By Warren Nunn

A sizeable headstone in a Scottish cemetery bears a loving tribute to a faithful housekeeper.

Erected by one John Ferguson, it lauds Sarah Nunn who died at Peebles but who was originally from Chevington, Suffolk.

Sarah had been John Ferguson’s housekeeper for at least 40 years.

Sarah was my first cousin, four times removed, being a first cousin of my great-great grandfather David Nunn who migrated to Queensland, Australia, in 1858.

In researching Sarah Nunn’s life, a fascinating account emerged involving various family members.

For a starting point, we look back about 150 years ago, when technology was in its infancy, to a Scottish-born photographer named William Aston, who set up a business in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk.

After his first wife died, William Aston remarried in 1869 to a woman about 18 years his junior.

The wedding was in London at St Mary, St Georges in the East and, according to the official record, William Ashton (later spelt Aston) was the son of James Ashton, a farmer. His bride was Emily Nunn, of Chevington, daughter of George Nunn, a carpenter.

In 1871 the Aston family lived at 29 Cemetery Rd, Bury St Edmunds and their first child, William, was just three months old.

Staying when them was Samuel Nunn, widower, aged 77, a retired gardener born at Chevington.

On census records each person is usually described as they relate to the head of the house … in this case William Aston. But Samuel Nunn was actually Emily’s grandfather.

Census records

Emily Nunn is found in 1851 and 1861 staying with her grandparents as follows.

Sarah Nunn on 1851 census

Sarah Nunn on 1851 census

In 1851 at College Farm, Chevington:

Samuel Nunn, head, mar, 58, farm labourer, born Chevington
Susan Nunn, wife, mar, 52, born Chevington
Sarah Nunn, dau, unm, 22, born Chevington
Susan Nunn, dau, unm, 17, born Chevington
Emily Nunn, grand dau, 1, born Chevington

And in 1861 at East Rd, Chevington:

Samuel Nunn, head, married, gardener, 68, born Chevington
Susan Nunn, wife, 62, born Chevington
Emily Nunn, grand daughter, 11, scholar, born Chevington

Parentage questions

And this is where Emily Nunn’s parentage has to be investigated. The parish records show that the only Emily Nunn born around 1850 in Chevington was the child of Sarah Nunn. But there is no father’s name given on the original document. That’s a fact to which I can attest because I transcribed the entry myself at the Bury St Edmunds Registry Office.

The entry shows that Emily was Sarah Nunn’s base child. The fact becomes ever clearer as later records show.

Even though Emily Nunn gave her father’s name as George Nunn, carpenter, at her wedding to William Aston, her death certificate records her father as John Nunn and her mother as Sarah, but with no maiden name.

Emily Nunn death

Emily Nunn’s death certificate.

1928 deaths in the district of Peebles Emily Pickerill, widow of 1st. William Aston, artist. 2nd. William Norman. 3rd. Daniel Pickerill, draper. 10 May 1928 at 7.50pm at 4 Rosetta Rd, Peebles, female, 76 years, dau of John Nunn, deceased, and Sarah Nunn, M.S. —-, deceased. Cause: Auricular fibrillation. Informant Edith Ferguson, daughter.

The address, 4 Rosetta Rd, Peebles, Scotland, is key to understanding the family connections between the Astons and Nunns of Suffolk.

But back to the question of Emily Nunn’s father. Was it George Nunn, or John Nunn? There’s no way of knowing, but, because we do know her grandfather was Samuel Nunn and her mother was Sarah Nunn, we can locate her in the Chevington Nunn line.

Thrice widowed

Emily was widowed three times and she moved from Suffolk to Worcestershire and Staffordshire and then on to Peebles in Scotland where she died in 1928.

After William Aston died in 1888, Emily managed the photographic business alongside her eldest son, William, junior. However, after he died in 1893, debts mounted and she faced bankruptcy.

The extent of her debts were detailed in a newspaper report that included an interesting reference to “sending out a traveller with drapery”. That seems an odd thing for a photography business to be involved in, but diversification can be a good thing.

That’s where family connections become apparent because Emily’s mother, Sarah Nunn, was housekeeper to John Ferguson, a travelling draper, based in Bury St Edmunds as the census records show. And so it seems that Emily was funding John Ferguson’s business and, in doing so, helping her mother as well.

