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A family of carriers: the Nelsons of Newbiggin-on-Lune

Friday 28 February, 2020, by Karen Griffiths

In a previous blogpost examining the role of the country carrier in Westmorland we came across a Miss Elizabeth Nelson, a part-time farmer and carrier from Ravenstonedale. Female carriers seem to be pretty rare in the area so we decided to see if we could find out more information about her life.

We already knew from Kelly’s 1894 Directory of Westmorland that in that year she was operating a regular carrier service between Kendal and Kirkby Stephen alongside another Ravenstonedale-based carrier called Robert Bousfield.

Looking through the available run of Kelly’s Directories from 1894 to 1910 we find that there was a carrier called Nelson and another called Bousfield in each volume right up to and including 1906. They ran their roughly parallel services from the ‘Rose and Crown’ Inn in Kendal and the ‘Golden Fleece’ in Kirkby Stephen. Local historian Ann Sandell supplied us with the photograph of the Golden Fleece Inn below, she told us: ” This is where the Age UK shop is on the Market Square in Kirkby Stephen.  The arch would be a small coach arch into the back yard and the building behind was inn rooms.”

The Golden Fleece Inn, Kirkby Stephen, unknown date. Courtesy of Ann Sandell
The Golden Fleece Inn, Kirkby Stephen, unknown date. Courtesy of Ann Sandell

Elizabeth Nelson wasn’t hard to find in the nineteenth century censuses for Ravenstonedale parish. It turns out that she and her family actually lived in Newbiggin-on-Lune. She was born there in 1837 to Michael and Agnes Nelson. Her father Michael was born there too, in 1796 and in the 1841 census he is listed as a ‘Carrier’. Alongside Elizabeth, then aged 5, there is a son called John, born in 1826 and an older daughter called Isabell born in 1821.

1841 Census © Crown Copyright Images reproduced by courtesy of The National Archives, London, England. www.NationalArchives.gov.uk & www.TheGenealogist.co.uk

Being a carrier was a tough business, out in all weathers and handling heavy loads and horses could be dangerous. Heather Ballantyne has hunted out this newspaper report about a bad accident that Michael was involved in.

Kendal Mercury 16th Feb 1850. Newspaper image © The British Library Board. All rights reserved. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive (https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/).

Breaking a leg was no small thing in the nineteenth century so Michael must have been made of stern stuff to have survived and been able to continue working. The newspaper article is also interesting because it reveals that he stayed overnight at the Jolly Farmer’s Inn then attended Kirkby Stephen Market the next day, presumably fulfilling orders from customers back in Ravenstonedale. One can speculate that a certain amount of ale may have been consumed before he and his neighbours set off back home. Carriers quite often offered a passenger service if they had room, a third string to their bow.

In the next census, 1851, Michael has acquired a small parcel of land and is now listed as a “Carrier & Farmer of 10 Acres”. Son John is 28 with no occupation listed so presumably working alongside his father. Elizabeth is 15 and no doubt helping her mother with farm and house duties. Of Isabell there is no sign.

1851 Census © Crown Copyright Images reproduced by courtesy of The National Archives, London, England. www.NationalArchives.gov.uk & www.TheGenealogist.co.uk

The census of 1861 reveals that John is now running the Nelson family carrier business while father Michael concentrates on the small farm which is now listed as 9 acres. Elizabeth is working as a domestic servant probably within the household. Of particular note is the appearance of Michael’s ‘grandson’ aged 5 called Robert Bousfield. We can find no evidence for who this child’s parents were. We can speculate that he is the illegitimate child of the vanished Isabell but he must have been born around 1856 and Isabell is no longer in the household at that date. We might therefore look to Elizabeth who would have been around 20 when Robert was born. He is listed as John’s nephew in a later census so definitely not his son. Bousfield is a common surname in the parish so it’s difficult to speculate who the father was, though there is a relatively well-off yeoman farmer also called Robert Bousfield, a widower born in 1830, living at nearby Friars Bottom Farm who might be a candidate as we’ll see later, even though he also has a son (called Robert John Airey for some unknown reason).

