The saga of the Vickresses of Marden

The following is an account of a branch of my own family whose fascinating story has captivated me since I began researching my family tree many years ago. It is, you might say, a family saga, as it covers several generations who lived over a period of almost two hundred years.

The story begins in the early days of the 19th century, with a young man called Joel Orchard. Joel lived in Tenbury, Worcestershire, and worked as a tallow chandler (that’s someone who makes candles out of tallow, which is a type of animal fat) – he is referred to as such in various documents, such as Pigot’s Directory of 1835 and the 1841 English census. In 1832 Joel married Hannah Rogers and a few years later the couple welcomed their daughter, who was also named Hannah. Sadly, Joel’s wife died a very short time after giving birth to their baby, and so Joel was left a widower at the young age of 34. Just a year later he married for a second time, to Mary Bean, but the marriage remained childless – the 1841 census states that Mary was 55 at the time, while Joel was twenty years younger – the difference in age would certainly account for the lack of further children!

Pigot’s Directory of 1835 mentions Joel Orchard, of Butter Cross, Tenbury, as a Tallow Chandler.

In 1846 Joel died leaving his daughter in uncertain circumstances (his second wife Mary disappeared from the picture entirely). Eight-year-old Hannah was sent to live with her paternal aunt, Mary Orchard, who is recorded in the next census as “a landed proprietress”. Although Aunt Mary would have reared Hannah, and in spite of having enough resources to keep a dairy maid, Hannah is shown on the 1851 census as a house maid – perhaps Aunty Mary wanted to make sure Hannah would be able to survive in the world by herself.

Only a year later, Hannah’s life changed considerably when Aunt Mary married William Vickress (my great-great-great-grandfather’s eldest brother), and settled in the small village of Marden, Herefordshire; although the marriage did not produce any issue, it did prove key to Hannah’s existence, as we will see shortly. Hannah was kept on as a sort of adoptive-daughter and companion to her aunt and new uncle, and at first seems to have stopped working altogether – perhaps as it was no longer economically necessary. However, as she got older, and following the untimely death in 1870 of her uncle, due to asthma, Hannah appears to have gone into service once again, and by 1871, she was working in Bodenham, in the household of a Mrs Honest. For a time, life must have seemed to repeat itself for Hannah and her lonely aunt.

Hannah may well have ended up  a spinster until the end of her days, were it not for the fact that in the late 1870’s she accepted the advances of Alfred Vickress. Alfred was likely an old acquaintance of hers, as he was the youngest brother of her late uncle-by-marriage, William Vickress. Despite the generational gap, the pair were relatively close in age (only eight years apart), and it is quite possible that her Aunt Mary helped to arrange what would become the second union between a Vickress and an Orchard. The pair were married in 1877, and from then on Hannah would be not only her Aunt Mary’s niece, but also her sister-in-law. The couple would remain in Marden for the duration of their lives, in the company of their widowed aunt/sister-in-law Mary, who died thirteen years later.

While her husband earned a living as a master carpenter, Hannah ceased to work in order to bring up her two children: William Alfred Orchard Vickress and Sarah Mary Jane Vickress. The years went by peacefully and largely uneventfully. Aunt Mary died in her mid-70s in 1883. A few years later, in 1900 Hannah’s husband Alfred passed away suddenly due to syncope, leaving her in charge of their house, Litmarsh Farm, and their two children. Her last years were brightened by her son’s marriage and the arrival of two granddaughters, who perpetuated the Vickress-Orchard line into the 20th century. In 1915, Hannah died peacefully aged 77.

Litmarsh Farm, formerly owned by the Vickresses.

Hannah’s only son, William Alfred Orchard Vickress, was a farmer by profession, and inherited Litmarsh from his mother. His marriage to Alice Maria Taylor, daughter of a local inn-keeper, seems to have been harmonious, and was soon blessed by the arrival of two daughters: Violet and Rose Jane. Then, quite suddenly, matters changed dramatically in the late 1920’s. On 30th April 1927 William Alfred went to the cider mill next to his house in Marden, where he was joined shortly after breakfast by Thomas Bown, a one-armed seventy-five-year-old man who had been lodging in Litmarsh for the last six months. The reasons for what happened next are left unexplained, but further circumstantial evidence could suggest Bown and William Alfred’s youngest daughter Rose Jane may have become intimate. According to press clippings from the period, money was suggested to be at the root of the problem, and the relationship between Vickress and Bown had consequently been strained for some time. Whatever the case, Bown’s subsequent actions were deemed by the coroner’s inquest to be the result of insanity.

Thomas Bown confronted William Alfred with a gun, and shot him in the face. Upon hearing the noise, William Alfred’s wife and daughter Rose Jane (twenty-one years of age, unmarried and heavily pregnant) rushed to the barn, where Bown attempted to shoot the latter. The young woman was able to escape unharmed and seek help from a Mr Taylor (likely a relation of her mother’s) next door, but by the time the neighbour arrived all he saw was Bown pointing the gun under his chin and pulling the trigger, killing himself instantly. William Alfred was badly wounded but miraculously still alive, and was rushed to hospital in Hereford, where he died on the following day, 1st May. Only a fortnight later, his daughter Rose Jane, who had narrowly escaped death, gave birth to her son Reginald. The identity of the boy’s father remains unknown – I suspect Bown may have been having an affair with young Rose Jane, and an argument between him and her father could have been the cause for the Marden double tragedy, but this is nothing more than speculation, and we may never know the truth.

Despite the tragedy, Rose Jane remained in Marden, where she brought up her son with the help of her mother Alice. In 1931 her sister Violet, who had been living in Hereford for a number of years, also gave birth to an illegitimate child, Iris Mary Vickress, but before the year was out Violet had died due to a “tuberculous ulceration of the colon”. It appears that there was some pressure to give both children (Reginald, 4, and his baby cousin Iris Mary) up for adoption. It seems Rose Jane refused to be parted from her son, but Iris Mary, on the other hand, was taken away and put into one of Dr Barnardo’s homes for children.

Letters written two decades later testify that Iris Mary and her aunt Rose Jane did not see each other often, but enjoyed a warm relationship. Iris Mary seems to have done rather well in the home she was put in, located in Woodford, just north of London. Her letters to her aunt relate how she was put through college and then began working for the civil service in 1949. Her last letter, dated 1951, was written in Cardiff on board the ship Campania, where Iris Mary was working. The vessel had been decommissioned following the end of the war and refitted to host the Sea Travelling Exhibition travelling from Southampton, Dundee, Newcastle, Hull, Plymouth, Bristol, Cardiff, Belfast, Birkenhead and Glasgow. In this letter, Iris Mary asks her aunt whether the latter would be able to travel down to visit the ship while it was docked in Cardiff. Whether Iris Mary ever got to see her aunt in Cardiff or Marden is a mystery.

The Campania in 1951, from where Iris Mary Vickress wrote her last letter to her aunt.

