A Family History of William Llewdeth Thomas and Martha Jane Bennett
William Llewdeth Thomas was born was born on 25 Mar 1835 in the Glamorganshire village of Llangynwyd in the Llynfi Valley in southern Wales. His father was a coal miner named William Thomas and his mother was Ann Edmonds. William had at least two known brothers, John and David. Both John and David immigrated to New South Wales as did William. David and his wife Elizabeth sailed on the Persia with William and Martha. John was already in New South Wales and paid their passage of £5 each to Sydney. It is possible from a comment in a family letter that John's wife and Martha and Eliza were sisters. This has yet to be explored.
William married Martha Bennett, daughter of Mathew Bennett and Margaret Williams on 16 Jun 1861 in Aberdare, Glamorganshire. Martha was born in 1841 in Pembrokeshire, South Wales. Her father Matthew was a farmer. At the time of her marriage to William she was living in Aberdare in Glamorganshire and working as a house servant. By their daughter Margaret's birth certificate it appears they had a daughter who was born and died in the period before they left Wales.
When William and Martha were born in southern Wales it was a time of great industrial expansion. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, Glamorganshire was a sparsely populated area of scattered farms. In the late 1820's the area's considerable coal and iron reserves began to be developed on an industrial scale for the first time. In 1850 the South Wales coalfield was opened up and Glamorgan became the most populous and industrialized county in Wales. Immigration from the countryside and the border areas of southeastern England soared as workers flocked to the coalfields. In 1801 the population of Glamorgan was 70,879 and in 1901 it was 1,130,668. William's family was among those who migrated from their rural villages to the industrial centers of Glamorgan like Maesteg and Aberdare.
William and Martha immigrated to New South Wales in 1863. They traveled to the port of Lyons in Norfolk, England and set sail on the Persia on 9 February 1863. After a voyage of three months, they landed in Sydney, Australia on 10 May 1863. Along with David and Eliza, they joined John in Newcastle where William went to work as a coal miner in the Hunter Valley coalfields. The family continued to live in Newcastle but by 1873 when Jane was born William was no longer working in the mines and had become a book seller. By 1875 when William Bennett was born he was working as a store keeper and in 1881 when Lily Ann was born his occupation was listed as a dealer. When Violet Dedwydd was born in January of 1884 he was working as a commission agent which is probably the same occupation of book canvasser or door-to-door salesman that he had when he he died.
William and Martha had ten children in all: a daughter who was born and died in Wales before they immigrated and Margaret, William, Ann (Nancy), Catherine (Cassie), Jane (Jennie), William Bennett, Susannah (Rose), Lily Ann, and Violet Dedwydd who were all born in New South Wales.
William died on 10 May, 1884 in Newcastle from cerebral softening (a softening of a small area of brain tissue due to inflammation or a hemorrhage like a stroke) of six months duration. He was 49. At the time of his death he was working as a book canvasser. Martha was left a widow with eight children, seven girls and one boy, ranging from four months to twenty years. It could not have been easy for the family to manage after his death. There was no type of death benefit or aid for widows and children in 1884 so they were suddenly on their own financially. It was also difficult without sons to help support the family because daughters had limited employment opportunities in those days. Martha and her older daughters eventually set themselves up as dress makers or milliners to survive. In one of the letters Lily Ann wrote to her daughter Violet she said how hard it was for Martha to have to give up their house after William died.
On 19 Sept 1888, Martha placed Rose, Lily Ann and Violet in the Randwick Asylum for Destitute Children. Randwick was a barracks type institution that could house 800 children who were not eligible for the orphan schools and whose parents were not capable of taking care of them. Martha was able to reclaim 16 year old Rose on 19 Feb 1894 after she had been at Randwick for six years but Lily Ann and Violet remained there for another year until 30 Aug 1895 when Randwick records show they were discharged to their sister Ann (Nancy) at their mother's request. Lily Ann was 14 and Violet was 10. Those years of childhood hardships and institutional deprivation were no doubt a contributing factor to the problems both Lily Ann and Violet experienced as adults.
Martha died on 8 Mar 1920 in North Sydney at age 78 from a cerebral hemorrhage. At the time of her death she was living with her daughter Margaret Hatch in North Sydney.
William and Martha's life had much hardship and tragedy. Most of their family died young from accident and disease. William himself was only 49 when he died from a brain hemorrhage. An infant daughter died before they left Wales. A son, William, died in 1868 at age 3 from rheumatic fever. Their only son to survive childhood, William Bennett, was killed in a mining accident in 1912 when he was 36, leaving behind his wife Matilda and three small children. Margaret and Charles Hatch had a stillborn son in 1896. Their son Walter suffered from ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease) and slowly wasted away and died in 1933 at age 39.
