Handle with care

There’s been a lot of publicity this week around the decision by Oxford Reference to make their Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland freely available online for a limited period.

Now, I’m not going to deny for a minute the magnitude of the work, nor in any way denigrate the efforts of the team behind the production of this vast digital tome, but I do have some problems with this approach to the study of surnames. It all seems like a retrograde step and smacks of the sort of methodology which (I thought) George Redmonds (among others) had kicked into touch many years ago.

The Dictionary is a massive undertaking and gathers together information about more than 45,000 names including ‘every surname that currently has more than 100 bearers, and those that had more than 20 bearers in the 1881 census’. The introduction to the work goes on to say:

Each entry contains lists of variant spellings of the name, an explanation of its origins (including the etymology), lists of early bearers showing evidence for formation and continuity from the date of formation down to the 19th century, geographical distribution, and, where relevant, genealogical and bibliographical notes, making this a fully comprehensive work on family names.

This is a big claim (or, rather, a number of big claims) and there’s one aspect in particular that troubles me – the bit about the Dictionary containing explanations of each surname’s origins.

The idea that you can explain the origin of a surname by accessing ‘lists of early bearers’ of the name is exactly the sort of muddled thinking that Redmonds dealt with so effectively more than 20 years ago:[1]

Each surname is in one sense unique, beginning with one person or family at a particular time and in a particular place. It is there and then that the meaning and origin must be investigated, no matter how common-place the name might seem. This present chapter is restricted, therefore, to questions of origins and meaning, looking in depth at certain surnames which are generally considered to have straightforward etymologies. It will be shown that some of the traditional explanations are wrong and also that etymology and meaning are not always the same thing. The truth is that the etymology of any surname is unsatisfactory unless it takes into account the particular local circumstances in which that name evolved. Those circumstances can be very distinctive, requiring the researcher to combine the skills of the historian, the linguist and the genealogist.

The Dictionary’s claim to be a ‘fully comprehensive work on family names’ is thrown into question when we consider the complete absence in their introduction of the concept of surnames ‘evolving’, but instead a focus on ‘formation and continuity’.

Any experienced family historian will appreciate that surnames are particularly unstable, not just in their spelling but also in their adoption by our ancestors. Aliases (explored in depth by Redmonds) were far more common than we might imagine and it’s not at all unusual for one branch of a family to go on to use one of the ‘available’ surnames, while another adopts the alternative. How then can we equate surnames so solidly with a particular family? And then there’s the whole question of illegitimacy and multiple marriages leading to our ancestors ending up with completely different surnames to the ones they began life with.

If we look at the entry for my own surname we see some good examples of why this approach simply doesn’t work:


Entry for Annal in the Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland.
Accessed 16 May 2020.

For a start, each of the references to instances of the name is taken from a transcribed source. It’s entirely understandable why they took this approach; data mining from a freely available source like the IGI (FamilySearch) is, realistically, the only way of creating a vast database such as this but, as any decent researcher will tell you, the IGI is, as its name might suggest, an index, not, in itself, a primary source. And if we take one of the instances referenced above – Thomas Annall , 1616 in IGI (Birmingham, Warwicks) – we can quickly see that the surname in the original is actually ARNALL – which instantly appears more likely to be a variant of the name ARNOLD. Indeed a very quick check reveals that the baptism of this Thomas ‘ARNALL’ the son of Thomas, fits neatly into a run of baptisms of children of Thomas ARNOLD at the same parish church (St Martin, Birmingham). There is no connection whatsoever to the name ANNAL (or variants) here and its inclusion is therefore (unintentionally) confusing and misleading.


Baptism of Thomas Arnall, St Martin, Birmingham. Accessed on Ancestry.co.uk. Original held by Library of Birmingham. Reference Number: DRO 34; Archive Roll: M95

This highlights one of many problems with the methodology at play here. As a member of the Guild of One Name Studies, I’ve been carrying out research into the name ANNAL and its variants for the best part of 40 years and I know that my surname evolved separately in two distinct regions of Scotland; namely, Fife and Orkney. Indeed, I can trace every ANNAL or ANNALL living in the UK today back to one of these two areas. And in both cases, I have been able to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the name evolved from the surname ANNAND or ANNAN – a name not even offered as a speculative variant in the Dictionary.

Yet Orkney doesn’t even get a mention in the Dictionary. Obliquely, it does as I am almost certain (still working on it!) that the John Annall, 1774 in IGI (Deal, Kent) was the son of a man who came from South Ronaldsay in Orkney. And I know that the William Annall, 1763 in IGI (Well, NR Yorks) was the grandson of a man who moved from Easter Anstruther in the East Neuk of Fife to settle in the parish of Well, North Yorkshire in the late 1730s.

The ‘Main GB location 1881’ is given as: WR Yorks; Angus; Caithness

This is both misleading and inaccurate. Of the 200 or so ANNALs listed in the 1881 census, 100 of them were living on the Orkney island of South Ronaldsay! The Yorkshire ones are, as I’ve said, descendants of the Fife ANNALs, as are the Angus (Dundee) ones, while the Caithness ANNALs (all 7 of them) had recently hopped across the Pentland Firth from their native Orkney.

The Hampshire/Sussex families are, I am certain, entirely unconnected and all living descendants of ANNALs from that area today have the surname ANNALS or ANNALLS. Again, this is an area that I need to explore further but I suspect that the second proposed etymology, namely that the name is a ‘variant of the obsolete English surname Ennal’ is quite probably correct.

Another example of the shortcomings of this approach to surname studies comes with a surname that I’m currently researching. The name MEEKS is quite common in the area around Biggleswade in Bedfordshire, extending into the neighbouring counties of Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire. The name has a local and well-documented ‘variant’, MINKS, yet the Dictionary entries for the names MEEKS and MINKS give no indication that the names (at least in the Biggleswade area) were fully interchangeable.

George Redmonds died soon after The Dictionary of Family Names in Great Britain was published (no, I’m NOT linking the two events!) and I don’t know if he had a chance to read or comment on it. But I do know that he was less-than-impressed with the Dictionary’s most famous forerunner, namely Reaney’s Dictionary of British Surnames. Redmonds had this to say of Reaney’s work:[2]

His attitude to genealogy seems to have been somewhat ambivalent; for example in the Introduction to his dictionary he said specifically that the purpose of such a reference work was “to explain the meaning of the names, not to treat of genealogy and family history”…

…[he] did not stop to consider that each hereditary surname is unique, and that its etymology and meaning should never be taken for granted. The truth is that without some sort of genealogical evidence it can be unwise to link modern surnames with those found in medieval sources.

Reaney’s approach reminds me of the methods used by 18th and 19th century antiquarians in their ‘archaeological’ studies. You dig into the ground, pick out what you like the look of and utterly ignore the context (not to mention, that you’ve just destroyed the site for future archaeologists).

Of course surname research isn’t a destructive process but it can be a misleading one. My concern is that the unwary casual armchair researcher will be sucked in by the ‘quick fixes’ inherent in the Dictionary. It seems to me to have placed itself not a million miles away from those shopping centre stalls where you can by a cheap, gaudy plaque with the history of your surname (not forgetting your coat of arms).

So, by all means have a look at the Dictionary and see what it says about your surname. But don’t take it as gospel and never treat it as a substitute for thorough, meticulous genealogical research.

The Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland can be accessed free of charge at until 21 May 2020.

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 16 May 2020

[1] Surnames and Genealogy: A New Approach, George Redmonds (Federation of Family History Societies, 2002) p.31
[2] ibid., Introduction p.3

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The story behind the stone

About 35 years ago, I was involved with a project to record the monumental inscriptions in Aldenham churchyard for the Hertfordshire Family History Society. The churchyard contains hundreds of gravestones but one in particular, recording the death of a woman and three of her children on the same day, grabbed my attention and I had to know more about the story behind the stone.


Despite its proximity to London, the Hertfordshire parish of Aldenham has largely retained its rural character. True, the M1 now follows its western boundary and, in the mid-nineteenth century, the main London to Midlands railway line was cut through the eastern part of the parish, transforming, beyond recognition, the once-sleepy hamlets of Radlett and Barham Wood (aka Borehamwood). But those eastern districts are the only heavily populated parts of the ancient parish of Aldenham today; the remainder still consists mainly of farmland, punctuated by small, isolated settlements, along with a couple of prestigious Public Schools.

The population of Aldenham was fairly settled in the first half of the nineteenth century. The 1851 census tells us that nearly 70% of the inhabitants of the parish had been born in Hertfordshire (the vast majority in Aldenham itself) and a further 10% or so were from the neighbouring county of Middlesex.[1] Among the remaining 20% of incomers were the Whitley family, Edmund and his wife Elizabeth, who had left their native Oxfordshire sometime around 1830, Edmund taking up the role of Bailiff on the substantial Aldenham estate. The Whitleys arrived in Hertfordshire with four young children and a further eight were born in Aldenham. Eleven of the twelve were boys, Jane, the only daughter dying young in 1832.

Edmund’s seventh son, Edward, was born in 1838.[2] The 1841 census finds the Whitley family (Edmund, Elizabeth and seven of their children) living at an address listed in the returns simply as ‘Cottage’.[3] It’s difficult to be certain but it seems likely that the cottage was NOT the stunningly well-preserved, half-timbered medieval Patchett’s Cottage which sits opposite the foot of Summerhouse Lane, but a now-demolished property, a little bit further along Hillfield Lane, heading towards Patchett’s Green. The Aldenham parish register records Edmund and Elizabeth’s abode as ‘Delrow’ at the baptisms of five of their eight children, including Edward’s.

1872-Ordnance Survey 25 inch map Hertfordshire XLIV.3 (detail) - National Library of Scotland

25″ Ordnance Survey map, Hertfordshire XLIV.3 (detail) 1872. National Library of Scotland

Aged 13, Edward is listed in the 1851 census as a Scholar[4] but by the time of the 1861 census, he had married and left home. The parish register of St John the Baptist, Aldenham, records the marriage, on 10 September 1859, of Edward Whitley (a bachelor and Gardener, giving his address as Bushey Grove – presumably he was working there at the time) and Mary Ann Smith.[5]

Mary Ann was the daughter of John Smith, who she describes as a Policeman at the time of her marriage. She was a few years older than Edward, having been born in Bushey and baptised at the parish church of St James on 8 November 1835.[6] The Smith family can be found in the 1841 census living at Batler’s Green, Aldenham, a mile or so from the Whitley’s house at Delrow.[7] Edward and Mary Ann must have known each other as they were growing up. At the time of the 1851 census, Mary Ann was working in Stanmore, Middlesex as a House Servant for the family of George Ramsey of Grove House, the ‘Principal of a Private Scholastic Establishment’.[8]

1815 Antique Print Aldenham Church near Watford from Clutterbuck's History Herts

St John the Baptist, Aldenham, engraving, ca.1815.
From The History and Antiquities of the County of Hertford , Robert Clutterbuck (1821)

Their first child, a boy named Edmund (after Edward’s father), was born in 1860, and the following year we find the young family living in a cottage at Piggot’s Farm, in the hamlet of Letchmore Heath, where Edward’s brother James was farming.[9] Edward was still working as a Domestic Gardener, probably at the nearby Piggot’s Manor House.

Three more children followed in the 1860’s – a boy (Philip) and two girls (Ada and Elizabeth Jane) – and we next pick the family up in the 1871 census, living at 3 Spring Cottages, Aldenham, close to the famous Aldenham Grammar School.[10] Edward and Mary Ann were to have two more sons – William Richard, born in 1872 and James Charles in 1874.

