Divorced, beheaded, died…

Today we’re taking a slight detour from my own family tree to delve into the genealogy of a man who needs no introduction: King Henry VIII of England (1491-1547). The image of the gout-ridden, middle-aged Tudor monarch sporting a ginger beard, with his large frame and defiant look is all too well-known to us all. Many of you will also associate him with the children’s riddle Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived, which refers of course to the fate of his six wives.

What is not commonly known is that Henry VIII was related to all six of them, from the undoubtedly blue-blooded Catherine of Aragon to the relatively obscure Jane Seymour. But let’s analyse these relationships one by one, shall we?

Wife #1: Catherine of Aragon

Catherine (or Catalina, as she was known in her native Spain) had been born in Alcalá de Henares, near Madrid, in 1485. Her parents, King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile, became living legends during Catherine’s own lifetime, as they consolidated the reconquista of Spain in 1492, the same year that they sponsored Columbus’s first sea voyage across the Atlantic (eventually leading to the discovery of America) and, more infamously, the same year they decreed the expulsion or Spain’s Jews.

The marriage of Catherine’s parents, like Catherine’s own two marriages would turn out to be, was unquestionably a political match, but their union was a personal triumph as well. They unified two branches of the same dynasty, the Trastámaras, which had split into two lines (the Castilian and the Aragonese) just two generations earlier. Because of this, Ferdinand and Isabella were closely related, being second cousins. Interestingly, English blood flowed through Isabella’s veins too – her paternal grandmother was Catherine of Lancaster, a Plantagenet with a good claim to the English throne, since she was a child (albeit a daughter – not a great advantage in those days even if you were a royal) of John of Gaunt and his second wife, Constance of Castile.

As the blood of her Castilian and English forefathers had began to mix generations before her own birth, it was not surprising that Catherine of Aragon should be considered as a prospective bride of the future king of England. So, when Catherine married Arthur, Prince of Wales in 1501 a papal dispensation was required not only on the grounds of their youth, but also because of their consanguinity, being third cousins once removed.

Wives #2 and #5: Anne Boleyn & Catherine Howard

If you know your Tudor history, you may be aware that Henry’s second and fifth wives, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard (both of whom were executed under the King’s orders in 1536 and 1542, respectively) were actually first cousins, both being granddaughters of Thomas Howard, 2nd Duke of Norfolk, and his first wife, the former Elizabeth Tilney.

The recent genealogy of Anne’s father Thomas Boleyn might suggest he belonged to the middling landed aristocracy, or even to an uppity gentry family – his grandfather, Sir Geoffrey, had been a mercer – albeit a wealthy one at that-, but through his Irish mother’s family he claimed a direct link to the Earls of Ormond and, further still, to the Earls of Arundel, Warwick, Northampton, Salisbury and March. In fact, it is thanks to one of these lines that the Boleyns claimed a direct descent from Eleanor Plantagenet, a great-granddaughter of Henry III through a junior branch of England’s ruling dynasty.

But one need not go that far back in history to find a link between Anne Boleyn and her royal husband. Anne’s mother, Lady Elizabeth Howard, belonged to the powerful Howard family, and it is through this line of the Dukes of Norfolk that she was a seven-times great-granddaughter of Edward I, making Henry VIII a fifth cousin to both Thomas Boleyn and his wife Elizabeth Howard, and thus making him a fifth cousin once removed of Anne Boleyn.

By extension, the same could be said of Henry’s fifth wife, the ill-fated Catherine Howard, who was also a descendant of Eleanor Plantagenet and, like her cousin Anne Boleyn, a direct descendant of Edward I, making her also a fifth cousin once removed of Henry VIII.

Wife #3: Jane Seymour

Jane Seymour’s immediate ancestry was certainly not as glamorous or grandiose as that of her two royal predecessors, the royal Catherine of Aragon and the worldly Anne Boleyn. But that is not to say that she didn’t share genes in common with the King: her royal connection to Henry VIII came via her maternal grandfather, Sir Henry Wentworth, whose grandmother had been born Elizabeth Percy, daughter of Sir Henry “Hotspur” Percy. As you may know from history books, Hotspur’s wife (another Elizabeth) was a granddaughter of Lionel of Antwerp, Duke of Clarence and one of the sons of Edward III.

Curiously, however, this is not the closest blood link between Henry VIII and his third (and some say favourite) wife. Both were descended from John Stourton (Jane from the latter’s first marriage to Catherine Beaumont and Henry from his second marriage to Joan Basset). The Stourtons were not ranked among the greatest families of England; they owned some land in Wiltshire and became involved in politics in the 1400s, some members of the family becoming MPs and Speakers of the House of Commons. It was thanks to subsequent advantageous marriages that they rose to prominence and within four generations were able to claim a link to the royal family. It is thanks to this connection that Henry VIII was a fourth cousin, once removed, of his third wife Jane Seymour.

Wife #4: Anne of Cleves

If Jane Seymour is said to have been Henry’s favourite wife, we can safely assume Anne of Cleves was his least-favourite – even though, unlike some of his other wives, she had a comparatively happier existence. Unlike four of Henry’s five other wives, Anne was not a commoner. As her name suggests, she was a princess by birth. Her father, the Duke of Cleves, Marck, Jülich and Berg (among other titles) was a minor German prince and one of the earliest rulers in 16th-century Europe to embrace Lutheranism – a fact which endeared his daughter to Henry VIII’s advisers and helped to push her case forward when the widowed king was looking for a fourth wife.

By climbing Anne’s family trace on both branches, we will soon find dynasties which resonate with the history books: Wittelsbachs, Hohenzollerns, Habsburgs… The list goes on and on. To find her blood link to Henry VIII via the English royal family we must trace her lineage back to her great-great-grandmother Mary of Burgundy, whose great-great-great-great-grandfather was none other than Edward I of England. However, this was far from being their closest blood link: Anne and Henry were related through the powerful Visconti family which ruled over Milan during the middle ages and the Renaissance. As great-great-great-great-grandchildren of Bernabò Visconti and his wife Anna Beatrice della Scala, the two were in fact fifth cousins.

Wife #6: Catherine Parr

Henry’s sixth and last wife descended from families that gave England some of its best-known courtiers and noble families: the Woodvilles, the Throckmortons, the Nevilles… It was through the latter, in fact, that Henry and Catherine shared not only their shared royal ancestry but could also trace their most recent common ancestors, for both were fourth and fifth-generation descendants of Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmorland, and his wife Joan Beaufort, daughter of John of Gaunt and his lover (and future wife) Katherine de Roët.

Curiously, Catherine could also claim a very close connection to one of Henry’s other wives, because after the king died in 1547, she married (as her fourth husband) Thomas Seymour, Baron Seymour of Sudeley, a brother of Jane Seymour and therefore the King’s former brother-in-law (and fourth-cousin once removed).

We have analysed the different ways (and there are obviously many more we haven’t mentioned) in which Henry VIII was related to his six wives, but one curious detail remains to be revealed, and that is their nearest common ancestor. That honour must go to King Edward I of England, who, through his two marriages, is a direct ancestor to Henry VIII and his six wives, as shown in the family tree below.

Isn’t genealogy just fantastic?


Family tree showing the shared descent, from Edward I, of Henry VIII and his six wives. Credit: TudorHistory.org.

Posted in Genealogy, Royalty | 1 Comment

Another Eureka moment!

