Nellie (Eleanor) Eaton Willis

17 Jan

Nellie Eaton Willis is my Great Grandmother, her daughter my paternal Grandmother always told me that her name was actually Nellie and that it wasn’t an abbreviation of another name or names, Nellie had never known the reason for her middle name of Eaton.

Family history research has uncovered that her name was actually Eleanor* (so it was an abbreviation) and that her mother’s middle name (and many other family members) was also Eaton and it was the maiden name of her Grandmother Jemima Eaton wife of Edward Halden.

Nellie began her life in Chicago, born on the corner of Clark & LaSalle Streets, in 1871. She was born to English parents, Rachel Halden who had moved to the USA as a small child with her family, from Milwich in Staffordshre, for reasons I can’t really fathom. Nellie’s father was Thomas Willis a carpenter/builder from County Durham who went to the USA, presumably to seek his fortune.

Sadly Rachel died in childbirth (the baby died too) when Nellie was only five years old, she is buried in Topeka, Kansas where the family had moved to from Chicago.

With no mother to look after Nellie and her older sister Katie (Kitty) their father returned with them to England, so they could be looked after by their Aunt.

I do wonder if Rachel’s death was the only reason for their return. Passenger records show that the family had made another trip back to England when Nellie was only two years old, maybe a trial return to England that failed or perhaps they were rich enough to have a holiday? Also Nellie and Kitty left Aunts on their mother’s side of the family behind in the USA, so perhaps Thomas was just ready to return home.

The story is that on the journey back, people were organising some sort of concert and asked Kitty if she had a piece to perform, to which she replied “no, but my little sister will”. Apparently little Nellie entertained the passengers by reciting poems, I would love to know what she said, if future generations are anything to go by, she may have made them up on the spot!

Once the family arrived in England, they stayed the night in London, the girls got bored in the hotel so decided to go out for a walk. I have no idea what part of London they were in but apparently people were most surprised to see the two girls walking round unaccompanied, so I take it that it was a “dodgy” district.

After arriving in County Durham young Nellie continued to amuse the crowds. Asking “have you got any gum” in the sweet shop and then when a horse and cart went past, running to the door shouting “oh look a buggy!” everyone thought she was swearing!

Nellie and Kitty had a rather strict and austere upbringing with their Aunt, Nellie rebelled saying “I won’t, I won’t” if she didn’t want to wear something awful. Kitty was more compliant but eventually completely rebelled and ran away to be a milliner in central London. Nellie stayed close to home but later described her aunt in this way, “she wasn’t cruel but she never called me hinny”.

The censuses show that Nellie’s Aunt was his father’s older sister Jane, she can be found living with her husband Cuth Pearson and Nellie in 1881.


The 1861 census shows that Jane and Cuth did have one daughter Sarah, but that she died in infancy, maybe Nellie was a poor substitute.

In 1891 Nellie is lodging with a William Pearson and his wife Annie in Selbourne Terrace Darlington and is now working as a dressmaker, William appears to be no relation to Cuth so I don’t know how Nellie ended up in these lodgings.

It must have been around that time that Nellie met Frederick Airey because by 1893 they were married and in January 1896 my grandmother, Winifred Willis Airey, was born, Grandma told me that her mother miscarried a child previously, but Nellie had no more children.

I think it was a happy marriage, they had good times and poorer times according to the fluctuations of the building trade and moved house many times as a result. I know that Fred was a worried parent and that Nellie had a more pragmatic approach. She was around the same height as him (about 5ft 4) so wore flat shoes in his company. After his death one of his cousins showed an interest in Nellie and daughter Winnie said “why don’t you go with him, he’s very like Dad?” to which Nellie replied, “your father had bright blue eyes and he has steely grey ones”.

Nellie has been described by my father’s cousin as “Mrs Willis seemed rather genteel” I have to say that my Grandma had an intellectual air about her, somewhat beyond her education, she was brought up to play the piano, embroider and crochet. She and Nellie read the complete works of Dickens, the Brontes and I presume Jane Austen as a matter of course. Nellie quoted poetry to her daughter who in turn quoted it back to me saying “you will remember this won’t you” I am afraid I didn’t try to remember it as it irritated me for some reason, but of course wish I did now. It was not whole poems but rhyming couplets relating to places we were visiting or something that had happened.

“yorkshire pudding and gravy like rain, i could eat til i was hungry again”

“the narrow lanes of Devon…”

Nellie has also been described as “a most sensible woman”, apparently she said “you need to be a girl in a dress, not a dress on a girl” an interesting comment from an ex-dressmaker!

Other assorted facts I know about Nellie Willis/Airey.

She went to the pictures twice weekly.

She had flexible fingers that could be bent backwards.

She knew without going to church what the preacher would be preaching about in any given week, (not sure how she did this but my father said she was always right).

She had wide calves and narrow ankles – something to be proud of at that time apparently, probably early 1920s…

Nellie and Winnie, what a hat!

From photographs you can see that she liked a flamboyant hat and was always dressed in style, her daughter Winnie was beautifully turned out as a little girl.

Nellie holding dog, daughter Winnie in front, father Thomas Willis with beard, sister Kitty and husband at back

She had quick reactions. When her grandson Norman was a toddler they were visited by a little girl of roughly the same age as him, they were all admiring the little girl’s new shoes, apart from Norman, who picked them up and flung them in the fire! Nellie just as quickly whipped them out again.

Nellie and daughter Winnie also performed a trick while cycling where they could take off their jackets and swap them with each other, I am not sure if they then put on each other’s jackets – maybe.

A cycling trip, Nellie in the white hat, Winnie small child centre front. Sister Kitty in black hat next to Nellie.

Of the expression “rain before 7, fine by 11” she said that she wasn’t sure if this referred to 11 in the morning or 11 at night.

She would describe the weather as “glishy” this was when you get a bright crystal clear morning with everything clearly defined, then it turns to rain, almost the exact reverse of “rain before 7”. Glishy is actually given in a dictionary of words used in Swaledale.

Nellie was sadly, racist; this was against her character in other ways and not something passed on to daughter Winnie, who was remarkably aware of race issues and accepting especially for someone of her era. After a visit to the home by a black man, Nellie beat all the cushions and swept the floor trying to get rid of all traces of him, it was most odd. Winnie could only think that it was some experience that Nellie had as a child in the USA, but as she left there at five years old this seems unlikely, but maybe something was ingrained in her at the time. I don’t know what sister Kitty’s attitude was, but leaving the USA at 12 any prejudices may already have been formed and these may have been passed on to Nellie.

Nellie lived with daughter Winnie from Winnie’s birth, I think that after Winnie married Billy Jackson they lived with Fred Airey and Nellie, but after Fred’s death the tables turned and Nellie lived with Winnie and Billy, moving with the family from Darlington to Widnes for six years  when Norman was one year old, and then on to Leeds where Billy eventually bought a house in Brookfield Road and it was there that Nellie ended her days.

Nellie was a capable woman and I get the impression often did things for Winnie without meaning to undermine her, but making Winnie seem more incapable than she actually was by not really giving her a chance. Winnie did take over the housekeeping though, as by the 1939 census Nellie is described as “incapacitated” but she went on living to 1951, she had a weak heart and suffered a mild stroke but still kept going until her 81st year.

Nellie and Fred Airey are buried in Darlington North Cemetery with Fred’s parents William and Sarah Airey, I know this because Dimitrios Corcodilos photographed the grave and recorded the details for which I am most grateful.


* I can’t find where I discovered that Nellie was actually an Eleanor, I am sure I didn’t dream it, when I track the document down I will give details.

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Posted by on January 17, 2018 in Airey, Chicago


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