Thomas MAY (1843-1914) - Life Story
by Ronald Crawford


Thomas was born to Alexander May and Jane May (formerly Christie or Christy) about 1843, probably in Ballymena, Antrim, Northern Ireland, where his father was a bleacher in the linen industry. The International Genealogical Index has a record of the birth of three siblings - John in 1830, Margaret in 1833 and William in 1835. There is no record of Tom and other siblings in this index though they may exist in church records yet to be found. We know that at the time of the 1861 Scottish census Tom was living at 55 Stewart St, Greenock, Scotland, with his brother John and sister-in-law Mary. Both men were employed as sugarhouse labourers. Family oral history indicates that Tom travelled to the United States of America and fought in the American Civil War before returning to Greenock in Scotland about 1864. His Civil War record however is proving difficult to find.

On the 22nd of September, 1865, he married Jane McEwan or McEwen at the Free North Church, Greenock, Scotland. The church was located at 1 Hill Street, Greenock. Jane was the daughter of Daniel McEwan and Helen McEwan (formerly Todd). At the time of their marriage Thomas lived at 29 Roxburgh Street, Greenock, and Jane lived at 8 Ann Street, Greenock. Tom was employed in the sugar industry in Greenock.

The couple moved from Greenock, Scotland, to Dublin, Ireland, shortly after their marriage. The move seems to have been due to the revival of the sugar industry in Dublin by Thomas Bewdley in 1865. We know that his occupation whilst in Dublin is listed as sugar refiner, and as there was only one sugar refinery in Dublin at the time he must have worked at the Bewdley refinery. At least two children were born during the stay in Dublin. John, known as Jack, was born in 1866, and when Margaret was born in 1870, they were residing at 35 Wentworth Place, Grand Canal Street, South Dublin.

Some time after 1871 (they are not shown in the 1871 Census of Greenock) they moved back to Greenock in Scotland. On the 21st July, 1873, their youngest daughter Jane died of diarrhoea aged 14 months. There is no record of her birth in Scotland so I assume she was born in Ireland prior to their return to Scotland. Their address at the time of Jane's death was 79 Belville Street, Greenock. In the records of the time Tom is still recorded as a sugarhouse labourer. On the 21st April, 1874, another daughter Helen is born. (No further records of Helen have been found to date.)

We know from Tom's employment record with Henry Tate Sugar that the family moved from Greenock in Scotland to Liverpool, England, in 1875. The reason for the move was that Henry Tate had built a modern sugar mill at Love Lane, Liverpool, and recruited a number of skilled workers from Scotland to operate the plant. In 1878 a son was born to Tom and Jane and named Thomas after his father.

1881 proved to be a year of great highs and lows for Tom. On 6th February, 1881 another son James was born, but eleven days later on the 17th February his wife Jane died, aged 36, as a result of complications from the birth. Then on the following day his son Tom, aged 2, years died as a result of scarlet fever. Life was tough in those times but Tom and the family somehow managed to survive. At the time of Jim's birth the family are shown as living at 125 Ashfield Cottages, Ashfield Street, Liverpool. The 1881 census shows John (a plumber's errand boy) and Margaret (a student living with their father Tom at 136 Martin Street, Liverpool). The infant James is shown as a boarder with the Clark family who lived at 81 Ashfield Street, Liverpool.

In the second half of 1881 the family moved to London. There were a number of reasons for the move but the main motivation was that Henry Tate had built a new plant at Silvertown in London and again needed skilled workers to operate the plant. The 1881 census shows that his brother John and his wife Mary were already residing in North Woolwich (which is the suburb along side Silvertown) where he was employed as a sugar baker. Despite all the sorrow, grief and relocation trauma of 1881 Tom remarried on the 18th December of that year. This time he was married in the Church of England Parish Church at East Ham, and his bride is shown as a widow Mary Bates (formerly Unsworth). Mary was never mentioned in the family oral history but neither was Jane McEwan. We do know that Tom and Mary were together for 29 years. She died prior to Tom at 128 Oriental Rd, Silvertown, on 9th December 1910.

In 1884 Margaret obtained a certificate under the "Factory and Workshop Act, 1878" in order to seek employment, and this shows the family living at 19 Oriental Road in Silvertown. She was 13 years and 9 months at the time and obtained a job in a confectionary and jam factory, probably that owned by James Keller who was a Marmalade and Confectionary maker located at Tay Wharf. This company was taken over by Cross & Blackwell and later by Nestle. The product name still exists today.

The 1891 Census shows Thomas living at 32 Emma St, Silvertown, West Ham, with his wife Mary, daughter Margaret and son James. John (the eldest son) had married Louisa Rogers in 1889 and was living with his in-laws at 47 Emma St. The witnesses at John and Louisa's wedding were Margaret May and William Crawford. By 1891 William Crawford was already in Australia and Margaret followed him out at the end of 1891.

Tom continued to work at Henry Tate & Sons though the manual work was obviously getting too hard for him. Perhaps because of his long association with the company, management found him a job as the commissionaire and he was still working in 1910. Tom died on 15th June, 1914 at the West Ham Union Infirmary. Prior to his death he resided at 52 Andrew St, Silvertown.

Of the six children we know of, Tom had three who survived to adulthood. They were ...
John who had three children - John, Arthur and Elsie. John (also a sugar worker) died from a cerebral haemorrhage on 3rd January, 1912 at the age of 44. At the time of his death he lived at 18 Council Houses, North Woolwich.
Margaret who arrived in Australia in January 1892 and married William Crawford 5 days after arrival. They lived in Randwick and had eight children although only five survived to adulthood - Robert, William, James, Margaret and Hetty. Margaret died in 1931.
James who married in London in 1906. Unfortunately his wife died after the birth of their son in 1907. Jim suffered an illness some time after the death of his wife, which left him partly paralysed in the legs. Margaret brought him and his son to Australia in 1910. He remarried in the early 1920's, and lived in Randwick where he worked in the family produce store. He died in Sydney in 1947.

Henry Tate & Sons 1881 - Tom, back row fourth from left bald head, folded arms.
- Ronald Crawford 2008.
Tom, about 1905, in his commissionaire uniform
- Ronald Crawford 2008.

( I am very grateful to Ronald Crawford for this case study. )