John Charlton (1818-1849) and Sarah Burdon (1818-1888)

John Charlton (1818-1849)

  • Born County Durham, England
  • Died Gateshead, Durham, England
  • Married to:

Sarah Burdon (1818-1888)

  • Born Winlaton, Durham, England
  • Four children with John Charlton
  • After husband John died, age 30, remarried to Edward Heslop in 1852, Newcastle upon Tyne, Northumberland, England
  • Four more children with Edward Heslop
  • Died Sunderland, Durham, England

John Charlton, a chainmaker living in Gateshead, County Durham, was still in his twenties when he began coughing up blood.  He died age 30, leaving a wife and four children, falling victim to one of the most prevalent and dreaded bacterial diseases in the mid-1800s - tuberculosis.

His widow, Sarah Burdon, re-married three years later and had four more children, but she also died at a young age, 57.

IF JOHN CHARLTON wasn't born in Winlaton in 1818, he was born within a mile or two of the ancient village in County Durham. It was the same place  where his future wife, Sarah Burdon, was born in the same year. It seems quite possible that they even knew each other growing up.

Winlaton, founded in the 12th century as a farming community, seems an unlikely place to have become part of one of the largest iron working centers in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. Coal mining had emerged centuries earlier, but Winlaton and neighboring villages blossomed after the Crowley Iron Works was established in the area in 1691. The gates for Buckingham Palace were reportedly forged at Winlaton.

The earliest record we have for John Charlton's occupation is the 1841 census, where he is listed as a chainmaker in Winlaton. At the beginning of the 19th century, chainmaking was often a cottage industry, with workers producing hand-forged chains in their homes using simple tools and equipment. Later, skilled blacksmiths would heat iron rods in furnaces and then hammer them into shape on anvils to create individual chain links, which were then interconnected to form the complete chain.

Old Winlaton, 1888. Photo in public domain. Credit: Newcastle Libraries.
Old Winlaton, 1888. Photo in public domain. Credit: Newcastle Libraries.
Old  Winlaton, late 1800s. Public domain. Credit: Newcastle Libraries.
Old Winlaton, late 1800s. Public domain. Credit: Newcastle Libraries.
Winlaton forge and chains
Photo: Winlaton and District Local History Society (

Above:  The old forge at Winlaton. The historic building has been preserved.

Right:  A pile of chains lie in front of the old forge. John and James Charlton were among the chainmakers of Winlaton.

Winlaton forge
Photo: Winlaton and District Local History Society (

Chainmaking was notorious for its low wages and poor working conditions. Women and children were often employed in the industry due to their willingness to work for lower pay. Many families worked together to create chains, with different members performing various tasks in the production process. 

John Charlton and his brother James were both chainmakers, though their father was a miller. That generational transition from agriculture to manufacturing was typical of villages and towns all across Britain during the Industrial Revolution. About 15 families are included on the double pages of the 1841 census where John and his brother are listed with their father. Of these, three are blacksmiths, seven are making nails and four are chainmakers. One miller - John and James's father - and one butcher stand out from those involved in local iron working.

Sarah Burdon was 21 when she had her first child, Michael, named after her father. His birth certificate named him Michael Burdon, not Charlton. And Sarah was still unmarried at the birth of her second son, Forster, a year later. There is little doubt that John Charlton was the father of both children. The next census in 1851 shows Sarah with four children - Alice was born in 1847 and Elizabeth Jane arrived on the first day of 1849. Elizabeth was the first to have her birth properly registered. All four children were named Charlton on the census.

But Sara's husband was already seriously ill with tuberculosis. TB was commonly referred to as "consumption" in the 19th century due to its characteristic symptoms of wasting away, chronic cough, and overall debilitation. It was a leading cause of death during this period, affecting individuals of all ages and social classes.

A French illustration of a young consumptive from Le Journal Illustré, No. 34, October 2-9, 1864. Library of Congress
A French illustration of a young consumptive from Le Journal Illustré, No. 34, October 2-9, 1864. Library of Congress

Understanding of tuberculosis and its treatment in the mid-1800s was limited. Various theories existed about its cause, ranging from hereditary factors to environmental influences. The bacterial nature of the disease and its transmission wasn't well understood until the late 1800s.

Doctors commonly treated TB with orders for fresh air and rest, nutritious diet, herbal remedies and even bloodletting, which had the opposite effect of weakening already debilitated patients.

Opium and laudanum (an alcoholic solution of opium) were commonly used to alleviate coughing and pain associated with tuberculosis, which provided some relief but didn't cure the disease. Not until the early 20th century, with better understanding of bacterial diseases and the discoveries of antibiotics, did the tide finally turn in the war against TB.

It must have been painful for Sarah and her four children to watch John deteriorate. A persistent cough, often producing phlegm or blood, weight loss, weakness, fever and night sweats, and progressive lung damage were the inevitable symptoms. It was also dangerously infectious, but nobody else in the family contracted the disease. John died on 21 September 1849.

According to available historical data, it's estimated that during the 1840s, tuberculosis accounted for roughly 25-30% of all recorded deaths in England and Wales.

With her husband and main source of income gone, Sarah confronted a future with four children to raise, ranging in age from 1 to 11. She did it initially by taking in lodgers to their home in Garden Street in the village of Blaydon, just a mile away from her birth village of Winlaton and walking distance from the south bank of the River Tyne. On the 1851 census, one lodger was listed as a chainmaker, another a bricklayer and the third a furnaceman, no doubt associated with the local iron forging industry.

Within three years of John's death, Sarah remarried, to a 24-year-old Scot, Edward Heslop, 11 years her junior. We can only guess as to how they met, or why a young, single Scot would take on an older widow with four children, but they were married in Newcastle upon Tyne in June of 1852. Perhaps Edward, born in the central lowlands of Scotland, was a lodger in Sarah's home at one time, and came south to work as an engine smith. In any event, the couple had four children. Records show that all were born in or near Gateshead. By this time the villages of Winlaton and Blaydon were becoming virtual suburbs of the burgeoning city of Gateshead.

Later, the couple would move to Sunderland, and the children they had together would move with them. Edward would spend much of his life at sea as an engineer.

Sarah's children to her first husband, John Charlton, appear to have gone their own ways.  First son Michael led the life of a blacksmith, married but appears to have had no children. Forster also married, had six children and moved his family to Newcastle where he worked as a stoker, probably in the shipping industry.  Alice's life is still being researched, since she seems to disappear from UK records. There is a theory, as yet unproven, that she married and emigrated to Australia. Elizabeth Jane Charlton, this site webmaster's great grandmother, married William Abernethy, had 13 children and left a large posterity. Her story is told here.

As for Sarah, she died age 57 in the port city of Sunderland. Her second husband, Edward Heslop, is last seen on the 1881 England census as an engineer at sea, but then disappears from the record. There is a death record of an Edward Heslop in Sunderland, age 78, in 1918. If this is the same Edward, he lived a long life, and survived his wife by 30 years.

Relationship of John Charlton and Sarah Burdon 
to Webmaster  
(They are the second great grandparents of Michael Otterson)

        John Charlton (b.1818) md. Sarah Burdon
  William J. Abernethy (b.1846) md. Elizabeth Jane Charlton
     Robert Otterson (b. 1881) md. Lizzie Abernethy         
          Robert Otterson (b. 1911)  md. Doris Dix 
            Michael Otterson (living) - Webmaster