Rose Jane Vickress died in the early 1960’s, leaving her property to her only son Reg. Her niece Iris Mary, on the other hand, seems to have settled down far from her birthplace, and in 1953 married Donald Toon; their twins Donna and Paul were born three years later. Communications between the Toons and the Vickresses seem to have ceased several decades ago. Today, Reg’s only son continues to live in Marden, close to the farm where his great-grandfather was fatally shot in 1927. Litmarsh Farm still exists, and is now a bed & breakfast.


I would like to thank Les Vickress and his family for graciously providing me with valuable information about this branch of the family, which has enabled me to write this article. I would also like to take this opportunity to reach out to Iris Mary Toon (née Vickress) or any of her relatives, if they are interested in reconnecting with her family.

Posted in 1841 Census, 1851 Census, 1861 Census, 1871 Census, 1881 Census, 1891 Census, 1901 Census, 1911 Census, Adoption, Birth, Death, England, Genealogy, Herefordshire, Hope-under-Dinmore, Marden, Marriage, Murder | Leave a comment

The Peripatetic Caldwells

A few weeks ago I told you about my Morris/Hodges relatives and how their constant moves across Herefordshire led me to uncover a seemingly unorthodox family tree. Now I am turning my attention to the relatives of my grandmother’s maternal grandmother, the Vickresses (if you have never heard of the surname, don’t worry, it’s extremely unusual!). One of my great-great-grandmother’s many aunts, called Mary Ann Vickress, married into the Caldwell family, and it is they who have lately captured my interest.

The church of Hope-under-Dinmore, Herefordshire, where Mary Ann Vickres was christened. Source: Wikipedia.

Mary Ann Vickress was the second child (and first daughter) born to William and Elizabeth Vickress. She was born in the village of Hope-under-Dinmore, in Herefordshire, in early 1813, and was baptised shortly afterwards, on Tuesday, 2 February. John Taylor, Perpetual Curate of Hope-under-Dinmore, performed the ceremony.

Mary Ann’s family was large and I imagine fairly respectable, but economically very modest. Her parents would go on to have a total of twelve children, who were fed thanks to her father’s wages as a humble carpenter/joiner. The family were in all likelihood religious, given that both Mary Ann’s maternal grandfather and her great-grandfather had been parish clerks of Hope-under-Dinmore for many years. One can surmise that the strict moral code typical of 19th-century England would have applied to Mary Ann as much as to any of her younger sisters.

In 1834, when Mary Ann was just a twenty-one-year-old servant girl, that strict moral code was shattered when it was revealed that she was pregnant. Being unmarried, one can imagine that her parents – if they were indeed as strict and moralistic as later Victorians would turn out to be – would have been displeased, or at least surprised, by such a revelation, but far from shunning Mary Ann or her baby, they must have accepted and acknowledged the fact that she was about to give birth to their first grandchild. And so, in early 1835, Mary Ann gave birth to a boy, whom she named Edward. The child was baptised in the church of Hope-under-Dinmore on 3 March, without the father’s name being recorded.

The 1835 baptism entry for Edward Vickress, later Edward Caldwell.

The identity of little Edward’s father may never be known for certain, but it seems likely that the culprit may have been a twenty-one-year-old cooper named Joseph Caldwell, who was the same age as Mary Ann and came from the village of Yazor. The two had probably begun an affair which, for whatever reason, they had been unable to materialise into marriage, but things seemed to have changed by 1837, when Mary Ann found herself unmarried and pregnant for the second time in her life!

On this occasion her family may have added the necessary pressure to make her marry the child’s father – or perhaps it was Joseph, by now a bit older and wiser, who decided to do “the right thing” and duly married Mary Ann. The wedding took place on 17 April 1837, and was witnessed by one James Brewer and Mary Ann’s mother, Elizabeth Vickress,  whose shaky hand signed the marriage register. The groom was illiterate and thus signed with a cross – but I was pleasantly surprised to discover Mary Ann was able to write her name, implying she had at least received a minimum of education!

A mere five months later Mary Ann gave birth to her second son, whom she and Joseph named William (likely in honour of Mary Ann’s father). Edward, her eldest, would from then on use the surname Caldwell – suggesting he may have been informally adopted, or otherwise legitimised by his mother’s subsequent marriage to his unacknowledged father. Whatever the case, the Caldwells remained in Hope-under-Dinmore, within close distance of Mary Ann’s family, for a number of years. In 1839 Mary Ann gave birth to a daughter, whom she called Elizabeth, after which the family of five moved to the village of Saint Margaret’s, in the old hundred of Ewyas Lacy (which was abolished in 1888).

Through subsequent censuses, we learn that Mary Ann and her husband welcomed more children into the family. A son, James, was born in 1841 – although, like in Elizabeth’s case, no apparent birth record exists – followed by Thomas, who sadly died less than a year later. His birth was followed by that of a girl, Ann. She has proven rather difficult to investigate, as no girl under that name appears to be living with her parents in 1851. There is, however, a girl called Drusilla whose age fits perfectly with Ann’s – and given that Drusilla was an old family name among the Vickresses, I think Ann and Drusilla were one and the same person – strangely, no birth or death record appears for a Drusilla Caldwell, but we’ll come back to Ann/Drusilla shortly.

By the late 1840’s, the Caldwells had moved from Herefordshire to Sedgley, a part of Lower Gornall sandwiched between Wolverhampton and Dudley. The move was probably prompted by Joseph’s need of employment, and expanding industrial centres meant that the possibility of finding work as a master cooper and pike-helve maker was higher there than in the countryside. The family settled in an area called Springs Mere, which was pock-marked with coal, tin and ironstone mines. It was in Sedgley, in the historically eventful year of 1848, that the couple’s seventh child, a daughter named Selina, was born.

The 1850’s would prove to be a decade of huge personal losses for Mary Ann. In mid-1851, not long after the census was taken, Mary Ann gave birth to another son, whom she named Thomas in memory of the son she had previously lost. Sadly, the boy only lived a few short months. The following year news reached her that her father had passed away.  1853 was a bittersweet year for Joseph and Mary Ann, as in the first quarter they welcomed a new daughter, Jane (so named very probably in honour of one of Mary Ann’s unmarried sisters). Later that same year, however, their elder daughter, seven-year-old Ann (aka Drusilla) died in tragic circumstances when her clothes accidentally caught fire, and she died due to her injuries. An inquest was duly held.

The tragedy was somewhat compounded by the arrival of a new daughter, Emma Matilda, in 1855, but the unfortunate girl fatally fell ill with smallpox when she was just over a year old – her death certificate states she had not been inoculated. Only a year later, her elder sister Jane also died of convulsions without there being a medical attendant at hand.

The church of St Chad’s, in Sedgley, near which the Caldwells lived during the 1850’s.

Following this string of personal losses, it is little wonder that the family decided to move back to Herefordshire – perhaps the experience of living near a great city, surrounded by pollution and insalubrious working conditions, which posed a threat to their children’s health, had been too much to bear. Possibly the loss of five children – four of whom had died during their stay in Lower Gornall – made Joseph and Mary Ann yearn for their native Herefordshire.