1861 Census © Crown Copyright Images reproduced by courtesy of The National Archives, London, England. www.NationalArchives.gov.uk & www.TheGenealogist.co.uk

It seems that John was also accident prone (or maybe his father was still helping out after all?) as we have a newspaper article mentioning him having a lucky escape from drowning:

“ACCIDENT TO A CARRIER – As Mr Nelson, carrier from Ravenstonedale to Kendal, was returning on Saturday night, the 8th inst., he had a narrow escape from being drowned. Mr Beck, of Cocklake, near Tebay, gave him a package to put into his cart, and on doing so it seems his feet slipped and he fell somewhat heavily into a small stream which runs by the roadside. Mr Beck, observing that something was the matter, after stopping the horse, found Nelson lying with his face in the water quite stunned, and quickly released him from his perilous situation. Had he remained a few moments longer the result would have been fatal.”
The Kendal Mercury – Saturday 15th January 1870 p4

By 1871 all reference to the business of carrier has gone from the Nelson’s census record, Michael and John are listed as farmer and farmer’s son respectively; Elizabeth as farmer’s daughter.

We know that John was still operating as a carrier however, because he was fined in 1877 for using an unfit horse at the Kendal Borough Police Court.

Westmorland Gazette 1st Sept 1877 p5 Newspaper image © The British Library Board. All rights reserved. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive (https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/).

Ten years later and we must presume that Michael has died, leaving the small farm to his son and daughter who are both unmarried and still under the same roof. They farm the 9 acres in Newbiggin helped by Robert Bousfield who is listed as an agricultural labourer.

However, we discover from the 1873 Post Office Directory for Westmorland that a J. Nelson was running a regular carrier service from the ‘White Hart’ in Kendal to Kirkby Stephen via Ravenstonedale on Saturdays amongst others so it is clearly no longer considered necessary to list it as an occupation on the census returns.

By the next census in 1891, John is no longer listed, we presume he has died and Elizabeth lives and farms alone and unmarried in Newbiggin. A 9 acre plot was never going to provide a sufficient income even for one person so it is not surprising that we found her listed as continuing the family carrier business in the 1894 Kelly’s Directory. It seems also that her ‘son’ has joined her, running his own parallel business under his own name. Indeed, we find his occupation listed as ‘Carrier’ in the same census. He is married with a baby and living nearby in Newbiggin. It’s no surprise to see that his eight month old baby is called ‘Nelson’ Bousfield in recognition of the family that raised him.

1891 census © Crown Copyright Images reproduced by courtesy of The National Archives, London, England. www.NationalArchives.gov.uk & www.TheGenealogist.co.uk

Elizabeth Nelson continues to farm in Newbiggin and was still running her carrier service in 1906. We last see her aged 75, now retired and living off private means in relatively large house with six rooms and recorded under her nickname ‘Betsy’ in 1911.

1911 Census © Crown Copyright Images reproduced by courtesy of The National Archives, London, England. www.NationalArchives.gov.uk & www.TheGenealogist.co.uk

Meanwhile, Robert’s business appears to flourish and he is also still operating a regular carrier service between Kendal and Kirkby Stephen in 1906 picking up some of the extra stops that Elizabeth used to do. However, like Elizabeth, by 1910 his business has disappeared from the trade directories. The census for 1911 has him recorded simply as a farmer.

1911 Census © Crown Copyright Images reproduced by courtesy of The National Archives, London, England. www.NationalArchives.gov.uk & www.TheGenealogist.co.uk

An explanation for this can be found in the 1901 census where we find Robert Bousfield, ‘Farmer & Carrier’ listed as now living at Friars Bottom near Newbiggin with his wife Agnes. Did Robert’s possible natural father Robert Bousfield senior leave him the 45 acre farm in his will perhaps or did his carrier business provide him with sufficient income to buy it? It was a big step up from the 9 acres he shared with Elizabeth and John Nelson in his youth and probably explained why in his later years he could support his family through farming alone.

