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Past Lives

Cornelius Greenwood – Hero or Villain?

Part II

In the years that followed, Cornelius continued to work as the market inspector and live at Market Square.  His eldest son, John William who had married Ann Blackburn in 1895 presented him and Mary with their first grandson, Walter, in 1897, followed by granddaughter Sarah a year later and Mary in 19001.

However, the first cloud was about to appear on the horizon. In 1900 Cornelius was dismissed from his position as market inspector.  He seemed to have fallen foul of his employers on a number of accounts.  It was discovered that he had been buying stock from stallholders who were leaving the market and selling it on at a profit to new tenants.  I am not entirely sure how this came to light, but in the same year his son, James Henry, who had run a hosiery stall in the market hall filed for bankruptcy.  When he was examined in November2 he said that, before he bought the hosiery business, he had acquired a fancy goods business off his father.  According to James Henry, Cornelius had owned this business for seven years, although when Cornelius had been appointed, it had been expressly stated that  ‘the inspector has to devote the whole of his time to the post.’3

In February 1901, he was re-instated on a three months’ trial and at a reduced salary.  In addition, the Market and Parks Committee4 decreed that ‘the market inspector be not allowed to have any relatives holding stalls in the market or any direct or indirect interest in connection therein.’

The 1901 census5 showed that Cornelius was still the market inspector and still living at 19 Market Square and there was nothing to indicate that anything untoward had happened.  Nevertheless, the story had appeared in the local papers, so it must have been an excruciatingly embarrassing time for Mary and the rest of the family facing their friends and neighbours as they went about their daily lives.  John William may have been able to distance himself somewhat, if he so desired, as he had set up his own household, but Wilfred was still at home.  James Henry, whose address during the bankruptcy proceedings had been 43 Pendle Street, also seemed to have returned home.  This was presumably because he had no money, although his occupation on the return was still self-employed hosier/shopkeeper. 

Interestingly, what was evident from the 1901 census, and which may well have had a bearing on the above events and on future ones, was that James Henry had suffered from ‘spinal paralysis from childhood’.  This could well have been as a result of polio which was common in the late Victorian era and, if so, depending on the degree of paralysis, often condemned the sufferer to a life dependent on crutches or a wheelchair.

What Cornelius got up to next would become only too painfully clear with the passage of time, but to the outside world his life no doubt seemed to follow the usual pattern of an ordinary, family man.  In 1902 James Henry married Alice Riley6 and soon more grandchildren were on their way, James was born in 1903 followed by Mary Alice and then Eric7.  John William and Ann had also added to their family with the births of Arthur in 1903 and Lois in 19058.  However, misfortune struck the Greenwood family with the death of Cornelius’ wife, Mary9, aged only fifty-eight in 1909.  John William and Ann also lost their fourth daughter, Alice shortly after her birth in 1910.10

As for Wilfred, I have been unable to positively identify him after the 1901 census and ascertain what he was doing in the intervening years.  It was at this point, however, that Elizabeth Pickard’s life became linked to Cornelius’ for better or worse.  The couple married in the June quarter11 of 1910, less than a year after the death of Mary.  I think this short interval would tend to indicate that they already knew each other.  The following year when the 1911 census12 was taken, Cornelius and Elizabeth had set up home at 8 Clement View, Nelson.  Elizabeth’s daughter, Mary, was living with them. This was a substantial property with a yard at the back and a large garden at the front According to the information on the return, the house had seven rooms including the kitchen, and this is easy to believe looking at the modern day photograph below.  It was obviously quite a select little enclave because most of the other houses were occupied by residents who described themselves in the census as manufacturers, managers or retired civil servants, and for such large houses, only one had more than two or three occupants.

Sample Photo

Clement View in June 2015, Cornelius lived at No 8, the fourth house along.

However, just a few years later, Cornelius’ seemingly comfortable life disappeared literally overnight.  In December 1915 local newspapers were full of the scandal of his arrest. It would be impossible in this short article to do justice to the wide coverage given to his arrest and trial and the minute, fascinating detail that the newspapers went into, but the following is a basic summary of the events as they unfolded.

