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29 Jun 2018

End of the line

The remnant
Down the end of the lane, where grass still grows in the middle of the road, lies my landlady's old home. It's still there, untouched, unvarnished. Like a book sitting on a library shelf, it contains all you might need on the long dead subject.

Hannah Dooley was agreed to be the last of the family residents in Eyam, passing away in 1946 (not bad for a grandfather born in 1771). I've got a letter from someone who remembered her little cottage, plus some postcards she wrote, and she also left a Will. The Will isn't very interesting, but we're happy enough overall.

Another last-of-the-line was the box-of. -frogs that was Miss Stuart Barone. Rich,storied, and in ill health, her light odometer reading  masked an exciting life in exile during the war. With her dying gasp you can hear the grief in her Sicilian village home. And to accompany this there'll be plenty of candles. She leaves a document, another Will, hopping around the decades. Announcing her birth in Alberta (1908); sorting out her grandparents for posterity, and scattering about the American connections like wild mountain herbs.

Treasure is a wonderful name for any family member, and this one was also, last-of-the-line. Someone told me he made a bonfire around the time he was in poor health, making his peace with the world, of all the family effects. Bonds of indemnity for obscure field purchases from the 1860s, solicitor's letters to his long-dead grandfather. It all needed to go up in smoke before he died, he felt.

Harrumph was my reaction, ambitious as I was to find a photograph of the parents and children, or even his grandmother, a key person in the tree.

Last week a gentleman wrote me from southern Somerset, exorcising his own ghosts. There were photos of cows from the 1960s, old cottages in hamlets the motorcar hadn't seen. And round the corner, in every frame, out of shot, was Treasure, carefully described. These memories have been pickled in amber for us.  And better by far, after a wait, than silly old parchment from the bonfire.

My mustachiod great- great- grandfather, William, has 85 descendants living, at a conservative estimate. Yet his two sisters Arundel and Catharine had children and grandchildren but no surviving descendants at all!

One spinster lady I met thought that her sister, who'd died age 16, would have been the one to get married. Catharine's grandson Phillip wanted to marry, but nobody wanted to go through with it. In a small town in Oregon, his father's shame  was too much to bear.

Three troubling events occurred in poor Percy's life (the only child of Catharine to have issue): losing his elder boy in the swollen waters of the Washington River in 1921; being found to defraud local people out of their money at his small town in Oregon. But the trigger for all the sorrow and insecurity was decades earlier in 1896, age 22, when this mild but bright fair skinned lad-on-the-make got too close to the flames. Witnessing a Chinese gangland murder in L.A., he went on the run. I honestly think if he'd kept his pretty nose out of Chinatown, Catharine (his mother) would have descendants, and Phillip, buried in a Veterans grave, would not be End of the Line.

20 May 2018

Their lives in 65 characters

The sisters, by which I mean, mine and my mother's, asked for kind of a one-pager on the family history.

Key facts, quirky discoveries, who's who, exactly who the cheese maker lady was, which relative went to Bogota, the name of the place in Ohio where they all went.

They want me to empty my pockets in the school yard and show them all my best marbles.

Or, they want me to 'fence off' all the soft leaves of the forest floor and hurry them quick to the one or two precious orchids.

After nodding my head enthusiastically at this idea, because I do want to share, I realise that's not the way it should happen.

You all need to comb through the dull pages and discover gems for yourself. To read through the source materials and pick out passages that you personally like.

I don't mind making that process a bit easier by providing typescripts of cramped original text, providing a master chart showing how the mini-charts fit together, setting up a keyword index to aid navigation...

But the discovery, that's got to be a personal matter.

Let me know how you get on 😁

7 Apr 2018

Letters from 1921 and from my DNA sequence

You can't hide your letters from me, bud.

A long time ago, back in 1921 as the world settled down to a brief peace, my grandmother was due, and, later, born. "I hoped she would be called 'Ellen' after me," wrote the baby's grandmother, a crotchety old woman born before the Crimean War.

Everybody in the letter is now gone of course, including my grandmother (aged 96) who limped on until 2018.

But in the letter from the time of her birth is mentioned an abstruse relative, cousin Margaret from Westcliffe(-on-sea). One of my first tasks as a child genealogist was to peer at old maps and yes to conclude this was probably the Westcliffe near Southend rather than the one in rural Lincolnshire.

