Who was Walter James Ashworth?

My family talked very little of my great-grandfather Walter James Ashworth. What little I had heard of him came from various anecdotes told me by my grandmother, mother and uncles. He seemed like a bit of an enigma and a black sheep, for reasons still untold to me, but often speculated on. For all of these reasons I wanted to see what the surviving historical record told of him and how that fit with the stories I had been told.

Walter was born to James and Elizabeth Ashworth in May 1889 in the city of Bradford, located in West Yorkshire, England. There were seven children in the Ashworth family according to the 1891 Census, with Walter being the youngest at the time. Walter’s father James was a Mill Mechanic at one of the many textile mills then located in the city, his mother had her hands busy raising the large family, and his older siblings were already working in the mills as teenagers. The family home was located at 35 Sheridan Street at the time in a typical 19th century working class English neighborhood.

Ashworth family listed in the 1891 UK Census for Bradford.

Ten years later the family had moved to another home in Bradford and all of the children, with the exception of Walter, were working in various occupations in town. The daughters were working as “winders” in the local worsted mill that produced fabric, one brother worked as an assistant at a grocer while the other was a joiner. Walter, then 12, was recorded as still attending school at the time. Based on information on Walter’s immigration documents, he also began working in a grocery at some point prior to his departure from England.

Walter would be in America before the end of the decade and the reasons for his leaving England are the subject of speculation. One of the family rumors was that Walter had trouble with the law, stealing horses, and that his immigration was a means of evading justice. I have found no evidence that this was the case. Walter’s aunt, Elizabeth Ashworth and her husband Wesley Hall, had immigrated to the United States in the 1880’s before Walter’s birth and had established themselves in the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. A more likely scenario is that Elizabeth corresponded with her family in England and encouraged members to immigrate to the United States in search of employment and a better life. Reinforcing this theory is the fact that Walter traveled to America with his older sister Edith and they did so under their own names, provided their place of residence in England and also noted who would be meeting them upon their arrival in Philadelphia.

Walter’s Aunt Elizabeth had been widowed in 1908 and in the 1910 Census record she had returned to using her maiden name Ashworth. Walter and his sister Edith were living with Elizabeth and her extended family of daughters and sons-in-law at their home on West Venango Street in the Philadelphia neighborhood of Franklinville. Walter and Edith had found work as a dyer and a weaver respectively at a nearby dress goods mill.

Walter met his soon-to-be bride, Elsie Perry, shortly after his arrival in the United States. Elsie and her family were living a short distance from the Ashworths and Elsie was employed as a sorter at a nearby carpet mill in 1910. How they met is still unknown, but the couple were married in February 1913. Nine months after their marriage their daughter Elsie Perry was born, another daughter named Edith Mae arrived in 1914, and a son named Walter Jr. came a year later in 1915.

Walter registered for the World War One draft in June 1917 and, from that record, we learn that he had moved his family to North Orianna Street in the Fairhill neighborhood of Phildelphia, close to where Elsie had been living in 1910. Walter was employed as a shearer at the Philadelphia Tapestry Company located at the intersection of Howard and Allegheny Avenues in Philadelphia. The registration document also gives a physical description of Walter as well. He was recorded as being of short height and slender build with blue eyes and dark hair.

The following year Elsie gave birth to another son, William, and shortly after that the family moved again to another home in Fairhill on Mayfield Street. The family record found in the 1920 Census gives Walter’s occupation at that time as a finisher in a cloth mill while Elsie was a homemaker taking care of the family’s four young children. The year would be a difficult one for the family though as two of the children, Edith and William, would both pass away in 1920. Walter died from pneumonia in April and Edith passed away from diphtheria in June.

The family added another child in March 1921 when my grandfather, Harry Ashworth, was born. Any happiness or joy over the arrival of his new son would soon be overshadowed by the death of Walter’s wife Elsie in March 1922. I have not been able to acquire Elsie’s death certificate and therefore am not sure of the cause of her death. The affect on Walter of the deaths of his wife and two young children within a two year period may have been severe. It would appear that in the ensuing years after Elsie’s death Walter either was incapable of, or unwilling to raise his two sons and they soon found themselves in the household of Lancaster County Pennsylvania farmer Robert Linton. It would appear that the eldest child, Elsie, continued to live with her father in Philadelphia.

Family stories tell of Walter travelling to Lancaster on multiple occasions to bring his sons back to Philadelphia, only to have them run away and return to their adopted family in Lancaster County. The farm life, and the love that the childless Lintons must have shown Walter Jr. and Harry, kept them coming back after each attempt by Walter to reclaim them. According to family members, eventually the Linton’s local Sheriff informed Walter that he was no longer welcome and that he should leave Walter Jr. and Harry alone.

Walter Jr and Harry Ashworth taken sometime in the late 1930s.

Walter Ashworth returned to Philadelphia, and to his daughter Elsie, where he worked as mechanic in a machine shop until his death in March 1940 at age 50. Walter’s cause of death was acute myocarditis brought on by pneumonia and he was buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Philadelphia. Looking at Walter’s life and its ups and downs has put my family’s stories about him in perspective and while I never had the chance to meet him I feel I know him a little better now.

© Noel B. Poirier, 2020.

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