Don’t Believe The Hints

We’ve all been there. We’re following a line back, we’ve got our ancestor in the census, and we’ve found her marriage. We know the four key pieces of information that we ideally need to formulate a search for her birth; her name, her father’s name, her approximate date of birth and her place of birth. But when we go to search for a record of her birth, there’s nothing that looks at all promising.

If we’ve done our homework properly, we should know where we should be looking. There are a number of questions to ask ourselves before concluding that we’ve carried out an effective search in the appropriate records. Are we searching before or after the introduction of civil registration? Do we know which registration district or Church of England parish our place comes under? Are there any gaps in the Church of England registers? Does the website we’re looking at actually have the records that it claims to have? Are there any nonconformist registers for the area? Are there records which we can only see as physical documents in an archive?

I was working on a case recently where I experienced the type of situation outlined above. Eliza GRAHAM (née MITCHELL)’s later life was well documented and she could easily be traced from her marriage to John GRAHAM in 1857 through to her appearance in the 1911 census and her eventual death in 1915.

Year Residence Occupation Age Birthplace/Father
1857 St Mark, Old Street Full age Robert Mitchell, Upholsterer
1861 St Luke, Old Street Fancy Box Maker 27 Surrey, Southwark
1871 Shoreditch 36 Middlesex, London
1881 Shoreditch Fancy Box Maker 41 St Georges E, London
1891 St Luke, Old Street Fancy Box Maker 53 London, St Lukes
1901 Islington Fancy Box Maker 64 London, St Lukes
1911 Islington Old Age Pension 76 London, Borough
1915 Islington 75

We can see, unfortunately, that there are some major discrepancies here, both with her age and her place of birth. The age in the 1881 census and the age at death (and burial) are clearly wrong and the overall body of evidence points towards a birth sometime around 1834 or ’35.

It’s difficult to know what’s going on with Eliza’s birthplace and difficult to imagine how someone could give such different information over the years. We need to bear in mind that what we’re looking at is the enumerator’s interpretation of what Eliza (or possibly her husband (in 1861 and 1871)) wrote on the census schedule but there is still clearly some serious inconsistency here.

And it’s the inconsistencies that make our task so challenging, particularly, when initial searches fail to turn up a promising record of Eliza’s birth/baptism and there’s no sign of a suitable Eliza MITCHELL in the 1841 or 1851 censuses. These online searches will by now have brought up some ‘hints’ suggesting that this record or that record might relate to our Eliza and I can see why it might be tempting to accept one of them – for example, the one that points us towards the baptism of Elizabeth, the daughter of Joseph MITCHELL, a cabinet maker, and his wife Eliza, at St Leonard’s, Shoreditch on 11 January 1835.

At first sight this looks quite convincing. Except that our Eliza never gave her place of birth as Shoreditch and, crucially, she stated at the time of her marriage that her father was Robert MITCHELL, an upholsterer. Further, this Elizabeth had an older sister called Eliza Frances and following the family up we can quickly see that they are not our MITCHELLs.


Detail from The Forest by Jacob Van Ruisdael, 1891

And this is the point at which family history sets off on one of two divergent paths; the ancestor collectors head off in one direction with their newly adopted ‘ancestor’ tacked onto their family tree, while the true researchers take their first steps on a far more interesting and ultimately rewarding journey.

The information supplied by our ancestors on marriage certificates and the way in which it’s supplied to the clerk (i.e. accepted as true unless they have good reason to question it) is always vulnerable to that regrettable habit that many of them had; namely, a tendency to lie. Having said that, the rule of thumb should always be that we accept what they say until such time as it starts not to add up. And when someone says that their father was an upholsterer (hardly a common trade even in London in the nineteenth century) we need to take notice of that. It’s got an air of authority about it and it’s not the sort of thing that someone would make up without reason.

So the discovery of a Robert MITCHELL, an upholsterer, of the right age to have been Eliza’s father, living in London in the middle of the nineteenth century is definitely worth investigating. This Robert was born in Norwich in 1799 and married Ann YEOMANS at the parish church of St Giles, Norwich on 16 August 1819. Shortly after they married, Robert and Ann moved to London, and initially settled in St Luke’s, Old Street before moving south of the river to the parish of Christ Church, Southwark. Significantly, these are two of the places which Eliza MITCHELL gave as her birthplace in the later censuses.

