Here’s why we should look at online trees!

One of my early posts considered the merits of consulting other people’s online trees.  After outlining various dangers and pitfalls, I explained that I do often look at them, but importantly, everything that goes on my tree has been fully researched and verified by me.  If there are no records to support someone’s information, it will never find its way onto my own tree, other than perhaps marked as a plausible hypothesis requiring more research.

But more recently I’ve been using trees in another way – not to search for names, dates and events, but to try to work forwards from a person I’m interested in to the ‘Home’ person (the person whose tree this is).  If it seems like the tree owner is a direct descendant of my person of interest I sometimes write to ask if they can help me with some family stories or information or even if they have photographs.  Of course I’m always prepared to share what I have too, and although usually all I can offer is my research, maybe I have some interesting stories they don’t seem to have.

Sometimes they don’t reply.  Sometimes they do, but it turns out their connection is not as close as I thought.  I think we both had a good laugh when someone replied to say that yes, my person was on her tree, but he was described by Ancestry’s relationship calculator as ‘the father-in-law of the father-in-law of the great-aunt of her husband’!  I have to say too that on occasion people have been keen to take what I had to offer and then never given me whatever they had in return.

But sometimes I strike it lucky.  Here’s a couple of examples:

*****

My great grandfather, George, died in 1940, but it seemed no photograph of him had survived.  After many years of asking any second cousins I came across, I finally found the tree of a descendant of my great uncle, the son with whom George lived in his later years.  If anyone had a photograph of him, surely she would.

I was right.  But along with a photo of George, she had inherited his entire family album, with photos of our grandfathers and their other brothers together, plus some correspondence with my granddad from his travels with the Army.  Some of the photos helped me to piece together a couple of mysteries.

My new second cousin doesn’t share my interest in past centuries and social history, but she loved all the stories I’ve been able to pull together about the more recent generations; and so in return for these lovely photos we spent a few weeks getting to know each other and sharing what we knew.  We’re still in touch.

*****

A few months back I wrote (here and here) about my unlucky-in-love biological 2x great grandmother, Annie Elizabeth.  The point of the two blogposts was to use her story to illustrate several aspects of marriage law (elopement, bigamy, adultery, desertion, divorce, domestic violence and separation) that had been touched on in my reviews of two books (here and here) by Rebecca Probert.

Alongside those blogposts I wrote a fuller version of the story for my own family.  In that version I questioned, for example, whether there might have been problems at home following Annie Elizabeth’s mother’s remarriage, and if that might have been the reason for the fifteen year-old eloping with someone she barely knew.  I could see that her mother and step-father were living apart by 1871.  I also wondered if Annie Elizabeth’s first child, my great grandfather (another George) who was brought up by his paternal aunt, might have known who his true parents were.  I really thought these were things I would never know.

A few months ago I broke down a brick wall surrounding Annie Elizabeth’s parents, and this new information also included finding a sister, Martha.  Following through on a family tree linked to Martha, I found a descendant.  Bearing in mind that my knowledge of Annie Elizabeth is based entirely on records and documents found through research, to the extent that I didn’t even know if my great grandfather knew she was his mother, surely a direct descendant of her sister would know more.  Perhaps there would even be a photo of this lady whose life I have found so interesting…

The gentleman I wrote to turned out to be my 3rd cousin once removed and the great grandson of Annie Elizabeth’s sister.  He sent me a short family history written by his late aunt Amy – my second cousin twice removed – together with some notes of his own research based on what she wrote.

Now Amy’s family history is not going to get any prizes for accuracy.  It’s full of mistakes and half-truths.  There are people and places that fit with my research, but names are not quite right, and there is a strong suggestion of riches in our lineage that the available facts don’t bear out.  All this is forgiven: she didn’t have access to the records we’re able to take for granted, and her account has value in itself as a testament to the stories that must have been passed down to her.

Having said that, there were some absolute gems of information.  Reading her account, it felt like Amy was reaching out across the decades to verify for me the truth of several of my hunches.  I found that not only did my great grandfather George know that Annie Elizabeth was his mother, but he remained part of the family.  Annie Elizabeth’s mother was known to him as his grandmother.  Regarding my hunch that my Annie Elizabeth may have married in haste to flee an unpleasant home life, Amy describes the stepfather as ‘a rotter’ who, in one of his bad moods, set fire to a wooden chest full of family papers and other treasures, and made his wife and two daughters (Annie Elizabeth and Martha) watch it burn.  As for Annie Elizabeth’s second husband, who would later assault her, and whose demeanour in court did not impress the judge or the news reporters, there is a whole side story about him, his drinking, his ‘swelled-headed’ arrogance and his mean nature, all of which complements the picture I had built in my mind about him, based purely on the records.

