Powder Mill workers and relocation: the Sealy (or Sealey) family

Looking through the census returns from 1841 to 1901 for the Powder Mills area, it is clear that gunpowder making was often a family occupation. The same names re-occur, not just individuals working in the gunpowder industry here for twenty or thirty or even forty years, but with their son or sons working for Curtis’s & Harvey. William Hill appears in 1841 (aged 50) with his two sons William and John, both of whom worked at the Powder Mills – John until the 1901 census when he is noted as a “pensioned worker” aged 72. Other families whose names appear in most of the censuses are the Batchelors and the Marchants (both of whose families still live locally); the Cheesemans (see separate article); the Lidlows and the Fords.

However, as with the Cheesemans, gunpowder makers moved to other gunpowder works and the Sealy (sometimes spelt Sealey) family is another example.

Charles Sealy first appears at Leigh in the 1851 census as Manager of the Powder Mills aged 45 and born in Somerset. His children living with him were all born in Hanworth, Middlesex, including George aged 15 and already a powder maker. (In the 1841 census for Hanworth, we find Charles’s wife Fanny, and children William, Ann, George and Hannah, although Charles is not there and unable to trace in 1841 census at present).

In the Leigh 1851 census, Charles’s son William Sealy, aged 23, and his wife Esther and two children, William (b. ca 1848) and Henry (b. ca 1850) are living in a separate house next door with a lodger, Henry Sealy, aged 18 (born Stanwell), probably another relative. Only Charles, still the Manager, and George appear in the 1861 census but George is living in a neighbouring cottage with a two year old son – also called George. George, the father, is shown as “Superintendant Powder Making”.

William (Charles) Sealy (b ca 1826 Hanworth) and family, however, do not appear in the 1861 census at Leigh: but we know he continued in the gunpowder Industry, because he is found in the 1861 Census records for Colton in Lancashire. Here he is with his wife Esther and large family and was the Manager of the Gunpowder Works. Interestly, visiting him are Fanny and Kezia Cheesman (both born Leigh Kent).

By 1871, however, William Charles Sealy and Esther and their still larger family have moved to Kilfinan in Argyll, Scotland where he is the Millhouse Manager. However, he disappears from the census by 1881 (probably deceased) when his wife, Esther, and three of their daughters have moved to Glasgow.

Their son, again William Charles Sealy (born Leigh, 1848), however, is by 1871 married to Isabella (born in Argyll) and at Waltham Cross, a gunpowder maker, clearly working at the large gunpowder factory there. However, he is never too long in one place: in 1881 he is back at Kilfinan with wife and three children working as the Sub-Manager of the powder factory. He currently cannot be found in the 1891 census for either England or Scotland; but in 1901 he is at Corringham in Essex, with a new, young wife Jennie and one year old daughter, where he is the Manager of the Explosive Powder Works, Kynoch Ltd.

From records provided by the Faversham society from the period after the First World War, we know from the local newspaper report that on 14 January 1922 there was an accident at the Marsh Works when two men were killed and seven more injured in a gas engine explosion. At the inquiry, the Superintendent of Messrs Curtis’s and Harvey’s works is shown as William Charles Sealy, with Mr J G Sealy as Assistant Superintendent. William Charles died in 1931 and in the obituary it says that he was a native of Leigh and had joined the firm when he was 16, was appointed manager when he was 20 and had continued in the business ever since – although part of his career has been with the gunpowder makers, Kynoch Ltd in Essex, only coming to Faversham in 1918.

It is therefore sometimes possible to trace powder mill making families around the country – in the Sealys cases from Middlesex to Leigh, to Lancashire, Waltham Cross, Scotland, and back to Essex and to Faversham.

Parish Magazine Article: Mar 2008: by Chris Rowley