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by Julie McNeill, June 2008

You might say; Oh,  this is a story about a dead posh family, but in fact my Great Great Great Grandparents were your typical Midland variety of labouring community members who did what they could to survive in their grimy home in the Black Country. The family surname of  DUCE is thought to be of Middle English nickname origin; being sweet smelling...er, well, perhaps they made a bit of extra effort to have a bath .on their wedding day at Sedgely Parish Church. The nineteen year old bride, Ann Vickers could have taken time to gather a posie of sweet smelling summer flowers, and a bit of lace added to her best dress. It was July 10th, 1853.

After the Sunday service, the Vicar married the young couple. Nobody knows who stayed behind to watch and celebrate. The marriage certificate had two male witnesses. Originally I had assumed that if they weren't family, they were mates from the coal field, but on investigation, Seth Pugh was a professional witness, and according to the census a local lawyer and collector of poor rates and taxes in the Sedgely Parish. Also on hand was another parishioner, Thomas Fieldhouse, occupation, Iron Moulder (1861 Census).

The Vicar Mr. Lewis may not have heard Ann's surname correctly, as he wrote it down as VICKHOUSE, so for this family historian, it took quite a while to find enough evidence to discover her accent may have hindered the spelling of VICKERS! Another record keeper, of the 1851 Census, also heard the pronunciation of the er, as the round ars, hence, Vickhouse, Vickars. A well-informed source also suggests that Seth Pugh acted as Parish Clerk and would have written the entry on the vicar's behalf. Nobody's perfect…

Being illiterate didn't help with any spellings and pronunciations then as the newly weds from my working-class roots signed with an X.  Thankfully, 120 years later with a foundation of a very good primary education I  can participate in the information revolution of the internet, and wonder when I read my ancestors  nineteenth century occupations in the mining village of Ettingshall,  I see their children as Scholars from 4 - 12yrs.....but obviously that doesn't mean learning  how to write their own names on their wedding certificates!

In my meagre research, the provision of literacy to the masses wouldn't greatly improve until the twentieth century - These people were made for work... In fact they were born to it. No wonder I had such conflict at home when I said I wouldn't work in a factory again, because filthy hard work was nearly genetic!


Childbirth on the coalfields would be inconceivable to us today, but that was all the ancestors knew and against all the hygenic odds, they survived more than perished. WILLIAM and ANN DUCE state on the Census being born in Wolverhampton to Coal Mining parents. At the age of 17, Ann is documented "working on Coal Pit banks". 

The Duce babbies were delivered probably with the aid of local midwife, Jane Lloyd who appears on the 1861 Census at the Parkfield Colliery in Sedgley. She only lived a couple of doors from Ann and likely to assist in the delivery of HARRIET(1854), then MARY ANN(1858), and ENOCH(1860). My Nan's Gran, ELIZA DUCE was born 1864.

The first breath of coal dust primed the Duce babies - a life that began on the Parkfields Colliery, but looking at the gaps between names I guess some did not survive. Eliza's brother Enoch came along in 1866, then six years later, Francis, followed in 1875 by Solomon Duce.

What did the Duce family experience in those thirty years in and around Sedgley? Queen Victoria's visit in 1866 probably excited the family. Maybe the children even added some of their own coal from the shallow coal field to the archways to herald the monarch's way through Wolverhampton...The Census states the children as scholars of 13 Parkfield Colliery but they didn't know how to write their name, which suggests bible stories rather than having the tools towards literacy. By 1881 they were all working with their mother Ann at the Screw factory.

Although regulations had slowly increased to protect children from working long hours and more safe working conditions the little family managed to avoid the Workhouse. Even though we  are feeling the effects of coal on climate change today, this fossil forest of fuel has provided generations of work to keep the boys out of trouble! William Duce was joined by his sons, Enoch, William, Francis and Solomon as Coal Miners/Hewers. The daughters inevitably married one!

My Great Great Grandmother, Eliza Duce married Joseph Gardner in 1883 and a year later was giving birth to their first child on the neighbouring Rough Hills Colliery. Not exactly a salubrious sounding address but what stamina, or what my husband says about me, being blessed with a gutter immunity. To avoid the myriad of diseases and afflictions was a case of luck and perhaps good house management and hearty stews.

Her older sister Harriet married Joseph Cannon in Lower Gornall 1877 and moved to the promise of more coal at Mansfield, finally settling in Skegby, Nottingham. Mary Ann Duce did something different and married George Jones, a Blacksmith. However, after thirty years of living and loving in Sedgley parish, WILLIAM and ANN DUCE and their married children and grandchildren moved over to the Cannock Chase coal fields, as by 1891 the mines were closing rapidly.

Many mining families re-settled at this time, with Hednesford, Hazel Slade becoming the next place for the Staffordshire Duces, Gardners, and Brothwoods providing occupations and fuel until the 1930's.

Copyright Julie McNeill - June 2008


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