There’s still a lot of information to be mined from Amy’s account, and some other things to check out, but I feel so lucky to have been given this little window onto the life of my great grandfather and his birth mother.

*****

I hope these stories will encourage you to think about using online trees in this way.

St John’s College Library, Cambridge

Ancient library with rows of dsecorative dark wood shelves and a large stained glass window at the far end

My 7xG grandfather, Lister Simondson, studied at St John’s College, Cambridge.  I found him there quite by chance while doing a general search on Ancestry a couple of years ago.  I could never have imagined then, that within two years I would be walking in his footsteps inside the Upper Library at St John’s.

The library was completed in 1624.  That date is affixed in stone to the exterior of the building on the brick parapet above the oriel window, and clearly visible from the river, which flows immediately outside, as well as from the adjacent Bridge of Sighs (which is where I was when I took the photo below).  By the time Lister arrived in 1696, it was still fairly new, but even so the Library of St Johns College could claim to be the largest and most impressive in Cambridge. The books are arranged on 22 beautifully carved tall, dark oak bookcases alternating with 20 ‘dwarf’ cases.  At the end of each of the taller cases little doors open onto a tiny cupboard, inside which are itemised, in various hands contemporaneous with Lister’s time in the library, the contents of the shelves.  It seems likely, then, that the library remains pretty much as it was when he was there.  In 2005, it was designated by the Museums Libraries and Archives Council as of national and international importance.

The library isn’t usually open to the public, but a year ago, by some strange quirk of fate, a distant cousin from the US on my husband’s side was awarded a visiting fellowship at St John’s, and a few months ago I was able to visit.  Since I was with a Visiting Fellow, we were able to go up there and wander round, just three of us, alone.  We weren’t allowed to touch any of the books but we could take photos without flash, and I took quite a few.

I was looking for any books that Lister, who graduated from St John’s in 1700, might have used.  This little set seemed likely – the Holy Bible in Ancient Greek, Latin and German. I happen to know Lister was a talented linguist, and he went on to become a Church of England vicar.  Of course I can’t guarantee he used these books, or even that they were in the library at the time he was there (1696-1700) but online research confirms that they were published in 1596, edited by David Wolder and printed by Lucius Jacob.  So I’m thinking they were.  Imagine that!

Ancient leather-bound Bible in 3 volumes, in Ancient Greek, Latin and German

The Cambridge University Alumni records for 1200-1900 are available on Ancestry.  Or you can search without any subscription here.
Oxford University Alumni records, 1500-1886 are also available on Ancestry.

Annie Elizabeth: marital relations masterclass continued

In my last post we left James having bigamously gone through a marriage ceremony with Margaret in 1872.  Margaret and James were leaving Leeds for Manchester.  Annie Elizabeth and her new man, John William, remain in Leeds and by 1881 there have been five more children, although four of them have died.  The family provisions business in the centre of town is doing very well.  However, contrary to all appearances, they are not married.  Annie Elizabeth is, in fact, still married to James.  And this wrankles.

Facts: divorce petition
On 22nd February 1881 Annie Elizabeth swears an affidavit as follows: that she was married to James in 1866 and had borne his child; that in February 1872 he had gone through a second marriage ceremony with Margaret; that this pretend and illegal marriage had been consummated; that James had committed adultery on that day and on diverse occasions since; and that he had deserted her without just cause, ever since leaving her destitute.  As Annie Elizabeth picks up the pen to sign this as a true version of her sworn affidavit, she is seven months pregnant with her seventh child by John William. The divorce petition is officially filed the following day.

James does not contest the charges.  The Decree Nisi is awarded on 5th July 1881 on the basis of adultery plus bigamy.  The hearing, reported over the following two days in newspapers in London, Leeds and Manchester, does include the true reason for James’s absence (7 years penal servitude).  However, the detail surrounding his release is economical with the truth: ‘In 1871 he was returned to Leeds, but instead of going home he went to the residence of another woman […] whom he afterwards married…’  ‘Severe comments’ are made on the conduct of James’s sister Mary Elizabeth who had been present at both marriages.  The Decree becomes Final on 17th January 1882.

