All and every my child and children

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

1792-1799-Horwoods Map of London (detail)

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

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

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

Will of Samuel Port

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chancery Document

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the next part of the story, I’ll take a closer look at the Chancery documents to see what they can tell us about Ann, Mary Ann and Thomas’s teenage years, in the first two decades of the 18th century. Butcher’s bills, mourning rings, wicker chairs, a patterned Wilton carpet, hats and shoes, and journeys to Portsmouth, Oxford and Buckingham; it’s all coming up in Part Two.

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 18 July 2020

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

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1813 And All That

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Year Score
1810 67.5
1820 79.5

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

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

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

1810-St Nicholas, Liverpool burial register

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Year Urban Rural
1810 4.14 2.96
1820 4.43 3.73

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

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

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

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

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 4 July 2020

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Don’t Believe The Hints

We’ve all been there. We’re following a line back, we’ve got our ancestor in the census, and we’ve found her marriage. We know the four key pieces of information that we ideally need to formulate a search for her birth; her name, her father’s name, her approximate date of birth and her place of birth. But when we go to search for a record of her birth, there’s nothing that looks at all promising.

If we’ve done our homework properly, we should know where we should be looking. There are a number of questions to ask ourselves before concluding that we’ve carried out an effective search in the appropriate records. Are we searching before or after the introduction of civil registration? Do we know which registration district or Church of England parish our place comes under? Are there any gaps in the Church of England registers? Does the website we’re looking at actually have the records that it claims to have? Are there any nonconformist registers for the area? Are there records which we can only see as physical documents in an archive?

I was working on a case recently where I experienced the type of situation outlined above. Eliza GRAHAM (née MITCHELL)’s later life was well documented and she could easily be traced from her marriage to John GRAHAM in 1857 through to her appearance in the 1911 census and her eventual death in 1915.

Year Residence Occupation Age Birthplace/Father
1857 St Mark, Old Street Full age Robert Mitchell, Upholsterer
1861 St Luke, Old Street Fancy Box Maker 27 Surrey, Southwark
1871 Shoreditch 36 Middlesex, London
1881 Shoreditch Fancy Box Maker 41 St Georges E, London
1891 St Luke, Old Street Fancy Box Maker 53 London, St Lukes
1901 Islington Fancy Box Maker 64 London, St Lukes
1911 Islington Old Age Pension 76 London, Borough
1915 Islington 75

We can see, unfortunately, that there are some major discrepancies here, both with her age and her place of birth. The age in the 1881 census and the age at death (and burial) are clearly wrong and the overall body of evidence points towards a birth sometime around 1834 or ’35.

It’s difficult to know what’s going on with Eliza’s birthplace and difficult to imagine how someone could give such different information over the years. We need to bear in mind that what we’re looking at is the enumerator’s interpretation of what Eliza (or possibly her husband (in 1861 and 1871)) wrote on the census schedule but there is still clearly some serious inconsistency here.

And it’s the inconsistencies that make our task so challenging, particularly, when initial searches fail to turn up a promising record of Eliza’s birth/baptism and there’s no sign of a suitable Eliza MITCHELL in the 1841 or 1851 censuses. These online searches will by now have brought up some ‘hints’ suggesting that this record or that record might relate to our Eliza and I can see why it might be tempting to accept one of them – for example, the one that points us towards the baptism of Elizabeth, the daughter of Joseph MITCHELL, a cabinet maker, and his wife Eliza, at St Leonard’s, Shoreditch on 11 January 1835.

At first sight this looks quite convincing. Except that our Eliza never gave her place of birth as Shoreditch and, crucially, she stated at the time of her marriage that her father was Robert MITCHELL, an upholsterer. Further, this Elizabeth had an older sister called Eliza Frances and following the family up we can quickly see that they are not our MITCHELLs.


Detail from The Forest by Jacob Van Ruisdael, 1891

And this is the point at which family history sets off on one of two divergent paths; the ancestor collectors head off in one direction with their newly adopted ‘ancestor’ tacked onto their family tree, while the true researchers take their first steps on a far more interesting and ultimately rewarding journey.