Edward was recorded in the 1871 census as a Labourer but the baptisms of his children tell us that he had a variety of jobs in the 1860s and 70s. At the baptism of Elizabeth Jane in 1868 he was described as an Agent for Lord Rendlesham (the Lord of the Manor) while in 1874, when his youngest son (James Charles) was baptised, Edward was working as an Engine Tender at Aldenham School. At other times he was a Labourer or a Gardener.[11]


The winter of 1879-1880 was a cold one with sub-zero temperatures recorded in the south of England throughout the second half of January.[12] In early February, icy conditions still prevailed in Hertfordshire but the temperatures were starting to rise. On the afternoon of Wednesday 4 February 1880, two of Edward and Mary Ann’s children (Elizabeth Jane, aged 13 and William Richard, 8) were playing on the frozen pond next to their house when they went through the ice. The story of what happened next was reported in detail in a local newspaper:[13]

Ada, the eldest daughter, seeing their danger rushed on to the ice to endeavour to save them, when she also was immersed. The screams of the younger child brought the poor mother to the spot, and she, without a thought for herself, rushed madly on to the rotten ice to share the fate of her three children.

Edward was about half a mile away and heard the cries of the children and the sound of a dog barking and immediately ran to the scene. But he was too late. He managed to pull Mary Ann out alive but she died later the same day. The three children were all drowned.

An inquest was held at Edward’s house on Friday 6 February, and the jury ‘without hesitation’ returned a verdict of ‘death by accidental drowning’.[14] Two days later, Mary Ann, Ada, Elizabeth Jane and William Richard were buried at Aldenham. The gravestone still stands today, right at the edge of the churchyard, overlooking the road. It’s in remarkably good condition, considering that it’s now over 140 years old.


The gravestone of Mary Ann, Ada, Elizabeth Jane and William Richard Whitley,
St John the Baptist’s churchyard, Aldenham. Photograph by the author.

We can only imagine the impact that the tragic events of the day had on Edward and his three surviving sons. By the time of the 1881 census they had, perhaps understandably, moved out of the house with the pond and were living just along the road from the old family home in Delrow.

Later that year, Edward remarried. His second wife was Harriett Beeney, a Domestic Servant and a Londoner by birth. They were married at the parish church of St Mary, Bryanston Square, Marylebone on 7 August 1881, a year and a half after Mary Ann’s death.[15] Edward and Harriett moved into a house in Elstree Road, Bushey Heath where they had two children (Margaret Edith and Henry). Edward continued to work as a Gardener until his death in 1916, aged 78.[16] Harriet had died in 1903, aged just 54.


One aspect of the story had always frustrated me. Where was the Whitley’s house and where was the pond?

It was clear from the records that Edward had had a number of different jobs during his time in Aldenham and equally, that he and Mary Ann had lived at a number of different addresses. I wanted to know precisely where they were living at the time of the drowning, but the newspaper reports were unclear.

The Watford Observer reported that the inquest was held ‘at the house of Edward Whitley, the bereaved husband and father.’ The report went on to say that:[17]

The house is a Lodge to Hillfield Park, and the pond where the deceased were drowned is at the back of the premises.

Contemporary maps show that there were two main lodges to Hillfield Park (or Hilfield) but those buildings are still there on Hilfield Lane today, and they are altogether more grand than the description of Edward’s house given at the time in another report on the inquest:[18]

Standing in one corner of Hilfield Park is a lodge of four rooms, which from its isolation, dilapidated exterior and apparently uncared for surroundings gives the idea of a spot congenial to some soul-stirring tragedy, such as had really happened there.

The reporter continued:

The Inquest was held in one of the rooms of the lodge, and on entering one was struck with the air of comfort and cleanliness, as compared with the exterior and its surroundings, giving evidence of the attention given to her home by the poor woman who was then lying dead in a room above.

1880-Aldenham The Shocking Fatal Ice Accident Uxbridge & West Drayton Gazette - BL Newspapers 14 February 1880 p.7 col.c_edited

Aldenham – The Shocking Fatal Ice Accident
Uxbridge & West Drayton Gazette
14 February 1880 p.7 col.c – British Library Newspapers

Reading the reports on the inquest more closely, I started to pick up some clues.  Edward was said to have been in the employ of Mr Phillips of Berkeley Cottage. One of the witnesses, William George Sheffield, said that he was about three-quarters of a mile away when Edward’s second son (Philip) came to ask for help. Sheffield said that he and two men (‘Steers and Allen’) went directly to Whitley’s. William White, of the Fishery Inn also came to help, bringing the Royal Society’s drag. They were all, of course, too late but they were at least successful in recovering the children’s bodies from the pond.

Looking for these names in the 1881 census, it soon became clear that they all lived quite close together in an area to the south of Hillfield Park, around the hamlet of Caldecote Hill. George Sheffield lived at Caldecote Lodge, just along the road from Charles Phillips at Berkeley Cottage. William Stears [sic] lived as a lodger at an address not far away in Watford Road, Elstree, the same road in which the Fishery Inn was (and indeed, still is) located.

1899-Ordnance Survey 6 inch map Middlesex V.NE (detail) - National Library of Scotland

6″ Ordnance Survey map, Middlesex V.NE (detail) 1899. National Library of Scotland.
The Fishery Inn is situated further along the road which extends eastward from Berkeley Cottage.

This encouraged to me look for Whitley’s house in this part of the parish (I’d been focussing on the area to the north of Hilfield where Edward and Mary Ann had previously lived) and I noticed something that I’d missed before. A small building marked ‘Lodge’, some distance to the south of Hilfield but still clearly within the bounds of the ‘park’. Crucially, its location tied in with the reference to the ‘isolation’ of Whitley’s lodge – and even more importantly, there was a pond right next to it! It was also no more than a mile from Caldecote Hill where George Sheffield must have been working when Edward’s son came to get his assistance.

1899-Ordnance Survey 6 inch map Middlesex V.NE (detail 2) - National Library of Scotland

6″ Ordnance Survey map, Middlesex V.NE (detail) 1899. National Library of Scotland.

I was sure that this was where the tragedy had taken place on that cold February afternoon in 1880 and I turned to a modern map, mainly to see if the building was still there but also to help me understand how I had missed it before. But my plans to visit the site were quickly thwarted when I attempted to identify the location of the lodge and discovered that it’s now at the bottom of a reservoir and has been for nearly 70 years.

Accessed at ordnancesurvey.co.uk 9 May 2020

X marks the spot. The approximate location of Whitley’s lodge.
Accessed at osmaps.ordnancesurvey.co.uk, 9 May 2020

The gravestone in the parish churchyard, then, serves as the only remaining physical reminder of an event which must have stayed in the minds of the people of Aldenham for many years. The funeral service was, according to newspaper reports, held in the presence of several hundred people and an appeal ‘to the sympathetic and charitable inhabitants of the neighbourhood’ raised enough money for Edward to pay for the funeral (and the stone!) ‘leaving a few shillings to pay other expenses that must follow the sudden loss of the manager of the household’.

The poor man is very grateful for the sympathy and assistance he has received, and wishes to thank all those who have signed their names to the subscription list, or have sympathised with him in his great trouble.[19]

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 9 May 2020

[1] 1851 Census returns, Aldenham parish. The National Archives (TNA) HO 107/1714
[2] Edward’s birth was registered before he was baptised. His name appears in the General Register Office (GRO) index as ‘Male’ Whitley. GRO Birth Index, Watford JUN 1838 v.VI p.557
[3] 1841 Census, Cottage, Aldenham – TNA HO 107/438/3 f.3 p.1
[4] 1851 Census, Aldenham – TNA HO 107/1714 f.9 p.11
[5] Marriage of Edward Whitley & Mary Ann Smith, 1859, St John the Baptist, Aldenham – Hertfordshire Archives & Local Studies (HALS) DP/3/1/24 p.75
[6] Baptism of Mary Ann Smith, 1835, St James, Bushey – HALS DP/26/1/2 p.152
[7] 1841 Census, Batler’s Green, Aldenham – TNA HO 107/438/3 f.23 p.15
[8] 1851 Census, Grove House, Church Street, Great Stanmore – TNA HO 107/1700 ff.243 p.3 & 244 p.4
[9] 1861 Census, Cottages, Piggot’s Farm, Aldenham – TNA RG 9/832 f.21 p.11
[10] 1871 Census, 3 Spring Cottages, Letchmore Heath, Aldenham – TNA RG 10/1380 f.28 p.19
[11] St John the Baptist, Aldenham parish registers – HALS DP/3
[12] Daily Weather Summary, Met Office – https://www.metoffice.gov.uk/research/library-and-archive/publications/daily-weather-summary Accessed 8 May 2020
[13] Aldenham The Shocking Fatal Ice Accident Uxbridge & West Drayton Gazette – British Library (BL) Newspapers 14 February 1880 p.7 col.c
[14] ibid
[15] Marriage of Edward Whitley & Harriett Beeney, 1881, St Mary, Bryanston Square – LMA P89/MRY2/81 p.201
[16] GRO Death Index, Watford DEC 1916 v.3a p.938
[17] Aldenham Four Persons Drowned Watford Observer – BL Newspapers 14 February 1880 p.3 col.a
[18] Aldenham The Shocking Fatal Ice Accident Uxbridge & West Drayton Gazette – British Library (BL) Newspapers 14 February 1880 p.7 col.c
[19] Aldenham Uxbridge & West Drayton Gazette – BL Newspapers 13 March 1880 p.7 col.d

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A mariner’s tale – with a twist

William Annal was born to the sea. His father, John, together with his uncle William, left their native Orkney, and worked as fishermen along the UK’s east coast, before eventually settling on the Thames Estuary in Gravesend, Kent, sometime around 1820.

The connection between Orkney and the north Kent coast may not seem an obvious one but it comes via the Hudson’s Bay Company, whose ships regularly set out from Gravesend on their long journey to the Canadian North West, picking up cheap but reliable labour, in the shape of hundreds of young Orcadian men on the way. The Annal brothers would almost certainly have known other Orkney ‘ex-pats’ in the area when they arrived in Gravesend.

The evidence of John’s seafaring life comes from a number of sources and the fact that he married in Monkwearmouth, County Durham suggests that he was spending time, and getting to know the locals, in a variety of east coast ports. John married Margaret Bigg at the parish church of St Peter, Monkwearmouth (Sunderland) on 20 August 1822[1] and they went on to have at least five children, all born in Gravesend, including William, who was born there on 27 October 1823.

1823-William Annal baptism St George, Gravesend - Medway Archives P159/1/4 p.193

Baptism of William Annal, 2 November 1823, St George, Gravesend
Medway Archives reference: P159/1/4 p.193

Unfortunately, the records of the baptisms of the first three children (William, Margaret and Sarah Ann) are somewhat lacking in detail, and it’s not until John and Margaret’s fourth child, Sarah Ann, was baptised in 1830[2] (the older daughter of the same name had died young), that we get a precise address for the family in Gravesend: namely, West Street, where, perhaps unsurprisingly, the houses backed onto the riverfront.

Just a few months after the birth of their youngest child, Ellen, Margaret died. She was just 32 years old and, although no cause of death is given in the parish register, it’s tempting to link Ellen’s birth to her mother’s death.

The 1841 census finds the family living at an address in Caroline Place, Gravesend,[3] one of the many courts and alleys leading from West Street. John and his brother William were evidently both at sea at the time and the Annal household comprises a confusing mixture of their two families.

