No. Of course it isn’t!

A few weeks ago, in March 2015, I made contact, via the genealogy websites, with the grandson of George Golding Burrows, the second child of John Burrows and Phoebe’s four boys, and one time, East Street, Wivenhoe, resident. So Phoebe is my new contact’s great-grandmother, too, and we, Robert Burrows and I, are (half) 2nd cousins. But, here the story takes a surprising twist as a result of his excellent research.

John Burrows not dead after all !

It’s probably best to re-start with Burrows family folklore in Canada. Far from perishing at sea as we had assumed, John Burrows joined the Navy. About 1861/2 his ship headed for Canada during the American Civil War. It docked at Sydney Harbour, Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, Canada. At this point, John Burrows deserted, and hid in the trees until the ship left.

John Burrows gets married in Canada

As with all family folklore, there is probably a substantial element of truth in the story, but which may have been romanticised down the years, and which, therefore, I cannot verify. But, what is absolutely certain is that on 21st August 1966, our John Burrows married a Margaret Murphy, of Irish descent, in Little Grace Bay, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. The Little Glace Bay Church entry is as follows:

21 Aug.1866 Little Glace Bay, Catholic Church – By Banns

           John Burrows and Margaret Murphy

John Burrows, age 30, bachelor and a seaman, born in Essex, England and residing in Glace Bay, son of John and Martha Burrows, labourer, to Margaret Murphy, age 20, spinster, born and residing in Bridgeport, daughter of Michael and Mary Murphy, farmer.

Witnesses: M. Murphy and M.cIsaac(sic). Rev. John Shaw.”

His age in the entry doesn’t quite match up to his real age, but it’s our John Burrows alright.

Phoebe is a bigamist twice over !

Significantly, because both Phoebe and John were still alive, this makes John a bigamist in Canada, and Phoebe twice a bigamist here in her marriages to Messrs. Layzell and Meadows.

With his new life in Canada, John Burrows and his new wife, Margaret, had two sons and three daughters between 1867 and 1874.

John Burrows appears on Canadian censuses until 1891. But not on the 1901 census, where Margaret describes herself as a “widow”. But we can find no death record for John Burrows in Canada. So was Margaret really a widow? Or was this deja-vu?

The story has a final twist

The Old Garrison House in East Street built around 1675. Photo taken around 1900

The Old Garrison House in East Street built around 1675. Photo taken around 1900

And the story doesn’t quite end there. My elder daughter, born in Ipswich, but who grew up in Glasgow, now lives in the new Cook’s Shipyard development in Wivenhoe. To get out of Wivenhoe, she has to drive along East Street, where her great-great-grandmother, and her four (half) great-great-uncles, lived a century and a half ago. Is my daughter really a “new incomer”? See pictures of East Street – click here

If anyone knows anything more about my story, please let me know. I am more than pleased, and take no offence at all, at being corrected and updated.

Very best wishes to all, and thank you for reading my story.

Bob Olley


Where in Wivenhoe did Phoebe actually live?

Unfortunately, the 1861 census does not show house numbers, so I’ll try to re-trace the enumerator’s steps. It was usual for the enumerator to do one side of the street, then back down the other, rather than criss-cross the road. Of course, I don’t know which side of the road he did first. He started at the Brook Street end and the premises he visited in order were:

1. A druggist and grocer shop occupied by a Henry B Firman and family.

2. This is curious because the enumerator has given this and his next entry the same number on the schedule and put an asterisk by the second. It looks as if two families were sharing the same house as both families were called Harlow. It must have been a big house because there were 14 of them in all. All the menfolk were seamen.

3. A house occupied by a shoemaker, Alfred Butcher and his family.

4. A grocer’s shop, occupied by a John Polley and family.

5. A baker’s shop occupied by a William Frank and family.

6. A house occupied by a ship’s carpenter, Joseph Sadler and family.

7. A house occupied by a seaman’s wife, Betsey Street and her family.

8. A house occupied by PHOEBE BURROWS and the four boys.

9. A house occupied by a hairdresser, William Stewardson, and his family

10. A house occupied by Thomas Pretty, a seaman, and his wife.

11. A house occupied by a seaman’s widow, Caroline Turner, and her three daughters.

12. A house occupied by a butcher, Thomas Carrington and his family.

13. A house occupied by a Mary Howley, a needlewoman, and her family.

(Note: The names may not be precisely correct, as I have taken them from the transcriptions on the internet.)

