Most people with the surname Blackett acquired it either by birth or by marriage. In the case of Thomas Sharples (1837-1882) of Clayton le Moors, Lancashire, however, he chose to adopt the name of George Blackett, and married and had his three children baptized with the surname of Blackett.
Born in Clayton le Moors, east of Blackburn, Lancashire in 1837, Thomas appears in the 1841 census as part of the household of his father, Edmund Sharples, a printer, and appears again as Thomas Sharples in 1851 when he was working on a farm in the area. However, we have not been able to find him in the censuses of 1861 or 1871. In 1872 George Blackett, a carter, 28 (his true age was 35) married Ellen Johnson, 21, of Manchester at Rochdale Register Office. George’s father’s name is shown as Edmund, a block printer. This George Blackett is undoubtedly the same person as Thomas Sharples.
‘George’ and Ellen had three children baptized with the name Blackett over the next few years, but the family appear in the 1881 Clayton le Moors census with the surname ‘Sharples’ and George has reverted to the Christian name of Thomas. He died and was buried under that name in 1882. By 1891, his widow, Ellen, and her children had re-adopted the name ‘Blackett’, which they retained.
The great-granddaughter of Thomas/George and Ellen remembers as a teenager learning from her grandfather Edwin Blackett that his father had changed his name from Sharples to Blackett. His motive for so doing remains unknown, though possible reasons could be an earlier marriage that was still legally in force, or perhaps being sought by the law, e.g. for a criminal offence, desertion from the army or navy, etc. Although several instances of a Thomas Sharples being sentenced to prison appear in the Lancashire criminal records between 1861 and 1872, there is no evidence that they refer to this Thomas Sharples.
The more intriguing question, however, is why Thomas Sharples chose ‘George Blackett’ as a new name. No Blacketts have been found in his family and there were very few Blacketts in Lancashire at the time. One possible connection may be to Edwin Blackett, who married Ann Bentley in Manchester in 1852. Edwin was a relatively unusual name for a Blackett anywhere in 19th century England, and yet Thomas Sharples/George Blackett chose the name Edwin Blackett for his son. Whilst this may be no more than coincidence, it is worth exploring this family in a little more detail.
This Edwin Blackett descends from a branch formerly based in Appleby, Westmorland (see third paragraph of West of the Pennines and Barbados) and Edwin’s family is an interesting, and occasionally colourful, one.
No baptism for Edwin has been found, though in the 1861 census he is shown as aged 37 and born in Selby, Yorkshire. At his marriage in 1852 Edwin Blackett is described as a schoolmaster, the same profession as his father, Lancelot, though this does not seem to have been his permanent profession as he was an apprentice draper in Leeds in 1841 and a draper in York in 1861. He has not been found in the 1851 census but an Edwin Blackett, aged 16 (in 1841) born Leeds, appears in the Register of British Merchant Seamen for 1841-1844, with just one voyage on the ‘Satellite’ recorded for 2 Dec 1843. According to family legend Edwin was eventually lost at sea and/or captured by pirates, though no evidence to corroborate this has been found, and he may have been confused with an elder brother, Joseph Wilkes Blackett, who was lost at sea in 1849 on his way to America. Edwin’s wife, Ann, and children were living with him in 1861, but in 1871 Ann is shown as a widow.
No hard evidence has been discovered linking this Edwin Blackett to Thomas Sharples, however, and the reason for Thomas changing his name remains a mystery.
(Our thanks are due to Theresa Hindle, nee Blackett, great-granddaughter of Thomas Sharples/George Blackett, for some of the family information above.)