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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The Annals of the Annals

An investigation into the early history of the Annal/Annand family in South Ronaldsay, Orkney

The Annal surname appears to have originated separately in two parts of Scotland; in Orkney (specifically the island parish of South Ronaldsay) and in Fife (St Andrews and the East Neuk). In both cases, the name seems to be a corruption of the name Annand or Annan.

My aim is to explore the origins of the family in South Ronaldsay (from which I am descended) and, in particular, to examine the story that the family are descended from the Reverend James Annan or Annand, Commissioner of post-Reformation Orkney and his supposed son, James Annan, a wright of South Ronaldsay.

The earliest reference I have found to the surname Annal in the records of South Ronaldsay, Orkney, is in a rental of the lands of James Stewart, dated 1735[1]. Amongst the tenants listed is James Annall of Smiddie (i.e. Smiddy, a farm in the Grimness district). His name does not appear on any earlier lists of names including an inventory (dated 1711) of ‘Lands & Estate of Sir James Stewart of Burray’. However, this earlier list includes the name of James Annan in Pool. Pool is the farm immediately to the north of Smiddy and although there is no firm evidence for this, I feel quite certain that James Annall of Smiddie and James Annan of Pool are the same person (or, possibly that they are father and son) and that the name Annal is simply a variant of Annan.

Further rentals from the late 1740s and early 1750s[2] include the name of James Annal of ‘Upper & Neither Smidie’ and it seems likely that Pool was also known as Upper Smiddy. The geography of the area would certainly support this theory.

Ordnance Survey map 25 inch sheet CXX.16, 1882, South Ronaldsay, Orkney (detail), National Library of Scotland

A simple analysis of various surviving lists of South Ronaldsay names and other documents such as parish registers, testaments and inventories reveals that the name Annan(d) is found regularly on the island up until 1711 but not at all after that. In contrast, the name Annal(l) does not appear until 1735, yet by the time of the 1821 census (the earliest complete listing of the inhabitants of South Ronaldsay) it has become one of the most common surnames on the island, with nearly seventy individuals listed. This would be a quite remarkable increase if we are to believe that the name was new to South Ronaldsay just 86 years earlier. The logical conclusion is that the name Annal was not new to South Ronaldsay in the early eighteenth century but that it is a corruption of the well-established name Annan(d).

The parish registers for South Ronaldsay were poorly kept until the late eighteenth century. Nothing survives before this apart from two tantalising blocks; the first covering the years 1657 to 1669 and the second, starting in 1749 but petering out by the late 1750s/early 1760s and only returning to something approaching full coverage by the late 1780s.

The 1750s are, therefore, well covered and the parish register includes records of the baptisms of two children of James Annal (Annel) of Grimness; William in 1751 and Margaret in 1754. This is surely the James of Upper and Nether Smiddy who is listed in the later rentals. It seems unlikely that the man who was paying rent in 1711 was still fathering children in the 1750s so I think that we have two different people here, probably father and son. The James Annal listed in 1735 could be either the father or the son.

Baptism of William Annel, South Ronaldsay parish register, 18 July 1754
National Records of Scotland 29/2 p.14

The evolution of the surname from Annand to Annal has a direct precedent, provided by another South Ronaldsay surname. While it might seem strange that a name with a ‘hard’ ending such as Annan(d) should evolve into the much softer ending in Annal, we can point to the same ‘shift’ happening a hundred or so years later with the name Russland. The surname had been fairly common in South Ronaldsay in the eighteenth century, but gradually evolved to Russell, first in its pronunciation and eventually in its spelling.

It’s worth noting that the same evolution from Annan(d) to Annal occurred (independently) with the name in Fife.

Alexander ‘Sandy’ Taylor Annal (1907-2007) had a remarkable knowledge of the history of the inhabitants of his native South Ronaldsay. He wrote a number of articles on the subject and had an enormous store of information which he imparted in personal discussions and via local radio broadcasts. Sandy appears to have spent much of his youth listening to the tales of his ancestors, many of which were related to him by his grandfather, Peter Annal (1830-1923). As an oral historian, Sandy didn’t tend to give sources for the family histories that he passed down to us, but it is clear that, despite a tendency to exaggerate and a propensity for allowing his own political and social opinions to influence his take on historical events, his interest in the subject was genuine and intense. It’s also clear that he had a keen and inquisitive mind and a desire to disseminate his findings and conclusions.

Alexander ‘Sandy’ Taylor Annal (1907-2007)

In the text of an article intended for broadcast on Radio Orkney and dated April 1983[3], Sandy made his feelings known about a book ‘recently … published by a certain Gregor Lamb, giving his interpretation of Orkney family names and from where they originate.’ He was evidently not impressed:

A very large proportion of his interpretations of the Orkney names are false; in fact just rubbish.

The book that Sandy was referring to was Gregor Lamb’s Orkney Surnames[4], in which the author gave the following interpretation of the origins of the Annal name:

Annal: John Annal, South Ronaldsay, 1715: although not recorded in Orkney before 1700, this surname is included because its first recorded appearance is very close to 1700 and also because the surname is very interesting: locally it is believed that the surname is a corruption of Annand (Anynd) another surname which formerly existed in Orkney but this is unlikely since the surname Annal existed in Fife in 1550, more than one and a half centuries before its first recording in Orkney: most probably from the old medieval trade of enamelling (Middle English ‘anelen’, to enamel) and therefore related to the English surname Ambler: since, in those days enamel was a blackening process, the surname might be a nickname for a dark or swarthy person: Annal is not a common surname in Orkney today: confined to South Ronaldsay.

In his 1983 article, Sandy Annal gave his own version of the derivation of the name.

Tradition of our family says that the Annals were descended from a minister. They were very blonde in appearance and originated from Annandale in Dumfries. Well, at the time of the reformation two ministers reformed all of Orkney except the church in Westray. They were the Reverend Gilbert Fowlsie and the Reverend James Annan. The latter was minster of Papa Westray, Sanday, Eday, Stronsay and North Ronaldsay. He was in Orkney by 1550. His name is to be found on a great many charters and title deeds. He was on very good terms with Robert Stewart (half-brother of Mary, Queen of Scots) Earl of Orkney. So it’s not surprising that his son, James Annan, became clerk and factor to Earl Patrick Stewart, the infamous earl who was executed at Edinburgh in 1614, for his cruelty to Orkney udallers[5]. The earl’s factor, James Annan is accused in history of acquiring udal property for the earl simply by writing out new titles in Earl Patrick Stewart’s name…

This same James Annan was my direct ancestor…

1614, when a detachment of soldiers was sent to arrest Patrick Stewart and his son, Robert, they along with his bodyguard of 35 men, held out at Kirkwall castle for six weeks. By that time the castle was demolished by the cannon fired from the Kirk Green. And so the end was near.

James Annan with Patrick Hacker [Halcro?], a South Ronaldsay man, the earl’s Sergeant-at-Arms, negotiated with the army commander and handed over the earl for their freedom.

The next we hear of James Annan states in 1614 that he was admitted to communion in St Mary’s Church [South Parish, South Ronaldsay] and described as a fugitive from justice, residing at Graemston. There was a mansion house there at that time. I have before me, in clear writing, a photocopy of the Reverend James Annan’s signature. But for some reason the last letter is clearly the letter ‘l’.

…he’s a member of the Auchterellon Annans.

Sandy’s statement that the Reverend James Annan(d) was his direct ancestor requires further investigation. On the face of it, the idea that the Earl’s ‘clerk & factor’ ended his life as a wright[6] (‘wricht’) in St Margaret’s Hope seems a bit far-fetched but, nevertheless, the theory that the Annals of South Ronaldsay are descended from the wright is entirely convincing[7].

The signature of the Reverend James Annand was published in Craven’s History of the Church in Orkney[8]; the final character is, despite Sandy’s reading of it, quite clearly a ‘d’.

Signature of Jacobus Annand, Chancellor
History of the Church in Orkney (1558-1662),
Rev. J B Craven (1893) p.36

The Annand family were settled in the Aberdeenshire parish of Ellon as early as 1428 when John de Annand ‘lord of Auchterellon’ was described as the baillie (or estate manager) of the Prior of Torphichen. References to the family as major landowners in the area continue until the early seventeenth century[9]. A large monument to Alexander Annand who died in 1601, survives in the churchyard at Ellon. The family of Annand of Auchter Ellon appears in Burke’s Landed Gentry[10]where a further link to the Annands of Annandale is suggested.

There can be no doubt that the Reverend James Annand was an Auchterellon Annand. He is named in a 1558 deed relating to the “lands of Aucheterellane and Cukiston, with the mill thereof…”. James was acting on behalf of “Alexander Annand, son and heir of the late Thomas Annand of Aucheterellane[11]; it is likely that he was Thomas’s brother, or possibly his cousin.

Perhaps the strongest evidence for James’s link to Auchterellon comes from one of the nine copies of Hector Boece’s Scotorum historiae a prima gentis origine held by the National Library of Scotland[12]. Formerly owned by the Reverend James Annand, the copy was, according to the description on the National Library’s catalogue, “bound for him with his motto ‘Sperabo’ stamped on both boards” – Sperabo is the motto of Annand of Auchterellon.

James Annand’s life is quite well documented. The Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae gives a brief summary of his career as a minister in the reformed Church of Scotland:

1567   JAMES ANNAND, perhaps the student of that name of whom mention is made at a visitation of King’s College, Aberdeen, in 1549, and he may be “Dominus James A.” who witnessed a deed relating to the Dempster family, in 1547, as recorded in the Register of the Diocese of Brechin; belonged to the family of Annand of Auchterellon, Aberdeenshire; was a priest in the Romish Church holding the prebend of St John at Kirkwall previous to 1560; became chancellor of Orkney and had the benefices of Lady and Cross in Sanday, St Mary’s in Westray, Papa-Westray, and North Ronaldsay. Conforming to Protestantism he was appointed by the General Assembly in 1576 co-comissioner with Gilbert Foulzie for the planting of churches wherever necessary. He resided in Kirkwall in what of old was known as the “Laverock” [now Victoria Street], and was alive in 1605. He was pioneer of the Reformed Church in Orkney[13].

If a connection between the South Ronaldsay Annals and the family of Annand of Auchterellon can be established, we would be able to trace a line right back to the 11th century and the first Robert Bruis (or Bruce) ‘a noble knight of Normandy’ who came to England with William the Conqueror and was given lands in the north of the country. His son, also, Robert, was in Scotland by the 1120s and by 1129 was in possession of the Lordship of Annandale.

My own family line can be traced back to James Annal of Grimness; his son, William, is my 4x great grandfather. James was probably born around 1710 but, if he is the man listed in the 1735 rental he could have been at least ten years older. It seems likely that his father was the James Annan who was living at Pool in 1711 and it’s possible that this older James was the son of yet another James Annan.

With an almost complete absence of conventional parish register material for South Ronaldsay prior to the mid-eighteenth century, reconstructing the various branches of the Annan/Annal family is fraught with difficulty. There are a number of documents (rentals etc.) listing the names of the inhabitants of the island, usually with the name of the farm or lands on which they are paying rent, and using these, it is possible to come up with some theories about relationships. Fortunately, four seventeenth century testaments have survived relating to the Annan family of South Ronaldsay[14] which are altogether more useful.

The earliest testament is that of James Annand, the ‘wricht’ (wright) of St Margaret’s Hope who died on 1 December 1614. His wife is named as Catherine Mowat, and the following children are mentioned: George, John and Elizabeth Annand.

Opening lines of the will of James Annand ‘Wricht in St Margarets Hop’, Commissary Court of Orkney
National Records of Scotland reference CC17/2/2

The testaments of John Annan(d) (died April 1668) and his wife Agnes Omand (died 1 November 1663) name the following children: James, Robert, John, Elspeth and Barbara. I strongly suspect that this John is the son of the above James Annand. James and Robert are only mentioned in Agnes’s testament (not John’s) but there’s no evidence to suggest that they had died in between Agnes’s death and John’s. In fact, the marriages of Robert Annand to Elspet Gunne (26 December 1666) and of John Annand to Helen Aikers (5 February 1669) almost certainly relate to John and Agnes’s sons.

The last testament relates to a man called James Annane who died in May 1687; his testament names his wife, Mareone Stewart and his children, James, Mareone, Ka[the]rene, Marg[are]t, Barbara and Ursulla. (The surname Allane is used in the testament for the children but this is presumably an error.) The details clearly tie in with the marriage of James Annand and Marrione Stewart as recorded in South Ronaldsay’s earliest surviving parish register, on 7 April 1668. Unfortunately, the register ends in 1669 (followed by an 80-year gap) so we don’t have a record of the baptisms of any of James and Marrione’s children. James is almost certainly the son of the above John Annan and Agnes Omand. His son, James, is probably the James Annan/Annal of Grimness listed in the 1711 rental.

