The curious private life of Mary Willoughby

The grounds of Colwall church, where Thomas Eacock married my relative Mary Willoughby in 1880. Photo: private collection.

On 23rd December 1880, a wedding took place in the church of Saint James the Great, Colwall, at the foot of the Malvern Hills which separate Herefordshire from Worcestershire. The bride was twenty-five-year-old Mary Willoughby, my great-grandfather’s third cousin and contemporary (both grew up in Colwall, and therefore it is very likely that they knew each other). The groom was Thomas Eacock, a fellow Colwallian general labourer who had recently turned forty.

The couple must have known each other for a long time. Mary’s aunt Elizabeth had married Thomas’s uncle John in 1840, and as they were both alive in 1880, it could be supposed that they may have had some hand in bringing the couple together, particularly as John and Elizabeth’s marriage had remained childless.

Both the Eacock and the Willoughby families were modest, well-established, prosperous members of the tightly-knit Colwallian community and a long-time part of the fabric of the local society – their presence in the village went back several generations. The match would have seemed, therefore, as a logical step toward cementing ties between families of equal standing.

We cannot know, given the lack of documents such as private letters and diaries, whether Mary Willoughby entered the marriage willingly, or whether she was in any way forced into connubial life. The fact that she became pregnant almost immediately, and welcomed a son a mere year after the wedding, may suggest the couple were content enough with each other at first.

However, within three years, the situation began to change. In 1881 uncle John passed away, followed by aunt Elizabeth the following year. Within months, the two individuals who may well have been instrumental in bringing about the marriage and supporting the couple through a plausibly rocky start, were out of the picture. In 1884, twenty-nine year-old Mary gave birth to another son, Gilbert.

In light of the circumstances, we would expect Thomas and Mary to appear living together on the 1891 census. And yet, this is not the case. Fifty-year-old Thomas is shown living with his widowed mother at The Terrace, near Yew Tree Cottage, in Colwall. His marital status, surprisingly, is given as S (single). And what of Mary and the children?

A search for Mary Eacock, or even a Mary Willoughby, yields no results, but by searching for Gilbert -the couple’s second-born son- we find her living in Evendine, in Colwall, listed as the wife of Adam Clarke, a local seventy-year-old grocer. It would appear that by then Mary had rebuilt her life in the company of another, much older man, and while there is no trace of a marriage between her and Mr Clarke -whose own wife had died in 1887 after providing him with five children- they do appear to have been genuinely fond of each other.

By 1891 Mary and her new “husband” had become the parents of two children, Leonora and John. What is striking is that the children were born within close distance of where Mary’s first husband Thomas Eacock lived. The fact that a marriage for the couple cannot be found may explain why neither Leonora nor baby John seem to have been recorded in the local registry office in Ledbury – at least, not under the surname of Clarke, Willoughby or even Eacock. But in time this rather unusual -and, dare one presume scandalous?- set-up may have become too much to bear for the local inhabitants of Colwall, and Adam Clarke packed his family and his bags, moving them all to Pershore, in neighbouring Worcestershire. They arrived just in time for the birth of their next child, Francis James Clarke – who, perhaps not coincidentally, was registered in the registry office, with his mother’s maiden name as Willinghby (sic). It seems likely that, without close acquaintances living nearby, the couple were able to start afresh and pose as a married couple, churning out children every couple of years, possibly under the cover of the mother’s assumed maiden name.

And that seems to be precisely what they did. By the mid-1890s the family had settled in Alderminster, and in 1894 and 1896 the couple welcomed two more sons, Reginald Edward Clarke and Edwin (in the first case, the mother’s maiden name is recorded as Willoughby, while in Edwin’s case it appears once again as Willinghby). The family’s somewhat impermanent existence continued until the end of the decade, when in Northamptonshire Mary gave birth to her and Adam’s sixth -and last- child, Wallace Evelyn Clarke.

In 1901 Mary Clarke and her second family were recorded living in Darton, West Yorkshire. While Adam continued to work as a grocer/shopkeeper, their children attended a local school. Happily, Mary was able to continue living with her children from her marriage to Thomas Eacock, who in turn was listed as a boarder living in Barton Villa, in Colwall – and, curiously, gave his marital status as married!

The Clarkes’ constant movements from county to county, first into Worcestershire, then Northamptonshire, and finally to Yorkshire, leads one to wonder if perhaps stories of Mary’s private affairs had caught up with them. Whatever their motives, the family seems to have found some sort of respite in the North. In 1904 news must have reached them that Mary’s first husband, Thomas Eacock, had died, having spent the remainder of his life tending to his ageing mother.