It seemed that at least one of the market stallholders had made a complaint to the police about the market inspector and a Detective Pugh had hidden himself at the market for several mornings to observe Cornelius.  On the morning of 21st December13, he confronted and searched Cornelius, who was found to have a plum pudding, two tins of salmon and a jar of calves’ jelly hidden on him.  His house was later searched and a large quantity of goods was found there. Apparently, on arrest, Cornelius immediately admitted the charge of theft, but collapsed on the floor and could not be taken to the police station for half an hour.  Initially, Cornelius was remanded on a charge of shop breaking and stealing from the market, but by the end of December, he had also been remanded on a charge of embezzlement.  It had come to light that Cornelius had given stallholders receipts for payments received, but had entered a lesser sum on the counterfoil for the corporation and kept the difference.  It was alleged that this practice had continued for a period of over ten years and had amounted to a sum of about £191(worth about £11,570.00 at 2014 values14).

His trial took place at the Preston Quarter Sessions on 5th January 1916 and Cornelius pleaded guilty to a charge of embezzlement and two charges of warehouse breaking.

Sample Photo

The building on the left is Sessions House, Preston where Cornelius was sent for trial.  This imposing building must have been quite daunting to enter for any relatives or friends who attended.  This postcard is from the 1930s, but its appearance had changed little since Cornelius’ time.

After the prosecution had made its case, a police witness stated that Cornelius ‘had been a teetotaller and non-smoker’ nearly all his life and had been connected with Carr Road Baptist Church in Nelson for some years15. The witness also stated that the accused lived in his own house and owned two other cottages, albeit mortgaged.

Mr Jordan, counsel for the defence, then made representations on Cornelius’ behalf.  He described Cornelius as a man who ‘for many years had stood very high indeed, but had now fallen very low.’  He reminded the court of Cornelius’ bravery when he had been the foreman porter at Nelson station.  He described his domestic situation of which he said ‘there was nothing to be said against him.’  He spoke of his two marriages and of his sons:

By his first wife he had three sons, one of whom held an honourable position in the mill, another was serving his country in the trenches, and the third was a cripple and was married, and had for some years been       assisted by his father.

He stressed the sincere penitence of the accused and the fact that he wanted to make whatever restitution he could to ease his conscience, notably by selling his cottages and using the equity to reimburse some of the corporation’s money. The court was told that, as market inspector he earned £2 5s per week with an additional sum of 2s 6d for looking after the clock (around £170.00 per week at 2014 values14).  This was a respectable, but not overly generous wage for the time, but many people would have had to manage on a lot less.  Mr Jordan suggested that Cornelius had perhaps ‘found the strain of keeping his house together and assisting his crippled son too great’ and ‘succumbed to the temptation of robbing his employers.’  Apparently, Cornelius broke down and wept during counsel’s speech and various newspapers commented on his dejected appearance throughout the various stages of the proceedings against him.

The Chairman, Mr. Worsley Taylor, whose job it was to pass sentence, seemed genuinely sorry to have to do this to a man like Cornelius and indeed described it as a very ‘painful’15 duty.  Nevertheless, he made it clear that, however much he might have desired to mitigate the punishment, due to Cornelius’ age and the fact that he was already publicly disgraced, he had no option but to hand out a serious punishment because Cornelius had not heeded the warning of 1900 and that it had not been ‘a case of giving way to a sudden temptation ... [but] a deliberate series of small pilferings ... week by week for the last ten years.’  He then passed a sentence of six months’ imprisonment.

Unfortunately, the newspapers did not elaborate on his family’s reaction to the sentence.  Later events would seem to indicate that his sons found him an embarrassment and would try to edge him out of their lives. At least Mary, who had been at his side when he was lauded as a local hero, was spared the ignominy of his very public downfall by her early death.  Elizabeth stood by him, but had she or Mary been aware of what he was doing? Had they suspected anything at all?  Perhaps Cornelius had told them that the food and tins were gifts from the stallholders?  This might not have been so unbelievable, as during the trial, it was revealed that in 190115 he was ‘allowed to retain his position in consequence of a petition in his favour from the market stallholders.’  Obviously at that time, Cornelius was still well thought of by many people.