We therefore have a potential line of descent from James Annand, the wright of St Margaret’s Hope, down to James Annal of Grimness and we can draw up a (highly speculative) family tree.

We can also say with some confidence that the Reverend James Annan was a member of the Auchterellon family. The major question that remains to be answered is whether or not the Reverend was the father of James Annand, the wright. It is this crucial link in the chain which I intend to focus on in the next phase of my research.

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 26 March 2021


[1] An earlier reference to a John Annal in 1715 is given in Gregor Lamb’s Orkney Surnames but no source for this is provided.

[2] My source for these rentals is a letter written to me on 24 April 1983 by George Esson of St Margaret’s Hope

[3] Typescript copy in my possession.

[4] Orkney Surnames, Gregor Lamb (Edinburgh, 1981)

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Udal_law

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wright

[7] In a later (undated) ‘Errata and Addenda’, Gregor Lamb conceded that the name Annal was ‘probably a corruption of Annand: James Annand, wright, St, Margaret’s Hope, died 1641 [sic]’

[8] History of the Church in Orkney (1558-1662), Rev. J B Craven (1893) p.36

[9] Records of the Parish of Ellon, Thomas Mair (Edinburgh, 1876)

[10] Genealogical and Heraldic Dictionary of the Landed Gentry of Great Britain & Ireland (1847)

[11] The Protocol Book of Gilbert Grote (1552-1573), Scottish Record Society (Edinburgh, 1914)

[12] https://www.nls.uk/collections/rare-books/collections/hector-boece

[13] Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae, Volume VII (New Edition) (Edinburgh, 1928) p.276

[14] National Records of Scotland:
6 June 1615, James Annand, Wright of St Margaret’s Hope, CC17/2/2
17 January 1665, Agnes Omand, Wife of John Annan of South Ronaldsay, CC17/2/10
24 November 1668, John Annand, Cleat, South Ronaldsay, CC17/2/10
15 March 1688, James Annane, Lythes, South Ronaldsay, CC17/2/14

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Where have all the women gone?

To mark International Women’s Day I wanted to have a look at the key records that we use to research our English & Welsh family history, and to consider how those records routinely under-represent the roles played by our female ancestors, both in domestic settings and in the workplace. This under-representation can be seen as a natural consequence of the patriarchal society in which our ancestors lived but it’s also sometimes the direct result of the legislation behind the creation of the records themselves.

It’s not difficult to find examples of this phenomenon. The very nature of the English legal system sees women habitually defined by their relationship to their male next-of-kin – ‘the wife of…’, ‘the widow of…’, ‘the daughter of…’ etc. – but we also need to examine the tendency to under-record evidence of women’s employment in the records.

Parish Registers

Prior to the mid-18th century, the legislation concerning the keeping of parish registers by the Church of England offered little in the way of guidance about what should actually be recorded in the registers. The legal requirement was simply to keep records of the baptisms, marriages and burials taking place in the parish and it was largely left up to the officials in each individual parish to decide how much information should be recorded.

The amount of detail varied greatly from parish-to-parish but while there was a marked improvement over time it’s not at all uncommon for baptismal registers in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries to record only the name of the child’s father. Similarly, with infant burials, on those relatively rare occasions where any parental details are recorded, it’s most often just the father’s name that appears in the register. The – let’s face it – rather important role of the mother here is effectively suppressed. At best this is an example of lazy record keeping; at worst it’s a denial of the pain and grief experienced by women who had suffered the loss of a child. Perhaps the cruelest example of this particular phenomenon is where the burials of stillborn children are recorded with phrases such as “The abortive daughter of John Smith…”.

Burial of the ‘abortive’ daughter of John Smith, St Edward, Leek. Staffordshire Record Office reference. D1040/5/1. Accessed via Findmypast

Other examples can be found throughout the Church of England’s parish registers, notably the custom of recording the burials of married or widowed women as ‘the wife of Thomas Brown’ or as ‘Widow Evans’, denying these women even the simple dignity of a forename.

The introduction of printed registers under the terms of Rose’s Parish Register Act of 1812, together with the earlier Hardwicke’s Marriage Act which specified the details to be recorded in marriage registers, saw the end of some of the worst practices in this area.

Census Returns

It’s very easy when looking at 19th century census returns to get the impression that most women lived a life of leisure and that in the majority of households, men were the sole means of financial support for the family. Yet we know from countless other contemporary sources that this is far from being the case.

In order to understand what’s going on here, we need to look at the instructions issued to the census enumerators. The following notes appeared in the instructions issued in 1841:

The profession, &c., of wives, or of sons or daughters living with their husbands or parents, and assisting them, but not apprenticed or receiving wages, need not be set down.

This policy was not advocated in later censuses but it’s possible that a principle had already been established. A long list of ‘Instructions for filling up the Column headed “RANK, PROFESSION, or OCCUPATION” was printed on the reverse of the householders’ schedules in 1851. The final item on the list was headed ‘WOMEN AND CHILDREN’ and included the following directions:

The titles of occupations of ladies who are householders to be entered according to the above Instructions. The occupations of women who are regularly employed from home, or at home, in any but domestic duties, to be distinctly recorded.

However, despite these clear instructions, it’s obvious, even from a cursory glance at the returns, that women’s employment is, by and large, under-recorded in the 19th century censuses.

1851 census, Aldenham, Hertfordshire. The National Archives reference: HO 107/1714 f.7 p.7.
It is extremely unlikely that Mary was not working with Henry, preparing leather, stitching, finishing etc.

Civil Registration

The introduction of civil registration of births, marriages and deaths in July 1837 led to a significant increase in the amount of detail recorded, compared to the equivalent Church of England parish registers.

The new civil birth registration records effectively granted women full ‘archival’ equality. In fact, whereas the mother of the child is always recorded, it’s the father whose name is occasionally missing from the certificates, specifically in the case of (some) illegitimate births. It’s also worth noting that mothers were frequently the informants, registering the births of their children.

But when it comes to registering the other two vital events (marriages and deaths) any sense of equality quickly disappears…

The form of the marriage certificate introduced in 1837 is still in use today. No provision was made to record details of the mothers of the bride and groom which, in addition to contributing to the invisibility of women in the records, makes researching our English & Welsh ancestors that much more challenging. Legislation to change this, and to include the name and occupation of the bride and groom’s mothers, is currently in the process of passing through Parliament and is scheduled to come into effect on 4 May 2021.

Civil death registrations are where we see the worst manifestation of patriarchal Victorian attitudes. Married and widowed women were routinely described as ‘the wife of…’ or ‘the widow of…’  and children were described as the son or daughter of their father. And this was also the case with unmarried adult women. Perhaps the most startling example of this phenomenon is to be found on the death certificate of the nurse and statistician, Florence Nightingale in 1910. Florence is described as a ‘Spinster and Daughter of William Edward Nightingale (deceased) of Independent Means’. Florence was 90 years old and her father had died 36 years earlier.

Death certificate of Florence Nightingale, Mayfair, 1910. General Register Office SEP 1910 St George, Hanover Square vol.1a p.204

Wills

Roughly 20% of wills proved in England and Wales were left by women, but these are almost entirely those of spinsters and widows; wills of married women are conspicuous by their absence. And this is because prior to the passing of the Married Women’s Property Act in 1882, a woman’s personal property automatically became her husband’s on marriage. A marriage settlement (an agreement signed prior to the marriage) could provide some protection for a woman, but the vast majority of married women were entirely financially dependent on their husbands.

Wills can bring our ancestors to life in a way that other records, particularly those created by the Church and State, can never come close to achieving. When we read an ancestor’s will, we’re reading their words and hearing their voices. But due to the restrictions imposed by English law, around 30% of the adult population is unlikely to appear in the records, and the voices of these women are lost to us.

There’s no shortage of examples of the silencing of women’s stories in other record sets. Army service records and muster rolls, for example, give few clues to the huge contribution that women made to the regiments, providing vital services such as washing, mending and cooking. The names of these women, often the wives or daughters of serving soldiers are not recorded in the records, so their stories can’t be told.

‘Soldiers Cooking’, 1798 (c), Sepia aquatint after Thomas Rowlandson, British Army on Campaign 1798.
National Army Museum, Accession Number: NAM. 1983-11-63-1 (Out of Copyright)
https://collection.nam.ac.uk/detail.php?acc=1983-11-63-1

As researchers, it’s our job to familiarise ourselves with these issues and, when researching our own ancestors, to attempt to fill in the gaps; to reconstruct the lives of our female ancestors and to understand and appreciate the crucial roles that they played, both in a domestic context and in the wider workplace.

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 8 March 2021

Posted in research, Soapbox | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Conjectures, traditions and the search for the truth…

Sir Denner Strutt, Knt., was of Little Warley, of which place he was created a baronet in 1641; he suffered severely from the arbitrary exactions of the parliament in the time of King Charles the First, being compelled to pay £1,350 for the redemption of his estates, which had been seized; and he was afterwards slain in battle, fighting in the royal cause. Sir Denner leaving no surviving offspring, his brother was the ancestor of the present family.

The History & Topography of the County of Essex by Thomas Wright, Esq. (London, 1836) p.240

It’s always nice to find a reference to the person you’re researching in a printed source and thanks to websites such as the Internet Archive, Google Books and the HathiTrust Digital Library, it’s now possible to search the texts of millions of books, journals and periodicals and to find mentions of our ancestors in places we would never have thought of looking before.

Obviously, we’re more likely to find references to people from the nobility and gentry – landowners, Lords of the Manor, Knights and Baronets – than we are to labourers or tradesmen. But the way in which the books have been digitised means that any reference, however buried it may be in the most unexpected place, can make its way to the surface, and turn up in the results of a well-formulated web search.

I came across the above reference recently while researching the life of Sir Denner Strutt, who was believed to be the ancestor of a client I was working for. He’s an interesting character; Lord of the Manor of Little Warley in Essex, and, as indicated here by the antiquarian Thomas Wright, a Royalist who was compounded (i.e. fined) by Parliament during the Commonwealth Period as a ‘delinquent’. But I was somewhat stopped in my tracks by the reference to Sir Denner ‘leaving no offspring’; if that was the case, he could hardly be my client’s ancestor.

Little Warley Hall. Engraved by Henry Adlard from an original study by William Henry Bartlett. Originally produced for “The History and Topography of Essex” published in parts from 1831 onwards.

The evidence from British genealogical historiography tells us that our now easily-accessible and popular hobby was, for many hundreds of years, the preserve of gentlemen antiquarians.

Almost exclusively white, male, and of the leisured classes, antiquarians were at the forefront of the study of genealogy throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Their works were generally held in high esteem, and treated as authoritative texts and their beautifully bound County Histories were printed and reprinted; an essential addition to any gentleman’s personal library.

In Jane Austen’s Persuasion we meet such a gentleman in the person of Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall, in Somersetshire. Sir Walter “was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage” where “he could read his own history with an interest which never failed.

Sir Walter liked to ‘improve it’ by adding the dates of more recent events in his family’s history but what he was particularly interested in was “the history and rise of the ancient and respectable family … how it had been first settled in Cheshire; how mentioned in Dugdale, serving the office of high sheriff, representing a borough in three successive parliaments, exertions of loyalty, and dignity of baronet, in the first year of Charles II…

The Dugdale mentioned here is Sir William Dugdale (1605-1686), an antiquarian and the author of The Antiquities of Warwickshire, published in 1656 and one of the earliest examples of a County History. Dugdale’s pioneering work was to play an important role in the development of genealogical research.

The seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries saw the rise of the antiquarian and a outpouring of ‘scholarly’ texts. It seems like almost every village had its own keen amateur antiquary who took an interest in the history of the local families – by which I mean Sir Walter Elliot’s “ancient and respectable” families. The families of those who were sometimes referred to as ‘the submerged‘ were of little or no interest to our gentlemen antiquarians.

There were exceptions, and we meet one of them in the opening pages of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbevilles. Parson Tringham, the antiquary of Stagfoot Lane, tells Jack Durbeyfield about the discovery he made while “hunting up pedigrees for the new county history.

Illustration for the 1891 Serialised Version of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. From http://www.victorianweb.org/art/illustration/tess/gallery1.html

Plain old Durbeyfield, the haggler, was, it seems, “the lineal representative of the ancient and knightly family of the d’Urbervilles, who derive their descent from Sir Pagan d’Urberville, that renowned knight who came from Normandy with William the Conqueror, as appears by Battle Abbey Roll.

Tess and Persuasion are, of course, works of fiction. The problem is, as you’ll soon find out when you start to explore these waters, that the text quoted at the top of this page, along with countless other similar passages in the respected and venerated works of our antiquarian friends, is also little more than a work of fiction.