In 1909 Adam Clarke himself died in Belper, Derbyshire – what motives had taken him there remain unknown. Mary remained in Yorkshire, settling in Huddersfield with most of her children – including her son by her first marriage, who now went by the name of Harry Clarke, and not Harry Eacock.

1916.11.08 (PRESS) Reginald Clarke, Leeds Mercury

Notice published in the Leeds Mercury in November 1916, reporting the death of Mary’s son Reginald. Simultaneously, her other son, Edwin, was reported wounded.

In 1914, the inevitable Great War broke out, and like many other millions, several of Mary’s sons were called up by a needful nation. Her twenty-two year-old son Reginald joined the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, and was sent overseas to France, where he saw action in one of the bloodiest battles of WWI: the battle of the Somme. There, on 15 September 1916, during the battle of Flers-Courcelette, Reginald was killed in action. His name is today remembered on the Thiepval Memorial.

Mary reflected the pain of her loss in a touching poem she wrote in memory of Reginald. Several family trees online state that another of her sons, John Clarke, died on 1 August 1917, but the soldier with that name who died on the said date is another man altogether. However, one of her younger sons, Edwin, did fight in WWI and was reported wounded at the end of 1916 (at the same time when the local newspapers reported his brother Reginald’s death). What became of Edwin remains, at least for now, a mystery.

What we do know is that Mary did not live much beyond the end of the war itself – her death was registered in Huddersfield in late 1919 -, and she may well have been a victim of the Spanish Flu epidemic which raged across Europe at the time.

Thus drew to a close the life of an unusual, seemingly headstrong and by the look of it courageous woman. I would love to see a photo of her, and to get in touch with any possible living descendants. If anyone out there is related to Mary Willoughby Eacock Clarke and wishes to contact me, feel free to do so by leaving a comment below.

Poem written by Mary Eacock “Clarke” (née Willoughby) in memory of her son Reginald James Clarke, who was killed in action in 1916.

Posted in 1881 Census, 1891 Census, 1901 Census, Birth, Colwall, Colwall Soldiers, Divorce, France, Genealogy, Herefordshire, Marriage, Worcestershire, World War I, Yorkshire | Leave a comment

A Tale of Two Sisters

Drusilla and Milborough Vickress were not the only daughters that my great-great-great-great-grandparents William and Elizabeth had in the course of their 41 year-long marriage. However, the bond between the two girls seems to have been close, if one analyses their lives in detail.

Drusilla was born, as her parents’ fifth child, in the year 1817, at a time when it was not uncommon for women, rich and poor, to die in childhood. For instance, that same year, Britain’s Princess Charlotte of Wales died after a long and protracted labour. Drusilla’s mother may well have gone through some difficulties during the birth, and the problems could have left the child physically, perhaps even mentally handicapped.

The little girl joined a nursery already crammed by two brothers and two sisters. The fact that no children were welcomed in the Vickress household for another three years could suggest her mother would not or could not become pregnant as quickly as before. It could also be, of course, that Elizabeth became pregnant after Drusilla’s birth, and either miscarried the child, or lost it shortly after the unrecorded birth.

Whatever the situation, in 1820 young Drusilla was joined by a new sister, whom her parents gave the unusual name of Milborough. She was to be followed by two more girls in quick succession – ultimately, William and Elizabeth Vickress went on to have twelve children.

Drusilla and Milborough grew up together in the family’s home in Hope-under-Dinmore, a rural parish in the English county of Herefordshire. The area is today very much as it would have been two centuries ago, so it easy to imagine the tranquil circumstances in which they spent the first years of their lives. The happiness of their earlier years came to an end when in 1849 their twenty-eight year-old sister Caroline died of unknown causes, followed by their other sister Diana, who succumbed to consumption after years of medical treatment. Only a year after, their beloved father William died of a kidney ailment.

Hope-under-Dinmore, from the Francis Firth collection.

Drusilla and Milborough lived in the company of their widowed mother until the latter’s death in 1875. They worked as dressmakers, a modest but nevertheless respectable profession for women whose only real alternative to earn a living would have been to work the land. Drusilla’s physical problems may well have interfered with her work, however, since in three consecutive census entries (1861, 1871 and 1881) she has no occupation listed other than “at home”.

It is difficult to know why neither sister ever married. It is tempting to suppose that Drusilla’s handicap may have limited her options to find a life partner, but in truth, only two of her sisters ever made it to the altar, and of them, only one married a local boy. It is likelier that potential husbands were in short supply, and the sisters slowly drifted into spinsterhood as the years went by. At any rate, Milborough, devoted from the first to her elder sister, may have wished to nurse Drusilla as long as she could. By 1891 the sisters continued to live, by themselves, next to the vicarage in a cottage called Codling Hall.