The information supplied by our ancestors on marriage certificates and the way in which it’s supplied to the clerk (i.e. accepted as true unless they have good reason to question it) is always vulnerable to that regrettable habit that many of them had; namely, a tendency to lie. Having said that, the rule of thumb should always be that we accept what they say until such time as it starts not to add up. And when someone says that their father was an upholsterer (hardly a common trade even in London in the nineteenth century) we need to take notice of that. It’s got an air of authority about it and it’s not the sort of thing that someone would make up without reason.

So the discovery of a Robert MITCHELL, an upholsterer, of the right age to have been Eliza’s father, living in London in the middle of the nineteenth century is definitely worth investigating. This Robert was born in Norwich in 1799 and married Ann YEOMANS at the parish church of St Giles, Norwich on 16 August 1819. Shortly after they married, Robert and Ann moved to London, and initially settled in St Luke’s, Old Street before moving south of the river to the parish of Christ Church, Southwark. Significantly, these are two of the places which Eliza MITCHELL gave as her birthplace in the later censuses.

However, the 1841 census finds Robert and Ann living in the parish of St Bride, Fleet Street. Robert’s listed as an upholsterer and he and Ann, along with their two children, Letitia and George were all not born in the county. The problem with all of this is that there’s no sign of our Eliza and no record of a baptism for her. So, if Robert was her father, where was she in 1841, when she would have been about six years old? Searches in Norfolk also failed to turn up anything promising so she didn’t seem to have been living with grandparents or other relatives there.

And then the first sign that all was not quite as straightforward as it might be emerged when Ann (Robert’s wife) was found in the 1851 census, living at an address in Gloucester Street in the parish of St George the Martyr, Holborn. The only relative living with her was her son George and both she and George were listed as upholsterers. It’s clearly the right family and Robert’s absence appears to be explained by Ann’s description as a widow.

But the truth is far more complicated and interesting. I haven’t been able to find Robert in 1851 but he turns up in the 1861 census, aged 61, working as an upholsterer and quite clearly still alive! Intriguingly, his marital condition is given as ‘Married separated’ – the only time I’ve ever seen that description in the census. He was living in Little Russell Street, in the parish of St George, Bloomsbury, not far from where Ann and George had been living ten years earlier.

1861-Robert Mitchell census St George, Bloomsbury - TNA RG 9-167 f.60 p.53

1861 census, 1 Little Russell Street, St George, Bloomsbury, showing Robert Mitchell as a 61-year old Upholsterer. His marital status is given as ‘Mar[ried] Separated’.
The National Archives reference: RG 9/167 f.60 p.53

And ten years later, in 1871, he can be found back in the parish of St George the Martyr, living in Devonshire Street, which backed onto Gloucester Street. If Robert was separated from Ann, he certainly doesn’t seem have been hiding from her! He was still working as an upholsterer but is now described as a widower.

Ann had probably died in 1863 (there’s a promising death registered in the Holborn district in the December quarter of 1863 of a 63-year old Anne MITCHELL which needs to be investigated). Whether this is our Ann(e) or not, there’s no obvious sign of her in the 1861 census.

The death of Robert MITCHELL, aged 75, registered in Holborn in the March quarter of 1875 is almost certainly that of our man.

I spent some time following up each of Robert and Ann’s children in the hope of picking up some clues but despite uncovering a number of interesting stories, I found nothing that linked the family to our Eliza.

I was running out of leads to investigate. I kept looking back at what we knew about Eliza from later records and it occurred to me that the one consistent detail about her was her occupation, as a fancy box maker. So I decided to search the 1851 census for anyone called Eliza, born within a couple of years of 1835, who was listed as a fancy box maker (or similar). My search on TheGenealogist turned up an entry for an Eliza HAWKINS, a ‘fancy trimmer of boxes’, which attracted my attention as she was living in St George the Martyr, Holborn and gave her place of birth as ‘Borough, Southwark’. At 18, she was a bit old but I decided to follow it up anyway and saw that the surname was actually SAWKINS.

