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

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


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

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.


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.


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.


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.


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?


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] accessed 6 September 2020
[2] accessed 6 September 2020
[3] accessed 6 September 2020

Posted in Document Sources, research | Tagged , , , , , | 74 Comments

Blank spaces and circumstantial evidence

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


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

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

1891 census Smethwick

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

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

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

Thomas Port Marriages

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Market Place, Buckingham

Market Place, Buckingham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 19 August 2020

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

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My friend Miss Mary Ann Port

This is the third and final part of the story of my great, great, great grandmother, Mary Ann Port. You can read the first part here and the second part here.


The long, drawn-out Chancery Case, Port v. Hovil[1], had provided me with some wonderful detail of Mary Ann’s young life. I knew that she had been born in the City of London and that after her father’s death in April 1799, she had been sent to school at Miss Cox’s in Vauxhall. I also learnt that in December 1804, when she was 16 years old, she had been sent to Buckingham to live with a friend of her mother’s, Mrs Hutton.

Henrietta Hutton (née Thomas) was the wife of the Reverend James Long Hutton, also known as James Long Long! His parents had changed their name from Hutton to Long for inheritance purposes in 1772[2], leaving young James with his rather curious name. James was the vicar of Maids Moreton, a small village just to the north of Buckingham and the family also had a house in Lillingstone Lovell, a few miles further north.

Henrietta and James had four daughters, Henrietta, Mary, Ellen and Jane Lucy. The youngest was born in 1804 and it seems likely, therefore, that Mary Ann was sent to Buckingham to help Henrietta with her young family.

We know next to nothing about the next thirty years or so of Mary Ann’s life. The Chancery case was finally settled in 1817[3] and Mary Ann and her siblings inherited £606 13s 4d each – 18 years after their father died they finally got what was due them. It wasn’t a fortune by any means but it must have made a big difference to their lives.

I found a reference in a book about the Long family to an event which took place at the Long’s house in Lillingstone Lovell in 1827[4]. Apparently three of the servants (two women and a man) were dismissed and one of them ended up taking his own life. Unfortunately, no source is given for this event (I’ll have to contact the author!) and there’s nothing to suggest that Mary Ann was directly involved but she would certainly have known the people involved and she would surely have been emotionally affected by it.

The next definite sighting we have of Mary Ann doesn’t come until 1834. On 18 September that year, Henrietta Long wrote her will[5] ‘by virtue and in exercise of the several and respective powers and authorities given or reserved to me by the settlement made on my marriage…’.

In it she named her three daughters, Henrietta, Ellen and Jane. Jane must be Lucy Jane but curiously, Mary isn’t mentioned (she was still alive so more research is required!). Henrietta named a number of other beneficiaries including her half-sister Charlotte Bryant, for whom she set up an annuity of £20 and then, about half way through the will, we come to this:

And also to pay unto my friend Miss Mary Ann Port during her life a like annuity of twenty pounds to commence from the day of my decease and be payable half yearly

Later on in the will Henrietta makes another bequest to Mary Ann:

And I give my clothes of every description unto the said Mary Ann Port

It’s clear from this that Henrietta was very fond of Mary Ann and that she wanted to ensure that Mary Ann was able to support herself after her (Henrietta’s) death.

The will includes another bequest of interest to us:

And also to pay unto my friend Miss Seeley the sum of ten guineas for a ring

You may remember from the second part of this story that Mrs Seeley was mentioned in the Account drawn up by Richard Hovil as part of the suit in Chancery:

To Cash Mrs Seeley new Dresses for Miss Mary Port

Mrs Seeley, it turns out, was Richard Hovil’s daughter and the Miss Seeley mentioned by Henrietta would appear to be his granddaughter.

Henrietta went on to write no fewer than seven codicils to her will, most of them making minor changes to the original. But before we look at these, we’ll make a brief diversion and pop down to London on New Year’s Day, 1835.

St Georges Church Hanover Square detail from print dated A fashionable wedding at St George's Hanover Square

Wedding in St George, Hanover Square (detail). Engraving by Thomas H Shepherd (1845)

We’re inside the parish church of St George, Hanover Square in the fashionable part of Westminster, where no fewer than twelve weddings are scheduled to take place that day. The one that we’re interested in is the first one entered in the St George’s parish register for 1 January 1835[6]. The groom was the Reverend William Andrewes, ‘Clerk, a Bachelor of the Parish of Buckingham in the Town and County of Buckingham’ and the bride was Mary Hutton, a spinster and although this isn’t specified in the register, she was the daughter of the Reverend James Long Long and one of the girls that Mary Ann had helped to bring up. The register was signed by the bride and groom along with the minister (who turns out to have been Mary’s cousin!) as well as two witnesses. And the witnesses were James Long Long Rector of Maids Moreton Bucks and … Mary Ann Port!