In 1894 Milborough died at the age of 74, leaving her elder invalid sister Drusilla to fend for herself. Unable to continue living alone in Hope-under-Dinmore, she was admitted into the Leominster Union Workhouse, where she died aged 84 on 20 January 1901, just two days before the death of Queen Victoria herself. Thus came to an end the life of two quiet, discreet and perhaps otherwise unremarkable sisters who mercifully remained devoted to each other’s care and company until the very end.

Hope-under-Dinmore, from the Francis Firth collection.

Posted in 1861 Census, 1871 Census, 1881 Census, Birth, Death, England, Genealogy, Herefordshire, Hope-under-Dinmore | 1 Comment

Twins, or a multiple baptism?

Having twins in the family always adds an interesting footnote to one’s own family history. My great-grandfather (on my English side) was a twin – although his twin sister died aged only a few months- and my Italian great-grandmother was herself a twin, one of (wait for it!) twelve brothers and sisters, which included three sets of twins!

But both of my great-grandparents were born in a time when the existence of civil registration meant that present-day researchers like me can know on what exact date (and even at what exact time) our ancestors were born. But what of pre-civil registration? How can one prove when someone was born, if no document actually and explicitly states the person’s date of birth?

This is exactly the problem that I am faced with when analysing the family of my English great-great-great-grandfather Frederick Vickress. Frederick was the third child, and second-born son, of his parents’ twelve children. If the baptism entries in the parish books are to be taken as approximate dates of birth, then each child was born roughly within a one/two year gap of each other (the first being born in 1811 – and civil registration was introduced in England in 1837). But unlike my ancestors from traditionally Catholic Spain, where infants were usually christened within 24 hours of birth, English Protestants could take weeks or even months before having their children baptised. The quick rate at which William and Elizabeth Vickress christened their babies leads me to believe they chose to have their babies baptised fairly soon after birth.

In 1825 the couple baptised their 7th child and then, after a seemingly childless five-year gap, they baptised two children at the same time: Henry Edward and Diana, who received the sacrament on 10th October 1830. But the entry in the parish book does not specify if they were twins or not. I suppose 42 year-old Elizabeth could well have given birth to twins; she was obviously in good health, since she would go on to have a further two children and lived to the ripe old age of 87! But is there any way of knowing, from later documentation, whether Henry Edward and Diana were twins?

Entry for the baptism of Henry Edward and Diana Vickress – perhaps not coincidentally, Henry Edward is listed first: was he the older of the two siblings?

It was not until recently that I noticed that the two were listed separately on the 1841 census: Henry Edward lived at home with his parents, and was listed as being 12 years old, while Diana, who suffered from ill health for a great part of her life, was recorded as an 11 year-old patient in the Hereford Infirmary. So the first clue seems to indicate that Diana was around a year younger than Henry Edward.

Ten years later, in 1851, the census records both siblings living at home, and again Henry Edward appears to be somewhat older, only this time he is 21 while Diana is only 18. Clearly there is a slight discrepancy here, particularly as Diana’s age would indicate she was born in 1832/1833 (which we know to be impossible since she was baptised in October 1830) but is certainly looks like Henry Edward and Diana were not of the same age, and therefore they certainly were brother and sister, but not twins. But wait, there’s more.

Sadly, this was to be Diana’s last entry in the census books, as she died three months after the above. For a time, she had been suffering from consumption, but her death certificate states that she was 21 years old! Wait, I thought she was only 18? While she may well have had a birthday between the time the census was taken (30th March 1851) and her death (8th June 1851), this would not explain a full two-year discrepancy! Maybe her eldest brother, who registered the death, got his sister’s age mixed up?

Newspaper cutting announcing the death of Diana Vickress.

But what of Henry Edward? We can find him in two further census: in 1861 he claimed to be 29 (so, born circa 1832) and in 1871 he was purportedly 40 (so, born circa 1831): again, two impossible years. Then, in 1875, he died after a long and slow decline, and his death was recorded as being 45 (so, born circa 1830).

With all the inconsistencies in the census and the sources mentioned, I think it is highly unlikely we will ever know when Henry Edward and Diana were actually born, but I certainly see no indication (other than they were baptised on the same day) that there were twins – in fact, I’m inclined to think they were not twins, with Henry Edward being born around a year before his sister Diana. But based on the information I just mentioned, I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.

Posted in 1841 Census, 1851 Census, 1861 Census, 1871 Census, Birth, Civil Registration, Death, England, Genealogy, Herefordshire, Hope-under-Dinmore | Leave a comment

The story of Charles Henry Vickress

Lyonshall, in Herefordshire, where Charles Henry was born. The church where he was christened can be seen at the top of the hill.