Margaret appears once, at the dawn of my grandmother's long life and is never mentioned again. It eventually transpired she was Ellen's first cousin a poor orphan thing, a jewellery polisher from Soho no less.

(And yes that is the Soho in London not the one in the Mendips!)

The shutters have long since come down on Ellen's day. The letter briefly puts Margaret and her very London childhood on the same page as Ellen, who, I slightly exaggerate, grew up in a castle. The accidents of birth and the lives of two very different sisters in the previous generation.

Well now, it is indeed very much 2018 and why am I telling you allthis?

The letters in my DNA are recently sequenced and they shout very loudly that I'm related to folk in Rensselaer county, New York, a mostly German area in the eastern upstate bordering New Hampshire. It's the place where cousin Margaret's sister Mrs Starck arrived a lonely undocumented teenage bride from Soho with her older Prussian husband, in 1863.

Margaret would hardly remember her and you'd never tell from her will, penned from Hildaville avenue, Westcliffe, that she had any relatives at all. Only her devoted cousin Ellen.

What a shock that was to learn.

So, as the dust eats us all up, memories, dislocated teenage brides (delivered to a lunatic asylum before time progressed further), hand-penned letters about long-ago babies, a silent box holding 96 years disinterestedly... My deeply encoded genetic letters back it all up.

You can't hide your letters from your genetic buds.

I'm off to marvel at the Hanoverian prinzessen and their likeness to my somehow-cousins over in Rensselaer county.

And say a quiet prayer for Sarah (yes, that was her name).

30 Mar 2018

A Blast of Fire and Ice

Five senses aren't enough... to describe everything. Heat rising from the roof of my skull, my temples pulsing. Some other force is at work: sometimes fire, sometimes ice.

Phillimore is an American-sounding company. They published vanity books, seeming replicas of parish registers in a typed format on heavily textured cream paper, artistically torn down the sides. To me age 12 their product looked the real deal. Forgetting the medium I went straight to the message:

Catherine Marshall, my forebear, had married James Lowry at Truro St Mary in 1809. And the witnesses were William Marshall and Nicholas Marshall. A powerful, strong, entry to come down through time.

The creamy paper, the incredibly high ceilings of the Westcountry Studies Library. The new names, the family unit. The sense this was deep Cornwall. The heat blew off the roof of my skull.

Since then, well, I've learnt it's bad to be obsessed with genealogy. We all descend from the same ancestors after all and maybe we're a chaotic mishmash with no real threads that can be followed backward meaningfully. Throw in a vast number of "non-paternity events", confused clerics muddling or omitting the names of females...

And, here's the killer fact. Apparently the DNA of some ancestors gets diluted away to nothing in the random cement mixer that is the cell meiosis. In effect over time their contribution was just an empty box.

Hmmmph. Let's raise an empty glass to ancestral anonymity!

This week has restored the story I always knew had to be true. That history, our private family history, is passed down through real named people, every step of the way. What your Grandpa said, true. What the registers said, true.

I match exactly the DNA of a descendant of Nicholas Marshall.


My other Cornish blow-your-head off moment was the day I sat with salt in my hair in the microfilm reading room in Truro. This time I was a few years earlier, in the 1780s on the coast near St Ives. By virtue of another forebear, I was a Trewhella. The temples pulsed. Dang I can still feel it.

This week, two decades on, I match the DNA of a Trewhella descendant.

These people are in my veins.

The character in Daphne Du Maurier's House on the Strand loses his grip on reality through connecting with the past. I'm happy just to have a blast of fire and ice.

24 Feb 2018

The Teenagers

When I first heard that Henry VII's mother was only 14 at the time she have birth to him I was understandably appalled.

It is very rare in my family for couples to marry below the age of 21, and I can only think of one example where the bride was below 18. That was Mercy Haine an orphan who married at 16 in East Pennard, Somerset, sailed to Prince Edward Island and gave birth to her great child the following year, 1834 age 17. She was a remarkable lady having 12 children in all and becoming the first lady of the Island.

Consequently, I was highly sceptical of the published dates of Hannah Bagshaw (1792) and her eldest son John (1808). Was she only sixteen? I ignored the problem as she was a healthy 34 when my ancestor Milly came along in 1826.