I always feel uneasy when researching ancestors with common name and surname combinations – it is so easy to be misled by the wrong record, and to end up barking up the wrong (family) tree! This is a lesson I learned the hard way: ever since I realised that for a number of years I’d been following the wrong lead with one of my ancestor’s marriages, I’ve tried to be doubly cautious when researching relatives with fairly ordinary names. That is precisely what I’ve tried to do with my great-great-great-grandfather John Davis, whose year of birth (and consequently, his parentage) remains something of a mystery. My (over-)cautiousness has led me to distrust even the most obvious of solutions, simply for fear of following the wrong trail. It is now time to set the record straight.

All sources point to the fact that John Davis was born in the village of Colwall, Herefordshire during the first decade of the 19th century. His age is consistently recorded in the censuses as 35 in 1841 (although his age may have been rounded down slightly), 46 in 1851 and 56 in 1861, but that does not provide me with a definitive answer as to his birth year. His widow’s marriage to her second husband in 1868 leaves me in no doubt that he died between 1861 and 1868, but even his exact date of death remains uncertain. So let’s analyse the facts to see if we can find an answer to all these questions surrounding my ancestor’s life.

When was John Davis born?

If we are to believe the details contained in the census (and I have no particular reason to question this information), John Davis was born in Colwall between 1800 and 1810 – as we have seen, either in 1805, 1806 or 1807, depending on which census we believe and depending on whether his birthday was before or after the census was taken.

There are two boys called John Davis who were baptised in Colwall during that period and, interestingly, they were related to each other: the first possibility was a boy baptised on 26 June 1803, the illegitimate son of Mary Davis. Mary was herself the daughter of another John Davis and his wife Elizabeth (formerly Harfield).

The second candidate was baptised on 5 April 1807, the son of John and Phoebe Davis. John Sr. had been born in 1782, himself the illegitimate son of Sarah Davis (who was also a daughter of John Davis and Elizabeth Harfield. In other words, the two John Davis I’m currently trying to establish as my ancestor were the grandson (via Mary Davis) or else the great-grandson (via Sarah Davis) of John Davis and Elizabeth Harfield.

I know that my ancestor John Davis was married twice, but his first marriage took place before civil registration was introduced in England and Wales. In 1825 he married Ann Wilks in Little Malvern, Worcestershire, a short distance from Colwall. Twenty years later he was married a second time, to my great-great-great-grandmother Maria Parker. The certificate for this second marriage reassuringly states that John was a widower and, more importantly, the son of John Davis, a labourer. This last detail would therefore suggest that John’s parents were John and Phoebe Davis, and that he was the John Davis baptised in 1807. However, for the sake of argument, if he was in fact the bastard son of Mary Davis, he may well have made up his father’s identity. More on that later.


John’s second marriage was to Maria Parker. It consistently states he is a widower and, perhaps revealingly, that his father’s name was also John Davis.

John Davis on the census…

Let’s analyse John’s entries in the three censuses where he would have been recorded prior to his death sometime in the 1860s. John made his first entry in the census in 1841, when he was listed as a carpenter, living near The Wyche pass in Colwall, married to his first wife Ann. Present in the same household are their three children called Ann, Hannah and John, who are aged between 9 and 13. I know for a fact that John’s wife died suddenly just over two years later and he, as we have seen, chose to marry Maria Parker as his second wife in 1845. Their daughter Jane (my great-great-grandmother) was born the following year.


1841 Census: John Davis, his first wife Ann and their three children Hannah, John and Ann.

The 1851 and 1861 census record John (again described as a carpenter and a wood dealer, respectively) and his second wife Maria living with their daughter Jane, but there is no trace of his children from his first marriage. His daughter Hannah, who died of consumption aged only 22 in 1852, was listed in the 1851 census living in Worcester with her elder sister Ann, who was by then married to James Allsop and on the brink of giving birth to her second-born child. Meanwhile, John’s namesake son appears to be more elusive, in light of the fact that he has a very common name and, rather confusingly, he was born in a different county than his sisters, who were both born in Herefordshire.


1851 Census: John Davis, described as a carpenter, living at the Wytch (sic) with his second wife and their daughter Jane.

By 1861 John Davis was living in Colwall with his second wife Maria and their daughter Jane, but seven years later Maria married her second husband John Maisey. We can therefore assume that John Davis had passed away by 1868. Interestingly, his daughter Jane’s 1867 marriage certificate to my great-great-grandfather also states that her father, “John Davis, timber dealer”, was deceased. This limits John’s date of death to between April 1861 and July 1867. We seem to be getting closer to the truth. Or are we?


1861 Census: John Davis, described as a wood dealer, living in Upper Colwall with his second wife Maria and their daughter Jane.

Which of these men called “John Davis” is my ancestor?

There is no shortage of men called John Davis (or Davies) in Ledbury registration district between 1861 and 1867: there are five in total, although fortunately we can discard a couple of them for being of the wrong age: the John Davis who died in 1861 was 76 years old, the John Davies (sic) who died that same year was not yet a year old, and the John Davis who died in 1867 was seven years of age. I was therefore left with two possible candidates: John Davis, died aged 63 in 1864, or John Davis, died aged 62 in 1866. Given the uncertainty surrounding his real year of birth, ordering both death certificates seems to be the only way forward, as I hope that the address, the description or at least the informant’s identity will shed some light on which one of them is my ancestor.

Except, of course, things are not always as simple as we’d like. The first John Davis died on 5 September 1864 in the market town of Ledbury, which is admittedly not far from the village of Colwall, but the deceased is described as a journeyman stonemason (a far cry from being a carpenter or wood dealer) and the informant is Edmund Davis, who I assume is likely some sort of relation. Next!


Possible lead? The death certificate of John Davis, who died in 1864.

The second death certificate is for a John Davis who died on 27 April 1866 in Colwall (bingo?) aged 62, but (frustratingly…) his profession is given as an innkeeper, and the informant is a Mary Carless, of Back Lane, Ledbury. I can’t even begin to guess who this Mary Carless could be, but as she does not fit in with any of “my” John’s relatives, I can only leave this certificate on the “maybe” pile too.


An interesting alternative: the death certificate of John Davis, who died in 1866.

I am therefore left at a dead end once again. The first one definitely doesn’t appear to be my ancestor; nor does the second, save for the coincidence that he died in Colwall, where my ancestor lived all his life. I am therefore left to wonder if my John Davis even died within Ledbury registration district. Who knows if he died elsewhere – and if he did, how am I ever going to find him with such a common name…?

Where there’s a will…

This was pretty much the state of things for several years. I was left to wonder whether I would ever find John’s death certificate, and whether it could possibly lead me to discover more about his origins, which also remain as inconclusive as they did on the first day of my research.

It was only a couple of weeks ago that I thought about the possibility of checking if he had left a will. After all, there were some properties which came into the family via his daughter, so chances were he made some sort of arrangement prior to his death. I searched the wills search engine on the website of Herefordshire.gov.uk, but unfortunately they cover the period prior to 1858, which is just about a decade too early. I contacted Herefordshire Records Office to enquire if they might have any information about a will made in the 1860s, and they not only pointed me in the direction of the governmental website for wills, probate and inheritance records, but also dug out a probate index entry which seemed very promising: the will of John Davis, late of The Wyche, Colwall, which was proved in 1866 by his widow Maria Davis. This surely had to be our man!


Opening page of John Davis’s will, drafted in 1864, two years before his death.


