James Dix (1812 - 1904)
- Born Antingham, Norfolk, England
- Died West Beckham, Norfolk, England
- Married 1836 in Antingham to
Elizabeth Ann Dyball (1818 - 1907)
- Born Roughton, Norfolk, England
- Died North Walsham, Norfolk, England
- Nine children
Farm laborers in 1800s England often lived their entire lives within one relatively small area. James Dix was born in Antingham and died in West Beckham, both small villages in rural Norfolk. In his 92 years, he may never have traveled beyond a radius of 20 miles from where he was born.
Like thousands of others in rural Norfolk, James Dix followed the life of a farm laborer. The local fields with their gently rising hills, skirted with woods, were his daily place of work for almost all of his long life. And he had one particular skill. At least twice in public records of the 19th century, he described himself as a “vermin destroyer” or a “bird destroyer.”
Above left: St. Mary's Church in Antingham, where James Dix was christened, married and buried. Above right: A line of birds perch along a power line in this field in Antingham village, 2006. It was in these same fields that James worked as a bird catcher or bird destroyer, according to historical records, for much of his life.
England in 1812
The year of 1812, when James Dix was born, was also the year that marked the major turning point in Napoleon's war in Europe. Three years later, the French emperor would be vanquished and Britain would return to normal. But what was "normal?" The wars with France had brought skyrocketing prices as a result of demands to feed, clothe and provide armaments for a large army and navy, the blockades of ports and disruption to foreign trade. The British public for the most part was confronted by high taxes and rising food prices. Many faced the misery of unemployment, compounded by the increasing use by farmers of labor-saving agricultural equipment.
After the war, demand fell, hundreds of thousands of servicemen returned to the home country and Britain was faced with a flooded labor market. The working poor had hoped for better circumstances as the war ended, but they were disappointed and disillusioned. Political unrest was in the air.
This was the world that James Dix entered in 1812. By the time he left it in 1904, Britain would be transformed.
JAMES DIX was the sixth of seven children of Matthew and Martha Dix, and like his brothers and sisters was christened at the parish church of St. Mary, in the village of Antingham, near the north Norfolk coast.
St. Mary’s, which had served the village for centuries, was one of two churches that once stood just a few yards from each other. St. Margaret’s occupied a neighboring spot, but it was already falling into ruins by the 1800s and the locals opted to use its infrastructure to rebuild St. Mary's. Today, only the crumbling tower survives of St. Margaret's, completely covered in ivy.
James married Elizabeth Dyball in 1836 at the church in Antingham. Elizabeth was born in Roughton, a few miles away, though at the time of their marriage she was living in Felbrigg, another neighboring village, probably because she was working there.
Elizabeth was about 18 when she married. Her upbringing could not have been easy. She was the daughter of a single mother, Hannah Dyball, and she was nine years old before her mother married George Bealey. It's quite possible that George was the natural father, but in a small village where everyone knew each other, that could have brought trials for a girl growing up in those times.
Five years into the marriage, James and Elizabeth were already the parents of three children, ages 4, 2 and 5 months. James’ elder sister, Ann, was living with them. James appears on every census from 1841 through to the beginning of the next century, so it’s possible to get a reasonably clear picture of his family through the years. Mostly, he described himself as an agricultural laborer - an occupation through which it was becoming increasingly difficult to sustain a family. Twice in public records James was more specific, referring to his job either as a “vermin destroyer” or a “bird destroyer.” In any event, the farms around Antingham - low, gently rising hills skirted with woods - were his daily place of work. At age 65, his wife Elizabeth was helping the couple’s income by taking in laundry.
James fathered nine children, including a boy also called James who died at five years old. It was the last two sons, however - another James and Lewis - who broke with the agricultural tradition of centuries and tried their hands at the coal mines of northern England.
James ended his life in the workhouse at West Beckham in 1904. Ironically, the facility was located just over two miles from the workhouse at Upper Sheringham where his father, sister and nephew were once inmates. He lived to the great age of 92 and his death certificate uses the Latin term "senectus" - old age - to describe the cause of death. Elizabeth was not living in the workhouse with him. Possibly he was suffering from dementia and other ailments incident to old age, and his family were unable or unwilling to look after him. Workhouses in 1904, however, were not like the workhouses in the mid-1800s. The West Beckham workhouse had a large infirmary wing, and it's possible that by then it was mainly looking after the old and sick rather than providing housing for people who were simply out of work or impoverished.
Elizabeth, a few years his junior, managed to outlive him. She died in 1907.
- The workhouse at West Beckham where James died. The building was erected in mid-century and at its peak housed well over 500 inmates. By 1890, however, that number had dwindled to fewer than 80. The master of the workhouse at that time was Walter Emery - the same man who is listed as the informant on James Dix's death certificate. The building no longer stands.