We eventually found the marriage for Hannah to Mr Bagshaw and it was in 1807 so she was in fact only fifteen. I had never heard of such a marriage. It took place in Rotherham where the records were shockingly bad. Money must surely have changed hands here.

Hannah's daughter Milly and Milly's daughter both had their first child age 19/20. So this makes already the generations of young relationships, 15, 20, 19.

Going back into Hannah's past was going into the unknown. Her father's mother was only sixteen when she got married back on Christmas Day 1767 in Dudley.  Dudley at Christmas would be bad enough perhaps... (I'm sure its lovely!)

Hannah's mother marries at the church of the unusual spire, Chesterfield, and the record is beautifully kept - unlike that of the next generation at Rotherham. We don't know her age for sure but with a husband of 23 she has to be fairly young. The handwriting says as much. We think she was 17, as a candidate of that age fits all the naming patterns and biographical setting.

So we have Ellen 19, mother Milly 20, mother Hannah 15, mother Ann 17?, mother in law Sarah 16. Five generations of inexperienced women becoming wives and mothers, surely a recipe for disaster and social ills.

I am absolutely not condoning the circumstances under which these women might have lived, but they were not sixteen forever. They lived, mostly, to become wise elders offering counsel and guidance to the next generation.

This series of episodes remained hidden in our family tree until last year but covers I suppose the periods 1767-1808 plus 1846-65. I am aware that at least two of the girls were in service when they fell pregnant, while two may have been romances and the other a rational choice to escape a family situation.

Sarah has then the dubious honour of being my youngest six x great-grandmother. I recently walked in her footsteps of the family move in south Staffordshire from the 1760s.

There is more yet to find about these folk.

3 Feb 2018

Tracing Cousins, an Index to Articles

List of topics

Tracing cousins:

6 Jan 2018

Daughters of Hannah

Many of you will know the story of Henrietta Lacks, whose body kept on giving before death (in the form of lots of babies), and after death (in the form of her cancer cells which have divided at an incredibly rapid rate). Keeping up with her descendants, or the location of all her cancer cells, would keep someone occupied for a long long time.

I gave given myself the task of finding the descendants of Hannah Shaw born 134 years earlier in Derbyshire 1776, around the time we lost the American Colonies. There are loads. At first I thought there would hardly be any, as only a rag-taggle bunch are still at home in 1841. Hannah really struggled to get going, finally getting a good rhythm with her cousin (and husband) in her late 30s. It was Ellen, born when she was 37, who really got the tree moving. I am losing track of all of her granddaughters, and great-granddaughters.

My plan is to find one descendant of Ellen (and Hannah) in the female line each week. So that by June 2018 I will have a suitable candidate from Hannah's line ready to do a DNA test. The candidate must be in the female line, in other words 'of the body' of Hannah.

We have my cousin Klaus waiting in the wings, descendant of Hannah's older sister Ann. Hannah and Ann lived very different lives but much seems to link them together. Until we do the DNA test we won't know for sure they were sisters. The test will very much cement together exactly what happened in those key years 1790-1 in the family tree.

Putting it crudely, who exactly screwed who.

I am flitting back to Bonsall Bank where much of the action took place with a view to establishing even more postcodes of living relatives, of the body of Hannah, who will be suitable for the DNA project. Watch this space.

18 Dec 2017

Hidden Roots: Behind the Marriage

All I really wanted was to find out something, anything!, about the couple in this marriage entry - which is for 1791 in Chesterfield, north Midlands.
Most of the marriages that made me were mature couples solemnly throwing their lot in with another, having had something of a life already. I didn't think this one was.

What lay behind the marriage was my biggest discovery of 2017.

I knew the only child of the marriage very well: Hannah. She founded a dynasty of hardworking, short-lived women, all working-class business women who took their plenty of nothing, and made plenty of something.

But her parents were one big closed door. And when you burst open a door, you don't get to control what you see.

Nathaniel Gee and Ann married for love, of that I'm sure. Their first and only child was already on the way. When Ann died the very next year, Nathaniel's next daughter (by a new wife) was given her name. He only reached 37 himself. So by 1810 the couple were both dead and their love folded up and gone like dry leaves.

