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Auntie Nellie's story - Nellie Youle Swann (1894 - 1970)

by Alan D Craxford, Brenda K Eldridge and Eva Unwin

The family background by Eva Unwin

Nellie Swann with her children, Hilda and Fred (early 1924)

Nellie with baby Fred and Hilda

Auntie Nellie came into the family of my grandfather (Walter Cook) just before the turn of the twentieth century, shortly after she was born. She was over 20 years older than me. We children always knew that she was not really our auntie but the full circumstances of her arrival have remained shrouded in mystery until this day. We were aware that there was a scandal at the time. Her mother was thought to be the wife of the steward at the Conservatives Club. Her father belonged to a well known Leicester family and there was also some connection with a local baker's firm. Nellie was farmed out to an old lady in the area soon after birth but as she was always drunk Grandma Cook took the baby in and was paid to look after her.

In 1891 grandfather worked as a waggoner and the family were living first in Friar's Causeway and then in Jewry Wall Street which was in the West End of the city. The latter house was close to the old Norman church of St Nicholas and a couple of doors away from where the famous Roman mosaic floor had been found. By the beginning of the new century the family had moved again about half a mile further out into a terraced house in Tudor Road. This was a new estate on the other side of the River Soar and close to a new boot and shoe factory which was providing employment for the local community. During that decade Walter worked as a driver for a firm of wholesale grocers merchants whose premises were on the High Street.

Friars Causeway

Friar's Causeway (1)

Tudor Road, Leicester (2)

Tudor Rd (2)

Bosworth Street, Leicester

Bosworth Street

Twice more they moved and finally arrived in Bosworth Street. It must have been a house-full what with their own five children (son George and daughters Jessie, Annie, Polly and Betty), Jessie's husband - Elijah Benson - and Nellie. She seemed to cause Grandma more trouble than all the rest. I gather that she was the best educated of the lot of them and because Mum, Betty and George were quite a bit older than Nellie was and already working they all contributed to put her through grammar school. She had quite good jobs as a cashier and in retailing when she left school.

I don't know when it actually happened but apparently Auntie Nellie had applied for a copy of her birth certificate in the name of Cook and of course there wasn't one. Uncle George had got her original birth certificate and he had to explain the history to her as far as he knew it. Nellie married Reginald (also known as Roy) Dible in 1919 who had a lot of personal and social problems. His family had originally come from the Isle of Wight which is where he had been born in 1896. He enrolled in the Territorial Army (the London regiment) in 1915 but was discharged unfit for war service within a year. He even served a term in prison. After the marriage Nellie and Reginald moved to Nottingham where he found employment as the manager of a typewriter company. However he did not stay in the job for long. They had two children: a daughter, Hilda born in 1922 and a son, Fred born 1924. I don't know if she was ever officially adopted by the Cooks but her maiden name was recorded as Cook on her marriage certificate and on both the certificates of the children.

Hilda Dible with her grandmother, Elizabeth Cook  (abt 1928)
Annie Unwin with daughter Eva and Hilda Dible (Abt 1933)
Eva Unwin and Hilda Dible on holiday in Ribblesdale(Abt 1936)

Hilda with Grandma Cook (left); A family picnic with Annie Unwin and Eva (centre); On holdiay with Eva (right)

The children were split up in early childhood. Poor Fred was moved about all over the place as Nellie and Roy moved from job to job. After grandfather died, youngest daughter Betty lived on in Leicester looking after their ailing mother. She married Ted Putterill quite late and they had no children of their own. So, Hilda was left with them and was brought up as their own daughter. By this time my parents had moved to Manchester. We used to go down to Leicester for our holidays while Grandma was still alive and so I would spend time with Hilda (I was three years older than her). Hilda would also come and spend her holidays with us at a camp site we took in Ribblesdale.