I ordered the will via the said website after willingly paying the ten pounds for the service. And boy, wasn’t my patience rewarded! There it was, on my screen, and at long last, the will of John Davis, timber dealer of The Wyche, Colwall, who died on 27 April 1866. That date was definitely familiar. I checked the two death certificates I’d ordered years ago to see if either of them matched with this newly-found information, and bingo, there it was, in my family archive all this time: the death certificate I had for John Davis, innkeeper (sic), registered by one Mary Carless in 1866 was that of none other than my great-great-great-grandfather.

I don’t know why John would have been described as an innkeeper and not a wood dealer. Even more crucially, I was left wondering who this Mary Carless was, and how she could have been connected to my ancestor. Maybe she hardly knew him – which would explain why she described him as an innkeeper as opposed to a timber dealer…

Again, my patience was rewarded when I read his will in detail, and realised that John decreed that his properties should be divided between his widow Maria and their daughter Jane, but also included his daughters (from his first marriage) Ann, wife of James Allsop, and Mary, wife of Richard Carless. Mary Carless! Could it be that John had an additional daughter I knew nothing about?


The fragment of John Davis’s will which revealed his connection to Mary Carless.

Thanks to the fact that I knew her husband’s name, finding Mary Carless on the census was not difficult. She was born around 1826 in Little Malvern, and would therefore be the eldest child born to John Davis and his first wife Ann. I hadn’t come across this daughter before because she wasn’t listed with either her father nor her sisters in any of the censuses, and therefore escaped my notice. But there she was, in black and white and almost in plain sight all this time. Mary had left home young to work in service, and by the mid-1850s she’d given birth to two illegitimate sons. In 1861 she married Richard Carless; he wouldn’t have been the boys’ father as neither of them seems to have used the surname Carless during their lifetime – they remained Davis/Davies throughout their lives. Mary and Richard did however have two daughters together: Hannah, who would go on to marry John Watkins after they too had had two children out of wedlock, and Harriet, who sadly died in infancy.

But that’s not all. One of the sons Mary had before marrying Richard Carless also seems to have had several children before marrying. This family seems not have cared one bit about social norms of the time regarding illegitimate children! What is more, the censuses prove that these different family members remained close throughout the century – thus signifying that the fact they were illegitimate was of little concern to the family.


Revisiting John Davis’s story made me reflect on his own shaky origins. His age at death in April 1866 was recorded as 62 – thus born in around 1804, while all the census entries would have him born in either 1806 or 1807. His death certificate is the only source which mentions him being an innkeeper – could this be an error? If so, was his age also recorded wrongly?

Knowing John’s date of birth would provide the necessary clue to know who hsi parents were. Was he the illegitimate son of Mary Davis, born in June 1803, or the legitimate son of John and Phoebe Davis, born in April 1807?

Personally, having analysed all possible clues I have been able to find, if I had to hazard a guess I would say he was the son of John and Phoebe Davis, if anything because John does state in the entry for his second marriage that his father was John Davis – and given his family’s attitude to illegitimacy during his own lifetime, I have no reason to suppose he was not telling the truth. Of course, one might argue that he named his first child Mary after his own mother, in which case he would be the illegitimate son of Mary Davis. Sigh…

One thing is for sure: thanks to having ordered my ancestor’s will for a pittance, I am now satisfied to have discovered not only a new branch of the family tree, but to have finally been able to pin-point his true date of death and the likeliest identity of his parents.

Time to move on to the next brick wall I suppose!

Posted in 1841 Census, 1851 Census, 1861 Census, Colwall, Death, Genealogy, Illegitimacy, Marriage, Worcestershire | Leave a comment

Tragedy, the Lancastria and my Firkins cousins

Susan Tippins was my great-great-great-grandmother’s youngest sister. As the paper trail went cold, until very recently I’d suspected she had died young, or fallen into obscurity. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that a distant cousin of mine in Australia, who also happens to be an avid family historian, managed the break through this mysterious brick wall and provided me with several fascinating leads which I just had to research.

But let’s start at the beginning. My “aunt” Susan Tippins was born in 1833 in the village of Staunton-on-Arrow, in rural Herefordshire; she was the youngest of ten children. Her birth, by all accounts, appears to have been almost miraculous: Susan was five years younger than her next elder sibling, and both her parents, who had married almost twenty-five years before, were in their late forties by the time of her birth.

For the first few years of her life, Susan lived at the family home in Staunton-on-Arrow, under the watchful eye of her parents. By then, some of her elder siblings had already moved out – she was about thirteen by the time her elder sister, my great-great-great-grandmother Ann, decided to leave home to get married and start a family of her own. By 1861 Susan had also decided to leave the family home . In order to earn a living for herself she went into service, working as a domestic servant in the Warwickshire village of Lillington, near Leamington Spa, Warwickshire. While living there, she met a young man called Edmund Firkins, who worked as a groom or coachman. Despite being unmarried, the two began an affair which resulted in the birth, in 1864, of a boy whom they called Harry.

Why the couple did not marry is not known. It is possible they could not do so in order to hang on to their jobs. It is possible that perhaps their families were against the match (both Susan and Edmund were still officially underage). Nevertheless, their relationship continued regardless, and within a few months Susan found herself pregnant for a second time. Perhaps to hide the existence of her second pregnancy, Susan made her way to Llandinam, in the Welsh county of Montgomeryshire, where in 1865 she gave birth to a son called William James, but always known as Willie. It would take Edmund and Susan a further four years to officially become husband and wife, as proven by the entry in the Liverpool marriage register on 2 August 1869. Less than three years later, the couple welcomed their third, and last, son, whom they named Edmund after his father.

For the next few decades, the Firkinses seem to have led what seems to have been a stable, conventional and close-knit family existence. While Susan had probably ceased to work as a domestic servant sometime during her first and third pregnancy, her husband temporarily carried on working as a domestic coachman before turning to earning his living as a farrier (that’s a smith who makes horse-shoes, in case you were wondering). The family’s peaceful existence was eventually shattered in 1894, when Edmund died at the age of 59, leaving his wife to provide for her two younger sons, who were still living at home.

Susan continued to live in Liverpool for over two decades; in 1911 she is recorded as a visitor in the house of her middle son Willie. Sadly, life would deal her a cruel blow only four years later, when in 1915, despite her advanced age, she made her way to the local registry office in the city to register the death of her youngest son Edmund, who had died of phthisis (tuberculosis) at the age of just 43. Susan herself would pass away in 1918, having reached the advanced age of 85. But what of her remaining descendants? This is what I discovered about each one of her sons’ families:

Harry Firkins, Susan’s eldest son

Susan’s eldest son, Harry, worked as a domestic gardener throughout his life. In 1886 he married Lucy McGahy in Toxteth, Liverpool and the couple were blessed with the birth of five children: Edmund, Harry Jr, Joseph Fielding, Margaret Lucy and George Nicholas Firkins.

In 1914 Harry and his wife were faced with the sad loss of their middle son, Joseph, who died of consumption at the family home, on 40 Bowring Street; he was only 19. Had he lived longer, he would have probably been called up to serve in the First World War, which broke out only weeks after his death – and who knows if he may have been among the lucky ones to return home…

The life of Harry’s youngest son, George Nicholas, would also be cut short. He married Isabel Baywater in 1927 and had two children, George (who died aged two) and Evelyn, who married John Colquhoun and settled in Wales, where their three children were born. George Nicholas himself died at the young aged of 32, in 1935.

Harry Firkins (1891-1940), who died in the Lancastria sinking.

