Thursday, 5 July 2012

Thursday Tour - Same Name, Different Lives

As I can’t find anywhere in Lancashire beginning with J, I’m going to look at two people with the same name, John Dalton.

In Manchester’s city centre, there is a street called John Dalton Street. It’s a typical street with a mixture of Victorian and modern buildings, and a variety of shops and business premises including banks, lawyers’ offices, and sandwich bars.

It’s named after – fairly obviously – John Dalton. He was not a Manchester native but was born in Cumbria in 1766. As a Quaker, he was barred from attending a University, but in 1793 he became a teacher of mathematics and philosophy at the ‘New College’ in Manchester, which was a Dissenting Academy.

He is known for his research into colour blindness (which is sometimes referred to as Daltonism), but is probably best known for his pioneering work in atomic theory. He was the first scientist to explain the behaviour of atoms in terms of weight and in 1803 created the first chart of atomic weights. He also uncovered the fact that atoms couldn’t be created or destroyed. Although some of his theories have now been disproved, his innovatory work was of immense importance for the future of atomic science. It’s been said that the 20th century splitting of the atom would probably not have been accomplished without Dalton’s foundation of knowledge about the atom. The same thing might also be said about this week's discovery of the Higgs Boson.

John Dalton died in 1844, just three years after another John Dalton was born.

This one was my great-grandfather, both in 1841. Like the ‘famous’ John Dalton, he was the son of a weaver, and he was born in Dukinfield, a small town to the east of Manchester. Unlike the other John Dalton, however, he probably didn’t have much schooling. By the time he was about 12, he was working in the local weaving mill. When he married Sarah Wilde in 1863, he was a mechanic, and later became an ‘Overlooker’ (a kind of supervisor).

John and Sarah had 4 children between 1867 and 1875, including my grandmother, Catalina, the youngest of the four. Sarah died in 1879, aged only 36, of broncho-pneumonia, and the following year, the third child of the family, also called Sarah, died aged 8. This photo therefore must have been taken in late 1879 or early 1880. My grandmother is the small child with the large handbag!

John remarried in 1882 to Mary Fielding, but this marriage seems not to have lasted, as by 1891 he was living with my grandmother (prior to her marriage in 1893), while Mary was living elsewhere in the town with several of her (adult) children.

In 1901 John was living alone, and he died in 1911, just a year before my father was born.

Same name – but two totally different lives.


  1. The John Dalton Library is well worth a visit.

    Ha ha - Dukenfield - that is the town that keeps the Christmas lights up. They are over the shop doorways, just coloured bulbs really but they are there all year round, just not switched on. It always amused John and me when we drove through there.

    I wonder if the town got it's name from two Yokels talking. One said to the other "What's that over there."
    "That's a Duck in't field."
    Oh it's the way I tell 'em.

  2. A fascinating story of two different Daltons, Paula - are they not related at all? Great photo!

  3. Margaret, I never knew Dukinfield kept their Christmas lights up! It's about 10 years since I last went there. Most of the streets where my ancestors lived have now been demolished!

  4. Rosemary - don't think there's any family link between them. My John's parents came from Preston, other John came from North Cumbria.

  5. I'd never heard of color blindness being called Daltonism.

  6. Nice post, Paula. And the photo is amazing! I so enjoyed this little snippet of history--bettered all the more by inclusion of "your" John Dalton. :-)

  7. Joyce - I don't think it's very common these days, even in the UK.

    Thanks, Teresa!