During the summer of 1870, my great-great-great-great-grandparents Frederick and Ann Vickress welcomed their tenth (and last) child, a son whom they had baptised on 21 August in the local church of Lyonshall (Herefordshire), where Frederick worked as a humble carpenter and joiner.

The arrival of Charles Henry, as the little boy was christened, was undoubtedly a happy occasion. Five years earlier, Ann had given birth to a boy who only lived 49 days. Eight children, five girls and three boys, had preceded him in the Vickresses’ nursery, of whom three also died young.

The household was surely dominated by little Charles Henry’s elder siblings; his parents were after all quite old (by the time the census was taken a year later, Frederick was 56 and Ann was 47), and the elder girls would marry before long. The family was by then composed of 8 month-old Charles Henry, his parents, his sister Diana (a 19 year-old farm servant) and his two brothers William and Thomas, who were attending school. My own great-great-great-grandmother (his sister Elizabeth) was a general servant in Huyton and Roby, Lancashire and may not even have known her youngest brother during his first few months of life.

The Vickress family lived relatively peacefully for several more years in Lyonshall. However, by 1881 they had moved to nearby Pembridge, where many of Ann Vickress’s relatives, the Tippins family, lived. As Charles Henry grew up, his elder brothers began working the land while their father continued his business in carpentry. The little boy most probably indulged in fun and games with the neighbours’ children, like the Leakes and the Hughes families.

On 2 April 1891, Charles Henry’s father Frederick died aged 76 of an “abscess of the prostate gland” (perhaps a sign of cancer). Only three days later the 1891 census was taken, and so Ann Vickress was described as a widow for the first time ever. She was kept company by her two youngest sons, Thomas Frederick (a hatter who had married a few years before and was by then living in Rainow, Cheshire) and Charles Henry (an agricultural labourer, still living at home). It would be years before Charles Henry left the family home – he was still with his mother in 1901 when the next census was taken.

By then Charles Henry had changed jobs, moving from an agricultural to a mason’s labourer. Only a year later he married Elizabeth Postians (or Postings) at the local church in Pembridge. Elizabeth was about five years older than Charles Henry, and although the marriage seems to have been blessed with the birth of a daughter in 1904, the couple appears to have drifted appart: in 1911 Charles Henry, by now a builder’s labourer, was lodging in Caerphilly (Glamorgan) at 14 Bradford Street, the house of 70 year-old widowed Rebecca Knight and her family, the Broughtons, some of whom worked in the local colliery. It was probably through them, or thanks to them, that Charles Henry managed to secure a position as a miner, while his wife remained in Pembridge (living near her mother-in-law) with her little daughter Daisy Elizabeth by her side.

By about the time Charles Henry turned 44 in 1914, the country had plunged into a war. In view of his age, Charles Henry would have been only slightly older than the required age to be called up. Interestingly, while many men saw the war as an opportunity to escape the dangers and drudgery of working down the mines, Charles Henry seems to have taken the opposite view, and with mining considered an essential part of the war-work (with coal in great need), he would not have been pressed to go to the front. Charles Henry therefore remained in Wales, working as a mine banksman, not just far from his own family but also from the young men who had gone to fight.

By August 1915 the war had been raging for a year, and Charles Henry may well have wondered if he would be conscripted before long. Tragically, his question would never be answered, as on 28 August he was violently struck on the shoulders and body by a descending pit-cage at the Navigation Colliery in Crumlin, where he worked. The unfortunate man suffered for seven agonising hours, but eventually succumbed to his injuries.

News of his death surely reached his wife and daughter before long. Elizabeth does not appear to have remarried, and she passed away in 1945, at the end of another global war. Their daughter Daisy Elizabeth went on to marry a Michael Sutton, but the couple don’t seem to have had children, thus bringing Charles Henry’s line to an end.

Charles Henry was, however, honoured by his elder (and probably closest) brother Thomas Frederick, who had moved to Cheshire when Charles Henry was still living at home. Thomas Frederick named his youngest son Charles Henry; the younger Charles Henry emigrated to Australia with his parents and sisters in the early 1900’s and would in fact go on to join the Australian army, seeing military action during WWI and receiving a medal for his services. It seems that where one Charles Henry failed to take an active part, the other shone with distinction.

Crumlin’s Navigation Colliery, where Charles Henry Vickress met a tragic end.

Posted in 1871 Census, 1881 Census, 1891 Census, 1901 Census, 1911 Census, Australia, Birth, Cheshire, Death, Emigration, England, Genealogy, Herefordshire, Lyonshall, Pembridge, Wales, World War I | Leave a comment

Why don’t Spanish death certificates include a cause of death?