It was perhaps the clouds of war gathering on the horizon in 1914 which pushed his brother Harry Jr, to marry Ruth Haake in February 1914. He appears to have enlisted shortly after the outbreak of war, and saw military action overseas. Fortunately, he was lucky enough to survive the war, and returned home to his wife. The marriage, which remained childless, lasted until another great war brought their peaceful existence crashing down. At the start of the Second World War, Harry Jr. volunteered to fight, and made his way to France in the early months of the war. He was in France when the Battle of Dunkirk took place in June 1940, although it is unclear if he was in the area at the time. What is known, however, is that after it became clear that the Germans would soon occupy all of France, Harry Firkins Jr and his comrades in arms were pushed to retreat and board a ship which would take them to safety in England. On 17 June 1940, at the port town of Saint Nazaire, off the coast of Brittany, Harry Jr. boarded a large ocean liner called the HMT Lancastria, which had recently been requisitioned as a troopship. The captain of the ship was given orders to take on board as many people as possible (both troops and civilians), and although the Lancastria only had a capacity for 2,200 people, her crew stopped counting when they reached 6,000. Estimates currently place the number of those on board the Lancastria as between 8,000 and 9,000, although the actual number will never be known. That same afternoon, as the Lancastria was leaving Saint Nazaire, an air raid of German planes began to bomb the ship. The ship was badly hit, and it quickly began to list violently to one side, taking in water as she slipped under the waves. Many of those on board were killed instantly in the first explosions, while hundreds of others remained trapped in the bowels of the ship. There is no way of knowing how or at which point Harry Firkins Jr died, but by late June news had evidently reached his wife Ruth back in Liverpool that her husband had gone missing. The sinking of the Lancastria was reported in the press, but the seriousness of the event, and the large loss of life, were never published, under strict orders issued by Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The sinking of the Lancastria remains to this day the worst sinking (in terms of loss of life) in British maritime history, some estimating the number of dead as high as 6,500.

One of the few photographs of the sinking of the Lancastria in May 1940.

Harry Jr’s parents were still alive in 1940, and therefore had to endure the loss of their son. Far worse was to come: their eldest son, called Edmund, had been born in Liverpool in 1888; his marriage to Theresa Ward produced four children: Theresa, Edmund Jr., Harry and William. By a cruel twist of fate, Edmund lost his wife in 1932, followed three years later by their 20 year-old daughter Theresa, who succumbed to tuberculosis. Two of her younger brothers, Edmund and William, died in March and April 1939 respectively, also due to tuberculosis. They were 22 and 17 respectively. Their sole surviving son, Harry, was the only one to survive his father (who died in 1942), but only a year later his grandparents (who, as we said, were still alive, received the devastating news that he had been killed near Catania during the Allied invasion of Italy in 1943. With this string of losses, Edmund’s branch of the family was wiped out in less than a generation.

Harry Firkins (1919-1943), who was killed in action in Sicily.

Willie Firkins’ family

Fortunately, not all the Firkinses’ lives were scarred by tragedy. Willie Firkins (Susan and Edmund’s middle son) lived until the advanced age of 93. His marriage to Elizabeth Francis produced three children, two of whom married and had children, while the middle daughter died in her early thirties.

Willie’s eldest son Thomas Firkins also died in his thirties, but not before marrying and having three children of his own. Like their cousins, this branch seems to have settled in Wales.

Edmund Firkins and the Australian connection

Edmund Firkins was the only one of Susan’s three sons to have died during her lifetime. He worked as a brewer and barman. In 1901 he married Mary Ellen “Millie” Stainton, and the couple had a son and a daughter (a middle son died shortly after birth). Despite the births of their children, the marriage seems to have been rocky, and eventually the couple separated. In December 1913, Millie and the children (Ada, aged 11, and Edmund, aged eight) boarded a ship called Otway bound for Australia. Less than a year later Millie’s husband succumbed to tuberculosis back in England.

In Australia Millie probably began a life of struggle, but also a life of independence. She brought up her children single-handed, and probably had high hopes for both. Her daughter Ada went on to marry a Thomas Jensen, and had at least three children. Sadly though, this was not to be with regard to her brother Edmund.

On the afternoon of 27 June 1925 twenty-year old Edmund attended a “wedding breakfast” which was being held in the Church of England Sunday School in Annendale, Sydney. After drinking some wine, he returned home for tea, after which he rejoined the party and continued drinking with some friends. He then went to another party, where he became evidently inebriated. At about one in the morning, his mother heard him trying to enter the family home, as she let him in, Millie broke down crying (this was probably not the first time her son returned home drunk) and asked him how he could come home in such a state. Edmund’s simple reply was “I’m fed up with this”, and he went into his room, where he shot himself with a pea-rifle before his mother’s very eyes.

An inquest was held as to what may have driven young Edmund to end his life in such a drastic way. His relatives stated that he was of a cheerful disposition, and could not explain what had happened. The coroner returned a verdict of suicide. Thus came to an end the male line of Edmund Firkins’s family.


Posted in 1911 Census, Australia, Death, Genealogy, Herefordshire, Liverpool, Ships, Wales, World War I, World War II | Leave a comment

The life of Sophia Rice

As most of my ancestral lines are deeply rooted in rural Herefordshire and some of the surrounding counties, I rarely associate the North of England with my own family tree. The Yorkshire moors, and the industrial landscapes of Lancashire, are just not in my family’s DNA. Or so I thought.

My five-times great-grandfather William Vickress, of Hope-under-Dinmore, was married twice in his lifetime. His first, short-lived marriage, to Sarah Williams, produced twin daughters. His second wedding, to a much younger woman, took place when William would have been in his mid-fifties and it produced three further children: Herbert, Sophia and William, who happens to be my direct ancestor. While Herbert and William Jr remained and, as far as I can tell, spent their entire lives in the county of their birth, their sister Sophia seems to have been a bit more adventurous.

On 9 September 1810 Sophia Vickress married Welsh-born Arthur Rice, who was roughly the same age as Sophia. Arthur’s profession was working leather, and he is variously described as a skinner or as a currier. Their wedding took place in the church of Saint Nicholas, in the city of Hereford. The church, a medieval structure, was later demolished in the mid-19th century, being replaced by the current building which stands on the same site today. It was there where their eldest daughter Rebecca would be christened in February 1812.

The old church of Saint Nicholas, in Hereford, where Sophia Vickress was married in 1810.

In December 1813 Sophia gave birth to her second daughter, whom she and Arthur named Elizabeth. The child was baptised on 14 January of the following year, but not according to the rites of the Established Church, but in a ceremony conducted by one Samuel Franklin, a minister in the religious denomination known as the Countess of Huntingdon. The church is in fact a society of small evangelical churches founded during the Evangelical Revival in the 1780s by Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon. The church, which is closely associated with the Calvinist Methodist teachings of George Whitefield, founded a Methodist College in the Welsh town of Trevecca. The college later moved to Cheshunt, in Hertfordshire, thanks to the Countess’s support, and it was there that Samuel Franklin, who baptised my relative in 1814, had been introduced to his ministry. As Arthur Rice was himself Welsh, it is quite possible that he introduced Sophia to the modern teachings of this religious group.

Some time around 1814-1816 the Rice family decided to pack their bags and moved north, settling down temporarily in Walsall, Staffordshire (now a part of the greater urban conglomerate around Birmingham, Dudley and Wolverhampton). Whether they had relations or friends in the area who may have convinced them to leave Hereford is unknown, but they remained in Walsall long enough to welcome their third daughter, whom they named Sophia in honour of her mother. Like her elder sister Elizabeth, little Sophia was not baptised in a Church of England church, but in the modest Bridge Street Chapel, a United Reformed Church temple which had been erected in 1791 given the growing number of parishioners it was forced to host every week. The founders of the church had seceded from Walsall’s Presbyterian community allegedly due to the minister’s Unitarianism, in the broader context of general evangelicalism which swept England – particularly the North – in the 1700s and 1800s. Sophia Rice and her family may well have been attracted to the church’s teachings and its sense of community, which they surely would have welcomed given their recent move to a largely unknown area.

