You Don’t Know What You’ve Got…

I realise that I’m running the risk of sounding like a broken record here but it seems like there’s always something else to say when it comes to assessing the work of the major commercial genealogical websites.

Because it’s undeniable that, alongside the many clear and obvious benefits of digitisation there are a number of pitfalls. And one of the most striking of these is the way that the whole process of digitisation robs us of an important sense of context.

Context is vital in any type of historical research and when we’re handling original documents in an archive, we have a tangible and visual relationship with that document. We know what it is, partly thanks to the description in the archival catalogue but also because, in the majority of cases, the document does (or at least, is) exactly what it says on the tin. Somewhere, either on the cover, the spine or perhaps on an internal title page, the document will usually tell us what it is.

Ledger, Northampton General Lunatic Asylum – Northamptonshire Archives & Heritage

Even with microfilm and microfiche, there’s usually some sort of description of what it is we’re looking at written on a label on the outside of the microfilm box or on the little paper sleeve holding the fiche. And in both of these cases (although perhaps less so with microfiche), we get a sense of the physical structure of the document in question as we wind/scan through it.

With digitisation, however, we’re instantly dropped down on a particular page, somewhere in the middle of the document: the physical connection with the document has been almost entirely lost.

If we want to understand what the document is telling us about our ancestor (hint: we really do…) we are now largely reliant on the accuracy of the information captured as part of the digitisation process. Ideally, we would expect a good archival description of the document; some information about the larger collection of which it forms a part (i.e. the archival hierarchy to which it belongs); the archival reference to the specific document that we’re looking at, and a reference to the particular page (if it’s in a book or register) or individual item (if it’s part of a collection of loose papers).

Of course, we can usually browse through the digital images, or, in some cases, select a particular image number so that we can jump to a different part of the document and thereby, to some extent, recreate the process experienced by the previous generation of genealogists when using microform ‘surrogates’.

But I would argue that, while experienced researchers might instinctively pursue this as an option, when it comes to newcomers, this is not a concept that would instantly occur to them as something that’s going to add value to their research. The commercial websites are in the business of making it all sound as straightforward as possible. so they’re hardly about to encourage inexperienced researchers to embark on something as seemingly complex as this is.

So, you’d like to think that the descriptions of the documents and the archival details attached to each individual image would do the necessary job and do it well. But as I explained in my previous blog on the subject, this is, sadly, not always the case. What I want to do now is to illustrate the sorts of challenges that we’re up against, by taking a detailed look at the registers of one particular London parish and comparing the actual documents with their descriptions on the Ancestry website.

St Pancras is a vast ancient parish formerly on the outskirts of London but now very much part of the capital’s urban sprawl. The history of its churches is admittedly confusing as two different buildings, situated in different places, have served as the parish church. And both of them are still in existence today.

The original building, with its claims to late-Saxon (or even Roman!) origins, stands to the north of the present St Pancras railway station. It served as the parish church for the whole of the parish of St Pancras until the building of the new neo-classical church on the New Road (now Euston Road) which was consecrated on 8 May 1822. The original parish church then became a chapel of ease to the new church but quickly fell into disrepair and by 1847 it was derelict.

St Pancras Church. Engraved by Charles Pye from a drawing by John Preston Neale. – Brewer, J. Norris (1816). The Beauties of England and Wales, Vol. 10: London and Middlesex (Part 4). London: J. Harris, et al.
Public Domain

This was a period of rapid growth in London and the existing parish churches were simply unable to cope with the thousands of people flooding into the capital, in need of spiritual care. The solution was to build new churches in the rapidly expanding suburbs and in the case of St Pancras, the ideal site for one of those new churches already existed in the shape of the old parish church. The building itself required extensive renovation but nevertheless, baptisms began to be performed again at the church from 1848 and marriages from 1859, and by 1863 the restoration work was complete and the somewhat misleadingly-named new ecclesiastical parish of Old St Pancras was formed.

I did say it was confusing but the key to understanding it all lies in the descriptions and archival references provided by the record holders, the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) – descriptions which Ancestry appear to have widely ignored when digitising the records.

I’ve spent some time today comparing the records on Ancestry with the entries in the LMA catalogue and it’s obvious that there are some serious issues here surrounding nomenclature. The following table lists the baptismal registers for St Pancras parish (i.e. the parish church, whether at its original site up until May 1822 or in its later position since then) and those for Old St Pancras, from 1848 onwards. For each register I have shown the archival reference and the years covered (the LMA catalogue also gives the months in each case but I’ve removed these to make the data clearer). Next to these I’ve added the name of the parish as used by Ancestry.

Table 1. List of baptismal registers for Saint Pancras parish. LMA reference: P90/PAN1
Table 2. List of baptismal registers for Old Saint Pancras parish. LMA reference: P90/PAN2

As you’ll see, no fewer than four different names have been used by Ancestry for Saint Pancras parish, while the ‘new’ Old St Pancras parish has two different names assigned to it, one of which has also been used for the parish church! What the table doesn’t show (due to shortage of space) is that in many cases the references assigned to the registers by Ancestry are also wrong.

You’ll also see that several of the date ranges used by Ancestry are wrong and that a number of the registers are duplicated, which isn’t, in itself a bad thing. But it’s all suggestive of a ‘gung-ho’ approach to the process and this is illustrated by just one example of the extent to which the registers have somehow been mixed up in the course of the digitisation process.

Table 3 relates to a section of digital microfilm described by Ancestry as relating to the parish of ‘Old St Pancras, St Pancras’, and allegedly covering the years 1875-1903. As is so often case with Ancestry, the devil is in the detail. Here I’ve shown the image numbers, the page numbers and the dates covered by the actual registers; the references shown by Ancestry and the actual references according to the LMA catalogue.

Table 3. Showing various discrepancies between Ancestry’s descriptions and the actual archival references

So, it does cover the years 1875 to 1903 but there is clearly a gap of 16 years here: a gap which, you’ll be relieved to hear, is covered elsewhere. You’ll also be relieved to know that the first two pages of P90/PAN1/045 are to be found elsewhere.

The worrying thing about all of this is that the deeper you dig, the more problems you find. At least in this case there don’t appear to be any registers actually missing from the collection. There may be some individual pages or small sections missing but we can rest assured that every baptismal register from the parishes of St Pancras and Old St Pancras is included in one or other of Ancestry’s London Parish Register databases.

I spent about four hours investigating this today and I haven’t even started on the marriages and burials. Who knows what horrors are to be found there…? Surely it isn’t too hard to get this right: all they need to do is to use the descriptions that are readily available via the LMA catalogue. And it’s really not even that complicated. We’re dealing with two separate parishes: St Pancras and Old St Pancras. So all of the registers with the reference P90/PAN1 should be described as St Pancras, and all of those with the reference P90/PAN2 should be described as Old St Pancras.

I mean, yes, Old St Pancras is the actually the newer parish but I think that I’ve cleared that up. At least I hope I have…

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 26 November 2021

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The Last of the Moultings

On 2 February 1974, a 72-year old woman called Gladys Elizabeth Moulting died in Canvey Island, Essex. I know very little about Gladys, except that she was the youngest of two children of George Henry and Harriet Amelia Moulting, that she had been born on 25 July 1901 in the Hertfordshire parish of Tring and that when she was a young girl, her parents had moved to Watford, before settling in Essex in 1924.

Oh, and I also know that Gladys was the last person to bear the surname Moulting…

My interest in the Moulting family began when I discovered the name of William George Moulting of Thorn Cottages, Cornwall Place, Holloway in an 1846 Legacy Duty register entry, relating to my 3x Great Grandmother, Mary Ann Port. Mary Ann had died intestate, and a man called Samuel Truman (who worked at the Stamp Office, the forerunner of the Inland Revenue and the department responsible for the administration of Legacy Duty) had been granted letters of administration at the Prerogative Court of Canterbury.

I knew who Samuel was – he was Mary Ann’s first cousin, and one of the beneficiaries of her father’s will over 40 years earlier – but I wanted to know who William George Moulting was, and my searches led me to uncover the story of a remarkable family.

British Imperial Calendar, 1847, page 122. Findmypast

William George Moulting was born in Evesham, Worcestershire sometime around 1784. He was the son of William and Ann Moulting, who ran the Blue Bell in the High Street. His mother had died in 1813, aged 69 and three years later, his father, then aged 70, married a 17-year-old called Maria Headley – possibly a barmaid from the Blue Bell?

By 1821, William George Moulting was in London and it appears that he was a colleague of Samuel Truman’s: his name appears in the British Imperial Calender as an ‘Alphabet and Indexing Clerk’ in the ‘New establishment for better collecting legacy duty’. That same year, on 22 December 1821, William George Moulting married Mary Bellamy in the recently-opened, ‘new’ St Pancras church on Euston Square.

Surprisingly, William George and Mary had just the one child, a son called George, who was baptised at St Pancras on 14 May 1823.

Baptism of George Moulting, St Pancras, London, 14 May 1823.
London Metropolitan Archives reference: P90/PAN1/013 p.357

Sometime around 1847, William George Moulting retired from the Legacy Duty Office and, at the time of the 1851 census, we find him at his home in Holloway, with his wife, Mary, and their son, George. William died later the same year and Mary continued to live at Thorn Cottages until her death in 1864. They were both buried at Highgate Cemetery.

Their son, George, meanwhile, having served an apprenticeship to an engraver, was now working as an artist, and he appears, initially at least, to have had a degree of success. He twice exhibited paintings at the Royal Academy (in 1849 and 1854) and he was a member of the Royal Society of British Artists, where he exhibited no fewer than 15 watercolours between 1847 and 1857.

