Lewis Dix was one of nine children of James and Elizabeth Dix and, like his father, was the last of the brood. His ancestors had worked the fields around the villages of Norfolk for centuries but, like others who were leaving the land for the expanding cities, Lewis turned his back on a rural life. Times were changing. The Industrial Revolution was in full force. The rich coal mines of County Durham beckoned, and Lewis headed north to an uncertain future.

Lewis was barely out of his teens when he left the farms where his ancestors had lived and worked. The last record of him in Norfolk is in 1871, when the census shows him living with his older brother James and his ageing parents in the village of Southrepps, just a few miles from Antingham where he was born. At age 17 and working as a farm labourer, the future could not have looked very exciting. His grandfather, Matthew had died by this time, but he had watched his father, James, work on the land as a labourer all his life with little to show for it.

Lewis Dix and Mary Jane Smiles
  Antingham and Southrepps, Norfolk and the mining towns of County Durham, England
Lewis Dix: 
Born 1853 Antingham, Norfolk, England
Mary Jane Smiles: 
Born 1853 Newcastle-on-Tyne, Northumberland 

John James Dix - Born 1874 Murton, Durham
Ethel Jane Dix - Born 1883 South Shields, Durham
Louisa Dix - Born 1884 Seaham Harbour, Durham
Alfred Dix - Born 1886, Seaham Harbour, Durham
Florence May - Born 1889 Sunderland, Durham
George Henry - Born 1891 New Seaham, Durhamdix_john_and_elizabeth_1874.htmlshapeimage_6_link_0

Sunderland and the River Wear, about the time of Lewis Dix’s death. The dockland jumble of warehouses, industry and shipping reflects the rapid growth at the end of the 1800s. Copyright 2000-2003 (c) JevStar. Used by permission.

T.M. Richardson’s painting of Murton Colliery, 1841

Norfolk coast at Trimmingham

While working there, Lewis met and fell in love with Mary Jane Smiles, a Durham girl who was probably much younger than she stated on her marriage certificate. Their somewhat hasty marriage was at the Sunderland Registry Office in the spring of 1874, with friends but no family attending. Six months later, John James was born.

Back in Norfolk, older brother James had married 21-year-old Julia Ann Pardon, the daughter of a fisherman from the nearby coastal village of Trimingham at about the time Lewis moved north. In fact, it’s possible that James’ marriage spurred Lewis to move. One senses that the brothers were close, and Lewis may have felt that living as the remaining son in his parents’ home was not an attractive option. But within a couple of years, James also moved north to try the Durham mines and brought Julia with him. James found work at Shotton Colliery, just five miles from where Lewis was employed.

For whatever reason, mining suited Lewis more than James. After a few years, James moved back to Norfolk and a rural life, taking his wife and new son and daughter. That left Lewis as the sole transplant of this line of Norfolk Dixes in the industrial north. In time, through his children and grandchildren, a whole colony of Dixes would spring up in the Sunderland area.

Over the next few years, Lewis and Mary had several children as Lewis followed work opportunities from mine to mine - after Murton came South Shields, Seaham Harbour and Sunderland. It’s likely they lost some children at birth or in infancy in the first eight years of marriage, but they had three boys and three girls by 1891. Then, when Lewis’s youngest son was just two and a half, Lewis caught pneumonia and suddenly collapsed and died in the street. He was just 40 years old.

Adele Schonewald, a descendant of Lewis, has noted that the on-line Durham Mining Museum includes a brief mention of an accident involving him just ten days before his death, but it was publicly dismissed as a contributing cause. The extract reads:

“Dix, Lewis, 20 Nov 1893, aged 40, Stoneman, died suddenly from syncope, following an acute attack of pneumonia; he had received a slight injury in the pit ten days before, but the doctor said it had nothing to do with his death.”

Right: Antingham Village coat of arms. Far right: Typical fields around Antingham Village, Norfolk.