Finding the story

You didn't tune in to watch me clang open filing cabinets, and scroll through microfilm for the right baptism. But tippie-toing along the path, DID lead to the right baptism, for both Nathaniel, and Ann. Bear in mind please I knew NOTHING about them. Not even their real ages.

Reality struck. There was nothing I liked about possible baptisms for Nathaniel in London fringes, the east coast or urban Manchester. Bearing in mind he died 1805, I like the look of this family unit, based in Derbyshire, but with a Nathaniel in the mix. Something needed exploring here.
I really thought there was a vacant position here for Nat, maybe the son of Jonathan and Sarah? To my amazement, the door clicked open and there were plenty of riches to behold. Turns out I was right.

The groom

Nathaniel Gee was baptised 1767 in West Bromwich, just outside Birmingham, our second city, some years before his parents came to Derbyshire. Jonathan and Sarah Gee married the previous Christmas (1766) in Dudley, administratively in Worcestershire, clear the other side of Britain's second city.

Wheesh!! The pages kept turning and turning. I scribbled 5 pages of trees no problem. I checked out 2 wills and there are at least two more to check at some point. The family kept rabbits, wine and something to do with hot metal. They were interesting and an eight-year old girl got a pet sow as a gift to bring piglets in to the family equation. And that's just the mother Sarah.

The father Jonathan - well he turns out to have been a formidable builder of canals. You name a big stretch of man-made waterway from the 1700s and this man Jonathan Gee had his finger in whatever pie there happened to be going. Let's just say I have a barge trip around the UK booked as a some-day project, and that is going to be all about Jonathan with almost no down-time to see all he did.

Nathaniel has the blood of 3 counties whirling in his veins, and that's great, but what about Ann?

The bride

Ann the bride was probably 17 years of age and definitely not 'from Chesterfield' as the marriage entry implies. I know now that Nathaniel was a bold young buck of 22 and capable of relabelling 'black' as 'white' if he chose to do so. He had his father's big ideas and all his talking shook his later children right up the ladder. A hundred years later, one of his granddaughters would hold court in Nottingham, giving the only published account available of life in that city across the 1800s. Effortless and faultless, she was a rich woman at the castle alright, and stuff the poor woman at her gate.

Ann was from a poor family with an ambitious and clever mother who died. She was probably baptised at Wirksworth, Derbyshire, right in the heart of John Palmer's famous project, in 1776. (John is researching the family of the ambitious and clever woman, and appears in Dave Gorman's Googlewhack with his website apparently managing to host the words 'baptise' and 'slurry' on the same page.)

I would like to tell you that the ambitious and clever woman lived a long and happy life and that her influence lasted. Well no and yes, in that order. Every single woman in the family since Ann's mother downward (on our line) had the ability to read and write. There were a couple of wobbles along the way.

I would never have believed that Ann from Wirksworth could be the lady marrying at Chesterfield, if it wasn't for the go-getting Nathaniel. Look at his bold signature. Can you believe he wooed a girl 20 miles away (under 18) got her pregnant and convinced the vicar at Chesterfield that she was of a majority age and also living locally, for three consecutive weeks? Of course he could! The two towns are marked on the above map.

The landscape west of Wirksworth, where Ann's less-than-spectacular father scrabbled a living from the lead mines, is quietly stunning. Although she shot her bow before attaining 20, she left a sister. Aha! I didn't mention her. The sister has descendants in the female line, who if they can shake their cheeks loose of genetic material will have the same uterine line as my father and other relatives.

Do you remember Hannah, only child of these remarkable parents? She's a remarkable lady also, in her own right. And do you think you might tell the name of her ambitious and clever grandmother, who whiled her short life away up in the hills of Wirksworth. That's right she was Hannah too.

My Hannah is locked securely into her own landscape, her patient and determined ambition a family inheritance. She did not die her mother's death at 20, she did not reach for the stars and get smashed on the rocks like her father. She was not extraordinary like her grandfather the canal-builder. She has a whole other family just like her somewhere about. We will find if the DNA matches, but even if not, the synthesised back-story of her parents remains my fondest discovery of 2017.

Read more in Love on the Canal the story of Nathaniel and Ann's romance.

Story penned for Elizabeth O'Neal's December blog party Holiday Twofer.