Marriage of Rev. William Andrewes and Mary Hutton, St George, Hanover Square, 1835 with the signature of Mary Ann Port, one of the witnesses, bottom right

I only found this entry today while doing some further research for the blog and I have to confess that the discovery has left me feeling quite emotional. The idea that the family – that Mary Hutton in particular – wanted ‘my’ Mary Ann to be at her wedding and more than that, to be her witness, has genuinely moved me. Apart from anything else, I’d never seen Mary Ann’s handwriting before, but there it is in the register. A nice firm hand, clearly well-educated (thank you Miss Cox of Vauxhall!). A little piece of Mary Ann preserved for eternity…

Back to Henrietta’s will and those codicils. Mary Ann was mentioned in no fewer than four of the codicils and it all tells a rather depressing story:

On 10 August 1835 Henrietta cut Mary Ann’s annuity of £20 in half, giving the other £10 to ‘my servant Ann Malins’ with the whole going to the survivor on the other’s death. Then on 2 June 1836 Ann Malins gained an additional annuity of £20. Ann was still living with the family at the time of the 1841 census and seems to have become Henrietta’s favourite. But there’s more. On 3 June 1840 Henrietta wrote another codicil directing that Mary Ann’s annuity be paid ‘into the hands of my daughter Henrietta Hutton and by her in her discretion applied in food clothing or other necessaries for the benefit of the said Mary Ann Port or otherwise to be so applied by my said Executors in their discretion’. She goes on to say:

And whereas I have by my said will given all my clothes to the said Mary Ann Port now I do hereby revoke that bequest and do give and bequeath all my clothes to my said daughter Henrietta Hutton requesting (but not directing nor intending hereby to raise any trust) that after retaining what she chuses for herself she do dispose of the rest as she shall think fit to the said Mary Ann Port and my servant Ann Mailins first giving to each of her sisters anything she may deem acceptable to them

And finally, later the same year on 28 November, Henrietta made one further change. It seems that she had advised Mary Ann to invest part of her property in a government annuity which was due to expire in 1860. Realising that if Mary Ann should live beyond 1860 she would lose that income, Henrietta now set up a further and additional annuity of £20 to commence from 1 January 1860.

Again, we see that Henrietta was keen to ensure that Mary Ann was able to live comfortably. We also get the impression from the earlier codicil in June 1840 that Mary Ann was increasingly unable to look after her own affairs and the next episode in the story confirms this view. The 1841 census finds Mary Ann living in an asylum in Northampton. The returns give Mary Ann’s age as 50 and her occupation as governess.[7]


1841 census of Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, Northampton showing Mary Ann Port, a 50-year old Governess. The National Archives

Governesses ending up in mental asylums is not that unusual. They lived a difficult life, neither part of the family they were working for, nor one of the servants. It was a lonely existence and they would often become emotionally attached to children who in later life had little or no affection for them. This was clearly not the case with Mary Ann but nevertheless it’s not too surprising that she ended up where she was. In 1860, Harriet Martineau, quoted by Ruth Brandon in Other People’s Daughters, her fascinating study of ‘The Life and Times of the Governess’, stated that “governesses, along with maids-of-all-work, constituted by far the largest number of women in asylums.”[8]

The Northampton General Lunatic Asylum (pictured in the heading of this post) was opened in 1838 and it was what we might call the ‘better sort’ of asylum. The poet John Clare was an inmate from late 1841 until his death in 1864 and he was apparently encouraged to continue writing by the superintendent of the Asylum, Dr Thomas Octavius Prichard. Prichard, it seems, was a humane man and a pioneer of the non-restraint movement, which he saw as “a system of kind and preventative treatment, in which all excitement is as much as possible avoided, and no care omitted”. It’s quite reassuring to know that Mary Ann’s asylum was run by a man with enlightened views such as this.

I looked at some records of the Asylum at the Northamptonshire Archives back in 2014 but I realise that I need to have another look at what I found – I suspect that there’s more to be discovered. I know that Mary Ann was in the Asylum as early as July 1840. The records show that her fees were being paid by Rev. James Long, but in July 1843, this changed and there was a new name against the payments: Miss Henrietta Hutton.


Ledger, Northampton General Lunatic Asylum – Northamptonshire Archives & Heritage

This ties in with the death of Henrietta Long on 25 March 1843. I suspect that although the payments for Mary Ann were made in James’s name, it was actually Henrietta who was looking after her, and that when Henrietta died, her namesake daughter took on the responsibility.

On 25 April 1845, Mary Ann Port was removed from the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum and just over a year later, she died in Buckingham. A death notice was published in the Bucks Herald of 23 May 1846, describing Mary Ann as ‘late of Missenden’.[9] Had she really lived in Missenden for the last year of her life or was ‘Missenden’ a cover-up for her time in the asylum in Northampton?

Mary Ann Port died on 19 May 1846 and was buried in the parish churchyard of St Peter & St Paul in Buckingham on 25 May. No gravestone survives and there may never have been one. The stones were cleared from the churchyard some time ago. She was described on her death certificate as a gentlewoman and the cause of death was given as Icterus (a type of jaundice).[10] The informant was Martha Pipkin, ‘present at Death’; Martha was the wife of a Gardener and has no apparent connection to Mary Ann.

Mary Ann Port was only 57 when she died. As the daughter of a wealthy merchant and a governess to an influential landed family, you might imagine that she would have had an easy life. And compared to many it was probably a comfortable life but after losing her father when she was only 10, waiting over 18 years for her inheritance while working as a governess and then, when she was about 50, being admitted to a mental asylum, it was certainly a life of ups and downs.


