John William Benjamin Emptage was 20 when he married Emily Dixon Phillpott, aged 17 in the Zion Chapel, Margate, in June 1876. Their daughter Harriet Emily was born in November that year. In 1881 the young family was living in Margate and John William was a bricklayer’s labourer.
As far as the research shows, that was the last time the family was together. John William disappeared.
Although he had married as John William, his birth had been registered as John Benjamin. But it didn’t matter which name we looked for, we found no further trace of John William Benjamin Emptage in any British records.
Had he deserted Emily and Harriet?
John William was the sixth of eight children born to John Emptage, a farm labourer and his wife Jane, formerly Cowell, in 1856. John William’s father died in 1871 when John William was 14 and his mother in 1878 when he was 22. His sister died in 1879 aged 34 and his brother in 1887 aged 44. Could John William been affected by their deaths? Were they factors in his apparent desertion of Emily?
Clearly Margate’s close proximity to the ports of Ramsgate and Dover meant that he could simply have left home, joined a ship as a crew member and then built himself a new life in another country. He wouldn’t be the first person to do that.
Although the trail of John William had gone cold, we continued to follow Emily and found her marriage in Aston, near Birmingham, Warwickshire, in February 1889, to John George Lawes. Emily was said to be a widow and John George was a bachelor.
In 1891 Emily and John George were living in Walsall, Staffordshire, with Harriet, who had taken the surname Lawes. John George was a fish fryer and over the years developed as a fish restaurant and coffee house owner, with Emily and Harriet assisting him.
Emily died in 1911, aged 52, having been married to John George Lawes for 22 years.
And that’s where the entry on that small twig of the Emptage family tree ended, leaving us with several unresolved questions.
What happened to John William Benjamin Emptage?
Was Emily really a widow when she married John George Lawes?
What made her move from Margate to Aston, Warwickshire?
Family historians have to accept that, whilst the research is generally good at answering the questions who, where and when, it rarely answers the questions why, what and how.
David Emptage, who was growing our Emptage tree, didn’t forget about John William and Emily but there were other Emptages claiming his attention and so he moved on. But then, one day……
In June 2014 a lady from Toronto named Julia Hrivnak contacted David to say that she had a photo of Emily Phillpott Lawes and asked if he would like a copy. Of course he said “yes please”.
Emily was well dressed. Her hair style was unusually severe, with her hair flat to her head. It was probably drawn into a bun at the back of her head, in the fashion of the day. She was wearing a very prominent medallion or medal on a decorative ribbon around her neck. It was clearly important to her but it is impossible to see any details. Emily was wearing a ring on the third finger of her left hand and unusual earrings which were made more prominent by her hairstyle.
The photo has the name of the studio on the reverse, Sunderland and Hudson, at an address in Birmingham, so it was evidently taken after Emily had moved from Margate. It was noted as a ‘Special Studio for Large Portraits’ and an ‘Art Studio of Photography’. It implies that there was something special about the photo or the subject. Given the history of Sunderland and Hudson, the photograph would have been taken between 1888 and 1894.
The reverse also has the following handwritten words: “Aunt Emily, mother’s youngest sister“. And then, further down, it reads “Emily Phillpott Lawes, Elephant Trainer”.
Elephant Trainer! The mystery deepened.
Not only was Emily supposedly a widow without an occupation when she married John George Lawes in Aston, less than a mile from the centre of Birmingham, but she was or had been an elephant trainer.
Questions galore came to mind including: had John William Emptage abandoned Emily or had she run away to join the circus, taking her daughter with her? And how did she come to be having her portrait photo taken in the Birmingham area?
Once more we were left with unresolved questions, until one day…….
In November 2019 I was contacted by Michelle Wilkes, a descendant of the Phillpott family who, whilst researching the Phillpott family, had come across the mystery of John William Emptage and Emily Dixon Phillpott and wondered if we had any answers. No, sadly, we did not.
The enquiry led to our chief Emptage conundrum solver, team member Pat Johnson, and me looking at the whole story again.
Pat had childhood connections with Margate and remembered that there were elephants in Margate at one time and connected them with the name Sanger.
I found a book called Secret Margate. In 1870, some buildings and land close to the sea front were bought by a mayor of Margate who went into partnership with a showman and circus proprietor named ‘Lord’ George Sanger. Lord was an assumed name. Sanger developed the land into a remarkable pleasure and zoological garden. He performed for Queen Victoria in 1885 and 1898 and was the foremost circus owner of the Victorian period.