George had married Elizabeth Deacon at St Andrew’s church in Barnsbury in 1854 and they would go on to have four children, but their first child, Emily Mary, died aged just a few weeks in 1856. Then on 3 March 1860, just over a year after their oldest son, George Henry, was born, George was admitted to Bethlem Hospital, suffering from ‘acute mania with violent paroxysms of hysteria’ all of which was ascribed to his having suffered a blow to the head, the result of a fall about two years earlier. This, it seems, had forced to him to give up painting and move to the country.

Patient Casebook, Bethlem Hospital reference CB-076 p.11

His case file makes quite harrowing reading but George gradually recovered and on 14 September he was formally discharged.

George returned to the family home near Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire, where a daughter, Rosa Elizabeth, was born in September 1861. Four years later, their fourth and youngest child, William Joseph Moulting, was born. Sadly William Joseph died just 11 months later.

Unfortunately, our sightings of the family over the next few decades are few and far between. George continued to work locally as an artist but there’s no indication that he was actively involved in the London art scene. He lived out the rest of his life in Hemel Hempstead and died at his home in 1894, his daughter Rosa dying (unmarried) three years later. They were both buried in Hemel Hempstead’s Heath Lane Cemetery. George’s widow, Elizabeth, moved the short distance to Watford where their son, George Henry had settled, before she also died, in 1908.

Sometime in the late 1870s, George Henry had moved to Tring, where he found work as an auctioneer’s clerk but at the time of the 1891 census he was living in Watford, with the Lewin family. Later that year, George Henry Moulting married the second Lewin daughter, Harriet Amelia, at the parish church in Watford and, although they initially set up home in Tring, by about 1906 they had moved to Watford with their two daughters, Daisy Florence and Gladys Elizabeth. George Henry was now working as a secretary to a building society, but he seems to have retired in 1923 and the whole family were soon on the move again, this time to Essex.

Marriage announcement. Hemel Hempstead Gazette, 12 September 1891 p.4 col.e
British Library Newspapers

Daisy and Gladys were still living with their parents on the outbreak of the Second World War, when the National Register was compiled. George’s occupation was given in the register as ‘Corporate Accountant Retired’ and Harriet was described as an invalid. Daisy was a ‘Preparatory School Teacher’ while Gladys was working as the family’s housekeeper.

Just a few months later, on 6 December 1939, George Henry Moulting died. Harriet Amelia survived him by just four years and then Daisy died in 1960. Which just left Gladys…

A search on the FreeBMD website for the surname Moulting – with no other restrictions – brings up just 20 results: 6 births, 2 marriages and 12 deaths. And all 20 of these vital events relate to the family of William George Moulting. The surname seems to be a variant of the more common ‘Moulton’ which can be found in earlier Evesham records but the Moulting spelling appears to have been settled upon uniquely by this particular branch and used quite consistently for nearly 200 years. There’s no evidence that the name ever crossed the Atlantic or wound its way to the Antipodes, so when Gladys Elizabeth Moulting died on 2 February 1974, the Moulting surname died with her.

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 21 November 2021

Posted in Local History, research, Stories, Surnames | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Incorrigible & Worthless

Researching the lives of our military ancestors can be difficult at the best of times but when it comes to retelling the stories of the seven million men and women who served in the British Army during the First World War, there are significant obstacles in our way.

In September 1940 a German bomb hit the military repository in Arnside Street, London, instantly destroying well over half of the main series of First World War army service records stored there. Roughly a third of the records were saved from the fire that followed and another set of records recording the service of around 750,000 men who had been discharged as a result of wounds or illness has also survived but your chances of finding a surviving service record are still no greater than 40%.[1]

A few months ago I was searching for a man who, it was believed, had seen active service in the First World War. His army service record, it seems, was amongst those that were lost in 1940, but I was able to uncover a remarkable story and, although this man clearly survived the war, I thought it might be appropriate to mark Remembrance Sunday by writing about his life.

Edward Frederick Goodwin was born in Bristol on 14 March 1881, the oldest child of Edward Goodwin and his wife Rosina Caroline (née Rodda). Later records give his date of birth as 15 March but this was undoubtedly the man I was looking for.

Just two weeks old, he appears in the 1881 census (as Frederick Goodwin), living with his parents at 5 Lower Church Lane in the parish of St Michael, Bristol, in the west of the city. His father, Edward, a Londoner by birth, was a French Polisher and seems to have returned to London soon after Edward Frederick was born; their second child, Rosalia Clara, was born in Islington in 1884.

1891 census, 21 Barritt Street, Middlesbrough.
The National Archives reference: RG 12/4011 f.13 p.20

The family were soon on the move again, and by the time of the 1891 census the Goodwins were in Middlesbrough, some 215 miles to the north. A third child, Oswald, was born the following year with the family now firmly settled in the North East. The 1901 census finds them living in Billingham, County Durham.

Rosina had died in 1897 and it may have been this event that caused Edward Frederick – or Frederick Edward as he routinely called himself from this time onward – to leave home and seek a new life for himself. He had served an apprenticeship with Craig, Taylor & Co., shipbuilders based in Thornaby-on-Tees[2] but it seems that this was not where his future lay and by the summer of 1900 he had moved south again and was living in Southwark – at 7 Poplar Road, to be precise, the home, in 1901, of a Bristol-born man called Henry Bachelor, perhaps a friend of the family?

Whether or not this had been Frederick Edward Goodwin’s plan when he set off for London, on 17 July 1900, aged 19 years and 3 months (a remarkably accurate age for army service papers!) he signed up with The Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment of Militia. The military life must have appealed to young Frederick, as within a month, he had joined the regular army.

Army Service papers of Frederick Edward Goodwin, 14 August 1900.
The National Archives reference: WO 97/4955 #109

On 14 August 1900, Frederick Edward Goodwin, now aged 19 years and 4 months, enlisted in the Liverpool Regiment, giving his next-of-kin as his father, Edward Goodwin of 27 Middle Bank Street, Stockton-on-Tees. Three months later, on 21 November, after completing his basic training, Frederick was posted from the regimental Depot to join the 2nd Battalion which, at the time the 1901 census was taken (on 1 April), was stationed at the Curragh Camp, 25 miles to the west of Dublin.

Private F Goodwin, aged 20, is listed amongst the men of the 2nd Battalion “The Kings” Liverpool Regiment. Everything seemed to be going swimmingly, but on 29 May he was marked as absent from the regiment, and three weeks later, on 20 June 1901, he was declared a deserter.

We don’t know why Goodwin decided to desert from the Liverpool Regiment but it clearly wasn’t anything to do with a dislike for army life. Because, just six days after deserting, Frederick enlisted, at Dublin, in the 99th Battery, Royal Field Artillery, under the assumed name of Frederick Edward Palmer. This time he gave his next of kin as his father, Edward Palmer, of New-bank Street, Glasgow!

Despite his attempted subterfuge, Frederick’s previous life didn’t take long to catch up with him. After serving 7 weeks in military prison between 1 November and 27 December 1901 for an unspecified offence, his ‘fraudulent enlistment’ in the Royal Artillery was discovered. By 21 March 1902 he was awaiting trial and he was convicted of the offence on 15 April, his period of imprisonment lasting until 15 August 1902.

On 4 June 1902, presumably while he was still in prison, Frederick was officially discharged from the Royal Artillery, described by the authorities as ‘Incorrigible & Worthless’.

Army Service papers of Frederick Edward Palmer, 4 June 1901 to 4 June 1902.
The National Archives reference: WO 97/5641 #125

Had Frederick learned his lesson? Had he decided that army life wasn’t for him after all? Well, no…

Back in London, just 11 days after being discharged, Frederick enlisted for the third time. His unit of choice this time was the 53rd Battery, Royal Field Artillery. He reverted to his real name and gave his age as 21 years and 5 months old (which was true!) but claimed to have been born in Islington. He was posted from the Depot to the 53rd Battery on 5 November 1902 (was anyone suspicious of how easily he must have completed his ‘basic’ training?).

This time his deception lasted three months before being discovered. On 8 February 1903 he was awaiting trial, having been found to have been discharged (as Frederick Edward Palmer) from the 99th Battery, Royal Field Artillery the previous June. He was sentenced on 23 February and was finally discharged ‘with Ignominy’ on 4 March 1903. Frederick was released from prison on 22 February 1904, with all previous service towards pension forfeited.

Surely this would be the end of the road for Frederick as far as military service was concerned? Well, yet again, the answer is no…

Less than a year after getting out of prison, our serial enlister was at it again. On 3 January 1905, Frederick Edward Goodwin enlisted in the 2nd Battalion, the Yorkshire Regiment. Unfortunately, the record covering this fourth spell in the army hasn’t survived – the date of his enlistment is taken from a later document – but this time, his service was an undoubted success.

Without a full record it’s difficult to say too much about the details of Frederick’s time with the ‘Green Howards’ but we know that he saw service overseas (we find him in the British Barracks at Khartoum in the 1911 census) and that he was part of the British Expeditionary Force, travelling to France in October 1914. He was also promoted to the rank of Acting Corporal before being discharged on 5 October 1917, having been wounded at the Somme in 1916.

Medal card of Frederick Goodwin, Yorkshire Regiment
The National Archives reference: WO 372/8/64085

And that, surely, is the end of the story. Well, not so fast…

On 31 January 1918, Frederick Edward Goodwin joined the Royal Navy Air Service as an Aircraftman, 1st Class (AC1) and was still in active service two months later, when, on 1 April 1918, the Royal Air Force was formed.