Tuberculosis also took a death toll on the family, especially the McLeans. In the early 1900's in Australia tuberculosis was a major cause of death ranking second among males and first among females. Jane Thomas died from it in 1907 at age 34, Rose Thomas in 1908 at age 27, Margaret Thomas Hatch in 1920 at age 55, Ann Thomas Ivey in 1925 at age 57 and Catherine's husband Roderick McLean in 1927 at age 68. Four of the McLean children also died from tuberculosis: Hector in 1922 at age 20, Roderick in 1922 at age 31, Gladys in 1925 at age 32 and James in 1936 at age 37. Another of Catherine's and Roderick McLean's sons, Malcolm, died in 1896 at age 1 from meningitis.
Martha's hardship after William's death and her necessary preoccupation with providing financial support seemed to create a dysfunctional dynamic within the family. Three of her daughters, the oldest, Margaret, and the two youngest, Lily Ann and Violet, had out of wedlock children with no identified fathers which was considered scandalous at the time.
Margaret's out of wedlock son, William Claude Kingsley Thomas, was born in 1888. After his mother's marriage to Charles Henry Hatch in 1890, William CK was given the last name of Hatch. At the time of their marriage, Charles was a recent widower left with three small children after his wife Mary Ann died in childbirth. Charles had hired Martha as a housekeeper and when it turned out she was pregnant they were married. The marriage was a good partnership for both of them with Margaret getting Charles' protection and support for herself and her son and Charles getting a mother for his children. Charles worked for many years as the Station Master in Newton Boyd in New South Wales giving the family financial security including a pension after his death in 1908.
Lily Ann had a daughter, Violet Thomas, in 1901. The father was never identified. Lily Ann struggled with single motherhood and Violet was placed in a living arrangement as a child with a German couple, Carl Adolph Franz Spuhl and Matilde Wallace (Spuhl was later anglicized to Spool). Carl was a condiment maker with comfortable financial means. The arrangement came about through Matilde's sister, Ernestine Wallace, who was a friend of Lily Ann's. When Ernestine saw how Lily Ann was struggling as a single parent she suggested the possibility of Violet being placed with the Spuhls who had no children of their own. Lily Ann agreed but was obviously conflicted as she would not agree to a permanent placement. When Violet was about six, Lily Ann took her for what was to be a weekend visit. Instead she ended up placing Violet in a boarding school about fifteen miles outside of Sydney in Parramatta. She paid the school fees for one quarter and then left Violet there without telling anyone where she was. It was almost a year later that a friend of the Spuhls was visiting Parramatta and recognized Violet in the store where she was buying a penny candy. When the Spuhls heard she had been found, they immediately came to get her, paid the delinquent fees and hosted a large picnic for the entire school. One wonders what would have happened to her if she had not been seen and recognized. Lily Ann herself never did explain her reasons for taking Violet and then abandoning her. Perhaps in her own mind she always intended to come back and get her. A few years later, in 1911, Lily Ann married a New Zealand rancher, Charles William Jordan, and moved permanently to New Zealand where she would live until her death in 1968. Violet was officially adopted by the Spools after her mother's marriage to Charles William Jordan and subsequent move to New Zealand. An amended birth certificate for her was issued in the name of Violet Spool in 1912. She remained in sporadic contact with her mother through the years and, although she was always grateful to the Spools for providing her with a stable and financially secure childhood, she always considered herself part of the Thomas family.
William and Martha's youngest daughter, Violet Dedwydd, had an out of wedlock son, Ronald Thomas, in 1904. His father was not identified. Ronald took the last name of Jones after his mother's marriage to Thomas Leslie Jones in 1906. Thomas and Violet had a son, Ralph Leslie Jones, who was born 13 months after their marriage on 31 Aug 1906. The marriage seems to have been a troubled one. The couple did not live together and Violet was suing him for maintenance as of March 1906 which he refused to pay. In 1907 Thomas committed suicide by shooting himself in the head. Newspaper articles claimed he was despondent over his marriage. After his death Violet moved to New Zealand with Ronald but it appears from a newspaper article after her death that Ralph remained in Australia under state control in Auburn. In December of 1909, Violet came to Sydney from New Zealand for the purpose of obtaining an illegal abortion. She developed blood poisoning following the procedure and died at at the Paddington Women's Hospital in Sydney where she had gone to seek help when she became ill. (Note: In the Documents and Articles section of this web site there are copies of the Coroner's Inquests for both Violet and Thomas as well as newspaper articles on their respective deaths).
In spite of the hardship and tragedy, the legacy of William and Martha lived on in their surviving descendents including my grandmother, Violet Thomas, Lily's illegitimate daughter. Violet was an intelligent, well educated woman who learned at an early age the need to be independent and self-sufficient She married Clarence Bede Maxwell on 8 Apr 1921 in Sydney. They had three children: Colin John born in 1921, my mother Shirley Margaret born in 1923 and Howard Gordon (Peter) born in 1925. Clarence deserted his family when the children were young and Violet ended up raising them by herself. Although the early years were not easy, especially during the depression, she later became a successful author under the pen name C Bede Maxwell and an international dog handler and judge. She immigrated to America in 1956 to live by her daughter Shirley in Salem, Oregon and remained there until her death on 13 Mar 1993.
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Last Update: September 2017
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