If you’ve been paying attention you might have noticed something that doesn’t quite add up here. I’ve referred to Mary Ann Port throughout this three-part blog post as my great, great, great grandmother – but I haven’t mentioned anything about her having any children. If you want to know the answer to this conundrum, watch out for the fourth part of the trilogy (thank you, Douglas Adams!) in which I will reveal all…

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 15 August 2020

[1] Bill of Complaint of Elizabeth Port and others. Port v. Hovil – The National Archives (TNA) reference: C 13/70/5 and other documents
[2] Private and Personal Acts of Great Britain. 1772 c. 48 – Mary and William Hutton and others: licence to take the name, arms and crest of Long, pursuant to the will of James Long, deceased. – accessed 15 August 2020
[3] Port v. Hovil. Master’s Report – TNA reference: C 38/1145
[4] Inheriting The Earth: The Long family’s 500 year reign in Wiltshire by Cheryl Nicol (2016) p.352
[5] Will of Henrietta Long of Buckingham, 18 Sep 1834, Prerogative Court of Canterbury – TNA reference: PROB 11/1990
[6] Marriage of William Andrewes & Mary Hutton, 1835, St George Hanover Square, Westminster – City of Westminster Archives Centre reference: STA/PR/2/2 p.454
[7] 1841 Census, Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, Northampton – TNA reference: HO 107/814/20 f.14 p.7
[8] Other People’s Daughters by Ruth Brandon (2008)
[9] Bucks Herald, 23 May 1846, page 4, column b – British Library Newspapers Collection accessed via Findmypast 15 August 2020
[10] Death certificate of Mary Ann Port – General Register Office reference: JUN 1846 Buckingham vol 6 page 236

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Humbly complaining

This is the second part of the story of my great, great, great grandmother, Mary Ann Port. You can read the first part here.


Humbly complaining shew unto your Lordship your Oratrixes and Orator Elizabeth Port of Samuel Street Saint Georges in the East in the County of Middlesex Widow of Samuel Port late of Savage Gardens in the City of London Wine Merchant deceased Ann Port an Infant under the Age of Twenty one Years that is to say of the Age of Twenty Years of thereabouts Mary Ann Port an Infant under the Age of Twenty one Years that is to say of the Age of Eighteen Years or thereabouts and Thomas Port an Infant under the Age of Twenty one Years that is to say of the Age of Fifteen Years or thereabouts by James Lawson of Fleet Street London Gentleman their next Friend…

With these words in the Plaintiff’s opening Bill of Complaint (dated 5 June 1806) [1] the Chancery suit Port v. Hovil was started; a suit which was to last for the best part of eleven years.

The substance of the Plaintiff’s Bill of Complaint was that while the Defendants (Richard Hovil, Aaron Morgan and Bishop Hull, the executors and trustees named in the will of Samuel Port) had taken possession of Samuel’s personal estate (as the will allowed them to) and had paid his debts and funeral expenses and sold his dwelling house, they hadn’t done most of the other things that they were supposed to. Most importantly, they had failed to set up the various trusts and payments directed by Samuel in his will, particularly relating to the bequests to his children which were supposed to have been sorted out within six months of his decease – the Bill was issued in June 1806, more than 7 years after Samuel had died.

The Defendants hadn’t entirely neglected Samuel’s wife and children. They had evidently been making ad hoc payments towards their maintenance since June 1799 but it all seems to have been done in a thoroughly disorganised and piecemeal manner and, crucially, the children had not received their inheritance nor, apparently, had the necessary funds been set up.

The evidence for these ad hoc payments comes from a remarkable series of documents. Richard Hovil’s initial Answer to the Bill of Complaint, dated 16 September 1806[2], had failed to satisfactorily address many of the Plaintiffs’ points and Richard was ordered to make a further Answer which was to include an inventory of Samuel’s goods and an account of the payments that he (and his co-Defendants) had made towards the maintenance of Samuel’s wife, children and mother[3].

The inventory brings Samuel and his family to life in a way that no other document can begin to. For a start, we learn that Samuel’s house consisted of ten rooms: two garret rooms (the ‘Left hand Garrett’ and ‘Right hand Room’), a ‘Two pair Front Room’, the ‘Middle Room’, the ‘Right hand Bed Room’, a ‘Dining Room’, the ‘Best Bed Chamber’, the ‘Parlour’, the ‘Kitchen’ and a ‘Cellar’. The inventory lists, on a room-by-room basis, all of the moveable property found in each room at the time of Samuel’s death.

It all starts in the garret rooms at the top of the house. The following items were found in the ‘Left hand Garrett’:

• a child’s wicker chair
• a cradle
• a bug trap
• four baskets
• two bird cages
• sundry galley tiles
• twelve sash weights
• nine new tin valentia’s
• sundry bung cloths and cords
• a cloaths horse
• two flasketts
• cloaths lines and pins
• a turks head broom
• a hair broom
• bed pan and sundries

With a bit of imagination, a good dictionary and easy access to a decent search engine, it’s possible to work out what each of these items was and what it was used for, and it soon becomes obvious that the left hand garret was being used to store odds and ends. The cradle wouldn’t have been used since Thomas was a baby and it seems that he had also outgrown the child’s wicker chair. The bung cloths and the new tin valentias were tools of the wine merchant’s trade; a valentia (or valincher) was used in sampling wine from casks. The Oxford English Dictionary[4] references Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language, which in turn defines a ‘valinch’ as ‘a tube for drawing liquors from a cask by the bung-hole’.


