Occupation: whitesmith

In the 1861 English census, John Tankard was a whitesmith who employed two men and four boys. He lived in Woodhouse Lane, Leeds in the parish of St John the Evangelist. John and his wife Frances had five children – a daughter aged 10 and four sons aged 8, 6, 4 and 1. Elizabeth Tankard was a visitor.[1] By the 1871 census they were living at 1 Woodland View, Chapel Allerton (now a suburb of Leeds), and he employed two men and one boy. Two of his sons were whitesmiths, so they may have been two of their father’s employees.[2] John’s nephew Ebenezer Tankard was also a whitesmith in Leeds in 1871.

Ebenezer 1871 detail

These people were my ancestors, although not direct ones; but I’ll come to that later. Firstly, I was intrigued to know more about a whitesmith. Most people will have some idea what a blacksmith does – or did – but I wasn’t sure about a whitesmith.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives this definition: “A person who makes articles from tin-plated iron … or from tin or other white metal. Also: a person who makes iron tools with a sharp edge, or other iron articles with a polished surface.” Now chiefly historical.

Some examples of the word’s usage include:

1260: Ricardus le Wytesmith.

1686: The Iron thus prepared, is used both by the White and Black-Smiths of this County, according as the condition of their wares require; it being forged by the former, into Sithes, Reaping-books, Axes, Hatchets, Bills, &c…which being ground at the blade-mills to a bright edge they have given this sort of Artisans that make them, the name of White-Smiths.

1751 (Staffordshire): Blade-mills, where scythes, axes, reaping-hooks, &c. after being prepared for it by the white-smiths, are ground to a fine edge.

1826: Walter Scott: He was a white-smith, and published various lucubrations under the title of the Tinclarian Doctor.

1861 Dickens Great Expectations II. viii.136 Life is made of ever so many partings welded together,..and one man’s a blacksmith, and one’s a whitesmith, and one’s a goldsmith, and one’s a coppersmith.

1886 G. M. Fenn Patience Wins xii. 140, I arn’t a blacksmith, I’m a whitesmith, and work in steel.


A website of old occupations says a whitesmith was a “person who worked with “white” or light-coloured metals such as tin and pewter. Whitesmiths fabricated items such as tin or pewter cups, water pitchers, forks, spoons, and candle holders, possibly also in the clothing industry, making or finishing buckles, buttons etc.”[3]

So now I have tin, steel, tin-plated iron, and pewter… In a 1960s book called Life and Traditions in the Yorkshire Dales, a tinsmith was photographed making a backcan – a backcan was used in dairying: “the milk was carried from the field or cowshed to the farmhouse in a budget, more often called a backcan, a specially shaped tin can to fit the back, by both men and women…. Backcans varied in size from small ones for children to ones holding four to eight gallons. They were carried like a rucksack by leather or webbing straps over both shoulders.”[4] 


The images show Mr Frank Shields of Redmire, Wensleydale making a backcan. He was described as descended from a tinner and brazier at Middleham in the 1820s. “Over the years the workshop has changed very little. On the walls hang metal patterns for making dishes, pans, pails, loaf tins, coal hods and cans of all descriptions… Against another wall is the roller which resembles a small mangle, through which a piece of tin put through twice is ‘broken’ to ensure a smooth finish. Alongside are the folders, in which the tin, previously cut into shape, is folded ready for seaming the edges together. The jenny, which has several uses, mainly turning edges on the sides and bottoms of round articles, fastening wire into the tin for strengthening purposes, and making patterns on the finished parts, is sited in good light under the window.”[5]

While I don’t know exactly what type of whitesmithing the Tankards did in the mid-nineteenth century in Leeds and Chapel Allerton, I know that it was working with ‘white’ metal.

So who were John and Ebenezer Tankard and what is my connection to them?  John was christened on 10 March 1822 in Birkin Parish, West Haddlesey, Yorkshire. He was a younger brother of one of my great-great-grandfather’s Mark Tankard (1819-1866). Ebenezer was Mark’s son, born in 1847, three years after his parents Mark and Sarah (nee Wilson) married on Nov 26 1844. Ebenezer was baptised on the same day – on 12 Aug 1849 – as his younger sister Susan or Susanna (who became my great-grandmother).  The aunt Ebenezer was living with in 1871 was Sarah Howe (nee Tankard) – another sibling of Mark and John. This is Mark’s family entry in the 1861 census when he was living in West Haddlesey (which is south of York and east of Leeds):

1861 census Mark T detail

Mark Tankard was a butcher. He died at the relatively young age of 47 in 1866 (17 July) – his death certificate listed him as a master butcher. His daughter Susanna was 17 at the time – perhaps not surprising then that, when she died decades later (1935) in New Zealand, her father’s occupation wasn’t remembered correctly and was recorded on her death certificate as ‘herbalist’. Mark’s wife Sarah (nee Wilson) died the year before him, on 2 December 1865. She was only aged 41; her cause of death was given as diabetes. Mark’s occupation is given as farm labourer on her death certificate.

Mark died at 157 Woodhouse Lane, Leeds in the presence of Frances Tankard. Frances was John’s wife – therefore she was Mark’s sister-in-law. It would appear that he died in his brother’s house. His cause of death was given as ‘effusion on brain – 3 weeks’, so perhaps he moved to Leeds for medical treatment? Or, as his wife had died the year before, perhaps he was living with his brother. Today Woodhouse Lane is the A660 road and it is a long road – in the 1861 census it appears to be shorter. The map shows approximately where Woodhouse Lane was (arrowed) with Chapel Allerton in the circle (source: Vision of Britain, Leeds, Ordnance Survey First Series 1:63360
170 sheets covering England and Wales, 1805 to 1869).