Analysis
The hypocrisy, injustice and cruelty of this petition shocked me.  James had a great deal to lose, and although it’s true that he had bigamously ‘married’ another woman, he did so in the knowledge that Annie Elizabeth was with another man and had a child.  In other words, Annie Elizabeth had already committed adultery long before James did.

Only by understanding the contemporary grounds for divorce, was I able to make my peace with Annie Elizabeth.  Until 1923 a woman could bring an action for divorce only on the grounds of adultery combined with an aggravating factor, e.g. bigamy, cruelty, desertion.  Annie Elizabeth had no alternative but to cite bigamy and desertion alongside her claim of adultery.  She was, even so, taking a huge risk: as petitioner for divorce her behaviour must be seen to be unblemished.  Any petitioner found also to be an adulteress/ adulterer would be denied the divorce.  Having by now given birth to six of John William’s children, there could be no doubt that Annie Elizabeth was also an adulteress.

The fact of having the finances to file for divorce also sits uneasily with the claim that Annie Elizabeth has been left destitute.  Although the Marital Causes Act of 1857 had opened up the possibility of divorce to all, the cost of obtaining one remained out of the pocket of the vast majority of people.  The location of the Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Court in London meant that petitioners had to be willing and able to pay travel and living expenses for themselves, as well as respondents and any witnesses.

*****

Facts: Freedom to remarry
Annie Elizabeth and James are now divorced and free to marry.  James, having not contested the divorce, does not celebrate any change in his marital status by legally marrying Margaret, although the two of them will remain together for life.  It also seems there is no trial against him for bigamy.

For Annie Elizabeth and John William, however, the divorce enables them to put their life together in order.  Thanks to the relative anonymity afforded by life in a large, industrialised town, it would have been easy to disguise the fact that they were unmarried.  However, a marriage at this late stage might not go unnoticed.  They therefore marry in Halifax, on 23rd January 1882.  Annie Elizabeth’s marital status is correctly recorded as divorced, but a Halifax address is given as her residence.

Analysis: Why is James not prosecuted?
The criminal act of bigamy (regulated by the Offences against the Person Act 1861) is dealt with separately from the citing of bigamy as grounds for divorce.  By this time the granting of divorce on grounds of bigamy did not necessarily lead to a separate criminal prosecution.  It is, in any event, not in Annie Elizabeth’s interest to have the facts open to further scrutiny.

*****

Facts: Domestic Violence
Back in Leeds, Annie Elizabeth and John William have had more children.  By 1886, excluding George, there have been ten live births, although five of these have died.  All is not champagne and roses…

In March 1887 John William is arrested and charged with having assaulted Annie Elizabeth on three occasions by striking and kicking her.  On 1st and 2nd April, three Leeds newspapers carry reports of the hearing against him for domestic violence.  John William, ‘a respectably dressed man’, is said to have recently been frequently drunk.  His attitude does not endear him to the court: ‘When asked if he had anything to say, the accused replied in a flippant manner, “I have not been my own man.  It’s never too late to mend, is it?”’  The magistrate grants a separation order.  John William is fined £5 and ordered to pay Annie Elizabeth 15s per week.

The separation is temporary.  By March 1888 Annie Elizabeth and John William are reunited, since their final baby is born 31st December of that year.  At the time of the 1991 census they are still together.

Analysis
The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1878 enabled magistrates to grant protection orders to women who were victims of violence from their husbands.  These protection orders differed from ‘judicial separations’, which were granted in the High Court.  However, they amounted to the same thing, giving the woman custody of the children, and frequently including a requirement that the husband pay a regular sum of money to the wife.

*****

I hope this has helped you to see how, by reading around the subject, using the two books by Rebecca Probert, I was able to make sense of this very complicated series of situations Annie Elizabeth found herself in.  I wouldn’t do this amount of work for all my ancestors, but as I’m sure you’ve found for yourself, some of them leap out as having more to say.

As for Annie Elizabeth, John William dies in 1898, leaving her a further 28 years in which she seems, sensibly, to have decided enough is enough.  No more marital relations!

Annie Elizabeth & James: a marital relations masterclass

In this post and the next we have a case study in two parts: a sort of marital relations masterclass courtesy of my ill-starred biological GG grandparents.  I used Rebecca Probert’s books Marriage Law for Genealogists and Divorced, Bigamist, Bereaved to help me clarify the legalities.  I hope it will help you to look at any marital inconsistencies with fresh eyes.  You’ll also see how understanding the law and context of events can (sometimes!) help you see them from the viewpoint of your ancestors.