If you have ever had to order a death certificate from a Spanish registry office, you may have noticed that the cause of death is crossed out, or simply does not exist. To many of us, the absence of a cause of death on a death certificate makes no sense whatsoever. You may or may not agree with doing away with what genealogists consider a vital part of their genealogy research, but today we will try to figure out why Spanish death certificates no longer include this crucial piece of information.

The modern Spanish Civil Registry system was created in 1870 during the reign of King Amadeo I, who imported the idea of a non-ecclesiastical registration of deaths from his native Italy; the law came into effect on 1 January 1871, and began by only recording births, marriages and deaths (not including stillbirths or children who died within the first 24h after birth). Nowadays, the Civil Registry covers a wider range of events, as it also records stillbirths, tutelages and legal representations.

This death certificate, from 1935, shows the cause of death stricken out and the Order reference beside it. The cause of death is still partially legible.

At first, like in most other civil registration forms like the English, French or Italian systems, Spanish death certificates did include a cause of death. This was mentioned either in a handwritten form or in the practical an easy-to-fill-out printed forms which became commonplace at the end of 1800’s.

This death certificate, dated from 1936 but issued in the 21st century, has not had the cause of death crossed out.

Everything changed in the 20th century, however, when the Ministry of Justice considered that the cause of death was “alien to the registration institution” – in other words, it was outside the scope of the Civil Registry’s purpose, as a cause of death does not contribute to the Registry’s goal of certifying someone’s death, which should otherwise continue to include a person’s identity (name, surname, parentage, date of birth, etc.).

For this very reason, the Order of the Spanish Ministry of Justice of 6th June 1994 decreed that, from then on, no death certificates would include a cause of death (which is included, however, in medical reports issued upon a person’s death but which are not kept at the Civil Registry office).

This death certificate, from 1996, does not include a cause of death but still includes the space where it would have been stated.

By virtue of this very Order, modern-day certificates simply do not include a cause of death. Deaths which were registered prior to 1994 would naturally include a cause of death, but Civil Registry officers are now expected to cross out the cause of death. Luckily, not everyone follows this rule, and we may still be lucky enough to find a cause of death stated in a pre-1994 certificate.  Sadly, this is not always the case, but depending on the civil servant’s efficiency, we may still be able to make out the writing underneath the ink, as shown on the first image above.

This blank death certificate, issued in 2004, no longer includes a space for the cause of death.

So, how can you find out what your Spanish ancestors died of if the cause is not mentioned on their death certificate? Well, it won’t always be easy, but I can think of several ways and methods that you can look for clues (and ensure that future generations can easily track the cause of death of their forefathers, whether it’s for medical reasons or out of general interest):

  • Burial records: many burial records in Spain, particularly during the 19th and early 20th century, feature the cause of death.
  • Family history and previous genealogical research: check stored information passed on orally or in writing by members of your family who knew your ancestors.
  • Medical or clinical records: although difficult to access (they would probably be stored in local hospitals or clinics), these may be of invaluable help. It is likely that only direct descendants will have access to such records.
  • Birth records: sometimes a marginal annotation on the birth record mentioning the person in question passed away may include the actual cause of death.
  • Newspaper clippings: there was a time when newspapers would publish daily announcements of deaths recorded in the local registry office, and mentioned the person’s name, age and cause of death.
  • Obituaries: very often a cause of death is given on obituaries. Phrases like “after a long illness” may imply a wasting disease like cancer or tuberculosis. If the person was killed in a war, a newspaper obituary would most likely make a reference to the circumstances.

If you want to apply for a death certificate in Spain, you can do so by ordering a copy via the Ministry of Justice website. Certificates are free, but the date and place of death (town or city) need to be included in the request. For more information I advise you read my article on how to order a Spanish death certificate.

This modern-day obituary remembers the deaths of two brothers who were murdered shortly after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.

Posted in Civil Registration, Death, Spain | Leave a comment

My Living DNA experience

Those of you who followed my blog in April will remember how I was singled out at Who Do You Think You Are? Live by Living DNA’s Marketing Director Hannah Morden– I suppose constant tweeting, not to mention purchasing 12 DNA kits on the spot – sort of made me stand out…

Anyway, thanks to that rather serendipitous encounter, I took a test with Living DNA, the results of which would ordinarily have taken between around 8-12 weeks to arrive. This week, after just over an amazing six weeks’ wait, I got my results!

Swabbing and giving a grateful smile to Living DNA for our serendipitous encounter at the same time is not easy, I can tell you!