After this, I think the enumerator may have crossed the road, because the nature of most of the dwellings (17) seems to have changed in that they are nearly all occupied by only two or three people – a few exceptions – until he got to New Cut, which I believe may be Black Buoy Hill now.

So Phoebe once lived in East Street, a narrow road leading these days to the housing development called Cook’s Shipyard, which is where Bob Olley’s daughter now lives. Strange to think that she now drives past where her great, great grandmother once lived. Life turns a full circle.

Bob Olley

Colchester, April 2015

PS The Olley family name. In the Calvados region of France there are a group of villages called Ouilly. Our Olley ancestor came over as a scribe or a clerk with the Norman Conquest. Our most famous family member seems to be Richard D’Oyly Carte of opera fame.

This page was added on 16/04/2015.

Comments about this page

  • Great story , as a mother of four my heart breaks for Phoebe. Folklore confirmed , I am a descendant of John and Margaret Cape Breton.

    Paulette Burrows McKenna

    By Paulette McKenna (17/03/2023)
  • My Grandfather Samuel B Layzell was born in 1881and christened at Thundersley, Essex.
    His Father was Benjamin Layzell and he was christened in Rayleigh, Essex.
    Don’t think there is any family connection with your family but it was interesting to hear someone who had the same name as my grandfather.
    Please get back to me if you think there is a connection.

    By Gillian Strudwick (14/08/2022)
  • I too am descended from Essex Burrowses … but I am not sure whether our branches intertwine, and if so how far back we have to go.

    My great great great great grandfather was John Burrows (1808 – 1866), shoemaker of Great Coggeshall; his brother was Joseph Burrows, a Colchester seedsman (family tradition has us descended from Dutch Huguenot immigrants, and Joseph was certainly a dealer in tulip bulbs … ). The family was closely intertwined with the Gooding family; but getting back beyond my great x4 grandfather has proved exceedingly problematic.

    My great x5 grandfather APPEARS to have been John Burrows (dates unknown, but dob circa 1780 seems likely) and my great x5 grandmother was Mary Ann Burrows (formerly Wrigley, maiden name unknown).

    If anyone else is trying to tease out this line I’d be delighted to hear from you and maybe put our heads together …

    Jeremy Burrows

    By Jeremy Burrows (03/02/2022)
  • Hello my name is Mary Norris and I am a descendant of the Harlow family mentioned in your listing from the 1861 census. If it helps to locate where Phoebe was living the Harlows lived in what is now called Alice’s Cottage, then divided into two halves and with an extra piece on the LHS of the older section. This piece has long been taken/fallen down but the roof line still exists on the wall of the Live and Let Live. Alma Street was very new – called the New Cut – so East Street then started at what is now the sharp bend in Brook Street. In 1861 Alice’s Cottage was in East Street. The shop occupied by the Firmins was opposite.

    Many of the houses in East Street no longer exist but there are a number of photographs of the old housing in East Street on this site, including Franks the bakers. From this I would suggest that the enumerator listed the Firmans, crossed the road to the north side to list the Harlows and continued down towards the High Street, before recrossing and continuing back towards what we now call Alma Street but was then the New Cut.

    It would seem that Phoebe lived somewhere on the north side of East Street probably quite close to the entrance to the church.

    By Mary Norris (25/09/2018)
  • Hello there!

    My name is Patricia and I am the great-grand daughter of John Burrows and Margret Murphy. I am the granddaughter of Rose Burrows who grew up in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia.

    Your story about John deserting is the story we have been told. However, I was not aware he was married with children in England.

    How amazing the internet is!

    By Patricia Seward (06/10/2017)
  • I have Olley, Cook, Sadler, Firmin and Burrows all in my tree, besides other Wivenhoe names.

    By Jennifer Read (01/07/2016)
  • Good to know. Thanks Jennifer. Do you live in Wivenhoe now?

    By Peter Hill (04/07/2016)
  • Bob. The new cut was Alma St.

    By John Stewart (29/11/2015)
  • Mr. Bob Olley, I am the daughter of Daniel Joseph & Marie W.[Hanrahan] Burrows, RN. My grandfather was George Burrows, son of John J. Burrows whose parents were John and Margaret [Murphy] Burrows of Cape Breton County, Nova Scotia, Canada. I enjoyed reading the Phoebe Burrows story, a Mother of four and a remarkable woman!

    Georgina Burrows-McCuish,
    Cape Breton Island, NS

    By Georgina Burrows-McCuish (26/04/2015)

Add a comment about this page

Your email address will not be published.