William Harfield Wolfe Before marriage
Emsworth, London Portsmouth 1826-1858
William Harfield Wolfe was the eighth of ten children born to Thomas Wolfe a Master in the Royal Navy and his wife Maria Harfield. He was also the second child of the marriage to bear his mother’s maiden name. From my preliminary studies of the family it seems that all except one of the first eight children survived at least into childhood. I do not know what happened to the last two. William Harfield Wolfe, himself was born on February 13th 1826 and was christened just under a month later. As always there is a smidgin of doubt - one of the mate certificates I have gives his date of birth as 1821, but since he was definitely christened in the church at Warblington in 1826 I am going to assume that 1826 is when he was born.
The other curious thing about his place in the family is that the marriage notice published in the Hampshire Telegraph states that he was the third son of Thomas Wolfe RN, whereas he was actually the fourth son - second if you acknowledge that two of those brothers were dead at the time of his marriage. One died at just a few days old though, the other at the age of 15 or 16, so maybe the dead baby did not count. Also, intriguingly the Mormons, of course, have two records for the christening of William’s older brother Charles - but one of the records names Charles Charlotte and says she is female. Twins? With the same second name of Thomas? It is also possible that William was the last child to survive - so the baby of the family whose oldest sister was 14 when he was born. I suppose none of this is important. What is important is that his older sister Elizabeth Wilson Wolfe, died the year after he was born at the tender age of ten, his brother Henry when William was just ten himself and, most importantly, his mother died just a year later.
As we have noted, his father was a master in the Royal Navy and so would have been away for most of the time. His mother would therefore have been even more important to him than usual. His father obviously recognised this because a year after her death he remarried and although she too died just eight years later, she would have been around to care for the last remaining children at home.
So where did William grow up and what sort of a life would he have had? Wherever his home was it was sure to have been near the water and near boats. The lovely painting above is actually of a Sunday school excursion, but I am absolutely sure that William would have been in and around boats for most of the time. I am tempted to say that he spent his childhood in Emsworth - it was his place of birth, but at various points in time Thomas seems to have also lived in Prinsted, near Chichester, just over the Sussex/Hampshire border - specifically in the early years of his first marriage - William’s mother Maria, came from Westbourne in the same area and also when he remarried and at the end of his life.
At one point Thomas was living in Queen Street Emsworth (shown at the top of the page) in a house with “two parlours, kitchen, four bedrooms, garden and good cellars”. He didn’t own it - he rented it for £11 per year, but it sounds reasonably substantial, so the children must have had a fairly easy childhood - maybe even with servants. The picture at right shows a detail from one of the houses in Queen St. I took it when I visited Emsworth back in 2010. Maybe it was their house!
The 1841 census shows the vestiges of the family living there - but not William.
For at the young age of fourteen (or maybe sixteen) William became an apprentice, or a 'boy' on a boat and went to sea. All merchant seamen must have started out their lives in this capacity. At the beck and call of all the crew, doing all the odd and dirty jobs as well as learning the trade and how to cope with living on a moving ship. I also get the impression that cabin boys were sometimes seen as ships’ mascots - a good luck charm almost. But perhaps I romanticise. I have yet to discover which ships he worked on. He may well have worked on a boat owned by relatives like James Tier. The evidence I have is his seaman’s ticket issued in 1845, which states that he first worked as an apprentice in 1841, being 19 in 1845. Though that said, there seem to be two different tickets issued to William, both of them in 1845 and both with the same birthdate - 13th February 1826. One in his full name was issued in London on 12th March and says that he first went to sea as an apprentice, which he still is, in 1841 His address is given as Emsworth so this is clearly our William. The other is in the name of William Wolfe, and says that he first went to sea in 1843 as a boy. At the time of the issuing of the ticket in Portsmouth on 26th March he was working as an ordinary seaman and has an address in Southsea. The fact that the birthdate is the same on both tickets, and the physical description is very similar, to me indicates that the two people are the same. I certainly have yet to find another William Wolfe born on that date and surely whilst it is entirely possible that there are two William Wolfes born in the Portsmouth area at roughly the same time - on the exact same date is pushing it a bit. So it’s all a bit mysterious.
And the master’s certificates that I have found do not clear up the mystery. Again there are two - one in the full name and one in the shortened version. The first issued on 21st December 1857 in the name of William Wolfe of Emsworth, born 11th February 1821 (slightly different to the ticket - different day, different year) says he has worked as an apprentice, seaman and mate for 11 years - which would make his first trip in 1846 ( another difference). The ticket number given on this certificate of service is that of William Wolfe, not William Harfield Wolfe - and yet we are now talking about Emsworth as the home base. The second is issued in Cardiff on 3rd December 1858 and the details given are the same as on the other certificate - even down to the same number of years in the merchant service. The signature is slightly different though - Wm on the first and William on the second. No Harfield at all though. So I don’t really know where this leaves us. I am confused.
What I do know though is that our last sight of William is as the mate on a coasting vessel - a small boat that would have journeyed around the coast of England, and maybe over to the nearby countries of Europe, rather like the two shown here One of the register records for the two William Wolfe’s has details of some voyages he made which included various Scottish, English and Welsh ports, but none overseas. So ‘mate of a coasting vessel’ is a pretty accurate description of what he did. Quite when, in his sailing career he became a mate though I have no idea, though it would seem to be around 1857.
And a year later he was marrying his niece!