Inventory attached to the further Answer of Richard Hovil (detail). Port v. Hovil. The National Archives reference: C 13/70/5 #3a

As we descend through the house, the rooms become more populated, the lists for the best bed chamber, the parlour and the kitchen, running to scores of individual items. And as each room gives up its secrets our picture of the house and its interior becomes more vivid. It also becomes clear that the Port family were comfortably well-off; here, for example, is the list of the ‘china and glass’ in the parlour:

• two coloured bowls and six burnt in and enamel’d plates
• two blue and white plates
• three basons
• mill pot
• tea pot
• five tea cups
• five saucers
• a set of blue and white mugs
• twelve flower’d china tea cups
• twelve saucers and a bason
• three Wedgewood tea pots
• three saucers
• seven coffee cups and a bason
• a pair of cut quart decanters and stands
• a pair of pint do. and do.
• three goblets
• a crewet
• one cyder and five wine glasses

Other highlights include a quantity of children’s toys in the ‘Middle Room’, a set of large red and white printed cotton curtains in the ‘Right hand Bed Room’, a needlework map in a carved and gilt frame, a Pembroke table with a drawer on castors and a neat patterned Wilton carpet in the dining room, and an olive green coat black velvet and Marseilla waistcoat and a striped Surtout coat in the best bed chamber.

Pembroke table

Antique Pembroke table in mahogany. An English, Georgian drop flap dining table dating to circa 1820, currently available for sale on

For students of middle-class life in late Georgian London it’s a treasure chest. For me, it provides a snapshot of Mary Ann’s life at the very end of the nineteenth century and it’s fair to say that I don’t have anything even remotely similar for any of my other great great great grandparents. And there’s more…

The Account drawn up by Richard Hovil goes into enormous detail, listing the various payments made to Samuel’s wife and children. On 24 June 1800, for example, the following payment was noted:

To Coach hire Pocket Money for all the Children going to Portsmouth to see and stay with Mrs Port at Mrs Lewin’s

There are a number of similar references to Mrs Port (i.e. Samuel’s widow, Elizabeth (née Truman)) staying in Portsmouth with Mrs Lewin and several payments were made to Mrs Lewin for ‘Mrs Port’s Board’.

The ‘children’ (i.e. Ann, Mary Ann and Thomas) are mentioned frequently collectively and when they’re separately identified, the common practice of referring to Ann, the oldest, as Miss Port and to Mary Ann and Thomas by their names, is usually observed.

The first explicit reference to Mary Ann (there are eleven in total) comes on 30 December 1800 when a payment of £5 5s was made ‘To Mary and Thomas 5 weeks board each’. The very next entry, made apparently on the same date, is of particular interest to us:

To Mrs Cox for Mary’s Schooling – Christmas £17 5s 6d

We also find payments being made to Mary for ‘Sundries Hats Shoes &c.’, another one in June (1802?) for Mary Ann’s schooling with Mrs Cox, and one in January (1803?) ‘To Cash Mrs Seeley new Dresses for Miss Mary Port’.

As the ‘Account’ progresses the descriptions noted against the various payments become less-and-less specific until they become so vague as to be almost meaningless.

Img_1153 (detail)

Schedule attached to the further Answer of Richard Hovil (detail). Port v. Hovil. The National Archives reference: C 13/70/5 #3b

A more cynical man than I would suspect that Richard Hovil was making it up as he went along…

It’s clear from this that Mary Ann was sent to school under the care of a woman called Mrs Cox and that she was with Mrs Cox from at least 1800 until 1802. Fortunately, one of the many ‘Decrees and Orders’ in the Chancery suit gives us some more information about this. On Friday 9 July 1813, the cause was brought before the Master of the Rolls and a number of matters were raised[5]. The aim of this particular session appears to have been to sort out exactly how much money had been expended on behalf of each of the children and the document tells us in some detail what had happened to Ann, Mary Ann and Thomas in the period since their father had died. This is what it has to say about Mary Ann:

…and that the said infant Mary Ann Port was placed out at School from the time of the death of the said Testator under the Care of Miss Cox at Vauxhall where she continued until about the Month of December 1804 and had since continued to reside at Buckingham in the county of Bucks with Mrs Hutton a friend of the said Plaintiff Elizabeth Port…

So we now know that Mary Ann was at school with Miss (or Mrs?) Cox from April 1799 (when she was 10) until December 1804 (when she was 16) and that the ‘school’ was in Vauxhall. I’ve put school in inverted commas here because the institution that Mary Ann attended would have borne little or no resemblance to what we would think of as a school. She would have been one of a small number of pupils under Miss Cox’s care and the ‘school’ would almost certainly have been a room in Miss Cox’s house. I have so far been unable to find out any more about Miss Cox and her establishment in Vauxhall.

Market Place, Buckingham

Market Place, Buckingham

The next part of the story concerns Mary Ann’s move to Buckingham to ‘reside’ with Mrs Hutton, a friend of her mother’s. The Huttons are a fascinating family and despite the fact that Elizabeth and Mrs Hutton were apparently friends, they were definitely from very different social classes. Mrs Hutton was born Henrietta Thomas in Chancery Lane in 1768, the daughter of Benjamin and Hannah Thomas[6]. She was therefore about 14 years Elizabeth’s junior.

I don’t know how Elizabeth and Henrietta came to know each other (I need to spend more time looking at the Thomas family) but I do know that on 13 October 1793, Henrietta had married the Reverend James Long Hutton of Buckingham[7] and that in 1804, their youngest daughter, Jane Lucy Hutton was born. And it seems likely that Mary Ann was sent to Buckingham to help Henrietta with the baby and with the other children that James and Henrietta already had – at least two of them.