*****

The marriage
15th Jan 1866: James and Annie Elizabeth are married at St Peter’s church, Leeds.  It’s likely they have known each other only a few weeks: James is not long out of prison, having been sentenced in April 1865 to 8 months for larceny.  Both give their age as 18, but Annie Elizabeth is not quite 15½.  Their only witness is James’s older sister, Mary Elizabeth.  James and Mary Elizabeth sign; Annie Elizabeth (who we shall see from later documents is literate) only makes her mark.

Analysis: Is the marriage legal?
From the perspective of age?
Yes.  Until the Marriage Act 1929 the minimum age for marriage was 12 for girls and 14 for boys.  (After that Act it was raised to 16 for both.)

From the perspective of lack of parental approval?
Being under 21, both Annie Elizabeth and James were minors.  Not until 1970 would the age of majority be reduced to 18.  However, marriage after banns did not require an active, public statement of parental approval.  Rather the dissent of parents during the three-week period of the publishing of the banns would prevent the ceremony from going ahead.  Here, there was no voiced dissent, therefore the marriage was not invalidated by lack of consent.

From the perspective of elements of deceit?
What if James thought Annie Elizabeth was 18?  What about the fact that Annie Elizabeth was able to sign and yet didn’t?  The issue here would seem to be around the concept of ‘knowingly and wilfully’ failing to comply with the law, a concept introduced by the 1823 Marriage Act.  However, if it wasn’t a problem in the eyes of the law that Annie Elizabeth was just 15, then it’s likely that even if James thought otherwise this would not be an issue.  Similarly, although Annie Elizabeth may have been trying to distance herself in some way from the event by not adding her signature to the paperwork when she could have, a ‘mark’ was sufficient for the law.  In any case, we don’t know if Annie Elizabeth did deceive James; and even if she did, the fact remains that the marriage was not contested.  It is therefore valid.

*****

Two lots of nine months
4th June 1866: James is brought before magistrates at Dewsbury, charged with stealing a horse.  He is also ‘wanted’ in Leeds for another similar crime.  On 4th July he is found guilty and sentenced to seven years penal servitude.
At the time of the arrest Annie Elizabeth is about 4 months pregnant.  The baby, George, is born in November 1866.  By this time, James is serving an initial nine months under the ‘Separate’ system at Wakefield Convict Prison.  Designed to ‘break’ new prisoners, this involved keeping the individual in solitary confinement, allowing them to see and speak with only the prison warders.  Possibly he doesn’t even know he has a son.
By the time George is baptised in July 1867, James’s nine months under the Separate system are over and he has moved south for the next stage of his sentence.  Meanwhile, aged just 16, Annie Elizabeth is facing life as a single parent with no support, alongside the expectation that she respect the sanctity of her condition as a married woman.

Analysis: What are Annie Elizabeth’s options?
Could the marriage be annulled on the grounds of the falsifications?
No.  And to attempt to rely on them now could be an admission of perjury.

Might she have considered remarriage? 
There was great confusion at the time about the seven-year rule under which if, after a period of seven years of no contact the abandoned partner genuinely believed their spouse was dead, the marriage could be considered at an end.  Many focused only on the ‘seven years’ aspect of this rule, believing they were safe to marry after seven years living apart.  But a remarriage in such circumstances is always bigamous.  It would not have been a legal option for Annie Elizabeth.

*****

2nd April 1871: the census
James is an inmate at Chatham Public Works Prison.
Meanwhile, back in Leeds:
Little George has a new surname and is listed with his aunt Mary Elizabeth (she who witnessed the marriage) and husband.
Annie Elizabeth is eight months pregnant and listed as the wife of John William.  When their baby is born the following month, she will be baptised as the illegitimate daughter of Ann Elizabeth whose ‘absent husband was transported 5 years ago’.

Analysis: adoption and adultery
At some point between George’s baptism in July 1867 and the census of April 1871, George has been adopted by Mary Elizabeth and her husband.  This suggests he was given up by his mother either because she couldn’t support him, or because the new man in her life refused to support the child of another man.  Prior to The Adoption of Children Act of 1926, such informal adoptions in England and Wales were the norm. 

Has Annie Elizabeth committed a crime?
Not so many decades earlier, Annie Elizabeth and John William would have been hauled before the church courts and punished severely for adultery and fornication.  However, they have not gone through a marriage ceremony, therefore their relationship is not bigamous, and therefore no criminal act has occurred.