However, the 1841 census finds Robert and Ann living in the parish of St Bride, Fleet Street. Robert’s listed as an upholsterer and he and Ann, along with their two children, Letitia and George were all not born in the county. The problem with all of this is that there’s no sign of our Eliza and no record of a baptism for her. So, if Robert was her father, where was she in 1841, when she would have been about six years old? Searches in Norfolk also failed to turn up anything promising so she didn’t seem to have been living with grandparents or other relatives there.

And then the first sign that all was not quite as straightforward as it might be emerged when Ann (Robert’s wife) was found in the 1851 census, living at an address in Gloucester Street in the parish of St George the Martyr, Holborn. The only relative living with her was her son George and both she and George were listed as upholsterers. It’s clearly the right family and Robert’s absence appears to be explained by Ann’s description as a widow.

But the truth is far more complicated and interesting. I haven’t been able to find Robert in 1851 but he turns up in the 1861 census, aged 61, working as an upholsterer and quite clearly still alive! Intriguingly, his marital condition is given as ‘Married separated’ – the only time I’ve ever seen that description in the census. He was living in Little Russell Street, in the parish of St George, Bloomsbury, not far from where Ann and George had been living ten years earlier.

1861-Robert Mitchell census St George, Bloomsbury - TNA RG 9-167 f.60 p.53

1861 census, 1 Little Russell Street, St George, Bloomsbury, showing Robert Mitchell as a 61-year old Upholsterer. His marital status is given as ‘Mar[ried] Separated’.
The National Archives reference: RG 9/167 f.60 p.53

And ten years later, in 1871, he can be found back in the parish of St George the Martyr, living in Devonshire Street, which backed onto Gloucester Street. If Robert was separated from Ann, he certainly doesn’t seem have been hiding from her! He was still working as an upholsterer but is now described as a widower.

Ann had probably died in 1863 (there’s a promising death registered in the Holborn district in the December quarter of 1863 of a 63-year old Anne MITCHELL which needs to be investigated). Whether this is our Ann(e) or not, there’s no obvious sign of her in the 1861 census.

The death of Robert MITCHELL, aged 75, registered in Holborn in the March quarter of 1875 is almost certainly that of our man.

I spent some time following up each of Robert and Ann’s children in the hope of picking up some clues but despite uncovering a number of interesting stories, I found nothing that linked the family to our Eliza.

I was running out of leads to investigate. I kept looking back at what we knew about Eliza from later records and it occurred to me that the one consistent detail about her was her occupation, as a fancy box maker. So I decided to search the 1851 census for anyone called Eliza, born within a couple of years of 1835, who was listed as a fancy box maker (or similar). My search on TheGenealogist turned up an entry for an Eliza HAWKINS, a ‘fancy trimmer of boxes’, which attracted my attention as she was living in St George the Martyr, Holborn and gave her place of birth as ‘Borough, Southwark’. At 18, she was a bit old but I decided to follow it up anyway and saw that the surname was actually SAWKINS.

1851-Eliza Sawkins census St George the Martyr, Holborn - TNA HO 107-1513 f.240 p.52

1851 census, 12 Leigh Street, St George the Martyr, Holborn, showing Eliza Sawkins as an 18-year old Fancy trimmer of Boxes. Her place of birth is given as ‘Borough, London’.
The National Archives reference: HO 107/1513 f.240 p.52

Could this be our Eliza? If it was, the new surname didn’t help us as there was no record of an Eliza SAWKINS being baptised at the right time and it still didn’t explain where she was in 1841. Nevertheless, the address she was living at (12 Leigh Street) was a short distance from Gloucester Street where Ann and George were living at the time and the entry had a lot going for it.

There was another clue to follow up. When Eliza had married John GRAHAM in 1857, the two witnesses were Emily McDONNELL and Stephen POUND.

Stephen was, like John GRAHAM, a carman and the likelihood is that he was John’s friend/colleague. Emily McDONNELL proved to be far more interesting and the discovery of an entry for her in the 1861 census proved a major breakthrough.

Henry and Emily McDONNELL were living in Hoxton, part of the ancient parish of Shoreditch just north of the City of London. What immediately jumps out is that Emily, aged 31, was listed as an upholstress and her place of birth was given as St George, Southwark. She and Henry had an 8-year old daughter also called Emily, but best of all, the fourth person in the family, was a 52-year old woman named Emily TAWKINS. The name is clearly entered as TAWKINS but it must surely be a case of a simple mis-reading by the enumerator, of SAWKINS, an unfamiliar surname.

