From Westham to Coventry and beyond
The story of George, a Hunnisett stray

The text below is based on an article I wrote for the Family Roots FHS (Eastbourne & District) Journal Vol 16 No 1 (July 2001) which in turn was based on an earlier article I wrote for the Coventry FHS Journal Vol 2 No 6 (June 1998). I have not managed to link this group into the main tree.

I grew up in Eastbourne and later moved to Coventry where I realised there were fewer Hunnisetts but didn't really place much significance on this until about 1989 when I started getting interested in my family history. Researching Sussex from a distance can be slow so in a bout of lateral thinking I decided to look in the local history section of the Coventry library for any trace of Hunnisett families in Coventry. I found none and came to the conclusion that I may have been the first Hunnisett to live in Coventry. However, I was wrong, as there had been another over a century before me. What's more he had been born in Westham, Sussex, just like my own Hunnisett ancestors of the time.

Family memories had led me back to my great-grandfather William Hunnisett, born in about 1852, and his wife, Sarah, who lived in the parish of Westham. I didn't know William's parents so decided to visit Birmingham library to search the GRO indexes for his birth. While searching the September 1852 volume I noticed an entry for a Harriet Hunnisett registered in Coventry. I then found my William in the June volume and for the time being thought no more about Harriet.

Shortly afterwards I was visiting relatives in Eastbourne so I decided to have a look at the microfilmed census records for Westham in Eastbourne library. The most recent then available was the 1881 census so I started with that. Westham is not very big so it didn't take long to find William and Sarah and their two daughters, Flora and Lily. I searched the whole of Westham in case there were other Hunnisetts who would turn out to be related and found three other family groups plus two widows living on their own.

Searches of the earlier census records showed that the Hunnisett families had been there for several generations as there were several family groups present in each of the census years. The 1841 census showed five main families and information from the IGI, later confirmed by searching the church registers, showed that the heads of four of these families were the sons of James Hunnisett, who turned out to be my 4 x great grandfather. The fifth family, however, was that of George Hunnisett who did not fit into my branch and, according to the census record, was not born in the county. He didn't seem to be in Westham in 1851, but he was in 1861 when his birthplace was given as Faversham, Kent, and included in his household was a 7 year old grand-daughter, Georgeanah, born in Coventry. What a coincidence! Clearly this was the family with the Coventry link. At the time I noted this but once again shelved it in favour of following my own line.

Eventually my pursuit of my Hunnisett ancestors turned into a one-name study and I decided to follow up the Westham family with the Coventry connection. The head of house was George Hunnisett who was probably born in 1802 but although he later gave his birthplace as Faversham in Kent I have not been able to confirm this. The first definite fact is that in Westham on 11 August 1822 George married Mary Putland, the daughter of John and Mary (née Trill).

He seems to have tried to settle in Hellingly as in the following November the parish of Hellingly paid him 2 shillings and sixpence "to go to Hastings to enquire of his mother about the place of his birth". In December the overseer and others travelled to Kent to establish George's place of birth. On 1 February 1823 George and his wife were removed to Westham at the cost of 4 shillings and sixpence. But that was not the end of the story, as in March the overseers again travelled to Hastings and Faversham "to enquire into George Hunnisett's settlement". They were clearly going to a lot of trouble to avoid being saddled with George and his then pregnant wife as a possible charge on their parish.

George and Mary evidently settled in Westham as they had 10 children baptised there. Although, initially, I failed to find them in the 1851 census they were in fact still there but were recorded under the name Gausden. The name Gosden was also recorded as the middle name of all their children still living at home in 1861. I have not discovered where this name comes from; perhaps it was his mother's maiden name; or his father's name if he was illegitimate; or his step-father's name?

Of George and Mary's children, two appear to have died young and a third when he was 24. Most of the sons married and had families fairly locally; William in Eastbourne; David in Willingdon; Jonathan in Hastings; and Alfred who lived in Hankham and was recorded as the sexton there in 1899. Only their eldest son, George, baptised in 1826, appeared to have left the area, sometime between 1841 and 1851.

By following up on the Coventry births I was able to confirm that it was young George who had eventually married and lived in Coventry and I also discovered, through his occupation, how he came to be in Coventry. Census records, his marriage certificate and birth certificates for his children all showed that he was in the army.

drawing of a corporal
A corporal in
the 2nd Battalion,
Rifle Brigade

George had enlisted in the 2nd battalion, Rifle Brigade, on 24 December 1844 at Hastings for a bounty of £4. His description shows that he was an 18-year-old labourer, 5ft 6½in tall, with light complexion, hazel eyes and light brown hair. After 3 months training he was sent to the North Americas where he served for over 5 years. He was promoted to Corporal on 16 March 1848 and the pay lists for 1849 show that he often got an extra 1d per day for good conduct. 'Ordinary pay' was often supplemented by additional pay at 2d per day, but good conduct pay, which could be up to 5d per day, was relatively unusual. On 7 August 1850 he embarked for England from Kingston, Ontario, and was posted to Coventry, where there was a large barracks.

