James was my great-grandfather. He was baptised on the 1st April 1838 at St. James Church, Barton under Needwood, the sixth of eight children to John Astle and Lydia Storer. His father was a farm labourer, and the family lived at Blakenhall on the edge of Barton and near Yoxall. In his early teens, James and his brother Thomas worked as farm labourers at Fradley.
James married Sarah Edwards on 13 October 1857 at St. Werburghs, Derby. Sarah, the daughter of Nathaniel Edwards and Elizabeth Adams, was born at Etwall in 1838. At their marriage both James and Sarah were living in Macklin Street Derby. The witnesses were William Edwards and Miriam Statham, Sarah's brother and sister.
Initially they lived at Hilton when their first child Eliza was baptised in 1858, but by 1861 they are living next to the vicarage at Castle Gresley, where Sarah’s mother Elizabeth is the head of the household, and James is a coal labourer. In 1863 James joined the Primitive Methodist Society at Castle Gresley, of which he was to become a leading local member, “filling the most important positions his brethren could bestow”. He would be well remembered for his service to the church.
In the mid 1860’s James and his family moved to Church Gresley Colliery where he was employed as a Horsekeeper, and Stable Manager. The family lived in a house within the colliery yard, probably in close proximity to the stables. There was a major industrial dispute in the South Derbyshire coalfield between February 1867 and March 1868, with as many as 900 miners ‘locked out ‘ for attempting to join a union. The number locked out at Church Gresley Colliery was not as great as at some of the other pits, as overall employment conditions there were somewhat better than average.
By early 1872 James and Sarah had seven children, and the eighth my grandfather Alfred was on the way. Only Eliza, the eldest had left home, and was working as a servant in Burton on Trent. So room in the Colliery Yard household must have been at a premium. Sadly, on the 4th April 1872, the Burton Chronicle reported the death “on the 19th instant at Church Gresley (from the effects of an accident) of George son of James Astle aged 13.” George died following an accidental fall from a bridge.
In 1875, Eliza, working and living as a servant in Winshill, married Joseph York of Copstan, Warwickshire. They came to live near the colliery at Bottom Colliery Row.
James had continued his work as a Methodist throughout this time “leading a class of sixty members and Sunday by Sunday teaching a large class of young men.” In the mid 1870’s he became a local preacher and “his ministrations were highly prized by his hearers, he possessing in an eminent degree the gifts necessary for a public speaker, and these he had so cultivated that persons of education could not fail to be profited under his ministry. It was also felt he lived the truths he preached, and this made his utterances additionally convincing.”
A ninth child, George Edward was born in 1877, no doubt named after his late brother, and the family household was back to nine members once again but only for a short time. In September 1878, Mary who was only 16 years old married Frederick Henry Appleby at Etwall. Frederick was a builder and they went to live in Burton where they had five children.
In 1879 just eight days before Christmas and with Sarah carrying her tenth child, James died of pneumonia at only 43 years of age. Sarah was suddenly left a widow with six children under 15, and another on the way.
James’ funeral was a well attended and significant local event. The Burton Chronicle reported that “a stranger to the neighbourhood would have been surprised to hear that the remains were those of a man in but humble circumstances, who could not possibly have gained the respect manifested by public or private munificence. He would therefore conclude that he must have been a good man. Such was the universal testimony given. The members of the society mourn his loss with no common sorrow and feel that it will be long before they will see his like again.”
James was buried in the churchyard next to the colliery, his grave positioned close to the boundary wall, directly by the yard and house where he had lived. His headstone was of good quality, and bore the inscriptions “ In affectionate remembrance, and the memory of the just is blessed.” James did not live to see his youngest son Charles born in 1880, but sadly he too died only a year later.
Things must have been very difficult but Sarah and the children remained at the Colliery Yard for a few years more, with John the eldest son continuing to work with the pit horses, and daughters Matilda and Martha working as a warehouse girl and domestic servant respectively. These circumstances probably contributed to both Matilda and Martha marrying young at only 17. Matilda married John Rumble a Railway Signalman from Norfolk in 1883, and they lived in Swadlincote. Martha married John Vickers Sibson in 1885, and they lived in Chapel Street, Castle Gresley, near the Methodist schoolroom and chapel her father had been closely been associated with.
By the mid 1880’s Sarah had moved away from the colliery to 16, Eldon Buildings Winshill where in November 1886 for the third time she was to lose her youngest son. George Edward contracted meningitis and died within two weeks, he was only 9 years old.
Sarah went on to marry for the second time to widower Joseph Salt a Railway Porter in 1888, and they lived at Bearwood Hill, Winshill for many years. Her three remaining sons all married in the 1890s.
James remained in Church Gresley, working as a miner and married Elizabeth Wright there in 1890. John married his cousin Mary in 1894, and they lived in Winshill where he too was a Railway Porter. In 1898 my grandfather Alfred married Hannah McPherson a teacher, in Wolverhampton where he was a Brewhouse Foreman.
In 1904 after many years of fund-raising by the worshippers, the old Methodist chapel at High Cross Banks Castle Gresley was demolished to permit a larger chapel to be built on the same site next to the old schoolroom. Some 25 years after his death James Astle’s life, and work as a local Methodist preacher was still remembered by his family when they laid a foundation stone in his memory.
Although James only lived to know two of them, he and Sarah had at least 37 grand children ensuring their descendants would continue for generations to come.
In her last years Sarah and Joseph Salt returned to Church Gresley to live with her daughter Eliza. Sarah was 82 when she died in May 1921, just a month after her husband had made her a widow for the second time. They were both buried in York Road Cemetery, Church Gresley.