As the Caldwells made their way back home, their elder children began to lead adult lives of their own. Edward, the child whose birth had preceded his parents’ marriage, seems to have gone off into the army – he turns up in the 1871 census listed as an invalid soldier. Tracing him on the 1861 census has so far proved impossible, suggesting he may not even have been on British soil at the time. Military records available online do not appear to be connected with him, so there is no way to know how or where he got his injuries. He returned to live under his parents’ roof and became an agricultural labourer, but he seems to have led a lonely existence after their deaths. Unmarried, and possibly suffering from his old war wounds, he ended up in the Hereford workhouse, where he spent the remainder of his life. He died there in 1916, at the age of 81.

Joseph and Mary Ann’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth, seems to have mirrored her mother’s life in more than one way. She likely went into service by the time she was in her late teens and, like Mary Ann, became pregnant while still unmarried. The father, whoever he was, probably did not take any responsibility for Elizabeth or their son, who was given the name Thomas Edward Caldwell. In time, however, Elizabeth married a man called Robert Laidler, and settled in Sunderland, County Durham (it is unclear if they met up north after Elizabeth had given birth to her baby). The marriage remained childless but Mr Laidler raised Thomas Edward as his own – in time, Thomas Edward Caldwell would name his eldest son George Robert in honour of his stepfather. Elizabeth eventually died in Sunderland in 1917, followed by her husband a year later. Her son Thomas Edward passed away in Sunderland in 1938, leaving a wife and three children (an additional pair of twins had died young). Their descendants, who still live in the north-east of England, perpetuated Elizabeth’s line down into the 20th century.

Joseph and Mary Ann’s son James, who like his father became a helve maker, also married and left descendants. In time he settled in Wales, where he passed away at the relatively young age of 55. By the 1910s several of his many grandchildren had already been born, and I’ve been able to trace some of them on the 1939 Register.

Extract of the death certificate for Mary Ann Caldwell, née Vickress.

As for Selina, James’s only surviving younger sister, she married a man with a fabulously unusual name called Walwyn Brian Thomas Trumper Wade, by whom she had three sons (one died young) and two daughters. It was Selina who took care of her parents Joseph and Mary Ann until their deaths (Joseph passed away in 1879, and Mary Ann in 1880 due to dropsy and problems related to the liver and the heart). Once her parents were no longer around, the Wades had no apparent reason to stay in Herefordshire, and moved to Newport, in Wales, where Selina lived until her death in 1921 – the last surviving of her parents’ children.

In little over two generations, Mary Ann Caldwell’s children and grandchildren had moved to very different areas of the country. Today, their descendants can be found in Monmouthshire and County Durham, although I am doubtful that they even know of each other’s existence. Who knows, perhaps this article will help them to reconnect one day!

Posted in 1841 Census, 1851 Census, 1861 Census, 1871 Census, 1939 UK Register, Death, Genealogy, Herefordshire, Hope-under-Dinmore, Staffordshire, Wales, Women | Leave a comment

The confusing story of Henry Hodges and Catherine Morris

I remember years ago when I first researched my great-great-grandfather’s eldest sister, Catherine Morris, that I didn’t find her story particularly interesting. She married, had children, and then died. At first it was all rather dull and straightforward – or so it seemed! It wasn’t util very recently that her story seemed to have been slightly more complicated, revealing what appeared to have been a very unusual and unconventional existence with a few unexpected twists along the away.

Catherine was born in Kinnersley, in rural Herefordshire, in 1849; she was baptised on 4 May that same year. She was the first child born to her parents, Samuel and Ellen (Mound) Morris, who soon thereafter moved to the nearby parish of Norton Cannon, where their next son, Samuel (my great-great-grandfather) would be born just days after the 1851 census was taken. According to the very same census, little Catherine was left behind to live with her paternal grandparents and her as-yet unmarried aunt Mary, a 31 year-old dressmaker.

The 1861 census shows ten year-old Catherine living with her parents, who had once again relocated back to Kinnersley. The family had grown considerably by this time, as two more children had joined the Morrises’ nursery, while a third brother had died in infancy.

Catherine’s whereabouts in 1871 remain something of a mystery. She may well be the Catherine Morris listed as a 26 year-old milliner lodging in the house of a Mr and Mrs Llewelyn in Ross-on-Wye, on the south-east of the county – but her age is slightly off, and perhaps more importantly, her place of birth is given as Fownhope, not Kinnersley (admittedly Fownhope and Kinnersley are next to each other). However, the theory that this is our Catherine might be supported by evidence found in the next census return.

For the first time, the 1881 census shows Catherine (by now Catherine Hodges) as a married woman. Her age and place of birth are consistent with the information previously mentioned. Delving into the copy of the Herefordshire marriages index I have on file, I discovered that on 17 June 1872 she had married a man called Henry Hodges. The wedding took place in the village of Linton, not far from Ross-on-Wye, and it was there that the couple began what later became a rather extensive family: George was born in 1873, but sadly died shortly afterwards; Ernest Henry was born in 1874, followed by Beatrice in 1877, Edith Mary in 1880 and Hetty (also known as Ethel Minnie), who was born in late 1889. An additional child must have been born to the couple at some point, given that in the 1911 census Henry and Catherine declared to have had six children in the course of their marriage, two of whom were no longer alive at the time.

Catherine Morris, by now Catherine Hodges, living in Linton in 1881 with her husband and children.

Henry and Catherine Hodges lived in Linton for an unknown number of years. It appears that Henry’s work as an innkeeper of the Alma Inn in Linton did not go as well as expected, and an unexplained change in their circumstances seems to have precipitated their move to Henry’s native Woolhope, a village further north, about half way between Ledbury and Hereford. It is there that the family can be found on the 1891 census, with Henry’s profession given as a humble agricultural labourer.

The situation seems to have changed very little by the time the 1901 census was taken ten years later, and as their children gradually left home and founded families of their own, Henry and Catherine were left behind to enjoy their last years together. The 1911 census shows them living at Park View, in Woolhope, with their youngest surviving child, Ethel Minnie, who was about to marry a smallholder named John G. Ryland.

On the face of it, the end of Henry and Catherine’s story appears to be much like any other, in that it seems pretty uneventful: Henry passed away in 1916, at the advanced age of 76, having suffered from heart problems for some time, while his widow, my great-great-great-aunt Catherine, survived him by another twelve years, dying in 1928 in her mid-70s. As I have a penchant for causes of death, I sent for Catherine’s death certificate, which revealed a very sad outcome to what I had foolishly assumed had been a perfectly ordinary existence: Catherine died at the age of 76 due to “senile decay” in Burghill Mental Hospital, also known as St Mary’s Psychiatric Hospital, which was demolished in the 1990’s. She had been interned there for a very short period (I recently ordered a copy of her medical record from Herefordshire Records Office), and her last address is given as St Owen’s Cross, Hentland, Ross-on-Wye, which is a mere ten miles from Woolhope. Her end was certainly a far cry from that of her sister-in-law, my great-great-grandmother Elizabeth Morris, who was cared for by her children until she passed away.

Catherine Hodges’s death certificate confirms where and when she died, her cause of death, and her status as the widow of Henry Hodges.

My interest in the Hodges family seemed to be growing, and so I turned my attention to Catherine’s husband Henry and his pre-marital life – which, as we shall see, does not appear to have been as straightforward as it seemed.

