#52Ancestors Post III: Of Struggles and Secrets.

Norwich from Mousehold, a view of the cathedral and several chimneys c1880s. From British Library Flickr (see caption).

Everyone has a family line that keeps them guessing. Perhaps several. Mine is the one leading back (in all directions) from one of my Great Grandmothers. 

The Comans and the Millers

Everything the family believed about Grandma Miller’s ancestors appears to have been embroidered somewhat (or rather, a lot!). I was reminded in Ed Balls’ episode of Who Do You Think You Are? just how many Norfolk families believe a relative was on the deck of the HMS Victory, elbow-to-elbow with Nelson.

One of my Millers was apparently one of them. 

In this part of my tree there are runaways, musicians, innkeepers, soldiers, inmates of prisons and asylums, paupers, drunks, criminals – often many of these in one ancestor profile. These were ancestors that lived in poverty, scraping an existence from whatever they could and finding solace wherever they could. I have a great respect for them, actually. They survived despite everything they faced.

[Image in square from Page 14 of ”The handbook to the City of Norwich, etc” 1883. Held At The British Library. Published by Jarrold. Image Made Available On The British Library’s Flickr Page, No Known Copyright Restrictions.]

Where they lived, I lived. 

At least, I came to live in (and love) the same city. Thankfully, though, I didn’t have to survive the same circumstances. 

Right now, I’m not that far from the Miller and Coman stomping ground. Local archives contain their stories – and photographs even – and there’s much more to discover.


For #52Ancestors this week, the theme is #FavouritePhotograph. I don’t have one – unless it’s of my boys, and I wouldn’t put that online!

However, as photos go, I think this image is a pretty great one. My Great Great Great Grandfather, one of a very many John Millers, looks decidedly jaunty (there’s no other word for it!) standing behind my Great Great Great Grandmother, Eliza Coman. 

It’s not the only image I have of the couple, but it’s probably the earliest. It was shared with me by a relative, and I’ve blurred out some old annotation in the top corner.


An image of a woman, seated, in ruffled skirts and shawl and a man standing behind in a waistcoat and top hat, flaunting a cigar. Possibly 1870s?


The photograph above is in itself a mystery. It feels to me like an early 1870s image, although I readily admit to being a documents person, not a photographs person. I welcome comments as to the date and any details you can spot! As you’ve read already, the couple were poor and living in what we might now consider a slum, so it wouldn’t be surprising if their fashions were behind the times.

John Miller, 1853

John was born at the Yarn Factory Tavern in Norwich in 1853, where his father, an old military man, was the landlord. The pub sat on the corner of Cowgate and Fishergate, opposite Whitefriars Bridge (although an earlier iteration than the one we see today). The inn was close to a real yarn factory; this part of the city was chockablock with textile and shoe manufacturies. 

Later, John moved northwards with his family to Sprowston, where he was apparently a blacksmith in 1871. His son, John Miller Coman, was born a few years later in 1876 to Eliza Coman. 

Now, was the photograph taken to celebrate an engagement, not a wedding? Because even in 1881, five years after his son was born, John was reportedly single, and this would appear too late for the photograph? In the census, he was living apart from his son and the mother of his child (although only a few houses along). He was then enumerated as a carter, living on Sidney Row (long since demolished and now, I believe, under a school playing field).

Somewhat unexpectedly, Banns were called for a John Miller and an Eliza Coman at Lambeth St Mary on 20 April 1884, but there is a marriage at Norwich Register Office for the couple on 27 July 1885. Why did it take eight/nine years? Why in London? Had they been living as married and left town to marry privately, or is it more likely they moved to the city to find work? Had John been away somewhere? The army? Prison? Had he been married before? Had she? Perhaps the photograph dates from 1885 not the 1870s after all?

I took to the papers to find out more. It seems that John had been known to the local authorities since he was a boy throwing stones in New Catton. Over the years, he was in court for perjury, a case involving ‘conspiracy to defraud’ and even for assaulting someone with an axe in Sprowston (more details another time).

Eliza Coman, 1856

The Comans had their fair share of bad press. Eliza was born in Wymondham in 1856, the daughter of struggling silk weavers (at the time, a rapidly collapsing industry). Her father went to prison and then abandoned his family in the 1860s. To my knowledge, no one has ever uncovered where he ended up with certainty (although there are suspicions he joined up to avoid the Guardians and died on a military prison hulk). 

Eliza’s mother, Lucy, moved from Wymondham to ‘The Paddock’ in Pockthorpe with her children and fatherless grandchildren. It sounds nice, but it wasn’t. There, she took in laundry and charred where she could. At 80, she still recorded herself as a charwoman, although someone later crossed this through and described her as an Old Age Pensioner (it was two years since the Act had passed).

Perhaps Eliza (or her mother Lucy) feared that John would run off just as her father had. Maybe it just wasn’t worth the effort to marry. Perhaps John and Eliza weren’t together between 1876 and 1884 – there are no further children to my knowledge to date. 

The photograph comes with a caption from a cousin that Eliza ‘wears a Norwich shawl’. If she did, then it’s not one of the city’s finest – but it wouldn’t be. Life was hard in the slums of Pockthorpe. These families lived in tough times in harsh conditions. 

What happened next

Eliza and John’s son, also John, lied about his age to join the Royal Marines Light Infantry at 16. Against the odds (?), he rose to Colour Sergeant, travelling far and wide but eventually returning home to Norwich, where his large family lived on Riverside Road for several decades.

Perhaps it was this John that created and embroidered some of his family’s memories. In his lifetime, his children never knew that he was born before his parents were married. It might not be a shock today, but it was important to this generation of the Miller family that they appear respectable.

Many more secrets have readily revealed themselves in digitised sources – almost without being looked for. This was not a family that talked. What was in the newspaper one day was not apparently discussed as the years passed. It still feels a bit close for comfort.

Not really a conclusion

I admit that I’ve thrown my thoughts into this post and have lots of research still to do. Yet this ‘favourite photograph’ raises questions that might add to the story of my Norwich ancestors. When, where and why was it taken? 

I suppose the last question to ask is, does it even matter? Perhaps I should just enjoy the shot for what it is: a glimpse of the faces that gave me maybe 3% of my DNA and a lot of newspaper column inches to read and interpret…

A final note

Normally, I’d add a source list here, but I haven’t had time to prepare it properly this evening. I do have references offline though, so please contact me in order to follow up the stories.

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