John William Hill (1851-1899)

My 2 x great grandfather John William Hill has long interested me for reasons such as the circumstances surrounding his death, his time in South Africa, and the mystery of his first wife. He is also the first in the Hill line so far as I know to catch the travel bug as he lived in various locations throughout his lifetime. A major breakthrough was recently achieved with the discovery of newspaper articles detailing the events surrounding his mysterious death in a Croydon Tavern in 1899.

Early Life and Childhood

John William was the oldest of seven children, born on 27 April 1851 on the High Street, Stratford[₁] to parents John and Elizabeth (née Matson).

Birth John William

Work Life and Career

Like his father before him, John William took the profession of Chemist, working in wholesale[₂]; however in 1871 at the age of twenty he was living at 4 High Street, Sutton with the Burton family. The 1871 census states that his relationship to the Burton family is that of “servant”; however like his father before him he is a chemist by trade[₃].

He later practiced as a doctor in South Africa for some time[₄]. Avice Hill suggested he may have left due to the outbreak of the Transvaal War (1880-81)[₅] because by 1881 he was back in England and living as a boarder with the Hutchins Family at 16 Dean Street, Brighton[₆].

Marriage and Family Life

While boarding with the Hutchins family he was unmarried; however at some point prior to 1889 he married his first wife who subsequently passed away. As a widower in 1889 he married Emily Fox in a ceremony on 10 January at Holy Trinity Church, Wavertree, Liverpool[₇].

In 1891 they were living on independent means at Christchurch in Hampshire[₈]; however when their first son William Matson was born on 13 September 1895 they were residing in Reigate, Surrey on Cockshot Road[₉]. Two years later Emily bore a second son, Edward John, on 27 October 1897[₁₀].


On Wednesday, 8 March 1899, John William left his home in Reigate at around eleven thirty after telling Emily that he was going for a walk “as his head was so bad”. He did not return that evening but as this was not unheard of Emily wasn’t concerned[₂].

At some point he visited a chemist who provided him with two ounces of laudanum for “outward application only”. He remained chatting with the chemist about trade matters and appeared perfectly rational[₁₁]; however his body was discovered on Friday, 10 March 1899 in a room at the Victoria Coffee Tavern, Church Street, Croydon. The bottle of laudanum lay by his side. According to Emily, John suffered from depression and pains in his head and would take laudanum to help him sleep. The inquest was held the following day on Saturday, 11 March, and Emily identified the body as that of her husband[₁₂].

The Surrey Mirror, Friday, March 17, 1899 (1) The Surrey Mirror, Friday, March 17, 1899 (2) The Surrey Mirror, Friday, March 17, 1899 (3) The Surrey Express, Saturday, March 18, 1899

A verdict of suicide while insane was recorded[₁₃] although Emily stated that she had never heard him threaten to take his own life. He was just 47 years of age. His sons, who were just 4 and 2 years old respectively, were thereafter raised to believe that he had died due to a bout of influenza[₁₄].

Death John William

Probate was issued on 28 March 1899[₁₅].

John W Hill Probate


[₁] The Birth Certificate of John William Hill
[₂] The Surrey Mirror, Friday, March 17, 1899
[₃] 1871 England Census
[₄] The National Archives War Records (Ref:WO374/33488 C704348)
[₅] Avice’s Research Notes
[₆] 1881 England Census
[₇] Liverpool, England, Marriages and Banns, 1813-1921
[₈] 1891 England Census
[₉] The Birth Certificate of William Matson Hill
[₁₀] England & Wales, FreeBMD Birth Index, 1837-1915
[₁₁] The Surrey Express, Saturday, March 18, 1899
[₁₂] The Surrey Mirror, Friday, March 17, 1899
[₁₃] The Death Certificate of John William Hill
[₁₄] Letter from William Matson Hill to Avice, dated 19 November 1965
[₁₅] England & Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1858-1966


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