Far from dying in battle, fighting for the royalist cause, Sir Denner was buried at Little Warley in 1661, ten years after the last battle of the English Civil War was fought. And the statement that he had no offspring can be quickly disproved with reference to a number of sources (including the text on a vast monumental inscription erected in memory of his second wife, and Sir Denner’s own last will and testament) which showed that he actually had had at least five children, two of whom (both daughters) survived to adulthood. And furthermore, there is no evidence whatsoever that Denner had any brothers from whom later members of the family could claim descent.

The burial of Sir Denner Strutt, recorded in the register of St Peter, Little Warley on 8 September 1661. Essex Record Office D/P 66/1/1

Thankfully, there are (and always have been) enough people around with the confidence to question the stories published in County Histories like Wright’s History & Topography of Essex. And I was delighted to come across an excellent example of critical, evidence-based research putting these myths to bed, while I was searching for more details of Sir Denner Strutt’s life.

In the process I got to know a little bit about Henry William King, an inhabitant of late 19th century Leigh in Essex and a man after my own heart.1 Volume 5 of the Transactions of the Essex Archaeological Society, published in 1873, contains a summary of a talk about the ancestry of Sir Denner Strutt, given by King at a meeting of the society in Braintree. King began, as all good historians should, by giving credit to a “learned associate”, Colonel Chester, whose research had led to the discoveries that he was about to divulge. We quickly get an indication of the general tone of the talk, when King uses phrases such as “documentary evidence” and considers the need to “destroy the vague traditions and fictions to which historians and genealogists have given currency…”. This is my sort of language!

And it gets even better; after discussing what was then known about Sir Denner Strutt and his ancestry, King (known locally as ‘Antiquary’ King) went on to mention the “modern writers of some popular repute” who “had not only assumed for Sir Denner a distinguished foreign ancestor, but had created for him a younger brother.” King promised to “assign to him a more humble and less remote origin” and to “prove that he was an only son.

He continues:

Others, again, in defiance of the clearest evidence, have slain the gallant cavalier long before his natural dissolution. Burke in his “Extinct Baronetage” tells us that, “in 1240, when the charter of freedom was obtained by the Helvetic Confederacy, Godfried Strutz de Hinkelred, of Unter Walden, chief of the Swiss Auxiliaries, received the honour of Knighthood, but in subsequent dissensions, being upon the less fortunate side, was obliged to seek an asylum in England, where it appears he took up his permanent abode, and from him descended Sir Denner Strutt, Bart., of Little Warley Hall.” And this grave assertion of a descent is advanced in a book of some popular authority, without supplying us with one link in the chain, which must include at least twelve generations of men, without affording one scrap of tittle or evidence in support of it, and without the power of telling us even who Sir Denner’s father was.

Transactions of the Essex Archaeological Society, Volume V (1873) p.149

King asks “why any one should have sought a remote Swiss ancestor for a man bearing a plain English surname, and sufficiently common in Suffolk and in the parts of Essex bordering on Suffolk…” and then, in a phrase which is as relevant today as it was when it was written down nearly 150 years ago, he suggests that…

The conjectures of one age usually become the traditions of the next, and are often recorded as facts in that which follows…

As we might say in today’s Twitterverse…

I found several more examples of this phenomenon in my quest for information about other generations of Sir Denner’s family. His second wife’s great great grandfather, Thomas Wodehouse, was the son of Sir Roger Wodehouse of Kimberley House in Norfolk and another fascinating subject to research.

The eminent antiquarian, Francis Blomefield, writing in his early-19th century history of Norfolk2, begins his section on Thomas Wodehouse quite promisingly by stating that he was never knighted “notwithstanding what is said in the Baronetage” but quickly undoes this good work by putting together what was later described by John Wodehouse, the 1st Earl of Kimberley and a descendant of this Thomas, as a “remarkable statement”. To quote the 1st Earl, according to Blomefield’s account, Thomas Wodehouse “was slain at Musselburgh in 1547 … and was afterwards Sherriff and Member of Parliament in the reigns of Philip & Mary and of Elizabeth.3

We owe a lot to researchers such as John Wodehouse and Henry ‘Antiquary’ King who give references for their sources and explain, using reasoned arguments, the conclusions that they’ve reached, but the sloppy efforts of others continue to cause problems right up to the present day.

Thomas Bennett married Sir Denner Strutt’s daughter, Blanch (one of the offspring that he allegedly didn’t have…). He and Blanch appear in a number of Ancestry Public Member Trees (well over a hundred) and in at least 83 of them, Thomas is said to have been the son of another Thomas Bennet; his date of birth is given as 1640 (in Wiltshire) and he is supposed to have died in Buckinghamshire in 1703.

Unfortunately, at some point, someone has confused two people of the same name; two people who came from similar social classes and who were both born in Wiltshire. It’s easily done, but by choosing to adopt one of them as the person we’re interested in without, as Antiquary King would put it, “one scrap or tittle of evidence in support of it” we’re more than likely to end up adopting the wrong ancestor. In this case, we can use the text of a Chancery Decree Roll4 and the evidence from an apprenticeship indenture5 to show that Thomas was a) the son of Andrew Bennet and b) dead by December 1685. I’m pleased to say that 58 Public Member Trees have accepted this (correct) view of events.

The danger comes with the repetition; whether it’s antiquarians repeating the stories written in earlier works, or modern family historians blindly accepting the ‘research’ of others and tacking it onto their own family trees, it’s easy to see how, over time, the conjectures become traditions and how those traditions, eventually, become accepted as facts. In our modern, virtual world, the process is speeded up so that the mistakes or false assumptions of one researcher can quickly be taken up by others and, due to the way that the websites present these things, soon become the new ‘truth’. Thousands upon thousands of these conjectures are out there right now, waiting to be thoughtlessly tacked on to yet more online family trees, repeatedly multiplying the problem.

It’s our job as family historians to see beyond this; to constantly ask questions and to seek evidence for the findings of other people’s research.

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 10 January 2021

1 Henry William King’s manuscript collection is held by the Essex Record Office. https://www.essexarchivesonline.co.uk/Result_Details.aspx?DocID=102933
2 An Essay towards a Topographical History of Norfolk, Volume 2 (1805) p.552
3 The Wodehouses of Kimberley, by John Wodehouse, 1st Earl of Kimberley (Privately printed, 1887)
4 Chancery Decree Roll. The National Archhives reference: C 78/749. Accessed via http://aalt.law.uh.edu/
5 Apprenticeship indenture for John Bennet, 1685. City of London Freedom Admissions Papers. London Metropolitan Archives EL/JL/66/12. Accessed via https://www.ancestry.co.uk/search/collections/2052/

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52 Ancestors – 52 Documents

Throughout 2020 I’ve been tweeting my own take on Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks – 52 different types of document relating to 52 different ancestors over 52 weeks. Now I’ve put all 52 tweets together in one post…

1. I’m doing the #52Ancestors thing with a slight twist. I’m illustrating my ancestors’ lives using 52 different types of document. We’ll start with the will of my 4xGt Grandfather, John LAYTON of Buckingham (1751-1821). John was a carpenter and left his sawpit to his son Benjamin.

Will of John Layton of Buckingham, 1821. Buckinghamshire Archives, Wills PEC Vol.9 G

2. Scottish death certificates give so much more information than their English/Welsh counterparts. My 2xGt Grandfather John FLYNN drowned in Granton Harbour. Here we get the names of his parents with the implication that they’re both still alive.

Death Certificate of John Flynn, 1881. National Records of Scotland 1881 679 34

3. Valuation Rolls, available for the whole of Scotland at ScotlandsPeople fill in the gaps between censuses and help to tell the story of our early C20th ancestors. Here’s my Gt Grandfather, Samuel Christie Annal, in his brand new home in 1925.

Valuation Roll for the Burgh of Edinburgh, 1925-26. National Records of Scotland VR01000512 p.69

4. My 2xGt Grandfather, Thomas PORT, married twice. The two certificates tell an interesting story. He was illegitimate but when he came to marry for the second time, he invented a father, presumably in an effort to avoid the stigma of illegitimacy.

Marriage Certificate of Thomas Port and Mary Layton, Buckingham. General Register Office JUN 1847 Buckingham 6 495
Marriage Certificate of Thomas Port and Mary Ann Berrill, Smethwick. General Register Office SEP 1861 Kings Norton 6a 615

5. Here’s my 2xGt Grandmother, Margaret Hay SINCLAIR, in the 1861 census, living with her parents and siblings on the family farm in the #Orkney parish of Orphir. Not the most exciting document I’ll post this year but it all helps to tell the story!

1861 Census, Orphir, Orkney. National Records of Scotland 1861 23 ED.3 p.4

6. Like many young Orcadians, my 3xGt Grandfather, Peter ANNAL, worked for the Hudsons Bay Company. This is a detail from his contract, dating from 1820. He was 20 at the time and spent the next 10 years working out in the Nor’ Wast. @HBCHeritage

Service Agreement, 1820. Hudson’s Bay Company Archives A32/20

7. My grandfather, Charles FLYNN, was in Ashford, Kent when the 1939 national register was taken. He had left my Granny with their 3 children in Edinburgh and 8 years later he married again (bigamously). My Granny referred to him as Old Bugger Lugs.

National Register, 1939, Ashford, Kent. The National Archives RG 101/1681E/011 p.15

8. One of the downsides of being a professional is not having time to do your own research. I know I should be able to push back my English ancestry, but for now the 1651 baptism of my 7xGt Grandfather, John PORT, remains the earliest record I have.

Baptism of John Port, Dorchester, Oxfordshire, 1651/52. Oxfordshire History Centre PAR87/1/R1/1

9. I love the challenge of reading old handwriting but I have to admit that I struggle with early 17th century Scottish script. This is the Testament Dative of James ANNAND, ‘Wricht in St M[ar]garets Houp’, probably my 9xGt Grandfather, dated 1615.

Testament Dative of James Annand of St Margaret’s Hope, South Ronaldsay, Orkney, 1615, National Records of Scotland CC17/2/2

10. Nothing beats a good map, especially a detailed 25″ to the mile OS map like this. Here we have Reids Castle (really NOT a castle!) on the Orkney island of Eday, the birthplace of my 3xGt Grandmother, Jane REID. Was the place name an ironic joke?

Map of Eday, Orkney (detail), Ordnance Survey 25 inch to the mile, Orkney LXXX.15 (Eday), 1881. National Library of Scotland

11. My 2xGt Grandfather, James SMITH, was born in County Meath and moved to Edinburgh in the 1850s. He was a policeman, a grocer, a park ranger and finally a warder at Holyrood Palace. Here he is, listed as a grocer in the 1865 electoral register.

Poll Book, Edinburgh. No. VIII Canongate Ward. Edinburgh City Archives Sl56/11 p.152

12. Here’s my 2xGt Grandfather, John DAVIDSON, in the 1901 census living in the Scottish border town of Duns – formerly Dunse. And because I can, here’s the street he was living in (Willi’s Wynd) from a contemporary OS map. http://dunsehistorysociety.co.uk/documents.shtml

1901 Census, Duns, Berwickshire. National Records of Scotland 1901 735 ED.1 p.35
Map of Dunse, Berwickshire (detail), Ordnance Survey 25 inch to the mile, Berwickshire XVI.7 (Duns), 1899. National Library of Scotland

13. Latin has never been my strongest suit but as family historians we need to be able to pick out the key facts from a document. I was able to do a complete translation of this Roman Catholic marriage of my 2xGt Grandparents, John and Bridget FLYN.

Roman Catholic Marriage of John Flynn & Bridget Flynn, St Patrick’s, Edinburgh. National Records of Scotland MP 87/1/4/1 p.120

14. Isle of Man parish registers closely resemble their English counterparts, with one notable exception. For most legal purposes, Manx women kept their maiden names. The baptism of my 2xGt Grandfather Charles HOWLAND shows his mother as Mary COWLE.

Baptism of Charles Howland, St Jude, Andreas, Isle of Man, 1843. Manx National Heritage Library and Archive Service MS11410/1

15. County maps can help us to track our ancestors’ movements and set their lives in a local context. This 1838 map of the Environs of Edinburgh shows the village of Cramond and Peggys Mill, where my 2xGt Grandmother Margaret GLENNIE worked in 1851.

Map of the Environs of Edinburgh (detail), 1838, Benjamin Rees Davies. National Records of Scotland EMS.s.37A

16. At their best, Passenger Lists can act like a mini census. Here my Gt Grandmother Margaret HOWLAND is travelling to Canada with her daughter (my Grandma) onboard the SS Hesperian in 1909. They intended to settle there but returned the next year.