Now, you will probably remember that so far the only company I have tested with is The results I received a year ago showed what I (more or less) already knew, or at least half suspected – that I am a big fat European mongrel. A chunk of British ancestry here, a splash of Spanish (“Iberian”) blood there, and a sprinkling of Italian (“Italy/Greece”) genes all concocted with traits of other, smaller ethnic groups appear to have made me what I am today. So how would my Ancestry results compare with those of Living DNA?

Well, I certainly hope that no one out there is getting tattoos with their ethnic group percentages, because we must remember that any estimations we get are just that, mere estimations, and are actually only based on whichever company’s existing database. In other words, your results may and will vary depending on the company you test with, and will also change with the passing of time, as more and more users test.

So, how did I fare with Living DNA? Well, for someone whose recent (300 years or so) ancestry is vaguely 40% Spanish, 25% British (in my case mainly West Midland English with a pinch of Welsh) and about 30% Italian, I was amazed to find a large chunk of purported French DNA (over 70%!). But then again, France is a large country, with a lot of mixed peoples, and my Italian ancestors did come from northern Italy, not that far from the French border. Then again, this may well be because the markers contained within my DNA are for the time being too different from the markers that Living DNA’s lab currently use – thus they compare somewhat differently from my other Ancestry DNA results.

At first glance, my autosomal DNA results did not look very detailed…

My Spanish side was also represented in my Living DNA results, although strangely it only merited 5.5% – again, my family comes from a very specific region on the north-western coast, and the migration of peoples may well have mixed up my ethnic Spanish “purity”. And, as mentioned, the markers from that particular area may not yet have been sufficiently developed by Living DNA’s lab.

…but alas, here were my detailed autosomal DNA results!

Alas, enter Great Britain. Only 1.5 %? My English grandmother, whose whole ancestry back to the 1750’s is firmly English – but for one distant Welsh female ancestor- would definitely be shocked. And even more surprising is that there is no sign of Irish DNA, which according to Ancestry is present in my veins, though I can’t exactly explain how. Maybe Ancestry means to say “Celtic”, which would explain the Welsh side…?

All this may seem confusing. In fact it is, but I am not too concerned: the markers that Ancestry, Living DNA and the other DNA testing companies use are different; the labs they use are different, and as far as I can tell, their definition of ethnic groups is also different. I am sure that with the passing of time my results both on Living DNA and any other company I may decide to test with will continue to evolve and become similar (if not identical) to each other.

But that’s not all – for me, getting my autosomal DNA results was not the main reason for testing with Living DNA. You will understand my joy when I also received my Haplogroup subclades for my Y-DNA (direct paternal line) and Mt-DNA (direct female line) – Living DNA test 20,000 markers for their Y-DNA test, and 4,500 snips for the Mt-DNA test. Now, you may know by now that my dad’s direct paternal line comes from NW Italy, an area which was in fact at one point ruled by Sardinia. It all seemed to fit perfectly when I realised that my Haplogroup is quite common not just in the Western Balkans (what? I’m Bosnian/Croatian now?) but also in Sardinia!

The path presumably followed by my maternal ancestors from Eve to my Mum.

My mother’s Mt-DNA signature was equally fascinating – and puzzling. She got a Haplogroup which turns out to be more common among northern Scandinavian peoples – in other words, a far cry from my NW Spanish ancestors…

Once I had time to digest my results and try to ponder the questions that were all of a sudden popping into my head, I wrote down the pros and cons of this testing, and decided to get some answers from Living DNA themselves. Here are some pointers which will hopefully help you clarify some of the questions you might have:

  • Living DNA’s single test available offers autosomal, Y-DNA (for males only) and Mt-DNA results. Considering the cost (129€ plus delivery), it is very good value.
  • Unlike other DNA testing companies, they cover the whole world, which means you can receive your DNA kit pretty much wherever you live.
  • Living DNA is, as far as I know, the only company of its kind based in Europe and which consequently complies with EU legislation.
  • Their website has a sleek, modern look to it, although finding your way around is not always 100% evident because of the features they include – but this is a minor detail in my opinion.
  • Living DNA’s level of detail is pretty much unprecedented, as it allows breaking down ethnic groups into much smaller subgroups. The UK is the country with the largest group of ethnic sub-groups, but I understand other regions are in the pipeline to become more detailed in the months to come.
  • Downloading one’s raw DNA file will also soon become possible, and they are working to make this feature compatible with sites such as GEDmatch which will helpfully allow users to compare their results with thousands of others.
  • As a genealogist, the biggest flaw I found with Living DNA’s current set-up was the lack of a DNA comparison feature. For me, being able to compare my autosomal DNA results with those of other users is crucial as I am more interested in knowing if I have any close genetic relatives, as opposed to finding out if I’m a quarter French. Happily I just heard DNA comparison will be available as early as next July, so that will hopefully be a problem taken care of. If this feature is added, Living DNA will definitely become the most cost-effective of all available DNA tests.
  • One detail which I think can be improved on their website is the accessibility to one’s autosomal results. It took me a while to figure out that by clicking on the “plus” sign I could actually see my results in greater detail. But again, a minor detail which should nevertheless be made more accessible, in my opinion.
  • I also understand that there will soon be an additional feature which will allow data to be managed by a “key owner”, in other words, your data can be managed by a relative after your death.
  • Living DNA’s current database is not as large as other companies’, but they are growing exponentially every month. I have already made it clear to Living DNA that I would be happy to volunteer some friends and relatives whose grandparents were born within an 80km radius of each other – thus allowing the company to increase their markers database and allow everyone’s results to appear in greater detail.