Walsall’s non-conformist Bridge Street Chapel, where the Rice’s third daughter was baptised.

If the Rice family had hoped to remain in Staffordshire indefinitely, they were to be disappointed, because by the end of the decade they had moved again, this time over one hundred miles north, to Colne, near the Lancashire-Yorkshire border. The couple’s first-born son, John, was born there in 1819. John’s baptism also took place in the town’s Congregational (or Independent) Church on Dockray Square, which had been built less than ten years before. Colne was at the time a hub of reformed religious fervour, with chapels for Methodists and Baptists also in existence. Even the English cleric and theologian John Wesley had visited Colne in 1777, a fateful visit for many of those who had turned out to hear him preach, because the timbers of the Methodist Chapel collapsed under the heavy weight of the people, leaving many of them severely injured.

Fortunately for the Rices, Colne held no such sombre associations. In fact, it was there that they welcomed yet another son into their home, Edward, who was born in around 1825. However, the Rice family did not remain in Colne for long after the child’s birth, as their itinerant lifestyle again forced them to move – this time south – to a new location. Sophia and her family settled in Rochdale, now part of Greater Manchester, which was to become their permanent residence. By the late 1820s, when the Rice family moved to the area, Rochdale had a long history as a mill town. In the early 19th century, wool had almost surpassed cotton as the town’s main manufacture, although the industry gradually declined as the century wore on. Sophia Rice and her family would have been first-hand witnesses to many changes in the area, like the increase in commercial activity along the Manchester Bury & Bolton Canal, the arrival of the railway in East Lancashire, and the introduction of steam power in the woollen manufacture.

It was  in Rochdale that Sophia gave birth to her last child, Edna, who was born on the last day of January 1828. As they settled down in Rochdale, and with the births of four daughters and two sons, the family was now complete. Sophia’s husband Arthur still made trips to Herefordshire, as witnessed by 1851 census, but in all other respects they seem to have formed a tight-knit family unit.

Little is known of Arthur and Sophia’s second daughter Elizabeth, who had been born shortly prior to their move to Walsall. It is possible that Elizabeth died unmarried as an adult, although there is little evidence of this, and while no record can be conclusively matched to her death in Herefordshire, Staffordshire or Lancashire, it is possible that her burial has gone unrecorded. Of course, she may well have married, and the marriage entry in Saint Chad’s Church, Rochdale, between an Elizabeth Rice and a William Holt in 1835 could support this theory. In any case, the absence of additional evidence, plus the fact that there is no shortage of women called Elizabeth Rice in the area, makes this assumption doubtful.

Weaving wool was central to the Rice family’s story.

We do know that Arthur and Sophia’s other five children lived to adulthood. Their eldest child, Rebecca, became the wife of fellow weaver George Hill on 6 June 1837. The couple had two daughters, Sophia and Sarah Ann, in quick succession. In late 1844 Rebecca gave birth to a son, Henry Alfred, who sadly died a few weeks later after the New Year. Rebecca herself appears to have died shortly afterwards, as no other children appear to have been born to the couple in subsequent years, and no other references to her exist in the census. The 1845 entry of death in Rochdale of a Rebecca Hill would support this, although according to the GRO Index her age was 27 at the time, not 33 as one would expect to find – this difference of six years casts doubts as to the relevance of this entry in this story, but in all other respects fits the facts perfectly. George Hill also seems to disappear shortly after the birth of his son, as his two surviving daughters appear to have lived permanently in the company of their maternal grandmother Sophia until the latter’s death in 1869.

Arthur and Sophia’s third-born daughter, also named Sophia, who as we have seen was the couple’s only child to have been born during their sojourn in Staffordshire, also remained under her mother’s wing even as a grown woman. She and her youngest sister Edna both worked as woollen weavers by power, suggesting they would have been well acquainted with the latest technology of their day when it came to spinning wool. Sophia never married, and died at the age of 48 in 1864.

Saint Chad’s Church, Rochdale, where Edna Rice married Isaac Halstead in 1851.

Her mother Sophia, the main character in this story, died at the advanced age of 80 in Rochdale in 1869. By then she had survived her parents, her two brothers, her husband (who had passed in 1860) and at least two of her six children. Had she lived another few months, she would have also survived her son Edward, who by then was living in the antipodes.

But despite her losses, Sophia was looked after by her remaining family in the winter years. Her son John had married in early 1846; his brother Edward in 1850, and their sister Edna in 1851. Of the three, John had the largest family, having had nine children in total (curiously, one of them was named Vickress to honour his mother’s family name). His brother Edward had fewer children, but like his parents, he did not remain put for long, and in the early 1860s he emigrated to New Zealand with his wife and four children; a fifth child would be born at sea during their long voyage.

As she died in 1906, Edna, the youngest of the family, appears to have been the only one of her siblings to have lived long enough to witness the start of a new century. Her marriage, celebrated according to the rites of the Church of England, to an iron moulder called Isaac Halstead produced four children and many descendants.

Today, the descendants of Sophia Rice (née Vickress) live in various parts of the North of England, as well as in New Zealand, perhaps ignoring the fact that, like me, they had roots that go deep into Herefordshire’s rural countryside which Sophia herself abandoned over two centuries ago.


This map shows the five places where Sophia Rice is known to have lived during her lifetime: Hope-under-Dinmore (prior to her marriage), Hereford (c.1810-c.1817), Walsall (until approximately 1818), Colne (until 1827) and Rochdale (till her death).

Posted in 1841 Census, 1851 Census, 1861 Census, Birmingham, Death, Emigration, England, Genealogy, Herefordshire, Hope-under-Dinmore, Lancashire, Marriage, Staffordshire, Wolverhampton, Women, Work, Yorkshire | Leave a comment

Mary Ann Allen (1807-1884)

In the course of your research, have you ever come across any relatives who just sit there, perched on your family tree, and no matter how many times you tried to find either a marriage or a death record for them, you simply cannot move forward? I think we all have quite a few of those, so you’ll understand my utter joy when I was recently able to knock down a little brick-wall after years of intense search.

For a number of years I’ve known that my Colwallian ancestors, Thomas and Sarah Allen, had begotten ten children. My main problem was tracking all of them down on the 1841 census and beyond. OK, so I knew already that one daughter, Margaret, died in 1839 aged only 22, after what must have been a very short-lived marriage to a man called Thomas Croft – this much was clear from her gravestone, which also features her parent’s respective date of death, as well as that of her younger, unmarried brother Henry. Phew! Two down, eight to go.

Fortunately, records for Colwall and the surrounding area are relatively well preserved, and it was fairly easy to find marriages for most of Thomas and Sarah’s children. There was just one daughter Mary Ann, who I simply could not find the answer to. Did she die young? Or had she moved away? She could have emigrated, or have ended up locked up in some dreadful Victorian institution and was forgotten by all who once knew and loved her. The answer was just impossible to fathom with the tools I had at my disposal.