Passenger List, SS Hesperian, 1909. The National Archives BT 27/604 p.4

17. The 1841 census is best seen as a work in progress. The absence of relationships can make it hard to work out who’s who. Here my 3xGt Grandfather Samuel CHRISTIE is living with his sister Betsy but we need to use other sources to work this out.

1841 census, Grimness, South Ronaldsay, Orkney. National Records of Scotland 1841 29 ED.4 p.3

18. My grandfather, William ANNAL, joined the RAF (29 Squadron) in WW2. His service record tells me that he worked as a Wireless Mechanic at West Malling. 29 Squadron’s Bristol Beaufighters played an important role in the Battle of Britain. #VEDay75

Royal Air Force Service Record of William Annal, 1940-1945. Ministry of Defence

19. We often see a de-humanising element in records of our ‘lunatic’ ancestors, particularly in the census where people are often listed by their initials. My 3xGt Grandmother Mary Ann PORT appears in the records of the Northampton Asylum as Miss P.

Day Book, Northampton County Lunatic Asylum, 1844. Northamptonshire Archives and Heritage NCLA

20. The baptism of Rachel, daughter of my 3xGt Grandparents, James PHILP and Mary PATERSON provides a good example of the importance of viewing original documents and not relying on indexes. It describes James as ‘Servant to Mr Keith of Ravelstone’.

Baptism of Rachel Philp, Corstorphine, 1761. National Records of Scotland 678/20 p.267

21. Our ancestors’ wills are fantastic sources of genealogical information & can give us clues to their individual character. Here, my Manx 5xGt Grandfather Ewan HOWLAND names a son and three daughters. Two other sons seem to have been disinherited.

Will of Ewan Howland of Andreas, Isle of Man, 1800. Manx National Heritage Library and Archive Service Episcopal Court 1800 Andreas E 2

22. Birth records are fundamental to what we do, providing the links between generations. For many of us, the English/Welsh birth certificate is commonplace, yet only one of my direct ancestors has one, my Great Grandfather, Frederick Thomas PORT.

Birth Certificate of Frederick Thomas Port, 1850. General Register Office SEP 1850 Buckingham 6 356

23. Discovering that a pre-1841 census survives for your ancestors’ parish is a family historian’s dream. Here’s my 4xGt Grandfather William ANNAL and his family in the 1821 census for the Orkney parish of South Ronaldsay.

1821 Census of South Ronaldsay, Orkney. Orkney Library and Archive D1/1006

24. Documents aren’t just found in #Archives. That box in the attic is full of old family papers, diaries and notebooks. Like this ‘Receipe’ Book kept by my Gt Grandfather, David John DAVIDSON, who worked as a chemist in late 19th Century Edinburgh.

Recipe Book of David John Davidson. Author’s personal collection.

25. Ages in census returns are notoriously unreliable but there must have something strange in the Orkney water to allow my 2xGt Grandfather James ANNAL to ‘overtake’ his older sister, Betsy. Betsy was born in August 1836 and James in November 1837.

1871 Census of South Ronaldsay, Orkney. National Records of Scotland 1871 29 ED.7 p.10

26. Between 1710 and 1804, certain apprenticeship indentures in England & Wales were subject to taxation. The resulting records can give us clues about our ancestors’ lives, like this 1758 entry for my 4xGt Grandfather, William LAYTON, a ‘Joyner’.

Apprenticeship Duty Register, 1758. The National Archives IR 1/21 f.92lh

27. Inventories are amongst the richest, most rewarding documents we come across in our research, comprising a room-by-room list of our ancestors’ moveable property. This is the 1674 inventory of my 8xGt Grandfather, Richard PORT, of Oxfordshire.

Inventory of Richard Port of Dorchester, Oxfordshire. Oxfordshire History Centre Pec.70/4/37

28. Scottish birth certificates differ from English ones in two ways. They routinely give the time of birth and they give details of the parents’ marriage. My Gt Grandmother Margaret Ann Clouston MILLER was born the year after her parents married.

Birth Certificate of Margaret Ann Clouston Miller, 1881. National Records of Scotland 1881 23 15

29. Nonconformist registers had no legal status until 1840 but they’re often more informative than the equivalent CofE records. My 2xGt Grandmother, Mary LAYTON was baptised at the Old Meeting House, Buckingham. The register gives her date of birth.

Baptism (Nonconformist) of Mary Layton, Old Meeting House, Buckingham. The National Archives RG 4/293 f.51r

30. When it comes to family history sources there’s not much better than a good Chancery case. My 4xGt Grandmother Elizabeth PORT (née TRUMAN) was involved in a suit which lasted for nearly 11 years. This document is an Order issued on 5 June 1810.

Chancery Order, 1810. The National Archives C 33/577

31. Marriage records in pre-1837 English parish registers are somewhat lacking in genealogical detail. The 1776 marriage of my 4xGt Grandmother Mary BLENCOWE at least gives her husband’s occupation while one of the witnesses is possible relative.

Marriage of John Layton & Mary Blencowe, Brackley, Northamptonshire. Northamptonshire Archives and Heritage 42P/11 p.56

32. I feel like I’m cheating a bit here, including gravestones in my list of documents, but since they *document* someone’s life I feel I can justify it. This is the gravestone of (among others), my great grandmother, Catherine (or Kathleen) SMITH.

Gravestone in Mount Vernon Cemetery, Edinburgh. Author’s personal collection.

33. It’s all-too-easy to ignore our ancestors’ later lives and think of them only as the parents of the next generation. Census returns can help us track them from cradle to grave. In 1891 my 2xGt Grandfather Charles HOWLAND is with his second wife.

1891 Census of Wanlockhead, Sanquhar, Dumfries-shire. National Records of Scotland 1891 853B ED.1 p.6

34. There’s nothing like a collection of photographs to document a life. Here are four photos of my mum, Kathleen FLYNN, dating from 1928 to 2000. She would have been 93 today. #HappyBirthdayMum

Photographs of Kathleen Flynn. Author’s personal collection.

35. The Scottish 1841 & 1851 censuses take on extra significance as they pre-date the start of civil registration. Here, my 4xGt Grandfather, James PHILIP, is recorded in the 1851 census in Cramond, listed as an 83-year old Pauper formerly Ag Lab.

1851 Census of Cramond, Midlothian. National Records of Scotland 1851 679 ED.3 p.26

36. Records of livery companies and apprenticeships can be genealogical gold dust. This, from the Freedom of the City of London admission papers, records my 4xGt Grandfather, Samuel PORT, as the son of Thomas of Sherburn (Shirburn), in Oxfordshire.

Apprenticeship Indenture of Samuel Port. London Metropolitan Archives ELJL 1046/13

37. Electoral registers are at their most useful when you can view consecutive years. The changes in the enfranchised family members from year-to-year can give you invaluable clues. Here, my Granny, Lizzie G DAVIDSON, is listed in Edinburgh in 1925.

Electoral Register Edinburgh. No. 13 Dalry Municipal Ward – West Division – Polling District N1. Edinburgh City Archives Sl56/85 p.20

38. There are usually two copies of every will; the original will brought into the court by the executor and the registered copy, entered into the court’s books. This is the original 1738 will of my 6xGt Grandmother, Elizabeth TRUMAN (née CHUBB).

Registered Will of Elizabeth Truman (née Chubb) of Lacock, Wiltshire, Consistory Court of Salisbury, 1738. Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre P1/T/396

39. The printed 19th century parish registers used in the Isle of Man are identical to their English and Welsh counterparts, including the post-1837 marriage registers. My 2xGt Grandmother, Catherine CRENNELL, was married at Kirk Bride in July 1864.

Isle of Man Marriage of Charles Howland and Catherine Crennell, Bride, Isle of Man. Manx National Heritage Library and Archive Service

40. The Scottish 1911 census isn’t quite as useful as its English/Welsh equivalent; we don’t get to see the original householders’ schedules. Here’s my grandma, Margaret HOWLAND, aged 4. Her Aunt was in fact her mother, covering up her illegitimacy.

1911 Census of Edinburgh. National Records of Scotland 1911 685/1 ED.41 p.7

41. Whether they were the victims or the alleged perpetrators of crime we’re almost certain to have someone on the tree who had a brush with the law. In 1823, my 3xGt Grandmother’s brother, Thomas PORT, had a piece of bacon stolen from his shop.

Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 3rd December 1823, page 60

42. My Edinburgh/Irish Gt Grandfather, John FLYNN, was born in Corstorphine in 1857 and was one of at least 17 children baptised on 12 July at St Mary’s, later the Roman Catholic Cathedral. The parish register records the names of his godparents.

Roman Catholic Baptism of John Flynn, St Mary’s, Edinburgh, 1857. National Records of Scotland MP 74/1/1/5 f.85

43. Manx Deeds are an astonishing resource, recording transfers of land on the Isle of Man, with records surviving back to the 16th century. In 1810, my 4xGt Grandfather, William HOWLAND, bought some land from his sister Joney CAINE and her husband.

Manx Deed, 1810. Manx National Heritage Library and Archive Service NSS OCT 1810/7

44. It’s inevitable in small island communities that marriages between neighbours are commonplace and that some of those neighbours will be cousins. My 2xGt Grandmother, Jane ANNAL, née CHRISTIE, is related to everyone else on this 1881 census page.

1881 Census of South Ronaldsay, Orkney. National Records of Scotland 1881 29 ED.7 p.11

45. I don’t have any direct ancestors who served in the British Army so this is a bit of a cheat. Remembering my 2xGt Uncle, John Henry Norquay ANNAL, who left Orkney to fight on the Western Front in December 1916, never to return. #RemembranceDay

British Army Service Record of John Henry Norquay Annal, 1916-1918. The National Archives WO 363/A 279

46. This week I’m featuring my Gt Uncle, Samuel Christie ANNAL. Sam was one of 800 men of the Black Watch, dropped behind enemy lines in Myanmar in March 1944. Five months later Sam was dead and only 50 of the men were fit for duty. #RemembranceDay

Commonwealth War Graves Commission

47. Unlike their English/Welsh counterparts, Scottish marriage certificates name both parents of the bride and the groom. My 2xGt Grandmother, Elizabeth GRAY, was working as a House Maid at Houndwood House, Berwickshire when she got married in 1860.

Scottish Marriage Certificate of John Davidson & Elizabeth Gray, Edrom, Berwickshire. National Records of Scotland 1860 738 6

48. English/Welsh death certificates don’t offer too much in the way of genealogical detail but I always get copies for my direct ancestors. This is my 3xGt Grandmother Mary Ann LAYTON, née JENKINS. She was the widow of Benjamin LAYTON, a carpenter.

Death Certificate of Mary Ann Layton, Buckingham. General Register Office MAR 1845 Buckingham 6 255

49. The records created by the Stamp Office/Inland Revenue, relating to the payments of Death Duties are among the most underused FH sources. Here’s the entry relating to Ann PORT, the sister of my 3xGt Grandmother, showing that she died in Germany.

Death Duty Register (Administrations), 1823. The National Archives IR 26/218 f.463lh
Death Duty Register (Administrations), 1823. The National Archives IR 26/218 f.463rh

50. Burial records are among the least useful genealogical sources but I would always recommend that you seek them out. This is my 3xGt Grandfather William HOWLAND. Post-1812 burial records for the Isle of Man are identical to English/Welsh records.

Burial of William Howland, Andreas, Isle of Man – Manx National Heritage Library and Archive Service

51. We should always look for probate records for the extended family. This is a Scottish will (part of a Testament Testamentar) for the widow of my grandma’s father. She describes my grandma as her adopted daughter – she most definitely wasn’t!

Scottish Will (Testament Testamentar) of Edith Port or Bushnell, Edinburgh Sheriff Court. National Records of Scotland SC70/4/511

52. My final document stands for the thousands of documents sitting on record office and library shelves just waiting to be discovered. It’s a deed recording the purchase of a property in Buckingham by my 3xGt Grandfather, Benjamin LAYTON, in 1814.

Deed. Lease [Release missing] Thomas Hawkes to Benjamin Layton and Joseph Gray. Buckinghamshire Archives B-Buc/8/1/4

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 29 December 2020

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

Back From The Dead?

This is the second part of the story of Stephen Willis, the Ramsgate hawker, and his parents, Stephen Willis senior and Ellen (née Foley). In the first part, we followed Stephen senior from his birth in Bishopsbourne near Canterbury in the early 1830s, through his life with Ellen Foley in Maidstone in the 1870s, their subsequent move to Canterbury, and his death there in 1890. But later records seemed to suggest that Stephen was still alive and living with Ellen in the 1890s…

1890 was a bad year for Ellen. Her husband Stephen died on 26 June, leaving her with seven children to look after, the youngest just two months old. By September the family was in crisis.