Frederick Edward’s Royal Naval service paper records his conduct as ‘Very Good’ and he clearly continued to impress after joining the RAF. On 31 July 1918 he was promoted to the rank of Corporal. His RAF service saw him in Lerwick, Shetland and in Ripon, North Yorkshire and it was there on 1 March 1919 that Frederick was transferred to the RAF reserve before being finally discharged on 30 April 1920.

As always, there’s more to be discovered. Frederick’s pension record card includes a reference to service in the Shropshire (or Somerset) Light Infantry but it’s difficult to see how he would have had time for service in another regiment. Unless, of course, this was after 1920 – he wasn’t yet 40 when he was discharged from the RAF so perhaps he fancied one last blast!

And the story doesn’t end there. We find Frederick in London in 1939, on the outbreak of the Second World War, working for the City of London Corporation, ARP Demolition and Rescue service. What happened to him after that is, sadly, currently unknown.

What we do know is that he ended his life a decorated ex-soldier, having been awarded the 14 Star, along with the British and Victory Medals and the Silver War Badge. He had attained the rank of Acting Corporal in the Army and was later promoted to the rank of Corporal in the RAF. Not bad for a man who had been written off by the authorities as ‘Incorrigible & Worthless’…

Thanks to John Sly for giving me the opportunity to tell this fascinating story.

Further reading: Army Records: A Guide for Family Historians by William Spencer (2008)

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 14 November 2021


[1] http://www.greatwar.co.uk/research/military-records/british-soldiers-ww1-service-records.htm

[2] https://www.gracesguide.co.uk/Craig,_Taylor_and_Co

Posted in Document Sources, research, Stories, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

You Had One Job…

I’ll try to keep this brief.

I’ve blogged a lot in the past few years about the problems with many of the databases on the major commercial genealogical websites and in particular the various county-wide English and Welsh parish register collections. I’ve already looked in depth at the issue surrounding missing registers and the difficulties that this can cause for the websites’ paying customers, so I’m not going to go over that ground again.

Instead, I want to focus on another connected issue that all-too-regularly rears its ugly head; I’m talking about the situation where incorrect and often misleading descriptions are attached to a collection of documents. I came across a good (or rather, a bad) example of this phenomenon today while carrying out some research into my wife’s Cheshire ancestors.

I was particularly interested in viewing the marriage record of Daniel Smith and Martha Coundye (or Cundy) who I knew had married in Prestbury, Cheshire in 1804. My initial attempts at tracking down the relevant entry met with, shall we say, mixed results. I knew that Findmypast was the place to go for Cheshire parish register material and I was quickly able to find the entry in the Cheshire Diocese Of Chester Bishop’s Transcripts Marriages 1576-1906 database but I couldn’t find anything relevant in the main Cheshire Diocese Of Chester Parish Marriages 1538-1910 database.

Search results from a search for the marriage of Daniel Smith and Martha in 1804 in Prestbury, Cheshire

I really needed to see the original entry in the parish register; not only is the Bishop’s Transcript (BT) a copy of the original (and therefore lacking any original signatures) but, in this case, the BT was heavily truncated, providing us with none of that additional information which can so often make all the difference when it comes to research in this period.

Marriage of Daniel Smith & Martha Coundye as recorded in the Prestbury Bishop’s Transcripts, 9 January 1804.
Cheshire Diocese Of Chester Bishop’s Transcripts Marriages 1576-1906, Findmypast

I checked the parish list which accompanies the database and this told me that the coverage for Prestbury extended from 1560 to 1910 and that 36,566 records were included in the database. (I guess that this means that there are 18,283 marriages as each marriage record generates two database entries.)

However, I was aware (from bitter experience) that these dates are, by necessity, merely start and end dates and that they can mask all manner of gaps in the records themselves. As I’ve blogged elsewhere, there are any number of reasons why there might be gaps in parish register collections so, again, I won’t go into that here.

My default policy in cases like this is to pop over to the relevant county archives’ catalogue to see what their coverage looks like for the parish in question. Cheshire Archives is one of those commendable record offices which allows you to download a comprehensive list of their parish registers, providing you with all the information you need: covering dates, archival references and microfilm references.

Turning to the entry for St Peter, Prestbury, I was quickly able to see that there were no obvious gaps in the holdings, and that there was a register (reference P 338/8504/18) covering marriages from 1803 to 1810.

Detail from Cheshire parish register list. Cheshire Archives & Local Studies

Cheshire Archives clearly had the register I wanted, so why was I unable to find the record on the Findmypast database?

It took me the best part of an hour to sort out what was going on and rather than give you a blow-by-blow account of the exhausting process I went through, I’ve summarised my findings in the following table:

Summary list of marriage registers for St Peter, Prestbury together with descriptions on Findmypast

So, as far as the Findmypast Cheshire Diocese Of Chester Parish Marriages 1538-1910 database is concerned no marriages at all took place at Prestbury between 1748 and 1828. In fact, the records are all there but about two thirds of them have been incorrectly assigned to the parish of Saltersford cum Kettleshulme while the remainder haven’t been assigned to any parish at all. So, if you’re searching the database for marriages in Prestbury in this period, you won’t find them.

I really don’t think it should be too hard to do something like this and to do it properly. Each of the sections of digital microfilm is preceded by the familiar title page which describes exactly what’s on the pages that follow; in the case of the register that I was looking for, Prestbury Parish Church Marriages from 1803 to 1810.

Description page at start of Prestbury marriage register (1803-1810)

I just can’t understand how it’s possible to fail to assign a placename to the marriages in this clearly-marked Prestbury parish register (likewise in four others) as Findmypast have evidently done. Even harder to understand is how the many thousands of marriages which are recorded in the Prestbury registers between 1754 and 1786 and between 1812 and 1828 have ended up being assigned to the tiny parish of Saltersford cum Kettleshulme.

The job of the commercial genealogical website here is a simple one; to take the material provided by the archive and to make it available to the paying customer via a suitable name index. It seems to me that creating the name index is the difficult part: making sure that all of the material you were provided with is actually accessible and that it’s fully and properly described is (surely!) relatively straightforward.

In the case of the Prestbury marriage registers we’re dealing with nearly 15,000 marriages over an 80-year period which are either incorrectly described or effectively not described at all.

If this was an isolated incident, it would be a simple enough task to report the problem and trust that it would quickly be sorted. But experience tells me that it’s anything but. These collections are full of errors like this and they all go towards making our jobs as researchers that little bit harder.

It’s just not good enough…

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 10 October 2021

Posted in Document Sources, research, Soapbox, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

We Need To Talk About Ancestry

Or … How The Major Commercial Genealogical Websites Are Killing Family History Research

As a full-time professional researcher, I depend heavily on the resources that I’m able to access online, particularly those databases provided by the major commercial websites. Without the 24-hour-a-day access to census returns, parish registers, wills (and so much more!) that my subscriptions to the major commercial websites offer me, I simply wouldn’t be able to do my job. I am, as I’m always happy to make very clear, a huge fan of digitisation. The problem is that all-too-often, the commercial websites don’t make a particularly good job of what they’re supposed to do, and as a result, I seem to spend an enormous amount of my time criticising them…

My particular bugbear at the moment is Ancestry’s apparent obsession with user-submitted content. We’re reaching the point where the sheer volume of public family trees on the site is beginning to eclipse the primary sources; you could say that we can no longer see the records for the trees!

Forest, near Ashford, Kent. Photograph by the author, © June 2019.

Unfortunately, a lot of the trees are full of errors and inconsistencies – which wouldn’t be too big a problem if it wasn’t for the fact that Ancestry make it so easy for users to copy the details from other people’s trees into their own.

It’s all too simple. You see a name that matches the one you’re looking for and a minute later that person has become your ancestor.

At no point in the process is any genuine research required. No exploration of source documents, no critical examination of what the record might be telling you (was there even a record?) and no analysis of alternative sources. One click and she’s on your tree, just waiting for other researchers to do the same…

A few days ago, I was researching the life of a man called, John Poole. I’d found out quite a lot about him but I was struggling to find a record of his death or burial. After carrying out a few basic searches without finding anything particularly promising, I decided to see what others had found out so I had a quick look at Ancestry’s public family trees. What I discovered made me feel so despondent and so depressed about the way that online research is going that I felt inspired to write this blog…

The John Poole that I was working on features in at least 14 Ancestry public family trees. There’s a lot of conflicting information from tree to tree and much of it is clearly and demonstrably wrong, but I just want to focus here on the details that are recorded regarding John’s death/burial.

Seven of the 14 trees don’t include any information about John’s death at all. (This is fine; John may not be a crucial person on these trees and there’s always a limit to what we have the time to research in detail.) Of the remaining seven, three give a year of death of 1813 (or ‘about 1813’) while the other four give it as 1818 (or ‘about 1818’).

Of those that give a date of any sort, only two reference a specific event. One family tree links the burial of John Poole at St Mary, Whitechapel on 24 November 1813 to our John, while another suggests that John was buried on 9 March 1818 in Bolton.

Let’s just ignore for a moment, the unlikelihood of a Londoner like John dying in a Lancashire cotton town! What matters is that it’s really not hard to show that neither of these burials can possibly relate to our John. All we need to do is a bit of proper research.

John was married to a woman called Juliana Draper (all of the 14 family trees record this detail) and they had at least four children. The two youngest (Sarah and Henry John) both died young and were buried in the City of London parish of St Mary, Aldermanbury in 1811 and 1810 respectively. [1]

St.Mary Aldermanbury Church, City of London, Postcard (1904). Public Domain.