*****

James returns
14th December 1871: A Licence is signed for James’s early release: a reduction of 19 months for good behaviour.  He returns to Leeds.  Does he believe Annie Elizabeth will be waiting for him?  Is he shocked to find her with another man and new baby?  Or perhaps the last 5½ years have provided time enough for James to reflect on past errors, and he now wishes to move on with his life?

Analysis: What are James’s options?
Legally, James and Annie Elizabeth are still married.  However, it’s complicated: their son is now settled as the child of his sister and her husband, while Annie Elizabeth is living with another man, with whom she has a baby.  James has two legal options: to ask Annie Elizabeth to return to him, and presumably to accept her child as his own, or to divorce her.

Since 1858 (Matrimonial Causes Act 1857) divorce has been available in England and Wales.  From the perspective of the husband, the only ground for divorce is adultery, which in this case can easily be proven.  On the other hand, petitioning for divorce is far too costly for a labouring man, newly released from prison.  It is out of the question.

*****

What James actually does
14th February 1872: James marries Margaret.  Given the time lapse since his release from prison, they cannot have known each other more than a few weeks.  James gives a false name for his father.  The address given for both on the marriage certificate is Mary Elizabeth’s, where little George, now aged five, also lives.  No doubt James is aware of George’s true identity.
After the ceremony James and Margaret move to Manchester.

Analysis: What crimes has James now committed?
Legally, James has not remarried; rather he has ‘gone through a second marriage ceremony’.  It is that which is the definition of bigamy.  The ‘marriage’ to Margaret has no legal standing at all, and children born of that marriage will be illegitimate.

However, in ‘going through a second marriage ceremony’, James has not only committed the crime of bigamy; he has also violated the conditions of his Licence, which stipulate that he ‘abstain from any Violation of the Law’.  Any violation would result, in addition to any new sentence, in reimprisonment for the remaining months of the original sentence.

*****

The story continues next week…

Norwich’s medieval churches

Highly decorative medieval church

St Stephen  (Shame about the wheelie bin)

In a previous post we looked at why some of our historic English towns/cities had so many churches, and some of the implications of that for our family research.  I explained then that it was a chance entry on the 1861 census about one of the parishes within the city of Norwich that had brought all this to my attention.

Since discovering my Norwich ancestry, I’ve had several opportunities to visit the city and to photograph all the churches of interest in my family research.  On my last visit my trusty camera and I covered about 40km on foot, so I think by now I’m quite familiar with the lay of the land!  I can personally attest to (a) the beauty of these churches, and (b) the fact that often they’re situated literally paces from each other.  (How I came to cover 40km, then, in this area of a little over one squre mile, I can’t explain.  But the iPhone Health App doesn’t lie….)

Why were so many of these churches such fine buildings?

To answer that we must travel back in time to the origin of the English textile trade.  A significant part of this trade was based in Norwich and the surrounding lands, from where large quantities of woollen cloth were exported to Flanders in exchange for the finer and better finished cloth produced by the Flemish weavers.  Norwich’s geographical location was an important factor in its success.  Not only did the city’s proximity to the North Sea coast facilitate easy export of goods to the continent, but also Norwich benefited from several waves of migration, initially from the Low Countries, later also including Huguenot silk weavers from France.  There is evidence of the presence of migrant settlers in nearby Worstead as early as 1134.  However, it was the second wave of migration, dating from the 14th century, when Queen Philippa, wife of Edward III, invited the ‘goode and trew weevers’ of Flanders to come over in large numbers, that helped to establish Norwich as England’s second city.  Thanks to these people, who became known as the ‘Strangers’, the early, primitive manufacture of woollen cloth in England was gradually transformed, with new techniques and higher quality standards.  Eventually, the manufacture of linen and woollen textiles in England would reach such a level of perfection that it was acknowledged throughout Europe as the best available, preferred to that of any other country.  Textiles woven in Norwich were considered the crème de la crème.

Fine medieval great church overlooking colourful market stalls

St Peter Mancroft, Norwich’s ‘Greater Church’, overlooking the market square which has been in continuous use for almost 1000 years

It was the wealthy cloth merchants who built the churches, clearly as a demonstration of their social standing and wealth; and as a reflection of the size, wealth and importance of the city; but also undoubtedly as a means of easing the way to heaven when the time came.  The distinctive feature is that most of the churches were built from locally found flint.  Several combine this with highly skilled, elaborate limestone flushwork.