A short piece published in the Canterbury Journal on 27 September covered the previous week’s proceedings at the Canterbury Police Court. The second item was headed ‘A SAD CASE’ and concerned the theft by an 18-year old girl of ‘a number of articles belonging to her mother’. The 18-year old was called Sarah and her mother was Ellen Willis. Sarah had apparently broken into her mother’s house on two occasions and removed various items including two nightgowns, a shirt, a blanket and some plates. Sarah pleaded guilty to the charges.

Canterbury Journal, 27 September 1890, page 5, column b
British Library Newspapers

The rest of the report makes difficult reading. Sarah was evidently living apart from the rest of the family. She complained to the court that her mother had ‘beaten her black and blue … several times’ and that she had been ‘turned out of doors’. The police superintendent said that Sarah had had ‘a bad bringing up’ and that the family were ‘much neglected’ and regularly ‘without food’.

Ellen’s own statement provides us with a fascinating insight into her life and, by inference, into the lives of thousands of other women in her situation. She made her living selling watercress and ‘often tramped 19 or 20 miles a day’. She had been at Whitstable when Sarah first broke in to the family home. Ellen claimed to have four children under five years old but this part of her story, at least, is untrue. Her four youngest children were aged 8 (Rosina), 6 (Thomas), 4 (William) and four months (Ellen/Nellie).

The Mayor, presiding over the court, was less than impressed with it all. He had some sympathy with Sarah, referring to the ‘unfortunate surroundings’ in which she had been brought up, but went on to describe her conduct as ‘unjustifiable’. Sarah was fined 10 shillings and it was suggested that the Church of England Temperance Society should be asked to help her to find work in domestic service.

The next sighting we have of Sarah comes six months later when she turns up in the 1891 census, as Sarah Foley, living in a lodging house in Gravesend, and working as a flower seller. I have yet to discover what happened to Sarah after this but it seems that the option of going into domestic service had not been explored, or at least, not taken up.

Fading Flowers, Augustus Edwin Mulready (1882)

The rest of the family, meanwhile, were still living at 4 Church Lane, Canterbury, where Stephen senior had died the year before. The census entry is quite straightforward. Ellen Willis is listed with her six remaining children; Stephen (15), Eliza (13), Rose (8), Thomas (6), William (4) and Ellen (11 months). The two oldest were already working as hawkers, presumably assisting their mother. The only odd thing about the entry is that Ellen is described as married rather than widowed, but this can probably be put down to a basic error somewhere in the system.

By early 1893, the Willises had moved the 15 miles or so from Canterbury to Ramsgate on the Isle of Thanet – an island by name only, but an area with a strong sense of its own identity. Ramsgate, and its near neighbours, Broadstairs and Margate, were part of the late Victorian seaside boom, which brought thousands of people to England’s coastal resorts every summer – rich pickings for a family whose livelihood depended on the passing trade of holidaymakers and daytrippers.

On 1 March 1893, Ellen’s eleventh and youngest child, Walter Henry Willis, was born at 35 Thornton Road, Ramsgate. Ellen registered the birth herself on 11 April and she told the registrar that Walter’s father was Stephen Willis, a general labourer. But Stephen had been dead for nearly three years, so what was going on? Was Ellen lying to cover up an illegitimate birth?

Birth certificate of Walter Henry Willis – General Register Office JUN 1893 Ramsgate 2a 925

About a year later, Ellen was in court once more. She had accused a woman called Minnie Perry of attacking her with a knife and stabbing her in the face. Ellen, it seemed, was lodging at Minnie’s house (i.e. 35 Thornton Road) and claimed that Minnie had threatened to throw a pail of water over her children. A quarrel had ensued and Ellen had come out of it the worse. Her complaint was dismissed, the court feeling that the evidence was ‘weak and inconclusive’, however, as a result of investigations into the case, she found herself back in court the following week, accused of breaching sanitary laws. Ellen was now charged with ‘overcrowding’ of the house at 35 Thornton Road and ordered to pay costs of 6s and 6d.

Ellen’s name continues to crop up in the pages of the Thanet Advertiser and other local newspapers throughout the 1890s. It was clear that she was constantly struggling to keep her head above water. In September 1900 she was charged with using ‘profane language’ in Packer’s Lane, Ramsgate. The wording of the report in the Thanet Advertiser relating to this case is slightly ambiguous; after describing Ellen Willis as a ‘married woman’ it refers to her ‘quarrelling with the man she was living with’. We then learn that the quarrel was caused by her husband refusing to allow her to go inside the house. The implication is that ‘the man she was living with’ and ‘her husband’ were two different people. There had apparently been ‘several complaints’ about Ellen’s conduct; she was fined 10 shillings and given one week to pay up, or face imprisonment.

The 1901 census only introduces new levels of confusion. The Willis family (or at least, some of them) were living at 10 Henry Villas, in Packer’s Lane, Ramsgate. The head of the family was Stephen Willis, a 54-year old fish hawker, born in Canterbury (but Stephen was dead!). Next up was his 53-year old wife, Elizabeth, a flower hawker, who was apparently born in London. Then we get the names of four children and we’re on more familiar ground here with Stephen (aged 24), Eliza (21), Rose (17) and Thomas (16), the first three also working as flower hawkers. Despite some slight discrepancies in the ages, we can recognise them as the children of Stephen and Ellen Willis.

1901 census, 10 Henry Villas, Packer’s Lane, Ramsgate – The National Archives RG 13/826 f.7 p.6

Of Ellen and her three youngest children, William, Nellie and Walter Henry, there is no sign.

Time to take a deep breath and assess what we’re looking at here…

Who were the Stephen and Elizabeth Willis, listed as the parents of the four children who we know to have been the offspring of Stephen Willis (deceased) and Ellen (née Foley)? Well, it’s a strange story, but once again, the newspapers give us (some of) the answers.

We need to rewind to 1892, and a piece which appeared in the Thanet Advertiser on 3 December, covering proceedings at the recent sitting of the Ramsgate Police Court. The report names three men, Stephen Willis, Charles Manning and James Young, who were charged with poaching on the land of John Palmer of Dunlock Farm in Minster, a few miles from Ramsgate. We get quite a lot of detail regarding the case (Victorian newspapers are such a good source for stuff like this – all human life is there!) but the crucial thing from our point of view is the description of Stephen Willis. John Walker the bailiff at the farm said that he knew Willis ‘because he had a wooden leg’.

Thanet Advertiser, 3 December 1892, page 2, column e
British Library Newspapers

And it’s this clue that allows us to identify this particular Stephen. I could (and probably will) write a whole blog just about him but for now I’ll just give you a brief summary of his life up until this point.

He had been born in Barham near Canterbury in 1839, the son of John and Sarah Willis. John was the younger brother of Ingram Willis who we met in the first part of this blog post. Which makes this Stephen the first cousin of ‘our’ Stephen. His family seem to have avoided the workhouse but Stephen soon found himself in a succession of institutions of a different sort, the result of an ever-escalating criminal career. Six months in Dover Prison from October 1858 was followed almost immediately by a year incarcerated in Lewes. And shortly after his release he was back inside again, serving three years for housebreaking.

The courts were clearly getting serious with him and when he was convicted of stealing fowls in March 1867 he was sentenced to seven years imprisonment; time which he served in Millbank, Dartmoor and Portland.

Stephen served nearly 5½ years of his sentence before being released in July 1872 under licence and he doesn’t seem to have gone back to prison after that – at least not for a substantial period. Instead, he seems to have settled (for a while at least) and at the time of the 1881 census he can be found living in Enfield with his wife Sarah. I say ‘wife’ but there is, you won’t be surprised to hear, no record of a marriage.

Ten years later, in 1891, Stephen was back in Kent, living under the roof of the Dover Union Workhouse. The common thread in all of these documents is that his trade is consistently given as that of a brickmaker. And the prison records all mention the fact that Stephen had lost his leg below the knee. There can be no doubt that we’re dealing with the same person throughout all of these records.

And, as we’ve seen, by the following year, Stephen had made his way to Ramsgate where he was in trouble for poaching, something which was to become a recurring theme for the rest of his life; he seems to have been particularly handy with a ferret and a rabbit net.

You’ve probably worked out what’s going on by now but a succession of newspaper reports over the next few years (not to mention the small matter of the birth of a child in March 1893) make it quite clear that Stephen had stepped into the shoes (well, just one of them…) of his cousin.

For a start, also in March 1893, Stephen was charged by the school board with failing to send his child to school. The child in question ‘a little girl who went about selling water-cress’ (sound familiar?) apparently hadn’t been to any school in the town. This was probably Rosina who would have been 11 at the time; Stephen had evidently taken on parental responsibility for his late cousin’s children.

Thanet Advertiser, 11 March 1893, page 2, column e
British Library Newspapers

In April 1895 Stephen was summoned again ‘in respect of his child Rose’ and he was fined once more in October the same year for ‘neglecting to send his child to school’.

Stephen Willis junior was by now an adult and it becomes difficult to be certain which of the two is being referred to as the seemingly endless succession of court cases continue to crop up in the local newspaper. Occasionally, they’re identified in the reports as Stephen Willis ‘the older’ or ‘the younger’ (did anyone know – or care – that they weren’t actually father and son?) but more often than not, we’re left to make our own minds up. (As a rule of thumb, if poaching is concerned it’s probably the former and if drunken brawling in the streets is mentioned we can make an intelligent guess at the latter.)

So, what had happened to Ellen? Stephen seems to have had a relationship (probably quite a short term one) with a woman called Elizabeth who appears as the mother to his step-children in the 1901 census, and the incident in Packer’s Lane in September 1900 suggests that Ellen had another man in her life. In fact, a child called Dora Gladys Spencer was born to an Ellen Foley in Folkestone in January 1896 and later ‘adopted’ by a family called Piggott. Was this child the result of Ellen’s relationship with this mysterious man?

Two more incidents in 1900 are worthy of note. First of all, in July 1900, Stephen Willis, hawker of Packer’s Lane, Ramsgate was charged with assaulting his wife, Ellen. The report on the case includes some fascinating detail. Ellen stated that she had been married to Stephen for ten years (it was actually probably closer to nine years – not that there was a formal marriage ceremony anyway) and that on the day of the alleged assault he had come home drunk. Stephen replied that he had been teetotal for 18 months but that his wife’s ‘drunken habits’ had driven him to drink. Interestingly, one of Ellen’s daughters spoke up for Stephen claiming that she had witnessed her mother throwing a teapot at Stephen ‘who did not touch her’ and that the marks on her mother’s face were caused by her ‘knocking her head against the door’. Stephen and Ellen were bound over to keep the peace.

But just two months later, the Willises were back in court and this time it was Stephen ‘the younger’ who was accused of assaulting his mother. Ellen, however declined to prosecute and the case was dismissed.

The key to much of what happened to the Willis family in the 1890s may well be found in the records of the Thanet Poor Law Union. I suspect that Ellen and the three younger children were all in the care of the Poor Law authorities at the time of the 1901 census. I would love to find their whereabouts…

In January 1903, Stephen was summoned for ‘allowing his child, Nellie Willis, aged nine years, to be in Camden-road for the purpose of offering firewood for sale’. Nellie said that she had come out on her own and that her father ‘did not send her out to sell it’. Stephen said that Nellie was in fact ‘just a little under 14 years of age’ and the court asked him to produce her birth certificate, suggesting that if she really was nearly 14, the prosecution would fail.

After an adjournment for a week, Stephen returned to the court but without a copy of the certificate. He now stated that Nellie was ‘the daughter of his wife’s first husband’ – which was true. He also said that she had been born in Canterbury and that she would be 14 in June – which was almost true; she would actually have become 13 in June. In the event, Stephen was ordered to pay seven shillings costs and the case was closed.

Thanet Advertiser, 31 January 1903, page 2, column f (left) and 7 February 1903, page 6, column e
British Library Newspapers

Ellen must at some time have returned to the family and may even have become reconciled with her second Stephen Willis. When she died at the family home in Packer’s Lane in March 1908, it was Stephen ‘widower of the deceased’ who registered the death.

Then we come to the 1911 census entry for the family which is one of the most confusing census schedules it’s ever been my pleasure to come across. It took me a long time to work out what was going on and I’m still not entirely sure about some of the details. If you take it all at face value the head of the household was the 32-year old Stephen junior (he would actually have been 35 at the time) who was, supposedly a widower who had been married for 20 years. And he’d had two children, four of whom were still alive…

1911 census, 14 ‘Sir’ James Square, Packer’s Lane Ramsgate (actually St James Square)
The National Archives RG 14/4521 s.192

But the one thing that we can’t do is take this at face value. It seems to me that there was some confusion about which of the two Stephens was the ‘subject’ of the census schedule. Because the older Stephen had ‘married’ Ellen about 20 years ago, and the place of birth of the ‘head’ of the household is given as Barham – which fits the older Stephen but not the younger. The entry is, essentially, an amalgam of the two Stephens, stepfather and stepson.