A bit of digging reveals that John and Juliana had moved to the parish sometime around 1807, the year in which John’s name first appears in the Land Tax registers, paying tax on a property in St Mary, Aldermanbury. John continued to be listed in the registers at the same address up to and including 1813. The registers would probably have been compiled towards the end of the previous year but nevertheless, we can be fairly confident that John didn’t die too long before the last few months of 1812.

We also know that he had died sometime before 25 July 1813 when his widow, Juliana, married her second husband, George Furness[2] (again, it’s not hard to find this record) so we have a fairly narrow timeframe during which John must have died – let’s say November 1812 to May 1813. The November 1813 and March 1818 burials are therefore evidently not ours.

It’s clear from the Land Tax registers that John was still living in the parish of St Mary, Aldermanbury at the time that he must have died. So it’s not surprising that a manual search of the burial register for that parish quickly turns up the expected entry. John Poole was buried at St Mary’s on 13 April 1813.[3]

Burial of John Poole, St Mary, Aldermanbury, City of London.
London Metropolitan Archives LMA P69/MRY2/A/01 Ms.3572/3 p.1

So, why hadn’t my previous searches for John’s burial turned up this record? Well, once again, we can lay the blame at the database provider’s door. John’s name has been transcribed as ‘John Poole Buch Church’. When you look at the entry, you can see what’s happened. The ‘Name’ column in the burial register has been used by the clerk to record the place of burial as well as the deceased’s name and it seems that John was buried in the ‘Back Church Yard’. The fact that the transcriber has managed to come up with this quite frankly laughable piece of work and that the transcription has been allowed to slip past whatever quality control process Ancestry have in place suggests… well, it suggests that they don’t have any sort of quality control process in place at all. If we’re being kind we might conclude that their quality control process is inadequate…

The point here is that a little bit of genuine research will quickly provide you with all the clues you need to demonstrate that John would almost certainly have been buried at St Mary, Aldermanbury. But rather than making things easier, the way that the information has been provided actually prevents you from finding the right record – or at least it makes it easier for you to find the wrong one.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of this is that the record of John’s burial is right there in Ancestry’s database. The record office entered into an agreement with them to make their records available online and, as part of that process, to provide access to them via a searchable index. Their failure to get this bit right – and it’s probably the simplest part of the process – has evidently led to people being unable to find the record in question. Instead, they’ve either left the death/burial section blank or they’ve attached the burial record of an entirely different John Poole to their ancestor’s record. And because it’s so easy to do so, other researchers have come along and added this incorrect record to their own family trees.

This is, of course, not by any means an isolated incident. Ancestry’s family trees are full of errors like this – and much worse! Speak to any experienced researcher and they’ll give you plenty of examples. Those examples are out there right now and they’re multiplying every day.

DVD screenshot of Captain Kirk half-buried in Tribbles.
From: wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Trouble_with_Tribbles

It genuinely makes me despair for the future of family history research. And I haven’t even touched on the related issues of unexplained gaps in the data collections, poor descriptions of record sets and wrong references attached to records. It’s a mess and it seems to me that it’s getting worse.


© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 13 September 2021


[1] Burials of Henry John Poole & Sarah Poole, Christchurch, Newgate Street & St Leonard, Foster Lane, London, 1810 & 1811. LMA reference: P69/MRY2/A/001 Ms.03572/2

[2] Marriage of George Furness & Juliana Poole, St Dunstan, Stepney, 1813. LMA reference: LMA P93/DUN/054 p.77

[3] Burial of John Poole, St Mary, Aldermanbury, London, 1813. LMA reference: LMA P69/MRY2/A/01 Ms.3572/3 p.1

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A Draper’s Tale

Thomas Port, my great great grandfather, was born on 22 August 1822 in St Pancras, London. There is, however, no official record of his birth or baptism – at least none that I have ever been able to find. The information I have is taken from two separate sources: Thomas’s date of birth is entered in an old family bible, while the place of birth is recorded in the 1891 census.

I only discovered the entry in the family bible a few months ago, as a result of a contact made through the Ancestry website. I’d known about the bible for over 20 years – Thomas mentioned it in his will along with his ‘portrait in oils’ (which I’ve never managed to track down) – but it was a real thrill to see it for the first time, even if it was only in the form of a digital photo.

The absence of a record of Thomas’s birth led me on a prolonged research journey, lasting more than 20 years, as I sought to find evidence of his birth. My theory that he was the illegitimate son of Mary Ann Port, who worked as a governess in Buckingham in the early decades of the 19th century, was all but confirmed when I found that I had a DNA match with a descendant of Mary Ann’s grandmother.

I know nothing about Thomas’s childhood. In fact, the first 25 years of Thomas’s life are a complete blank as far as documentary evidence is concerned; most frustratingly, I have been unable to find him in the 1841 census.

I suspect that he grew up in Buckingham although I have no hard evidence to support this. He must have gone to school – he was clearly an educated man – and he probably served an apprenticeship. But I have no idea where he went to school or where he learnt his trade. He would have been apprenticed to a draper and I would expect Thomas to have completed his seven-year term in 1843 at the age of 21.

Market Place, Buckingham

Mary Ann Port died in Buckingham in 1846 and the following year, Thomas married for the first time. The marriage certificate gives Thomas’s occupation as a draper and his residence simply as ‘Buckingham’ but there’s a blank space where we would expect to see the details of his father. His bride was a local woman called Mary Layton, the daughter of Benjamin Layton, a carpenter. Thomas and Mary were married at the Independent Chapel (the ‘Old Meeting’) in Well Street, Buckingham. Mary’s father had died in 1835 and it was her brother George who acted as one of the witnesses. The other witness was a woman called Mary Biss, a member of the Independent congregation in Buckingham.

The names of Mary Biss and Thomas Port appear regularly in the minute book of the Buckingham Independent (Congregational) Church’s Sabbath School. Thomas’s wife was also a member of the congregation, having been baptised at the chapel in Well Street in 1815. Thomas’s name first crops us in the minutes on 13 January 1847. It’s clear that he was closely involved with the church for a number of years, taking an active role in organising and running the school’s library. Thomas was later (in January 1850) elected Superintendent of the school.

Old Meeting Sabbath School minute book [Buckingham Congregational], 1842-1850
Buckinghamshire Archives reference: NC/4/1

Thomas must have been quite well known in the town. His marriage to Mary ‘Leighton’ was announced in the Oxford Chronicle on Saturday, 5 June 1847:

June 1, at the Old Meeting House, Buckingham, by the Rev. W. D. Rowe, Mr Thomas Port to Miss M. Leighton, of Church Street, Buckingham.

We get an address here (the marriage certificate simply gave their ‘Residence at the Time of Marriage’ as Buckingham) but it’s not entirely clear whether it was Mary or Thomas who lived in Church Street, or indeed both of them.

This was certainly the address at which their first two children (Kate Mary Elizabeth and Frederick Thomas) were born in February 1849 and July 1850 respectively. But by the time of the 1851 census, just eight months after Frederick Thomas was born, Thomas and Mary had uprooted themselves and moved 50 miles away to the booming industrial city of Birmingham.

1851 census, 56 Stafford Street, Birmingham
The National Archives reference: HO 107/2057 f.60 p.39

Thomas and Mary first settled at an address just to the north of Birmingham city centre. An 1852 trade directory lists Thomas Port, a draper, at 56 Stafford Street. The family were soon on the move again but they would move to their new home with just one child; Kate Mary Elizabeth died in October 1851 following an outbreak of smallpox in the area.

The Junction of Lichfield Street & Stafford Street, Birmingham. Painting by George Warren Blackham (ca.1890). Birmingham Museums Trust

The Ports’ second shop in Birmingham was located in another busy shopping area; Sherlock Street was one of the main roads leading into the city from the south. Thomas Port, draper, is recorded at 191 Sherlock Street in a number of trade directories between 1852 and 1858 and this was also the address at which two more children (Mary Emma and Annie) were born.

Thomas and Mary stayed a bit longer at Sherlock Street than they had at Stafford Street (around six years) but their next move saw them leave Birmingham itself to settle in the industrial town of Smethwick, then a hamlet within the ancient parish of Harborne and some three miles from Birmingham.

We don’t know precisely when they moved to Smethwick but we know that they were there by December 1859 and the move seems, at first at least, not to have been a particularly happy one. Lucy Ann Mary Port, Thomas and Mary’s fifth child, was born at the family’s new home in Mill Lane, Smethwick, on 7 December 1859, but just twelve days later, her mother died. Not, as you might suspect, as the result of complications from the birth, but from a disease that was a killer in Victorian Britain: bronchitis.

Mary Port was the first member of the family to be buried in the new family plot at Key Hill Cemetery in Birmingham. She was soon to be followed by her recently-born daughter, Lucy Ann Mary, who died in April 1860. Kate Mary Elizabeth, the daughter who had died soon after the family’s arrival in Birmingham had been buried nearby in a public grave in October 1851 but her name was later added to the gravestone.

The 1861 census finds the family living at Windmill Lane in Smethwick. The precise address isn’t recorded but from other records I’ve been able to work out that the Port’s home, and the location of their draper’s shop, was 1 Windmill Lane. The address is frequently given as Six Ways, the name of the junction at which Windmill Lane and five other roads met. The Port’s shop was on the corner of Windmill Lane and Lower Cross Street. Nothing remains of the old Six Ways today; the whole area was redeveloped in the late 20th century and is now a modern housing estate and the junction, a large urban roundabout.

Ordnance Survey 25″ Map, Staffordshire sheet LXXII.3 (detail) – National Library of Scotland
Showing Windmill Lane leading south-west from the junction at Six Ways and Upper Grove Street, Smethwick.

