Sarah Gerrish, cake seller, (c.1805-1862)

Mysteries are both the joy and the challenge of genealogy. Sarah Gerrish's story is one of these.

Sarah Gerrish, cake seller, (c.1805-1862)
Drawing of Sarah Gerrish by Sheridan Parsons

Sarah Gerrish's story is full of confusion. I have recently revisited it after a two year hiatus, but I am still encountering brick walls at every turn. These mysteries are both the joy and the challenge of genealogy. Often the stories we uncover are like jigsaw puzzles with many pieces missing. We will never see the whole picture.

The complications of this particular story begin with Sarah's birth date, which remains obscure. Her death registration and most newspaper articles give her birth year as 1812, but her burial record and the Trowbridge Chronicle gives her birth year as 1805. The 1861 census states 1807. The 1851 census states that she was born in 1814. This range of at least 9 years makes it very difficult to identify records which pertain to her.

I think she was probably born in Clonmel, Tipperary, Ireland, in about 1805. In 1848, when Sarah married, she didn't even know her father's name and occupation, only that he was deceased. Her father may have been serving or training at the British barracks in Clonmel, which had recently been extended in anticipation of an invasion by Napoleon. During the Napoleonic wars these barracks were largely occupied by militia units, such as the Armagh and North Cork militias, while the regular Regiments were away fighting in the wars.

I have not found out what brought Sarah from Ireland to Wiltshire, but it is possible that her father was posted to the Barracks at Devizes, or that he died when she was young, and she was returned to her relations in Wiltshire.

I believe that Sarah married Henry Gerrish, an agricultural labourer, in Broughton Gifford near Melksham, on 24th June 1848. If this is the correct marriage, Henry's last name and Sarah's maiden name were both Gerrish. Henry is said to be a bachelor and Sarah a spinster. Henry and his father George were both labourers. Sarah's father was deceased and his name and occupation are blank. The witnesses were Edward Gerrish and Angelina Gerrish. Neither Sarah nor Henry were able to write.

Henry's identity is also a little confused. There are several men named Henry Gerrish in the area. In both the 1851 and 1861 censuses, Henry's birth location is given as Freshford, Somerset. I have not found a George Gerrish living in Freshford who could be Henry's father. However, in the most likely baptism for Henry in that area, in nearby Hinton Charterhouse, the child's father's name is John, not George. There is a possible Henry in Melksham in the 1841 census, but he is said to be born in Wiltshire, not Somerset.

I have not found any evidence to suggest it, but I do wonder whether Henry or Sarah were related to the Gerrishes at Gerrish and Co, the canal carrying company in Bradford on Avon.

Now we can move on to the part of the story we know...

By 1851 Henry and Sarah were living in Semington Lane, a long lane between Melksham and the canal at Semington, an area where many members of the Gerrish family lived. In 1861 their address was 9 Semington Road. There is no evidence in the censuses of 1851 or 1861 that they had children. This is hardly surprising as they married later in life.

By 1862 Sarah was working as a travelling cake seller for the Melksham confectioner and pastrycook Benjamin Shaul. She’d had no occupation in the 1861 census so this may have been one of many sporadic jobs she took to make ends meet.

Benjamin Shaul had opened his first shop in Church Street, Melksham, some time before 1851. He married Sarah Alice Matthews, the daughter of an Inn Keeper, in Warminster in 1850. In 1861 Benjamin and Sarah can be found living in Market Place, Melksham, with Benjamin working as a confectioner. Staying with them at the time of this census were their nephew Frederick Bendy, age 3, and their niece Alice Blake, age 2, who would die only two years later.

Soon after the census in 1861 Benjamin moved his shop to Bank Street, and this probably coincided with his diversification into making soda water, lemonade and gingerade. Collectors’ bottle labels provide the date 1861 for the launch of his “Soda Water and Lemonade Works”, and the advert below gives a Bank Street address in 1867. It is probable, then, that Benjamin Shaul was based in Bank Street, Melksham, at the time when Sarah Gerrish worked for him. Benjamin’s wife Sarah was to die in 1866. He remarried that same year and had five children of his own. One of these, Thomas, died in childhood.

An advertisement for Benjamin Shaul of Melksham, 1867

At 5 o’clock in the evening on 17th November 1862, Sarah was probably making her way home, with the remains of her stock in a basket on her arm, when she stopped off at the Kings Arms in Hilperton Marsh, near to the present day Hilperton Marina, and bought a pennyworth of beer. She was still perfectly sober when she left the inn.

The King's Arms today is a much extended pub.

The obvious route home from the Kings Arms would be along the towpath to Semington. In mid November it must have been quite dark, and the waning crescent moon was no help to her. It seems likely that she lost her footing and fell into the canal.

About an hour after she was seen leaving the pub, two boys walking by the canal saw something floating in the water near Semington. They were afraid to touch it, and ran off to find Police Constable Chandler of the Wiltshire Constabulary. The Constable was joined by the wheelwright, Mr Wilshire, and together they made their way to the canal. There they found a basket and a number of cakes and biscuits drifting in the canal. Eventually they found the lifeless body of Sarah Gerrish floating on the water.

Sarah's body was taken to the Melksham Union Workhouse in Semington, where an inquest was held two days later in the board room, Coroner George Sylvester presiding. There was no evidence of foul play or suicide, and the jury returned a verdict of “found drowned”. Sarah was buried by Rev E J W Thomas, in Melksham parish, on November 21st. Her address in the burial register is given simply as Melksham, and her age 57.

There is no mention of Sarah's husband Henry, or her wider family, in any of the newspaper articles or the records of her death. I do hope that there was someone there to say goodbye to her.

I have not found Henry in the subsequent census in 1871, or any census thereafter. The only possible death I have found was in 1886, where a man aged 82 died in the Bradford on Avon registration area. However, this was probably another Henry Gerrish, who was born in Bradford on Avon and was married to Ann.

It seems that throughout much of their lives, Henry and Sarah somehow sailed below the radar of officialdom, and that I may never be able to uncover their whole story. I hope that this little article will at least allow us to remember and offer our respect to Sarah at her sad end.

Sources: Genealogical research in Ancestry, and articles in the Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette, 20th November 1862 and the Trowbridge Chronicle, Saturday 22 November 1862.

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