I have to confess that my initial reading of this (and of the 1901 census entry) was wrong. I had theorised that the younger Stephen was acting as pater familias in order to keep the family together. But that was before it was suggested to me by a fellow researcher (thank you Allie Nickell for the nudge) that maybe, just maybe, Ellen really had been married to two different men called Stephen Willis, and once I went away and took a closer look at all the newspaper items and realised that there was a second Stephen and that the two men were cousins, it all started to fall into place. Kind of.

Stephen the second died on 14 June 1914 at his home in Ramsgate. His death was registered by his ‘daughter’ Rosina (now Mrs Oclee) who gave his occupation as ‘Brickmaker (journeyman)’, confirming, if any doubt remained, that this was the ‘other’ Stephen, her stepfather.

There are still lots of questions to answer and there are lots of stories to tell about other members of the family (for example, the tragic tale of Nellie, who fell off a riverboat and drowned in 1917, a year after her husband had died on the Western Front). Life had always been a struggle for the family but they survived and things seem to have taken a turn for the better after the First World War. And we can be comforted by the knowledge that Stephen junior lived out his final years as a familiar character on the streets of Ramsgate and that his final mention in the Thanet Advertiser had a somewhat more positive tone to it than some of the earlier ones.

Thanet Advertiser, 22 November 1938 p.5 col.c – British Library Newspapers Collection

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 26 November 2020

Posted in Document Sources, Local History, research, Stories, Surnames | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

A Waste of Time and Money

I remember thinking, when I was just setting out on my family history research as a naïve fifteen year old, that this genealogy business was quite a simple affair. Once you’d found a record of someone’s birth, you looked for their parents’ marriage, then you looked for their births, their parents’ marriages and so on, until you got as far back as you could go. Couldn’t be easier…

But if forty plus years of experience has taught me anything, it’s that family history research is rarely, if ever, straightforward. Every case is different and each one presents a unique set of challenges, particularly when our ancestors didn’t follow the rules.

We like to think of our families living comfortable lives, free from harm, in stable relationships, with regular employment, a home, and enough food to keep them healthy, by the standards of the times, at least.

The reality, of course, is that the combined threats of hunger and disease were ever present, particularly for our working class ancestors, and that many of them lived from hand-to-mouth, looking for work wherever they could find it, with the dreaded spectre of the workhouse looming constantly over their lives.

And there were many people who lived on the edge of society for whom life could be particularly tough; the itinerant travellers, costermongers and hawkers, many of whom showed an understandable distrust of authority. These people can be difficult to trace in the records at the best of time and the information that they supplied to the registrars, clerks and census officials can be thought of more as an opening negotiation than as anything that we might think of as fact.

This is the story of one such family, whose lives in late 19th and early 20th century Kent tell of hardship, suffering and frequent encounters with the law. The family had what we might call a relaxed attitude to the truth and they viewed marriage as, to quote Henry Mayhew, ‘a waste of time and money’. It’s also a story with an unexpected twist…

Stephen Willis was a familiar character in Ramsgate in the early part of the twentieth century. He could often be seen driving his cart around the streets of the bustling seaside town, his dog perched precariously on the back of his pony.

Life had been a struggle for Stephen. As a young man he’d been in constant trouble with the law, with frequent appearances in court on charges of assault and drunkenness, but by the 1930s, he had gained an air of respectability. He was even, perhaps, a bit of a local celebrity, and when he died in 1938, his death was reported in the local newspaper.

Thanet Advertiser, 22 November 1938 p.5 col.c – British Library Newspapers Collection

Stephen had been born into poverty in Maidstone in 1875. His father, also Stephen, was a labourer and a native of Kent. The Willis family’s roots were in Barham, a small village roughly halfway between Canterbury and Dover, just off the ancient Roman road, now better known as the A2. But Stephen senior was born a few miles to the north, in the parish of Bishopsbourne.

The older Stephen’s father, Ingram Willis, had been born in Barham but after marrying Thomasine (or Tamsin) Finnis in 1826, had settled in Bishopsbourne where nine children were born in the 13 years between 1827 and 1840. Remarkably, all nine survived and it was probably the struggle to feed all those hungry mouths which led to the family being forced into the workhouse.

The Elham Union Workhouse at Lyminge was built in 1836. It housed 177 pauper inmates at the time of the 1841 census, including Ingram and ‘Tamzen’ Willis and their nine children. Stephen was 10 years old at the time.

The Willises had been admitted to the workhouse on 14 November 1840 and stayed  there for nine months, eventually being discharged on 13 August 1841.

Elham Union Workhouse. Ordnance Survey 25 inch map. Kent LXXIV.4 Revised: 1896 Published: 1898. National Library of Scotland

Shortly afterwards, in October 1841, another child, Mary, was baptised at Elham. She had probably been born in the workhouse and sadly, she only survived for a few months. Two years later, Ingram and Tamsin were back in Barham where their eleventh and youngest child, Eliza, was born.

What happened next is difficult to say. The records can only ever tell part of the story and the 1851 census returns for the Willis family are a good example of this. Ingram can be found living in Barham, with four of his older children; Richard, Stephen, Tammy and Ingram junior. Like their father, and, presumably, generations of the family before them, the two older boys, Richard and Stephen, were working as agricultural labourers. Stephen was, according to the census, aged 18, although he was actually 19 or 20 at the time.

The three youngest surviving daughters, meanwhile, were back in Elham workhouse.

The big question then is, what had happened to their mother, Tamsin? And the answer is that, sometime in the early-to-mid 1840s, she had been admitted to the Kent County Lunatic Asylum, at Barming Heath near Maidstone. At least, a 45-year old married woman with the initials T.W. who was described as the wife of a Labourer, is listed in the 1851 census returns for the asylum and, seven years later, in the December quarter of 1858, the death of Tamasine Willis was registered in the Maidstone district.

And by then, the ten surviving Willis children had lost their father as well. Ingram Willis senior was buried at Barham on 23 November 1851. One day I’ll follow up the stories of the other children but for now, I’m focussing on Stephen.

The next sighting we have of him comes in the 1861 census; he’s living in Charlton near Dover with his recently-married brother Richard, both still working as labourers.

All too often the details of significant parts of our ancestors’ lives are missing. We find them in one census and the next time we see them is a whole decade later. Who knows what had happened to Stephen in the ten intervening years but we catch up with him again in 1871, living with his wife, Caroline. They were lodging at the Oddfellows, a pub in Folkestone.

Oddfellows Inn, Folkestone.
Image from http://www.dover-kent.com

This is the first example of a phenomenon which was to become almost commonplace in this story; the phantom marriage! There is no record of Stephen marrying anyone called Caroline, or at least, there’s no evidence that they underwent a formal marriage ceremony. Caroline certainly considered herself to be married as we learn from the text of a newspaper report from October 1871. It’s a report on a case heard at the Dover Police Court on Saturday, 7 October, in which Caroline Willis, a lodger at the Red Lion in St James’s Street, Dover was the victim of a crime involving the theft of her purse and a number of other items from her room at the pub. Crucially, Caroline described herself as a ‘married woman’ and stated that her husband’s name was Stephen Willis.

The 1871 census described Stephen as a 41-year old labourer and gave his place of birth as Barham, Kent. Caroline was a year younger and apparently born in Bath. No earlier or later trace of her has been found but without knowing her maiden name that’s perhaps not too surprising. She’ll have to remain a mystery for now.

How long Stephen and Caroline had been together will also have to remain unknown but we know that, within a few years of the 1871 census, they had parted ways and Stephen was living with a new ‘wife’.

Sometime between late 1871 and early 1875, Stephen Willis met and began a relationship with a young woman called Ellen Foley. Her early life is shrouded in mist; she was born in Tisbury, Wiltshire but there’s no record of her birth and no obvious trace of her in the 1851, 1861 or 1871 censuses. I suspect that her family originated in Ireland and that her parents were itinerant travellers.

Ellen‘s oldest daughter, Sarah, was born in 1872 in Gravesend. The birth was registered under the name of Sarah Foley and it seems fairly certain that Stephen wasn’t the father. His name doesn’t appear on Sarah’s birth certificate; in fact, Ellen only appears on the certificate as the informant. The mother is said to have been Mary Ann Foley!

It’s impossible to say what’s going on here. Who was Mary Ann? If she really was Sarah’s mother what happened to her? Ellen definitely had a daughter called Sarah, born in Gravesend in 1872 (or, at least someone called Sarah who she considered to be her daughter) and if this isn’t her, who is it? Sarah, it’s interesting to note, was born on 6 February 1872 but her birth wasn’t registered until 31 May. The signature of the Deputy Superintendent Registrar indicates that a fine would have been paid for late registration.

Whether Sarah was Stephen’s daughter or not – or even Ellen’s – he and Ellen were definitely together by the early part of 1875. Later that year, on 16 December, Ellen gave birth to twins; a boy and a girl. They were living in Stone Street, Maidstone, right in the heart of the ancient town. Sadly, the daughter died young without being named, but the son, Stephen Samuel Willis, survived and was baptised at the parish church of St Phillip, Maidstone on 20 January 1876.

St Philip’s church, Maidstone

Of course, there’s no record of a marriage taking place between Stephen Willis and Ellen Foley in Kent around this time, or indeed anywhere else at any time.

Nevertheless, Stephen and Ellen were by now an established ‘married’ couple and the following year, on 27 September 1877, another child was born. Named Eliza, she was born in the Medway Union Workhouse in Chatham, some eight miles north of Maidstone. Ellen had been admitted to the workhouse the day before (she’s listed in the admission and discharge registers under the name Ellen Wilson) together with her son, Stephen. They were discharged a few weeks later on 13 October.

We have to be careful here; by the latter half of the nineteenth century workhouses were increasingly being used as maternity wards so we mustn’t assume that Ellen had entered the workhouse for any reason other than to give birth in a (relatively) safe environment. The workhouse would at least have offered her some basic assistance.

The family must have been constantly on the move. By May 1880, they were back in Maidstone, living at an address in Bristow’s Yard, where another child, Walter, was born and they were still in Bristow’s Yard at the time of the 1881 census. Stephen was still working as an agricultural labourer but Ellen was listed as a hawker. It’s interesting to see that Ellen’s occupation is recorded. It’s perhaps an indication that she had an independent income and wasn’t entirely reliant on her husband.

As a hawker, Ellen would also have had a non-traditional view of marriage. Henry Mayhew, writing in London Labour And The London Poor in 1851, wrote the following about attitudes to marriage amongst London costermongers ‘and other street folk’:[1]

Only one-tenth—at the outside one-tenth—of the couples living together and carrying on the costermongering trade, are married. In Clerkenwell parish, however, where the number of married couples is about a fifth of the whole, this difference is easily accounted for, as in Advent and Easter the incumbent of that parish marries poor couples without a fee. Of the rights of “legitimate” or “illegitimate” children the costermongers understand nothing, and account it a mere waste of money and time to go through the ceremony of wedlock when a pair can live together, and be quite as well regarded by their fellows, without it. The married women associate with the unmarried mothers of families without the slightest scruple. There is no honour attached to the marriage state, and no shame to concubinage.

Marriage, for people like Ellen, wasn’t about going through a legal ceremony. It was an unwritten contract, in which a man and woman lived (and often worked) together for their mutual benefit. It may have offered little in the way of long-term security (particularly for the women) but they considered themselves to be married just as much as anyone else in the mainstream of society. It’s possible that Caroline, Stephen’s previous partner, had also been a traveller.

Coster Girl from London Labour and the London Poor, Vol. 1, by Henry Mayhew.
Project Gutenburg

Returning to the 1881 census entry, the Willis family is completed by Stephen and Ellen’s four children; Sarah, Stephen, Eliza and Walter. Further children were soon to follow; Rosina Elizabeth and Thomas were born in Bristow’s Yard in February 1882 and January 1884 respectively (the entry in the St Philip’s, Maidstone baptismal register shows Rosina’s mother’s name as Ellen Folley) but by the middle of the decade the family had moved to Canterbury.

Three more children were born there, bringing Ellen’s total to ten. William arrived sometime around 1886, Margaret (who died young) followed the next year and then, on 26 June 1890, Ellen (aka Nellie) Willis was born at 4 Church Lane, Northgate, Canterbury. Or, at least, that’s the date recorded on her birth certificate; in fact she was almost certainly born some considerable time before this. She was baptised at the parish church of St Gregory, Canterbury on 6 October 1890 – and a note in the register indicates that she was then six months old, and therefore born in March or April.