The family at Windmill Lane in 1861 consisted of Thomas, aged 38, a linen draper, his three surviving children – Frederick T, Mary E and Annie – and his sister-in-law, Ann Layton. Ann is listed in the census as a housekeeper and had evidently come up from Buckingham to help Thomas with the children. The household is completed by George L Simmons, an apprentice of Thomas’s and a 13-year old servant called Harriet Beech. Although not stated in the census, George Layton Simmons was also a relative; he was the nephew of Thomas’s late wife, Mary, the son of her sister, Elizabeth.

A few months after the census was taken, Thomas married for the second time. His second wife was Mary Anne Berrill, who, at the time of the 1861 census had been listed as the proprietress of a ‘ladies seminary’ in Smethwick. It’s likely that she and Thomas had met through their involvement in the local Congregational Church, where they were married on 4 July 1861.

The Ports were to remain in Smethwick for over 30 years. Thomas was to have another eight children with Mary Anne; three boys and five girls, born between 1862 and 1875.

Sometime around 1867, having worked as a draper for over 20 years, Thomas gave up the shop at Six Ways to become a soda manufacturer. I’ve been unable to find a precise definition of this but I believe that it was a chemical process involving the manufacture of caustic soda. It seems like a strange career change for a man who had worked his whole life as a retailer and it’s difficult to envisage precisely what his role was. Was Thomas doing the work himself or was he simply an employer with a business which made the soda? As a man of means in his mid-40s, I assume that it was the latter, although there’s no evidence of him owning a business; there’s certainly nothing in the local trade directories.

I found an intriguing entry in a newspaper dating from 1864 (at a time when we know that he still had his draper’s shop at Six Ways). A notice was published on 4 October 1864 in the Birmingham Daily Post, announcing the dissolution of a partnership between Thomas Port and James Anderton who had been ‘carrying on Business at Smethwick, in the county of Stafford, under the style or Firm of “PORT and ANDERSON,” as Crystallised Soap Manufacturers’. The manufacture of soap was closely connected to the manufacture of soda and in at least one record, Thomas was described as a ‘soap manufacturer’. I need to find out more about this, particularly as it relates to Smethwick itself.

After the Ports gave up the shop at Six Ways they moved to a new home in Upper Grove Street, a short distance to the south and close to the Anglican parish church of St Matthew. The family were still living there at the time of the 1871 census. Thomas is described as a soda manufacturer, as is his oldest son (my great grandfather, Frederick). The oldest daughter, Mary Emma was working as a teacher in the British School; several of her younger siblings were also to become teachers.

1871 census, Upper Grove Street, Smethwick
The National Archives reference: RG 10/3086 f.73 p.16

By the time that Thomas and Mary Anne’s youngest daughter, Bertha Lilian, was born in 1875, the family had moved again. Their new home was at 4 Windmill Lane, just a few doors away from their old draper’s shop. Thomas was still working as a soda manufacturer but he was soon to retire from business. His name appears in an 1880 directory under the ‘Private Residents’ section and the 1881 census describes him as a ‘Retired Chemical Manufacturer’.

Sadly, four of the children from Thomas’s second marriage died young (all buried at Key Hill Cemetery), but others married and provided him with grandchildren. Five were born in his lifetime and another six after he died. Two documents from the late 1880s describe Thomas as a house proprietor. He continued to live at 4 Windmill Lane and he and Mary Anne, along with five of their children, are listed there in the 1891 census. Thomas’s ‘occupation’ was given as ‘Living on his own means’; he clearly had an independent source of income.

Then, sometime in the mid-1890s, Thomas and Mary Anne left Smethwick to spend their retirement years in the small Worcestershire village of Chaddesley Corbett, where their daughter, Nellie, was the head teacher of the local board school.

Thomas was to die in Chaddesley Corbett a few years later. The local newspaper, the Smethwick Telephone carried a short piece on 20 January 1900:

The Smethwick Telephone, 20 January 1900, page 3, column c
British Library Newspapers

Thomas died on 18 January. He was buried five days later in the family grave at Key Hill Cemetery, the seventh member of the family to be interred there. The grave was to be opened two more times; once on 12 November 1904 when Mary Anne was reunited with her husband and then 38 years later when their daughter Nellie died.

I visited Key Hill Cemetery for the first time in June 2017, having discovered just a few months earlier that this was my great great grandfather’s final resting place. Finding the plot proved to be an emotional event, but the actual moment of discovery was tinged with the disappointment of realising that the stone itself was in a terrible state. It had fallen and was lying on its back in pieces. Much of the text is illegible, the face of the stone having crumbled away many years ago.

Port family gravestone, Key Hill Cemetery, Birmingham
Photographed by the author, June 2017

The cemetery was neglected for many years but since 2004, the Friends of Key Hill Cemetery & Warstone Lane Cemetery have been working to maintain and restore the two historic burial grounds. A recent crowdfunder successfully raised the money to restore 15 damaged gravestones in the two cemeteries and a new ‘stretch target’ has just been announced which would allow for another 5 stones to be rescued. It would be great if the Ports’ stone was one of those considered most ‘at risk’ but even if it’s not, it’s a great and worthwhile cause and all donations are greatly appreciated.

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 8 August 2021

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Birth or baptism?

A couple of weeks ago, I was searching for some baptisms on Ancestry’s London Parish Register Database, when I noticed something odd. I’d just done a basic search for anyone with the surname ROGERS and the parents’ names William and Mary, within five years either side of 1800 – and it didn’t produce any results.


It’s the sort of search that I do several times a day and I was surprised that it had drawn a blank. Particularly as, in this case, I knew there were some records that should have come up – records that I had previously found on this same database. After checking that I hadn’t included any rogue data in the search I tried a few other similar searches and got the same (lack of) results. I was confused.

So I tried a different approach. I moved the focus of the search from Birth to ‘Any Event’ and restricted the Record Type to Baptism.

And this is what I got…

So, what was going on?

I tried some searches in some other databases and the post-1812 London Baptisms Database quickly threw up something enlightening. Searching on a Birth date of 1820 +/- 5 years, I got just three results:

But the same search using ‘Any Event’ produced 36 hits – including the three above.

So what was different about those three?

You may have worked it out by now – I just about had! The three St Giles in the Fields entries included the actual dates of birth as well as the date of baptism. So what the Ancestry database was doing when I was searching using the date of birth was filtering out the 33 results which only recorded the date of baptism and didn’t show a date of birth. It’s almost as if it was saying ‘we don’t know when those 33 were born so we’re not going to show them in a list of births…’

I tweeted about this a couple of times, tagging Ancestry in the hope that they might see it and respond. They haven’t so far. Why am I not surprised…?

What I was more concerned about was that several people who did respond didn’t seem to grasp the enormity of this. 280 characters isn’t really enough to get the subtleties of a point like this across, so I decided a short blog post might do the trick instead.

It’s around 20 years now since the first major commercial databases appeared on the scene and changed the way that we do things – mostly for the better! One of the firm principles established early on was that you could search across a variety of collections using a single interface. This allowed you to search on a number of different data items at the same time, but the cornerstone of it all was that you could search the records looking for details of an ancestor’s birth, marriage or death.

Of course, in most cases, before the introduction of civil registration anyway, what we’re actually looking at – the records that the databases are guiding us towards – are records of baptisms, marriages and burials. But that’s fine. Research has shown that the gap between birth and baptism gradually increased from the 16th century when parents were expected to baptise their children on ‘the Sunday, or other Holy day next after the child be borne’ to the early-19th century when 75% of children were baptised within 64 days of birth. (For obvious reasons, burials have always taken place with days of death so the death v burial question isn’t really an issue as far as searching for records is concerned.)

So even towards the end of our pre-1837 period of interest, the vast majority of children were being baptised before they were a couple of months old and it’s not unreasonable to conclude from these figures that well over 90% would have been baptised within a year. That’s certainly the impression I have from more than 40 years of looking at these documents.

We can see then that baptisms of adults and older children were the exception and it’s therefore quite acceptable for the commercial websites to have equated birth with baptism when it came to developing their databases.

Naturally, we need to allow for the possibility that our ancestor had a non-infant baptism. We’ve all come across examples of people being baptised as adults and there’s no doubt that these can be more of a challenge to find – particularly for the inexperienced researcher. But to treat baptism as a separate event for search purposes or, even worse, to make the date of baptism the primary focus of the search, really doesn’t help anyone.

Ancestry have only changed this recently and my hope (and my suspicion too) is that it’s happened accidentally; that someone has disconnected the link that tells the system that a baptism on 13 February 1792 should be treated for search purposes as a birth about 1792, and that the switch can quickly be flicked back into its original position.

It certainly hasn’t happened on all of Ancestry’s parish register databases. The West Yorkshire Database for example seems to produce the same results whether you use Birth or Any Event (restricted to baptism).

Our research should be much more than just collecting names and dates but without the key facts – the borns, marrieds and dieds – we’re always going to struggle to tell the stories. We need the basic structure – the timelines – to allow us to see how our ancestors’ lives chimed with what was going on around them.

We rely on the databases to help us to identify these facts and when something like this happens it just makes it that much harder. How many thousands of unsuccessful searches have been carried out over the past few weeks? How many times have people looked for a record of their London ancestor’s birth and found nothing – even though a record of their baptism is right there on the system? And how long will it be until Ancestry do something about it…

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 17 July 2021

Posted in Document Sources, research, Soapbox | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Darkest Day

The date is Tuesday, 29 January 1895 and Edinburgh is in the grip of a snowstorm. In fact, the whole country is suffering; snow fell uninterruptedly for 12 hours in Birmingham yesterday and London is experiencing temperatures of 15° Fahrenheit (-10° Celsius).[1] According to the official Met Office report for 29 January a ‘hard frost occurred last night over Great Britain’.[2]

Conditions in the poorer parts of late-Victorian Edinburgh are grim at the best of times but in this extreme cold weather many families are in severe distress. To make matters worse, Roderick Coyne, the Superintendent of Works for the Edinburgh and District Water Trust, has announced that ‘the water would have to be turned off again’ due to a burst main.[3]

Data on the ‘Health of Edinburgh’ is published every week and last week 110 deaths were reported including three to scarlatina, nine to measles and one to hooping-cough.[4] The ‘intimations’ for the week suggest that 336 people are known to be suffering from measles – not exactly epidemic proportions but representative of a population living side-by-side with deadly disease.