Time to review the facts: Mary Ann Allen had been born in 1807 – and was baptised in the parish church of Colwall on Boxing Day 1807. The fact that she was born thirty years before the introduction of civil registration in England and Wales made it highly unlikely that her marriage (if indeed she had survived to adulthood and found herself a husband) had even made it to the General Records Office. Entries of death were equally misleading or seemed improbable, and anyway, with a common name like Mary Ann Allen (and all its variants!) I was not willing to fork out an arm and a leg to cover the cost of countless death certificates.

For years I resigned myself to the idea that I would never learn what had become of Mary Ann. I was ready to accept the idea that she had died young, even though I didn’t have any records to prove it, and that would have been that. Then, not so long ago, someone told me about the online index of wills of the Herefordshire Records Office, where I could also order a copy of my ancestor’s will. The Allens, I knew, had been living in the area since at least the 1600s, and owned some property in Colwall as recently as the 1960s. Surely some of them must have owned land and made a will at some earlier stage during those three centuries!

Eureka! I found what seemed to be my ancestor Thomas Allen’s will, dated December 1842 (this had to be him, since my Thomas died in January 1843, as per his gravestone). I sent for a copy of the will and held my breath for a few days. Then, at last, I got an e-mail, with a PDF file attached, and before I could say Jack Robinson, there was the rather fuzzy copy of my four-times-great-grandfather Thomas Allen’s will.

I scrolled down the “Amens” and the Christian burial details and the other usual jargon one finds in this kind of document, only to find that the section where he disposed of his worldly goods was fuzzier than the rest – in fact, it was practically illegible. I was able to discern a name here and there, but for the most part the few key lines which mentioned Thomas’s children were a blank. Undeterred, I decided to contact the Herefordshire Records Office again and asked for a clearer copy of that particular page. Their staff member was most obliging, and very soon I found myself reading what turned out to be a key piece of the puzzle.

There it was, in black and white, Thomas’s list of children: Thomas, Edward, Joseph, the unfortunate Henry who is buried with his parents… oh, and Mary Ann! But she wasn’t Mary Ann Allen any more, but “Mary Ann the wife of Richard Alford”! Now there was a surname I hadn’t heard of before,! And so, I set out to find Mary Ann’s marriage to Mr Alford.

A snippet of Thomas Allen’s will, where he states that his daughter was by then the wife of Richard Alford.

My luck ran out pretty quickly. At every turn I drew a blank: no Allens marrying a Richard Alford or a Halford (the local accent is pretty strong, and locals tends to drop and bring back the “h” whenever they feel like it). I even tried searching across the border (Colwall is after all between Herefordshire and Worcestershire), to no avail. I then decided to try a different tack, and dropped Mary Ann’s maiden name in case she had a different surname when she married Richard Alford/Halford.

Aha! Here we go! FamilySearch held the key: Mary Ann Hyde, daughter of Thomas Allen, married Richard Halford (sic), son of John Halford, in the parish of Little Cowarne, Herefordshire, on 12 October 1840. It is fairly obvious to me by this stage that Mary Ann had been married once before she became Mrs Halford (or was it Alford? Whatever…). Finding Mary Ann’s marriage to a Mr Hyde should not prove too difficult considering Mary Ann was about 31 when she married her second husband – and thus had little chance to have been married more than once before, right?

Indeed, Mary Ann Allen married William Hyde on 21 January 1827 in the city of Worcester (so a different county from where she got married the second time), according to FamilySearch. And as it took place ten full years before 1837, it is little wonder that I wasn’t able to find her marriage on the FreeBMD index.

Having uncovered only a few documents and references, I was soon able to draw a picture of Mary Ann in my mind – married at just 19, widowed by her late-twenties, remarried at 31… But how much longer did she live, and perhaps more poignantly, did she have any children of her own?

I already knew Mary Ann was alive when her father wrote his last will and testament in December 1842 – chances were therefore that I would be able to pin her down on the 1841 census – and indeed, there she was, Mary Halford (sic), living with Richard Halford, an agricultural labourer, with a twelve year-old boy called Charles Hyde. Well, no sign of any children born from her second marriage, but it certainly looks like Mary Ann’s first marriage bore at least one fruit!

The 1851 census, which unlike the 1841 census does mention a person’s place of birth, confirms Mary Ann’s place of birth as Colwall; I therefore have no doubt I have the right person. Moreover, I’m also able to learn that Mary Ann’s son Charles had been born in 1830 in the city of Hereford, and like his step-father, he became a labourer. But that’s not all, for it seems the new Mr and Mrs Alford/Halford had a child together, a daughter whom they called Sarah! Do I take it little Sarah was named after her mother’s mother? Seems more than likely. So Mary Ann had not one, but two children. Gosh, this family tree is growing by the minute!

The 1861 census again features Charles and Sarah living with their mother, but there is no sign of Mary Ann’s husband anywhere. A quick look at the FreeBMD records throws up a likely candidate: the death for Richard Alford (sic), died in 1855 in the Ledbury registration district. A quick check on the GRO index shows he was 45 years old when he died. I guess that’s almost definitely our man, as I later prove correct when I find his burial in the online Colwall parish transcripts. How sad for Mary Ann to have been left a widow again at such a relatively young age…

Worse was to come: I can easily locate her son Charles and his growing family (wife Martha, son William) living in Colwall on the 1871 census, but no trace of Mary Ann. A possible candidate is a Mary Ann Alford, right age, listed living in Colwall but unmarried and born, supposedly, in Welland, in neighbouring Worcestershire. Seems this is Mary Ann in disguise, if you ask me! But where is her daughter Sarah? My search for her on the census and on the marriage index draws a blank, so I turn to the likeliest alternative: a death.

And indeed, I find that poor Sarah died in 1862 aged only 21 years. I send off for her death certificate, not knowing what I might expect, only to find out she died of “softening of the brain” and had been ill for four years. Now, I am no expert, but I do know that “softening of the brain” is an antiquated term which usually refers to senile dementia; it seems unlikely Sarah would have suffered from senility at the age of just 21, but it may be that she was afflicted by some kind of bacteriological ailment, or perhaps developed a wasting mental disease which afflicted her for the last four years of her life. Whatever the case, the pain of seeing her daughter in poor health for four years must have been devastating for Mary Ann.

Detail from Sarah Alford’s death certificate, stating she died aged 21 after suffering some “softening of the brain” for four years.

The 1881 census brings Mary Ann Alford back to the surface – there she is, a simple washerwoman, living in Colwall in a cottage by herself – albeit next to Knell Farm, which I already know was run, if not owned, by her nephew Herbert Allen. But the fact that she is not living with, or next to, her only surviving son Charles Hyde fills me with a slight feeling of dismay. Did they fall out with each other? Was she perhaps bitter in her later years due to her personal losses? Were she and Charles even on speaking terms?

Charles was in the meantime heading a family of his own – he and Martha welcomed William in 1869, twin girls called Rosanna and Marianne, and two more sons in 1876 and 1878 – in addition to two other babies who died young. What is striking from the 1881 census, however, is not Charles’s growing family, but his profession, or should I say, the lack of it: the space where his occupation should normally be listed says “Unable to work”. Fortunately for me, the column which lists people’s infirmities has also been filled in: “Blind”. Well I never! Charles Hyde, the head of a large household, was making his way in life being blind! It makes sense then that his wife does have an occupation (as a charwoman), but the children are all scholars – how on earth did they make ends meet? And without any live-in servants, I wonder how Martha coped with a disabled husband and so many children to feed? I’m liking Martha a lot at this stage.