The next instalment by Brenda Eldridge

The family, Westover Road, Braunstone

A family gathering

We have to move forward to the 1950s for our involvement in the story. My memories of Auntie Nellie are mainly tied up with Christmas as that was when she usually came to visit. Our house was always full at that time of year as the Unwins (Auntie Annie, Uncle Arthur and Eva) used to come down from Manchester to stay with us. Grandma and Grandpa came for Christmas Day and so Auntie Nellie (and Hilda if she was not on duty) would stay with Auntie Betty and Uncle Ted. After Christmas Day lunch they would all come round to Mum and Dad's house in time for the Queen's Speech and then stay for tea and family games.

We did see her from time to time in Bosworth Street when she visited. By that time she was a semi-invalid, the result of asthma and a heavy smoking habit which gave her a rather rasping, croaky voice. She also had a penchant for wearing black clothes - velvets, nets and lacy hats.

Alan's earliest recollection of Hilda Dible was somewhat traumatic and featured a trip to a gymkhana when he was about 4 years old. He developed quite severe hay fever for the first time and was brought home to much consternation with sneezing, wheezing and streaming eyes! Hilda was a health visitor and drove an old Ford Prefect car. She also had a passion for and bred Siamese cats. She had one which was supposed to have been acquired from someone connected with royalty. On one occasion, she was due to go on holiday and arrived without warning at Bosworth Street with 13 cats and kittens which she left for Auntie Betty to look after! (This was before the days of commercial boarding catteries and kennels). There were some funny incidents with all these cats - one called Jemima was a real spitfire who would jump onto the mantelpiece sending all the ornaments flying before running up the curtains to sit out of reach on top of the curtain pole! Another female called Wander was sent away to be mated but apparently she got out (or the wrong Tom got in!) and instead of pure Siamese kittens she had one pretty tortoise-shell kitten called Rainbow.

Hilda never married but did have a life-long evangelical leaning. Her present to my brother on his 21st birthday was a copy of The Bible. We never knew Fred Dible. However I do remember hearing the news from my mother that he had died and that he had committed suicide. Auntie Betty and Eva both said that he had been unable to deal with the shock of learning of his mother's parentage.

Ongoing research by Alan Craxford

Prior to the release of the first tranche of the 1911 England census in January of this year, our researches into Nellie's history had been frustrated. This was in no small part due to the return that Walter Cook had made for the 1901 census which listed her as "Nellie Youle age 8 boarder". All searches in the birth indexes drew a blank - much as they must have done for Nellie almost a century before.

A first glance at the 1911 census entry showed that on this occasion, Walter had given Nellie's full name. From there it was a simple matter of obtaining a copy of her birth certificate which confirmed the name of her mother, that "Youle" was Nellie's second given name and that there was no father registered.

Fanny Brewster

Nellie's mother, Fanny, was born in the village of Lyddington, Rutland in 1866 the fifth child of six (as far as we can tell) of Henry Brewster and Amy Waterfield. We know nothing of her own childhood, but the census return of 1881 shows her to be in the domestic service of Heathfield H Stephenson, a cricketery outfitter with premises in High Street, Uppingham.

John Henry Swann was born in Loughborough in the early 1860s. He had at least three sisters. He appears to have been an able practitioner as he was listed as the pharmacist in charge of the dispensary at the Leicester Royal Infirmary between 1877 and 1879 (3). By 1891 he was the attending dispensing chemist at the Forester's Medical Association and Dispensary at No. 41, Town Hall Lane (4). His older sister, Selina, lived with him through the early part of the decade. Fanny married John Swann in Leicester in 1886 where they had two children; a son, John junior and a daughter Edith. The family lived in accommodation two doors away at No. 45. Their happiness however was shortlived. Fanny was left a widow in the Spring of 1893 when John died of heart disease at the young age of 32 years.

Bede House, Lyddington, Rutland (6)

Lyddington Bede House (6)

Fanny became pregnant in early 1894 and gave birth to Nellie in October. Commercial constraints were to prevail and a new chemist, John Arthur Brown (5), was quickly appointed to fill the vacancy caused by her husband's death. She continued to work there as a caretaker and lived with her children and sister-in-law Selina at the time of the 1901 census on the premises. Also noted on the same return was a lodger, John Youle, a gas fitter.

