Growing up in Providence, my Dad, Ray McKenna, Sr., spent hours with his grandfather, Bernard Bonner O’Connor. Barney, as he was called, told young Ray stories of growing up in Seneca Falls, New York. What Barney never told Ray was that he had spent much of his youth in England, where his parents took him in order to help out in the aftermath of a great family disaster.
This is the story that Barney never told Ray. It is a story that Barney himself may never have known fully. It is also another example of the fate of the Famine Irish generation.
A horrendous event took place on Railway Terrace in Newcastle-on-Tyne, England, on the evening of July 1, 1873. But to put the story in perspective, it is necessary to go back to Northern Ireland in the early nineteenth century.
Alexander Bonner, Barney’s grandfather, was born in the townland of Advernis, in the parish of Macosquin in 1827. A rural area, Macosquin is located just two miles from the market town of Coleraine, and very near to the Irish Sea.
At the time of Alexander’s birth, ninety-six percent of the townland’s population consisted of Presbyterians, Anglicans (Church of Ireland) and Methodists. There were just nine Roman Catholics, out of a population of 231, and most of the people had surnames that were English or Scottish. The Bonner family, listed as Anglican in the 1831 census, had likely emigrated from Scotland in the 1600’s.
From the same census, we know that Alexander was named for his father and that he had at least one brother and three sisters.
About the time that The Great Hunger visited itself upon Ireland in 1845, Alexander left for the mines of Scotland. Here in America, we think of the Famine Irish coming to our shores. But a great many moved to Scotland and England, where they made new lives, and where their descendants live today. With the move to Scotland, Alexander embarked on a life of tragedy and loss.
It was about this time that Alexander took a job mining ironstone in Springburn, about twelve miles from Blantyre. Springburn is now a part of the city Glasgow, but at the time it was still village two miles north of the city center.
It was in Blantyre that Alexander met, fell in love with, and married Ellen Robertson (sometimes listed as Robson), herself an Irish emigré, having been born in the coastal village of Glenarm, County Antrim, in 1826.
Within a year, their first child, Elizabeth, my great great grandmother, was born.
Much has been written on the working and living conditions of miners in nineteenth century Britain.
Until 1842, whole families would work the mines. Changes in the law that year saw women and children under thirteen banned from the mines. In spite of the changes, younger boys and some girls still found themselves trapped in that subterranean horror.
Men and boys worked twelve hours days, with no mealtime. The men worked five days a week, the boys three. The tools of the collier were the pickaxe and dynamite. The boys carted the coal to the surface and relied on the men to pay them their share. Some boys worked for only room and board. Ventilation was poor, exposure to mercury led to severe mental deterioration, and arthritis and other physical ailments were the order of the day. Life expectancy was not long for pitmen.
Once up from the mine, the men were usually too tired to wash, and so wiping the blackened face was all they could muster. As for women, while the 1842 law forbid women and girls from the mines, they were still called on to do tedious and dangerous work in factories. Girls might be in school in the early years, as daughters Margaret, Ann and Alice were in 1871. But by age thirteen they were off to the mills and factories, as was the case with fourteen-year-old Elizabeth. She was a laborer in a glass-works, a hot and nasty place of employment.
As my cousin and Alexander and Ellen’s great-great-great granddaughter, Sarah Mitchell, pointed out to me, “Women often did a range of other paid work, for example taking in washing, cleaning elsewhere, factory work, or indeed working at the mine, (not necessarily down the mine).”
For women and girls, they must have felt every bit as trapped as the men crawling in those cramped, damp and hot mines.
It was a monstrously unhealthy and depressing life.
Housing was horrendous.
Flats often lacked running water or toilets.
In the case of the Bonners, the year 1851 saw them sharing a room or two with their four children, a 29 year old Irishman, and a 25 year old Scotsman, both miners. This must have been unbearably uncomfortable, especially for Ellen. As for children, in the first nine years of their marriage, Ellen bore six children, including a boy who died. A moment’s serenity must have been a rare thing for Ellen. Diet was yet another issue. According to the Children’s Employment Commission of 1842, the collier’s fare was poor in quality and quantity, consisting of oat cakes or porridge, with no meat nor table beer, and with water obtained from nearby pits.
Time off during the year was rare. At the New Year, pitmen got a few days off. Otherwise, there were fast days twice a year and a lighter schedule during the two weeks in July that the summer fairs were being held. The fair was a glorious entertainment, with pipe bands, clowns, jugglers, freak shows, fistfights, stabbings and carousing.
Mining employment was not a steady thing. In the mid-eighteen-fifties when the price of pig-iron plummeted, layoffs ensued. This was perhaps for this reason that, about this time, Alexander and Ellen moved from Springborn to Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
There Alexander went to work in the c coal mines of Sir William Armstrong, extracting coal to fuel Armstrong’s armaments factory.