But before I move on to the 1891 census for more information, I take a deep breath and check again the 1871 census for Charles, to see if his blindness had already set in by the early stages of his marriage (certainly the earlier censuses do not mention his condition). Aha, here we go, Charles Hide (sic), a stone mason, living with his wife Martha, no profession, and their one-year-old son William. Clearly Charles was in good health at the time, and professionally active. My suspicion is that something must have happened between 1871 and 1881 to account for his eventual blindness. Maybe an accident at work? I don’t think we’ll ever know…

On to the 1891 census, and I look for Mary Ann, who at this stage would already have been in her mid-eighties. Nothing. Not even a likely candidate. Did she move away? In view of her advanced age, I think we can all guess what the likeliest scenario is. On to FreeBMD to see if I can locate a death – and so there is, Mary Ann Alford, aged 76, June quarter 1884, Ledbury registration district. This is spot on. I send off for Mary Ann’s death certificate to learn more about the circumstances of her demise, and within days I have the answer at my doorstep: it seems she died of a “diffused phlegmon and erysipelas, 11 days” – clearly she suffered from some kind of suppurating skin disease. Poor Mary Ann!!! But hang on, who is the informant who registered her death? Well, none other than Charles Hyde himself! OK, so he wasn’t able to sign the register, leaving only his “mark” as proof, but I am so glad to see at least he did the right thing by being there when his mother was about to face her maker!

Additional research into Mary Ann’s line will be needed to understand if her descendants made it into the 20th century. I know that her daughter-in-law Martha passed away in 1902, four years before Charles. I hope one of his children was still around to look after him when he needed it the most…! But that’s another story, so we’ll have to leave it there, until another time.

The churchyard in Colwall, where Mary Ann Alford, formerly Hyde, née Allen, was laid to rest in 1884.

Posted in 1841 Census, 1851 Census, 1861 Census, 1871 Census, 1881 Census, 1891 Census, Colwall, England, Family Search, Genealogy, Herefordshire, Illness, Marriage, Property, Women, Worcestershire | 1 Comment

Judith Allen (née Cooke, formerly Bond)

One of the most fascinating members of my extended family is, in my opinion, my “aunt” Judith – the second wife of my great-great-great-grandfather’s youngest brother. Although there are very few sources which shed light on her life, what we do know about her existence tells us a story of perseverance, resourcefulness and kindness. This is her life.

Judith Cooke was born in Longdon, Worcestershire in 1795, although it would be two years before she was christened in Upton-upon-Severn. She would spend the rest of her life living within a ten-mile radius. She was named Judith after her mother, Judith Cooke (née Clarke), who came from the village of Pendock. Baby Judith’s father was Thomas Cooke, a native of Upton-upon-Severn. The Cookes had at least four other children, in addition to Judith.

The location of Longdon, where Judith was born in 1795. Upton-upon-Severn, where she was baptised, is nearby, as is Colwall, where she died.

Shortly after she turned eighteen, Judith married a local pub landlord called William Bond – who happens to be my third cousin five times removed through his maternal grandfather, George Allen. The couple first lived in Mathon before settling in nearby Colwall, a village on the slopes on the Malvern hills closely associated with several branches of my own family. It was there that their two sons, John and William (born in 1816 and 1817, respectively) were raised.

The family’s existence seems to have been relatively uneventful over the next two decades (at least, as far as we can interpret from the records). The Bonds appear living together, as one close-knit family unit, on the 1841 census. They lived in Colwall Stone (a part of Colwall) surrounded by other families, most of them earning a living as agricultural labourers and blacksmiths. The only exception was the next-door family, the Voyces, who also ran a public house. In fact, not long after the census was taken, Judith’s youngest son, William, married Jane Voyce. Their joy must have been significantly increased by the arrival of a baby son less than two years later.

Sadly, William Jr. was not destined to enjoy fatherhood for long, because in January 1844 he died aged only 26. His widow was left to care for their infant son (named William Edward according to the baptism register, and William Henry according to the GRO index), but only weeks later the boy also died without having reached his first birthday.

Judith, her husband William and her eldest son John must have been devastated by the loss of a son and grandson in such quick succession, but they were happy to keep Jane under their roof until she was able to land on her feet again. One can only imagine that, with her experience as the daughter of a local publican, she may have been willing to give a helping hand to William in his own running of his own pub.

In 1847, Judith became a widow herself, when her 52-year-old husband William died, leaving her to run the family business. She may have come rely heavily on her widowed daughter-in-law Jane, as well as her unmarried eldest son John, who was by then in mid-thirties.

Things may have worked out very differently for the three of them had John lived longer, but sadly he too passed away in early 1851 aged only 35. The census for that year, which was taken only days after his funeral was held at Saint James’s Church, Colwall, reveals Judith (a “beer shop keeper”) living with Jane (now listed as a dressmaker) and a visitor named Caroline Hartland. The latter was in fact a distant niece of Judith’s; her full name was Caroline Hartland Gladwin, and she was in fact the unmarried mother of a ten-year-old boy at the time. It is tempting to fantasise as to the boy’s paternity – could the father have been a close relation of Judith’s?- but whatever the case may be, the fact that she was staying with her recently-bereaved aunt at the time also show’s Judith’s kindheartedness towards a relative who would otherwise could well have faced social ostracism for bringing an illegitimate child into the world.

By the mid-1850’s, and within the space of a few years, Judith had not only lost her husband, but also her two sons and her only grandson. Before long she was also to lose her daughter-in-law Jane, albeit under very different circumstances. After the loss of her child and husband, Jane Bond decided to move to London, where she was employed as the housekeeper of a Mr R. Martin, of 21 Eaton Square. In 1858 the Hereford Chronicle reported how she was soon to become the wife of a Thomas Brotheridge, a farmer from Bredon’s Norton, Worcestershire; the marriage took place on 10 November 1858 at St Peter’s Church, Pimlico.

Wedding announcement of Jane Bond (née Voyce), Judith’s bereaved daughter-in-law.

With Jane married off and with few relations close at hand, Judith may have begun to wonder what the future had in store for her, and so, ever practical, ever resourceful, she did something which I believe to be as unusual then as it is now: she married a man about half her age! The groom was none other than my great-grandfather’s great-uncle Robert Allen, himself a widower and a distant kinsman of her ate husband’s – and to all intents and purposes as lonely as Judith was. Given the age difference (he was 37, she was 63), and the fact that Robert was even younger than Judith’s own sons would have been at the time had they been alive, it is questionable whether their marriage was in fact a love match. To my mind, it was very much a practical arrangement from where both parties would ultimately benefit: both had been married before, and both had lost spouses; neither had any dependent children or anyone else to take care of them in their old age – they may well have decided to become husband and wife on paper so as to give each other some sort of security in the years to come. I doubt there was any financial motive behind the marriage on either side – Judith would not have amassed a great fortune through her public house business, and Robert worked as a humble coal haulier.

The pair married in May 1858; the fact that one of Robert’s sisters, Anne Spilsbury, was a witness at the wedding shows there was certainly a degree of approval and support from his family’s side. The marriage evidently remained childless, and there is little evidence to suggest that they lived in any other way other than as adoptive mother and son. If Robert entertained any notions about becoming a widower any time soon, his dreams would have been dashed, for Judith appears in the census again in 1861, 1871, 1881 and 1891, when she is listed as being 95! Robert worked intermittently as an agricultural labourer but also as a publican – he obviously had Judith to tell him what to do!

Judith not only had very good innings, but she seems to have been a very capable, strong-willed woman. Her arrangement to spend the rest of her life with my “uncle” Robert paid off, as she died in his care in 1893, at the whopping age of 97. Robert’s own demise followed not long after – he must have been of a feebler constitution than his second wife, for he passed away at the relatively advanced age of 78. With him died not only the last surviving member of his generation, but also the last member of Judith’s immediate and astonishing family.