On the face of it, Henry Hodges consistently states in every census following his marriage (1881-1911) to have been born in Woolhope. As noted previously, his profession changed from innkeeper in 1881 to agricultural labourer in subsequent entries, but is otherwise unremarkable. His age, however, is harder to make out. In 1881, 1891, 1901 and 1911 he stated to have been 46, 53, 57 and 74 respectively, signifying a variation of no less than nine years on which he may have been born (1835, 1838, 1844 and 1837)!

Fortunately, there is a very limited number of men called Henry Hodges born in Woolhope during the right time period who could have been the man married to Catherine Morris in 1872. As the baptism records are not available online, I was left to do some very accurate guesswork in order to find out more about his family origins.

If we believe the information on most of the census returns, Henry would have been born in the mid-1830’s – in which case the only possible candidate who fits the bill is a Henry Hodges who makes his first appearance on the 1841 census: an eight-year-old boy living in Woolhope with his parents, farmers Michael and Rebecca Hodges. Ten years on, the same individual, now a young man in his late teens, can be traced on the census living in Dymock, Gloucestershire, an apprentice butcher living in the house of William Cummins. By 1861, 26-year-old Henry seems to have succeeded in becoming a butcher in his own right, and is listed as a slaughterman living in the house of a Mr Joseph Jarrett.

However, if we follow his tracks to the next (1871) census, we instantly stumble across a new clue. Henry – now claiming to be 40 and born in Woolhope, is listed as a beer retailer and living in a pub called (coincidentally?) The Butcher’s Arms (which still exists today). Even more surprisingly, Henry appears listed with his wife Louisa and their infant daughter Ellen.

Henry Hodges listed on the 1871 census, living at The Butcher’s Arms, Woolhope, with his wife Louisa and their eldest daughter.

Louisa’s existence was certainly news to me. I had not thought of the possibility of Henry having been married before he wedded Catherine Morris in 1872, but it’s not such an unusual occurrence to find our relatives having more than one spouse during their lifetime, is it? What’s strange about this is that in the next (1881) census Louisa Hodges is still very much alive – and not only that, but she appears to be living in Woolhope with Henry and their increasing brood of children! Hang on. This does not tally in with my previous findings, where I had located Henry Hodges on the 1881 census living in the village of Linton with his wife Catherine Morris and their children. So, could I have mixed up my Henrys and have mistakenly researched the wrong man?

The source of my confusion: Henry Hodges’s “second” entry in the 1881 census, living in Woolhope with his wife Louisa and their children.

It was time to revisit the pre-1881 census and try to find two Henrys born in Woolhope roughly at the same time, but it was to no avail, as every time I ended up locating the same Henry who appeared to have married a woman called Louisa sometime before 1871.

I then decided to get to the bottom of the mystery by looking up this “second” Henry Hodges and his wife Louisa in the 1891 census – and found nothing. It was only when searching for Louisa individually that I found what I can only describe as an uncanny coincidence – and I’m not even sure if it is a coincidence at all! Louisa Hodges, by then a widow, is listed living in Woolhope – literally next door to “my” Henry Hodges and his wife Catherine! What on earth is going on? Did the two Henry Hodges’ families end up living next to each other…? Or are we talking about one and the same man, maintaining two families who, amazingly, live cheek by jowl next to each other? Surely a death for a Henry Hodges registered between 1881 and 1891 would dispel my doubts, but alas, I can find no obvious reference to a death during that time frame which could confirm the death of the “second” Henry.

The 1891 census shows Henry Hodges and his wife Catherine living at Court Farm, in Woolhope, while Louisa Hodges lives “next door” at The Butcher’s Arms.

The fact that Henry’s profession fluctuates from butcher to innkeeper and then agricultural labourer (if we take him to be one and the same man), and the fact that as a publican he lived in an inn called The Butcher’s Arms, plus the fact there seems to have been only one Henry Hodges born during the 1830’s in Woolhope, seems to indicate we are indeed dealing with one individual who, somehow, managed to maintain appearances and paid for the upkeep of two large families at the same time!

I then tried to look at the situation from another angle, in a final attempt to clarify matters for good. Perhaps the marriage certificate for both unions (Henry Hodges and Louisa X, and Henry Hodges and Catherine Morris) would confirm not only the groom’s father’s name, but also the groom’s marital status at the time. I sent for a copy of Henry’s 1872 marriage entry to my relative Catherine Morris, and while I waited for the document, I was lucky enough to track down the marriage for Henry Hodges to Louisa Mailes on someone’s family tree on Although their union took place in April 1865 in Newington, in distant Surrey, I know this is our couple not only because of the groom’s father’s name, Michael Hodges, a gentleman (no longer a farmer, as per the 1841 census) but also because the GRO Index confirms Louisa’s maiden name at every entry for their children’s births.

Henry Hodge’s 1865 marriage to Louisa Mailes, which confirms his profession as well as his father’s name.

Before receiving the marriage certificate for Henry Hodges and Catherine Morris, I considered the possibility that Henry may have divorced Louisa Mailes. Divorce was not only rare in those days, but also looked upon as an attack on social norms, so it would not be unusual, in that day and age, if Louisa had wishes to pass off as a widow instead of a divorcee. And even if they had divorced, the relationship between Henry and his first wife may have been cordial, for the sake of their children, which might explain why they ended up living next door to each other as per the 1891 census.

The theory of the divorce, however, does not seem to hold if one looks at the children that Henry fathered over the years. Following his marriage to Louisa Mailes, Henry fathered no no less than seven children: Ellen Elizabeth (1866), Michael Henry (1868), Ada (1871), Annie (1873), William Richard (1876), Garrett (1879) and Tracey Allan Hodges (1881). All I can say is that, if the marriage did break down, then they seem to have had a very productive union beforehand.

But the divorce theory seems even less likely if one considers the fact that Henry Hodges and Catherine Morris were married in 1872 (at a time when he was supposed to father his fourth child by his first wife). Even more damming to my divorce theory is that, while Louisa Hodges was having children, Catherine had started having hers: George (1873), Ernest Henry (1874), Beatrice (1877), Edith Mary (1880) and Hetty/Ethel Minnie (1889).

Finally, the flap on my letterbox announced the arrival of Catherine’s marriage to the mysterious Henry Hodges. In the space of a few seconds I would discover whether Louisa Mailes and Catherine Morris had married the same man or two different men with the same name, whether he was a bachelor, and what his father’s name was.

Alas, circumstantial evidence and my own imagination had led me to bark up the wrong tree. What could have been the main plot to a very good detective story was nothing more than a seemingly remarkable coincidence. Catherine’s 1872 marriage certificate to Henry Hodges states that the groom was 30 (so, born circa 1842), a bachelor and (damaging my theory almost to the point of no return) the son of Thomas – not Michael – Hodges.

Extract of Henry Hodges’s 1872 marriage to my relative, Catherine Morris. His father’s name is given as Thomas Hodges.