1841 census

1841 census, Caroline Place, Gravesend
The National Archives reference: HO 107/458/8 f.19 p.34

The other notable absentee from the 1841 census is William Annal himself, the oldest child of John and the late Margaret, and the subject of this story; again, William must have been at sea. Indeed, we know from the series of Seamen’s Registers held by the National Archives,[4] that William had first gone to sea in 1837, when he was just 13 years old.

In September 1843, William’s father died. John and Margaret are both buried at St George’s, Gravesend – in a grave situated not far from the memorial to Rebecca Rolfe, better known as Pocahontas, who had been buried in the same churchyard over 200 years earlier. The inscription on John and Margaret’s gravestone reads:

Sacred to the Memory of Mrs Margaret Annal Wife of Mr John Annal who departed this life the 4th day of October 1833 Aged 32 Years
Likewise the above Mr John Annal who died 19th September 1843 Aged 44 Years

The wording on the stone suggests that they were of some social standing although there’s nothing else in the records to lead us to believe that John was anything other than a run-of-the-mill fisherman.

The burial register records John’s abode as Kempthorne Street and this is where the extended family are to be found at the time of the 1851 census.[5] William and his uncle were once again both at sea. The tendency for merchant seamen to be absent from census returns can present some challenges when it comes to tracing their lives and it wasn’t until 1851 that any attempt was made by the authorities to record details of the thousands of men (and some women and children) who found themselves at sea at the time of the decennial censuses. It’s fair to say that those attempts were haphazard at best for much of the nineteenth century.

We do, however, have a number of documents dating from 1851 which help to fill in some of the gaps. On 9 January 1851, William was issued with his Mate’s Certificate of Service and then, later the same year, on 15 September he applied to be examined for a Master’s Certificate of Competency, which he was duly granted five days later. These documents, held by the National Maritime Museum and searchable on the Ancestry website, provide details of the various ships on which William had served and give us a basic outline of his career – it’s clear just from this limited information that by the time he was 30 years old, William had seen more of the world than most of us do in our entire lifetimes. Using crew lists and agreements, in conjunction with the details from the Seamen’s Registers, it should be possible to build up a fairly comprehensive record of the ships he sailed on and the places that his voyages took him to.

Certificate of Competency as Master, issued to William Annal, 20 September 1851
National Maritime Museum, Master’s Certificate no. 5715

We’re fortunate to get a sighting of William in the 1861 census – and he wasn’t actually too far from home; his ship, the Stella, a 186 tonne Brigg, was on the Thames at Woolwich Reach at midnight on census night (7 April 1861).[6] William was described as married, 38-years old and an Able Seaman. This is slightly odd as we’ve already seen that he held a Master’s Certificate, but perhaps work was hard to find and he took whatever he could get.

William had by then been married for nine years. On 15 March 1852, he married Emma Jane Hunting at the church of St John, Waterloo, in Lambeth.[7] and on 1 October 1854, their first child was baptised at the parish of Holy Trinity, Milton-next-Gravesend, and named James William Annal.[8] The family’s address was given in the baptismal register as 12 Wellington Street, a recently-built terraced street to the east of Gravesend’s town centre – quite possibly Emma’s parents’ address.

By the time of the 1861 census three more children had arrived (Emma Jane, Frederick Harley and William Alfred) and the family were back in the Gravesend Annal heartland, living at an address in Bath Street, close to West Street and the riverfront.[9] But this was to mark the end of their association with Gravesend. Some forty years after William’s father’s arrival in the area, the family moved 20 miles or so up-river to settle in Greenwich.

Their first known address in Greenwich was George Street, where the family were living in November 1862 when their fifth child, Alfred Hamilton Annal, was baptised. Two more children were born in Greenwich in the 1860s (Margaret Alice and John Walter) and the 1871 census finds the Annals (minus William, who yet again would have been at sea) living in Coltman Street, a narrow street in west Greenwich, leading down to the riverfront.[10]

By 1881, William and Emma Jane had moved for what would prove to be the last time. Emma appears in the census as a ‘Mariner’s Wife’ (yes, William was away at sea once more!) together with two of their sons, living at 3 High Bridge, in east Greenwich;[11] yet another address with houses backing onto the waterfront.

1895-OS London 1-1,056 - Sheet XII.12 (detail)

Ordnance Survey 1:1,056 series. London Sheet XII.12 (detail)
National Library of Scotland, Maps Collection

Sometime shortly after this, William seems to have retired from his long life at sea. Between 1885 and 1900 his name appears in a variety of trade directories as a greengrocer at 2 High Bridge, Greenwich. The numbering of the houses in High Bridge over the years is quite erratic so it’s possible that what was listed as number 3 in 1881 was actually the same address as number 2 in later records, but either way, we can’t be certain which building housed the Annal family’s grocer’s shop. A postcard, probably dating from the early 1900s, shows High Bridge, looking eastwards along the ‘road’ and my suspicion is that it was one of the properties on the right.

Picture 015 edit

High Bridge, Greenwich. Postcard, ca.1900

Another view of High Bridge comes from a sketch dating from 1899; this time the view is from the other end, looking westwards and appears to show some shop fronts on the left.

High Bridge, Greenwich

High Bridge, Greenwich. Lithograph by T. R. Way, 1899
The Boston Public Library & the Internet Archive

The 1891 census lists William Annal, a grocer, and Emma at 2 High Bridge[12] with, confusingly, the returns for the Three Crowns listed in between those for numbers 2 and 3. I say ‘confusingly’ as the pub was, by all accounts, on the corner of High Bridge and Queen Street so it’s difficult to make sense of this.

The registers of the Dreadnought Seamen’s Hospital record William’s admission on three occasions in the 1890s.[13] In January 1893 he was admitted with cystitis and then in 1896, he was admitted twice, first suffering from ‘disease of testis’ and then later with an enlarged prostate.

William and Emma were still at High Bridge in 1901,[14] and still running the greengrocer’s shop but later that year, on 16 November, William died. An inquest was held into his death as he died suddenly and unexpectedly but the coroner gave the cause of death as ‘syncope from heart disease’ with no suggestion of any foul play.[15] William was buried at Greenwich Cemetery on 25 November 1901[16] and Emma Jane continued to run the grocery (Mrs Annal is listed at 2 High Bridge in a 1903 directory) until her death in 1905.

So, we can see that the records have enabled us to put together a comprehensive story of William’s life from cradle to grave. Or have they? Is the story really that comprehensive?

The records that we use to reconstruct the lives of our ancestors can only ever give us a basic framework. The census returns, for example, are a snapshot, giving us a glimpse into our ancestors’ lives once every 3650 days. Other records that we use can fill in some gaps, providing us with information about their occupations and addresses but we’re still not going to get close to knowing everything about their lives. There are always going to be certain aspects that will remain forever hidden.

But thanks to the remarkable access that we now have to sources which were once effectively buried we can begin to uncover some wholly unexpected stories. Newspapers, poor law records, military service records, details of court cases – you just don’t know where your ancestors might turn up.

And William Annal is certainly no exception. Because, on 12 December 1863, our Gravesend/Greenwich-based merchant seaman enlisted as a Private in the 56th Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteers.[17] We can be certain this is our William. He’s described in the records as a 40-year old seaman, resident in England (our William would have been precisely 40 years old at the time) and there is no other William Annal who could fit the bill.

Quite what he was doing in Boston, whether he had deserted from his ship in Boston Harbour and whether his wife and the rest of his family back in England knew anything about this episode in his life, is unknown.

Further research in Merchant Naval records may answer some of the questions but for now, we can simply state the fact that William was mustered in Company ‘A’ of the 56th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteers at Camp Meigs, Readville, just to the south of Boston, Massachusetts on 26 December 1863. The American Civil War had broken out in April 1861 and by the time of William’s enlistment in the Union Army, the outcome of the war was in little doubt. Nevertheless, it would be a further sixteen months before the Confederacy’s final surrender so William must have expected to see military action when he chose to enlist.


As it turns out, William had a less-than glorious career in the US Army. He deserted on 28 January 1864, less than seven weeks after enlisting. Did he then return to Boston and sign up for a ship heading back across the Atlantic? Again, further research may settle this question but much of the story may sadly remain a mystery.

None of the English records give us the slightest clue about this fascinating event in William’s life and the lesson is that our stories can never be comprehensive but that we just never know what might be out there, waiting to be discovered…

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 14 April 2020

[1] Marriage of John Annal and Margaret Bigg, St Peter, Monkwearmouth – Durham County Record Office EP/Mo.SP 29
[2] Baptism of Sarah Elizabeth Annal, St George, Gravesend – Medway Archives P159/1/5
[3] 1841 Census, Caroline Place, Gravesend – The National Archives (TNA) HO 107/458/8 f.19 p.33
[4] Seamen’s Registers – TNA BT 113/125 and BT 116/2
[5] 1851 Census, 45 Kempthorne Street, Gravesend – TNA HO 107/1608 f.79 p.44
[6] 1861 Census, MV Stella – TNA RG 9/4448 f.55
[7] Marriage of William Annal and Emma Jane Hunting, St John, Waterloo, Lambeth – London Metropolitan Archives P85/JNA3/47 p.18
[8] Baptism of James William Annal, Holy Trinity, Milton-next-Gravesend – Medway Archives P252B/1/2
[9] 1861 Census, 31 Bath Street, Gravesend – TNA RG 9/471 f.100 p.12
[10] 1871 Census, 9 Coltman Street, Greenwich – TNA RG 10/752 f.15 p.23
[11] 1881 Census, 3 High Bridge, Greenwich – TNA RG 11/723 f.57 p.8
[12] 1891 Census, 2 High Bridge, Greenwich – TNA RG 12/511 f.47 p.6
[13] Dreadnought Seamen’s Hospital Admissions and Discharges, 1826-1930 Ancestry.co.uk database. Original registers held by the National Maritime Museum
[14] 1901 Census, 2 High Bridge, Greenwich – TNA RG 13/539 f,59 p.18
[15] ‘Sudden Death At Greenwich’ The Kentish Independent 22 November 1901 p.7 col.f – British Library Newspapers
[16] Burial of William Annall [sic], Greenwich Cemetery – DeceasedOnline.com
[17] Massachusetts Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines in the Civil War, Vol. IV (1932) p.764

Posted in Stories, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Joy of Chancery

This is the Court of Chancery … there is not an honourable man among its practitioners who would not give—who does not often give—the warning, “Suffer any wrong that can be done you rather than come here!”

Bleak House, Chapter One. Charles Dickens (1852-53)

In 1829, Charles Dickens started work as a court reporter at the Court of Chancery in London. His experiences of the workings of the court – the ‘trickery, evasion, procrastination, spoliation, botheration … [and] false pretences’ witnessed by the young Dickens – gave him the inspiration for the fictional Chancery suit, Jarndyce and Jarndyce, which was to form the background to his legal masterpiece, Bleak House.

Dickens described Jarndyce and Jarndyce as a ‘scarecrow of a suit’ which ‘has, in course of time, become so complicated that no man alive knows what it means.


The Little Church In The Park, by Phiz (Hablot Browne), published in Bleak House. From The Victorian Web

Bleak House was, of course, an exaggeration, designed to satirise the worst aspects of the ‘darkness of Chancery’ for comic effect, but for family historians today, the prospect of researching a case in Chancery can be every bit as daunting as the experience of the Court of Chancery was for Richard Carstone and Ada Clare, the fictional young wards, introduced to us by Dickens.

