Home » Family History » Great-Great Grandfather William Armstrong Atwell

Great-Great Grandfather William Armstrong Atwell

This may seem like skipping around a little bit, but I feel the need to write about my great-grandfather’s father before I move on to his siblings. After all, William is what these diverse siblings have in common!

William Armstrong Atwell was the firstborn child and only son of Richard Atwell and Margaret Patterson. He was born at George Street in Lowell, Middlesex County, MA on June 11, 1860. The family moved to various places in Eastern Massachusetts (more on that when I write about his father at a later time), settling for a period in Taunton, Bristol County, MA. There in 1880, twenty-year-old William was working as a machinist at a foundry and machine company. One of the few things I remember my great-grandfather telling me was that his father had three fingers (on which hand, I’m not sure). I have to wonder if that condition may have been a result of this work.

In 1881, the Atwell family moved to Providence, Providence County, RI. Here, William met his future wife, Altie May Williams, daughter of John Williams and Mary Elizabeth Randall. Altie worked as a box-maker, so I’m not sure how the two would have met. Perhaps William was beginning his second career as a musician (specifically, a cornet player) and perhaps Altie saw him perform. In any case, the two were married in Providence on August 24, 1882.

William seemed to retain his job as a machinist in Providence at lease for a short while. In the 1885 Rhode Island census, he listed his occupation as both “machinist & musician”. According to the Providence City Directories that I could find, William was listed as a printer from at least 1895 to 1898 (what kind of printer, I wonder?). After this, he is listed as a musician in all the records I could find.

The city directories and some newspaper articles have given me the most clues about William’s musical career. He play cornet either on his own or with Atwells Orchestra at various local organizations, such as the Central Falls Fire Department and the National Association of Stationary Engineers. From 1907 to the end of his life, William set up the Atwell Entertainment Bureau, which also housed the “Atwell Society Orchestra” and “Atwell Studios” that featured teaching music. In fact, his daughter Winifred was listed as music teacher here from 1908 – 1909.

"Larboard Watch", a song William performed as part of a duet in 1898.  Courtesy Library of Congress.

“Larboard Watch”, a song William performed as part of a duet in 1898. Courtesy Library of Congress.

As I stated in my last post, William and Altie divorced sometime between 1900 (when they are together on the census) and 1905 (when William re-married). I’m not sure of the reason; perhaps William’s career ramping up was a contributing factor. I did find that Altie’s divorced (though listed as widowed) mother Mary had lived with the family throughout the 1890s. Perhaps her moving out was evidence of strain in the household? Their five living children remained in William’s custody and I have no written record of Altie after this time (more on her and her incredible ancestral line in future posts).

Ethel Emma Fane was born around 1879 in England. Her family immigrated to the USA in 1892 and lived in Providence on Pearl Street by 1900. She was the daughter of John and Alice Fane and had a sister Mary, who was only a year younger than Ethel. While Ethel was employed as a “pearl worker”, her sister was a music teacher. I’m sure that although Mary worked at a different location than William, their paths must have crossed in the course of business. Somehow William met Ethel and they were married on June 1, 1905.

Ethel apparently built a relationship with her stepchildren (or at the very least, my great-grandfather Thomas) and became a mother herself on May 14, 1906, when son Wallace John was born. Happiness in the Atwell household did not last a very long time, however. Eventually William’s health deteriorated to a point where he no longer played cornet. Finally, after a week-long illness, William died at home at 197 Longfellow Street on January 24, 1913. He was buried at Oakland Cemetery in nearby Cranston. Ethel made sure his gravestone was inscribed: “In Loving Memory of My Husband, William A. Atwell, 1860 – 1913”.

William and Altie’s children were all grown up and living on their own once William died, so Ethel and Wallace moved back to her parents’ home. Ethel lived with her son at least until he was married to Mildred G. Stubbs in the 1930s, then she appears as a housekeeper and companion to interior designer Ellen Dwinell in 1940. I don’t have any record of Ethel after this point; I’m not even sure where she is buried. In fact, there seems to be so much more to find out about William and his family that once again warrants a research trip to Rhode Island.

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One thought on “Great-Great Grandfather William Armstrong Atwell

  1. Pingback: Third Great-Grandparents John Wesley and Mary Elizabeth (Randall) Williams | Beautiful Water Genealogy

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