There’s a clue on the birth certificate. Ellen registered the birth on 8 August 1890 – exactly six weeks after Nellie’s supposed date of birth. And when we remember that parents had six weeks to register their children’s births, the invented date of birth begins to make sense.

Birth certificate of Frances (Ellen/Nellie) Willis. GRO reference SEP 1890 Canterbury 2a 800

There’s so much to talk about here (not least of which is the fact that Ellen/Nellie’s birth was registered under the name Frances and she was baptised as Mary Anne!) but the crucial thing to note is that on the baptismal record, the words ‘now deceased’ are written after Stephen’s occupation.

Stephen had died in the Kent & Canterbury Hospital on 25 June (the cause of death given as the horrific-sounding ‘Cancer of Face’) and his death was registered by Ellen two days later (the day after she had supposedly given birth).

To paraphrase the opening lines to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol:

Stephen was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever, about that.

So how then, do we explain the fact that Stephen Willis is listed in the 1901 census as the father of Stephen junior, Eliza, Rose (Rosina) and Thomas and that he was the informant on his wife Ellen’s death certificate in 1908?

Find out in part two here….


© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 21 November 2020

[1] http://www.gutenberg.org/files/55998/55998-h/55998-h.htm#Of_the_Number_of_Costermongers_and_other_Street-folk

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

Unhappy Differences

It’s every family historian’s dream to have the opportunity to research and write about an ancestor who left a mark. It doesn’t even need to have been a big mark. Perhaps they were involved in a major political event or, as a soldier, took part in a significant battle. Or maybe your ancestor was an itinerant Methodist preacher travelling between northern mill towns during the Industrial Revolution; or they might have invented something or created a work of art.

If, like me, your ancestors were mostly labourers, small farmers or tradesmen, with, perhaps, the occasional craftsman thrown into the mix, this will probably remain no more than a dream but if you take a more liberal approach to the idea of what constitutes an ancestor, and dip into the extended family of aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces and cousins, the chances are you’ll find someone who fits the bill. And amongst my English Port and Truman ancestors, there’s a perfect candidate; two of them in fact, James Lawson and his son John Joseph.

James Lawson was the husband of Mary Ann Truman, first cousin to my recently-confirmed great, great, great grandmother, Mary Ann Port. He was to play a significant role in her life, assisting Mary Ann, her siblings and their mother in their eleven-year long Chancery Case, as their ‘Next Friend’ (a term used to describe a person who represents someone else in a legal case). James and his son, John Joseph, were, successively, the printers of The Times.

It’s my long-term aim to write the story of the Lawson family at length – it’s a story which deserves some in-depth investigation – but while that investigation goes on, I thought it might be useful to write about some of the key events in the story, starting with the recent discovery of a fascinating document, found as the result of a random search in the National Archives’ Discovery catalogue.

The document was part of a collection from the Chancery Court of the Palatinate of Durham, described in the catalogue as a ‘Bundle of Miscellaneous Unmarked Deeds’: the sort of collection which should set the heart of every family historian racing; the sort of collection, however, which only comes to life if, as is the case with this miscellaneous bundle, someone has taken the trouble to look at the documents and extract the key details. And this is how the entry in the National Archives’ catalogue describes the document in question:

Agreement (unexecuted) between James Lawson of Houghton-le-Spring, Durh, and his wife Isabel, and an unknown party; conditions under which Lawson and his wife are to live separately

The document was dated 9 May 1769.

Bundle of miscellaneous unmarked deeds. Palatinate of Durham Chancery Deeds, Series G.
The National Archives reference DURH 21/6

I had only recently discovered that my James Lawson had been born in Houghton-le-Spring and I’d found the record of his baptism at the parish church of St Michael and All Angels on 15 February 1767, which told me that he was the son of James and Isabella Lawson. The record that I had found clearly related to his parents so I decided to add it to my list of documents to view on a future visit to Kew.

Last week, I made that visit and I was able to view and copy the document, which I have now transcribed in full.

The document is what is known as a ‘Deed of Separation’. In a period in which a full-blooded divorce was only available after a lengthy process which culminated in the passing of a Private Act of Parliament, the options for people whose marriages had, for one reason or another, broken down, were few and far between. For the vast majority of the working population, the only realistic way to end a marriage was simply to live separately, and in many cases to begin new relationships with different partners. This offered the parties involved no legal protection whatsoever; in the eyes of the law, the original marriage was still binding and the children of any subsequent relationship were illegitimate. Of course, this wasn’t an option for many women living in abusive relationships, but if there was a degree of mutuality in the desire to end the marriage, it was a way out, of sorts. It’s worth noting, however, that the Established Church was firmly opposed to anything which intruded on the sanctity of marriage.

Socially speaking, James and Isabel/Isabella fall somewhere in between these two extremes. While a divorce as we know it today wouldn’t have been something they would even have considered, there was some property involved and both parties would want to protect their interests and those of their ‘heirs and assigns’. And this is where the option of a Deed of Separation comes in. Rebecca Probert, an authority on the subject of Marriage Law writes:[1]

Given the attitude of the church courts to separation, and given that they would not endorse collusive arrangements between separating spouses, it is unsurprising that they also took a dim view of separation agreements. Any such agreement to separate would be void as contrary to public policy.

But what if a separating couple wished to engage a lawyer and enter into a formal agreement about maintenance, or about entitlement to the property that each had brought to the marriage? Such issues fell within the remit of the Court of Chancery rather than the church courts, and over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it began to uphold the practical terms of separation agreements.

Chancery judges were, however, reluctant to interfere more directly with the jurisdiction of the church courts, with the result that any such arrangements could effectively be undone if one spouse later petitioned for ‘restitution of conjugal rights’. Only in the mid-nineteenth century, did the House of Lords confirm that, once a separation agreement had been entered into, an injunction could be granted to prevent one spouse forcing the other to return home. From that point on, there were no longer any doubts as to the validity of such agreements.

For the family historian, the existence of a formal, written separation agreement might come to light in court records if there was litigation over its terms, or alternatively in surviving family papers. Such agreements were, however, relatively rare, since they were only created where a marriage had broken down, neither wished to pursue other remedies, and there was sufficient property at stake to require formal legal arrangements.

The description of a separation agreement as one where “a separating couple wished to engage a lawyer and enter into a formal agreement about maintenance, or about entitlement to the property that each had brought to the marriage” exactly matches the situation that we have here. It also seems that the document is a relatively rare example of an eighteenth century Deed.

Deed of Separation, Palatinate of Durham Chancery Deeds, Series G.
The National Archives reference DURH 21/6/36

The document begins by giving details of an inheritance received by Isabel under the terms of the will of a man called Robert Hutton. Robert Hutton was the head of a prominent Houghton-le-Spring family, the owners of Houghton Hall.

Robert Hutton, the sixth of that name to live at Houghton Hall, inherited the estate on his father’s death in 1725. He never married and, writing his will in 1763, Robert left all his copyhold messuages, lands, tenements and hereditaments in Houghton-le-Spring and elsewhere, with the exception of “My Dwelling House Garden Orchard Stables and other the premises with the appurtenances thereunto belonging” in Houghton-le-Spring, in trust, to his nephew John. John was the only son of Robert’s younger brother, George Hutton, and was then aged under 21.

Robert left some money (£300) to his niece, Mary Woodifield, the daughter of his sister Grace, and then went on to make a series of bequests to his two servants, Isabel Lawson and Ann Jent (or Gent). He left each of them an annuity of £12, along with the rights to “hold and enjoy all that my Copyhold Messuage and Dwelling House scituate standing and being at Houghton le Spring aforesaid wherein I now Dwell together with the Garden Orchard Stables and other the premises thereunto belonging” for the terms of their natural lives “and the Life of the Longer Liver of them”. This ‘dwelling house’ was clearly Houghton Hall, the ancestral home of the Hutton family. He also left Isabel and Ann the use of the furniture plate and linen in his house along with the rights to an amount of coal and lead “for the better preservation and keeping Fire in my said Dwelling House”. After the deaths of Isabel and Ann, the house was to go to Robert’s nephew, John.

Houghton Hall, Houghton-le-Spring. © Victoria & Albert Museum

All of this raises more questions than it answers. What was the nature of Robert’s relationship with his two servants? His final bequests in his will are to his ‘natural’ (i.e. illegitimate) children, Elizabeth and Robert, but there’s no suggestion that Isabel or Ann were the mothers of these two. No surnames are given for the children in the will and there are no obvious baptismal records in the Houghton-le-Spring parish registers. This aspect of the story must remain a mystery for the time being.

Robert died in November 1764, aged 49, and was buried at the parish church on 25 November. Ann Jent survived him by less than a year. She was buried on 2 June 1765, leaving Isabel Nelson to solely ‘hold and enjoy’ the house in Houghton-le-Spring. This, along with her annuity of £12, would have made Isabel a particularly attractive proposition, and just two months after Ann Jent’s death, on 5 August 1765, she married James Lawson at the parish church of St Michael and All Angels, just a few hundred yards away from Houghton Hall.

James’s early life is currently a complete blank to me. When he died in January 1819, the burial register recorded his age as 84 which, if it’s accurate, would suggest that he was born sometime around 1734 or ’35 which would mean that he was about 30 when he and Isabel were married.

Within a year, James and Isabel’s first child (a daughter named Isabella) was born. She was baptised on 1 February 1766 and just twelve months later, a brother, James followed, baptised on 15 February 1767. No birth dates are given in the Houghton parish registers but they were probably just a few weeks old when they were baptised.

We’re now approaching the time when the Deed of Separation was drawn up. The document refers to the ‘unhappy Differences‘ which had ‘lately arisen between the said James Lawson and Isabel his Wife’ and tells us that they have,

mutually Agreed to live seperate and apart from each other

The deed sets out the terms under which the separation was to be conducted.

Isabel was to continue to receive her annuity of £12 ‘for her own seperate use’ as well as the interest on the sale of Robert Hutton’s furniture (which she and Ann seem to have arranged within months of his death). She was also to continue to live in Houghton Hall and to receive the ‘yearly Quantity of Coals’. James was to permit Isabel to live separately from him and to allow her,

to reside and be in such Place and Places and in such Family and Families and with such Relations and other Persons and to follow and carry on such Trade and Business as she the said Isabel … shall think fit

He wasn’t to ‘compel her to cohabit with him or sue molest or trouble her for living seperate and apart from her’, nor was he to visit her without her consent. Her possessions (her ‘Money Rings Plate Cloathes Linnen Household Goods or other Goods or Chattels’) were to be her own and James would have no claim over them or over anything that she might come to possess in the future. She was to be effectively a ‘Femme Sole’.

James, however, was to have the rents and profits from the ‘Garden, Orchard, Coachhouse, two Stables and Cowhouse, late belonging to the said Mr Hutton’.

The agreement also stipulated that Isabel would not visit James without his consent and that she would ‘find and Provide for her Children [not named in the document] sufficient Meat Drink Washing Lodging and Wearing Apparel from henceforth until they shall respectively attain the Age of [blank] Years‘. She was not to compel James ‘to make her any further or other allowance for the Maintenance of herself or her said Children’ and she was not to claim or demand any part of his estate if she outlived him.

It all seems to have been fairly amicable. The complaint is of ‘unhappy differences’; there’s no suggestion of any violence or cruelty on either part. And the document is clearly incomplete; there are a number of blank spaces, notably where the names of James and Isabel’s children (Isabella and James) should have been expected to appear, and the name of the third party (the intermediary?) who was to ensure that the terms of the agreement were adhered to is also missing in a number of places (although the name Joseph Pick is given at the top of the document).

Deed of Separation, detail, showing the gap where James and Isabel’s children’s names should have appeared. Palatinate of Durham Chancery Deeds, Series G. The National Archives reference DURH 21/6/36

Crucially, the document is unsigned and, in legal parlance, unexecuted. We can’t know exactly what happened next but James and Isabel appear to have been reconciled. 15 months after the document was drawn up, on 15 July 1770, their third child, a daughter called Frances, was baptised.

Isabel died in 1780, and, presumably, James’s right to live at Houghton Hall came to an end. He remarried two years later and had four more children. James died in 1819, aged 84; his second wife outlived him, eventually dying in 1831.

Despite the gaps in the story, the document gives us a fascinating glimpse into the lives of two ordinary people living in Georgian England. James, I now know, was a member of the Butcher’s Guild of the City of Durham. His name appears in a Durham Poll Book for the General Election of 1774 and he was evidently a man of some substance. I’m currently waiting on the results of some research into the family’s connection with the Butcher’s Guild – watch this space!

1774 Poll Book of the City of Durham

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 18 October 2020


[1] Divorced, Bigamist, Bereaved? Rebecca Probert (2015) pp.84-85

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So, what next?

