Three in One – Part 3a – Harry Welchman – His Origins

The final person in the Three in One tale is Harry Welchman, 24 February 1886 – 3 January 1966.  Although he made several non-musical plays he was really a star of musical theatre and, as the Times remembers him, “perhaps the most popular musical comedy hero on the London stage in the years between the wars.

Originally this was simply going to be Part 3 of the tale but I have decided to split it into two sections because the research into his family background has proved interesting and gives some insight into Harry’s own development.

There is also the mystery attached to him which we are trying to unravel – how his ashes came to be interred in the same grave as Janet Sarah Coke, whom he ostensibly described as his ‘foster-mother’.  The first part of this tale outlined the time-line of Janet Coke’s life.  So I am now going to do the same for Harry Welchman’s family from before he was born to the time he embarked on his acting career.  Maybe there are some indications of where the two family lines might have overlapped and, therefore, how Janet may have ended up as Harry’s foster-mother.

Harry’s mother, Alice Mary Pheysey

Alice was born on 17 July 1851 in Staines, Middlesex, although she wasn’t baptised until six years later when the family was recorded as living in Putney.  She was one of at least seven siblings five of whom died before they were 30.

Her mother, Sarah Vicary, was born in May 1820 in Dawlish which may be the first indication of a connection with the Coke family line.  Sarah married Henry Pheysey in 1843 in Dawlish but they obviously moved up to London subsequently, their first son, Frederick being born in Islington in 1844.  The family is still shown in the 1861 census as living in Putney.

Henry was a wine and brandy merchant but he too died at the relatively young age of 49 in 1866, by which time they were living in Prince’s Square, Bayswater.  Sarah took on the business, trading still as Henry Pheysey & Co., but by 1871 was forced into bankruptcy which was finally liquidated in 1878.  She re-married in November 1884 to a William Smith at St Andrews, Walcott, Bath.

There is no evidence that Alice returned to Devon but she would probably have maintained contact with relatives there.  Could there have been some crossing of family paths in London as well?  Remember that Janet Coke was born in 1854 in Hammersmith, not that far from Putney.

Alice married Harry Welchman’s father, Arthur John Tregonwell Welchman, on October 13th 1870 at All Saints Church, Leamington.

Harry’s father, Arthur John Tregonwell Welchman

Arthur John Tregonwell Welchman was born on 10 November 1843 in Almorah, Bengal, India.  Goodness knows where the middle name ‘Tregonwell’ came from since neither of his parents bore that as a family name – his father was John Whately Welchman (1800-1870) and his mother Harriet Alzilea Martin (1820-1885).

John Whately Welchman at the time was a captain in the 10th Native Infantry (N.I.) in Bengal and rose to the rank of Major-General by 1865.  It appears that he was seriously wounded in the battle of Budlee-Ka-Sarai in 1857 as described in the History of the Bengal European Regiment:

“To the 1st Bengal Europeans it was painfully memorable; for although the enemy failed to make the slightest impression on our defences, they succeeded in severely wounding our Commanding Officer, Colonel Welchman, whilst gallantly leading his Regiment to the front.  Falling from his horse he was carried to the rear, when it was found that the elbow joint of his right arm was completely shattered …..”

Major W S R Hodson, who fought in the same campaign, expressed great concern in his letters:

Colonel Welchman with a very bad hit in the arm, in addition to his sickness when he came to Delhi from Dugshai ….. Colonel Welchman suffers severely from his wound, but bears it bravely ….. Colonel Welchman is very ill indeed. The doctors dread erysipelas, which at his age would be serious ….. Colonel Welchman dangerously ill and in great agony. I grieve deeply for the brave old man, for I fear we shall lose him

Flags of Bengal European Regiment

Colonel Welchman was awarded the Order of the Bath in 1858, probably as a result of that battle.  His obituary in the Naval & Military Gazette and Weekly Chronicle of the United Service, Wednesday 17 August 1870, is quite revealing:

“.…. He was every inch a soldier, and acquired by his manliness, his bonhomie, and his professional savoir faire, the respect and affection of all who came within the sphere of his social virtues, or of his Military command.  Like most other Officers in the Bengal Army, he saw little field service during the earlier period of his career, but he was actively employed in later years, and no one more thoroughly justified confidence in his ability than did Major-General John Welchman.”