With her inheritance still not secured, Mary Ann embarked on a new stage of her life, as a governess to a wealthy family in a prosperous market town. In the next and final part of the story, we’ll attempt to piece together the clues to see what we can learn about Mary Ann’s life in Buckingham.

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 2 August 2020

[1] Bill of Complaint of Elizabeth Port and others. Port v. Hovil. The National Archives (TNA) reference: C 13/70/5 #1
[2] Answer of Richard Hovil. Port v. Hovil. TNA references: C 13/70/5 #2
[3] Further Answer of Richard Hovil with Inventory and two Schedules. Port v. Hovil. TNA references: C 13/70/5 #3
[4] Oxford English Dictionary – accessed 2 August 2020
[5] Decrees & Orders. Port v. Hovil. TNA reference: C 33/601 f.1004v
[6] Baptism of Henrietta Thomas, 1768, St Dunstan in the West, City of London – London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) reference: P69/DUN2/A/010
[7] Marriage of James Long Hutton & Henrietta Thomas, St Clement Dane, Westminster – City of Westminster Archives Centre reference: SJSS/PR/5/3 p.61

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All and every my child and children

Our efforts to reconstruct the lives of our pre-Victorian ancestors are all-too-often thwarted by the lack of available source material. In an era before the decennial censuses and the (virtually) comprehensive civil registration system, our reference points can be severely limited. We should (in theory at least) have a record of birth (usually in the shape of an entry in a baptismal register), details of a marriage and, perhaps, records of the births of some resultant children, followed, forty or so years later, by a single-line entry in a burial register.

If we’re lucky our ancestor may have left a will providing us with some clues about his life through mentions of his trade or occupation, the names of relatives beyond the immediate family, or of friends, neighbours and work associates. Parcels of land or properties in rural areas mentioned in wills can point us towards other useful sources (e.g. land tax and manorial court records) and there may even be mentions of bequests received by the testator from his parents, uncles and aunts or even grandparents.

The wills of our female ancestors can prove to be enormously rich in content, with personal possessions being left to favourite grandchildren or nieces and nephews and bequests being made to friends and neighbours. All of this can help to provide a canvas on which we can begin to paint a more detailed picture.

Unfortunately, most of our ancestors didn’t leave wills and, more often than not, we end up with a life story that does little more than give us some basic details about their birth, marriage and death. Those at the two extremes of society (the rich and the very poor) are most likely to have left a paper trail; for the majority of people in between these extremes, records can be quite thin on the ground.

This is particularly true of one group of people; middle class women who never married. One of my favourite ancestors (and, yes, we’re allowed to have favourites!) fits into this category, but thanks to a number of inter-related events, I’ve been able, over the years, to piece together a fairly comprehensive life story. This is the first part of that story…


Mary Ann Port was born in London on 2 August 1788[1]. Her father, Samuel Port, was a well-to-do wine merchant who had moved from his native Oxfordshire to London in 1769, to take up an apprenticeship with Jonathan Granger, his great uncle by marriage[2]. Jonathan died in 1775 and Samuel was ‘turned over’ to William King to complete the last year of his apprenticeship.

Samuel Port became a Freeman of the City of London on 21 November 1776[3] and in the same year, he married Elizabeth Truman at the parish church of St Olave, Southwark. They were married on 9 June 1776[4], by Licence[5], and both signed their names in the marriage register with clear, firm signatures, suggesting at least a degree of education and a comfortable background.

Samuel and Elizabeth went on to have seven children, all baptised at the City of London parish church of Allhallows, Barking-by-the-Tower. The children were born between 1777 and 1791, but the first three (two Samuels and a Thomas) died young and the fourth, Elizabeth, died in 1796, when she was just 12[6]. The three youngest children, Ann, Mary Ann and Thomas, all survived to adulthood but despite their comfortable middle-class upbringing, were to experience a difficult childhood.

Samuel Port can be found in the London Land Tax records from 1777, at an address in Red Cross Court, which we can find on Richard Horwood’s 1792 Plan of the Cities of London and Westminster the Borough of Southwark…, marked as ‘Red + Sq’ and running off the north side of Tower Street, just to the west of the parish church of Allhallows, Barking-by-the-Tower. Samuel is listed at Red Cross Court in each of the annual Land Tax registers from 1777 to 1798[7].

1792-1799-Horwoods Map of London (detail)

Detail from Horwood’s Plan of the Cities of London and Westminster, the Borough of Southwark… (1792-1799) showing location of Red Cross Court, Tower Street in the parish of Allhallows, Barking-by-the-Tower. From

On 13 February 1799, Samuel Port wrote his will[8], describing himself as ‘Samuel Port of Savage Gardens in the City of London Wine Merchant’. He added a codicil, a few weeks later, on 1 April 1799. Savage Gardens (part of which still survives today, although with none of the original buildings) was a few hundred yards north of Red Cross Court, in the parish of St Olave, Hart Street. Samuel isn’t listed at Savage Gardens in the 1799 Land Tax register (there’s an empty property which may be the address that he moved into) and by the time that the next year’s register was drawn up, he was dead.

Samuel died on 4 April 1799, just three days after writing the codicil to his will, and the will was proved on 21 May 1799. We don’t know the cause of his death and we don’t know where he died, although it was almost certainly at his new house in Savage Gardens. All we have is a simple entry in the Allhallows parish register recording the burial of Samuel Port on 14 April 1799[9].