1861-Henry & Emily McDonnell census Hoxton - TNA RG 9-239 f.4 p.9

1861 census, 2 Bevendon Street, St John the Baptist, Hoxton, showing Henry & Emily McDonnell and Emily SAWKINS (entered here as TAWKINS).
The National Archives reference: RG 9/239 f.4 p.9

And just to complicate things even further, the birth registration of the younger Emily (Henry and Emily’s daughter) records her mother’s surname as … MITCHELL!

My head was spinning by now. If Emily SAWKINS was Emily McDONNELL’s mother, could she also be our Eliza’s mother? It would certainly explain why Eliza was using the surname SAWKINS in 1851 but why did she claim that her father was Robert MITCHELL? And why did Emily McDONNELL also give her maiden surname as MITCHELL?

It took a while to untangle all the details but I was eventually able to show that the older Emily had been born on 12 February 1809 as Amelia PINK (probably in Turnham Green, in west Middlesex as she claimed in a number of censuses) and baptised at St George the Martyr, Southwark on the same day as her sister Eliza, in October 1811. Both were the daughters of Joseph and Elizabeth PINK. The next documentary evidence we have for Emily/Amelia finds her marrying a man called Joseph BARBER on 9 November 1837 at St Mary, Islington. Joseph is an interesting character whose life cries out to be investigated further. He’s described on the marriage certificate as 38, a widower, a surgeon, and the son of William BARBER, an Officer in the East India Company Service. Joseph most definitely belongs to a different social class to our PINKs, SAWKINS and MITCHELLs but his story will need to be left for another day. There’s more than a touch of Eliza DOOLITTLE and Henry HIGGINS here…

Emily, meanwhile, was described as a widow, aged 28, of 45 City Garden Row, the daughter of Joseph PINK, a carrier. Her surname was given as MITCHELL.

Her marriage to Joseph BARBER didn’t last very long. On 16 May 1841, the widowed (twice widowed?) Emily BARBER married William SAWKINS at the parish church of St John the Baptist, Hoxton. Emily’s address was again given as City Garden Row (as was William’s) and this time she described her father as Joseph PINK (deceased), carrier.

Just a few weeks later, at the time of the 1841 census, the newly-married William and Emily SAWKINS were living some distance from London in the Essex village of Wanstead. Now part of the London Borough of Redbridge, Wanstead would then have been an essentially rural community. The 1841 census lists five members of the SAWKINS household, including Emily and William, both down as upholsterers.

There is, however, no sign of the younger Emily, nor of Eliza for that matter. To answer this particular question, we need to go back to London, specifically to City Garden Row in the parish of St Luke, Old Street. And here we find a magnificent family group, headed by Elizabeth PINK, aged 55 and described as ‘Independent’ and followed by four other PINKs: Eliza (25, a fancy box maker), Charles (20, a journeyman cabinet maker), Louisa (20, a fancy box maker) and Elizabeth (15, another fancy box maker). And then, separated by a single line indicating that they comprised a separate household unit within the same house, 10-year old Emily MICHELL and 6-year old Eliza MICHELL.

Oh, and living next door? A 70-year old coal dealer called William SAWKINS!

1841-Pink, Michell and Sawkins St Luke, Old Street - TNA HO 107-667-4 f.34 p.19

1841 census, City Garden Row, St Luke, Old Street, showing the Pink and Michell families with William Sawkins living next door.
The National Archives reference: HO 107/667/4 f.34 p.19

Once my feet had returned to solid ground, I began to piece it all together. Elizabeth, the matriarch, was presumably the widow of Joseph PINK, the carrier. The four younger PINKs were Elizabeth’s children (including Eliza, who had been baptised on the same day as our Emily/Amelia). And young Emily and Eliza were surely the daughters of Emily/Amelia from her relationship with Mr MITCHELL.

I have never found a record of a marriage between Emily/Amelia PINK and a Mr MITCHELL. My supposition is that she and Robert MITCHELL had met through their work in the upholstery trade and had an extra-marital sexual relationship which resulted in the births of two daughters. Robert, who was at this time married to Ann, later separated from her (had she found out about his affair?) and I suspect that Eliza, growing up, knew that her father was Robert MITCHELL the upholsterer and therefore gave this name when she got married.