Why Lewis chose County Durham in particular isn’t known, but it must have been a different world when he began work at Murton Colliery, south of Sunderland. The mine at Murton was one of dozens that were springing up all over the countryside. Some of the richest coal deposits in Britain lay beneath the rolling hills of Durham and Northumberland, and the face of these neighbouring counties would be greatly changed before the century ended.

As for Mary Jane, Lewis’s wife, she lived into her 80s, but never remarried. It would not have been easy raising a large family on her own. The 1901 census shows four children at home, and Mary, age 43, is working as a washerwoman. Son Alfred, 14, is already working at a horse driver below ground in the local colliery.

Mary died at home, at 62 Gosforth Street, Sunderland, two weeks before her 83rd birthday.

The Otterson Families of Northeast England and related lines                                  To share information or comment on this site, contact the webmaster: Michael Otterson

For details of the family tree of Lewis Dix and Mary Jane Smiles, click on the WorldConnect icon below. This will open a window for these individuals in the Otterson-Berry family tree at RootsWeb.com, a free site.

Searching for lost graves

Until well into the 1900s, it was common for ordinary working people in England to be buried in unmarked graves, often shared with others with whom they had no family connection. Today, it often comes as a surprise to us to find that while the names of our ancestors may be recorded on cemetery plot lists in city archives, the grave itself is not only unmarked but may lie in a part of a cemetery where other headstones have fallen or been removed. That discovery can be distressing to those who want the names of their ancestors preserved and honoured indefinitely, even though headstones become weathered and inscriptions difficult to read.

In July 2009, Mike and Cathy Otterson visited Mere Knolls Cemetery in Sunderland from the United States as part of a research trip. Lewis Dix and his wife, Mary Jane Smiles Dix, Mike’s great grandparents, are buried there according to city records. However, the cemetery visit proved unsatisfactory, because neither grave was marked and the plot number for Lewis, in particular, seemed not to correspond with any system of plot numbers. Due to lack of time, the matter was left unresolved, and photographs were simply taken of the general area.

George Jenkins, a retired Sunderland car mechanic, is a friend of Colin and Doris Nichol. Doris is also a descendant of Lewis Dix and Mary Jane Smiles through their daughter Ethel Jane Dix. When George learned from them of the difficulty in finding the graves, he embarked on his own quest as a gesture of friendship. With remarkable determination and persistence over a period of weeks, he charmed his way through bureaucracy and obstacles, and with the help of friendly cemetery maintenance men, finally located both graves. This was despite the fact that one of the grave references he had been given proved to be erroneous.

All the photographs and maps in this section were provided by George Jenkins. The Google Earth map shows the precise location of both graves. Lewis was buried in 1893, but his grave is shared with a 19-year-old young man named William J. Rowell, laid there in the summer of 1925. Lewis’s wife, Mary, lies in the same grave as non-relative Alexander Crosby, who died age 24 some 38 years before Mary.

To complete the effort, George arranged at his own expense for a cross and lacquered metal plaque to finally mark the grave of Mary Jane Dix Smiles nearly 75 years after she was originally interred. Such is friendship.

Top: Lacquered metal plaque provided by George Jenkins, which he affixed to a cross to finally mark the grave of Mary Jane Smiles Dix, nearly 75 years after her death.

Above:  The Google map shows a bird’s eye view of Mere Knolls Cemetery’s Section 25 from about 500 feet, with the graves of Lewis Dix and his wife Mary marked. The two graves are about 70 yards apart.  The cross, with its name plaque, now stands prominently to mark Mary’s grave.

Above left:  The stone marking the grave of 19-year-old William Rowell was placed in 1925, by his mother who inscribed it with, “My dearly loved son...”  Lewis Dix was laid to rest in this same plot in 1893.  The stone was face down when George Jenkins found it and re-positioned it in 2010. Lewis’s name does not appear anywhere on the grave, but the Rowell headstone positively identifies the plot.

Left:  Plot map of Mere Knolls Cemetery, showing the location of Section 25A.

Below: George Jenkins.