1851-Eliza Sawkins census St George the Martyr, Holborn - TNA HO 107-1513 f.240 p.52

1851 census, 12 Leigh Street, St George the Martyr, Holborn, showing Eliza Sawkins as an 18-year old Fancy trimmer of Boxes. Her place of birth is given as ‘Borough, London’.
The National Archives reference: HO 107/1513 f.240 p.52

Could this be our Eliza? If it was, the new surname didn’t help us as there was no record of an Eliza SAWKINS being baptised at the right time and it still didn’t explain where she was in 1841. Nevertheless, the address she was living at (12 Leigh Street) was a short distance from Gloucester Street where Ann and George were living at the time and the entry had a lot going for it.

There was another clue to follow up. When Eliza had married John GRAHAM in 1857, the two witnesses were Emily McDONNELL and Stephen POUND.

Stephen was, like John GRAHAM, a carman and the likelihood is that he was John’s friend/colleague. Emily McDONNELL proved to be far more interesting and the discovery of an entry for her in the 1861 census proved a major breakthrough.

Henry and Emily McDONNELL were living in Hoxton, part of the ancient parish of Shoreditch just north of the City of London. What immediately jumps out is that Emily, aged 31, was listed as an upholstress and her place of birth was given as St George, Southwark. She and Henry had an 8-year old daughter also called Emily, but best of all, the fourth person in the family, was a 52-year old woman named Emily TAWKINS. The name is clearly entered as TAWKINS but it must surely be a case of a simple mis-reading by the enumerator, of SAWKINS, an unfamiliar surname.

1861-Henry & Emily McDonnell census Hoxton - TNA RG 9-239 f.4 p.9

1861 census, 2 Bevendon Street, St John the Baptist, Hoxton, showing Henry & Emily McDonnell and Emily SAWKINS (entered here as TAWKINS).
The National Archives reference: RG 9/239 f.4 p.9

And just to complicate things even further, the birth registration of the younger Emily (Henry and Emily’s daughter) records her mother’s surname as … MITCHELL!

My head was spinning by now. If Emily SAWKINS was Emily McDONNELL’s mother, could she also be our Eliza’s mother? It would certainly explain why Eliza was using the surname SAWKINS in 1851 but why did she claim that her father was Robert MITCHELL? And why did Emily McDONNELL also give her maiden surname as MITCHELL?

It took a while to untangle all the details but I was eventually able to show that the older Emily had been born on 12 February 1809 as Amelia PINK (probably in Turnham Green, in west Middlesex as she claimed in a number of censuses) and baptised at St George the Martyr, Southwark on the same day as her sister Eliza, in October 1811. Both were the daughters of Joseph and Elizabeth PINK. The next documentary evidence we have for Eliza finds her marrying a man called Joseph BARBER on 9 November 1837 at St Mary, Islington. Joseph is an interesting character whose life cries out to be investigated further. He’s described on the marriage certificate as 38, a widower, a surgeon, and the son of William BARBER, an Officer in the East India Company Service. Joseph most definitely belongs to a different social class to our PINKs, SAWKINS and MITCHELLs but his story will need to be left for another day. There’s more than a touch of Eliza DOOLITTLE and Henry HIGGINS here…

Emily, meanwhile, was described as a widow, aged 28, of 45 City Garden Row, the daughter of Joseph PINK, a carrier. Her surname was given as MITCHELL.

Her marriage to Joseph BARBER didn’t last very long. On 16 May 1841, the widowed (twice widowed?) Emily BARBER married William SAWKINS at the parish church of St John the Baptist, Hoxton. Emily’s address was again given as City Garden Row (as was William’s) and this time she described her father as Joseph PINK (deceased), carrier.

Just a few weeks later, at the time of the 1841 census, the newly-married William and Emily SAWKINS were living some distance from London in the Essex village of Wanstead. Now part of the London Borough of Redbridge, Wanstead would then have been an essentially rural community. The 1841 census lists five members of the SAWKINS household, including Emily and William, both down as upholsterers.

There is, however, no sign of the younger Emily, nor of Eliza for that matter. To answer this particular question, we need to go back to London, specifically to City Garden Row in the parish of St Luke, Old Street. And here we find a magnificent family group, headed by Elizabeth PINK, aged 55 and described as ‘Independent’ and followed by four other PINKs: Eliza (25, a fancy box maker), Charles (20, a journeyman cabinet maker), Louisa (20, a fancy box maker) and Elizabeth (15, another fancy box maker). And then, separated by a single line indicating that they comprised a separate household unit within the same house, 10-year old Emily MICHELL and 6-year old Eliza MICHELL.