To the inhabitants of Bedford Street in Edinburgh’s Stockbridge district it was a trying time but to one family in particular, 29 January would prove to be the darkest of days…

Edinburgh Evening News, 26 January 1895, page 3, column d.
British Library Newspapers,

My great grandmother, Margaret Philip (the surname was often written as Phillip or Philp), was born on 26 July 1859 in Davidson’s Mains, a small village to the west of Edinburgh, historically part of the largely rural parish of Cramond but now right on the edge of Edinburgh’s urban sprawl.

Margaret’s parents, James Philip and Margaret Glennie had married in Cramond on 23 December 1853. They went on to have at least nine children, the oldest two almost certainly born before they were married, and the youngest born in January 1870. Margaret was to die on 16 June 1870, just five months after her youngest child was born; according to the death certificate she had been suffering from typhoid pneumonia for 14 days and from ‘debility’ for a year.

James had lost his father to typhus just 12 days earlier and he was now left on his own with eight children, all under 20. Jane, the oldest girl, was 14 and might have been expected to take on the running of the household but she also died (of typhus fever) on 18 July 1870. I think we can see a theme developing here…

The 1881 census finds James living at West Pilton Cottages, to the east of Davidson’s Mains but still in the parish of Cramond, but by 1891 he had moved into Edinburgh and was living at 5 Church Place in the parish of St Stephen. Church Place was a narrow courtyard, leading off the west side of Church Street (now Gloucester Street) in the Stockbridge district, less than a mile from Edinburgh’s fashionable New Town.

Also living with James were his youngest son, Richard, his daughter, Margaret, and an assortment of five grandchildren; James and Elizabeth, the two children of his widowed son, Robert, and Margaret’s three illegitimate children, John, James and Margaret.

Sometime before his death in 1896, James had moved to Bedford Street, just across the Stockbridge on the other side of the Water of Leith, no more than 10 minutes’ walk from Church Place. He died of bronchitis and chronic phthisis (TB), a reflection of the damp, unsanitary conditions that the family were living in.

Bedford Street, Stockbridge, Edinburgh

We’re right between two census returns here so it’s difficult to get an accurate picture of the family at the time. We know that Margaret and her four children (Susan had been born in 1893) were living at 4 Bedford Street and it seems that Robert’s two children were also there (Robert himself had died in May 1893). The 1895-96 Edinburgh electoral register lists Andrew Philip, a labourer, as one of four tenants occupying 4 Bedford Street.[5] Andrew was James and Margaret Philip’s seventh child. I’ve been unable to find any later trace of Richard, who had been living with the family in Church Place in 1891.

Despite apparently bringing up her children on her own, Margaret in fact had a long-term partner in the shape of my great grandfather, John Flynn. John had lived two doors away from Margaret in West Pilton Cottages in 1881 and he was almost certainly the father of all of Margaret’s children but they don’t seem to have been living together at this time. Later, Margaret would openly lie to the authorities, claiming on a number of occasions to have been married to John. In fact they never married.

6-year old Margaret and her little sister, Susan, had been suffering from measles for just over a week and both had recently developed catarrhal pneumonia. Dr. Charles Kerley, writing in 1903 suggested that:

Catarrhal pneumonia, on account of its large mortality and because of its frequent appearance as a complication in almost every disease of infancy, is one of the most formidable ailments which we are called on to treat.[6]

Kerley recommended fresh air and ventilation to combat the worst effects of this form of pneumonia and bemoaned the ‘marked tendency to coddle, to wrap, to overclothe pneumonia patients’.

Given the conditions in Edinburgh at the time, it’s perhaps understandable that the Philips would have been doing everything they could to keep the temperature in their home above freezing. The idea that opening the windows might actually be beneficial to the girls was probably not something that would have instinctively occurred to them.

Their mother sat up with them on Monday night doing whatever she could to make them comfortable – even if she was doing all the wrong things. Or perhaps the family took it in shifts. Was Andrew living there? Was Margaret’s father too old and infirm to help? Her nephew, James (Robert’s son) was 19 and his sister Elizabeth was 17; they would surely have helped to tend their young cousins. And perhaps Margaret’s two boys, John and James would have wanted to play their part as well.

But Susan was getting weaker and at 2 o’clock in the morning she lost her battle; she was just 21 months old. Dr. McLaren[7] was sent for and he confirmed that she had died of measles with catarrhal pneumonia as a secondary cause.

The doctor examined young Margaret and he could see that she was gravely ill. He gave her medicine and offered the family advice about how best to care for her.

Later that day, cousin James set off for the registrar’s office, a twenty minute walk at the best of times. With freezing temperatures and snow still thick on the ground it would have been a struggle as he made his way along the Queensferry Road and over the Dean Bridge, crossing Shandwick Place at the west end of Princes Street before eventually arriving at the office in Lothian Road. Then, after providing Mr Aitchison[8] the registrar with the necessary details of Susan’s death and signing the register – James Philip Cousin Present – James headed back to Bedford Street to see what news there was of his cousin Margaret.

Death certificate of Susan Philip. National Records of Scotland reference: 1895 Deaths 685/1 136

She wasn’t doing well. Her condition was worsening by the hour and at 11 o’clock at night – just 21 hours after her sister had passed away – she too succumbed.

Once more Dr. McLaren was sent for. His diagnosis was the same; measles and  catarrhal pneumonia.

The following day, cousin James returned to the registrar’s office to notify them of young Margaret’s death. This time, he was met by the assistant registrar, Mr Aitchison junior who took the details down and, for the second time in 24 hours, James was asked to sign the register – James Philip Cousin Present.

Death certificate of Margaret Philip. National Records of Scotland reference: 1895 Deaths 685/1 149

The family must have been crushed by this second death within 24 hours. Margaret, in particular, would have been devastated by the loss of two children on the same day to the same killer disease. And there was an added complication, because Margaret was about seven or eight months pregnant at the time. Just five weeks later, on 5 March 1895, she gave birth to her fifth child, Peter. It seems like a miracle that he survived. He was registered as the illegitimate son of John Flynn and Margaret Philip – John’s role in all of this being acknowledged for the first time.

They were still living in Bedford Street in August 1896 when James Philip senior died there (the death was registered by his grandson, ‘cousin’ James) but by the following year Margaret, now with her ‘husband’ John Flynn as a permanent member of the household, had moved out of Edinburgh into rural Linlithgowshire. John had found work on the Dalmeny Estate just across the River Almond from Cramond Village and when a second Margaret was born at East Craigie in Dalmeny on 26 March 1897, Margaret and John claimed to have married on 29 June 1883 in Edinburgh. Which is, of course, a complete fiction.

By the time of the 1901 census, which finds the Flynn family living at Hill House, Dalmeny, John and Margaret have two more children; Charles (my grandfather, born in 1898) and a second Susan (born around 1900). The births of Charles and Susan weren’t registered – at least there is no record of their births – and the next reference we have to the family comes in November 1903 when Susan died. The entry in the death register names her as Roseanna Flynn but it’s clear from the age at death (i.e. 3) that she’s the same person who was listed as Susan in the 1901 census.

There was one more family tragedy still to come. On 7 February 1907, Peter Flynn died of periostitis of the superior maxilla and gangrene, aged just 11. Peter was the child that Margaret had been pregnant with in January 1895. He’d survived the most challenging of introductions to the world only to suffer what must have been a painful and horrific death at a distressingly young age.

We’ll leave Margaret, John and their family there. Their lives seem to have gradually improved and at the time of their deaths (in 1924 and 1933 respectively) they were living in relative comfort but the events of that day in January 1895 must have stayed with them for the rest of their lives. The re-use of the names Margaret and Susan was surely done in memory of the two children who died on that dark winter’s day…

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 10 July 2021


List of documents. Originals held by the National Records of Scotland.

[1] Edinburgh Evening News, 29 January 1895, page 3, column c. British Library Newspapers, accessed via Findmypast

[2] Daily Weather Report, Tuesday 29 January 1895. https://digital.nmla.metoffice.gov.uk

[3] Edinburgh Evening News, 29 January 1895, page 3, column i. British Library Newspapers, accessed via Findmypast

[4] Edinburgh Evening News, 26 January 1895, page 3, column d. British Library Newspapers, accessed via Findmypast

[5] Register of Voters, Burgh of Edinburgh, 1895-96, No.III St Bernard’s Ward, p.9. Edinburgh City Archives ref: Sl56/41. Accessed via ancestry.co.uk

[6] KERLEY CG. Management of Catarrhal Pneumonia in Infants. The Journal of the American Medical Association. 1903;XL(25):1720–1725. doi:10.1001/jama.1903.92490250028001h

[7] Dr. John Shaw McLaren. MB, FRCS (Edinburgh), 1858-1935.

[8] John Aitchison, Registrar of St George’s district, Edinburgh, 1828-1912.