Armstrong was one of the most extraordinary men of a generation of extraordinary men. Trained as a lawyer, Sir William found his true calling in the design and implementation of new technology in water power, shipping, bridge construction and armaments (including the Armstrong Gun, employed heavily in wars in the Crimean peninsula, China, Japan, New Zealand, and on both sides in the American Civil War). With a view to the future, Armstrong was a strong advocate for renewable energy, urging the use of hydro-electricity and solar power over coal. In 1863, Armstrong predicted that within two centuries that coal would cease to be used for energy.
Among his achievements as a philanthropist, Armstrong donated two parks to the city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, as well as founding the University of Newcastle.
But his legacy must also include, in addition to the death his killing machines wrought, the pain and suffering that he laid at the door of his workers with shoddy safety, poor pay, unhealthy working conditions and dismal worker housing.
In the years that Alexander and Elizabeth lived in Newcastle, there were numerous mining disasters that took place within a few miles of their home. Perhaps the worst of them happened on October 21, 1866, in the delightfully named Chester-le-Street in Durham County. On that day, twenty four men and boys were killed in an explosion. Among the dead were six boys under fourteen years in age. In spite of laws banning them from the mines, three of the boys were found to be only eleven years old.
In the words of a local reporter, “A sad scene was enacted on that cold October morning. The men came up with something that was blackened and wrapped in a blanket. The name was mentioned and where he had been found. There was a scream from a woman in the crowd. This was repeated many times.” (Coalmining History Resource Center, http://www.cmhrc.co.uk/)
It was with this as a backdrop that Alexander first came to the attention of the police and the press.
According to the Newcastle and Tyne Mercury of December 30, 1871, Alexander was having a pint with his friend, James Hannah, on Friday evening, December 16th. Over drinks, Hannah began an argument “as to the relative merits of Orangeism and Ribbonism.” One thing led to another and Hannah hit Alexander. In turn, Alexander floored Hannah, at which point Hannah pulled a knife and stabbed Alexander “in several places.”
At the trial, Alexander did not press charges against Hannah. Alexander testified that, “as he (Hannah) had a wife and family, and as (he and Hannah) had hitherto been good friends,” that Hannah should not be punished. Alexander “was of the opinion that drink had been the cause of it all.” As a result of Alexander’s testimony, Hannah escaped with the smallest of punishments, two months’ imprisonment with hard labor. About this time, Alexander and Ellen seem to have tried to shelter their children from life in the mines, at least for as long as they could.
While many miners sent their children to work in the mines at age thirteen, if not younger, the Bonners kept their children in school. In the 1871 census, eldest son, Alexander, was still a student at age fifteen.However, the pressure to make the boys earners must have been great. By February 1873, Alexander was no longer employed in Armstrong’s coal mine. As the Newcastle Courant reported, he was “going around with a coal wagon.” Perhaps, following his knifing by James Hannah, he was unable to do the work of a miner. Or perhaps he was fired because of his part in the fight. Regardless, the newspapers again took an interest in Alexander. For on the night of July 4, 1873, Alexander argued with Ellen, hit her at least twice, and by the next day she was dead. Arrested a few days later, he was charged with manslaughter.
His case captured the attention of the local newspapers and their readers. At the trial, a neighbor named Hannah Richardson stated that she heard Ellen scream about five-thirty on the evening in question. She entered Bonner’s flat and witnessed the two arguing. The newspapers report two slightly different versions of what she saw. In the Newcastle Courant of July 11, she said “she found deceased with her dress torn off, and her husband demanding money from her. Deceased was drunk. Her husband gave her a slight push and she fell to the floor. On regaining her feet he pushed her into the bedroom, where she again fell, this time face downwards.” The other report did not mention her dress being torn and played down the demand for money. Regardless, Ellen suffered at the hands of Alexander. Their two sons, William and Alexander, were called to testify. William, 11, said that about eight o’clock on the evening in question, “he was in the front room with his mother when his father came in and asked for some supper, and she said she had none for him.” According to William, both his parents were drunk and began to quarrel, Ellen had a “fit,” Alexander pushed her, and she fell to the floor. He mentioned that another son who was home and asleep at the time. Perhaps that was Thomas, aged nine.
Next, Alexander, 17, was called to testify next. His statements differed from his brother’s. He stated that he came home at eight o’clock and that his mother was lying in bed drunk. “He asked her for some supper, but she said she had none.” His father came home about eleven o’clock, and also asked Ellen for some supper, and was told the same. “He advised his father to go to bed,” and that that is what happened. The son also stated that he had not seen his father hit his mother. “He could not account for the marks upon deceased, except that she had received them while climbing through a window.” Cross examined, young Alexander said his mother had had “fits” in the past. As my cousin, Sarah Mitchell, rightly points out, this testimony of young Alexander may have been an attempt to prevent his father from spending years in prison.