At the 1851 census George and two other soldiers from the Rifle Brigade were lodging with the Ainge family in Much Park Street, Coventry. A year later, on 17 April 1852, he married Sarah Poultney in St Michael's church, Coventry and their daughter Harriet was born two months later. On 23 July 1852 he was promoted to Sergeant and his ordinary pay was increased to 1s 10d per day. Six months later he was transferred to Recruitment, still at Coventry. Their second daughter, Georgiana, was born on 28 March 1854 but this was the month that Britain and France declared war on Russia so George was sent to the Crimea where he served for a year during the Crimean War. On returning to Coventry he was in poor health and on 12 June 1855, after six weeks treatment in hospital, he was discharged as permanently unfit for service due to suspected TB contracted in the Crimea. He was awarded a temporary out-pension of 10d per day, renewable every six months.

recruitment poster
Victorian Recruitment Poster
St John's House Museum, Warwick

The recruitment poster shown here was probably displayed somewhere in Coventry, possibly outside the recruitment office which was in Fleet Street. Note that it says 'apply to G Hunnisett Staff Sergent Major' The poster was painted in oils on wood. It seems to have been retained by George as it was passed down through the family via his daughter Mary, eventually being donated to the museum in Warwick. The barracks had been built in 1793 on the site of the old 'Bull Inn' and roughly where the Barracks car park now stands in Coventry.

On 9 October 1857 the licence for the 'Turks Head' public house, in Warwick Lane, was transferred to George but on 13 November it was again transferred to Thomas Poultney, probably George's father-in-law.

By the time of the birth of their third daughter in 1858 George was working as a watch case springer. Watch making was one of the two main industries in Coventry at the time, the other being silk ribbon weaving. George's wife, Sarah, and both his in-laws were ribbon weavers in 1861. Three more daughters were born in Coventry; Jane in 1858, Emma in 1860 and Sarah in 1862.

By 1863 George was again working for the army, this time as a recruiting sergeant for the Royal Horse Artillery in Leeds. He was still getting a temporary pension and his Colonel applied for him to get a permanent pension 'to make him amenable to military control' but this was rejected. Two more daughters, Mary in 1864 and Jessie in 1865, and their first son, George in 1866, were born in Leeds. Their next daughter, Margaret, was born in York and shortly after this George, who was barely two years old, died there.

By 1871 George and his family were at the barracks in Aston, Birmingham. Two more children were born in Aston but both died within a couple of years. At the end of 1876 George retired from the army and was awarded an additional pension of 9d for his service on the recruiting staff. George got a job as a watchman, but six months later his wife died of TB and George and his younger children returned to Coventry to stay with his sister-in-law, Harriett, and her husband Isaac Dodd. A year later, on 16 November 1878, George, of Lower Wellington Street, died of TB aged 52 and was buried in the London Road Municipal Cemetery in a grave purchased by Isaac Dodd.

George and Sarah had at least eleven children but only eight, all daughters, survived beyond childhood. Harriet, their eldest, had two illegitimate children, one in York and one in Birmingham, but both died young and Harriet herself died of bronchitis & pneumonia in 1875 at the age of 23. Georgiana also had a son at the Dudley Road workhouse in Birmingham, but he also died.

By 1881, just over two years after George's death, three of his surviving seven daughters were living in Coventry; Sarah and Margaret were with their uncle and aunt, Isaac and Harriett Dodd in Bradford Street, and Jessie was just down the road with John and Libra Green. Jessie died six years later in London, aged just 22. Georgiana was a housemaid at Kings Norton, Worcestershire, Mary was a servant at "The Woodbines" in Aston, and Jane was a cook in Harborne, Staffordshire. I didn't find Emma in the 1881 census.

Mary married Samuel Gloster, a brickyard labourer, in Coventry on 5 November 1882, and by 1891 they had four daughters; Sarah, Nellie, Jessie and Edith and were living in Kenilworth.

Sarah married Thomas Bush in Coventry on 25 December 1884, and by 1891 they were living in Brick Kiln Lane (now Gulson Road) with their two daughters, Maud and Edith. Sadly Sarah died the following year and was buried in the same plot as her father and Thomas Poultney who had died in 1885. Their daughter Maud lived to be 90 and was buried in the same plot in Coventry Cemetery in 1976. A headstone commemorates Maud Bush

Margaret married Edward Charles Keen, a 24-year-old gardener, in Drayton Bassett, Staffordshire, on 22 April 1889. The witnesses were her brother-in-law, Thomas Bush, and her sister, Emma. Emma married Lewis King, a 38-year-old widower and carpenter, in Austrey, Warwickshire, on 23 January 1893. Thomas Bush was again one of the witnesses.

Georgiana and Jane do not appear to have married. Georgiana's death, at the age of 57, was registered in Eastbourne in 1912. Jane died in Beckenham, Kent in 1921, aged 63, leaving a will and estate worth £390.

George and Sarah clearly led a hard life, and some of their children tragically short lives. There are no Hunnisett descendants from the Coventry branch but I have been in touch with descendants of Mary and her husband Samuel Gloster.