The Mystery of Adeline Howcutt


St Peter & St Paul, Aston

On 8 June 1875, a young woman signed the register as “A Howcutt” and gave her full name as Adeline Howcutt when she married William Robotham. The wedding took place at the parish church of St Peter & St Paul, at Aston, some two miles north of the centre of Birmingham. William was a butcher aged 29 years and it was Adeline’s 21st birthday. [1] The couple stated they were batchelor and spinster and that both lived in Aston - William at Villa Street and Adeline at Lozells.


William and Adeline’s life together is well-documented. In 1881, they were living at 31 Pershore Road, Edgbaston with their son William (aged 5 and born at Birmingham), a visitor and a servant. The visitor was Thomas Luckcock, a butcher who had been born at Priors Hardwick.


By 1891, the Robotham family had moved to Richmond Hill Road, also at Edgbaston, and William was described as a cattle dealer and farmer. There was still only the one child in the family, this time being recorded as William E Robotham aged 15. [2] The number of resident servants had increased to two. In 1901, William and Adeline were again recorded at the farm at Richmond Hill Road, on that occasion with one servant.


On 2 September 1909, William was one of the large number of mourners at the funeral of Alderman Thomas Hall Hunt, a former mayor of Lichfield, who was his brother in law. Amongst the wreaths was one “With love and sympathy from Adeline and William Robotham”. [3]


The most recent census that can be consulted is that taken in 1911, when William and Adeline occupied a 9-room house called “Nevada” at Farquhar Road, Edgbaston. [4] The others present on that occasion were 6-year-old Arthur Lesley Robotham, who had been born at Kings Heath, Worcestershire and was described as William’s grandson, and a servant. The return states that William and Adeline had been married for 35 years and that they had produced only one child – a person who was still alive.


William Robotham, was 78 years old when he died at Barnsley Hall Mental Hospital near Bromsgrove on 30 May 1924, leaving effects worth Ł1997.18s.5d. Probate was granted to Thomas Luckcock, a meat salesman, and Herbert John Loveridge, an incorporated accountant.


The 1939 population register records Adeline Robotham as an old age pensioner, one of the numerous inmates of Erdington House. [5] Her death at the age of 84 was registered at Birmingham in the March quarter of 1940.


Who was Adeline’s mother?


It is Adeline’s life before her marriage that makes the mystery.


Priors Hardwick

Each of the census returns that were taken at 10-yearly intervals from 1881 to 1911 states that she was born at Priors Hardwick, a parish about six miles from Southam, Warwickshire with a population of 303 people in 1851. However, neither the 1861 or 1871 census for England and Wales contains an entry indexed for “Adeline Howcutt”, even allowing for spelling variations and regardless of the birthplace reported.


During the 1850s, the parish register for Priors Hardwick records these two baptisms of children with the christian name Adeline or a similar one:


  • 15 March 1855 - Adelaide, illegitimate daughter of Elizabeth Haynes of Priors Hardwick, single woman.
  • 29 April 1855 - Adeline, illegitimate daughter of Selina Prestidge of Priors Hardwick, single woman. This Adeline’s birth had been registered in the June quarter of 1854, which indicates that she was about one year old when she was baptised. It is consistent with the date of birth of 8 June 1854 given for Mrs Adeline Robotham in the 1939 population register.


It is through exploring the history of the Prestidge family that we are able to establish that William Robotham’s wife was indeed the daughter of Selina Prestidge.


On 23 May 1823, William Prestage of Priors Hardwick married Sarah Wright at Boddington, which is just the other side of the county border in Northamptonshire. Their first two children were baptised at the same church in 1824 and 1826. In due course, the couple moved the three miles to Priors Hardwick, where five more of their children were christened between 1828 and 1837. A further two children are identified in the 1851 as their youngest offspring, although they do not appear in the baptism register for the parish. Amongst the seven children who were born at Priors Hardwick were:


  • Selina, who was baptised in 1828
  • Mary, who was aged 9 in the 1851 census and presumably the same person as Mary Ann Prestage whose birth was registered at Southam in June quarter 1842.


At the time of the 1861 census, Sabina and her 6-year-old daughter Adeline were living at Church End, Priors Hardwick in her parents’ household. Mary A Prestige had by then moved to a farm at Stivichall where she was working as a house servant; the age (20) and birthplace that were stated provide positive identification.


