Discovered – the truth about John CLOSE (1847-1922)

Early years 

In the course of my CLOSE one-name study I came across the family of Robert Richard CLOSE (1819-1892), from Hexham, Northumberland, a schoolmaster who married Sarah FRENCH (1818-1886) in Allendale, Northumberland on 11 October 1841. Their first three children – John (1842-1846), Thomasin Ann (1844-1889) and another John (1847-1922) – were all born in Allendale. This second John CLOSE is the central character of the story. 

It would appear from the 1851 census that around that time Robert moved to a new teaching job just a few miles away in Hunstanworth, Durham. He was enumerated there boarding with a farmer’s family, whereas Sarah and the two surviving children were still living in Allendale. However, by the early part of 1852 the family were evidently reunited and settled in Hunstanworth, since three more children – Mary Elizabeth (1852-), William Backhouse (1855-1934) and Dorothy Hannah (1855-) were all born there. 

No doubt the family would have been proud of their oldest surviving son John, probably named in honour of his grandfather Lt. John CLOSE (1796-1853). Young John, like his father, was listed as a teacher in the 1871 census, having moved with his parents and siblings a few miles north again, this time to Slaley, Northumberland. 

New Beginnings 

We find that several changes took place in John’s life between 1871 and 1881. On 1 March 1880 he married Hannah Lee Willis at St Mark, Millfield, Durham, they set up home in Watling Street, Medomsley, and he moved on from teaching to work as a colliery clerk. It would later become apparent that from 1880 he was working in the offices of the Consett Iron Company. The couple were evidently doing well enough to afford a 14-year-old domestic servant in 1881. 

Although John and Hannah were childless, life appears to have gone along smoothly for the next few years. Newspaper reports in early 1892 (of which more later) said that John CLOSE was

 “a person of highly respectable appearance … who is well-known throughout the whole district” 


 “He was apparently well connected, had good friends, had no temptations, was not in want, and was of good education.” 

Two Puzzles 

The couple’s entry in the 1891 census gives a somewhat puzzling picture. At 3 Summer Hill, Benfieldside, Durham (RG12/4089 F5 P4 S13), the home of Thomas & Hannah WILLIS and family, the listing includes: 

How could John and Hannah CLOSE both be ‘in-laws’ of the WILLIS family? Hannah was, of course the daughter, not the daughter-in-law of Thomas & Hannah WILLIS. It was probably just a simple error on the part of the enumerator. John and Hannah were apparently visiting Hannah’s parents, her unmarried sister and brother, and three younger adopted siblings. 

Another initially unconnected puzzling entry in the 1891 census is found in Western Hill, Bishopwearmouth, Durham (RG12/4128 F117 P13 S525) where we see: 

One possible explanation is that the wife may have described herself as ‘Mrs John Close’ to  the enumerator – but if  so, who  was she, and who was her husband?  A FreeBMD check for CLOSE-CURRIE marriages came up with just one possibility: 1891 Q1 Sunderland 10a 924 – John CLOSE and  Alexandra  CURRIE.   A  little  further  research  in  the  GRO index identified the  birth of  Isabella CURRIE,  mother formerly  HENDERSON, and  the birth of a possible sister  Alexandrina (not Alexandra!) CURRIE, mother formerly HENDERSON in 1870  Q1  Hartlepool  10a   58. With so little information provided about Ada K SMITH she would have to remain a mystery, but the identity of Alexandrina’s absent husband John CLOSE was something which demanded to be discovered.

Newspaper revelations 

The mystery was indeed resolved by a newspaper article, rather surprisingly found in the National Library of Wales online newspaper collection – an excellent free resource, by the way! 

The Evening Express of 5 July 1892 reported on a Close v Close divorce case, in which Mrs Hannah CLOSE was seeking a divorce from her husband John.  The aggrieved wife related that in early January she had seen an item in the Newcastle Daily Chronicle announcing the death of a Mrs Alexandrina CLOSE, 22, the wife of John CLOSE on 6th January 1892. A death certificate confirms the event:

She had been shocked to find that the Newcastle Daily Chronicle announcement also indicated the occupation of this John CLOSE – and as she very well knew, the only person fitting that description was her own husband! She had made further enquiries and confirmed that he had indeed entered into a bigamous marriage on 28 March 1891 at Sunderland Register Office with Alexandrina CURRIE, who was over 20 years his junior. Images of the original divorce papers can be seen at

 The judge consequently granted Hannah a decree nisi, with costs. 

It became apparent, then, that just one week after ‘marrying’ Alexandrina CURRIE, John CLOSE was enumerated in the April 1891 census along with his legal wife Hannah as a visitor to the home of his parents-in-law. One wonders if he arranged the visit in order to avoid being officially recorded as residing in Bishopwearmouth with his new ‘wife’.

But that is not all that was discovered about John CLOSE. The press report of the divorce case also mentioned a criminal conviction – not for bigamy, but for embezzlement, and further scouring of newspapers revealed the full extent of John’s wrongdoing. 

John CLOSE’s trial 

The Newcastle Courant of 20 February 1892 published an extensive report on Police Court proceedings against the 43-year-old John CLOSE, charged with defrauding the Consett Iron Company by altering two requests for payment of £24 and £22 respectively, and receiving the sums of money by false pretences between 29th and 31st December 1891. He was a well-known individual, and consequently his case aroused substantial public interest; the court room was crowded, with many others waiting outside to catch a glimpse of the accused. 

In court it was alleged that once the general coal account and the masons’ account had been signed off by the mining engineer, John CLOSE added two further items in respect of drainage work – one claiming to be payment to a firm which denied ever working for the Consett Iron Company, and another to a totally fictitious contractor.

Although the charge related to two relatively small sums, it was reported that when the account books were examined, investigators discovered that a similar practice had been going on for the past six or seven years, and “the amount paid for building stoppages and cutting drains for the Consett Company’s collieries was sufficient for stopping and draining one-half, or even more, of the pits in the county of Durham.” The conclusion was that John CLOSE had probably defrauded the company of around £4,000 in total. 

It would appear that John CLOSE knew that the game was up. He did not appoint anyone to represent him in the police court, did not question any of the witnesses, did not call any witnesses in his defence and did not apply for bail. 

He was formally committed for trial at the next Durham Assizes where, according to the Northern Echo report of 15 March 1892 he pleaded guilty. Although his lawyer pleaded for leniency on the grounds of previous good character, the judge was not convinced, and sentenced John to five years’ penal servitude. 

A sad end 

So it was that within a few short months in early 1892, John CLOSE not only lost his ‘wife’ Alexandrina to kidney disease and was divorced by his wife Hannah; he also lost his job, his freedom, and his good reputation. By 1901, having served his sentence, he was living with his brother William Backhouse CLOSE, and working as a general labourer – maybe unable to find an employer who would trust him with clerical responsibilities. Things had gone further downhill by 1911, when we find him as an inmate in the Lanchester Union Workhouse, described as “formerly a colliery clerk”. He lived a further 11 years, dying in Lanchester in early 1922. 

How sad to see someone who had such a good start in life turning to criminal activities, deceiving both his employer and his wife, and consequently losing everything when his wrongdoing was eventually discovered.


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