I followed Mark's maternal grandfather, John William Ashton, and found him living with his family in the 1891 census. I had already discovered him living with his family in the 1901 and 1911 censuses, so finding him with them in the 1891 didn't provide any new relatives to research, but rather provided a more complete picture of the family.
I already had some solid facts from the 1911 census about John Ashton and his parents. I decided to focus on his father using the facts I had gleaned from the 1911 census: Thomas William Ashton; age 50 (b abt 1861); (m abt 1885, at abt age 24, to Rachel Mary); Steel Plate Mill Roller; b Walker, Northumberland; lived in West Hartlepool, Durham at time of 1911 census.
Neither the 1901 census nor the 1891 census had previously revealed any additional information about him.
I decided to follow John's father, Thomas William Ashton, to the 1881 census. He has his age listed as 30 on the 1891 census. which means he would have been born in about 1861, in Walker, Northumberland.
Unfortunately, as he was married to Rachel for 26 years as at the 1911 census, he would not be married at the time of the 1881 census (as his marriage would have taken place in about 1885).
Reviewing the first page of results to my search on Ancestry, only the top result matched all my criteria: Thomas W Ashton; b abt 1861; birthplace Walker, Northumberland; resident in Durham at the time of the 1881 census (which is where he was living in the two subsequent censuses).
Of the other possible matches none were born in the right place, and only a handful were born in the right year. My theory that the first result was my Thomas William Ashton was confirmed when I looked at the further information provided on the census form: he is listed as being a "labourer in iron works". I assumed this was pretty close to the Steel Plate Mill Roller that he later became (however I may need to return to this presumption at a later date and explore these two roles in this time period. While I am not entirely confident that this is the same occupation or even the same industry, I am not relying on this occupation fact in isolation - when coupled with the other exact matches of name, gender, birthplace, age, and ties to Durham I think I can safely say this is my guy. Famous last words? I hope not!).
The other closest possibilities were a Thomas W Ashton born in 1866, listed as being an iron moulder's apprentice; and a Thomas Ashton born in 1861, listed as being an 'Overlooker of Spinners (Worsted)'. Of all the search results it was only the top one (who I believe to be my guy) and this latter one with any connection to Durham - both were living there at the time of the 1881 censu. Of the two other possiblities (ie: second and third in the search results, as listed above) one was too young and the other worked in the wrong industry, so I was pretty confident I had found the ancestor for whom I had been searching.Thomas, at 20 years old, unmarried and working as a labourer in iron works, is listed as living with his mother, Jane Ashton, at 39 Chalk Street in Stockton. Jane is the head of the household, is 55 years old (b abt 1826), is widowed, and was born in Walker, Northumberland. She does not not have any occupation listed.
Also living in the house are Robert Gibbons, 20 (b abt 1861) and John Gibbons, 12 (b abt 1869), Jane's grandsons. The older of these is also working as a labourer in iron works, while the younger is a scholar. Robert was born in So Shields, Durham, and his younger brother was born in Walker, Northumberland.
So all of a sudden I have a mystery: What happened to Thomas' father - what was his name and how did he died, and when? Where is Thomas' sister (I am assuming Jane had a daughter, who married a Gibbons, hence the fact that Jane's grandsons have a different last name)? Have Thomas' nephews been orphaned and taken in by their grandmother?
I was particularly fascinated by the fact that Thomas and his nephew Robert are not only the same age, but are also doing the same job. Did they get on well? Did they work side by side and go home together and enjoy each other's company?