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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.