John Birks, his secret marriage

My mother  told me a story about her great-uncle, John Birks (1839-1930). He was a Unitarian Minister, as were his two brothers Richard and William (my great-grandfather) and was based in Derby for a part of his very long life. My mother said that he had married his servant, and kept the marriage secret even from his close family.

She repeated a story told to her by Florence Birks , her mother. In the early 1920s Florence and her mother-in-law, Jane Elliott Birks, decided to visit John Birks to show him his new niece. Carrying the baby they travelled by bus and by the time they arrived at John Birk’s house it had started to rain. The visit seems to have been slightly tense, and as they left a downpour started, but John Birks did not ask them to shelter in the house until it stopped. So they travelled back in the rain, with a soaked baby! My mother was born in 1921 – so by then John Birks was married to the woman they assumed was his servant!

I decided to investigate the marriage and I discovered a rather more complicated story. In his will John Birks left his estate to his widow, Sophia Birks, along with small bequests to my grandfather Frank Elliott Birks and Herbert Lloyd Ashford, an engineer. So, knowing her Christian name I soon discovered who she was and the background to the marriage.

John Birks was born in Ashover in 1840, Derbyshire. This is a small Peak District village and the surrounding area has many associations with the Birks family. His father was William Birks of Flagg (1805-1863), a Unitarian Minister and his mother, Mary Else (1829-1882) the daughter of a nearby farming family. John trained as a Unitarian Minister at the Home Missionary College in Manchester; he started his long career at Idle, in Yorkshire and his first Ministry was in Taunton in 1870. In 1862 he married a local  Ashover girl, Matilda Boar, his cousin through the Else family.   Her father had died while staying with the Birks family and Matilda and her siblings appear to have been very close to their cousins during their childhood. Matilda was born and christened in Ashover in 1840. In the 1861 census she was a visitor in the house at 117 Surrey Street in Glossop of her brother-in-law Philip Crossland, a machine dealer,  married to her sister Elizabeth . Another of Philip’s sister-in-laws, Dorothy Wilmot is also with them. The Birks family had a link with Glossop since John’s father had been schoolmaster there in the late 1840s.

In 1871 John and Matilda are living in Taunton where he is Unitarian Minister at Mary Street Chapel, with them is a young general servant, Sarah Mole. She is 19 and was born at Kings Norton, Worcestershire. They must have stayed in Taunton for some time, since in notes written by my grandfather, Frank Elliott Birks, he remarks

Widow Mary Birks, wife of Rev, William Birks of Flagg, finally settled in a cottage, one of a small row called The Grove,  bought by my father whilst at Kendal, (1875-7) and situated on the left hand side of the main road, north of the church at Ashover.  Whilst here she was taken ill, and went with her son John to recuperate at Taunton, but died there April 14th, 1882.  The row of cottages were later sold by my father to his brother John, by whom they passed to his widow on his death in 1930, and from her completely out of the family.

This note highlights the good relationship between John and his brother, and maybe hints at some slight bad feeling about the final inheritance of  property which may have influenced family attitudes towards John’s second marriage.

By 1891 they have moved to Derby where John was Minister at Friar Gate Chapel. Sophia Mole stays as a servant with the Birks throughout their marriage and  in the 1901 Census is still with the widowed John.  Matilda had died in 1900 aged sixty,she appears to have been in frail health during the later part of her life. In September 1921, the elderly John married Sophia; however, family legend is that he told no one about his change in status.   John Birks died, in his early nineties, in 1930. The relationship between him and Sophia, as servant and wife, had lasted for around six decades. My mother describes Sophia as a very shy, nervous little woman. Sophia Birks died in St Austell, Cornwall, aged 93 in 1943.  Her will notes her address as ‘Colchester Villas, Truro’ and the executors are the husband and son of the daughter of Sophia’s sister,  Samuel Joseph and Lesley Pool Ingram.

My grandfather, Frank Elliott Birks, seems to have been on good terms with his uncle.  Maybe it was a shared interest in family and Derbyshire history, since John had published Memorials of fifty years’ ministry (J. Harwood,1923) and a history of Friargate Unitarian Church in Derby.   In 1921 John Birks baptised my mother although by this time my grandfather was no longer an active member of the Unitarian Church and Florence, my grandmother, belonged to the Church of England. Maybe it was a sign of my grandfather’s commitment to his family or to his sense of the long Unitarian tradition they represented.  Oddly my mother had originally been registered as ‘Dorothy Mary’ but several months after her birth was formally re-registered as ‘Audrey Elliott;’ the name Elliott was a family name and this change may suggest some conflict around her baptism.

Baptism Certificate

My grandfather was mentioned in his uncle’s will and bought a set of  eight wine glasses from the estate – they are still in possession of the family.

John Birks’ Wine Glasses

The text of John Birks’ History of Friargate Church is available at

John Birks and the Calverley Ghost

John Birks was a very regular writer to the letter pages of newspapers.  Often his letters were on serious, weighty topics.  But one letter was a response to a story in the Daily News about the appearance of a ghost in the Yorkshire town of Calverley.  John Birks relates an incident that had happened to him when he was a young preacher and had never heard any stories about this ghost

After leaving college my first settlement was in a little Yorkshire town, not far from Calverley, and my first visit was to conduct a funeral service in the house on the occasion of the death of a young man belonging to my church, but residing at Calverley.

I accompanied the friends and mourners to the churchyard, where the services were completed by the Vicar, the present burial laws not being t.hen in opera­tion. This was my first acquaintance with Calverley. On another occasion I had been preaching at Hudders­field and reached Leeds on the return journey after the last train on Sunday night had gone. I set out to walk home, some half-dozen or more miles distant, and had to go through Calverley: On passing the churchyard I saw something which gradually developed into a beautiful form of light, which accompanied me some distance, with finger pointing onwards, and then gradually disappeared. My feelings cannot be des­cribed, but I walked quietly forward, and after a little began to breathe in more regular order, and went on my way wondering at the things I had seen and heard.

I make no comment on this beyond saying that I have nothing sensational to suggest or phenomenal to explain but simply to relate what came to me at one period of my life’s journey, and, my view of the para­graphs of the papers, what now appears to be a rather remarkable coincidence.

(Danby House, Gorleston, 28th December, 1901)

The setting of a dark night, a young preacher and a funeral may suggest a stressful occasion.  Spiritualism was popular at this time, and John’s sister-in-law and brother, Richard Elliott Birks, both dabbled in it, so it may well be that John was influenced by them – or, of course, he could have seen a ghost!

There is a tradition of a haunting  linked to a brutal event that formed the plot of a play by Shakespeare’s contemporary Middleton,  A Yorkshire Tragedy.  It features a young man, Sir Walter Calverley, who fell in love with a village girl but was forced by his family to marry the noble Ann Danby instead. Later, having lost his money, he apparently went mad and murdered his wife and two of his children. He was executed by pressing in York Castle, an extremely painful death. His ghost haunts the Hall and the surrounding area, carrying a bloodstained knife; he is also sometimes seen on horseback in the fields around the village.


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