Oh, and living next door? A 70-year old coal dealer called William SAWKINS!

1841-Pink, Michell and Sawkins St Luke, Old Street - TNA HO 107-667-4 f.34 p.19

1841 census, City Garden Row, St Luke, Old Street, showing the Pink and Michell families with William Sawkins living next door.
The National Archives reference: HO 107/667/4 f.34 p.19

Once my feet had returned to solid ground, I began to piece it all together. Elizabeth, the matriarch, was presumably the widow of Joseph PINK, the carrier. The four younger PINKs were Elizabeth’s children (including Eliza, who had been baptised on the same day as our Emily/Amelia). And young Emily and Eliza were surely the daughters of Emily/Amelia from her relationship with Mr MITCHELL.

I have never found a record of a marriage between Emily/Amelia PINK and a Mr MITCHELL. My supposition is that she and Robert MITCHELL had met through their work in the upholstery trade and had an extra-marital sexual relationship which resulted in the births of two daughters. Robert, who was at this time married to Ann, later separated from her (had she found out about his affair?) and I suspect that Eliza, growing up, knew that her father was Robert MITCHELL the upholsterer and therefore gave this name when she got married.

I still can’t find a record of Eliza’s birth/baptism. There’s an intriguing baptism of Amelia MITCHELL, the illegitimate daughter of Amelia MITCHELL at St Mary, Islington on 14 November 1832. Amelia’s abode was given as ‘Workhouse’ and her occupation as ‘Poor’. This may or may not be our Emily/Amelia; the age of the daughter doesn’t quite tie in with the 10-year old Emily MICHELL in 1841 but it may be relevant that Emily MITCHELL married John BARBER at St Mary, Islington in 1837.

Sometimes, what we need to do is let go of the idea of looking for a record of birth and instead look for evidence of birth. Here, I think we have enough evidence to say that Eliza at least believed that she was the daughter of Robert MITCHELL and that we definitely have enough evidence to say that she was Emily/Amelia PINK’s daughter.

One final document to deal with. I eventually found Emily MITCHELL’s marriage to Henry McDONNELL. They were married in St John, Bedminster (Bristol) on 5 May 1852. Emily gave her father’s name as Joseph MICHELL [sic], an upholsterer. This would seem to be an amalgam of her grandfather (Joseph) and her father (Robert MITCHELL the upholsterer).

There are still some gaps in the story. Where was Robert in 1851? And where were Emily/Amelia and her older daughter Emily? Was she still living as Mrs SAWKINS? What happened to William SAWKINS? Always more questions. But then, that’s what keeps us interested.

If we’d accepted the Ancestry ‘hint’ that Elizabeth, the daughter of Joseph MITCHELL the cabinet maker was in fact our Eliza, we would have missed out on a great story and, perhaps more importantly, we would have ended up with someone else’s ancestors!


Detail from The London Poor At Their Christmas Marketing – A Sketch In The New Cut by Godefroy Durand (1872)

Family history research is not easy – don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. It requires a wide range of skills and a deep understanding of a whole host of diverse sources which puts it on a par with any other type of historical research.

The sources that we routinely use in our research were not designed with family historians in mind so we have to learn to tease the information out of them and we can only do this by familiarising ourselves with the records; reading about their original purpose and the legislation that led to their creation, thinking about their archival context and the physical structure of the documents and understanding how they were maintained and why they were preserved.

We can’t and shouldn’t expect our research to be straightforward all the time, to go from one generation to another without any setbacks. The major commercial websites might try to persuade you that it IS easy and they’ll offer you ‘hints’ and ‘suggestions’ as you go. Could this be your ancestor? Well, possibly, but of course these hints are generated by algorithms which attempt to match pieces of data extracted from various sources without any of the skills, knowledge and understanding which we as researchers have developed – or at least, have the ability to develop.

So, when you come to a halt in your research, that’s the time to start putting those skills to the test, not the time to blindly follow hints.