1901 Census © Crown Copyright Images reproduced by courtesy of The National Archives, London, England. www.NationalArchives.gov.uk & www.TheGenealogist.co.uk

**UPDATE**

A friendly genealogist has kindly started to put together a family tree for Elizabeth/Betsy Nelson and it solves several mysteries. First of all, the origins of carrier Robert Bousfield. It turns out that he is the son of Elizabeth’s older sister Isabell and a man called Thomas Bousfield. Isabell vanishes from the family home because she married Thomas an agricultural labourer. In 1851 she is living in remote Weasdale, a couple of miles south of Newbiggin, with Thomas and newborn twins plus three other children aged seven, five and three. Robert is born five years later and it seems likely that Isabell simply couldn’t cope and passed the baby on to her mother Agnes and younger sister Elizabeth to raise. Agnes was apparently blind so it’s likely that Elizabeth shouldered most of the responsibility, so in essence he became her son in all but name. Isabell died two years after Robert’s birth, April 1858 so it’s likely she was also ailing when she passed on her youngest son.

1851 Census © Crown Copyright Images reproduced by courtesy of The National Archives, London, England. www.NationalArchives.gov.uk & www.TheGenealogist.co.uk

John Nelson, brother to Elizabeth and Isabell and uncle to Robert died in January 1889 aged 63. Betsy lived to the grand old age of 84, dying in January 1921 we think. Heather Ballantyne tells us that she is buried in Ravenstonedale churchyard.

Elizabeth Nelson's gravestone in St Oswald's churchyard, Ravenstonedale. She is buried along with her adopted son Robert Bousfield and his wife
Elizabeth Nelson’s gravestone in St Oswald’s churchyard, Ravenstonedale. She is buried along with her adopted son Robert Bousfield and his wife

Robert Bousfield may be a direct relation to the Robert Bousfield who lived at Friar’s Bottom Farm we mentioned above and may therefore have inherited it. We need to do a bit more untangling of that family tree to be certain however as there are a lot of Bousfields around Newbiggin.

We were curious to see what happened to Isobell’s other children after her tragic death so we checked them out in the 1861 census. We were relieved to find that their aunt Mary had come to the rescue. She was living with her brother Thomas in Newbiggin, looking after the remaining children including the twins and four lodgers all railway labourers, as was Thomas by this time. They were no doubt taking advantage of the good wages offered by South Durham & Lancashire Union Railway (SD&LUR) which was building the Stainmore line from Tebay to Kirkby Stephen and beyond. The line opened in 1861 however so the work was shortlived.

1861 Census © Crown Copyright Images reproduced by courtesy of The National Archives, London, England. www.NationalArchives.gov.uk & www.TheGenealogist.co.uk

Our genealogist also traced the Nelson family backwards in time for us. Starting with the parents of Michael Nelson who were John Nelson of Morland, Westmorland (1749-1820) and Isabel Smith, born 1851.

Interestingly, Heather Ballantyne has just sent us the following death notice from the Westmorland Gazette dated 15 July 1826.

John Nelson death notice The Westmorland Gazette 15 July 1826
John Nelson death notice The Westmorland Gazette 15th July 1826 Newspaper image © The British Library Board. All rights reserved. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive (https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/).

There’s a six year time gap but we do wonder if this ‘man of the strictest honesty’ is John and Elizabeth’s great grandfather? He would have been born just as the new turnpike roads were being built through the area, providing him with the perfect opportunity to set up in business as a ‘common carrier,’ a business which was then passed on through the following four generations of his family. Integrity and honesty were of course essential components of being a successful carrier, they fulfilled shopping lists for their customers; handed over their produce to shops and collected the money. Everything had to be absolutely above board and accounted for if the business was to succeed as it did for well over a hundred years.

A newspaper article sent to us by Heather Ballantyne, about a theft from the Nelson family elder, Michael shows how seriously he took the trust that his customers placed in him.

Westmorland Gazette 13th Feb 1843 Newspaper image © The British Library Board. All rights reserved. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive (https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/).