But it needn’t be. There are certainly obstacles but none of them are insurmountable if you follow my four-step guide to making the most of Chancery records.

1) Understanding the records

The first stage in any research process is to get to know the records you’re working with. With Chancery records, the best place to start is the National Archives’ research guide, which will give you all the basic information you need about the workings of the Court and the records that it created. For more in-depth coverage, I would recommend two books by Susan Moore: Family Feuds: An Introduction to Chancery Proceedings (Federation of Family History Societies, 2002) and Tracing your Ancestors through the Equity Courts: A Guide for Family and Local Historians (Pen & Sword, 2017).

Essentially, each Chancery case (or ‘suit’) could generate five main types of record:

  • Pleadings – initial statements made (out of court) by the parties involved in the suit, including Bills of Complaint (by the Plaintiff or ‘Complainant’) and Answers (made by the Defendants)
  • Evidence – depositions, affidavits and exhibits submitted to the court
  • Decrees and orders – recording decisions made by the court
  • Masters’ records – miscellaneous records created by court officials
  • Final decrees and appeals

One of the most important concepts to get to grips with is that the various documents created in the course of each Chancery suit were filed by type of record rather than collectively, on a case-by-case basis. This, naturally presents some significant challenges when it comes to tracking down all of the records relating to a particular suit but as many cases didn’t progress beyond the initial Pleadings, this isn’t perhaps as big an obstacle as it might seem.

2) Accessing the records

Some good news! The National Archives’ Discovery Catalogue acts as an index to all pre-1875 Pleadings in Chancery and provides the full archival reference along with brief, abstracted details of the suit.

Chancery screenshot

Screenshot from the National Archives’ Discovery Catalogue

The ‘short title’ of each suit (which you’ll need to know when it comes to searching for the other documents) comprises the surname of the plaintiff (or one of the plaintiffs) and that of one of the defendants. The National Archives’ research guide (see above) will tell you all you need to know about other finding aids, both physical and online, including the Bernau Index (available at the Society of Genealogists in London) and the Anglo American Legal Tradition website.

To access the other records in the suit (if any) you’re going to have to acquaint yourselves with the mysteries of the Court of Chancery’s unique filing system! You will also need, either to visit Kew yourself or to employ a researcher to do it for you.

3) Reading the records

There’s no doubt that the handwriting, as well as the sheer size and unwieldiness of the documents can present an obstacle. The Pleadings were written on huge sheets of vellum, known as membranes, often over a metre in width. The documents are usually rolled together and untangling a bundle to find the relevant sheets can be an art in itself. I usually say that the best option when confronted with a difficult-to-read document is to get a good photo of it to work on from the peace and quiet of home. With Chancery records this is sometimes easier said than done.

(I can confirm here and now that, while I was employed by the National Archives, I never climbed onto the tables in the Staff Reading Room to get a better shot of a Chancery document. Not once…)

C 8_190_233_004

The Joynt & Severall Answeres of Thomas Rogers & Elizabeth his wife. The National Archives reference: C 8/190/233 Wingfield v Alden

Perhaps the best solution, whether you’re able to visit the National Archives in person or not, is to pay for a digital copy to be emailed to you. It’s not cheap, particularly if the suit ran to a number of documents, but the benefits of this approach will quickly become apparent.

Take the case of Wingfield v Alden, which began with a Bill of Complaint submitted to the Lord Chancellor by Nathan Wingfeild of King’s Langley, Hertfordshire in 1661. The Pleadings consist of the Bill of Complaint, the ‘Joynt and Severall Answeres’ of Thomas Rogers and his wife, Elizabeth (two of the Defendants) and a Writ of Warrant issued to Rogers and his wife, demanding their answers to Wingfeild’s original Bill. There is also another, slightly different version of the Bill of Complaint, filed separately from the other documents. Note that the short title of the suit is Wingfield v Alden although the spelling Wingfeild is consistently used in the documents.

The handwriting is undeniably challenging and, for this reason if for no other, Chancery records are definitely not for beginners. But with a little experience and a lot of patience, the text soon becomes (largely) perfectly legible. I can thoroughly recommend the National Archives’ online Palaeography tutorial and there are a number of published works which might help you, notably (if you can get hold of a copy), the excellent Reading Tudor and Stuart Handwriting by Lionel Mumby (Phillimore & Co, 1988).

There are several factors which might contribute to the legibility or otherwise of each document. The physical state of the document is of course an issue, both in terms of the membrane itself and of the ink used, which has sometimes faded badly, or been worn away by use over the centuries. The penmanship of the clerks who created the documents was generally excellent – these were masters of their profession – but the occasional emendation and interlineation can make the text particularly difficult to read. This is where a good quality digital image will reap dividends. The ability to ‘zoom in’ on the trickiest bits of the text is an absolute godsend.

C 8_190_233_004_detail

Interlineations can make the text particularly difficult to read.
Detail from The Joynt & Severall Answeres of Thomas Rogers & Elizabeth his wife. The National Archives reference: C 8/190/233 Wingfield v Alden

Every time I approach a Chancery document, with a view to transcribing it, I do so with one emotion: that of utter dread! When you first look at a membrane, complete with all its tightly-packed, monotonous, spidery script, it’s easy to feel that the task in hand is an impossible one and that the best option is to give up there and then, and go and make yourself a nice cup of coffee. A perfectly natural reaction.

So, do just that. Walk away from it, and come back later. Read a few words. Write a few of them down. Read a few more. Write them down. Leave dots or question marks for words that you don’t immediately recognise. And if that’s more than 50% of what you’ve written down, so what? It’s all part of a learning process. The more you read, the more attuned you’ll become to the clerk’s handwriting. And one thing that the clerks always were, is consistent. If they wrote a capital B once, they wrote it exactly the same the next time. So once you know that that’s what that character is, you can start to replace some of those dots and question marks with real letters.

Read back what you’ve written and try to make sense of it; try to think about what type of word the missing one is. Is it likely to be a verb or a noun? It’s like cracking a code. You start with nothing and gradually, over a few hours, a complete document begins to emerge. You’ll almost certainly have a few question marks remaining in your ‘final’ version of the text. Even the most experienced and accomplished transcriber will find that there are occasionally some words that they just can’t work out. Surnames and place names (particularly names of unfamiliar fields or pieces of land) are always going to cause problems but it really doesn’t matter. The important thing is getting the bulk of the document accurately transcribed.

The particular method you use for your transcription is entirely up to you but I would advise you to remember that at this stage, what you’re trying to do is to write down, as faithfully and accurately as you possibly can, what the clerk actually wrote. This is not an editorial process – that’s for later.

Personally, I find that it helps to number each line of the text. If you have the technology or knowhow to do so, you should also add the line numbers to a copy of the digital image itself. If nothing else, this will help you to locate a particular phrase or word if you need to come back to it. Interlineations (the practice of inserting additional text above an exisiting line of text) can provide challenges to transcribers, not just in terms of the readability of the interlineated text, which is by its very nature, going to be limited by its size, but also as a question of how to present such text in your transcript. My preference is to use the ‘caret’ character ^ to indicate where the interlineated text begins and then to write the interlineated text as a superscript. I also use Strikethrough to indicate where text has been written and then ‘removed’.

4) Interpreting the records – and telling the story

You’ll come across a number of unfamiliar words and phrases in the text: the plaintiff refers to him or herself as ‘your Lordship’s Orator’ while the defendants refer to the plaintiff as the ‘Complainant’. If the suit is brought on behalf of an infant (i.e. someone under the age of 21) the person responsible for bringing the suit to Chancery is known as their ‘Next Friend’. This will all make sense if you’ve read up on the workings of the court.

Eventually you should end up with a transcript that you’re at least relatively happy with. But it’s an on-going process; you’ll want to constantly revisit the text and each time you do, you’ll probably find that you’re able to fill in additional gaps.

An exercise which I find particularly useful is to play around with the text and sort it (in a new document!) into meaningful paragraphs. You’ll have noticed that, as with most legal documents of the period, punctuation marks are at a premium – in other words, almost non-existent. However, it should still be possible to identify each individual clause and to add the appropriate punctuation so that you can transform something like this:

19. Said Compl[ainan]ts money or goods as aforesaid And this defendant Elizabeth Rogers for herselfe farther Saith that the Said Rebecca the Compl[ainant]s late wife being her this def[endan]ts
20. Mother ^ came ^^ severall tymes since her intermarriage with the pl[ain]tif ^ to this def[endan]t & Complayned to her for want of moneys & other necessaryes by reason of the said Compl[ainan]ts unkindnes to her whereupon this defendant did without her husbands privity or knowledge & at her the Said Rebeccas earnest request & intreaty lend unto her the Som[m]e of Forty
21. Shillings ^ & sev[er]al tymes furnished her with other necessaryes of p[ro]vision for Supply of her wants And Shee the Said Rebecca afterwards standing in need of more moneys as Shee alleadged did earnestly importune Elizabeth one of this def[endan]ts daughters to furnish her
22. therewith whereupon the said Elizabeth at her the said Rebeccas request did lend unto her the Som[m]e of twenty Shillings more, And this defendant & the Said Elizabeth afterwards

Into something like this:

And this defendant, Elizabeth Rogers, for herself further saith that the said Rebecca, the complainant’s late wife, being her this defendant’s mother, came several times since her intermarriage with the plaintiff to this defendant and complained to her for want of moneys and other necessaries, by reason of the said complainant’s unkindness to her. Whereupon, this defendant did, without her husband’s privity or knowledge, and at her, the said Rebecca’s, earnest request and entreaty, lend unto her the sum of forty shillings, and several times furnished her with other necessaries of provision for supply of her wants.

And she, the said Rebecca, afterwards standing in need of more moneys, as she alleged, did earnestly importune Elizabeth, one of this defendant’s daughters, to furnish her therewith. Whereupon, the said Elizabeth, at her, the said Rebecca’s, request, did lend unto her the sum of twenty shillings more.

You can even break the text down further and create a ‘modern’ version:

Elizabeth Rogers said that Rebecca Wingfeild (her mother) had visited her on several occasions since her (Rebecca’s) marriage to Nathan Winfgeild, saying that she was in need of money etc., due to Nathan’s unkindness to her. Elizabeth lent Rebecca 40 shillings, without telling her husband.

Rebecca also went to Elizabeth Rogers’ daughter, Elizabeth, and asked her for money. The younger Elizabeth lent Rebecca (her grandmother) a further 20 shillings.

Naturally, you’ll want to sort the documents into chronological order and once you’ve done that, you can really begin to understand the whole story, from start to finish.

The case of Wingfield v Alden is a relatively simple one which, as far as I can tell, never reached the Court of Chancery itself. The whole suit appears to comprise two versions of Nathan Wingfeild’s Bill of Complaint, the Writ of Warrant and the resultant ‘Joynt and Severall Answeres’ of two of the defendants, Thomas Rogers and Elizabeth his wife. Once I’m able to do so (I’m writing this in the middle of the coronavirus lockdown) I’ll take a trip to Kew and see if I can find anything in the Decrees and Orders or even a Final Decree.

The story can be summarised as follows:

Sometime around 1656, Nathan had entrusted his wife, Rebecca, to give certain friends, neighbours and relatives, £100 and some of his goods and ‘household stuff’ on the understanding that they would dispose of the money and goods to Nathan’s benefit. Rebecca had died in May 1661 and now Nathan wanted to know what had happened to the money and goods and wanted the friends, neighbours and relatives to repay the money (with interest) and to return the goods to him. He had evidently approached each of them and asked them to do so but they had denied that they’d ever received anything from Rebecca. Unfortunately, Nathan had no witnesses who could prove that Rebecca had done what he claimed and his only course of action now was to sue them in Chancery.