Housekeeper role

The census entries tell the story:

Sarah Nunn on 1871 census

Sarah Nunn on 1871 census.

In 1871:

Orchard St, Bury St Edmunds
John Ferguson Head M 31 Draper & tea dealer Scotland
Sarah Nunn Servant F 38 General servt Chevington, Suffolk, England

Sarah Nunn on 1881 census

Sarah Nunn on 1881 census.

In 1881:

2 Looms Lane, Bury St Edmunds
John Ferguson Head single M 41 Travelling draper (manager) Scotland
Andrew Ferguson Brother single M 39 Travelling draper (hawker) Scotland
Sarah Nunn Housekeeper single F 48 Domestic servant Chevington, Suffolk, England

In 1891:

64 Looms Lane, Bury St Edmunds
John Ferguson, head, single, 51, travelling draper, born Scotland
Sarah Nunn, servant, single, 58, general serv (domestic), born Suffolk, Chevington

Sarah Nunn on 1901 census

Sarah Nunn on 1901 census.

In 1901:

80 Hospital Rd, Bury St Edmunds:
John Ferguson, single, 61, travelling draper, born Scotland
Sarah Nunn, servant, single, 70, housekeeper, born Chevington
Edith Aston, visitor, single, 26, born Bury St Edmunds.

Who is Edith Aston on the 1901 census? She was the third child of Emily Nunn and William Aston and this is where the Aston-Nunn connection is confirmed. So Edith was, in fact, Sarah Nunn’s granddaughter!

Some questions come to mind when considering the fact that John Ferguson was a single man, living with a single woman. The census entry shows she was his housekeeper. Those arrangements were not unusual and, to be charitable, it appears to have been a “moral” situation.

By 1911, the household moved north to Peebles on the Scottish borders where John Ferguson grew up.

Rosetta Rd, Peebles, Scotland, UK
John Ferguson, head, 71, single, retired draper, born Peebles, Stobo
Jane Ferguson, sister, 75, single, born Peebles, Stobo
Sarah Nunn, housekeeper, 82, single, born England
Edith Aston, visitor, 37, single, born England

Within a few weeks of the census, Sarah Nunn died aged 82.

Sarah Nunn's death certificate

Sarah Nunn’s death certificate.

Sarah Nunn's descendants

Sarah Nunn’s descendants

Fine headstone

John Ferguson had a fine headstone placed on Sarah’s grave at St Andrew’s Cemetery in Peebles.

The top section of the gravestone reads:

This headstone was erected by John Ferguson in memory of Sarah Nunn for many years his faithful housekeeper, a native of Chevington, in the County of Suffolk, who died at Peebles, 17th May, 1911, aged 82 years.

The wording of the inscription shows a deep connection between John Ferguson and Sarah Nunn. They obviously cared deeply for one another.

And then, just over 12 months later, John Ferguson, aged 73, married Sarah’s granddaughter Edith Aston, aged 37.

This raises questions of the motives of both parties to the marriage. John Ferguson must have known he was not going to have a long marriage to Edith. Did he do it just to have a housekeeper or did he want to provide for her? Or was Edith just doing it to benefit from his estate?

It seems likely also that John Ferguson knew that Edith was Sarah’s granddaughter.

Whatever the reason, Edith’s mother was involved because the union was sanctioned by her as the marriage certificiate shows:

John Ferguson Edith Aston marriage

John Ferguson and Edith Aston’s marriage entry.

1912 marriages in the district of Saint Giles, Edinburgh
24 Jul 1912 at 34 Chambers St, Edinburgh by declaration in presence of Daniel Pickerill, draper, traveller and Emily Pickerill his wife.—
John Ferguson, draper, retired, bachelor, aged 73, of 3 Crossland Crescent, Peebles, son of Robert Ferguson, hedger, deceased and Mary Ferguson, M.S.Duff, deceased and Edith Aston, spinster, aged 37, of Brier Bush, Crossland Crescent, Peebles, dau of William Aston, portrait and landscape artist deceased and Emily Aston, M.S.Nunn

Then, within 12 months of their union, John Ferguson passed away.

