Blank spaces and circumstantial evidence

This is the fourth part of the three-part story of the life of my great, great, great grandmother, Mary Ann Port, which aims to explain why, despite the absence of evidence that she ever had any children, I believe her to be my ancestor.


I first met Mary Ann Port (in a genealogical sense) about 16 years ago. Our earliest introductions to our ancestors usually come through the discovery of their name as a parent in a census return, or on a baptismal record, or for our male ancestors, perhaps their name as the father on a marriage certificate. At this stage, they’re no more than a name on a document. We might have an age or an occupation which would start to tell us something about them as people, but often all we have is a name. Our responsibility as family historians is to bring them back to life; to attempt to tell their stories from cradle to grave and to do whatever we can to ensure that they become much more than a name and a few dates on a family tree.

This is what I’ve attempted to do with Mary Ann Port. The first reference I found to her was on a list of hits, the result of a FreeBMD search. I had been researching my grandmother’s father’s family and I’d come to a shuddering halt with her grandfather, Thomas Port. It’s a long story but after about 20 years of intermittent searching, I had failed to discover a record of Thomas’s birth/baptism. I knew from a succession of censuses that he was born in ‘Middlesex, London’ (thanks Thomas!) and, from the 1891 census[1] (the last one taken before his death), I gained the more specific information that he was born in St Pancras, London.

1891 census Smethwick

1891 census showing Thomas Port and family living in Smethick, and recording his place of birth as ‘London St Pancras’. TNA reference: RG 12/2364 f.41 p.21

Despite this nugget of genealogical gold, the breakthrough that I wanted didn’t follow. I still couldn’t find a record of his birth/baptism so I was still lacking that vital evidence of parentage that we always need to move on with our research. And as more and more information became available online (the release of Ancestry’s London Parish Registers database proved to be one of the biggest disappointments of my genealogical life) and I still couldn’t find Thomas, I began to think that I would never be able to find out anything about his origins.

Other than his age (everything I’d found suggested a date of birth sometime around 1822) and the likelihood that he was born in the St Pancras area of London, the only evidence I had came from the records of his two marriages. Unfortunately, the details on the two certificates were different. On the first (which took place in Buckingham in 1847[2]) there was a blank space where his father’s details should be; on the second (1861 in Smethwick[3]) he named his father as Thomas Port (deceased), a grocer.

Thomas Port Marriages

Thomas Port’s two marriage certificates, the first showing a blank space where his father’s details should be, the second naming his father as Thomas Port (deceased), a grocer.
General Register Office

I’ll return to my thoughts on this discrepancy later. While it didn’t answer the question of Thomas’s origins, it was, nevertheless, something to work with.

Let’s go back to that FreeBMD search I mentioned before. By 2006, the FreeBMD website was 8 years old and they had all but met their initial target of completing the ‘first keying’ of the years 1837 to 1901. To those of us who developed our research skills in a pre-digital age, the ability to interrogate large databases such as the GRO indexes in sophisticated ways, and to achieve almost instant results was nothing short of revolutionary. Those long, physically demanding and mentally draining searches in the index volumes at Somerset House/St Catherine’s House/the Family Records Centre (delete as appropriate to your generation) were now (thankfully!) a thing of the past. Seriously, you millennial genealogists will never understand what we had to go through!

I could now carry out searches in ways that simply weren’t possible before. For example, I could ask the FreeBMD website to show me all records for the surname Port (births, marriages and deaths) that were registered in Buckingham. This was probably the most significant and productive search I’ve ever carried out and it produced the following results:


Screen shot from FreeBMD website showing results of a search for all events for the surname Port in the Buckingham registration district.

The only restriction on date was that the Buckingham registration district ceased to exist in 1935 so this meant that there were only four ‘Port’ events registered in Buckingham between 1837 and 1935. Of course, it was possible that the database was incomplete, it was after all, still in its infancy, but a search carried out today still produces the same results as it did back in 2006.

Three of the hits were familiar to me; the (first) marriage of Thomas Port (to Mary Layton in 1847) and the births of their first two children, Kate Elizabeth Mary in 1849 and Frederick Thomas (my great grandfather) in 1850. The absence of any later events could be explained by the fact that Thomas and Mary had moved to Birmingham shortly after Frederick was born; the family were to remain in the West Midlands for the rest of the 19th century.

But what of the other event on the list: the death of Mary Ann Port? I had no idea who she was but the fact of her death occurring within a year of Thomas’s marriage made it clearly worth investigating.

Her death certificate gave me few clues.[4] She was a 57-year old gentlewoman and the informant was a woman called Martha Pipkin who didn’t appear to be related to Mary Ann. The only address given was Buckingham and there was nothing else that I could usefully follow up.

I found her burial record[5] (which told me nothing that I didn’t already know) and I found an intriguing death notice in the Bucks Herald[6], describing her as ‘Miss Port late of Missenden’. She was clearly a woman of some substance but I couldn’t find any evidence that she’d left a will. I did, eventually, discover that letters of administration had been granted on her estate, the record of the grant naming Samuel Truman and Mary Stevens as her administrators.[7] It was this discovery that led me to finding her father’s will, details of the Chancery Case, her admission to the lunatic asylum and, after many years of research, a long line of ancestry, stretching back to the Oxfordshire town of Dorchester (pictured above).

I had an affluent English family to explore and over the years, as I discovered more and more about them, I became increasingly attached to the Ports of Dorchester. I found two Port brothers being admitted to Dorchester Grammar School in 1659 and 1663; I found their father listed in the Hearth Tax returns, paying more than anyone else in Dorchester (it turned out that he owned the local inn!); I found wills and marriage licences and all the sorts of things that I always thought only other researchers ever found.

