In 1861, the family of 28 year-old Ironmonger John Bushnell were living in Terry’s Lane, a few hundred yards from The Pentagon, in Clapham Old Town, Wandsworth, Surrey, London, where they had moved to at some point in the preceding five years.
By 1871 Mrs Esther Bushnell was in domestic service for a vicar in Lincolnshire, her daughters were at the North Surrey District School (an outpost of the Wandsworth Workhouse), her son was Smithing with her father-in-law back in her home-town of Maidstone and her husband (the census records her initially as ‘Unmarried’ but that is crossed-through and replaced with ‘Married’) has disappeared. Something happened…
Esther, holding 4 year-old Lucy in her arms and with John and Esther ready for school and at her skirts, stood at the step watching the childrens’ father John and their Servant, William Jeayes, strolling down the lane away from the leafy centre of the village and towards the sprawling warren of soot-soaked alleys that led to the railway. It was the growth of the iron tentacles in this quiet corner of London that had led them here following the years of living in Rugby. John’s work there had been fruitful and their domestic situation had harvested them John and Esther in quick succession. But the pull of the the South had been too strong and it had been decided that being back in John’s father’s family’s home county of Surrey, and near both their sets of parents in Kent, would be better now that a third child was expected. Thus it was that Lucy had arrived in Clapham (pleasing the child’s grandfather, even though it wasn’t quite Lambeth) and also that John had felt it time to employ a young man to train in the smith’s art. William was a pleasant companion who hailed from Northamptonshire but had been working in Rugby for a few months before the family offered him the chance to live with them and work in London. He didn’t need to be asked twice.
The two men were in high spirits, this was a boom-time in the area with much planned development, and business was brisk. Ironmongery provided, almost literally, the nuts and bolts of industrialisation and demand was high. Inevitably this led to the occasional short-cut but men such as these respected the materials they dealt with and the forces of the forge in which they toiled. They had no reason to be anything but content as they wove their way past the winding workshops down to the railside building that was John’s first and, as it transpired, last, venture.
Witnesses would later say that there was nothing unusual in the mens’ manner, no clues in their voices, no hints in their gait, nothing to suggest that that day was in any way exceptional. Many remarked on their passage that morning but not one person could recall seeing them return. In fact, after old Mick, the semi-vagrant, self-styled ‘nightwatchman’ who had seen them on his morning journey to the first hostelry where he could spend attain some senselessness of oblivion, after Mick’s sighting of them just yards from the door to John’s shop, nothing more was heard, or seen, smelt or felt, of either man again. The shop was still locked when, as the evening began to fade, Esther had asked her neighbour to sit the children whilst she went to find John and William. She was concerned. Her worry began to grow when she felt the brick at the forge-end of the building and found it to be be as cold as the earth from which the bricks had once been dug. Cold and damp where there should have been the dry warmth from a day’s toil. She had peered through the small, coal-webbed panes into the interior and seen a dark emptiness without the normal after-glow of the forge. The chimney had confirmed her fears and she began to run to the railway line that curved gently towards her. She looked between the thinning buildings until, at the edge of this bizarre bazaar of businesses, the lines lay before her. The sun was setting fast, casting long shadows from the myriad poles, and posts, sheds and other structures that lined the tracks. but nowhere were there the shadows of John or William. Neither were there any ragged bundles that might have once been men. There was nothing. A goods train hooted and clanked its way along the furthest track, the engine, streaming steam as its iron muscles pumped and pulled the huge load behind it. As the last wagon passed from sight, Esther turned and ran, her heart pounding with an ache beyond exertion, back towards the lane and the house of the Policeman.
Despite all the search parties, all the railwaymen, all the policemen, all the friends and neighbours who looked throughout the district, all the appeals that both her father and John’s father paid for in the newspapers, despite all the prayers offered in the churches, all the crying from the three children, all the half-seen faces and part-heard voices, nothing was ever found to tell what had happened to the two men.
With three children to support and no proof that her husband hadn’t simply vanished, Esther was forced to find work and, in the circumstances and with all the nasty rumours of what part she might have played in the vanishings, she was fortunate to find a respectable household happy to have her. However, the price paid was huge for, although her son John was taken under his grandfather’s wing as an apprentice smith, the two girls had to go and live in the harsh, unremitting regime of the District School. It broke her heart and Esther died, still in service, in Caistor, in 1878 at the age of 42.
And my interest in this mystery of Terry’s Lane? Well, John and Esther had a granddaughter that they never knew, and she was my grandmother…
(Note: The reason for this tale is not simply the disappearance from all the records of John Bushnell, but the simultaneous disappearance from the records of his servant, William Jeayes, too…)
William Jeyes was born in 1843/4 in Weedon, Northamptonshire and was the 4th of the 6 children of Cabinet Maker John Jeyes who by 1851 was a Widower living with his children in Weedon Beck. Oddly, in 1901 a William Jeyes, Platelayer, born in Weedon in about 1847, appears in London complete with a wife and 7 children aged from 1 to 20 and I can locate the family in 1881 too when William’s birth is given as 1848. It is possible that this is the same person but I cannot find the marriage record, nor William himself in 1871 and 1891. This, together with the discrepancy in ages, and a little poetic licence, is why I consider it possible that both men disappeared simultaneously…)