I had to hide my disappointment by trying to look at the evidence as coolly as I could. Let’s imagine for a second that Henry Hodges was indeed bigamous. Surely he would have wanted to cover his tracks, and deliberately gave false information about his marital status and his father’s name – but surely, would he not have tried to assume a new identity altogether, bigamy being a punishable offence? It is possible that he was indeed the son of Michael Hodges, and that he’d invented the identity of a false father so no one comparing the two marriage certificates could have thought it was the same individual. And if this is indeed what he did, then he must have been a very clever cookie. Whilst on the Newington marriage certificate in 1865 (for his marriage to Louisa Mailes) we see Henry’s rather elegant hand signing his name; on the Linton marriage certificate of 1872 he adds a simple cross instead of his name. Again, was he covering his tracks, avoiding to put pen to paper and leave a trace which might incriminate him as a bigamist? Or was the man marrying Catherine Morris in 1872 illiterate and unable to sign his own name?

Alas, much as I want to believe that Henry was married bigamously to Catherine Morris, I don’t actually think he did, considering children were being born to each marriage more or less simultaneously. It seems possible that my Henry Hodges was the son of a Thomas Hodges – I have found a Thomas Hodges living in Woolhope around the same time that Henry would have been born – admittedly he would have been a young father, but that is not necessarily a stumbling block to this new theory. This Thomas was in fact an older brother of the Henry Hodges who married Louisa Mailes in 1865, and would therefore have been an uncle to his namesake nephew who married Catherine Morris seven years later. An uncle and a nephew marrying within the same decade? Improbable, but by no means impossible! And a family connection could well explain why the uncle’s widow ended up living next door to the nephew’s family at the same time!

One final stab at trying to locate Henry Hodges in earlier censuses (pre-1881) may well have given me the answer to the mystery. A possible candidate, hereto unknown to me, seems to have been hiding in the census, and that is a Henery (sic) Hodges, an agricultural labourer who appears in the 1871 census with his widowed mother Mary, a farmer. Although Henry does not seem to be living with his mother ten years earlier, as per the 1861 census, she does appear to be living in the household of a Mr Thomas Hill, a 70 year-old widowed farmer. Ten years before (1851), Mary is again listed as Thomas Hill’s housekeeper and, perhaps tellingly, there are children living with them: Sarah Hodges (15), who I take to be Mary’s daughter, and two sons, Richard (14) and Henry Hill (11). This young Henry may well be the same Henry Hodges who has led me on this wild goose chase all along. His mother Mary was already living with Thomas Hill by 1841, but there is no sign of a Mrs Hill. Thomas Hill’s four children, the youngest being only 4) are listed in the census that year, as is Mary’s infant son (Thomas, aged 1).

Henry Hodges on the 1871 census, with his “widowed” mother Mary.

It does not take a huge leap of the imagination to make an educated guess at what happened. In about 1840, Mary Hodges, whether a genuine widow or simply posing as one for decorum’s sake, went to live at the house of recently-widowed Thomas Hill, probably to look after his children. Whether she had children of her own by then or not is difficult to say without access to baptism records, but subsequent censuses seem to suggest that Mary Hodges and Thomas Hill may have had children together. Among them would have been “my” Henry Hodges, who thirty years later claimed that “Thomas Hodges” was his father. It seems likely that by mentioning a “legitimate” father on his marriage certificate, Henry was giving us a clue as to the true identity of his biological father, the man with whom after all his mother had lived for over forty years but who, for reasons unknown to us, never became her husband.

What remains now, to prove my theory, is to find a birth or a baptism record for the two Henry Hodges mentioned in this story, and see if their ages and parentage in any way match up the remaining evidence. Alas, Woolhope’s parish records are not available online, and as I am not biologically related to either of them, I think I will put off ordering the certificates until another time. Nevertheless, I am satisfied that my findings have led me to conclude that we are indeed dealing with two different men, and that one of them was very probably illegitimate (the fact that a Henry Michael Hodges was registered in 1843, with no maiden name given under the corresponding section for the mother, further supports my theory of the illegitimate father later covered up on the son’s marriage certificate).

After this roller coaster of a genealogical journey, I can’t feel but longing to meet a descendant of Catherine Morris and Henry Hodges. While there seem to be plenty of family trees online displaying the descendants of Henry Hodges and Louisa Mailes, I can find nothing on Catherine’s direct family. He eldest surviving son, Ernest Henry Hodges, became a domestic gardener, and died aged 68 in 1943, having had two sons: Ernest Andrew Hodges (1900-1900) and Richard Henry Hodges (1903-?). On the other hand, Catherine’s eldest daughter, Beatrice, married Harry Samuel Jones, of Leominster, by whom she too had two sons: Henry Morris Jones (1904-1979) and Eric Ernest Jones (1905-1983), but I haven’t found conclusive evidence yet to suggest either of them fathered any children. Unlike Beatrice, her sister Edith Mary had no children from her marriage to Harry Graham, whom she married in 1917. Her sister Hetty, on the other hand, did have a large family: in 1911 she married her first husband, John Gwilliam Ryland, by whom she had six children: three of them, Roland Graham Ryland, Trevor Garnet Ryland and Wallace J. Ryland, survived into adulthood and went on to marry, while three others (Douglas V. Ryland and twin girls Catherine and Ruby Ryland) died very shortly after birth. After becoming a widow, Hetty married her second husband, Rollings Creed, but the marriage remained childless. If there is anyone out there remotely related to any of these distant cousins of mine, I would love to hear from them.

St George’s church, Woolhope, where the Hodges were very probably christened two centuries ago.

Posted in 1841 Census, 1851 Census, 1861 Census, 1871 Census, 1881 Census, 1891 Census, 1901 Census, 1911 Census, Archives, Bigamy, Birth, Death, Dymock, England, Genealogy, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Marriage | 5 Comments

Granny Morris

For me, growing up in Spain and being occasionally visited by my English grandmother was a real joy. My grandmother, whom I affectionately referred to as Nana, was everything you could expect from an English granny: loving and cuddly, she always carried around her handbag full of crossword puzzles, chocolates and toffee, and was content to just sit out in my parents’ garden under a big mimosa tree listening to me while I rattled on about something or other (once I even remember reading to her about the Lizzie Borden murders!).

My father’s memories of his grandmother (Nana’s mother) are equally tender – although both women led very different lives and had diametrically opposite characters. It has recently occurred to me that my great-grandmother’s mother, whom Nana referred to as Granny Morris, must have been equally loving and affectionate. So I’ve decided to share with you her story.

Granny Morris started off life as Elizabeth Vickress. She was her parents’ eldest child, and was named Elizabeth in honour of her father’s mother – a woman born as far back as 1788 and whom she very probably knew as Granny Vickress. Elizabeth grew close to her next two sisters, Milbrough and Diana, who were close to her in age. She also probably had a close relationship with her brother William, who would later marry Elizabeth’s husband’s sister, and her brother Thomas, who would later emigrate to Australia. Although born in her mother’s hometown of Staunton-on-Arrow, Elizabeth actually grew up in Lyonshall, Herefordshire, where her father worked as a humble carpenter. It was there too that her mother gave birth to some of Elizabeth’s brothers and sisters, some of whom died young – probably the first time Elizabeth witnessed losing a loved one.