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 13 June 2020

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The Joy of Signatures

As family historians, we should never rely on transcripts. Access to original documents, or at least, to digital images of original documents is an essential part of the process of genealogical research. Even the most thorough and comprehensive transcripts are likely to omit something important. It may be a seemingly insignificant misspelling of a particular word or something added in the margin, or perhaps a word that has been crossed out. A transcriber may not see the significance of any of this (or may well have been told not to include such things in their transcription) but to the experienced researcher, it’s these little things that can make all the difference.

And there’s one aspect of an original document that no transcript can ever accurately reproduce; namely the signatures, or other marks, made by our ancestors. Signatures can be an enormously useful problem-solving tool; by comparing a signature on one document with a signature on another we can attempt to work out whether or not the two documents relate to the same person.

First a word of caution: many of the documents that we view online are actually copies of the originals and therefore don’t include our ancestor’s actual signatures. We’re most likely to encounter this with the Church of England’s Bishop’s Transcripts. These were copies of parish register entries, sent annually to the relevant Diocesan archive. The ‘signatures’ on these copies are in fact simply the names of the groom, the bride and the witnesses, written by the clerk making the copy. Similarly, the marriage certificates sent out by the General Register Office are scanned copies of the registers held by them, which are themselves, copies of the originals. Any attempt to use these ‘signatures’ as part of a problem-solving process is doomed to failure!

So, where can we expect to come across our ancestors’ signatures? This list is by no means exhaustive, but the most common sources are:

  •     post-1754 parish register marriage entries
  •     marriage licence bonds and allegations
  •     1911 census schedules
  •     army service records (enlistment papers)
  •     original wills – both as testators and witnesses
  •     merchant navy crew lists

I’m often surprised at how distinctive signatures can be; the idiosyncratic way in which someone adds a flourish at the end of their surname, or the way that they dot their ‘i’s, or consistently use that characteristic capital ‘D’. The best way to understand how diverse people’s handwriting styles were, is to look at how two members of the same family wrote their surname. It’s often the differences which help us to focus on the similarities.


The Wedding Register Edmund Blair Leighton (undated)

Take Joseph Truman for example. Here we have his signature from his marriage in 1773:[1]

Joseph Truman 1773

And here, three years later, we have what is clearly the same Joseph Truman signing the register as a witness to his sister’s marriage – you don’t need to be a graphologist to see the similarities here. And you just need to glance at the signature of the other witness, Richard Truman, to see how completely different that is.[2]

Joseph Truman 1776

I’ve successfully used this process countless times to help with breaking down brick walls. We need to fight the natural desire to see a link when perhaps there isn’t one. One technique that I use to help with this is to spend some time looking closely at the signature that I know relates to the subject of my research, looking for the sort of idiosyncrasies mentioned above, before I look at the potential match. I think carefully about what I’m looking for; which feature or features of the signature am I hoping to see? In the case of Joseph Truman, I would have focussed on the distinctive way that he forms the capital ‘T’ in his surname – and I would have been instantly convinced that I had a match.

Sometimes, there can be no doubt whatsoever. Here are the signatures of Joseph Andrews from an Army Commission paper dating from 1800:[3]

John Andrews 1800

And here’s a signature from the original copy of an 1801 marriage will:[4]

John Andrews 1801

But sometimes, it’s less clear-cut. Here we have the signature of a man called Richard Bushby at the time of his marriage in 1801:[5]

Richard Bushby 1801

And is this the same man signing his army discharge papers in 1814?[6]

Richard Bushby 1814

There are a number of similarities – the pronounced curve on the ‘d’ at the end of Richard, the overall shape of the capital ‘B’ but the final ‘y’ is quite different in the two. On balance, I concluded that there was enough here to encourage me to pursue the line and further research confirmed that it was the same Richard.

We need to bear in mind the different circumstances in which the person was signing their name and we need to remember that different pens are always likely to alter the style to a degree. Most importantly, we need to consider the effects of time. The signature of a young man or woman is always likely to be bolder; more firm and controlled than that of their older self. A few years ago, I found a rather moving example of this.

We first meet John Barber (in a signature sense) in 1789 at the time of his first marriage, where he displays a firm hand:[7]

John Barber 1789

Note the distinctive gap between the ‘Bar’ and the ‘ber’ in his signature. This was a feature that I was able to track down through the years.