Living DNA has the benefit of being a fairly small, innovative and new company with all the good qualities of a family-run business. I find they are keen to listen to users and are happy to get suggestions, which is why I am ready to give them a vote of confidence. I certainly look forward to many great things from Living DNA in the near future!

Disclaimer: All views expressed here are my own personal opinions. I do not work for Living DNA or any other DNA-testing company, or any company operating within the field of genealogy or genetics.


Posted in DNA, England, Galicia, Genealogy, Genetic Genealogy, Italy, LivingDNA, Who Do You Think You Are? | 1 Comment

Using DNA to find the common ancestor

If you have ever taken an autosomal DNA test with any company, be it Ancestry, 23andMe, FamilyTreeDNA, Living DNA, etc., you will have seen that your results will appear on the company’s database along with a (generally long) list of others users who match your own DNA. Now, I am not a genetic genealogy expert, and all I have learnt (and I am still learning) generally comes from experience and from reading articles & papers, online professional videos and specialised magazines. This said, genetic genealogy is not difficult to apply to your “traditional” genealogy research – if you know how to apply it. Here’s a good example of what I mean:

Some months ago I was contacted by someone in America called Kathryn (not her real name), who appeared among my DNA matches as an (estimated) 4th-6th cousin. That means that Kathryn is, theoretically and at the very closest, a great-great-great-grandchild of my great-great-great-grandparents. Of course, the calculation is based solely on the amount of the DNA that we have in common, which necessarily begs the question “Why do we share this amount of DNA, and not more, or less?”. As I’m sure you know, we inherit 50% of our DNA from our father, and the other 50% from our mother. However, our more distant ancestors’ DNA, starting with our grandparents, is inherited randomly via our parents. In other words, we may get 50% from dad and 50% from mum, but that does not mean that we get 25% of DNA from each grandparent: in fact, as a rule, we don’t. We might, for instance, get 35% of DNA from our paternal grandfather, but just 15% of DNA from our paternal grandmother. That’s the randomness of DNA for you! The below diagram explains the random inheritance pattern of DNA more simplistically.

As I have managed to track down the name and origin of most of my great-great-great-grandparents, I thought that my genetic coincidence with Kathryn was too good to ignore. The first step was, naturally, to ask Kathryn where her immediate ancestors came from. Like me, she has Italian blood, but her ancestors apparently came from Southern Italy, while my Italian forefathers were from a small area sandwiched between the hills of Northern Italy. Not a likely scenario for our presumed nearest common ancestor to have come from. We therefore turned our attention to her father’s family, and this time we seemed to strike gold, as her paternal line has a connection with Galicia, the north-western part of Spain where practically all of my mother’s ancestors lived as far back as the 1600’s.

The next step was to cross-check if our suspicious about a geographical connection were right, and so I had my mother tested so I could compare her results with Kathryn’s. Not only did they share a match, but they also seemed to be more closely related, as Kathryn shared more centimorgans with my mother than with me. We were definitely on the right track.

I then asked Kathryn to share with me some of her recent family history which might help me to unearth a common name which I could follow up. She said her paternal grandfather had been born in Spain in the early 1900’s, and that she had once seen his parents’ names on his birth certificate, which she has since lost. However, there seemed to be some inconsistencies and loose ends with her story when it came to the identity of her grandfather’s father. She said he belonged to a middle-class family who started a transport business which later developed into a bus company. She also said her great-grandfather had died young (she had even seen his grave in Galicia on a visit some years back), and that his widow, who was of lower birth, had been turned away by her in-laws and had left Spain for America, leaving her son to be brought up for foster parents.