Will of Samuel Port

Will of Samuel Port of Savage Gardens, City of London, wine merchant, Prerogative Court of Canterbury, 21 May 1799. The National Archives

Samuel’s will makes fascinating reading and it’s clear that he had done well for himself. He left everything to three trustees and instructed them to ‘sell dispose of collect receive get in and convert the same into Money’ and, after paying his debts and funeral expenses, to buy sufficient annuities to set up a trust fund to the value of £1092 for the benefit of his wife and children. If he had no children surviving him at the time of his death, he instructed his trustees to make payments of £50 each to seven of his wife’s nieces and nephews (all clearly named in he will) with the remainder to be left in trust for the children of his brother James and sister Ann. His codicil set up an annuity of £10 8s to be paid to his mother, Jane.

It’s a genealogical treasure chest but with one shortcoming. Although he set up a trust fund for ‘all and every my child and children lawfully begotten who shall be living at the time of my decease or born alive afterwards’ he omitted to mention any of them by name in his will. Fortunately, there’s a remarkable source that does name his children and allows us to reconstruct the next period of their lives.

Why Samuel decided to appoint his three friends (or colleagues?) Richard Hovill, Aaron Morgan and Bishop Hull as the executors and trustees of his will, I will probably never know. There were a number of suitable candidates to do the job within the family, notably, his wife’s nephew by marriage, James Lawson, and his own brother, James Port.

Whatever Samuel’s reasons, his family must have cursed his decision. His instructions, as set out in the will, were quite clear. His trustees were to sell his goods etc. ‘within one Calendar month next after my decease’, purchase the necessary annuities and start making the payments. But it seems that Hovill, Morgan and Hull didn’t do what they were supposed to. At least that was what was alleged by Samuel’s widow, Elizabeth who, together with her ‘infant’ (i.e. aged under 21) children, Ann, Mary Ann and Thomas (the Plaintiffs), started a case in the Court of Chancery in an attempt to recover the money that they felt was owed to them.

The Plaintiffs were represented by James Lawson, the husband of Elizabeth’s niece, Mary Ann Truman (the daughter of her brother, Joseph). In legal terms, and throughout the documents created in the course of the case, James was known as their ‘next friend’. This is a standard legal term used for a person who represents someone who is unable to represent themselves.

Chancery Document

The joint and several Answer of Aaron Morgan and Bishop Hull. One of the documents in the Chancery suit, Port v. Hovil. The National Archives reference: C 13/81/7

James is a fascinating character and will definitely be the subject of a future blog post. He and his son, John Joseph Lawson, were, successively, printers of The Times and became embroiled in some landmark legal cases. This was a time when the printer of a newspaper was responsible for its content and culpable in law when it came to accusations of libel. James was also a 1/16th shareholder in The Times.

The case (or ‘suit’), known in the conventional Chancery shorthand as Port v. Hovil, was started on 5 June 1806, with the issuing of a Bill of Complaint by the Plaintiffs[10]. In true Jarndyce v. Jarndyce fashion, the case dragged on, and to the plaintiffs, much like the young wards in Dickens’ Bleak House, it must have felt like it would never end. After a flurry of activity in the winter of 1806/1807, it all went quiet and for the next ten years or so, apart from the occasional entry in the Decree & Order books, not a lot happened. Elizabeth died in April 1816, without the case being resolved, and another year passed before the final Order was made in the suit on 4 March 1817, nearly 11 years after it had begun[11].

When their father died in April 1799, Ann was aged 13, Mary Ann was 10 and Thomas was just 8. The suit was started seven years later and by the time it ended they were 31, 28 and 26 respectively.

It must have been emotionally and mentally draining for the three young Ports to spend almost eighteen years of their lives struggling to claim their inheritance, but from a genealogical standpoint, the records created in the course of the suit are gold dust.

I have a list of 24 documents relating to Port v. Hovil and despite discovering the existence of the Chancery case more than 12 years ago, I haven’t (yet!) got around to transcribing them all, never mind the more involved task of interpreting and understanding exactly what they’re all telling me. Much like the suit itself, it’s a marathon, not a sprint! It seems that Ann, Mary Ann and Thomas eventually received around £600 each, a not inconsiderable sum at the time, but it’s clear that they all continued to work for a living, and that the inheritance didn’t fundamentally change their lives.

In the next part of the story, I’ll take a closer look at the Chancery documents to see what they can tell us about Ann, Mary Ann and Thomas’s teenage years, in the first two decades of the 19th century. Butcher’s bills, mourning rings, wicker chairs, a patterned Wilton carpet, hats and shoes, and journeys to Portsmouth, Oxford and Buckingham; it’s all coming up in Part Two.