We only have the ‘answer’ of two of the defendants, Thomas and Elizabeth Rogers. Elizabeth, as we’ve seen from the extracts above, was Nathan’s step-daughter and this is the sort of genealogical detail which can make Chancery documents so rewarding. Thomas and Elizabeth denied receiving anything from Rebecca and went on to claim that they had in fact given her money. Their ‘answer’ culminates in the wonderful statement that:

… they have more reason to sue the said Complainant then hee hath to exhibite this causeles & vexatious Bill of Complaint in this honourable Court against these defendants …

C 8_190_233_004_detail 2

‘… this causeles & vexatious Bill of Complaint’
Detail from The Joynt & Severall Answeres of Thomas Rogers & Elizabeth his wife. The National Archives reference: C 8/190/233 Wingfield v Alden

Chancery suits are all about the lives of ordinary people. Sometimes those people can find themselves buried by the workings of the court which, in Charles Dickens’ own words, ‘so exhausts finances, patience, courage, hope, so overthrows the brain and breaks the heart’. But more often than not, in amongst it all, the voices of our ancestors can be heard and it’s our job as family historians to ensure that their stories are rediscovered, re-told and preserved for posterity.

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 29 March 2020

Posted in Document Sources | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A very convincing theory

This is the third and final part of the story of how I broke down a 30-year old brick wall in my research. Read Part One and Part Two first…

My search for the origins of my great great grandfather, Thomas Port, had come to a shuddering halt when I failed to find a record of his birth. I knew from the census returns[1] that he was born around 1820 in St Pancras, London, but there was a big question about his parentage, with his two marriage certificates suggesting that he was almost certainly illegitimate.

Over the next fifteen years or so, I was able to build up a fairly full picture of Thomas’s life, but nothing in the documents that I found gave me any further clues about his origins. I made a breakthrough of sorts a few years ago when I discovered that Thomas had been buried at Key Hill Cemetery in Birmingham[2] and I made an emotional trip to see the gravestone. What I found seemed almost to satirise my prospects of finding anything useful; the stone had fallen over some years ago and now lay on the ground in shattered pieces. Much of the fragmented text had been lost but I could read enough to tell that there was nothing there that was going to help me with my quest. I stood next to the grave and made my feelings quietly known. Thomas, it seemed, wasn’t about to give up his secrets that easily…


Key Hill Cemetery, Birmingham. Thomas Port’s gravestone lies, broken, on its back, in the foreground. Photograph by the author, June 2017.

Most of my research had been focussed on the family of Mary Ann Port, the woman who had died in Buckingham in 1846, the year before my Thomas had married for the first time. Having been born in 1788, Mary Ann was certainly of a suitable age to have been Thomas’s mother (she would have been about 31 at the time) and I hoped that, by comprehensively reconstructing her family, I might find a clue that would connect her and her family to Thomas.

I made some great discoveries. It turned out that Mary Ann was the woman that I’d found living as an inmate in the Northampton County Asylum in the 1841 census.[3] She had worked as a governess in Buckingham for the family of the wonderfully-named Reverend James Long Long (he’d changed his name from James Long Hutton for inheritance purposes and must have cursed his parents for giving him that middle name!) and the Long family had paid her asylum fees until her discharge in April 1845.[4]


Engraving of Northamptonshire County General Lunatic Asylum from Wetton’s guide-book to Northampton and its vicinity by Edward Petty (

Mary Ann was named as a beneficiary in the will of Henrietta Long (James Long Long’s wife) written in 1834.[5] I knew that she had been in the care of the Long family since December 1804 thanks to a remarkable document (or rather, a remarkable series of documents) uncovered in the course of my research.[6] When Mary Ann’s father, Samuel Port, the wine merchant of Savage Gardens in the City of London wrote his will on 13 February 1799, rather than simply leaving everything to his wife and children, he appointed three of his friends (Richard Hovil, Aaron Morgan and Bishop Hull) to act as his executors, also appointing them as guardians of his children.[7] Samuel died on 4 April 1799 and we can only assume that he felt that he’d left his affairs in safe hands. This, however, was not the case.

The executors hadn’t quite fulfilled the trust placed in them by Samuel. At least, not according to the Bill of Complaint lodged at the Court of Chancery on 5 June 1806 by Elizabeth (Samuel’s widow) and the three surviving children, Ann, Mary Ann and Thomas and their ‘next friend’, James Lawson.[8] James Lawson was married to Mary Ann’s cousin, Mary Ann Truman. The case, in true Jarndyce v. Jarndyce style, ground on for at least 11 years, before collapsing following Elizabeth’s death in April 1816. As far as I’m aware, Mary Ann and her siblings never got what they felt was owed to them.


Extract from an ‘Entry Book of Orders and Decrees’ in Chancery, including a reference to Mary Ann Port residing ‘at Buckingham … with Mrs Hutton a friend of the said Plaintiff Elizabeth Port‘ The National Archives reference C 33/601 ff.1003r-1005v

Her sister, Ann, was a mystery to me for a long time until I found a record of letters of administration being granted to her brother Thomas in 1823.[9] Ann, it seemed, had died in Germany, where she had been working as a governess.

Thomas proved to be a fascinating character. He was a grocer and he lived in St Pancras – precisely the details given by my Thomas for his father at the time of his second marriage! For years, this was the strongest evidence I had in favour of a link between my family and Mary Ann’s but it didn’t constitute proof. Thomas was in business with a man called John Garthwaite (who was married to another Truman cousin) and I found a record of their partnership being dissolved in 1817.[10]

1817-London Gazette 2 August 1817 - Issue 17273 Page 1690

London Gazette, 2 August 1817 Issue 17273 Page 1690

Thomas was involved (as the victim) in a case of theft, tried at the Old Bailey in 1823 and he later moved from St Pancras to Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire, where he died in 1841.[11] Thomas had three illegitimate children (James, Charles Thomas and William – all by the same woman) born between 1827 and 1835,[12] but for a number of reasons I didn’t (and still don’t) think that he was the father of my Thomas. His use of the name Thomas as a middle name for his second son, for example, would be quite unusual if he already had a son called Thomas.

Samuel Truman, Mary Ann’s ‘Cousin German’ and one of the administrators of her estate turned out to have worked as a clerk at the Legacy Duty Office in Somerset House – one of those responsible for producing the wonderful Death Duty Registers which I had become so interested in while working for the National Archives. Samuel’s wife, Ann Hamley,[13] was connected to William Hamley, the founder of the famous London toy shop. I had hours of fun following up these and other equally fascinating leads.

But the most interesting relative of Mary Ann’s that I found was John Joseph Lawson, the son of their ‘next friend’ from the Chancery case, James Lawson. James was the printer of The Times (yes, The Times) and a 1/16th shareholder in the newspaper. He died in 1817[14] and passed the business on to his son. John Joseph was to become a cause célèbre in the world of journalism after being imprisoned in 1839 for printing an article which was found to be libellous. It was, at that time, the printer and not the publisher who was held liable for the publication of the piece, and therefore, was guilty of libel![15]

1817-Times Obituary of James Lawson - 8 December 1817 p.3 col.e

Obituary of James Lawson, The Times, 8 December 1817 p.3 col.e

Mary Ann’s father, Samuel, offered me all sorts of opportunities to explore English records. He became a Freeman of the City of London after serving an apprenticeship to Jonathan Granger, Citizen and Draper.[16] Jonathan’s will gave me lots of leads to follow up – he turned out to have married Samuel’s great aunt, Mary Port and there’s a memorial to him in the floor of the Abbey Church in Dorchester, Oxfordshire.[17] In fact it was Samuel’s apprenticeship indenture which allowed me to trace the family back to Oxfordshire; he was described as the ‘son of Thomas Port of Shirburn in the County of Oxford Farmer’. I later discovered that Samuel was the son of Thomas and Jane (née Franklin) and that they had married at Shirburn in 1749.[18]


Detail from the apprenticeship indenture of Samuel Port to Jonathan Granger, 25 October 1769. London Metropolitan Archives reference COL/CHD/FR/2/1046/13

The Port line eventually led me back to the beautiful Oxfordshire village of Dorchester, incongruously the home to a former Saxon cathedral, later a medieval abbey and now the parish church to a relatively small rural village. I discovered that the Port family had owned the Fleur de Lys,[19] then, as now, one of the principal inns in the village and that my direct ancestor, John Port, along with his brother Thomas, had attended Dorchester Grammar School in the 1660s.[20]

I had got to know the family so well and had fallen so deeply in love with Dorchester and everything about it that, to be perfectly honest, I would have been devastated if I’d ever found anything which proved that these weren’t my ancestors after all. But for 15 years or so, my connection remained no more than a (very convincing) theory. Then, in 2019, I took a DNA test.

I had of course hoped that the results would throw up links to more distant members of the Port family but other than a few names which appeared to prove that my grandma had been right about Frederick Port being her father, there was nothing. But then, about a week ago, I decided to look a bit closer and to try some of the other names associated with Mary Ann’s family. I looked for Truman links but nothing came up and then I tried the name Franklin.

And the next thing I knew, I was looking at a potential 5th-8th cousin match who was descended from a man called John Franklin. John had been born sometime around 1729 and had married Jane Beckett in Shirburn, Oxfordshire in 1760.[21] Samuel Port’s mother, Jane Franklin had been born around 1723 and had married in Shirburn in 1749. My ‘cousin’ was descended from John Franklin and I had a theory that I was descended from Jane Franklin. Here was the proof I had been looking for.

1804-Jane Franklin burial Shirburn PAR237_1_R1_1_026

Burial of Jane Port (née Franklin) at Shirburn, Oxfordshire, 2 September 1804. Oxfordshire History Centre reference: PAR 237/1/R1/1

I’ve still got to do the research to complete the final piece of the jigsaw but I will be very surprised if John and Jane don’t turn out to be siblings, or at the very least, first cousins. After more than 30 years of searching; after hour upon hour spent following leads that led nowhere; after filling at least five binders with copies of documents that might, one day, prove to be connected to me, I had the proof I needed. The proof that the theory I’d developed all those years ago was correct; that my great great grandfather, Thomas Port, was connected to the Port family of Shirburn and Dorchester and that I could finally claim them as my own.