So why did he do it?  Could he not manage on his salary?  Perhaps James Henry’s health had deteriorated?  If his disability had been caused by polio then, according to Wills, (2013, p.6616) some sufferers did experience further deterioration as they aged?  Or maybe Cornelius felt the need to impress Elizabeth, who had perhaps only ever known him as the local hero, with a certain standard of living and social prestige?  Then again perhaps he just over stretched himself financially with the purchase of three dwellings and was tempted by an easy way to solve the problem.  Certainly, no definite explanation seemed to come out at the trial and, as Cornelius is not here to explain or defend himself, we can only speculate today as to his motives.   

But Cornelius’ story does not end there.  He was released from prison17 on 5th June 1916, after serving five months.  The house in Nelson had been given up and he and Elizabeth moved to 89 Sandygate in Burnley, no doubt because all Elizabeth’s surviving children had married, but still lived in the Burnley area and would be around to offer support.  In particular, Elizabeth and Cornelius seemed to have relied on Margaret Ann and her husband George who lived a few doors away at 95 Sandygate.  Elizabeth took on some cleaning jobs to help keep a roof over their heads and George, who was a joiner, gave Cornelius odd jobs when he could.

From all accounts, Cornelius was very depressed on his release.  This is perhaps not surprising for a man who had lost his good name, his employment and had spent five months in a prison.  None of the newspaper reports make any allusion to how he had coped with his incarceration, but he certainly came out with some health problems.  According to Elizabeth he cried a great deal and was having problems with his memory.18  On 29th July he also had to attend Victoria Hospital, Burnley to see a doctor about problems with his eyesight17.  From what Cornelius told people afterwards, it seemed the doctor did not believe that much improvement was possible from treatment, but he was to return for a further appointment on Saturday 12th August.

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Victoria Hospital where Cornelius received a depressing prognosis for his eye condition in 1916, but where he was also treated after the Rushton accident in 1889.

Cornelius also hoped that his sons would come over to visit him from Nelson.  They had not done so since his release from prison, and the fact that he commented to George that ‘he had better give up his sons’ coming’, showed that he was very hurt by their non-appearance18.

On Friday 11th August, Elizabeth left home in the morning to go to work.  Cornelius had agreed to come and meet her there in the afternoon.  However, he did not appear at the agreed time.  Elizabeth did not seem to have been too perturbed by this, perhaps because of his memory lapses, as she did not bother to return home until after ten o’clock that evening.  When she did, she found the house in darkness.  There was no immediate sign of her husband, but as she opened the door to the stairs, she found him.  Cornelius had hung himself from the bannister rail18.

It is easy to imagine the shock and horror that Elizabeth must have experienced faced with such a sight, but she had the presence of mind to fetch her son-in-law, George, as quickly as possible.  He managed to cut Cornelius down, but it was already too late.  Cornelius had been dead for several hours.

An inquest was held on the following Monday at Burnley Town Hall when Elizabeth told the coroner that, although she knew her husband was very depressed, she had had no indication that he might take his own life until about a week previously when he had said17 ‘If anything happens to me, you will see I am not buried as a pauper.’  The coroner also remarked on the behaviour of the Greenwood sons.  Although he stressed that it was not part of his remit to pass judgement on them, he obviously thought that their not visiting showed a lack of compassion and was a contributory factor in the suicide of their father.  He commented that ’if they can reconcile their conduct with their conscience, that is a matter for them.’17  James Henry attended the inquest and told the coroner that he had not known where his father lived, that he wanted to see him or that he was so depressed .  The jury returned a verdict of ‘Suicide while temporarily insane.’ 18

Elizabeth certainly honoured Cornelius’ last wish and he was not laid to rest in a pauper’s grave.  His funeral took place on 15th August19 and he was buried at Burnley Cemetery.  He was sixty-six years old.  He was interred in the same grave as Francis, Elizabeth’s first husband, no doubt for practical reasons, but I wonder how he would have felt about this.  Nor did Cornelius die a pauper by any means.  In his will20, he left an estate worth £153 4s 6d (about £9,279 at 2014 values14), although this probably represented a significant downturn in fortunes for the Cornelius who had owned several properties.