There was just one problem. I had no idea how, or even if, Mary Ann was related to my Thomas.

There was an enormous amount of circumstantial evidence to link them, notably the fact that Mary Ann had a brother called Thomas and, guess what? He was a grocer! And he lived in St Pancras. But my theory wasn’t that my Thomas was the son of Mary Ann’s brother of the same name, but that he was Mary Ann’s illegitimate son.

Market Place, Buckingham

Market Place, Buckingham

After all, if he really was Thomas’s son, why wouldn’t he say so when he married in Buckingham for the first time in 1847? I could understand why he might give those details in 1861; he was living a long way from where he’d lived as a young man (and possibly, where he’d grown up) and he was now a man of some standing, with a reputation to maintain. So why not invent a father’s name if you could get away with it and why not give the details of someone well known to you (i.e. your mother’s brother)?

Earlier this year, after doing a DNA test in 2019, I finally came up with proof that I was related to the Ports of Dorchester. I found a 5th-8th cousin match with someone who was clearly related to Mary Ann’s grandmother, Jane Franklin.

It was a genuine eureka moment. To know that after all these years I could claim the Ports as my own and that I could trace my roots back to the beautiful town of Dorchester. But there was still one problem to resolve.

The DNA match didn’t prove that Mary Ann was Thomas’s mother, merely that either she or someone closely related to her was almost certainly his parent. And there were two other candidates; her older sister, Ann, and her younger brother, Thomas.

I knew very little about Ann. The Chancery documents had told me that, after being ‘placed out at School under the Care of Miss Lane at Chelsea’ she had lived with her mother, Elizabeth.[8] This took me up to 1809. She was clearly still around (and unmarried) in 1817 when the suit was settled and the payments were made to the three children (not children by then – Ann was 31!) but I’d never been able to find out what happened to her after that. It was almost by accident that I found the document which answered my question. It seems that she had gone to Germany where she had worked as a governess (sound familiar?) and that she had died there (in Wetter near Hardecke, just south of Dortmund) in 1823. Letters of administration were granted to her brother Thomas and Thomas and Mary Ann were named as the only people entitled to benefit from her estate.[9]

Thomas, meanwhile, had done quite well for himself. I intend to write about him in a future blog post so I won’t say too much here, but as a short summary, he’d set up business as a grocer and oilman (initially in partnership with a cousin-by-marriage on his mother’s side) and traded from an address in St Pancras from the mid-1810s until the late 1820s, at which point he moved out to Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire, where he died in 1841.[10]

Thomas never married but he did have a long-term relationship with a woman called Lucy Lambert. They had at least three children, all boys, called James, Charles Thomas and William.[11] It’s the name of the second child, born in Berkhamsted in 1832, that convinces me that Thomas was not the father of ‘my’ Thomas. Why would you give a child the middle name Thomas if you already had a son called Thomas?

So, if Thomas wasn’t my direct ancestor, that left just Ann and Mary Ann. I don’t know when Ann went to Germany and I may never know but if she had been there for several years before she died in 1823, she’s unlikely to have given birth to a son in London in 1822.

My money is on Mary Ann, largely because of the Buckingham connection. She died in the same small town in 1846, the year before Thomas married there. My theory is that she had a relationship with someone (probably in Buckingham) in the early 1820s and that Thomas was the result. She went to London (St Pancras) when she was due to give birth (to stay with her brother?) so that Thomas was born there. He then grew up in Buckingham, where he married in 1847. (I haven’t found him in 1841 but that’s another matter!)

Of course, none of this is proof but I feel confident that I’m right and that I can safely claim Mary Ann as my great, great, great grandmother. I might be wrong but if I am, at least I know (thanks to the DNA match) that I have the right family and that if Mary Ann isn’t Thomas’s mother, she’s his aunt. Now I just need to dig deeper into those 34,000 or so 5th-8th cousin DNA matches to see if I can work out who his father was…

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 19 August 2020

[1] 1891 Census, 4 Windmill Lane, Smethwick – The National Archives (TNA) reference: RG 12/2364 f.41 p.21
[2] Marriage certificate of Thomas Port & Mary Layton – General Register Office (GRO) reference: JUN 1847 Buckingham vol 6 page 495
[3] Marriage certificate of Thomas Port & Mary Ann Berrill – GRO reference: SEP 1861 Kings Norton vol 6a page 615
[4] Death certificate of Mary Ann Port – GRO reference: JUN 1846 Buckingham vol 6 page 236
[5] Burial of Mary Ann Port, St Peter & St Paul, Buckingham – Buckinghamshire Archives reference: PR 29/1/14 p.261
[6] Bucks Herald, 23 May 1846, page 4, column b – British Library Newspapers Collection accessed via Findmypast 15 August 2020
[7] Letters of Administration for Mary Ann Port, 1846, Prerogative Court of Canterbury – TNA reference: PROB 6/222 f.308
[8] Chancery Decrees & Orders. Port v. Hovil – TNA reference: C 33/601 f.1004v
[9] Letters of Administration for Ann Port, 1846, Prerogative Court of Canterbury – TNA reference: PROB 6/199
[10] Death certificate of Thomas Port – GRO reference: SEP 1841 Berkhampstead vol 6 page 281
[11] Baptisms of illegitimate children of Thomas Port and Lucy Lambert, St Peter Berkhampstead – Hertfordshire Archives & Local Studies reference: DP/19/1/8 pp.130-131

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