Dorchester Grammar School - Engraving by J C Buckler Bodleian Library MS Top. Gen. c.103, f.20

Dorchester Grammar School. Engraving by J. C. Buckler, 1827. Bodleian Library MS Top. gen. c.103 f.20

Whether Thomas was the son of Mary Ann or of her sister, Ann, is a detail which I will probably never be able to resolve but the crucial evidence of relationship is there. And this isn’t the end of the story, not by any means. I’m delighted to say that I still have so much to do…

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 15 March 2020

[1] 1891 census, 4 Windmill Lane, Smethwick – The National Archives (TNA), RG 12/2364 f.41 p.21
[2] Warwickshire Burials database. Findmypast.co.uk
[3] 1841 census, Northampton General Lunatic Asylum – TNA HO 107/814/20 f.14 p.7
[4] Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, Day Book and Treasurer’s Account register – Northamptonshire Archives & Heritage
[5] Will, Henrietta Long, 1843, Prerogative Court of Canterbury – TNA PROB 11/1990
[6] Chancery : Entry Book of Orders and Decrees – TNA C 33/601 f.1004v
[7] Will, Samuel Port, 1799, Prerogative Court of Canterbury – TNA PROB 11/1324
[8] Chancery : Pleadings, Port v Hovill. Bill and two answers – TNA C 13/70/5
[9] Letters of Administration, Ann Port, 1823, Prerogative Court of Canterbury – TNA PROB 6/199
[10] London Gazette, 2 August 1817 – Issue 17273 Page 1690
[11] Death certificate of Thomas Port – GRO, SEP 1841 Berkhampstead VI 281
[12] Baptisms of James Port Lambert, Charles Lambert and William Port Lambert, St Peter, Berkhamsted, 12 September 1841 – Hertfordshire Archives & Local Studies DP/19/1/8
[13] 1811 Samuel Truman & Ann Hamley marriage, St Marylebone – London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) P89/MRY1/182 p.594
[14] Obituary of James Lawson – The Times 8 December 1817 p.3 col.e
[15] https://www.fownc.org/pdf/newsletter84.pdf”>https://www.fownc.org/pdf/newsletter84.pdf
[16] Freedom of the City Admission Papers – LMA COL/CHD/FR/02/1046/13
[17] https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/75415683/jonathan-granger
[18] 1749 Thomas Port & Jane Franklin marriage, All Saints, Shirburn – Oxfordshire History Centre (OHC) PAR237/1/R1/2
[19] Will, Richard Port, Dorchester, Court of the Peculiar Parish of Dorchester – OHC Pec.70/4/37
[20] Dorchester-on-Thames Grammar School (Dorchester-on-Thames Archaeology and Local History Group, 1976)
[21] 1749 John Franklin & Jane Beckett marriage, All Saints, Shirburn – OHC PAR237/1/R3/1


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False dawns and first cousins

This is the second of a three-part blog, telling the story of how I broke down a 30-year old brick wall in my research. Read Part One here…

The information that my grandma passed on to me had allowed me to discover a whole new branch of the family. And as someone whose ancestry, according to everything I’d known up until that point, was entirely Scottish, Irish and Manx, it was nice to have an English line to research for a change.

It didn’t take me long to find out more about my new great grandfather. Frederick Thomas Port, to give him his full name, had been born on 7 July 1850 at an address in Church Street, Buckingham.[1] He was the second child and oldest son of Thomas Port (a draper) and his wife Mary (née Layton).


Church Street, Buckingham, postcard, undated

Thomas and Mary had married on 1 June 1847 at the ‘Old Meeting’, an Independent Chapel in Well Street, Buckingham, a few minutes’ walk from Church Street.[2] A daughter, Kate Elizabeth Mary Port was born in Buckingham in 1849 but the family were soon on the move, to Birmingham where two more children were born, and then to Smethwick, where one more arrived. Sadly, Mary, died in 1859,[3] and about 18 months later, Thomas remarried.[4] Thomas and his second wife (Mary Ann Berrill) went on to have eight more children. Six of Thomas’s thirteen children died young but the other seven all survived to adulthood, four of them having children of their own.

I got to know the family quite well. There were some interesting characters in there, including Annie who worked for many years as a ‘Ladies Companion’, Percival who became a teacher and Nellie who was the head mistress of an Elementary school.

Thomas had clearly done quite well for himself. He retired from business sometime in the 1870s and later moved to the Worcestershire village of Chaddesley Corbett where he died in January 1900.[5] His will, intriguingly, mentioned his ‘portrait in oils’ and his ‘family bible’. This was not the sort of ancestor I was used to dealing with!

But there was a problem regarding Thomas’s birth. Each of the censuses from 1851 to 1881 gave his place of birth, somewhat unhelpfully, as ‘London, Middlesex’. It’s not until 1891 that we get the crucial additional detail telling us that he was born in St Pancras.[6] However, no trace of his birth/baptism could be found in St Pancras or anywhere else in London for that matter, and to complicate things further, there was some confusion regarding the identity of his father.

1891 census Smethwick

1891 census, 4 Windmill Lane, Smethwick. Thomas Port’s place of birth is given as London St Pancras. The National Archives reference: RG 12/2364 f.41 p.21

When Thomas married for the second time in 1861 he gave his father’s name as Thomas Port (deceased), a grocer, yet on his first marriage certificate, there was a big blank space where his father’s details ought to be.

I’ve seen enough cases like this over the years to recognise an attempt to cover up illegitimacy when I see one. This looked to me like a classic example of the relative impact of motive and opportunity when it comes to the lies that our illegitimate ancestors tell and I felt certain that Thomas was illegitimate.

Thomas Port Marriages

Thomas Port’s two marriage certificates, General Register Office

When he married for the first time in Buckingham he was doing so in the place where he had grown up (at least, I’m pretty sure that’s where he grew up) and he would have been well known in the town. He may have had the motive to lie about his father but he didn’t have the opportunity. Fourteen years later, living in Smethwick, many miles from his childhood home, and with a reputation to maintain as a successful young businessman, he now had the motive and the opportunity. And the result? An invented father, conveniently deceased to explain his absence from the wedding ceremony.

Of course, this theory didn’t emerge overnight. It was developed over many years, during which I continued to search for evidence of Thomas’s origins. As more material became available online my chances of discovering something that would break down my brick wall would surely increase; yet, the launch of each new database left me frustrated. The release of the London parish registers database on Ancestry was just one of several false dawns; my hopes that I would find a record of Thomas’s baptism were consistently dashed.

I’m a strong believer in the idea that if we’re struggling to find a record of someone’s birth, we need, instead, to look for evidence of their birth. Could I find a family that Thomas might have belonged to? The search began in Buckingham, where we know that Thomas was living in the mid-to-late 1840s.

One the most exciting developments in family history research in the early part of the 21st century was the establishment of the FreeBMD database (an online version of the GRO’s index to births, marriages and deaths) and once this was sufficiently populated I was able to start doing some creative searches. I soon discovered that only four events relating to the surname Port had ever been registered in Buckingham: Thomas’s marriage in 1847, the births of his two children in 1849 and 1850 and the death of a Mary Ann Port in 1846.[7]

FreeBMD screen shot

Screenshot from FreeBMD website, showing the only entries for the surname Port in the Buckingham registration district

Of course, I had to order Mary Ann’s death certificate but when I had it in my hands I quickly saw that there wasn’t a lot to work with. Mary Ann died on 19 May 1846 and she was evidently a single woman (at least no former or current husband was mentioned) and she was described as a Gentlewoman. She was 57 years old and she died of Icterus (i.e. jaundice). The informant was Martha Pipkin, the wife of an agricultural labourer, with no apparent relationship to Mary Ann.

Who, then, was Mary Ann? I couldn’t find a promising record of her baptism (of course I had no idea where she was born) and there was no trace of her in the 1841 census (but then, I’d never found Thomas either). A Mary Ann Port of the right age was an inmate in the Northampton County asylum[8] but was that her? A death notice published in the Bucks Herald described her as ‘Miss Port, formerly of Missenden’[9] and I found a record of her burial in the parish church of Buckingham[10] but, again, this didn’t get me anywhere. I looked for a will and I couldn’t find one but I did find that letters of administration of her ‘Goods Chattels and Credits’ were granted at the Prerogative Court of Canterbury on 9 June 1846 to her ‘Cousins German’ (i.e. first cousins), Samuel Truman and Mary Stevens.[11]

The equivalent entry in the Estate Duty Register[12] confirmed this while providing me with additional information by describing the two administrators as Samuel Truman of the Legacy Duty Department, Somerset House, Gentleman, and Mary Stevens of Kingston in the parish of Aston Rowant, Oxfordshire, Widow. Two other names were also mentioned; William George Moulting of Holloway and John Osbertus Truman of Wandsworth, both Gentlemen.

There were plenty of clues to follow up here but the big breakthrough didn’t come until I stumbled upon (through the simple but effective process of looking at all the Port wills I could find) the will of Samuel Port, a wine merchant of Savage Gardens in the City of London.[13] Samuel wrote his will on 13 February 1799 and evidently died shortly after adding a codicil on 1 April 1799, as the will was proved on 21 May the same year.

Savage Gardens Horwoods Map

Detail from Horwood’s Map of London etc., showing Savage Gardens www.romanticlondon.org

It’s quite a long and complex will, and a connection to Mary Ann wasn’t immediately apparent. Samuel mentions his wife and children but doesn’t actually name them; he does however leave bequests to a number of other named relatives – various in-laws, nephews and nieces – including his nephew Samuel Truman, the son of his wife’s brother Joseph, and ‘the Children of my Brother James Port of Kingston Blount in the County of Oxford’.

Research revealed that Mary Stevens was the (married) daughter of Samuel’s brother, James and it didn’t take me long to work out that if Samuel Truman and Mary Stevens were the nephew and niece of Samuel Port and the first cousins of Mary Ann, it made sense that Samuel Port must be Mary Ann’s father.

Armed with an address in London (Savage Gardens was in the parish of Allhallows, Barking-by-the-Tower) I was able to confirm this by finding the baptism of Mary Ann, the daughter of Samuel and Elizabeth Port at Allhallows church on 7 September 1788.[14]

I had developed a theory that my Thomas was the illegitimate son of Mary Ann Port. All that remained now was to test that theory by building up as full a picture of Mary Ann’s family as I could. And it only took me about 15 more years…

Read Part Three here

[1] Birth certificate of Frederick Thomas Port – General Register Office (GRO), SEP 1850 Buckingham VI 356

[2] Marriage certificate of Thomas Port and Mary Layton – GRO, JUN 1847 Buckingham VI 495

[3] Death certificate of Mary Port – GRO, DEC 1851 Birmingham XVI 228

[4] Marriage certificate of Thomas Port and Mary Ann Berrill – GRO, SEP 1861 Kings Norton 6c 615

[5] Death certificate of Thomas Port – GRO, MAR 1900 Kidderminster 6c 151

[6] 1891 census, 4 Windmill Lane, Smethwick – The National Archives (TNA), RG 12/2364 f.41 p.21

[7] Death certificate of Mary Ann Port. GRO – JUN 1846 Buckingham VI 236

[8] 1841 census, Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, Northampton – TNA HO 107/814/20 f.14 p.17

[9] Bucks Herald, 23 May 1846, p.4 col.b – British Library Newspaper Collection

[10] Burial of Mary Ann Port, St Peter & St Paul, Buckingham – Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies PR 29/1/14 p.261

[11] Letters of Administration, Mary Ann Port, 1846, Prerogative Court of Canterbury – TNA PROB 6/222 ff.307v-308r

[12] Estate Duty Register (Administrations), Mary Ann Port, 1846 – TNA IR 26/264 f.262

[13] Will, Samuel Port, 1799, Prerogative Court of Canterbury – TNA PROB 11/1324

[14] Baptism of Mary Ann Port, Allhallows, Barking-by-the-Tower – London Metropolitan Archives P69/ALH1/A/01/004

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 12 March 2020

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Did you know that I knew my father?

This is the first of a three-part blog, telling the story of how I broke down a 30-year old brick wall in my research.

“Did you know that I knew my father?”

We were in Saughton Cemetery in Edinburgh sometime in the mid-to-late 1980s, looking for some family graves, when, completely out of the blue, my grandma asked me this. I wasn’t quite sure how to react. I had known for some time that she was illegitimate but it wasn’t something that we talked about. I had always felt that it wasn’t right to ask her about an aspect of her life that she might have felt embarrassed about and I had assumed that this part of the family history would be permanently closed to me. But suddenly it was all opening up.

