I never knew my great grandfather William Heenan because he died more than a decade before I was born.
Over the years I’ve been researching my own family history I was lucky enough to find numerous records in which he is recorded. So I knew he was born in Rhymney, Monmouthshire on 26 November 1878, the seventh child of Patrick Heenan and Ellen O’Brien from County Limerick, Ireland. He was baptised as a Roman Catholic on 15 Dec 1878.
Census records told me where he lived as a child and I used those records to trace him through to adulthood when, like his brothers, he worked underground in one of the local coal mines.
I knew that he married Mary Evans when he was 28 years old and they went on to have two sons. When she died in 1938, he went to live with his eldest son William John Heenan, his daughter in law Violet May and their two children in a small terraced house in the village of Abertysswg, near Rhymney,
William died in Pen y Fal hospital in 1942
All of that is valuable information of course but facts alone can be very dry.
In the space of one week however, I made three new discoveries which have put more flesh on those dry bones of fact.
Discovery 1: Work
In a trawl through newspaper archives I came across two articles about a claim for compensation made by my great grandfather against his employer the Powell Duffryn company. They related to injuries he sustained in February 1937 while he was working at Oglivie Colliery.
According to the claim heard at the county court in March 1938 he was crushed between two trams when he was working as a rider.
The injuries to his ribs and hips must have been serious because he was said to have spent several weeks in hospital. By March the following year, he had not recovered enough to go back to work and needed to return to hospital periodically for treatment.
His solicitor told the county court that it would take him a further six months to recover and he was therefore claiming compensation for incapacity. The judge awarded him £1 4s and 11d a week in compensation.
In March of 1939, the Powell Dyffryn company applied to the county court for that compensation order to be terminated.
In court, they said William Heenan “had completely recovered and was able to do his usual work in the mine.” There is a suggestion that he was not a well man because on the basis of medical evidence presented to the court the judge said “Heenan’s present condition was not due to this accident and the best thing he could do would be to find suitable occupation.”
The compensation was withdrawn.
Discovery 2: Health
The court may have been satisfied that my great grandfather was fit enough to work again but he never did. In April 1939, a month after the county court hearing, he was recorded in the National Register living with his son’s family in Abertysswg. He was said to be “seeking work.”
My father, who was nine years old at the time, recalls that his grandfather suffered a mental breakdown while living in Abertysswg. William then went back to Rhymney to live for a time with his youngest son Edward. But his health continued to deteriorate and he was eventually admitted to Pen-y-Fal Hospital at Abergavenny, a hospital specialising in care for people with mental illness. William died there in the autumn of 1942.
Discovery 3: Home
At the time of his court case, William Heenan was living at number 35 Forge Street, Rhymney. This was the house in which he was born. The family moved a few times but William went back to live at number 35 when he married.
The street was in the lower part of the town of Rhymney, overlooking the huge iron works. Like many of the surrounding streets, Forge Street was demolished in the late 1960s so all I knew about the house (from the 1911 census) is that it had four rooms.
I found a very grainy photograph of the street last year but wasn’t certain that it showed my great grandfather’s house.
And then I got a phone call from my dad who’d been reading the memoirs of a woman who lived in Rhymney. Imagine his surprise to find his grandfather’s house featured in one of the photographs.
It’s the house on the left of the photograph, sadly only a partial view but at least I can get a sense of how the house looked. Now of course I’m hungry to find the other half of the photograph.
There are still many aspects of my great grandfather’s life but these few new discoveries have helped give me more of a picture of him and his life.