Leeds 19th century map annotated

John was listed in an 1866 Leeds directory as being in Great George’s Street and in Woodhouse Lane. “WHITE SMITHS. … Tankard John, Woodhouse lane and Gt. George’s st.” [6] This, together with the other street names around Woodhouse Lane in the 1861 census, suggests that he lived at the Gt George’s Street end of Woodhouse Lane and had a workshop in Gt George’s St. The map below shows the intersection of Gt George’s St and Woodhouse Lane as it is today (courtesy of Google Earth). The extracts from the 1866 directory give an idea of some of the other occupations at the time.


There is a photograph on the Leeds Library website taken in 1928 of numbers 149 to 153 Woodhouse Lane. And this photo from 1914 shows an inner city Leeds courtyard with a sign for a whitesmith. “Improvements” (demolitions) were made in Woodhouse Lane in the early 1900s, and over subsequent decades, so I’m not sure if the houses in these photographs were the ones that would have been at those street numbers in the 1860s.

And here is a basic Tankard tree for those confused by the relationships!  See also my Chain Migration post for further information about some of Susanna Morrell’s (nee Tankard) sisters.

family-tree-with-circlesAnd Mark’s daughter, Susan / Susanna? … five years after her father died I believe she was a servant in Leeds (1871 census). Here is a Haddlesey-born Susan Tankard of the right age in the household of John Lawson, a machine maker and a senior partner in a brass and iron foundry employing 800 men and boys.

1871 susan tankard detail

The 29 year old Susannah married the 27 year old bricklayer Samuel Morrell on February 16 1878 in Leeds and they emigrated to New Zealand in 1880 with their son Walter, my future grandfather. See my post on Morrell family in Wellington.


Further family information

In the 1841 census Mark’s brother John Tankard was living with his aunt Hannah (nee Tankard) who had married Richard Heptonstall in 1817, and some of their family in Marsh Lane in Leeds. John’s occupation was listed as ironsmith. [7]

John married Frances Bainbridge on 22 Dec 1849; his occupation was given as smith, his father John Tankard’s occupation was farmer; Frances’s father, James Bainbridge was a wheelwright. In the 1851 census their five month old daughter Elizabeth and John’s 20 year old sister Elizabeth (a servant) were living with them. From 1873 to 1879 John appeared in the Chapel Allerton electoral register, his qualification for voting being that he owned freehold houses in Chapel Allerton.

Sarah Tankard (Mark and John’s sister, and who Ebenezer was living with in the 1871 census) married Robert Howe on 8 Oct 1867. He was a butler and his father Joseph was a cordwainer. Her father John was a farmer. She was 44 and he was 48; it was the first marriage for both of them.

Mark, John and Sarah’s father was John Tankard (1792-1872) and their grandfather was another John Tankard (1762-1840). He died in late December 1840 and his death was registered in January 1841 – his headstone in Chapel Haddlesey churchyard mistakenly says he died in 1841. These families lived in the village of West Haddlesey, Yorkshire, seen here from Google maps. In 1870-72, John Marius Wilson’s Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales said it had a population of 213 with 44 houses (source: Vision of Britain, History of West Haddlesey, accessed 27 May 2016).


Historical maps of the area can be seen on Old Maps.co.uk. There is even a Tankard’s bridge nearby!

See Nick Lord’s excellent website for more information on the Tankards, West Haddlesey (including a photo of Tankard’s bridge!) and Leeds. Nick is descended from Hannah (nee Tankard) Heptonstall. He lists Joshua Tankard (1727-1811) as John’s (1767 – 1840) father. Joshua married Dorothy Smithers in 1754, and Joshua and Dorothy had nine children between 1755 and 1774.


[1] “England and Wales Census, 1861,” FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:M7NM-DPL : accessed 25 May 2016), John Tankard, Leeds, Yorkshire (West Riding), England; from findmypast (http://www.findmypast.com : n.d.); citing PRO RG 9, The National Archives, Kew, Surrey.

[2] “England and Wales Census, 1871”, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:KZLK-N6P: accessed 25 May 2016), John Tankard, 1871.

[3] http://rmhh.co.uk/occup/w.html accessed 26 May 2016

[4] Marie Hartley and Joan Ingilby, Life and Tradition in the Yorkshire Dales, London: J M Dent & Sons, 1968, p. 12

[5] Hartley and Ingilby, p. 88.

[6] Directory of Leeds, Bradford, Huddersfield, Halifax, Wakefield, Dewsbury… and all parishes and villages in and near those populous districts of the West Riding, forming the great seats of the woollen and worsted manufactures / by William White. [1866] http://specialcollections.le.ac.uk/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p16445coll4/id/64206/rec/26

[7] The relationship of John to Hannah comes from Nick Lord’s very interesting website:  https://sites.google.com/site/lordshistory/families/the-tankards-and-the-river-aire. His website has much more information about the Tankards, Leeds in the 1830s and 40s, West Haddlesey, etc.


One thought on “Occupation: whitesmith

  1. ‘Whitesmiths fabricated items such as tin or pewter cups’ – If the family trade went back many generations, perhaps their name dates to a period when surnames reflected occupation?


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