By her early twenties, Elizabeth had began working. She went into service, like so many other thousands of working-class people did, but unlike most of her relatives, she did not constrain herself to the places she knew well – by 1871 we can find her working as a domestic servant in the house of a Mr and Mrs Hughes in Huyton with Roby, then in Lancashire and now a suburb of Liverpool. How long Elizabeth remained in Lancashire is difficult to tell, as by 1876 she had made her way back to Herefordshire, and there married Samuel Morris, a carpenter who happened to be six years her junior. By all appearances, it was a happy and fruitful marriage. The couple lived briefly in Almeley, where their first-born daughter, Nell, was born, followed by the arrival of my future great-grandmother, Bessie, who was born in Pembridge in 1879. The family likely remained close sentimentally and geographically to both Samuel and Elizabeth’s parents: the Vickresses lived in Pembridge, while the Morrises fluctuated between Kinnersley and Ivington, near Leominster. It was evidently a tight-knit, extended family.

In 1881 and 1882 Elizabeth’s sons Samuel (Sam) and William were born, respectively. Then, in early January 1885, Elizabeth was pregnant for the fifth time, but went into labour prematurely and gave birth to a nameless son who lived for only two hours. The sad experience must have been a terrible blow for the bereaved parents. A ray of hope came three years later when Elizabeth (who was by now 42 years old) found herself expecting her sixth child, and in late 1888 welcomed a daughter whom she affectionately named Anne after her own mother.

At that point the family moved back to Pembridge. It was there that Samuel and Elizabeth decided to send their eldest children to school – which they did, in February 1889. There is no doubt in my mind that in time they would have also sent their youngest daughter to be schooled, but sadly little Anne’s health deteriorated in the upcoming months, and by April she had been diagnosed with marasmus (a severe state of malnutrition due to lack of proteins). Elizabeth probably watched helplessly as her youngest girl succumbed to her illness, at just five months.

By the early 1890s, Samuel and Elizabeth offered to take in a young charge into their home. The child was a little girl called Ivy Thornton – she was a distant relation, her mother being a cousin of Samuel’s. Ivy’s father had died in Sussex in 1891 due to blood poisoning caused by meningitis, and with five small children to feed, Ivy’s mother had taken the hard decision of sending her youngest child to be brought up by relatives in Herefordshire. Having lost two children of their own, Samuel and Elizabeth warmly welcomed little Ivy into their home and into their family. She became an integral part of the Morris family, and remained with them until her marriage in 1917.

With the passing of time, it was also evident that the family needed to rely financially on their children to make ends meet – Samuel’s wages as a carpenter were not enough to feed seven mouths. In 1894 their thirteen year-old son Sam was compelled to leave school, and went into the building business, later becoming a master builder and bricklayer. The girls, Nell and Bessie, also went into service much like their mother had done before them (Bessie as a general servant, Nell as a domestic nurse).

In time, as Elizabeth grew older, it was her children’s turn to seek lives of their own. William, the youngest surviving son and a farm labourer by profession, married Emily Price in late 1909. Their engagement had taken place only a few months before, and was probably the last happy occasion for Elizabeth’s husband Samuel, whose diabetes had been aggravated in recent times and had forced doctors to amputate his hand – what I can only imagine was a terrible blow for a carpenter accustomed to working with his hands. Gangrene eventually set in, and Elizabeth became a widow at the relatively young age of 63.

After a respectable period of mourning, it was Bessie’s time to get married, and so she and my great-grandfather were wed at the end of 1910. Elizabeth watched (hopefully with pride) as her children founded families of their own, and her gloomy widowhood was blissfully replaced by the arrival of grandchildren. In 1911, at 65, she became “Granny Morris” for the first time, followed in 1913 by the arrival of two grandsons (one of whom sadly died after living for only a few days). In 1917 a granddaughter, my future Nana –  who was in fact named after her mother and grandmother – was born.

Elizabeth’s grandmotherhood was not exempt of family tragedies. In 1915 her youngest brother was accidentally killed in a mining accident in Wales; three years later her daughter-in-law Emily succumbed to influenza during the epidemic known as the Spanish flu. Similarly, her son Sam’s wife, Elizabeth, died of tuberculosis in 1924 leaving a young widower and an eight year-old son.

One positive note to Elizabeth’s story is that in the winter of her life, her children ensured that she did not end up in a poorhouse, or indeed even in an almshouse like her mother had done before her. Her daughter Bessie decided there was enough space for her to come and live with her and her family in Ash Villa, in Upper Colwall, where my Nana also grew up. It was there that Elizabeth spent her last years, in a house overlooking the valleys of Herefordshire and Worcestershire from the beauty of the Malvern Hills. Suffering from kidney problems, Elizabeth’s health deteriorated sharply by the early 1930’s, and she slipped away quietly at the age of 86.

Elizabeth Morris (née Vickress), 1846-1932

Posted in 1871 Census, Adoption, Colwall, Death, Downstairs staff, Engagement, England, Genealogy, Herefordshire, Lancashire, Lyonshall, Marriage, Pembridge, Women | 2 Comments

The 1921 Census

For the last five years or so, as each new year begins, I can’t help but think we’re getting nearer and nearer a very significant date for genealogists: the release of the 1921 Great Britain census. Here are some basics which you may or may not know about this landmark:

  • The 1921 census was taken on the night of Sunday, 19th June 1921.
  • It was taken in England, Wales, Scotland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man.
  • Owing to the Civil War which was then raging, it was not taken in Ireland (the first census after 1921 was taken on the night of 18th to 19th April 1926, and includes Northern Ireland).
  • The original date for the 1921 census was scheduled to be 24th April; however, it was postponed owing to the Black Friday strike by coal miners, railwaymen and transport workers.
  • Although the new date did avoid “big industrial holidays in the North”, it did clash with the Macclesfield industrial holiday. The fact that the census was taken in summer could mean that some families are listed as “living” away from their usual abode.
  • The 1921 Census shows that Great Britain had a population of 42,767,530 in 1921 – that’s an increase of 4.7% compared to 1911, with 20,430,623 males and 22,336,907 females.
  • The 1921 census shows a very large population increase in certain seaside towns, such as Blackpool (64%) and Southend-on-Sea (50%).
  • The questions asked to be filled in on each census form vary from those asked in 1911, and are as follows: name of person; relationship to head of household; age (now required in years and completed months, rather than just years as in previous censuses); sex; if aged 15 or over, whether single, married or divorced; if under the age of 15, whether parents are living, “both alive”, “father dead”, “mother dead” or “both dead”; birthplace, county and town or parish (or country plus state, province or district for persons born abroad); if born abroad, nationality; whether attending school or other educational establishment; trade; employer; place of work; number and ages of living children or stepchildren under 16.
  • Among the new questions introduced in 1921 we can highlight whether a marriage had been dissolved by divorce. Divorces had increased considerably in the last decade (16682 people were said to be divorced on the returns, although there is considerable doubt on the reliability of these numbers), and so it made it to the census.
  • The so-called “fertility” question introduced in 1911 (asking for the number of years of the marriage and the number of children born to the said marriage) was dropped in 1921, the reason being that the results from the previous census had not yet been tabulated.
  • The “health” question asking if a person was blind, deaf or dumb was also removed, allegedly on the grounds that the parents had objected to giving this information about their children, with the result that answers given in the previous census were unreliable.
  • In Wales (including Monmouthshire) an extra question was included for each person aged three or over, asking if they spoke English and Welsh, English only or Welsh only.
  • In Scotland there was also an additional question about whether each person (over the age of three) spoke Gaelic only.
  • Scotland’s 1921 census also includes a questions asking if an individual is  entitled to benefits under the National Insurance (Health) Acts.
  • A copy of the 1921 Census form (the household form for England) can be downloaded here, courtesy of the Office for National Statistics website.