We found Fanny in 1911, a widow of private means, registered at Bede House, the home of nurse Rebecca Page, back in the village of her birth. Rebecca, also a widow, had been married to William Waterfield, Fanny's mother's brother. There is no indication whether Fanny was "just visiting" or was a long term resident. We have found no further references to her, or her children, in later years although headstones commemorating her parents, several members of the Waterfield family and Rebecca Page can be found in the churchyard of St Andrews Church, Lyddington.

It is apparent that John Youle continued to drift and he did not enter into matrimony with Fanny Brewster. By 1911 he had moved on and was lodging with another widow, Elizabeth Mary Everard, in the Southgates area of the city. His occupation was described as a bell hanger. He died in the city in the first quarter of 1914.

Continued in column 2...

The Dible family

So, what became of the Dibles? Reginald worked as an aero fitter in Nottingham during the war. He suffered from high blood pressure and died of a stroke in July 1944 at the age of 48 years. Nellie continued to live in Nottingham until her death in 1970 first at the family home in Sherwood and then in a house close to the city centre. Fred moved to the Lake District where he married Moyra Gooding. Their daughter Josephine was born in 1949. By the late 1960s they had moved back to the East Midlands where he worked as an engineer in the aircraft industry. Fred survived his mother by two years. We have no evidence to confirm the family's beliefs for the reasons recounted above although his death was recorded at an inquest as due to poisoning with sleeping tablets. Hilda lived and worked for the most part in Loughborough. She died in 1983. Nellie and her daughter are both commemorated on the Cook family headstone in Gilroes Cemetery, Groby Road, Leicester.

Nellie's story had always been one of our family's enduring mysteries and we are not even sure that she was aware of its full extent. Given the social history towards the end of the Victorian era, it is possible to speculate that Fanny offloaded her illegitimate daughter to a baby farmer (a woman who took in such unfortunate children for a small amount of money) who then passed her on to Grandma Cook. We are unaware of any surviving descendents of Nellie's line, either natural or adoptive. Nevertheless, she did have a true bloodline and the one small clue in the 1911 England census has allowed us to set the record straight and put her in her rightful genealogical place. In that we have achieved our purpose.

The Cook family headstone, Gilroes Cemetery, Leicester

The Cook family plot

Notes on the neighbourhood

There is no remaining evidence either in the family or generally to show why the Cook family became involved in Nellie's welfare. However a glance at the map of the west end of Leicester shows the area concerned to be a fairly small one. At the time of Nellie's birth Walter Cook lived and worked within half a mile of her family.

We have been unable to prove a connection between Fanny Brewster and the Conservative Association. Similarly we have not been able to link John Youle with a local family. Historical documents suggest that he was born in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire. There was a bakery enterprise in Abbey Street, Leicester, before the turn of the century run by Robert Youles but his family originated in Cambridgeshire

Guildhall Lane, Leicester
The Guildhall, Leicester
Town Hall Square, Leicester (7)

Leicester landmarks: (left) Guildhall Lane; (centre) The Guildhall; (right) Town Hall Square

The present Leicester Town Hall was built on a site just south of the city centre in 1876. Before that the Guildhall, a timber framed structure dating from 1390, had served the purpose. The street leading from the Guildhall behind the Church of St Martins (which became the Cathedral in 1924) towards the city centre at Carts Lane was historically called Town Hall Lane. Its name was changed to Guildhall Lane in the 1920s.

Mansion House, Guildhall Lane today

Mansion House today

Foresters Medical Association is listed in the trade directories of the 1890s under "Hospitals, Homes etc". Opposite, and adjacent to the Guildhall stood the Wyggeston Hospital which ultimately became a school. The Foresters eventually moved from the site to a new address in St Nicholas Street (8). The premises were ultimately demolished to make way for office redevelopments and now No. 41 bears the title "Mansion House" and hosts, amongst other agencies, several arms of the National Health Service. The Swann residence at No. 45 has long since disappeared.