Inside, too, the wealth of the merchants was amply demonstrated.  By the second half of the fourteenth century, an inventory of the ornaments of all the churches in the archdeaconry of Norwich shows the abundance of silk vestments and high altar palls owned by 46 of the churches.  By the time of the Reformation these treasures had increased many times over.  Norwich’s civic and ecclesiastical records show that following the decision of Parliament in 1643 to rid the nation’s churches of the last vestiges of Roman Catholicism, many fine paintings, crucifixes, statues, stained glass, seating, vestments and organ pipes were removed, smashed, destroyed and publicly burnt.  For the most part, though, the churches themselves remained standing.

Baptismal font with highly decorative wooden canopy

Baptismal font inside St Peter Mancroft where my 3xG grandfather was baptised. The highly decorative wooden canopy is an 1887 reconstruction

T. Kirkpatrick’s sketch of the North East Prospect of the City of Norwich gives an idea of what the city looked like in 1723.  Although several of the 63 original churches had been demolished in the 16th century, and a further one would follow in 1887, Hochstetter’s map demonstrates that by 1789, 36 churches remained.  That was also the year my 4xG grandparents were married at St Peter Mancroft.  Their son, my 3xG grandfather, would be baptised there six years later.

During the Second World War, Norwich’s beauty and historical significance, as highlighted in Baedeker’s guide, marked it out as a target for the Luftwaffe High Command.  The raids on the city that took place between 27th April and 19th October of 1942, continuing sporadically until 6th November 1943, became known as the Baedeker raids.  Accounting for 60 per cent of lives lost through air raids in Norwich during the war, and causing damage then requiring £1,060,000 worth of repairs, the raids were also responsible for the loss of five of the medieval churches, although St Julian, of particular historical significance as the late 14th century residence of Dame Julian of Norwich (whose work The Revelations of Divine Love is the first known book to be written in English by a woman) was rebuilt.

Today, then, 31 of the historic churches remain within the ancient, crumbling city walls, and Norwich can claim the largest collection of urban medieval churches of any city in Western Europe north of the Alps.  However, the majority of them no longer serve as chuches.  Three are under the care of The Churches Conservation Trust (search for ‘Norwich’ to find them) and one is in private ownership.  Since 1973, a further eighteen, managed by the Norwich Historic Churches Trust, have been brought back into use as community, cultural and arts centres.

St Michael Coslany church, showing richly decorated facades

Nicholas Groves has written an excellent book about The Medieval Churches of the City of Norwich, which has accompanied me on all my meanderings across the city.  It’s widely available in Norwich bookshops.  I bought my copy in the little bookstore within St Peter Mancroft.

What can death records tell us about life?

In a previous post about Death Certificates I talked about a whole range of alternative records that could provide sufficient information about a person’s death to make purchasing the official certificate unnecessary. Today I want to return to this topic but with a different focus: to consider how these same records, purportedly confirming a person’s death, might tell us a great deal more about their life.

We know that after 1837 Death Certificates record specific information: the deceased’s name, age, place and cause of death, occupation (husband’s occupation if a married woman or widow) plus description/relationship and residence of informant.

Yet these facts of the deceased’s death start to give us clues about how they lived.  Did they live to a ripe old age or die young?  Does the cause of death suggest anything other than natural causes, e.g. an occupation-related disease, an accident, a suicide?  Was the informant a close relative?  If not the spouse or adult son/daughter, was it a sibling, indicating that the family remained close both geographically and in kinship?  If we then also add in some of the alternative sources of information about deaths (I listed them in that previous post), we might find we can learn a surprising amount of additional information.  Here are four quite different examples from my own research:

Coroner’s Reports
On 17th March 1898 my 2xG grandfather, Edward, took his own life.  The death of a person in unexpected, unexplained or violent circumstances triggers a Coroner’s hearing.  Where records of these survive they will be at the local Archives/ Record Office.  Sometimes they are quite brief, but Edward’s isn’t.

The Coroner interviewed four people: the bridge turner who was the last person to see Edward alive: the coal boat master who found his body in the water; and the woman who strip-washed and laid him out.  The principle interviewee was Edward’s daughter, my great grandmother, Jane.  Between the four of them they provide information about what happened that day.

But Jane also talks about how Edward was in life.  She paints a picture of him in the days and weeks leading up to his death.  He smoked his tobacco but had a serious, ongoing bronchitis condition (they probably hadn’t worked out the connection by then); he received 3 shillings a week from the Poor Law Guardians; he had a life insurance policy with the Prudential (I wonder if they paid out for suicides).  She visited him daily, and had seen a change in his behaviour – he had become very ‘irritable and childish’ during the past 3-4 weeks.