My grandma, Margaret Howland, was born in Edinburgh in 1906. She must have been in her early 80s at the time but she was still the wonderful, strong, positive woman that I’d known all my life and I understood how difficult this must have been for her. Had she ever spoken to anyone about it before? I found out later that she had never told my dad – her son. Perhaps it was easier to tell someone a bit more detached; someone who she knew had a passionate interest in the family’s stories.

It all came pouring out. Her father had been a man called Frederick Porter. He was English but he’d worked in Edinburgh for Cadbury’s. His wife was, apparently, disabled and my grandma’s mum (also Margaret Howland) had worked for the family as a domestic servant. I don’t remember how much detail my grandma went into on this particular point but it wasn’t too hard for me to fill in the gaps. My great grandma had become pregnant by Frederick and my grandma was the result.

It’s impossible to know the details of what happened next but Frederick evidently acknowledged his parentage and seems to have provided my great grandma and her young daughter with financial assistance. My grandma even remembers going to his house (she later took me to the address in Davdison’s Mains) and playing tennis in the courts at the back.

Life must have been a struggle at times for the two Margarets but, thanks to Frederick’s refreshingly responsible approach, they were at least financially comfortable.


Margaret Howland senior and junior, ca.1912

Of course, I wanted to know more but all my efforts over the next few years to track down Frederick Porter were frustrated. By now my grandma was in a home, suffering from Alzheimer’s so I couldn’t go back and ask her any more questions.

I hadn’t made any progress with the research for several years when I found myself in the library of the Society of Genealogists one day and noticed an Edinburgh Post Office directory dating from the early 1900s. Of course I had to look for Frederick Porter and, of course, I didn’t find him. But I did find something that grabbed my attention; an entry for Cadbury Brothers Ltd, which stated that they were ‘represented by F. Port and G. Pickering’. This, surely, was my man – Frederick Port, not Frederick Porter.

1906-Edinburgh Post Office directory

Edinburgh Post Office Directory, 1905-1906, National Library of Scotland

Armed with this vital new piece of information I was soon able to piece together the details of Frederick’s life. He had been born in Buckingham in 1850, the son of Thomas and Mary Port and had married Edith Bushnell in 1872. He and Edith didn’t have any children (my grandma had told me that Frederick’s wife was unable to have children so this rang true) and they’d arrived in Edinburgh sometime in the 1880s.


1911 census, 68 Comely Bank Avenue, Edinburgh, National Records of Scotland, 685/1 39/9

Frederick came to an unfortunate end in 1917 when he was run over by an omnibus while on a business trip to Brighton. He apparently lingered in hospital for a week or two before succumbing to his injuries.

My grandma would have been aged just 11 at the time and while they didn’t perhaps have the traditional grandfather/granddaughter relationship it must nevertheless have been a traumatic event in her young life. Apart from anything else, it signalled the end of the financial support that Frederick had been providing for her and her mother.

It’s dangerous to extrapolate too much from this but it seems that Frederick’s wife also took an interest in my grandma and in one of the most fascinating documents it’s ever been my pleasure (?) to read we get an idea of the complex inter-relationships that were at play here. Two months after Frederick died, on 24 December 1917, Edith wrote her will. She left her entire estate to John Walter Stammers and his wife (Stammers had lived with Frederick and Edith since their arrival in Edinburgh – I really need to find out more about him) and she also named them as her sole executors:

And I nominate and appoint the said John Walter Stammers and Emily Stammers to be my sole Executors. But declaring always that the said John Walter Stammers and Emily Stammers shall be bound out of my said means and estate (First) to pay all my just and lawful debts, deathbed and funeral expenses and (Second) To maintain, clothe and educate my adopted daughter Margaret Howland until she attain the age of Eighteen years and is able to earn a livelihood for herself: Declaring always as it is hereby specially proved and declared that should the Mother of the said Margaret Howland take her from the Guardianship of the said John Walter Stammers and Emily Stammers before reaching the age of Eighteen years, the said parent shall have no monetary claim against them, him or her, or my estate and the said obligation on the said John Walter Stammers and Emily Stammers to maintain, clothe and educate the said Margaret Howland shall immediately cease:


Testament of Edith Port or Bushnell, 1917, National Records of Scotland, Edinburgh Sheriff Court Wills, SC70/4/511

The description of my grandma as Edith’s ‘adopted daughter’ is intriguing and I can only imagine my great grandma’s reaction to all this. While there might have been a financial incentive here, the emotional ties between mother and daughter were surely far stronger. Her response to the idea that she should give up her daughter was, I suspect, probably quite short and succinct!

This was presumably the last contact that my grandma and her mother had with the Port family so it’s hardly surprising that all memory of them was lost over the years and that when my grandma tried to recall what she could some seventy years later she mis-remembered some of the details.

If nothing else, this whole episode serves as a reminder to us all that we should do whatever we can – with an appropriate degree of tact and sensitivity – to tease out these stories from our elderly relatives. If my grandma hadn’t asked me that question in the Edinburgh grave yard all those years ago, the story of her father’s identity would have died with her. And while I didn’t do anything proactive to get her talking, perhaps it was my quiet enthusiasm for the subject that encouraged her to talk…

Read Part Two here

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 9 March 2020

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You really can’t do it all online…

Yesterday, I made a flying visit to the library of the Society of Genealogists in London. The main purpose of my visit was to view some parish registers which I had identified as being part of their collection, thanks to their excellent online catalogue.

The volumes in question were typed, indexed transcripts of the registers of a number of Bedfordshire parishes. Bedfordshire is that rarity these days; an English county which hasn’t got into bed with one of the commercial genealogical websites.[1] Both the county record office Bedfordshire Archives and Record Service and the Bedfordshire Family History Society can sell you transcribed, indexed copies of the county’s collection of parish registers, either in hard copy, or on CD, but you won’t find digital images of the registers online. The Archives’ website tells us that Bedfordshire is ‘the first English county for which all the pre-1812 parish registers have been transcribed, indexed and published.’[2]

This is both frustrating, as the instant access to information that we’re used to with other counties is unavailable to us, and yet somehow quaintly re-assuring. It’s an old-fashioned approach, but you can pretty much guarantee that the quality of the transcription will comfortably outstrip what we’re used to from the commercial websites, and therefore that we are far more likely to (eventually) find the information we want.

And it’s not just the quality of the indexing; it’s the confidence you get from knowing exactly what you’re looking at. It’s all about having intellectual control. The Archives and the FHS between them know exactly what they’ve got and when you purchase one of their books or CDs, they’ll tell you exactly what they’re providing you with. This is something you rarely get from the commercial websites, who like to provide county-wide databases without, apparently, any concern about whether the collection is complete and without any genuine commitment to correcting any deficiencies once the database has been launched. It’s fair to say that some are better than others in this area…

Having said all this, I’m a 21st century researcher and I need instant gratification so rather than wait however long it would take to receive the relevant CDs in the post, I decided to look elsewhere for alternatives.

My quest was to locate a birth/baptismal record of a man who should have been born sometime in the late 1760s: his age was given as 65 at the time of his burial in September 1833. His surname (which, to protect client confidentiality, I won’t give here) is highly localised and, although it has spread over the centuries into London and south-west Essex, it is most commonly found in a small group of parishes on either side of the Hertfordshire/Bedfordshire border. The surname has, to use a term which I learned from the late, great George Redmonds, ‘ramified’ in this area, making tracing individuals, particularly those whose families didn’t tend to own land or to leave wills, somewhat challenging to say the least.


Surnames And Genealogy: A New Approach by George Redmonds
New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1997

Despite the lack of anything approaching a comprehensive, county-wide database of Bedfordshire registers (Hertfordshire is, in theory at least, fully covered by Findmypast, although there are in fact significant gaps in the collection) there is some decent online coverage of baptisms, marriages and even some burials for the county, on each of the major sites. Principal among these is the collection on FamilySearch – the records which were formerly part of the International Genealogical Index (IGI) and can now also be found on Ancestry and Findmypast.

However, searches had failed to turn up a record of my man, so I was left with a number of possibilities:

  • he wasn’t baptised
  • he was baptised under a different name
  • he was baptised but the record of his baptism hasn’t survived
  • he was baptised but the record of his baptism has been mistranscribed
  • he was baptised but the record of his baptism isn’t available online

I don’t have time to go into each of these here but suffice it to say that I considered each of them before concluding that the last option was the most likely.

I needed, therefore, to find out what was and what wasn’t available online. My two go-to websites for a task such as this are FamilySearch’s indispensable English Jurisdictions 1851 and the associated FamilySearch Research Wiki.

On the first of these, I began by using the Radius place search feature to identify all of the parishes within ten miles of the place where I knew that my target lived for most of his life, namely, Meppershall in Bedfordshire.


Screenshot from FamilySearch English Jurisdictions 1851, showing results of a ‘Radius place search’ centred on Meppershall (accessed 19 February 2020)

I then checked the Wiki for each of the parishes on the list to see what coverage there was of the baptismal registers for the period I was interested in. It didn’t take me too long to establish that coverage on a combination of FamilySearch, Findmypast and FreeReg was, apparently, comprehensive.

So, had I been wrong in concluding that the most likely solution was that the record of his baptism simply wasn’t available online? Well, no…

You see, we really need to understand that the dates shown in the FamilySearch Wiki alongside the various websites are merely the earliest and the latest years covered on that website. For example, it tells me that the FamilySearch website includes records for the parish of Clifton, Bedfordshire for the years 1602 to 1875, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they have records for every year.


Screenshot from FamilySearch Research Wiki, showing entry for Clifton, Bedfordshire (accessed 19 February 2020)

It’s wholly possible that somewhere in the help sections on the FamilySearch Wiki it explains this, and I understand the necessity behind presenting the information in this way,  but I feel that it might perhaps be useful to make the limitations more explicit. It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that when a website tells you that “parish registers of christenings, marriages and burials are available online for the following years”, it might actually mean just that…

I had noticed that there was a family with the surname I was looking for having children baptised in Clifton at around the right time and, given its proximity to Meppershall, I decided to focus on that parish. And when I looked at all the baptismal records for Clifton that were available online, it was clear that there were some serious gaps in the 1750s and 1760s; certain years for which there were no entries at all. Although this isn’t specified, it looked like what we were dealing with here were Bishop’s Transcripts with limited survival. So, could my man be a child of this Clifton family? Could he simply have been baptised in a year for which no Bishop’s Transcripts survive?

It looked promising so I decided to visit the Society of Genealogists where I knew I would be able to look at their copies of the Bedfordshire parish register transcripts and also, should I wish to, to view their copy of the ‘original’ Clifton parish registers on microfilm.


The Society of Genealogists, London

And guess what? There, in the transcript of the Clifton parish register, I found the baptism, in February 1769 of someone with the name I was looking for. He was one of nine children of the same family, baptised at Clifton between 1750 and 1769, yet only two of them appear on FamilySearch. I don’t know yet whether this is my man or not but it’s a very promising find and there’s plenty of circumstantial evidence to suggest that it is him. As I said, Clifton is only a mile from Meppershall and the names of six of the children in the Clifton family were used by my man for his own children.

It’s worth noting that I would have had the same success if I’d visited Bedfordshire Archives – but they probably couldn’t have helped me with my Northumberland case…

The lesson here is that we mustn’t assume that everything’s online. Despite the astonishing range of material available online there’s still a huge amount that can only be accessed by visiting an archive or a library.