The report also reveals important details about how carriers operated. The twenty cheeses had no doubt been collected by Michael from various farms along the route to Kendal that day. Cheese and butter were a major source of income for hill farmers in the nineteenth century. They were unloaded from his cart with the help of an ostler, the man employed to look after his horses, at the Fleece Inn, where Michael was presumably staying overnight. The cheeses were locked up in ‘the market-room’ – was this a special room set aside at the inn for storing market goods brought in by carriers? We did wonder if it was Kendal’s Market Hall but that wasn’t built until 1889. Another unanswered question is who were the cheeses destined for? Did Michael take them to the Saturday market and sell them on behalf of his customers or were they to be collected and paid for by a local cheese factor/wholesaler?

Market Street North, Kirkby Stephen on market day showing parked carts, unknown date. Several carriers wagons can be seen in the middle distance. Courtesy of Ann Sandell
Market Street North, Kirkby Stephen on market day showing parked carts, unknown date. Several carriers wagons can be seen in the middle distance. Courtesy of Ann Sandell

Another question we have is how did Robert Bousfield cover the daily distances he had his business down to do? In our blogpost Westmorland Carriers we worked out that he was covering a distance of around 47 miles in a day which is impossible. He may have had hired drivers working for him though we see no record in the censuses. There may also have been other family members who helped out. We have a clue from our genealogist in that there seems to have been other carriers in the earlier generation of the Nelson family – William Nelson of Ravenstonedale, was born in 1746 and married to Dorothy Dalton. They had a daughter, Mary, who was baptised in Ravenstonedale in 1778 and he is listed as a ‘worset carrier’ in the register. Worsted is a fine wool yarn and the name can also be used to mean the cloth woven from it.

Ravenstonedale Baptismal Register entry for Mary Nelson 1778
Ravenstonedale Baptismal Register entry for Mary Nelson 1778

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Kendal was a major market hub for wool yarn and cloth. Indeed, the town’s motto is ‘Pannus Mihi Panis‘ ‘Wool (or cloth) is my Bread’ as Maggie Dickinson writes in her article ‘Hauliers of Yesteryear’ (April 2016 ‘Cumbria’ pp32-35). She was writing about the packhorse trade, but from the later 1700s after the turnpike roads were built, yarn was sent out via carrier carts for weaving and also for knitting into stockings by the rural population. At one time everyone knitted, men, women and children, in order to supplement meagre farm incomes. Carriers would then collect the finished goods and return them to factors/wholesalers in Kendal for onward sale.

'The Bump Carrier'. Girl carrying a delivery of bump yarn in Dent, ready to be knitted by locals into stockings. Bump was a thick oily yarn suitable for hardwearing knitted goods.
‘The Bump Carrier’. Girl carrying a recently arrived delivery of ‘bump’ yarn in nineteenth century Dent, ready to be distributed and knitted by locals into stockings. Bump was a thick oily yarn suitable for hardwearing knitted goods.

To finish the story, our genealogist told us that the elder John Nelson’s father was called Thomas Nelson, born in 1714 and married to Elizabeth Dickson. Thomas’ father was John Nelson born 22 March 1684 who married Elizabeth Hebson or Hobson born 17 August 1684. We don’t know if any of them ran carrier businesses unfortunately but we’ll keep hunting.

**UPDATE 2**

We’ve found out more about how carrier Robert Bousfield ended up living and farming at Friar’s Bottom. It seems he was the nephew of the previous tenant – Robert Bousfield senior whose brother (and Robert junior’s father) Thomas ended up as a railway labourer in Newbiggin. Robert senior’s family had all moved away from Ravenstonedale hence Robert junior ending up living and farming there until his death in 1925. Read more fascinating details about the family on the Ravenstonedale DNA Project website.

< Previous ‘A Way Through blog post Westmorland carriers

Next ‘A Way Through’ blog post Murder of a carrier: Thomas Hunter of Archer’s Hill, Orton >

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Picture of Karen Griffiths

Karen Griffiths

Interpretation Officer for the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority

Website: www.yorkshiredales.org.uk

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