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 18 July 2020

[1] Baptism of Mary Ann Port, 1788, Allhallows, Barking by the Tower, City of London – London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) reference: P69/ALH1/A/01/004 p.84
[2] Corporation of London, Freedom Admission Paper of Samuel Port, 1776 – LMA reference: COL/CHD/FR/02/1046
[3] ibid.
[4] Marriage of Samuel Port & Elizabeth Truman, 1776, St Olave, Southwark – LMA reference: P71/OLA/024 p.74
[5] Marriage Bond of Samuel Port & Elizabeth Truman, 1776, Archdeaconry of Surrey – LMA reference: DW/MP/091/056
[6] Burial of Elizabeth Port, 1796, Allhallows, Barking by the Tower, City of London – LMA P69/ALH1/A/01/004
[7] Land Tax Assessment Books, Tower Ward, 1777-1798 – LMA reference: CLC/525/MS11316
[8] Will of Samuel Port of Savage Gardens in the City of London, Wine Merchant, 21 May 1799, Prerogative Court of Canterbury – The National Archives reference: PROB 11/1324/189
[9] Burial of Samuel Port, 1799, Allhallows, Barking by the Tower, City of London – LMA P69/ALH1/A/01/004
[10] [W1806 P24] Port v Hovill. Bill and two answers. Plaintiffs: Elizabeth Port and others – TNA reference: C 13/70/5
[11] Chancery: Reports and Certificates, 4 Mar 1817 – TNA reference: C38/1145

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1813 And All That

A comment on Twitter this morning in response to a tweet of mine about George Rose’s Parish Register Act got me thinking.


My original tweet suggested that the post-1813 printed burial registers introduced by Rose’s Act were “somewhat lacking in detail”.

A reply came from another family historian, correctly pointing out that “the printed registers guarantee considerably more detail than ‘buried John Smith’, which is not uncommonly all you get in earlier registers”.

To which I replied that Rose-style burial registers “also (effectively) remove, or at least limit, the possibility of additional details being supplied, such as ‘wife/widow of…’ and ‘son/daughter of…’ or occupational information”.


George Rose by Sir William Beechey.
National Portrait Gallery / Public domain

As I said, it got me thinking. I had this feeling, based on many years of using Church of England burial registers, pre- and post-Rose, that the earlier free-style registers were, by virtue of the lack of any prescribed content, often more informative than the printed ones that followed. After all, the clerks had a blank page in front of them and they could record as much or as little detail as they wanted to.

I notice that I wrote ‘often more informative’ but perhaps I meant ‘sometimes more informative’ – neither of which, I accept, are particularly helpful or scientific terms to use. So, could I quantify this in some way? Well, yes I could. I could carry out an academic study of the registers and write a paper called something like, ‘The impact of Rose’s Parochial Registers Act on the recording of genealogical information in Church of England parish registers’. Which, now I come to think about it, sounds like a pretty good topic for an undergraduate dissertation!

However, as you may have noticed, I’m not an undergraduate (or indeed any type of student) and much as I’d love to spend months carrying out this kind of detailed research, I don’t have, what I believe business types would call the ‘bandwidth’ – bills needing to be paid, and all that…

But, it occurred to me that I could look at a small sample, which might give me a better feeling for what happened when the printed Rose-style registers came into use in 1813. So, with the full and complete knowledge that what I was doing fell considerably short of any acceptable academic standards and that the number of registers I was planning to check was anything but statistically significant, I thought I’d give it a go.

I decided to choose 20 parishes from different parts of the country and compare the information recorded in the burial registers pre- and post-1813. The parishes were chosen entirely at random, simply by going to the bookmarks in my browser and choosing one parish from each of 20 databases. I wanted to have a good spread across the country and I wanted to have a mix of urban and rural parishes. This is the list that I came up with:

  • St Alphege, Greenwich
  • Alfreton, Derbyshire
  • Longbredy, Dorset
  • Ampney St Peter, Gloucestershire
  • St Nicholas, Liverpool
  • St Mary, Eccles, Lancashire
  • Formby, Lancashire
  • Harrington, Northamptonshire
  • Dorchester, Oxfordshire
  • St Mary, Bridgwater, Somerset
  • Godalming, Surrey
  • St Martin, Birmingham
  • Lacock, Wiltshire
  • Batley, Yorkshire
  • St Giles, Cheadle, Staffordshire
  • Wainfleet, Lincolnshire
  • Ratby, Leicestershire
  • St Dunstan, Canterbury. Kent
  • Oakford, Devon
  • St Michael, Macclesfield, Cheshire

The only other rules that I imposed were that the parish had to have been in existence before 1800, that I had to be able to see digital images of the registers and that once I’d selected a particular parish I stuck with it, whatever I saw when I viewed the actual registers.

Next I came up with a list of seven pieces of data which I considered to be the most likely to be recorded in the registers, which, naturally, included the four pieces of information prescribed by Rose.

  • Date of burial
  • Name of deceased
  • Relationship
  • Residence
  • Age
  • Occupation
  • Date of death

When I set out, I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to record the data that I gathered but after a bit of trial and error I realised that while some of the fields could be completed with a binary ‘yes’ or ‘no’, others demanded a degree of subtlety. I didn’t want to over complicate things so I invented some rules, on the hoof as it were (remember, this is NOT an academic paper!).

The first thing I realised was that choosing a simple comparison of the relevant registers for the years 1812 and 1813 wasn’t going to work. There was an obvious and discernible tendency for clerks to begin their 1813 registers full of good intent, recording all sorts of additional detail but after a year or two, or in some cases, a month or two, the effort involved would prove too much and the additional detail would be dropped (we could call this the ‘1855 Scottish Civil Registration Effect’). So I decided instead to compare the registers for 1810 and 1820. This would ensure firstly that the results weren’t influenced by the possible impact of clerks starting to record what they knew was coming before the new system came into effect and also that any cases of an atypical over keen-ness on the part of the clerks in the early, post-1813 registers wouldn’t skew the figures.