With the names she was able to provide me, I searched online newspaper archives to see if I could find any reference to either Kathryn’s grandfather or his parents, and luckily I found an obituary for a man who died in 1915 whose name matched that which Kathryn had provided. I immediately sent for the man’s Spanish death certificate, but when I received the document I made a very curious discovery: the man, called Manuel, was unmarried, so there was no reference to a wife, nor to any children. I again cross-checked with Ann to see if the story she had told me may have been wrong, but she was sure we had the right man. It wasn’t difficult to track him down in the Spanish census at the turn of the century, and this helped me to prove that Kathryn’s story about a family-run bus company was absolutely spot on. Luckily, both of Manuel’s parents were listed, as was their respective place of birth: the father was born in the Castilian province of León, the mother in Madrid. So it was clear that the family did not have any immediate genetic ties with Galicia, the area w were focusing on.

My attention then shifted to the mother of Manuel’s child, Josefa, whose full name was not very clear to us. I searched high and low for a birth certificate for their illegitimate son, to no avail. Unfortunately Kathryn’s efforts to retrieve the document she had seen years before were not yielding any results either. It was only then that we decided to try a different source, and we applied to the church archive for a baptism certificate. Their response was positive, in that they had found a corrected baptism certificate, issued in the 1970’s (in other words, some seven decades after the child had been born) where his parents’ names were mentioned. The document not only confirmed the father’s identity (it was, incidentally, the man called Manuel whom we had previously been looking for), but it also served to confirm the mother’s full name: Josefa Adega López (the last two being her two surnames, as is the Spanish custom).

Armed with a full name, I decided to track Josefa down in the census; her son’s baptism certificate confirmed she came from Ferrol, the same city as some of my ancestors, and so I decided to look her up. I was somewhat dismayed by the fact that she too seemed to be illegitimate, as I was able to find her living with her elder sister and their single mother in the 1887 census, when Josefa would have been about five years old.

The fact that Josefa was illegitimate naturally opened the possibility of never actually finding out who her real father was. But before committing myself to searching aimlessly for a purported father, I asked my grandfather’s only surviving sister to take an autosomal DNA test too. The reason for this was that she was my theoretical link to Kathryn’s family, but as of yet I had not proven this much other than by testing my mother. The results confirmed that my great-aunt and Kathryn were indeed fairly closely related (still within a 4th-6th cousin relationship), and although I still was not 100% sure of how we are connected, at least we knew our link came via my maternal grandfather’s family.

Unfortunately my application for Josefa Adega López’s birth certificate has been unsuccessful: she was either recorded under a different name, in a different location, or she was not registered at all. Church records in the area are noticeably hard to come by, and so for the time being I have little to go on via Kathryn’s family line.

Although I do not think I will be able to confirm the link between our two families (not, that is, until there is sufficient documentary evidence to prove it – and, as this is a case of an illegitimate child, I am not raising my hopes too high), I decided once again to go down the genetic path. (There’s a family tree chart at the end of the article which will help you follow the story as I explain it.)

As Josefa was born in 1882, I laid out who of my family could have actually “done the deed”, and I found a rather curious set of options: my own great-grandfather was born in 1879, and so he would have been too young to father a daughter at the time. His elder brother were also too young to become fathers in their own right, BUT their father (my great-great-grandfather) could easily have fathered Josefa out of wedlock. I just hope for my great-great-grandmother’s sake that he didn’t!

The other option, which is tantalisingly suggestive, is my great-great-grandmother’s only brother, Juan. As Juan was born in 1836, he would have been 46 at the time of Josefa’s birth, so he could well have been her biological father. He was, at the time, still single, and he may well have had an affair with Josefa’s mother. However, in about 1890 he decided the time had come for him to marry. His choice of bride was none other than his own niece Flora, by whom he would go on to have two children.

Now, my grandfather’s family is not very extensive, and I know very few relatives on that side whom I could ask for a DNA sample. One of them, curiously, is a descendant of that uncle-niece marriage, and so I have decided to ask her to have a DNA test. I may also ask another cousin who is descended from another brother of Flora’s. If Flora’s descendant’s DNA results show a much higher DNA proportion with Kathryn than with me (Flora’s descendant, after all, would be related to Kathryn not only via Flora herself, but also via Juan), then we may just well have found the identity of Josefa’s biological father. If, on the other hand, both Flora’s descendant shares the same amount of DNA as me and our other shared cousin, we may well need to take our documentary and genetic research  a generation back. Only time, and DNA, will tell if we are on the right track!

Either of the two men in a red box may have fathered Kathryn’s great-grandmother. My third cousins’ DNA may prove it.

Posted in DNA, Galicia, Genealogy, Genetic Genealogy, Illegitimacy, Spain | 3 Comments