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Cornelius’ grave (bottom left) at Burnley Cemetery in June 2015.  The inscription has almost completely worn off, but if you look carefully, you can just trace the names of Francis and Selina, one of the children who died in infancy.  It does not look like a further inscription for Cornelius was added.  

So, was Cornelius Greenwood a hero or a villain?  I leave you to make your own decision.  There is no doubt that he displayed enormous courage and tried to save lives at the risk to his own on several occasions as a young man; that later he defrauded his employer is also a fact, whether he was motivated by money worries, greed or love for his son.  That he confessed his guilt, served his prison term and tried to make restitution by paying back some of the money he had fraudulently obtained, may make you judge him less harshly.  What I think is clear is that Cornelius emerged from his sentence a broken man, a man who was unable to come to terms with the wreckage he had made of his life.  When faced with a chronic eye problem as well, his depression deepened and he took the only way out he could see.

And what of Elizabeth?  Any dreams she may have had on her marriage to Cornelius of a happier, more financially comfortable life had been very quickly and cruelly dashed.  From living in a very desirable home at Clement View, she had been reduced to charring to keep a roof over her head and was back in the same area of Burnley she had left six years ago.  Then, within weeks of regaining her husband, she had been widowed for the second time.  I have found very little information on Elizabeth after this time, but I do know that she outlived Cornelius by fourteen years.  She was eventually reunited with both her husbands when she was buried in the same grave21 on 4th November 1930.   The address given on the burial entry is Chiselhurst Avenue. Blackpool.  Margaret Ann and George Graham were also living in Blackpool22 around this time, with George doing very well as a builder.  I like to think that, at least, Elizabeth had a pleasant retirement at the seaside with family close by.  If any family members can confirm this, I would love to hear from them.

Sources and Bibliography

1.    Lancashire BMD: 1895 - RM/99/34, 1897 - NEL/5/68, 1898 - NEL/9/77 & 1900 - NEL/12/34

2.    Burnley Express 1st December 1900, p.7

3.    Burnley Express 25th December 1889, p.3

4.    Burnley Gazette 9th February 1901, p.7

5.    National Archives: 1901 Census RG13/3879, Folio 139, p.21

6.    FreeBMD: 1902, December Qtr., Vol 8e, p.436, District: Burnley

7.    National Archives: 1911 Census RG14, Piece 24885, Schedule 248

8.    National Archives: 1911 Census RG14, Piece 24902, Schedule 179

9.    FreeBMD: 1909, December Qtr., Vol 8e, p.180, District: Burnley

10.  Lancashire BMD: 1910 - NEL/32/68 & NEL/17/83

11.  FreeBMD: 1910, June Qtr, Vol 8e, p.530, District: Burnley

12.  National Archives: 1911 census RG14, Piece 24906, Schedule 262

13.  Burnley News 1st January 1916, p.2

14.  MeasuringWorth: viewed online at www.measuringworth.com July 2015

15.  Burnley News 8th January 1916, p.2

16.  Simon Wills (2013) How Our Ancestors Died Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books Ltd

17.  Burnley News 16th August, p.3

18.  Burnley Express 16th August 1916, p.6

19.  Lancashire Online Parish Clerks: Burials Register 1914-1920, p.134, entry 82775

20.  Principal Probate Registry: Index to Wills & Administrations 1858-1996, 1916, p.386

21.  Lancashire Online Parish Clerks: Burials Register 1926-1933, p.199, Entry 101396

22.  Kelly’s Directory of Lancashire 1924, p.1345


Original images for all censuses & probate indexes viewed online at www.ancestry.co.uk

Original images for the above newspapers viewed online at www.findmypast.co.uk

Lancashire BMD transcripts viewed online at www.lancashirebmd.org.uk

Lancashire Online Parish Clerks transcripts viewed online at www.lan-opc.org.uk

I hope to add new stories on a regular basis, so visit my site again soon to read the next one.

If you would like more information on the people featured in these stories, you can email me at cathy@familyforbears.co.uk.