RETRO: Mystery Sheffield family photograph led to fascinating story of entertainer couple

William and Kate Townsend
William and Kate Townsend
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A woman who turned out to be buried at Wardsend Cemetery was the subject of a long search triggered by an intriging family photograph.

Sue Pierce found the photograph in her husband’s parents’ attic and decided to find out who was in the portrait.

This is an edited extract from Sue’s blog on the Friends of Wardsend Cemetery website, wardsendcemetery.wordpress.com

“Let me start with why I have an interest in Kate (nee Hattersley) and William Townsend.

William Townsend is my husband Tony’s great, great, great uncle.

I have always been fascinated in family history and started researching Tony’s family tree in the late 80s/early 90s.

Going back to 1980, when I was pregnant with our first child, my late mother-in-law [whose first grandchild it was to be], always expressed a particular interest in my pregnancy regarding the size of the baby.

Every time I had an ante-natal appointment she would ask if the baby was growing normally, and seemed more concerned than you would expect.

When we asked her why she was so concerned, she just looked at us and raised one eyebrow, which she always did if she didn’t want to say/tell us anything! The same thing happened in subsequent pregnancies, and with the pregnancies of her other daughter-in-law.

We never discovered the reason behind her concern during her lifetime.

My mother-in-law passed away in 1986, aged only 60. It was when my father-in-law passed away in 1993, that things gradually began to become clearer.

As we started sorting through their possessions, we found quite a few photos, and other family memorabilia.

I continued to research Tony’s family tree. Over the years, I had managed to do a lot of research and knew that if the mystery couple were related to Tony, then somewhere, I would have their name in the family tree. I spent many years trying to discover who the mystery couple were.

It was so frustrating as I didn’t know whether they were man and wife, siblings, or completely unrelated.

I didn’t know whether it was the gentleman or the lady who I was supposed to be looking for as the family member, to give me a starting point. It was like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Then, just two years ago, in January 2016, on a cold grey Sunday, I decided I would pull out all the stops to unravel the mystery once and for all. My firstborn, who started all the concerns of his grandmother, was by then 35! I just had to discover their identities.

I belong to various family history groups and started posting the photograph on a few of them, asking (almost begging) for help or suggestions. I hoped there would be an expert out there somewhere who knew just where to look.

As you can probably imagine, the photograph generated a lot of interest. Lots and lots of kind people started searching. We all agreed they were probably performers, and some kind folk knew where to look for clues.

Within hours, possible names and other information were being sent to me, but none of them tied in with Tony’s family tree.

That same evening, a wonderful lady posted another name suggestion – William Townsend, aka Mr Tommy Dodd.

I knew for sure the name Townsend was in Tony’s family tree, so checked for a William. I found him, and the dates and ages all tied up.

I checked a few records, finding he was an ‘exhibitor’ in the 1881 census, and found his will too, which also confirmed details, including leaving his estate to his younger brother, giving the brother’s name and slightly unusual occupation, which confirmed I had the correct will.

After a few more checks on old records, it all tied up, and finally, after 35 frustrating years, the mystery of their identity was solved.

The interest of other people didn’t end there, and I was sent the pictures of the programmes and newspaper articles. To say I was over the moon was an understatement.

In 1876 Kate and William became parents of a son, William Hartshill Townsend. His Staffordshire baptism shows their abode as ”travelling” and William’s occupation as ”show dwarf”. Tragically, their only child died in 1877.

I have tried to put ‘flesh on their bones’ so to speak and find out more about them as people. Other than singing and performing (which I like to think they actually enjoyed), the couple were partial to a drink, and were both apparently fond of whisky.

They sounded very colourful, and certainly seem to have been popular and successful, even travelling outside of the UK to perform abroad.

I think I would have liked Tony’s great, great, great Uncle William and Aunt Kate.”

n There is more about Kate Townsend on the Friends website. Thanks to Howard Bayley from the group for suggesting this article.