In 1812, John was appointed to the role of parish clerk (in Poynings, Sussex) and his signature starts to appear regularly in the marriage register:[8]

John Barber 1812

By February 1838, now aged 70, his signature is showing the signs of age:[9]

John Barber 1838 (1)

And in October the same year, we have what turned out to be John’s final signature – or rather, his final attempt at a signature:[10]

John Barber 1838 (2)

John died seven years later.

Of course, not all of our ancestors were literate – in fact, large numbers of them weren’t – but we need to be careful here. An inability to sign the register might be temporary – a sprained wrist or a broken arm could be the explanation – and there is another possibility to consider, referenced by Charles Dickens in Bleak House:[11]

I happened to stroll into the little church when a marriage was just concluded, and the young couple had to sign the register.

The bridegroom, to whom the pen was handed first, made a rude cross for his mark; the bride, who came next, did the same. Now, I had known the bride when I was last there, not only as the prettiest girl in the place, but as having quite distinguished herself in the school, and I could not help looking at her with some surprise. She came aside and whispered to me, while tears of honest love and admiration stood in her bright eyes, “He’s a dear good fellow, miss; but he can’t write yet—he’s going to learn of me—and I wouldn’t shame him for the world!”

The marks left by our ancestors in the registers are, by default, indistinctive. I haven’t yet been able to prove that two marks made on different documents relate to the same person – that may be a bridge too far!

A final thought: there is one vast source of signatures – probably the biggest source out there – which is currently inaccessible to us. Since 1837, every time one of our ancestors was born and every time one of them died, someone – usually a relative – registered the event, and as part of the process, they were asked to sign the register. These registers are still in the hands of the local registrars but usually, when we order a copy of a certificate from a local register office, what we get is a written or typed copy. We have no legal right of access to the original and although some local offices now produce copies by scanning their original registers, the registrar’s obligation is simply to provide a copy so, in the vast majority of cases, we don’t get to see the informant’s signature. Maybe one day this will change. The oldest records are now nearly 183 years old; their legal purpose has long since passed and they’re now only of historical interest. There’s a good case for any records over 100 years old to be deposited in the relevant local archives – but I’m not holding my breath!

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 30 May 2020

This blog was originally published as part of the A-Z Blog Challenge 2020 at:

[1] From marriage of Joseph Tru(e)man & Elizabeth Ellis, 11 April 1773, St John, Horsleydown – London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) P71/JN/040 p.175
[2] From marriage of Samuel Port & Elizabeth Truman, 9 June 1776, St Olave, Bermondsey – LMA P71/OLA/024 p.74
[3] From Memoranda of appointments, promotions and resignations: 7, 14, 21, 28 August 1800 (Army commission papers) – The National Archives (TNA) WO 31/100
[4] From Prerogative Court of Canterbury original will of John Andrews, 1801 – TNA PROB 10/3576
[5] From marriage of Richard Bushby & Jane Jordan, 26 January 1801, St Mary, Lambeth – LMA P85/MRY1/394 p.229
[6] From Army service record of Richard Bushby, 1793-1814, 1st Foot Guards – TNA WO 97/159
[7] From marriage of John Barber & Sarah Gumbril, 30 November 1789, Holy Trinity, Poynings – West Sussex Record Office (WSRO) Par 451/1/1/5 p.2
[8] From marriage of Thomas Burtenshaw & Elizabeth Barber, 11 October 1812, Holy Trinity, Poynings – WSRO Par 451/1/1/5 p.8
[9] From marriage of James Burchall & Mary Graimes, 11 February 1838, Holy Trinity, Poynings – WSRO Par 451/1/3/2 p.1
[10] From marriage of Henry Hollingdale & Eliza Aylesbury, 27 October 1838, Holy Trinity, Poynings – WSRO Par 451/1/3/2 p.2
[11] Bleak House, Charles Dickens (1853) Chapter XXXVI – (accessed 30 May 2020)

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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 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 9 May 2020

X marks the spot. The approximate location of Whitley’s lodge.
Accessed at, 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 – 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 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 –
[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

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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.
[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
[16] Freedom of the City Admission Papers – LMA COL/CHD/FR/02/1046/13
[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

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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