Form page of a blank 1921 census.

So, now we have seen what we can expect from the 1921 census, when can we expect to see it? Well, usually a 100 year-moratorium should be respected, which means we would need to wait until early 2022 for it to be released!

However, the 1911 census, as many of you will remember, was actually released early. In April 2007, the National Archives announced that brightsolid would be their partner in the project to put the 1911 census for England and Wales online. As from 13th January 2009, the 1911 census has been available via brightsolid’s genealogy subsidiary Findmypast on a dedicated website, with a phased release, county by county; this includes images and transcription data, initially on a pay-per-view basis only. Since then, the 1911 census has become available on other pay-per-view websites such as Ancestry. A caveat to this is that “personally sensitive” information for the 1911 census was not made available until 3rd January 2012 (thus respecting the 100 year-rule). This included “details of infirmity or other health-related information, information about family relationships which would usually have been kept secret and information about very young children who were born in prison”.

It looks unlikely that the 1921 census will be made available as quickly as the 1911 was (we would be looking at a release date within the next twelve months). But we can hope for the best!

Until the 1921 census becomes available, genealogists need to rely on existing resources to continue researching their family tree into the 20th century. Probably the most interesting of all resources is the 1939 UK Register (also available through FindMyPast), which was taken only weeks after the outbreak of World War II and, although it is not a census in stricto sensu, it does bridge the gap between the 1930’s and the 1940’s. Remember that the entire 1931 census, with the exception of the forms relating to Scotland, was rather mysteriously destroyed in a fire on 19 December 1942, while the 1941 census never took place due to the war. Therefore, genealogists’ excitement at the release of the 1921 census will be well justified – it will be the last nation-wide census to be released until the year 2052!

Instructions page of the 1921 Census.


Posted in 1911 Census, 1921 Census, 1939 UK Register,, FindMyPast, The National Archives | Leave a comment

Review: Explore The Past (a brand new guide to family history)

The front cover of the new Explore The Past guide.

Lately, Worcestershire seems to be cropping up in my “genealogical life” more than usual. Not only have I just become a member of the Malvern Family History Society (thanks to whom I think I may have cracked an old brick-wall and gone back a further generation!), but also because I was recently invited to review the new guide to family history which the Worcestershire Archive & Archaeology Service have created.

I was recently contacted by a member of Explore The Past, a part of Worcestershire Archive, announcing the creation of a 70-page comprehensive guide designed to provide advice to anyone researching their family history. In fact, this guide is so complete, you don’t need to have Worcestershiremen in your ancestry to find it interesting and useful. In my particular case, it just so happens that my grandmother’s grandmother Jane Allen (née Davis) was half Malvernian, with roots in Kempsey and Hanley Castle. Many members of my extended family branched off into various parts of Worcestershire, so I immediately leaped at the chance to write this review.

What is it?

Any genealogist will appreciate that, no matter how often and how well acquainted we are with the resources we use on a regular basis, there are always new discoveries out there which enrich and facilitate our research. The guide published by Explore The Past is proof of this. Its 70 pages cover a vast range of topics useful for any researcher, amateur and professional. Obviously it includes not only what I call the basics (census returns, civil registration and church records), but goes on to delve into other equally fascinating and useful resources: newspapers, trade directories, prints and engravings, school directories, archaeology and historic buildings, etc… It is truly a goldmine of information presented in a very clear and compact way.

Who is it for?

For someone such as myself, who tends to rely excessively on online records, I must confess I didn’t quite know what to expect from a guide of this kind. As I don’t live in the UK at the moment, you might say I’m a bit on an unseasoned user of British archive material. After all, most of us tend to think “Oh well, I’ve seen it all by know anyway”, don’t we? Actually, reading through the pages, I realised just how much information there is out there which I am simply not consulting (or I’m not using properly). The fact that this guide was conceived as a resource for those unable to make the long journey to The Hive, where Worcestershire Archive is located, is in itself innovative. Of course not all holdings are available online, but thanks to their top-notch digitisation and translation/transcription services, the Archive offers you the chance to access documents without moving from the comfort of your home!

OK, but what does it contain?

Although Worcestershire is a county, it is in fact an array of smaller, tightly-knit communities. The Archive contains some 20,000 books which will enable researchers to understand the finer historical details which defined the lives of our forebears, from military history to transport, manufacture, leisure and of course biographies of notable historical residents. The Archive also holds a wide range of maps -from tithe maps to building footprints- which will enable you to comprehend the geography of the land in which your ancestors lived.

If it’s ancient history you’re interested in, this will definitely whet your appetite: the guide offers information about the over 32,000 records of Worcestershire’s above- and below-ground archaeology, more than 17,000 records about historical buildings and ancient landscapes, over 8,000 records of archaeological investigations and over 23,000 records of references to archaeological reports, articles, books and even photographs.

Worcestershire Archive contains thousands of maps for Worcestershire.

The England and Wales census, which as you probably know was taken every ten years from 1841 to 1911, can also be accessed onsite at Worcestershire Archive and, as explained in the guide, enables users to research individuals, tracking down their movements from one population to another, understanding the social make-up of a specific area, and of course discovering more information about family units. The census is also complemented by the existence of over 85,000 photographs (including engravings and aerial photographs) which will give an added visual dimension to your research. To this we should add photographs of local events as well as images of soldiers who went to war between 1914 and 1918. I wonder if I can find any of my many Worcestershire relatives who sadly fought and died in the Great War?

Church records are complemented by the existence of vestry minutes (which give information about poor relief, church accounts and even bastardy cases), as are Bishops’ transcripts. Be warned, though, that the office of Bishop was abolished during the Commonwealth, so there are no transcripts for the period 1646-1660. Ecclesiastical records also include other denominations, including Roman Catholics, Baptists, Quakers, and Methodists. Wills and probate records will add extra flesh to your family history skeleton – and Worcestershire Archive holds records dating as far back as the 15th century!

How can I learn more?

The list of records one can access in Worcestershire Archive seems endless. It is little surprise they receive user queries from all over the world, from Sydney to New York (and now Brussels too!). For those just getting started with their research or are not well acquainted with Worcestershire Archive, I advise them to read the FAQ section (which I confess I have found invaluable).