I learned that Edward lived in a ‘yard’, above a stable.  He had given notice but had not yet left.  A few days before Edward’s suicide, the occupier of the stable below had ‘insulted him’, causing him to fear that the stable occupier would return on St Patrick’s Day to break all his windows.  Whatever happened, and whatever was at the root of the animosity, it was clearly weighing heavily on Edward’s mind.

The reference to St Patrick’s Day is intriguing.  What was the significance?  Edward’s first wife was Irish, but she was long dead; and although I’ve never found Edward’s baptism, family legend has it that ‘he went back to the place where he was born to drown himself’.  Have I been looking in the wrong place: could Edward have been Irish?  Edward is the enigma that keeps on giving.

Obituaries
If your ancestor was particularly grand or achieved something noteworthy in their life, you may find an obituary in the local/ national newspaper or other publication.

My 4xG uncle Edwin Wade, was Lord Mayor of York in 1864-65.  A successful surgeon-dentist, he was active for many years in local politics, a ‘mover and shaker’ in many public bodies, and an early investor in the railway company.  I hadn’t appreciated just how much of a pillar of the community he had been until I read his obituary in the York Herald, 13th December, 1889.  (FindMyPast newspaper search.)  There, I learned that Edwin was also senior Justice of the Peace and associated with public bodies such as the Lunatic Asylum, School for the Blind, York Tourists’ Society, York Savings Bank and the Merchant Taylor’s Company.

Edwin’s funeral was a huge event.  As the cortège passed through the streets of York, the whole city came to a standstill.  Blinds were drawn on the Mansion House and other public as well as residential buildings; shutters were closed on local businesses.  A comprehensive list is given of the York great and good who attended, and also all family members.  This helped me to track down a number of marriages and other connections.

Wills
For any ancestors who died since 1858, you can search the government’s wills and probate website to see if they left a will.  Be sure to enter your search (surname and exact year of probate – which may be after the year of death) in the correct section: 1858-1996; 1996 to present; or soldier’s wills.  Once you’ve identified the correct person on the ‘Probate Calendar’ you can order a digital copy of the actual will (cost £10) which will be emailed to you.

Wills can tell us a huge amount about our ancestors and their families, and I’ve ordered quite a few over the years.  However, in the example that follows, just the information on the Probate Calendar was enough to solve my current problem:

I had traced one of my lines back to a William Wade in York, and I knew his wife (my 3xG grandmother) was Jane, but wasn’t yet sure either of Jane’s maiden name or of William’s parents.  One of the possible marriages was to a Jane Cass in Huntington, daughter of Thomas, an innkeeper.  Possible parents for William were John Wade and Sarah; and if this was correct, I had found baptisms for all of William’s siblings.  I entered all this on my tree, noting that it was not yet proven.  Some time later I found a likely death for Thomas Cass, and then an entry on the Probate Calendar:

Entry on UK Probate Calendar, 1860

I could have ordered the actual will and I’m sure I will, eventually.  However, although this short entry told me only one thing I didn’t know about Thomas (he left ‘Effects under £300’), it proved without doubt that all parts of my hypothesis about this line were correct.  It linked my known 3xG grandfather William Wade to Thomas Cass, and even included William’s older brother, Edwin.  Strange I thought at the time, to name the  brother of your son-in-law as the chief executor…  Of course, that was before I knew that Edwin Wade was your all-singing all-dancing politician, board member, soon to be Lord Mayor of York, and in general the man to trust if you wanted something done!

Monuments, epitaphs, etc, in churches
For reasons that deserve a separate post it’s not always clear if our ancestors were Nonconformists.  For years I couldn’t find a baptism record for my 3xG grandfather, John Ingham.  Eventually a possible emerged.  Everything made sense: the location (Morley), the year, even the names of the parents and siblings which I could see repeated in his own children.  The only problem was that adult John seemed to be Church of England.  He married Betty in her C of E parish church (Calverley), and all their children were baptised accordingly.  But this baptism was in an Independent chapel.  I dithered for a long time over whether to accept this record as John’s.  In the meantime, continuing to research other lines, I gradually realised that a lot of my other ancestors came from Calverley and adjacent villages – and they were all Nonconformists.  There seems to have been large communities of different Nonconformist congregations in a triangle taking in Calverley, Pudsey (Betty’s actual birthplace) and another village called Idle. Might there also have been some sort of connection between these congregations and that of Morley, where the possible baptism for John took place?