Amongst the animals he exhibited were lions, leopards, a Bengal tiger, camels, horses, ponies, monkeys, chimpanzees, hyenas, kangaroos, a bear, seals, wolves, alpacas and birds. And twelve elephants.
So now we know how Emily got to know about elephants. With her husband John William missing, did she get a job working for Sanger, with the elephants?
But how and why did she arrive in Birmingham?
A Google search provided the information that there were elephants in Royal Leamington Spa, a town some 28 miles from Birmingham by today’s roads. And a children’s book told the true story.
The elephants belonged to a world famous elephant trainer by the name of Sam Lockhart. He was born in 1850 and he and his brother were the sons of a circus clown. They were both from the town, though in those days it was still plain Leamington Spa.
Sam travelled to Ceylon where he saw village children teaching little tricks to baby elephants. He bought three elephants and returned to England, where they appeared as a circus act. There was a grand circus building near the river.
Sam’s golden rule was kindness to his elephants. Everybody loved the elephants and Sam became world famous, touring the UK, Europe and the USA with his troupe of elephants. But he always returned to Leamington Spa, where the elephants were often seen going to the river to bathe.
We don’t know when Sam brought the elephants to Leamington Spa but it would seem quite feasible that he would need other people to look after them as well as people to train them. Who better than somebody who was already used to circus atmosphere and the elephants in Margate?
And so it seems likely that Emily moved to Leamington Spa with her daughter and began training the elephants there. It also seems probable that Sam, with Emily, took his elephants to perform in Birmingham. Perhaps John George Lawes was in the audience and so they met.
And so we now have some idea of how Emily became an elephant trainer and how she came to marry John George Lawes in Aston, Birmingham in 1889. But we still don’t know if she was truly a widow or not. Or do we?
In January 2020 I was going through all my Emptage contact email folders in preparation for the Emptage and Emtage Gathering due to be held in September 2020 [sadly postponed a few weeks later due to the covid pandemic]. The emails go back years and I came across one from an Andrew Walker in 2016.
He had taken a photo of a grave in a cemetery in Happy Valley, Hong Kong. The name Emptage intrigued him so he searched the internet, found the website and sent me the photograph.
“Pte W Emptage, F Company, 2nd battalion the Buffs, E. K. R. who died at Kowloon 24 July 1885.” E.K.R. was the East Kent Regiment, known as The Buffs.
Andrew Walker suspected that Private Emptage died of cholera rather than battle, as per neighbouring graves.
My correspondence with Michelle was still fresh in my mind and so I began to wonder about Private W. Emptage.
I found William’s death on the British Armed Forces and Overseas Deaths and Burials on FindMyPast but there was nothing useful like an age and a William Emptage dying in 1885 does not fit with anyone on the Emptage tree.
However, he wouldn’t have been the first Emptage to change his name, to drop his given name and use a second one. We already know that his birth was registered as John Benjamin but that he used the name John William when he married. Perhaps he dropped the name John and became plain William when he joined the E. K. R.
Step forward our military expert team member, Tim Emptage. He found William’s army record.
John William Emptage did indeed enlist at Canterbury as William Emptage on 15 March 1884 having previously served in the militia. The record states that he was 23 years and 5 months old but that his age was physically equivalent to 28 years, 5 months. We don’t know whether William deliberately under aged himself or simply made a mistake over the number of years but an age of 28 years and 5 months matches his birth in 1856. He was described as 5 ft 4 inches tall, of swarthy complexion, with brown eyes and black hair. Although William didn’t name his wife as next of kin, he named his brother Joseph of Margate, sister Mary of Ramsgate and sister Jane of Broadstairs. The papers show that he died in Hong Kong in 1885.
Presumably John William, a labourer, enlisted so that he would have a regular income and could then provide a better life for Emily and his daughter Harriet. So it seems very sad that he died 16 months later in Kowloon, Hong Kong, probably of cholera.
So we know now that he didn’t desert his family but died whilst in the army and that Emily was truly a widow when she married John George Lawes.
So this is the timescale:
1856: The birth of John Benjamin Emptage was registered in Margate.
1876: John William Emptage married Emily Dixon Phillpott in Margate in June.
1876: Their daughter Harriet was born in November.
1881: The family was on the census, in Margate. John was a bricklayer’s labourer.
1884: He dropped the name John and joined the East Kent Regiment as William Emptage.
1885: William died in Kowloon, Hong Kong, probably of cholera, whilst in the army.
We have no proof as yet about Emily’s involvement with elephants, apart from the photo, but the coincidence of there being elephants in Margate and elephants in Leamington Spa, not so far from Birmingham, is one coincidence too far for this family historian.