So, whether you’re researching your Worcestershire ancestry, or are doing some research in the area, or just want to compare notes and see what resources you may have missed out on in your own corner of the world, I heartily encourage you to download the Explore The Past guide compiled by the Worcestershire Archive & Archaeology Service. To do so, or for more information, please visit their website:

I wouldn’t want to end this review without conveying my sincere thanks to Rebecca Meekings, from Explore The Past, who has very graciously invited me to write this review, and who has provided invaluable information about the guide and Worcestershire Archive.


“We’re thrilled to release what we think is an interesting and informative guide, and we hope it will be useful for anyone researching their ancestors. Whilst the guide focuses specifically on our Worcestershire collections, it would also be of use to those researching in any English county archive. The team believes that this is the only resources guide of its type.”
– – – Dr Lisa Snook, User Services Manager at Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service


Contact sheet for Explore The Past.

Posted in Archives, Genealogy, Worcestershire | Leave a comment

Looking for Edwin

In 2014 I decided to take advantage of my subscription and expand my research area beyond my own blood-relatives to collateral lines and families who intermarried with my own. By doing so I knew I would probably hit a lot of blanks and, more often than not, uninteresting or irrelevant stories – you can’t invent an interesting story out of a few names, a couple of census entries and a couple of records here and there… Or can you?

Among the targets of my broader research field was my grandmother’s brother-in-law. The man, whom I shall refer to only as Uncle Billy to protect his real identity, died in his mid-50’s over six decades ago, leaving my great-aunt Phyllis to care for their only son – who happens to be my father’s first cousin. Phyllis would later remarry, but had no more children.

From the little information I had about Uncle Billy (my father, being a small child at the time, remembers him only vaguely) I was able to draw up a picture of a man who was born in the mid 1890s in rural Herefordshire. His mother Fanny was unmarried, and therefore both Billy and his only, elder brother James were born “illegitimate”. The identity of both James and Billy’s father (or fathers!) remains a mystery; all I know is that their mother later remarried and had four sons. As Billy and James did not adopt their stepfather’s surname, I can only deduce that he was not their biological father.

Upon the outbreak of WWI, both Billy (19) and James (21) were called up, as so many other young men were in 1914. It has transpired that on 3 November 1918, just eight days before the Armistice was signed in the forest of Compiègne, bringing the Great War officially to a close, Billy’s 25 year-old brother was killed on active duty in northern France.

In view of his huge personal loss, for Billy death in the Great War was probably a very narrow escape. To escape from the horrors of the trenches and the battlefield, Billy would have received occasional permission to go on leave, and thus would have been able to hop across the Channel and visit his mother and her family. His surviving war record, which by itself recounts his experience at the front, also sheds light on a very intriguing fact which to my knowledge has been kept secret for the best part of the last century: in 1917, by order of the Magistrate’s Court, Billy was ordered to pay two shillings and sixpence per week for the upkeep of his illegitimate child!

The incriminating evidence, showing Uncle Billy fathered an illegitimate child during WWI.

Upon making such a fascinating discovery, I immediately sought out the child’s name on the war record. Oddly, Billy’s file fails to mention the child by name, or even to disclose its sex, and therefore it is impossible to know who the child was. There are, however, some very fortunate clues which make the research more promising: the child’s date of birth (26 February 1917) and place of birth (Little Dilwyn, Herefordshire) are mentioned. Perhaps even more helpfully, the name of the child’s mother is also included: Edith Jane Brown.

I duly looked up Edith Jane on the 1911 census, only to discover she had been born in or around 1898, and would therefore have been of a very similar age to Uncle Billy (and considerably older than Billy’s future wife, my Auntie Phyllis, who was born in 1911). Edith Jane was the daughter of a farm labourer called Alfred Brown and his wife Jane, who were originally from Bishop Frome and Ivington, respectively. By 1911 the couple had had nine children, one of whom had died by then, and of whom Edith Jane was the eldest.

Unfortunately I haven’t found any documents which would indicate that Uncle Billy and Edith Jane were ever married, or that their child was legitimised. In fact, I was able to find a marriage for Edith J Brown to a Thomas Chambers in 1920 – why, if they have a child together, were she and Uncle Billy never married to each other? Whatever the reason, Edith Jane seems to have led a long life (she died aged 87 in 1983), leaving a son called Thomas Joseph Chambers and her sole (legitimate) son.

But what of her first child, the one fathered by Uncle Billy in 1917? As I didn’t have a name to follow up on, my first port of call was FreeBMD, where I first tried to find a birth for a child of unknown sex with Uncle Billy’s surname and Brown as its mother’s maiden name: zero matches.

I then turned to a more likely scenario, given that Uncle Billy and Edith Jane Brown were not married at the time of the child’s birth, I searched for a birth of [blank] Brown, registered probably in the first quarter of 1917 (remember that the child was born on 26 February 1917), with both its surname and that of his mother listed as Brown. The results seemed quite promising: Edwin C J Brown’s birth was registered in the March quarter of 1917 in Weobley registration district. This seemed to be the only candidate who seemed to fit the bill: he was born in the right time-frame and in the right area, and a possible illegitimate birth at that. Surely these were too many coincidences!

My search for a baptism in Little Dilwyn around the right time proved inconclusive, but at least I now had one option open before me: to order a PDF copy of Edwin’s birth certificate. I logged into the General Records Office and searched for the right birth – I seemed to be going in the right direction: unlike FReeBMD; illegitimate births on the GRO index indicate “-” under the mother’s maiden name column. Edwin’s mother had no maiden name at the time his birth was recorded.

Today, at length, the birth certificate arrived: Edwin Charles John Brown, son of “blank” and Edith Jane Brown, a servant, was born in Little Dilwyn on 26 February 1917, and the birth was recorded by his mother about a month later. Jackpot! I had found the true identity of Uncle Billy’s illegitimate son!

Copy of Edwin Charles John Brown’s birth certificate.

Before contacting my dad’s cousin (i.e. Uncle Billy’s second, legitimate son) I wanted to make one last attempt at locating Edwin in subsequent sources. The 1939 UK Register proved useless, in that his mother is recorded with her husband (Thomas Chambers) and two other individuals who, having been born within the last century, are redacted from the page. Could these possibly be Edwin himself, and his mother’s son from her second marriage to Mr Chambers?

Subsequent searches for an Edwin, Charles or John Brown born on the said date in 1917 have either proved fruitless or too generic to make an educated guess as to what may have happened to him. I think it is unlikely that Edwin was given up for adoption, as his mother would have received maintenance for his upbringing (until the age of 14), and furthermore, it was she personally who registered his birth at the Registry Office.

Edwin’s younger half-brother Thomas Joseph Chambers seems to have been easier to track down: an online death notice published in June 2010 sadly confirms that he passed away in the city of Hereford aged 89, leaving two sons called Gerald and Colin Chambers. Would they, if they ever read this, have any idea about what became of their father’s older half-brother Edwin? Time will tell, I suppose!

Death notice for Thomas Joseph Chambers, who is very likely to have been Edwin’s younger half-brother.

Posted in 1911 Census, 1939 UK Register, Adoption,, Birth, Civil Registration, England, Genealogy, Herefordshire, Illegitimacy, Killed In Action, War, World War I | 1 Comment