His name, along with Edith’s was added to the headstone thus:

Also the above John Ferguson who died at Brier Bush, Peebles, 24th April 1913, aged 73 years.
And his wife Edith Aston, who died at Peebles, 26th September 1935, aged 61 years.

Why the will was challenged

Because Edith married a man 36 years her senior, whose life expectancy was limited, it could be assumed that she did so to benefit from his estate … which she did as his probate reveals:

Scotland, National Probate Index (Calendar of Confirmations and Inventories), 1876-1936

Ferguson, John, Briar <elsewhere spelt Brier> Bush, Crossland Crescent, Peebles, died 24 April 1913, at Peebles, testate. Confirmation granted at Peebles, 19 August, to Edith Aston or Ferguson, Briar Bush, Crossland Crescent aforesaid, his widow. Executrix nominated in Will or Dee, dated 24 July 1912, and recorded in Court Books of Commissariot of Peebles, 31 July 1913. Value of estate, £3708, 14s. 5d.

That fact became apparent after John Ferguson’s death when his brothers Andrew and Thomas Ferguson accused Edith of forging the will.

There was a twist in the saga because Edith’s brother-in-law Martin Alderwick, who had worked as a solicitor’s clerk, assisted the Ferguson brothers in challenging the will. So strong was the case that Edith’s legal representatives decided to settle out of court. [Note that even though Martin Alderwick is described as a dairyman, census records show he also worked as a solicitor’s clerk, caretaker (seemingly on a dairy) and toy manufacturer.]

The Ferguson brothers received the majority of the estate amounting to £2750.

Newspaper report of disputed will case.

Excerpt of newspaper report of disputed will case.

It was reported that Mr Alderwick had “certain documents in his possession enabling him to be useful to the Ferguson brothers in presenting their action”.

However, he expected from them “a pecuniary recognition of his services” and sued their representatives for £500.

Mr Alderwick’s claim was denied as reported in The Scotsman of 1 July 1916.

So what were the “certain documents” Mr Alderwick had that caused his sister-in-law to lose her small fortune?

It was most likely to have been a letter from Edith, or her mother, to Emily Alderwick.

When John Ferguson died and the will favoured Edith, Martin Alderwick must have known he had information which called in to question the legality of the document.

He lived in Staffordshire, 250-plus miles from Peebles, and could have remained silent on the matter. Whether he was asked, or whether he volunteered the information is not known.

But what is known is that he did help. And he did expect some consideration for his efforts which was why he took legal action. But that action failed.

That closed the chapter on an unsavoury episode.

Edith had stayed on at Rosetta Rd after John Ferguson’s demise and was joined by her mother Emily and her husband Daniel Pickerill. Daniel died in 1917 and Emily in 1928.

The Aston-Nunn line

William Aston and Emily Nunn

William Aston and Emily Nunn.

As for Emily Nunn’s family, she had seven children with William Aston. He died when the youngest, Gertrude, was just a toddler.

Gertrude (1887-1973) also moved to Scotland where she married a John Clark Ferguson in 1916 in Edinburgh.

Emily’s eldest, William (1870-1893), who was also a photographer, died young in the lead up to the collapse of the business his parents had established in Bury St Edmunds.

Emily junior (1873-1951) married Martin Alderwick and lived in Staffordshire and Wales.

Edith (1873-1935), married John Ferguson, for whom her grandmother was his long-term housekeeper, and died in Peebles, Scotland.

Edwin (1874-1925) was a grocer’s clerk in London. He does not appear to have married.

Allan (1876-1953) was a steelworker in Staffordshire. As an 18-year-old, he stole watches and money from his grandmother’s employer John Ferguson. Sarah had to testify against her grandson who was described as her nephew in court. The family wanted people to believe that Sarah Nunn and Emily Nunn were sisters rather than mother and daughter. It’s not known if Allan married and he proves hard to track between 1911 and his passing in 1953.

Gordon (1877-1971) married Elizabeth Gertrude Mabel Alderwick, the sister of Martin Alderwick who was married to Emily Aston (siblings married siblings). This connection is confirmed in an online family tree. Gordon managed a grocery shop in Staffordshire.