The obituary is interesting because I wonder if those attributes of ‘bonhomie’ and ‘professional savoir faire’ reached down the family chain to his grandson Harry Welchman.

Whilst we are exploring the background of Harry’s family background it is also worth mentioning his aunt, Edith Welchman, who was a sister in the Indian Medical Service.  She was present at the Hazara campaign of 1888 and was awarded a Royal Red Cross, 1st Class, VR, for her work on the Black Mountain expedition.

Edith Welchman and her medal

Returning to Arthur John Tregonwell Welchman ….. it was inevitable that Arthur too would enter the military as was the tradition of the time.  He is already in boarding school in Leamington in 1851, according to the census of the time, and entered the military as a cadet at the age of 16 in 1859.  He went overland to Bengal the following year.  He was a lieutenant three years later, captain by June 1869, major by 1882 and Lt colonel in 1885.

His military career though appears nowhere nearly as illustrious as his father’s  In 1886 he was put onto the temporary half-pay list, probably to allow the family time out for Harry’s birth in Barnstaple, North Devon, and retired only six years later in 1892 at the age of 49.  This seems quite young for an army officer so I wonder whether he had some medical problem as well.

We will return to Harry’s birth but one thing this event shows is that army officers would periodically return to the UK and we have one piece of evidence which shows not only that Harry’s parents returned earlier in 1877 but that they were living in Shaldon on that visit.  The evidence is a curious story that appeared in the Western Morning News of 5th June 1877.  I include it here verbatim to give the story its correct sense of period:


At the Teignmouth Petty Sessions yesterday, before Mr R R Marsh-Dunn, Major Brown and Mr J G Templer, William Henry Hugo, a medical man, practising at St Nicholas, near Shaldon, was summoned for assaulting Selina Brewer, his housekeeper.  Mr Flood, of Exeter, appeared for the complainant, and Mr Creed, of Newton Abbot, for the defendant.

It was stated that the defendant lets a part of his house to a Captain and Mrs Welchman, and that on May 25th last, when he came home the worse for liquor, he commenced a quarrel with the housekeeper, who was frying fish for Captain Welchman, remarking that he (defendant) ought to have his own meals before the lodgers.  A dispute ensued as to whether the fish belonged to him or to Captain Welchman, and defendant used disgusting and threatening language to the inmates of the house, including Mary Towell, a dressmaker, who was working for Mrs Welchman.  His conduct was so strange that the whole party retreated to Mrs Welchman’s bedroom and locked the door.

Defendant, who had previously threatened to kick Miss Towel and her sewing machine out of the house, attempted to force open the door several times, and on going to the kitchen and finding the housekeeper there he caught hold of her and tried to push her out of the house, and this was the assault complained of.

Mr Creed, on behalf of his client, admitted the offence, but pleaded aggravation on the part of the housekeeper, who had neglected to get the defendant’s meals ready on the day in question.  He called William Woolway, a shopkeeper, of Shaldon, who stated that on the day named he was at the house form seven o’clock to half-past, and there saw defendant, who was perfectly sober, and who told him that he had had a quarrel with Mrs Brewer because she had not given her any food for the day.

In cross-examination Woolway said that he did not hear the quarrel, and that before he went to defendant’s house he paid for two glasses of beer for the doctor at a public-house near his house.  The Bench fined the defendant 10s, including costs.

Captain Arthur John Welchman was then charged with assaulting Mr Hugo on May 25th.  Complainant deposed that just after the disturbance, as stated in the previous case, had terminated, he met the defendant at the door of his house.  He was very excited at the time, and after using threatening language, said ‘I’ll thrash you, you hound’.  He then struck him a violent blow near the heart, from the effects of which he was still suffering.  He also slapped his face twice and then kicked him off the ground about five or six feet, and he fell at a distance of twelve feet from where he had been standing. (Laughter).

The defendant, later in the evening, adjourned to the drawing-room with his wife, and there had great rejoicings over what he had done.  They were singing duets and playing the piano until a late hour in the morning. (Loud laughter).  One of the females then asked Mrs Welchman to polish him off and scratch his eyes out.

