For a few days I have been pining for a family tree mystery. It has been ages since I last found a real question mark in my ancestry, but this morning I fortunately seem to have stumbled across one. Trying to avoid jumping to conclusions and accepting any old result as God’s truth, simply because the facts fit nicely in our family tree, has proved to be most enjoyable! Beware, fellow genealogists, of assuming things all too readily. With records being sometimes very sparse in their content, it it easy to confuse your ancestors with similarly-named cousins or even parents – let alone people who are not even connected to your own family!
I found my latest question mark while profiting from the fact that one of my distant English ancestors had a fairly unusual name, and so I set off to search for the descendants of my seven-times great-grandmother, Comfort Allen (née Godsall). For some reason I have always been intrigued by this female ancestor of mine; maybe it’s because of her name; or maybe it’s because I know so much about her, comparatively speaking. She was born in 1654 – in other words, when England was ruled not by a king, but by Oliver Cromwell, who a year before my ancestor’s birth had set up the Protectorate.
Comfort probably married in her early 20’s, because by 1677 she already had a daughter. Comfort went on to have at least five other children, and died at the age of 75 in Colwall (Herefordshire) the place of her birth. Comfort’s eldest daughter, Ann Allen, married a chap called Richard Pitt, and the couple had a son, named after his father, and a daughter, who was named in honour of her grandmother, Comfort.
Comfort Pitt married in the city of Hereford in 1730, when she was 31 years old – a considerable age bearing in mind it was more common for women to marry in their 20’s rather than their 30’s. But anyway, good for her that she found someone to marry. The couple had five daughters (this is turning into a very feminine story, isn’t it?) called Dinah, Nancy, Comfort, Sarah and Lucy. Not a bad choice of names, I think.
All of these girls were born in the village of Dymock, in the neighbouring county of Gloucester, but very close to the Herefordshire border. In fact, Dymock is located just four miles south of Ledbury, so it seems reasonable to suppose that the family kept close ties with their relatives on both sides of the frontier, and probably travelled back and forth very often.
Nancy, the second-born of the five Davis sisters, was of course named after her own maternal grandmother Anne (the name Nancy became a proper name in the 18th century, but originally it was a familiar version of the more standard Anne). What I knew until now was that in 1758 Nancy married a tediously-named man called John Jones.
The couple were blessed by the birth of three children within five years: Nancy (1760), Lancelot (1763) and James (1765). I have not yet managed to find anything on Nancy Jr. nor James, but the fabulously named Lancelot Jones sadly passed away in infancy in 1771, when he was just eight years old. For his mother, the loss of her middle child must have been a cruel blow. To add insult to injury in her personal tragedy, at some point during the next few years, Nancy’s husband John Jones died.
Nothing more is known of Nancy for a few years, until in late December 1775 she chose to remarry. The marriage was announced, by banns, in the village where she lived, Dymock. Her husband-to-be was a bachelor called Henry Webster, whose origins remain as yet unknown to me, although the banns declared he was of the same parish. Whatever his origins may have been, Henry Webster and Nancy Jones were married on 8 January 1776. Nancy was 42 years old at the time.
My biggest surprise came later, when I searched through the baptism records to find out whether Nancy had had any children from her second marriage, despite the fact that she was in her 40’s. I found just one record in Gloucestershire that fitted the bill. It was a son, Francis Webster, who was baptised in Dymock on 5 July 1776 (only a day after the United States declared their independence from the United Kingdom).
But what struck me most from the birth date is not its historical significance, but the short distance in time in relation to the date of marriage of the boy’s parents. It took me a split second to realise that Nancy was at least two or three months pregnant when she married Henry Webster! A picture of a roguish second husband is starting to emerge in my mind, but that’s probably me just trying to add melodrama to my family’s story.
After the birth of her son, the trail goes cold. Did Nancy stay in Dymock? If so, why can’t I find anything on her, her husband or her son? Could her pregnancy have had something to do with her mysterious disappearance? The fact that Nancy had been born in Dymock more than four decades earlier suggests she was well known in the small c,ommunity and a second marriage -let alone being pregnant by her future husband- may not have been looked upon with approval by her neighbours.
Finding no clues in Gloucestershire, I try my luck in neighbouring Herefordshire, where Nancy’s ancestors had once lived. And what luck! In the summer of 1778, in the village of Coddington, Nancy gave birth to a second son, called Henry in honour of her husband. Nancy would have been 45 at the time. Not bad, Nancy! Sadly, the boy only lived for a few days. Once again, however, Nancy and Henry Webster seems to vanish into thin air.
The loss of two children by the age of 45, and the possible social stigmatisation in Dymock, may have prompted Nancy to move farther away from the area (Coddington is only nine miles away from Dymock, and such a small distance surely would not have prevented gossip and slander from propagating themselves in the neighbouring villages. OK, perhaps I’m being melodramatic once again…)
My efforts to find a trace of Nancy in Herefordshire have proved unsuccessful. One possible clue may lie in far away Manchester, more than 120 miles north from Coddington. It was there, in the parish of Saint Michael’s, that a Nancy Webster, wife of Henry Webster, was buried on 10 July 1799. Could she be “my” Nancy? The fact that she died almost 21 years to the day after the death of Henry Webster Jr. is tantalisingly enigmatic, but what a cruel twist of fate if it is her!
My search for now will concentrate on Nancy’s other offspring and her second husband Henry. Let’s see if they can offer any more clues about this side of the family. I simply want to put naughty Nancy to rest once and for all.