The Cant Family by John Willis

The Cant Family 

My family name is Willis, my mother’s maiden name was Cant. 

Looking at our family history I discovered that there are several different branches of the Cants and that our immediate ancestors can be traced back to parts of Northumberland before moving to North West Durham and eventually settling in Leadgate and Iveston.

My great great grandfather James Cant was born in the Bywell District of Northumberland in 1792. He was employed as an Agricultural labourer, and moved firstly to Slaley and then to Benfieldside. He died in 1878 and was father to nine or more children including my great grandfather,

John Cant who was born in Slaley in 1831.

Unfortunately little is known of their lives and information has been sourced from historical records.

In 1861, by then living at Bradley Cottages where he was in lodgings, John married my great grandmother Elizabeth Surtees,who was born 1834 in Hayden Bridge, Northumberland. 

A postcard image of Bradley Cottages

Their marriage certificate records him as employed as a Railway porter at the time, and by 1871 they had moved to Winlaton where  John was employed as an agricultural worker.

They are first officially recorded as living in Front Street, Leadgate in the 1881 Census with two children, John James age 13 and Emily age11. (An elder sister having been born at Winlaton and by this date living independently).

At that time John was employed as a coke burner, and continued to work as such until at least 1901.

(Coke making at the time was common in the Durham coalfields as coke was required for iron making and forge works. The process involved filling coke ovens described as beehive ovens with coal which was leveled manually, the oven was then sealed and heated for a few days before being opened and emptied manually. Obviously laborious and dirty work.)

John and Elizabeth remained together in the Leadgate and Iveston area until 1906 when John died and was buried in St Ives Church grounds.

St Ives Church picture by Darren Dixon

Following the death of her husband Elizabeth continued to live in Iveston with her daughter Emily, before she died in 1915 and was subsequently buried alongside John.

John James Cant, my grandfather, was born around 1868, one of three children.  He was christened at Shotley Bridge Primitive Methodist Church on 21 February 1869.

Shotley Bridge Circuit, Co. Durham | County Durham | My Primitive Methodists

In 1881 John James was recorded as being a scholar aged 13, and on leaving school he commenced working in the local store as a Grocers Assistant. The 1901 census record his occupation as a Cooperative Grocer living with his father, mother and sister in Iveston.

The Leadgate Old Co-op Building from the Carl Southern Collection

In 1905 John James married my grandmother Hannah Lizzie Parker, who was living with her family at Bank Foot Cottages near Iveston , at The Parish Church, Leadgate and they subsequently had three daughters  Elsie, Nancy and Rachel.

On the death of his father John inherited a sum of £225 and by 1911 he was a self employed grocer according to the census record and was still living in Iveston.

By 1939 John James, now retired and Hannah having died earlier that year,  was living with his daughter Rachel, at Stokoes Buildings, Leadgate, which is situated at the rear of the Miners Institute.

Eden Miners Centre- “The Tute” picture by Richard Judd

Rachael,my mother like her siblings attended the local school in Leadgate and on leaving became a Millinery shop assistant.

On BoxIng Day in 1939 my mother and father William Willis married at the Methodist Church on Front Street, Leadgate.

Front Street, Methodist Chapel, Leadgate (now the Co-Op)

Rachel was by then living in Railway Street with her father and William in St Ives Road with an aunt.

Due to ill health, John James  lived with my mother and father, firstly in Railway Street and then when they moved to Park Villas, where John died of Senile decay in 1946.

His wife Hannah had been buried at St Ives Church and John was buried alongside her.

At the time of their marriage my father was employed as a coal miner before changing to work as a locomotive fireman, working locally on trains into Consett Iron Company and then again a miner at Eden Colliery.

They moved from Park Villas to North Cross Street primarily due to dad’s health, not very long before the houses were demolished.

Some if not all of the Cants attended the Weslyan Chapel in Watling Street, Leadgate before it was replaced by the Methodist Chapel in Front Street.

Watling Street Methodist Church

Of his other daughters Elsie married and moved away from Leadgate while Nancy Cant married Charles Costello son of William  ‘Billy’ Costello, who was known as the pitman photographer.

Like my parents they moved into Park Villas and Charles worked at Eden Colliery 

Pitman Photographer | Home ( website by Joe Mallon

Nancy and Charles as well as several other members of the Costello family are buried at Our Lady and Saint Joseph Catholic Church at Brooms, Leadgate.

Brooms Church interior picture by Richard Judd

Several  members of the wider Cant families became employed in mining and iron making in the area.

Mining was a challenging occupation often with fatal outcomes. One such event was at Medomsley Busty in 1923 when a number of miners were killed in an accident at the colliery. Thomas Cant was one of those miners. Living at Bradley Cottages he was grandson of Thomas who was a brother of James Cant our great, great grandfather.

Medomsley Colliery Shaft Accident – Consett – 1923 – Northern Mine Research Society (

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