So I think that after her husband died, Emily began working for ‘Lord’ George Sanger in Margate, as an elephant trainer.
And that by 1888 she and her daughter had moved to Leamington Spa and worked for Sam Lockhart as an elephant trainer.
Emily’s studio photograph taken in Birmingham, at the ‘Special Studio for Large Portraits’ and ‘Art Studio of Photography’ may have been taken to be used in publicity posters for Sam Lockhart’s circus and the elephants. Looking at it again, it seems quite clear that the unusual earrings are shaped like elephant’s tusks and are quite possibly made of ivory.
The photographic studio was in Birmingham between 1888 and 1894 and it seems reasonable to think that the photograph was taken before Emily remarried, so circa 1888.
At first glance, Emily appears to gives prominence to a large medallion or medal suspended from a decorative ribbon around her neck. But looking at it again, with the aid of a magnifying glass, I think that it was actually a locket, with a hinge on the left hand side and an ornate surround, hanging on an ornate chain, not a ribbon.
At that time widows wore mourning lockets, a fashion made popular by Queen Victoria after the death of her husband, Prince Albert in 1861. The lockets were quite large, intricately decorated and suspended on equally intricate gold or silver chains. They would often contain small portraits or locks of the deceased’s hair.
It is quite possible that John William gave Emily a lock of his hair as a keepsake when he enlisted in the army and that she later had it mounted in a mourning locket. If so, the prominence with which it was displayed indicates that the locket was still very important to her.
Emily wasn’t wearing a widow’s cap and had a white collar and pale cuffs, with a pale bow at the neck, so she wasn’t in the first or second year of mourning. As William died in 1885, the date of 1888 for the photograph appears appropriate. I’m certain it was taken before she married John George Lawes in 1889.
Emily’s new married name, Emily Phillpott Lawes, was evidently written on the back by a niece or nephew, who either knew her or knew of her as “mother’s youngest sister”. It may have been written several years after the photo was taken.
And so we’ve solved the mystery of Emily, the elephant trainer, and her missing husband, John William Benjamin Emptage.
But we couldn’t have done so without Andrew Walker, a complete stranger, taking a walk through the cemetery in Hong Kong, becoming intrigued by the Emptage name on a headstone, taking a photo of it, bothering to find our website and to send me the photo.
And we wouldn’t have known that Emily was an elephant trainer if another stranger, Julia Hrivnak in Toronto, hadn’t discovered the photo and set out to reunite it with a member of the family of Emily Phillpott Lawes. Pat and I tried to trace direct descendants of Emily through her daughter Harriet but without success. However, I was able to pass the photo on to Michelle Wilkes, the descendant of the Phillpott family of Emily Dixon Phillpott Emptage Lawes.
I often liken family history research to attempting to complete a jigsaw puzzle without knowing how many pieces there should be or what the finished puzzle should look like. I think the story of Emily and John William is truly one of the most complex puzzles that we have ever had to try to solve.
Of course, there is supposition on our behalf as we attempt to piece it all together but I think the end result is reasonable and valid.
I am sad that John William lost his life aged 29, from cholera, in Hong Kong and that Emily aged 27 and her daughter Harriet aged 9 lost their husband and father. But Emily seems have led a remarkable life in becoming an elephant trainer, surely a life which many women, let alone widows in Victorian times, would have shrunk away from.
I’m glad that she and Harriet found a good life with John George Lawes and that he and Emily were married for 22 years before her death in 1911 aged 52.
My thanks to all those who helped to piece this story together. If you have anything to add to this story, please contact me here.
The Ancestry of John William Benjamin Emptage
Henry Emptage 1737 – and Ann Peal
Joseph Emptage 1780 – 1858 and Elizabeth Curd
John Emptage 1809 – 1871 and Jane Cowell
John William Benjamin Emptage 1856 – 1885 and Emily Dixon Phillpott
Unfortunately the pandemic means that we’ve been unable to follow up on the elephants in Leamington Spa but Tim Emptage anticipates going to the archives when travelling restrictions are lifted and the archives and libraries are open to the public once more. Perhaps we will find Sam Lockhart’s records, perhaps even with Emily’s name mentioned.
Secret Margate by Andy Bull, published in 2019 by Amberley Publishing.
Elephants in Royal Leamington Spa by Janet Storrie, illustrated by Sue Hitchmough, published by Weir Books.
The land in Margate on which ‘Lord’ George Sanger had built his pleasure and zoological garden subsequently became a pleasure garden of another sort, an amusement park with scenic rides, roller coaster rides and other thrilling fairground rides. Visitors to Margate knew it as Dreamland.