Two weeks ago today, I sat down and composed a blog post entitled, Where Have All The Registers Gone? I referred to it as a ‘soapbox’ piece and my aim was to highlight what I saw as a serious problem for the current generation of family historians; namely that there are significant gaps in some of the parish register collections available on the big commercial genealogical websites, and that these gaps are effectively hidden from the users.

I was delighted with the response to the post over the next few days; lots of supportive comments came in suggesting that I wasn’t alone in feeling how I did about the situation, and that there was a sense of a shared experience.

Then it all started to go a bit crazy. About a week after I published the post, it was picked up by Peter Calver’s LostCousins website and featured in their weekly newsletter, while a number of Facebook Groups also posted links to the blog. Suddenly, I was getting notifications left, right and centre. Comments were popping up in my inbox every few minutes and the stats were going through the roof – the post was viewed nearly 3000 times in 48 hours! I began to sense that I might have struck a chord with the genealogical community…

I have to confess that I felt a bit overwhelmed by it all. I was hoping for a response – and I clearly had a response! – but it all felt a bit too much. Was this issue bigger than I could cope with? Had I bitten off more than I could chew?

Now that the dust has settled (we’re down to about 100 views a day as the total count grinds on towards 6000) I’ve begun to take stock of it all. There were a number of recurring themes in the comments, largely people agreeing that there was a problem and offering their support for a campaign, but also a significant number of people indicating that they hadn’t been aware of the issue and that they would now approach their searches with a different mindset.

Wordcloud created from comments on my original blog post, generated at https://www.wordclouds.com/

So I thought I should set down my thoughts and try to consider what we’ve learned and what we should do next.

I think that there are two main strands here:

1 – the question of forming some sort of pressure group
2 – the question of creating a single place to gather information about known gaps

Unfortunately, unlike Johnny Nash, I can’t see clearly, and like Johnny Nash, I have more questions than answers.

Here are some things that I think.

  • Although it’s clear that the problem isn’t just confined to parish registers (people mentioned censuses, the 1939 register, military service records etc.) I feel that the initial scope of the project (if there is a project!) should focus on digitised parish register collections (county-wide or equivalent).
  • Similarly, in terms of geographical coverage, I think that it should (initially at least) be limited to England and Wales.
  • This isn’t about transcription errors, nor, in my opinion, should it be about individual pages or even sections missing from digitised registers. This should be about entire registers which are known to exist and to form part of an archive’s holdings which are not part of the collection in which they should appear.
  • This is also not about lost registers, or about those registers for which Archives don’t have the necessary rights, although I can see some advantage in logging this information.
  • QUESTION. Is it also about noting/identifying registers which are wrongly named (the example of the Findmypast Flintshire registers collection was mentioned)? Errors like this are much easier (and therefore cheaper) to correct.

A few more questions:

Of course, the biggest question to ask (and I really don’t have the answer), is ‘can we actually achieve anything here?’ Would we just be wasting our time? Is there any point in even trying?

And what about the archives themselves? Do they want a bunch of rabble rousers running around, possibly interfering with their own efforts to get the commercial websites to do something? Would we be helping or hindering?

One thing’s clear. The situation as it stands at the moment is unacceptable. A couple of people suggested that there may be some potential in pursuing legal action but as there are no explicit claims of completeness, just a vague suggestion of it, I really think that’s a non-starter. But I would love to think that we can help to sort this out – even if it’s just making some progress with the second strand and creating a space where errors can be reported and recorded.

(Perhaps there’s also a role in offering advice/guidance to archives who may be considering getting into bed with one of the commercial websites…)

As a professional researcher, working fulltime, there are limits to the amount of time and mental energy I can commit to all this. My family and my garden take up most of my spare time and I’m even hoping to have a social life again one of these days. But if there are enough like-minded individuals out there, perhaps with a bit more time on their hands and with the necessary IT/organisational skills to make something happen, maybe this can work.

So, as I said before, who’s up for it? Email me if you are…

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 20 September 2020

Posted in Document Sources, research, Soapbox | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Where have all the registers gone?

Let’s make something clear right from the start. I am a huge fan of digitisation and online access in genealogy. Both as an enthusiastic hobbyist and as a professional genealogist with 37 years’ experience, I have reason, on a daily basis, to be grateful for the vast range of key family history resources available nowadays on websites such as Ancestry and Findmypast. I quite simply wouldn’t be able to do my job without the 24 hours-a-day, 7 days-a-week access that I have to some of the most important sources for genealogical research, not just in the UK, but all around the world. The range of resources and the ease of access to them are simply astonishing.

In my previous life as an employee of The National Archives, I was actively involved in the projects to digitise the 1901 and 1911 censuses of England and Wales, so I have first-hand experience of dealing with the issues that can crop up; in particular, the physical practicalities of digitising the original material and the challenges involved in transcribing the data. I know that none of it is easy and I appreciate the amount of work that goes into making it all happen. A fully transcribed dataset attached to a collection of digital images doesn’t just appear by magic…

And I also appreciate the incentive for our archives to enter into agreements with the commercial companies to digitise their records. It’s a way of providing unrestricted access to their key holdings without having to accommodate hundreds of onsite visitors, while at the same time removing the risk of damage or wear and tear to the documents. It’s also (I suspect) a decent source of much-needed revenue.

So, it’s a win for the researcher, it’s a win for the archives and, as they’re continually increasing the range of material that they make available, it must also, presumably, be a win for the commercial websites. Sounds like everyone’s a winner, doesn’t it?

But there’s a problem. Somewhere down the line, we lost sight of an important factor in all this. The commercial companies, however much they may support the genealogical community, however much they take part in educational activities and promote good research techniques, are, at the end of the day, only in to make money. Which in itself, isn’t a problem – except when it comes to the concept of quality control. In certain corners of the commercial world, there’s a principal known as ‘Pile ’em high, sell ’em cheap’, a concept that was exemplified by the former High Street giants, Woolworths. And I fear that our own genealogical giants have a tendency to follow this mantra at times.

The fallout of this is that the datasets are all-too-often less complete than they should be. Let me give you some examples of this.

As a Hertfordshire-based researcher, I was delighted when a partnership between Hertfordshire Archives & Local Studies (HALS) and Findmypast (FMP) to digitise the HALS collection of Hertfordshire parish registers was announced. The dataset was launched in 2012 and, as a long term subscriber to FMP I’ve made a lot of use of it over the years.

Of course the HALS collection itself has a number of gaps in it. No county-wide collection is ever going to be complete once we take into account the ravages of time, shifting county boundaries and the (usually mistaken) belief of certain churches that they are best placed to look after their own historical registers. There may also occasionally be issues regarding rights – the fact that an archive is the custodian of a certain document doesn’t necessarily mean that they have the right to digitise it and sell it on to a third party.

Now, there’s nothing on the Findmpast or HALS websites which makes any claim regarding the completeness of the Hertfordshire parish register collection and FMP have a very useful parish list[1] which, in three alphabetical sections, gives the years covered, parish-by-parish, for baptisms, banns & marriages and burials respectively. By necessity, these lists simply show ‘From’ and ‘To’ dates (years) – to list every gap in the holdings would be well beyond the scope of a list like this but the (unspoken) implication is that the dataset comprises the complete relevant holdings of the archive – i.e. HALS. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

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Hertfordshire parish lists, showing coverage of marriage registers for Bushey parish. Findmypast

Take the parish of St James, Bushey for example. The list tells us that the collection includes marriages for Bushey from 1685 to 1915. But when you start looking more closely, it becomes apparent that the database doesn’t include any marriages at all for Bushey between July 1837 and June 1866. A whole register is missing from the online collection.

The archives’ online catalogue[2] clearly lists the register (HALS reference DP/26/1/6) but it’s not on FMP. And it gets worse, because the banns register for Bushey for the years 1844 to 1871 (HALS reference DP/26/1/8) is also missing.

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Entry in the HALS catalogue showing the register of marriages for St James, Bushey covering the years 1837 to 1866. Hertfordshire Archives & Local Studies

The missing marriage register includes 500 marriages. That’s 500 records (1,000 names) which should be in the Hertfordshire marriages collection on Findmypast but aren’t. And as a researcher and a FMP subscriber, it would be perfectly reasonable to conclude that your failure to find the record of the marriage of James Jordan and Mary Harris, who you believe to have married sometime in the late 1840s, means that the couple didn’t get married in Bushey (or, indeed, elsewhere in Hertfordshire). After all, we’re led to believe that the collection is ‘complete’ – the FMP website has told you that it includes marriages at Bushey from 1685 to 1915 and if you checked the HALS catalogue you’d get confirmation that the relevant register is part of their holdings.

But you’d be wrong. James and Mary were married at St James, Bushey – on 10 July 1849. The entry is in the parish register but the register isn’t in the database.

I have found several other examples of this and I reported this particular missing register in May 2019.

Divider

Ancestry’s London, England, Church of England parish registers collection[3] is one of the largest on the website. It’s another database that I use practically every day, and one which undoubtedly changed (for the better!) the way that we’re able to search for and locate our London ancestors. The records in the collection were uploaded in association with the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) between 2009 and 2010. Again, with the same caveats mentioned above, the assumption must be that the collection is complete as far as the LMA’s holdings are concerned, but again, this, sadly, is not the case. Over the years I have come across several gaps in the collection but I’ll mention just one here.

The East End parish of St Matthew, Bethnal Green was one of London’s most populous and, in the early 1820s, it saw roughly 500 burials a year. But if you search for a burial that took place in the parish between April 1823 and August 1836, you won’t find any. In this case, no fewer than four registers are missing, including the records of at least 10,000 burials and possibly as many as 12,000. That’s 10,000 burials of people who died over a 13 year period in the East End of London which simply are not included in the London, England, Deaths and Burials, 1813-2003 collection. And these are records that should all be accessible on the Ancestry website. The LMA catalogue even tells us that they are. But they’re not.

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Entry in the LMA catalogue showing the register of burials for St Matthew, Bethnal Green covering the years 1823 to 1828. London Metropolitan Archives

How many times over the past 10 years have subscribers searched for the burial of an ancestor who was buried at Bethnal Green sometime between 1823 and 1836 and assumed (when they didn’t find the record) that he or she must have died somewhere else. Or worse than that, assumed that the record of a burial of someone with the same name in a different parish relates to the person that they’re looking for?

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A list of the post-1812 St Matthew, Bethnal Green burial registers extracted from the London Metropolitan Archives’ catalogue together with the ‘descriptions’ of the same registers (the ‘Year Ranges’) from the Ancestry London, England, Burials database.

This particular lacuna (I’ve always wanted to use that word!) was reported to Ancestry in April this year. And last week, I found out that a baptismal register for the parish of St James, Piccadilly covering the years 1761 to 1785 is missing from Ancestry’s brand new Westminster parish registers collection. It makes me wonder how many more are missing.

Again, the problem is that researchers (i.e. subscribers) will rightly assume that by searching the relevant database, they have covered these registers and assume that the record they’re looking for doesn’t exist, while there’s a good possibility that it actually does.

The questions we need to ask here are why is this happening and why are the problems not being fixed? The cynic in me says that there’s no financial imperative for the commercial websites to do anything about it. They make their money through new subscriptions and the best way to get new subscriptions is to release new material; new datasets with previously unavailable records. Fixing problems in existing databases doesn’t generate income – it takes time and time equals money.

But these problems need to be fixed. Online access via digital images is the archives’ preferred means of access to these key records and if the collections are incomplete, we, the customers, are effectively being denied access to certain documents.

There are plenty of other issues here. The descriptions of the documents on the commercial websites often make it difficult to identify and understand what we’re actually looking at and the archival references are frequently wrong or entirely missing. I fail to understand why these websites would spend time coming up with their own descriptions when all the necessary information is freely available in the archives’ catalogue. Why reinvent the wheel? Particularly when the wheel that you’ve come up with simply isn’t fit for purpose…

Perhaps, the genealogical community needs to exert some pressure – in an organised way. Just reporting the individual issues is clearly getting us nowhere. I received another reply from Ancestry today, thanking me for bringing my latest ‘complaint’ to their attention.

We’ll forward this information on to the relevant teams for you. Thanks so much for sharing this so we could organise this for you!

I worked in customer service for long enough to recognise a brush-off when I see one – even if it is masquerading as something more helpful.

So, how about it? Who’s up for a campaign?

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 6 September 2020

[1] https://www.findmypast.co.uk/articles/world-records/full-list-of-united-kingdom-records/life-events-bmds/hertfordshire-parish-lists accessed 6 September 2020
[2] https://archives.hertfordshire.gov.uk/collections/getrecord/GB46_CDP26_1_1_3_2 accessed 6 September 2020
[3] https://www.ancestry.co.uk/search/collections/1559/ accessed 6 September 2020

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