Thomas Laws the flyman: a tragic end

The burial registers of St Leonards church for 1836 lists two burials on the same day:

Thomas Laws. [Of] St Mary Magdalen. [Buried] Septr. 17th. [Age] 29 years.

Mary Jane Laws. St Mary Magdalen. Septr. 17th. 3 months.

No causes of death are given. Mary Jane was in fact Thomas’ daughter, and he had died in a horrific way. The poignant story is told in the Brighton Gazette, 22 September 1836:

HASTINGS. Last week a flyman, named Laws, who was passing down George-street, about six o’clock in the evening, observed some little boys hanging about his fly; he stopped and remonstrated with them, but could not remove them; when he got down off his box for that purpose, the horses started, Laws still holding the reins; but the horses increasing their speed, although following, he had no power to stop their progress, when he fell, and the wheels passed over his body. He was taken up in a lifeless state to the Swan Hotel, where the poor fellow lingered in the greatest agony till six in the morning when he died. This poor man lost one of his children just before this accident, and had been that day to the parish clerk to provide a place for the burial of his child; but before the time arrived he became destined for it also.

In trying to identify the family I found Mary Jane’s baptism at St Leonards, on the 4 July 1836. This told me that the mother was Jane. Thomas’ occupation was given as coachman. The only likely Sussex marriage of this couple was that of the 25 July 1826 at Eastbourne, of Thomas Laws and Jane Bignell, both of the parish. I originally thought this marriage unlikely, as he would have been under 21, and therefore should have been stated to be a minor. They were also both illiterate, perhaps unlikely for someone able to set himself up as a flyman – a nineteenth century taxi driver, if you like. In fact this turned out to be the correct marriage.

I then checked for any children baptised to Thomas and Jane Laws in East Sussex so that I could look for them in the censuses. This can easily be done on the Ancestry database.

I found two baptisms at St Mary in the Castle, Hastings:

3 December 1829. Sarah Ann to Thomas, labourer, and Jane, of St Leonards.

1 Sept 1831. George Henry to Thomas, postboy, and Jane, of St Leonards.

A postboy was a postillion – a man who rode one of two horses that drew a carriage, instead of actually driving the carriage while sitting on it.

The (very brief) 1841 census for the family:

Norman Road West, behind Adelaide Place

Jane Laws, 35, laundress, Y[es, i.e, born in the county]

Sarah Laws, 11, Y

George Laws, 9, Y

The more helpful 1851 census for the family:

6 Market Passage

Jane Laws, head, W[idow], 49, laundress, [born] Sussex Eastbourne

Sarah Laws, dau, U[nmarried], 21, servant, Sussex St Leonards

G. Laws, son, U, 19, labourer, Sussex St Leonards

Sarah Ann Laws married, 17 July 1859, St Mary Magdalen, as daughter of Thomas, deceased, John Mitten, shoemaker of the parish. In the 1861 census Jane, still a laundress, was living with the Mittens and their six-month-old son at 5 Adelaide Cottages, St Mary Magdalen. By then, George was a married carpenter living near Guildford. I have not researched the family further.

This account shows how a little detective work can bring official records and a newspaper mention together to make a coherent, if sad, story. I had assumed that it was a Hastings family, and it was only when I checked for the burials out of curiosity that I realised that they were from St Leonards.

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