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Walls Come Tumbling Down

Brickwalls are an inescapable component of every family historian’s world. If you think about it, every line you’ve ever researched starts (or ends, depending on which way you look at it) with an individual whose parentage is unknown. So, for example, if you’ve traced each line of descent back as far as your 4x great grandparents – and no further – you effectively have 64 brickwalls on your hands! One generation further back and you’ve got 128 … and so on. In fact, whenever you break down one of your brickwalls, you instantly create two more!

But isn’t that what makes family history research so fascinating? It’s the challenge of discovery; the detective work; the intellectual process of exercising our enquiring minds. It’s what keeps us interested and after all, we wouldn’t want it all handed to us on a plate, now would we? We wouldn’t want it all to be as easy as certain websites might try to persuade us that it is. “You just type in your name and out come your ancestors!” That’s not the way it is and it’s not the way we want it to be…

I’ve spent a lot of the last 40 years of my life attempting to break down brickwalls, both as an enthusiastic hobbyist working on my own family history and as a professional researcher working for many hundreds of clients and I’ve learnt a lot of tricks on the way.

It’s fair to say that we can get stuck at just about any stage of our research. Tracing a line back to medieval times is perhaps the aim of most genealogists but the reality is more often that we come to a grinding halt sometime in the 17th or 18th century. Our brickwall might even be much more recent – we probably all know someone who’s struggling to find details of a grandparent – but by far the most troublesome period is the 30 or 40 years prior to the introduction of civil registration (in 1837) and the establishment of the name-rich decennial census returns (in 1841). It was a period of great upheaval in the population; the Industrial Revolution was in full flow and people were moving in their thousands from their rural ancestral homelands into the (mostly northern and midlands) towns and cities, desperate to find work in the factories and mills.

Ancoats, Manchester. McConnel & Company’s mills, about 1820. From: Wikimedia Commons (copyright expired)

All of this can make it particularly difficult to trace people in the records. We might, for example, have an ancestor who married in Manchester in the 1820s and then died before 1837 – or at least before 1851 – leaving behind next to nothing in the way of clues to their origins. How do we begin to find out where they came from?

Over the years, I’ve developed a methodology that helps me to work through the trickiest problems. Clearly, every case is different, each with its own distinct range of challenges, so I have to be flexible in my approach and adapt as I go, but what follows is a brief summary of the process that I use when I set out on the quest for one of those elusive early 19th century ancestors.

1 Evaluate

The first step is to assess what we actually know about the person whose origins we’re trying to trace. Ideally, we want to know as much as we can in the following three areas:

  • when they were born
  • where they were born
  • who their parents were

If we’re lucky, and they married after 1 July 1837 and/or went on to appear in the 1851 census, we should have some good, solid information to work with. We might only know their father’s name and not their mother’s but this would at least help us to identify any potential birth records, and combined with an approximate age and place of birth it might be all we need.

We may find that the evidence we have for someone’s age is contradictory, with different sources giving us conflicting information, and the same can happen with birthplaces. In that case, the best we can do is assess the evidence and keep an open mind about what we know. We might, for example, have five pieces of evidence, four of which (roughly) agree; experience tells me to question the ‘outliers’ when it comes to someone’s age but to pay close attention to an unexpected birthplace.

The less we have to go on, the harder our job is going to be but we can make some intelligent guesses based on whatever limited information we have. We can theorise that our early 19th century ancestors would have married in their early 20s – the grooms, generally, slightly older than the brides – so if we know when they married, we can estimate when they might have been born. And we can use the names of our ancestors’ children as clues to their parents’ names. If the surname is at all uncommon we might even be able to work out which part of the country they’re likely to have come from. Lots of English surnames (and even some forenames) have quite specific regional origins.

The Village Wedding by Sir Samuel Luke Fildes, 1883

2 Investigate

Of course, what we’re really looking for is a record of baptism – birth records prior to 1837 (in England and Wales anyway) are relatively uncommon – but most people were baptised (if they were baptised at all) within a few months of their birth so in most cases we can use the information we have about their age to search for baptismal records.

Step 2 is all about identifying possible candidates. A well-constructed search on your genealogical website of choice, using the information you’ve gathered in Step 1, will, hopefully, present you with a potential record of your ancestor’s birth. More likely you’ll have more than one candidate or you might have none at all (see Step 5). Each of these eventualities leads to its own research path which we’ll look at next.  

3 Eliminate

The most likely outcome from Step 2 is that you’ll end up with a list of two or more potential candidates and you’ll need to begin a process of elimination. I like to think of this in terms of chickens and eggs. Stay with me on this…

Our ancestor is the chicken, a fully-formed adult, and our challenge is to find the egg that they hatched from. We need to look at the eggs in our basket and attempt to eliminate each of them, one at a time. The first thing to look for is records of burial. If we can show that one (or more) of the candidates on our list was buried as an infant, we can instantly eliminate them from our enquiries. If they died aged 3 months, they can hardly be our ancestor. We can then attempt to trace each of the remaining candidates forward in time, looking for marriage records and entries in census returns. If we can find an alternative future for them – evidence that they grew up and became a different chicken! – then we know that they can’t be ours.

Ideally, this process will leave us with just one candidate (or maybe we started with just one in the first place) and we can move onto Step 4. Alternatively, we might have eliminated all of our candidates and we can go to Step 5.

Moving On by Sir Hubert Herkomer, 1881

4 Assimilate

The fact that we only have one candidate doesn’t, by any means, suggest that this is the person we’re looking. We’ve got a long way to go before we can reach that sort of conclusion.

Step 4 is all about a process known as Family Reconstruction (or Family Reconstitution). The idea is that you attempt to find out everything you can about the family of your potential ancestor.

You might start by looking at the baptisms of their siblings, and the marriage and the burials of their parents – and you’ll definitely want to see if any of them left wills. You’ll want to follow up each of the siblings to find out what happened to them. So often you’ll find references to family members in later documents; they might appear as witnesses on marriage records, or as beneficiaries in wills, or they might just turn up unexpectedly on a census return.

You’re looking for just about any clues; perhaps an unusual name given to a child which also occurs in your family – or a distinctive occupation or a link to a familiar address.

Putting all of the available information together in a logical and organised way can help to make sense of what, at first sight, can seem to be a jumble of names and dates. This process helps us to see individuals as part of something much bigger; a family, with links and connections that can last for several generations. Aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews and nieces; they’re all part of the story and they all have the potential to provide that vital clue.

5 Speculate

There’s nothing more frustrating in genealogy than when your well-constructed search turns up … absolutely nothing! It’s as if you’ve stepped on a stair that isn’t there.

It’s important to bear in mind that there are any number of reasons why the record of your ancestor’s birth may not turn up as the result of a simple online search. The relevant record may not have been digitised and you may have to go to an archive to search actual physical records or microfilm (you really CAN’T do it all online) or the transcription may be so bad that the record is effectively unrecognisable. The record you’re looking for may not even exist – the register may have been damaged or lost entirely – or it may never have existed.  

There’s a danger that we become too fixated on finding records of our ancestors’ births when what we really need is evidence of their birth, or, at least, evidence of their parentage and this evidence can come from a wide variety of documents, such as census returns, wills, manorial documents, poor law records etc.

My first step in cases like this is to look for any other references to the surname in the area that I’m focussing on. It’s about looking for gaps in the records. Perhaps there’s a family producing children every two years but there’s a gap of four years between two of them. Could the person we’re looking for have been born in that gap? I’d want to look at the register itself and not rely on a transcript. Perhaps a page is missing or damaged, or the entry is there but has been missed or mistranscribed. It’s surprising how often the answer is something as simple as that.

Again, it’s about family reconstruction. By piecing together the story of our potential family, we can start to understand them not as random individuals but as a structured group and we can begin to speculate about how our ancestor might fit in.

What we’re trying to do in all of his is to develop a theory that this person or that person might be our ancestor. And then we try to disprove the theory – finding ‘negative proof’ is always easier than finding ‘positive proof’. It’s the tried and tested process used by scientists and mathematicians and if it’s good enough for them…

The final message is to persevere. Sometimes the best option is to put it to one side for a while and come back to it with fresh eyes – you may have missed something obvious. Chip away at it; think outside the box and spend time off the beaten track looking at some less-obvious sources.

Most importantly, don’t give up. The answer is out there!

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 25 June 2021

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Just trying to get by…

The pressures of society weighed heavily on our ancestors; in particular, the expectation that they should live good, God-fearing lives and that they should conform to the beliefs and values of the Anglican church, particularly when it came to matters concerning marriage and legitimacy.

Sometimes, those pressures must have seemed unbearable. And while the picture painted by the Christian Victorian patriarchy was usually one of immoral degenerates, refusing to conform, the truth of the matter is that, more often than not, it was the very rules imposed by an uncaring society which prevented our ancestors from ‘doing the decent thing’.

Family history research rarely makes me angry but the story of James and Frances Philpot really struck a nerve. It’s an example of a working-class couple just trying to get by, but failing – through no fault of their own – to live up to the standards expected of them, and being made to suffer as a result.

The story begins with the births of two girls in the early years of the 19th century. Mary and Frances, the daughters of William and Mary Ralf (or Ralph), were born in the Kent parish of St Mary, Little Chart on 27 September 1803 and 4 January 1806 respectively. The family later moved to Bekesbourne before settling in Pluckley sometime before 1820.

William was a native of Bedfordshire, while his wife, Mary came from Dartford, some 30 miles away, so neither were local to the area. The family were labourers; Mary stated on a later census return that she was ‘formerly a dairymaid’ and William appears in the returns for 1841 and 1851 as an agricultural labourer. There’s no suggestion that they were particularly poor – William is listed in the 1837 Tithe Commission records, occupying a cottage and garden in Rushbrook as well as a thin strip of pasture land measuring 3 acres – but life would probably have been a struggle for the Ralfs, at least by today’s standards.