A Dr. Johnson was called, but could do nothing to save her. The autopsy revealed that the victim had received many blows to the head, not all of them recent. It was unclear whether they were the result of being hit, or falling. The suggestion had been made that Ellen made a habit of sneaking out a back window. Was it to get away to drink with friends? Or was it to get away from the brutality of Alexander? The window was of some height from the alleyway. It was implied that she had fallen on more than one occasion as she tried to reach the ground. The likely source was Alexander.
Following testimony and deliberation, the jury found Alexander guilty of manslaughter. Several days later, after their own deliberations, the magistrates acquitted Alexander, saying that there was a lack of evidence to find manslaughter. But the decision came too late for Alexander to be allowed out of jail to attend his wife’s funeral. Tragedy was compounded by grief and the inability to properly mourn for his loss. Regardless, it was clear that Alexander had struck his wife on this occasion and likely on others. But it also seems that Ellen might have been epileptic, or had other maladies affecting her mental well being. And certainly, overcrowding and poverty in nineteenth century England led many to depression, violence and the abuse of alcohol. Or these fits may have been the results of blows to the head metered out by Alexander. As we shall see, Ellen wasn’t the only one suffering from mental and physical problems. After Ellen’s death, Alexander went to live with his daughter, Alice, on Scotswood Road, in the city. Nearly two years later, to the day, from his wife’s death, Alexander was dead, as well.
One night, Alice woke up about two in the morning to hear her father yelling out to her, “Alice, Alice, get up.” Upon going to his room, he told her, “Alice, I have just seen your mother,” and that he did not have long to live. Lifting his hand in the air, he said, “These are the hands that murdered your mother, but I did not intend to do it.”
In the morning, he left the house, only to return briefly about seven that evening. He would not enter the house, but rather walked away, never to be seen alive again. His body was found washed up on the banks of the River Tyne, near William Armstrong’s jetty at Elswick Works.
The inquest that followed revealed that Alexander had been laid off from work three weeks before and that he had been drinking heavily for the past two weeks. It was also established that he had a condition that caused “trouble in his head, and (that he was) constantly putting his head under the water tap.”
With his drowning, poor Alexander’s hell was finally over.
In the aftermath of the death of Ellen, my father’s grandfather, Barney, grandson to Alexander, came to Newcastle with his family. Barney’s mother, Elizabeth, as the oldest daughter in the family, came home to take care of her siblings and to hold the family together.
Sadly, Alexander and Ellen’s daughter, Alice, who had taken care of Alexander in the last years of his life, also took her own life. Years later, in 1919, suffering from double pneumonia, “pains in the head,” and other maladies, Alice left her house and went to her death in the River Yare, near her home in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk.
The O’Connors stayed in England for several years, returning to upstate New York by 1880. Terrence O’Connor, Elizabeth’s husband, was in Gateshead at the death of his mother, Anne Greer O’Connor, in January of that year. According to my cousin, Bonnie Whitton, and another O’Connor/Bonner descendant, all of the family except Terrance, returned to New York on the ship, the Helosted, landing in the city on November 1, 1880.
If there was any untoward affect on the family from the Bonner tragedy, it is difficult to identify. Barney, Dad’s grandfather, was a loving husband, father, father-in-law and grandfather. Sarah Mitchell’s great aunt, Doreen, a granddaughter of William, remember her grandfather the same way.
In the final analysis, was Alexander a monster? If the actions of his three sons is an indication, then there was forgiveness, understanding and love for their father. Each man named a son for Alexander.
In keeping with the Irish tradition, both children, Elizabeth and William, named their first born daughters after each’s maternal grandmother. It was also a way to honor a woman who had tried to do the best for her children. Elizabeth did not follow Irish tradition in naming her second son. He was not named for his maternal grandfather, Alexander. However, when her fifth son was born, he was given the middle name, Alexander. For all the misery that Alexander gave his family, he was still deeply loved.
Of the three grandsons, Alexander, the son of Thomas, left his life, along with hundreds of thousands of other poor Irish, British, French and German lads, on the fields of Flanders in the First World War.
Interestingly, as a second-generation Englishman, he was serving in the Northumberland Fusiliers (Tyneside Irish), which consisted of those who were Irish or of Irish descent.
It is also worth noting that his occupation before the war was that of a coal miner hewer, the most dangerous job in the coal mines. Alexander had joined what had become a family trade.
William’s son, Mathew Alexander, died of disease aboard the vessel HM Drifter Triumph II, while serving as an engineer in the Royal Navy. The date of his death was November 9, 1918, tragically just two days before the armistice that ended “The War To End All Wars.”
The other grandson named for Alexander, Alexander IV (born about 1893 in Gateshead, across the Tyne from Newcastle), went into the mining business, as did his brother, Thomas. In 1911, he was listed as a cartman, living in Gateshead. What happened to this Alexander after that is unknown. We can only hope he lived a happier and healthier life than those of his grandparents.