Lyddington Bede House (6) was a charitable institution, developed in the early 1600s by Sir Thomas Cecil from one wing of the ruined Palace of the Bishops of Lincoln. The almshouses which provided shelter and clothing to the poor of the community in return for work and attendance for prayer were still in use until 1930. It is now a grade one listed building and museum administered by English Heritage.

The authors

Eva Unwin was the daughter of Walter and Elizabeth's third daughter Ada Annie Cook who married Arthur Unwin in 1917. The family moved to Swinton in Manchester. Eva died in September 2008 and unfortunately did not live to see the completion of this research project.

Alan and Brenda are the grandchildren of Walter and Elizabeth's son, George. They have retold their childhood memories of the Dibles here.

Eva Unwin


Alan Craxford


Brenda Eldridge


Footnote: April 23rd 2009

Whilst it is clear that Nellie was not our maternal side aunt or cousin, further research has shown that she was distantly related to us on the CRAXFORD side of the family. The new material, a relationship chart incorporating transcriptions of the Parish records from Gretton, Northamptonshire, shows the tangle of matrimonial links of the Coles family.

As noted above, Sincere Rebecca Page (maiden name Goode) married William Waterfield in Gretton in 1865. William's mother, Mary Coles, had a brother, Thomas. His son, Thomas, married Mary Ann Craxford, our (ADC and BE) third cousin twice removed. We have already noted that Fanny Brewster was the daughter of Henry Brewster and Amy Waterfield (William's brother). There is also a strong probability that William's father, Amos Waterfield, was the brother of Catherine, who married Robert Craxford in Gretton in 1841 - our second cousin three times removed.

FOOTNOTE: June 21st 2018

Perusal of further recently released records has finally allowed us to piece together the conclusion of Fanny Brewster's history. Her birth certificate shows that she was born on October 23rd 1865, the eighth child born to Henry and Amy Brewster. It is clear that her cousin, Sincere, continued living in Lyddington until her death in 1932. It is not known how long Fanny stayed with her, but sometime before the outbreak of World War II Fanny had moved back to Leicester. The 1939 Register for England and Wales shows her living at 43 Normanton Road in the Highfields district of the city in September of that year. It also confirms the date of birth given above. She was living with and acting as housekeeper for Elizabeth Shillaker, the widow of butcher John Thomas Shillaker. This house is 2.2 miles away as the crow flies from the house in Bosworth Street where daughter Nellie and granddaughter Hilda lived.

Fanny died in mid November 1939. She was buried in Welford Road Cemetery on November 23rd 1939 in plot A178. This is just a few yards away from where her husband was interred some fifty years previously.


Our thanks to Dot Roberts for providing the photographs of Guildhall Lane, the Guildhall and the Mansion House. Thanks also to Laurell Thompson, Australia, for providing the Descendent Chart of Job Coles (1709-1783)


1. Sunlight Cottages, Friars Causeway (abt 1900) in Windows: Terraced Houses in Leicester: East Midlands Oral History Archive
2. Tudor Road in Developments: Terraced Houses in Leicester: East Midlands Oral History Archive
3. Appendix B: Dispensers - Pharmacists: "The Leicester Royal Infirmary 1771-1971" by Ernest R. Frizelle and Janet D Martin: The Leicester No.1. Hospital Management Committee (1971)
4. "Hospitals, Homes etc" in Kelly's Trade Directory for Derby, Leicestershire & Rutland [Part 2: Leics & Rutland] 1891 946: Historical Directories at University of Leicester
5. Forester's Medical Asssociation and Dispensary in Wright's Directory of Leicestershire and Rutland 1899 293: Historical Directories at University of Leicester
6. Lyddington Bede House: English Heritage
7. Town Hall Square, Leicester The Jonathan Rawle Gallery
8. Forester's Medical Asssociation and Dispensary in Kelly's Directory for Leicestershire and Rutland 1916 362: Historical Directories at University of Leicester

Page added: February 20th 2009
Last updated: June 21st 2018

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