Will the real Edward Robinson please stand up?

When I started researching my tree my Mum told me what she knew about her family.  It wasn’t much, but enough to get me started.  Regarding her mother’s grandparents she could name only one, and even then only his surname: Robinson.  However, for the next 25 years, my GG grandfather Robinson – Edward, as I discovered – kept his origins a closely guarded secret.  The problem was that there were no documents to evidence his birth family.  He didn’t actually marry either of his ‘wives’, and if there was a baptism, I have never been able to find it.  Any of these records would have evidenced Edward’s father’s name, location and occupation. From 1851 onwards I collected a great deal of information about Edward, right up until his death in 1898. All censuses and other documentation are absolutely consistent with a birth year of 1826 – and with one exception, even consistent with a birthdate between 18th March and 3rd April 1826, but there was nothing at all to enable me to place him with a family.

Even before knowing Edward’s name, I grew up hearing stories about him.  He had a stall in Leeds market. My Grandma told me he paid a shilling for her mother, Jane, to go to school one day a week, and Jane used to play with gold sovereigns on the floor.  After Edward’s first wife, my GG grandmother Margaret died, he turned to drink and lost all his money.  There is truth in this: I unearthed drunk and disorderly reports and short spells in the slammer, but I rather suspect there was never that much money to lose.  Finally, my Mum told me that after losing all said money ‘he went back to The Crooked Billet where he was born, and threw himself in the river’.  This too is true.  I have the Coroner’s Report made the day after his death in 1898, although Edward actually drowned himself a couple of miles along from that spot.

It’s fair to say that Edward had a colourful life, and from 1851 I think I have the measure of him.  I even suspect that withholding information was a reflection of his personality: he probably didn’t trust the authorities, and maybe it has taken him all this time to trust me too!  Nevertheless, in amongst all of the above there were several clues:

  • Edward was born in 1826, or at the latest in 1827
  • In all records he gives his birthplace as Leeds
  • My mother’s story suggests a birthplace of Hunslet – not part of Leeds township at that time, but just across the river, and within the large ancient parish of Leeds.
  • There was a hint that he might actually have been born at the Crooked Billet inn in Hunslet.
  • Edward had two daughters: the younger, Margaret, was named after her mother.  Might the older, my great grandmother Jane, have been named after Edward’s own mother?

Two of these clues turned out to be red herrings, but they had me hooked for a while.  At the time of Edward’s birth the innkeeper at the Crooked Billet was John Robson.  Could that name somehow have morphed into Robinson?  No, it hadn’t: it seemed Edward could have been born *near* the Crooked Billet, but not *in* it.

As for Jane, there was an Edward of the right age living with a Jane old enough to be his mother in Hunslet at the time of the 1841 census.  However, searching the parish registers for a Robinson marrying a Jane in the parish in the years before 1826 returned only two records, both traceable in the 1841 and 1851 censuses living away from Leeds. 

Searching the parish registers for Edward’s baptism proved equally fruitless.  Ten Edward Robinsons were baptised in Leeds between 1825 and 1831.  There were also two marriage records in 1847 and 1867 that might possibly have been him.  I had long ago realised that the reason Edward and my GG grandmother Margaret didn’t marry was that she was already married to someone else.  Perhaps Edward too, had married another woman before meeting Margaret?  But no: the couples in these two records were still together in subsequent censuses when I knew Edward was with Margaret or, after Margaret’s death, I knew where he was.

It troubled me not being able to break down Edward’s brick wall, so a couple of weeks ago I decided to give him another opportunity to reveal his identity.  Using Ancestry, FindMyPast, TheGenealogist, FreeReg and FamilySearch, I listed every possible baptism for every Edward Robinson baptised in Leeds from 1824 to 1831.  I was able to discount a couple on the basis of location or father’s occupation; another died in infancy; and the rest I worked forwards through the 1841 and 1851 censuses.  I knew where my Edward was in 1851, so if any of these Edwards could be located elsewhere, they were not my Edward.  I was left with about three baptisms, and no way of choosing between them.  I then searched the 1841 census for any additional possibilities, and found two not accounted for in the baptisms.  One of these was my long-preferred Edward with Jane in Hunslet.  The other was Edward and sister Elizabeth, living in Hunslet with their parents Edward and Elizabeth.

At this point I did something I hadn’t had the opportunity to do on previous attempts to break through Edward’s brick wall: I turned to DNA.  Using the filters on the Ancestry website I searched amongst all my DNA matches for anyone with the surname Robinson and birthplace of Leeds in their trees.  I didn’t expect to find anyone.  I needed someone who had already traced their ancestry back to Edward’s parents, who had young Edward in their tree, who had taken the DNA test, and shared DNA with me – not guaranteed at 3rd or 4th cousin level.  It felt like searching for a needle in a haystack. But unbelievably I found someone: just one person, estimated at 5th to 8th cousin.  He had my Edward in his tree, born c.1826, living in 1841 with sister Elizabeth and parents Edward and Elizabeth.  This was, in other words, one of the families I had already identified as a possibility.  Unlike Edward, sister Elizabeth had a marriage certificate and a baptism record and had therefore been traceable quite easily back to her birth family. My DNA match, Elizabeth’s descendant, already had another bit of information on his tree too: a marriage record for Edward’s parents, and with that a maiden name for the mother: Clarebrough.  But could this just be coincidence? My match and I didn’t share very much DNA; this could be a case of confirmation bias. The next step was to do the same filtered search on Ancestry, but this time for the unusual surname Clarebrough and a birthplace of Leeds.  If I could find anyone amongst my DNA matches just one generation further back from Elizabeth Clarebrough but descended from a different sibling, then there was no doubt that this was my Edward…  Bingo!  A DNA match, and three more on MyHeritage.  Finally, after 25 years of trying, I have my Edward!

I hope there’s something in this account and the methodology to interest you. In those pre-census/ pre-Civil BMD days, listing all possible baptisms and then working each one forward to discount as many as possible can often solve the puzzle. In Edward’s case it didn’t, and without bringing in the DNA cavalry at this point I would never have been able to break through this brick wall.

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