I still can’t find a record of Eliza’s birth/baptism. There’s an intriguing baptism of Amelia MITCHELL, the illegitimate daughter of Amelia MITCHELL at St Mary, Islington on 14 November 1832. Amelia’s abode was given as ‘Workhouse’ and her occupation as ‘Poor’. This may or may not be our Emily/Amelia; the age of the daughter doesn’t quite tie in with the 10-year old Emily MICHELL in 1841 but it may be relevant that Emily MITCHELL married John BARBER at St Mary, Islington in 1837.

Sometimes, what we need to do is let go of the idea of looking for a record of birth and instead look for evidence of birth. Here, I think we have enough evidence to say that Eliza at least believed that she was the daughter of Robert MITCHELL and that we definitely have enough evidence to say that she was Emily/Amelia PINK’s daughter.

One final document to deal with. I eventually found Emily MITCHELL’s marriage to Henry McDONNELL. They were married in St John, Bedminster (Bristol) on 5 May 1852. Emily gave her father’s name as Joseph MICHELL [sic], an upholsterer. This would seem to be an amalgam of her grandfather (Joseph) and her father (Robert MITCHELL the upholsterer).

There are still some gaps in the story. Where was Robert in 1851? And where were Emily/Amelia and her older daughter Emily? Was she still living as Mrs SAWKINS? What happened to William SAWKINS? Always more questions. But then, that’s what keeps us interested.

If we’d accepted the Ancestry ‘hint’ that Elizabeth, the daughter of Joseph MITCHELL the cabinet maker was in fact our Eliza, we would have missed out on a great story and, perhaps more importantly, we would have ended up with someone else’s ancestors!


Detail from The London Poor At Their Christmas Marketing – A Sketch In The New Cut by Godefroy Durand (1872)

Family history research is not easy – don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. It requires a wide range of skills and a deep understanding of a whole host of diverse sources which puts it on a par with any other type of historical research.

The sources that we routinely use in our research were not designed with family historians in mind so we have to learn to tease the information out of them and we can only do this by familiarising ourselves with the records; reading about their original purpose and the legislation that led to their creation, thinking about their archival context and the physical structure of the documents and understanding how they were maintained and why they were preserved.

We can’t and shouldn’t expect our research to be straightforward all the time, to go from one generation to another without any setbacks. The major commercial websites might try to persuade you that it IS easy and they’ll offer you ‘hints’ and ‘suggestions’ as you go. Could this be your ancestor? Well, possibly, but of course these hints are generated by algorithms which attempt to match pieces of data extracted from various sources without any of the skills, knowledge and understanding which we as researchers have developed – or at least, have the ability to develop.

So, when you come to a halt in your research, that’s the time to start putting those skills to the test, not the time to blindly follow hints.

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 13 June 2020

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10 Responses to Don’t Believe The Hints

  1. Pingback: When Digitisation Goes Bad Part I: The Night Of The Living Death Duties | Lifelines Research

  2. Suzi says:

    Brilliant article! Fascinating depths and… Wow that’s a lot to digest!


  3. Pingback: Who Was Harriet Horlock? – Dig Up Your Ancestors

  4. Rita Cobb says:

    Thank you..sometimes I have found several other members and their information is all wrong. Then I keep getting these as hints…..


  5. Jean Coward says:

    Loved reading about the tangled Webb our ancestors leave, evidence to prove as well not to follow other people’s family trees without checking your own evidence first.


  6. Diana Morris Wild says:

    Excellent detective work! And tenacity! So important for us to do our own research and analysis and not to rely on hints and other people’s work on commercial websites. Thank you for laying your adventure out for us!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. My goodness, what a tangled web of names and relationships! I’m getting my pencil out to draw the family tree.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Great story and detective trail, Dave. I continue to shake my head in disbelief at some of the trees that obviously see a hint and grab it as ‘theirs’. Well done.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Jan Brandt says:

    Well done, the spreadsheet format is a wonderful way to distill facts and the evidence/sources for those facts. Laying out each fact & source to consider defense/rejection is a wonderful reminder.
    A big white board has helped me track two men with the 1st & surname, who BOTH marry women with the same 1st name, in the same year AND parish. Hints point to 43 recent trees which follow the erroneous merging of these two families, NOT. Devil & details.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Brilliant stuff Dave, a lesson for all of us at any level of experience. Easy to follow and love the way how you have broken down each piece of evidence and ruled it in or out. Our Ancestors never told lies did they?

    Liked by 1 person

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