The grounds of Saint James’s Church, Colwall, where Judith and Robert Allen were laid to rest for eternity.



Posted in 1841 Census, 1851 Census, 1861 Census, 1871 Census, 1881 Census, 1891 Census, Colwall, Genealogy, Herefordshire, Illegitimacy, Marriage, Women, Worcestershire | 1 Comment

Quest to solve two Spanish mysteries with DNA continues…

NOTE: The genealogical chart at the end of this article may help to understand the relationships and hypothetical family links mentioned in the text.

AncestryDNA, the company I tested with for this particular study.

When I first took a DNA test (with AncestryDNA) in 2016 I half suspected most of my findings would be connected with my dad’s maternal (i.e. English) forebears. For various reasons, genealogical research and DNA testing for genealogy purposes are not all that popular in Spain and Italy, where my mother’s and paternal grandfather’s ancestors came from. So it was logical to expect there to be a substantial amount of genetic cousins among my DNA matches with a connection to the UK.

Among the sea of English cousins – some of whom proved to be very useful in my own family research and highly experienced genealogists in their own right- I was pleased to find I had a match with a lady in America called Marilyn, whose story I narrated some time ago. To recap, Marilyn seemed to share genes with me, my Mum and my Mum’s only surviving paternal aunt, with Ancestry estimating that she is somewhere in the range of our 4th-6th cousin. This implied that Marilyn and I were related via my grandfather’s family, who came from the Spanish coastal city of Ferrol, a major port with long-standing connections to the Spanish navy. Without the aid of a chromosome browser, there was little I was able to do other than try my luck at finding my and Marilyn’s common ancestor. Sadly, none of the surnames among our recent ancestry matched, so there was little hope of a “eureka” moment without digging deeper.

One ray of hope came when we researched the family of Marilyn’s grandfather, who came from Ferrol. Coincidence? The man had been born illegitimate in 1904, but his father’s name was relatively easy to find out thanks to an old family legend that the father’s family owned a coach company. Ultimately, Marilyn’s grandfather’s baptism certificate, which I was able to locate, contained a side note correcting the omission of the father’s name, and confirming our suspicions that the boy had indeed been fathered by whom we’d suspected all along. As the man’s family came from another part of Spain with zero connections to my own family, I safely accepted that Marilyn and I must thus be related via her great-grandmother, Josefa.

Marilyn’s great-grandmother’s name was traceable thanks to her son’s baptism certificate, but frustratingly she too proved to be illegitimate. Sadly, neither Josefa’s birth nor her baptism certificate have been found, so there is little chance of finding anything via traditional records. Census returns showed that she had been born around the year 1882 in Ferrol. The street where she lived, the Calle de las Ánimas was literally two minutes away from the house where my great-grandfather’s uncle lived in 1887. Coincidence?

Let’s not jump to conclusions. All I knew at the time was that Josefa had been born illegitimately in 1882, so there was a serious possibility that a man in my family was her biological father. But who? Judging from my family tree, there was a (relatively) limited number of males who could have “done the job”. Here is a bit of information about each “candidate”:

  1. My own great-great-grandfather Nicolás, born in 1834, had been married to his wife, my great-great-grandmother Baltasara, for over twenty years. Their union had been blessed by the birth of ten children, but by 1879 they had welcomed their final child (my great-grandfather Guillermo), Baltasara having turned 40 by then. Perhaps Nicolás has got the wandering eye, met Josefa’s mother and got her pregnant…? Well, it’s a possibility.
  2. My great-grandfather’s eldest brother Ramón, who was Nicolás and Baltasara’s eldest son. Although he was single and a young man of 20 at the time of Josefa’s birth, I find it unlikely that he was the girl’s father, since Josefa’s mother was nearly 40 at the time. Of course, an difference in age proves or disproves nothing, but rather more damaging to Ramón’s candidacy to Josefa’s real paternity is that he was very probably in Cuba by 1882 (the same place where my own great-grandfather would temporarily emigrate to a few years later), so I find Ramón the least probable of all candidates. His younger brothers are equally excluded for being too young to sire children within the correct time frame.
  3. Baltasara’s only brother (and therefore Nicolás’s brother-in-law), Juan Antonio, who in 1882 was a wealthy bachelor of 36, very much available and (as seen above) living a stone’s throw away from where Josefa’s mother lived. His eventual marriage (to his niece, no less!) and the arrival of two daughters would have covered up any trace of debauchery in his previous existence.

I soon became convinced within myself that candidate number 3 was the man who had sired Josefa out of wedlock, but without documentary or genetic proof there was little I could do. I then decided to recruit a few additional relatives and see if with their DNA I could get any closer to the truth.

My first candidate was obviously a descendant of Juan Antonio’s. I have been in touch with this cousin of mine for many years, and share a common interest in history and genealogy – which is why I was surprised to see she was actually not interested in taking a DNA test, because of (allegedly) privacy reasons. Disappointed but far from outdone, I looked for another relative (in this case a descendant of the aforementioned Ramón). The results duly came in, which showed that both Ramón’s descendant (who belongs to the same generation as me) shares the same amount of DNA with Marilyn as I do. This to me, although not fully conclusive given the random way in which DNA is inherited from our parents’ forefathers, seemed to indicate that Ramón was not Marilyn’s biological great-great-grandfather – or else she and Ramón’s descendant would share a slightly higher proportion of DNA than Marilyn and I do.

Without other relatives eager to test, I felt like I had hit a dead-end. That was until I recently got a new DNA match with yet another lady in America called Yvonne. Again, I was confronted with not knowing how Yvonne and I were related, but we seemed to share a common link to the city of Ferrol. Coincidence?

Fortunately, and unlike in Marilyn’s case, Yvonne knew full well the name of all of her great-grandparents, and was even able to provide the full name of her great-great-grandmother, Carmen López Pereira, born (according to the census) in around 1846 in Ferrol. This small detail rang bells with me instantly, for I knew that my own ancestor, Andrea Pereira (the mother of my great-great-grandfather Nicolás, mentioned above) had been married twice, her second husband (m. 1843) being a man called Mateo López. If they had any children (which I do not know), they would have had the combined surnames of López and Pereira, and so could easily have been the parents of Yvonne’s great-great-grandmother Carmen. Coincidence?

My theory about how I was related to these two ladies, albeit via the same line in my family, focused on two separate branches: on the one hand Marilyn was allegedly descended from Juan Antonio; on the other, Yvonne was allegedly descended from Nicolás’s mother. Juan Antonio and Nicolás did not share any DNA with each other (something which obviously cannot be said about Nicolás’s descendants, all of whom were related to Juan Antonio, him being their mother’s brother), so the next step was obvious: I had to check if Yvonne and Marilyn had any DNA in common with each other. If they hadn’t it would reassert my theory that, although both related to me, they were not related to each other, and they descended from different lines of my family tree. The result was very encouraging, since Marilyn and Yvonne share zero DNA between them (and this from people who could only have been, at most, 4th cousins).

To summarise matters, although I have not yet solved the mystery of how I am linked to Marilyn and Yvonne, I am pretty confident that by process of elimination and the evidence shown by our DNA matches will soon prove that the above is correct. Time will tell!

Simplified tree depicting the relationships mentioned in this article. Note that doted lines represent descendancy over several generations. Question marks next to descendancy lines depict hypothetical relationships (as yet unproven).


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