In 1864, Sabina married John Luckcuck at St Mary, Warwick. They had returned to Priors Hardwick by 1871, when the family living with them included two young children, but not Adeline. By that stage, Adeline was 16 years old and had found her way to 11 Victoria Street in the parish of All Saints, Birmingham, where she was living with Edward Henson and his wife Mary A. Both Adeline and Mary were recorded as having been born at Priors Hardwick and Adeline was described as Edward’s niece. The relationship is clarified by the record of the marriage of Edward Henson and Mary Ann Prestidge, which took place at St Martin Birmingham on 10 October 1864. This confirms that Mary Ann’s father was William Prestidge. Her age, given as 25 in the 1871 census, is only a few years adrift from her birth registration in 1842 and the age of nine that was reported by her parents in the 1851 census.


When Edward Henson completed the census form, he did not give the name of his niece as “Adeline Prestidge”. By the time it had been copied into the surviving enumerator’s schedule, the name was written as “Adeline Howatt”. In view of the surname that Adeline gave when she at her marriage, there can be no doubt that “Howatt” is a mistake for “Howcutt”.


Who was Adeline’s father?


The Eagle

Often, when a child’s birth or christening record does not include the name of the father, the information cannot be found elsewhere. However, when she married in 1875 Adeline stated that her father was “John Howcutt, publican”. Only three adults with the name “John Howcutt” were alive in England in the middle of the 1850s. There is no record of two of them (a shopkeeper at Leicester and a groom at Brixworth) having ever been a publican or any personal connection with the area around Priors Hardwick. The third John Howcutt is a much more plausible candidate as Adeline’s father. The census held on 31 March 1851 describes him as a greengrocer lodging at Farm Street, Harbury – a village some ten miles from Priors Hardwick. However, at the time of his marriage in the same summer, his occupation was recorded as an innkeeper. [6]


But John the innkeeper was not an appropriate man to be Adeline’s father in other respects. On 12 June 1851, he and Ann Mitchell made their marks in the parish register when they married at Harbury. Their son William John was christened privately at Leamington on 7 July 1854, John being described as a servant living at Clemens Street. The child was buried at Harbury in September of the same year, aged 3 months. Adeline was born 31 days before William John was baptised, indicating that the two children – apparently with the same father but different mothers - were extremely close in age.


John was recorded as a widower when the 1861 census listed him as a waiter living in at the “Eagle” public house, 4 Althorpe Street, Leamington Priors. [7] He died later in the same year and was buried at Harbury on 8 November. Despite extensive searches, no record has been found of the death of his wife, either before or after John expired, or of the marriage of any Ann Howcutt who could have been his widow. A possible explanation for this could be that John and Ann parted company before he died and Ann simply adopted another surname.


John Howcutt of Harbury signed his will on 17 September 1861. He was described as a gentleman when it was proved in February 1862 by Michael Winkley, his uncle and executor. John’s effects were worth under Ł100.


Clearly, when Adeline named John Howcutt as her father in 1875, she was referring to a specific, not an imaginary, individual. If she was simply seeking the respectability of a father’s name when her real father was unknown, there was nothing to be gained by choosing a person with an unusual name; the only advantage of naming John Howcutt if he were not her father was that he was dead and so could not contest the claim. The most likely explanation is that Adeline was the child of an affair involving John Howcutt and Sabina Prestidge and that this may have been linked with the apparent disappearance of his wife. But we cannot be sure.




[1]    Birth date confirmed by the 1939 population register.

[2]    The birth of William Edward Robotham was registered at Birmingham in the March quarter of 1876. He may well have been the same person as William E Robotham whose marriage to Mary Z Bettinson was registered at Kings Norton in 1916. The birth of that couple’s son Reginald E was registered at Kings Norton in the September quarter of 1918.

[3]    “Lichfield Mercury”, 3 September 1909, page 8, column 3.

[4]    Farquhar Road leads off Richmond Hill Road. At the end of the 19th century, both roads were in the course of development for large houses on substantial plots.

[5]    Erdington House was a hospital that had previously been the infirmary of Aston Union workhouse.

[6]    It is not known which of the Harbury inns John ran.

[7]    “The Eagle Inn” was recorded as a beer house as early as 1837. It was granted a full on-licence in August 1856 and did not finally close until 1959.