In cross-examination he said the blow near his heart was a very severe one, and he had not attended any of his patients since, but he had been out.  Bessie Northam, a little girl, who was opposite to Mr Hugo’s house, stated that she heard the quarrel between Captain Welchman and Mr Hugo, and saw the former lift his foot, but would not swear that Captain Welchman kicked Mr Hugo.  In defence, Mr Flood denied the evidence given by Mr Hugo, and called several witnesses, who positively swore that no assault whatever had been committed, nor did Captain Welchman even attempt to strike complainant.  The Bench dismissed the case.

Mr Hugo was then charged with assaulting Mrs Welchman, but the magistrates dismissed the case.”

Apart from being a fascinating story (I love the parenthesised “Laughter” in the courtroom) it does place the Welchmans in Shaldon in 1877.  But why had they gone to live in Shaldon?  We know that Alice Welchman had family on her mother’s side in Dawlish but also, from the Coke family line, Janet Sarah Coke (i.e. Harry’s future foster-mother) might still have been living in Stoke-in Teignhead with her family at that time.  If Alice had known Janet in London then that might be another reason for the stay in Shaldon.  Alternatively, the two families may have actually met up there in 1877 and kept in contact subsequently.

Now let’s return to Harry Welchman himself.

We know that his father retired in 1892 so it is likely that Harry returned with his parents back to Bengal until that time which explains the lack of reference in the 1891 census.  Then, with his parents back in England, we know that Harry went to school in Weston-super-Mare.  Is it reasonable to assume that he wasn’t boarding there and that therefore his parents had retired to that area?  Coincidentally, perhaps, the Coke family were by this time living in Bristol (about 20 miles north) and in 1901 in Congresbury (about 11 miles east).

According to his obituary in the Times he was a sporting boy, playing, as he said, all the games, including hockey at county level.  We know little more about his life at school but we do know that big changes occurred when he was thirteen and in the subsequent couple of years.

His mother died then, in December 1899; curiously her death is registered in St Olave’s parish in Southwark.  Why though didn’t Harry just continue living with his father?  We know from the 1901 census that his father was now living in Dawlish, whilst Harry was now with the Coke family in Congresbury.  His father had also been declared bankrupt in January of that year, despite receiving an army pension of £420 and employing a housekeeper!  The 1911 Census shows him in St Helier, Jersey, with two visitors from London – Beatrice Sanders (40) and Gordon Sanders (15).  He marries her in 1915 and dies two years later.  It is almost as though he had abandoned Harry and was just interested in his own life.

So, in summary, what do we make of Harry’s origins and early life?

He came from a strong military background but chose to turn his back on that (although he did join the reserves during WW1).

His grandfather in particular seemed to have had a fairly illustrious career.  Did the qualities identified in his obituary pass through to Harry – ‘bonhomie’ and ‘professional savoir faire’?

Did he feel abandoned by his father after his mother’s death and, if so, how did that affect him?

There seem to have been a number of opportunities for the Welchman and Coke family paths to have crossed but no definite evidence of when or how it might have happened.

However the relationship with the Coke family formed it is obvious that Harry regarded it as overridingly special – why else would his ashes be interred in the grave of Janet Sarah Coke whom he regarded as his foster-mother?  Perhaps living with the Cokes was the first time he felt some real love, warmth and caring.

Information Sources:

History of Bengal European Regiment

Twelve years of a Soldier’s Life in India

Edith Welchman medals

3 thoughts on “Three in One – Part 3a – Harry Welchman – His Origins

  1. Harry’s Father – my great grandfather – whilst serving in the Indian Army had a riding accident. He misjudged the height of the branch of a tree he rode under. He was knocked off his horse and suffered a head injury. He retired from the army and was never really the same – he used to go into rages – I think he must have suffered brain injury.
    Janet Coke was known as Nettie- Harry was described as ‘Nettie’s boy’


    • Hi Yasmin. Apologies for taking so long to reply, illness in the family has been taking up my time. Thanks for the information about Harry’s father which perhaps explains the reason why Harry moved in with Janet Coke and family. I got as far as I could with the story but there were a number of loose ends. In particular I am intrigued about how Harry’s mother and father got to know the Coke family. It appears that their paths couyld have crossed at various times but there’s no definite evidence about that. Thanks again. Neil


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