The Ralf’s former cottage in the parish of Pluckley, Kent. Google Maps, accessed 7 April 2021

On 24 April 1822, not long after the family arrived in Pluckley, Frances, the second daughter, married a man called Jonathan Dale. Jonathan had been born in Ospringe in 1803. They were married in the parish church of St Nicholas, Pluckley; Frances was just sixteen at the time, Jonathan about two and a half years older. Over the next seven years, four children were baptised at Pluckley; Sarah (1824), William (1826), Anne (1827) and James (1829). Anne died young.

The minister of Pluckley, who married Jonathan and Frances in 1822 and baptised their four children was the Reverend Cholmeley Edward John Dering. Cholmeley also happened to be the son of the major local landowner, Cholemely Edward Dering, the 6th Baronet of Surrenden Dering, and the man who owned the house and land on which the Ralfs lived.

Mary, meanwhile, had also married. The record of the marriage of James Philpot and Mary Ralf appears in the Pluckley parish registers on 13 October 1823. At least it should do but for reasons unknown the bride’s name is entered as ‘Frances’ instead of Mary. This must surely be a simple mistake – the ‘day book’ kept by the parish records the bride’s name (correctly) as Mary Ralf – and as both the bride and groom were unable to sign their names (and therefore, probably, illiterate) they weren’t able to spot the error.

James Philpot was a local man, the son of John and Susanna Philpot, and had been baptised at St Nicholas, Pluckley on 15 May 1802. He and Mary had just two children, John (baptised 1826) and James (1828). Then, the year after James was born, Mary died, aged just 26. She was buried in the churchyard at Pluckley on 27 December 1829; we can only imagine how difficult that Christmas must have been for the family.

James found himself widowed at the age of 27 and with two young (very young) children to look after. His mother and two sisters lived in the area but any care that they could provide would only be short-term. What James needed, and needed quickly, was a new wife. Given the hazards of child birth at the time, it was a situation that thousands of young men found themselves in, and the person they so often turned to was the sister of their late wife.

The practice of men and women marrying their sisters-in-law and brothers-in-law has a long and complex history. Marriages between a man and his deceased wife’s sister or his deceased brother’s wife, and between a woman and her deceased’s husband’s brother and her deceased sister’s husband, were forbidden as a result of the ‘Prohibited Degrees of Kindred’ listed in the ‘Table of Kindred and Affinity’ in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.

The very commendable aim here was to prevent relationships between close blood relatives but the inclusion of certain relationships by marriage led to a degree of resistance, and many simply ignored the directive. The legal position was that marriages within the ‘Prohibited Degrees’ were voidable, as opposed to automatically void. In other words, such marriages could be declared invalid in a court of law if challenged but were otherwise valid.

The situation came to a head with the passing of the Marriage Act in 1835 under the terms of which these marriages were absolutely prohibited. At the same time, any marriages within the ‘Prohibited Degrees’ which had taken place prior to 1835 were retrospectively validated. It took a number of passionate campaigns over a period of more than 70 years before the Deceased Wife’s Sister’s Marriage Act was finally passed in 1907 removing the prohibition, and it was to take a further 14 years before the equivalent Act was passed enabling marriage between a man and his deceased brother’s widow.

So, when James Philpot married his deceased wife’s sister, Frances, on 29 October 1833, it appeared that there was no serious obstacle to the wedding taking place. James and Frances were married at the parish church of St Mary, Chatham. James was described as a widower and Frances ‘Dail’ as a widow.

Marriage of James Philpott & Frances Dail, St Mary, Chatham.
Medway Archives P85/1/55 p.2

But we have to ask why they would choose to travel some 20 miles from their home parish in order to get married. They were accompanied by a man called Joseph Else, a fellow-resident of Pluckley, who acted as one of the witnesses.

There would have been a great deal of effort involved in travelling that distance in the 1830s; it wasn’t something they would have done lightly, particularly when it involved taking a day off work (James and Frances were married on a Tuesday). So why did they decide to do this and, more importantly, why did the local parish authorities in Pluckley (apparently) fail to acknowledge the marriage?

The Pluckley parish registers tell only a small part of the story. Ten months before the marriage, on 9 December 1832, George Philpot, the son of Frances Dale of Pluckley, was baptised. Frances is described as a ‘Labourer’s Wife’ while young George was entered in the register as ‘B. B.’ [i.e. baseborn].

A further six children were born to James and Frances over the next eight years. No baptism has been found for Edward (born c.1834) but the entries in the Pluckley baptismal register for the other five tell an intriguing tale:

BaptisedNameParentsQuality, Trade, or ProfessionBy whom the Ceremony was performed
15 Jun 1835JosephFrances DaleLabourer’s WifeCholmeley Edwd. Dering Rector
17 Jul 1836StephenJames & Frances PhilpotLabourerC Boukhardt Offg. Minister
11 Jul 1838HenryJames & Frances PhilpotLabourerJ Mossop
12 Jan 1840StephenFrances DaleLabourer’s WifeJn Wm Horsley Curate
21 Mar 1841JaneFrances DaleLabourer’s WifeJn Wm Horsley Curate
Baptisms of children of James and Frances Philpot, St Nicholas, Pluckley. Kent Archives and Local History P289/1/B/2

It’s interesting to note that the three children born after the introduction of civil registration in July 1837 were registered under the name Philpot, showing the mother’s maiden surname as Ralf/Ralph.

The first Stephen died young. He was buried on 23 July 1837 by the rector, Cholmeley Edward Dering. The entry in the register reads ‘Stephen Dale’.

It’s difficult to say exactly what was happening here but it seems that certain clergymen (the Reverend Cholmeley Dering in particular) were not about to allow James and Frances to baptise their children legitimately, while others took a more liberal view – or perhaps simply believed James and Frances when they told them that they were legally married.

But were they? Well, no. A little more digging reveals that the 1833 marriage was anything but valid, for the simple reason that Frances’s husband, Jonathan Dale, was still alive. And this provides the answer to most of our questions. It explains why James and Frances travelled half way across Kent to get married. The Reverend Cholmeley Derring definitely wouldn’t have agreed to marry them and most of their friends and neighbours would have known that Jonathan was still alive. And when Cholmeley Dering and his curate John William Horsley baptised James and Frances’s children under the surname Dale and recorded Frances as a ‘labourer’s wife’ the labourer in question was Jonathan, not James.

So, if Jonathan was still alive, where was he? The answer is that he was on the other side of the world, in the penal colony in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania).

As early as 1820, Jonathan Dale was in trouble with the law. He was sentenced to 14 days’ hard labour at the July Quarter Sessions in Canterbury for stealing a whip. Marriage to Frances appears to have had a good influence on Jonathan as he doesn’t appear in the criminal records again until 1828 when he was sentenced to 7 days’ imprisonment for poaching. He was acquitted of burglary at the Kent Assizes in the summer of 1829 but he was back in court again just six months later on a similar charge. And this time he was found guilty and sentenced to 14 years’ transportation.

Kentish Chronicle, 22 December 1829 p.2 col.c
British Library Newspapers

After sentencing he was transferred from Maidstone Gaol to the Prison Hulk Retribution and then, on 23 June 1830, he began a four month journey to Van Diemen’s Land on board the Southworth.

Jonathan was assigned to work with a man named George Marshall. His convict record lists a number of instances of ‘disorderly conduct’ and neglect of duty for which he received 25 lashes in September 1832 and 50 more in November the same year. Nevertheless, he was granted a Conditional Pardon in January 1842 and a ‘Free Certificate’ in 1845.

Jonathan seems to have spent the rest of his life in Tasmania. He died on 1 February 1866, in Liverpool Street, Hobart where he had been working as a general dealer.

Meanwhile, back in England, James, Frances and the eight surviving children were living in the Thorne district of Pluckley at the time of the 1841 census. James was a 40-year old agricultural labourer and no occupations were given for any of the others. A closer look reveals another four people listed at the same address but in a separate household. Sarah, William and James Dale, Frances’s three surviving children from her relationship with Jonathan Dale and a 15-year old called Louisa Day, probably working as a servant.

In December 1841, just nine months after their youngest daughter Jane had been baptised (once again, the church authorities refused to recognise their marriage and insisted on her being given the name Dale) James and Frances left Pluckley for ever, travelling across the Atlantic to settle in America.

We can’t know exactly what drove them to leave their homes; to leave the only life they knew and start over again in the USA. Was it the constant reminders that their ‘marriage’ was invalid and that they were living ‘in sin’? Was the refusal to baptise Jane as their legitimate child the last straw?

What did Cholmeley and his kind expect James and Frances to do? They had lived together for at least 10 years. And they’d even tried to ‘do the decent thing’ by going through a formal marriage ceremony. The only thing stopping them from getting legally married was that Frances was married to a man who lived on the other side of the world – a man who she was never likely to see again – and their separation, let’s face it, was hardly something that she had chosen. Of course Jonathan knew the risks involved in his criminal activities but it’s not unreasonable to assume that he was driven to commit the crime through a lifetime of poverty and hardship.

James and Frances needed each other and they were able to provide for each other. Apart from anything else, their mutually beneficial relationship ensured that neither they nor their combined eleven children would become a burden on the poor law authorities, and therefore the rate payers. But Victorian society was too rigid and would rather routinely victimise them and treat them – and thousands of other couples in the same situation – as an underclass. Life for our working class ancestors was, surely, hard enough without this…

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 10 April 2021

Recommended reading: Marriage Law for Genealogists: the Definitive Guide by Rebecca Probert (2nd edition, 2016)

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