It was a memorial inscription that made everything fall into place, erected in 1880 to the memory of Betty’s brother Abraham Gamble, by his wife Elizabeth.

How on earth could this have helped?  Well, it’s to be found in Pudsey (Betty’s birthplace), on the wall of the Wesleyan Methodist Church, thereby confirming Nonconformity in Betty’s wider family.  It followed that my 3xG gradparents Betty and John might have met on social events between their respective congregations, and therefore the unexpected Nonconformist baptism record for John could be correct.  Together with all the other information, I was now happy to accept the John on the baptism record as my John.  It may seem tenuous, but afterwards, I did find that Betty and Abraham’s mother, Hannah, had also been baptised in the Morley chapel, moving to Pudsey after marriage.  The connection between the two families was an old one; but it was that memorial inscription that tipped the balance of probabilities for me.

As I hope these examples illustrate, we can look upon these death-related records as simply a confirmation of names, dates and places.  Or we can really look at them, wringing out every last clue to better understand our ancestors’ lives.

Do you have any similar examples?  Or are there perhaps as yet unseen clues lurking in the death records on your tree?

Little Michael, Joseph and Richard

Memorial to the Great Hunger in Ennystimon, Ireland

Gentlemen,
There is a little boy named Michael Rice of Lahinch aged about four years, he is an orphan, his father having died last year, and his mother has expired on last Wednesday night who is now about being buried without a coffin!! unless ye make some provision for such. The child in question is now at the workhouse gate expecting to be admitted. If not it will starve.
Robs S. Constable

Part of memorial to the Great Famine of 1845-1850 showing small orphaned boy waiting at a door.

There weren’t many records online when I first started my family tree, so for the first ten years I worked on it in fits and starts.  Each time I came back to it there were more collections available, but without easy access to the various Records Offices, progress was limited.

Everything changed in 2010; and this memorial was the catalyst.  It’s to be found a mile outside Ennystimon, in County Clare, directly opposite the hospital which was itself built on the grounds of the former workhouse.  It commemorates those who suffered and perished during the great potato famine of 1845-1850, referred to in Ireland as The Great Hunger or An Gorta Mór.

The memorial text is based on an entry in the Minutes of the Meetings of the Boards of Guardians for Ennistymon Union.  It references actual events of the bitterly cold morning of 25 February 1848.

As soon as I saw this memorial my heart broke for little Michael Rice.  Immediately, I understood why my GG grandparents had left Ireland and come to Leeds.  I had learned about the Potato Blight at school, so I have no idea why the penny hadn’t dropped sooner, but there and then I resolved that as soon as I got home I would honour their memory by returning to my family research and learning more about them.  Well… if you have Irish ancestry you may already understand that I was on a hiding to nothing.  The records simply don’t exist.  In fact it’s only within the last month that, through DNA, testing I’ve made some headway with my Irish folks.  However, before long I made a different, quite shocking discovery

I was searching the 1881 census for my great grandfather Joseph (an English great grandfather, not the Irish line).  Locating a likely record, I opened it up and found him, not within a family group, but a ‘scholar’ within an establishment of some sort.  I still remember the horror as, clicking left to turn the pages until I reached the name and address of the establishment, I saw that Joseph, along with one of his brothers, was in the local workhouse.  Joseph was eleven; his brother Richard was twelve.  Further investigation showed that in 1875, when Joseph was just five years old, his mother died.  Within six months his father was dead too.  Joseph had been in the workhouse since the age of six.  He was my flesh and blood version of little Michael Rice.  I remember dissolving in floods of tears, because Joseph was not some distant, faceless ancestor.  He was my father’s granddad; and I had photos of him – photos suggesting that despite his own tragic start in life, he spoiled his grandson.

Since that day, Joseph has had a special place in my life.  He has, indeed, many stories to tell, and I feel a strong connection to him.  Also since that day, this beautiful yet tragic memorial just outside Ennystimon has taken on additional meaning for me.  It represents the suffering of the Irish people at the hands of mother nature, heartless landlords and the uncaring policies of a remote government in Westminster; it represents my own ancestors who fled County Mayo with the hope of making a better life in Leeds; but it also represents little Joseph and Richard, and their fear and misery as they realised that, having just lost their parents, this, now, was to be their home.