I considered four of the fields to fit into the binary category; date of burial, name of deceased, age and date of death. Of course, the reality is that each of these could be subject to some degree of fuzziness. Dates may not always have been fully recorded, first names or surnames could be missing if the clerk wasn’t sure (for example with the burial of an ‘unknown stranger’ or entries reading ‘Widow Smith’ or something similar) and ages might include terms such as ‘Infant’ or ‘Aged Woman’. In these cases, I felt that what was important, and what I should be recording, was evidence of an intent to record names and ages, even if, not every entry in the data sample strictly complied with my ‘yes/no’ approach to recording. It’s worth noting that I can’t envisage any situation in which a register would fail to earn a ‘yes’ for the date of burial and the name of the deceased.

The other three fields had the potential to be more complex but I was eventually able to fit each of them into a ‘yes/no/maybe’ structure and I recorded the data with the following caveats in mind.

Relationship: I recorded this as ‘yes’ if details of children’s parents and the name of a married woman or widow’s husband were routinely recorded, and ‘no’ if these details never appeared. Everything else was marked as ‘in between’.

Residence: This was a tricky one. I only recorded a ‘yes’ where full addresses (i.e. street/house names) were consistently given. Those occasions where some sort of address (i.e. the name of the parish or of a township/hamlet within the parish) was usually given went into the ‘in between’ box. A simple ‘no’ was recorded when an address of some sort was never, or only rarely shown.

Occupation: Here I only recorded a ‘yes’ where occupations were routinely given for adult males and a ‘no’ where occupations were never, or only very rarely given. Burials of clergymen and local bigwigs are almost always denoted in the registers, before and after 1813 but I don’t see this as constituting the recording of occupations as such. In my sample there were very few instances of occupations being recorded and as it happened, I didn’t have to worry about any non-binary options.

Once I’d gathered the data, I converted all the yeses to 1s, the nos to 0s and everything else to 0.5s so that I could analyse the data in a spreadsheet.

With seven pieces of data to assess and 20 parishes for each of two sample years, the total for each year was out of a possible score of 140. This is what I found:

Year Score
1810 67.5
1820 79.5

Regardless of the unscientific approach, it was clear then that there was an observable improvement in the amount of data recorded, post-1813.

However, the detail threw up a few interesting points (which I would love to explore further!). The two areas which showed the biggest improvement from 1810 to 1820 were, perhaps unsurprisingly, the residence and age fields – each, one of Rose’s four prescribed fields. The residence scored just 4 in 1810 and 12.5 in 1820, while the age went from 10 to 20. It’s still interesting to note that 50% of the 1810 registers routinely recorded ages.

When it comes to relationships however, we see things going in the opposite direction. The score was 10.5 for this field in 1810 but it dropped to 6 in 1820. And, although the data really can’t be said to be statistically significant here, occupations were routinely recorded in two of the 1810 registers but only once in 1820. For what it’s worth, the only instance of dates of death being recorded was in the 1810 register of St Nicholas, Liverpool, which also has the honour of being the only register which scored seven out of seven.

1810-St Nicholas, Liverpool burial register

St Nicholas, Liverpool burial register, 1810
Liverpool Record Office; Liverpool, England; Reference Number: 283 NIC/1/9A via,

Looking at the scores for each of the parishes we find that 14 had a higher score in 1820 than 1810, two stayed the same, while four of them (Liverpool, Harrington, Dorchester and Canterbury) recorded less detail in 1820 than they had in 1810.

So, while the scores show an increase overall in the amount of data recorded, it’s not as simple as the headline figure suggests, and there is clear evidence that certain details which were often recorded before 1813 were less likely to turn up in the Rose-style registers.

One area that I have explored a bit further is the question of urban v. rural areas. If you have any experience of using burial registers you’ll have noticed that you’re more likely to get useful genealogical data from the big urban parish registers and this is borne out by the figures from my sample. I categorised the seven parishes listed below as ‘urban’ and the remainder as ‘rural’:

  • St Alphege, Greenwich
  • St Nicholas, Liverpool
  • St Mary, Eccles, Lancashire
  • St Martin, Birmingham
  • Batley, Yorkshire*
  • St Dunstan, Canterbury. Kent
  • St Michael, Macclesfield, Cheshire

(*Not sure I should have included Batley here – was it urban in 1810/1820? Probably not…)

I added up the scores for each parish in 1810 and in 1820 and came up with an average score for the urban parishes and one for the rural parishes in each year:

Year Urban Rural
1810 4.14 2.96
1820 4.43 3.73

It’s clear that the biggest change is in the rural parishes, so we can theorise that Rose’s Act had the effect of ‘narrowing the gap’ and bringing the amount of detail recorded in rural parishes closer to some sort of equity. The impact in urban areas is less marked with only a slight overall improvement.

So, what have we learnt from all this? The figures suggest that Rose’s Act had a positive impact on the quantity of data recorded in burial registers but we can also see that the printed registers could actually have a detrimental impact, particularly when it came to the not-uncommon pre-1813 practice of recording some sort of relationship information about the deceased.

Perhaps the best way to take this further would be to come up with a useful method of weighting the data. Names, ages and details of relationships are clearly more valuable, genealogically speaking, than fields such as residences, occupations or dates of death (all of which are, of course, important).

What about baptismal registers? What would a similar survey reveal about the impact of Rose’s Act here? Ah well, there’s always next weekend…

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 4 July 2020

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