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 19 February 2020

[1] I notice that in 2017 Ancestry added some Bedfordshire records ‘in association with Bedfordshire Archives’ so perhaps there’s more in the pipeline.
[2] http://bedsarchives.bedford.gov.uk/Guide-to-Collections/FamilyHistory/BedfordshireParishRegisterSeries.aspx

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A mystery wedding photo

Every now and then, I dig out some old family photos and see if I can work out who’s who. I usually vow, then and there, to sort them all out, scan them and begin the process of identifying as many faces as I can and making useful, meaningful notes on them. 24 hours later, the box goes back in the attic and I forget about them until the next time I want to find a particular photo to answer a family query or to illustrate something I’m writing about.

This morning, I was looking for something in my Granny’s Treasure Chest* and I came across this wedding photo which I had seen many times before, without ever thinking about whose wedding it was and why my Granny might have had a copy of it.

1942 wedding photo

I only recognised two of the people in it; the tall man on the right was my great grandfather, David John Davidson (1873-1953) while the natty gentleman in the middle was my uncle Tom Carlin (1900-1979). He wasn’t actually my uncle, he was my Granny’s first cousin, but in a large Roman Catholic Edinburgh family like mine, relationships were quite flexible and terms like ‘uncle’ and ‘aunt’ were often used in this honorific sense.

I asked my cousin Norah, Tom’s daughter, but she wasn’t able to add any names or provide any further clues. She only recognised her father, so I had to conclude that the connection to the photo came through my side of the family rather than hers and I went back to it, to see what else I could come up with. Perhaps the biggest clue was the fact that Tom was in his RAF uniform which, together with the evidence from the clothes worn by the others in the picture, placed it in the first half of the 1940s. Tom was a conscript during World War Two rather than an RAF ‘regular’.

A quick scan of the family tree looking for a marriage in the 1940s with connections to both David and Tom turned up an interesting candidate. My Granny’s brother, John Davidson (1896-1969), married in Aberdeen in 1942. Could this be his wedding?

I never met my great uncle John, or his wife, Marjory, and I only knew him at all from a few photos, taken when he was a child. But there was enough in the photos to encourage me – the ears, I felt, looked particularly convincing!

David John and John Davidson WW1 era

John Davidson and his father, David John Davidson, ca.1906

If it was John in the photo, he would have been 45 at the time and the bride would have been 36, both of which, again, were quite believable. The clincher came when I checked the 1942 marriage certificate and saw, in the column headed, ‘Signatures and Addresses of Witnesses’, the name T. Carlin, 3 Gladstone Place, Corstorphine, Edinburgh. My uncle Tom had evidently been a witness at the marriage of his cousin in Aberdeen in 1942 and this was surely, therefore, a photo of that wedding.


Marriage certificate of John Davidson and Marjory Cormack or Sherriffs – National Records of Scotland, Marriages, Southern District of Aberdeen 1942, 168/2 292

The others in the photo then started to fall into place. That’s probably the bride’s parents at the back on the left, her mother in view and her father hidden by the groom. Then we have the groom, John Davidson, the bride, Marjory Cormack or Sherriffs (she was a widow) and Thomas ‘Tom’ Carlin, John’s cousin. The bridesmaid is surely Mary Cormack (Marjory’s sister?), the other witness from the marriage certificate. Next is David John Davidson, the groom’s father (his mother had died in 1940), and the young girl on the right is probably Marjory’s daughter from her first marriage; a Marjory Marion Sherriffs was born in Aberdeen in 1929.

I feel confident that this photo was taken on 4 April 1942, outside St Mary’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in Aberdeen but I always like to find absolute proof and I was delighted to find it, thanks to Google Map’s Street View function.

There’s not a lot in the way of architectural features in the photo to help us but it seems to have been taken in a corner of the churchyard with, what I initially thought was a gravestone on the extreme left of the picture. I navigated myself to Huntly Street, Aberdeen and quickly found the Cathedral. It’s often not easy to get good close-up views of churches on Google Maps as they’re usually set back from the road or, in urban areas like this, hemmed in by neighbouring buildings – and St Mary’s was no exception.


Huntly Street, Aberdeen, view from Google Maps, accessed 2 February 2020

I couldn’t make out the corner of the churchyard and I couldn’t see any gravestones but then I noticed the statue outside the front of the church and when I looked at the plinth I could see straight away that it was the same one as the one in the photo.


Views of the plinth – left from the 1942 wedding photo, right from Google Maps, accessed 2 February 2020

The statue must have been relocated sometime in the past 78 years as the part of the building behind it in the modern Google Street View doesn’t match what we can see in the 1942 photo but there can be no doubt that it’s the same piece of masonry.

So that’s one photo sorted. Now I just need to get to work on the other few hundred…

* It’s actually a cardboard box, but it’s full of family photos and documents that I inherited when my Granny died in 1991, so it’s a treasure chest to me.

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The Joy of Tithes

When it comes to the 1841 census, one of the greatest disappointments for family historians is that the addresses given, particularly in rural areas, tend to be frustratingly imprecise. More often than not, we just get the name of the village or hamlet.

Earlier records such as parish registers are unlikely to provide us with any detailed information about where our working-class, agrarian ancestors were living, and the ‘addresses’ given in the 1841 census seem like they’re just there to tantalise us!


Wroxton, Nr. Banbury, postcard pre-1914 (Pinterest)

Fortunately, there’s another source we can use, roughly contemporary with the 1841 census, which can help us to pinpoint the actual building in which our mid-nineteenth century ancestors lived.

The 1836 Tithe Commutation Act brought an end to the out-moded and highly unpopular system of paying tithes to the Church of England. The Tithe Commission was set up to assess the value of the individual pieces of land which were then liable to payments of tithes. The work of the Commission took about 15 years but was largely complete by the early 1840s. The records don’t cover land which had been subject to Inclosure Acts, nor most land and properties in urban areas (roughly 25% of the country) but for our rural ancestors, the Tithe records are a fantastic resource.

Add MS 15537 f93

Old tithe barn at Abbotsbury, Dorset, British Library (Add. MS 15537, f.93)

Details of each piece of land were entered on pre-printed schedules, known as apportionments, and arranged by parish. They record the names of the various landowners, the occupiers or tenants, the name or description of the land or property, the state of cultivation (i.e. arable, pasture, meadow, wood etc.), the area (in acres, rods and perches) and the value assessed. Each piece of land or property also has a number attached to it which acts as a cross-reference to the associated map.

The maps were created specifically to support the work of the Tithe Commission. Every building is recorded, with the boundaries of the various pieces of land clearly marked. Rivers, bridges, lakes, ponds and other significant features are also shown. They’re basically works of art!

The original records are held by the National Archives (available online at TheGenealogist.co.uk) with copies for most counties in the relevant county or local record office. Many of these are also now available online, for example, those for Cheshire can be found at Cheshire Tithe Maps Online.

Cheshire Tithe Map Macclesfield 1840 (detail) - Cheshire Archives & Local Studies EDT 254-2

Cheshire Tithe Map Macclesfield 1840 (detail), Cheshire Archives & Local Studies (EDT 254/2)

It’s not difficult to see how we can use the Tithe maps and apportionments in conjunction with the 1841 census to pinpoint our ancestral residences – and this is how it works in practice.

At the time of the 1841 census, William and Harriet Harwood were living in the Hertfordshire village of Ayot Green, in the parish of Ayot St Peter. Their entry in the 1841 census is less than informative, giving their address simply as Ayott [sic] Green. William was an agricultural labourer, as were most of his neighbours; there are no obvious landmarks such as pubs or churches listed in the census to help us locate exactly where the family were living so all we can say from this is that they were living somewhere in Ayot Green.

1841-William & Harriet Harwood census Ayott Green, Ayot St Peter - TNA HO107-436-3 f.5 p.5

William & Harriet Harwood 1841 census Ayott Green, Ayot St Peter, The National Archives (HO107/436/3 f.5 p.5) (Ancestry.com)

Thankfully, the Tithe records come to our rescue. The index throws up two hits for William Harwood in Ayot St Peter, further identified, once you click on the links to view the apportionment itself, as William Harwood senior and William Harwood junior. Given that our man was aged just 30 in 1841, and that the Tithe records for Ayot St Peter date from 1838, it seems most likely that we’re looking for William Harwood junior but we can do some more checking, just to be certain.


Tithe Apportionment, Ayot St Peter, Hertfordshire, The National Archives (IR29/15/13 p.5) (TheGenealogist.co.uk)

Both men were tenants of Viscount Melbourne (the then-Prime Minister) and appear on the same page of the apportionment; William Harwood senior is recorded as the occupier of a cottage and garden (plot number 109) while William Harwood junior is at plot number 146. A quick check of the occupants of the neighbouring properties in each case reveals that our man is indeed William Harwood junior. Joseph Clarke (plot number 145) and Charles Stiles (147) appear as his neighbours in the 1841 census.

We can then turn to the associated Tithe map and quickly locate plot number 146. The image is quite blurred but we can see that the property is one of two adjoined cottages – the left-hand one – and that there’s another cottage to the right, with a row of buildings on the west side of the lane leading northwards from the Green.


Tithe Map, Ayot St Peter, Hertfordshire, The National Archives (IR30/15/13 detail) (TheGenealogist.co.uk)

The 1898 Ordnance Survey map of the area shows that not much had changed in 60 years or so – the same two adjoined cottages are clearly marked with the separate cottage to the north, set back from the road and the long row of buildings to the north of that.

1898-Ordnance Survey 25 inch map Hertfordshire XXVIII.7 (detail)

Ordnance Survey 25 inch map, 1898 Hertfordshire XXVIII.7 (detail) (National Library of Scotland)

And this is where an online search can really help to bring your research to life. A search for ‘Ayot Green Postcard’ (without the quotation marks) leads us to a fantastic site on the history of the parish of Ayot St Peter and a page full of old photos of Ayot Green. Of particular interest to us is this one, which clearly shows William & Harriet Harwood’s cottage, on the extreme left, with the apparently much older cottage on the right, and the row of buildings to the right of that.

ayot-green-ashby w1024

Ayot Green, postcard ca.1905 (Ayot St Peter website)

And guess what? The cottage is still there, as this recent view from Google maps shows. The old cottage to the right has evidently been pulled down and replaced by a modern mock-Tudor building, but the Harwoods’ cottage is still standing, and looking good for its age!

Ayot Green Google Maps - accessed 12 January 2020

Ayot Green, view from Google Maps, accessed 20 January 2020

Of course, the old postcard is a bonus and we’re lucky that the cottage is still there today but you can see how we were able to go from a vague address in the 1841 census to viewing an ancestral property as it looks today – and all thanks to the work of the Tithe Commission!

Accessing the records

The Tithe Commission produced two sets of records; a national collection held centrally in London and local copies held … well … locally! The national collection of records is now held by the National Archives and has been fully digitised and indexed by TheGenealogist.co.uk.

The following local collections are known to be accessible online:

Additionally, the KnowYourPlace website provides access to maps (including Tithe maps) for Bath and North East Somerset, Bristol, Devon, Gloucestershire, North Somerset, South Gloucestershire and Wiltshire. Maps for Devon can also be accessed here.

Several counties (e.g. Hertfordshire, Oxfordshire, Surrey, Warwickshire and Wiltshire) have digitised their collections of Tithe Maps and made them available electronically onsite and in some cases the images are available for sale.

If you know of any other online collections, please let me know.

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