How to order a Spanish death certificate?

One of the most common questions I usually get when discussing genealogy is “how can I get my ancestor’s death certificate from Spain?”. The procedure is actually pretty straight-forward and it usually takes a few days – if you’re lucky!- to reach your doorstep. Oh, and most importantly, it’s free of charge, wherever you live!

Going on an official government’s website can be a bit confusing, not least because of the language barrier, which is why I have prepared a simple PDF manual that will hopefully help you to order a Spanish death certificate step by step.

Remember you can always contact me if you have additional questions or if anything remains unclear!

Posted in Civil Registration, Death, Galicia, Genealogy, Spain | 1 Comment

Understanding Spanish Surnames

In recent times family researchers in England, the USA and beyond  have asked me to clarify a matter which concerns their Spanish ancestry. It is, in fact, one of the most common questions I tend to get: how does the Spanish surname system work (and by that, I mean the system which regulates the inheritance of family names from one generation to another)?

Like in most cases in Western Europe, surname usage was introduced in Medieval times to differentiate citizens, mainly for tax purposes. Initially, surnames were not passed on systematically from a parent to his or her children; children often had the choice of which family name they wanted to be known by. In practice, this meant that a couple’s children could easily have different “surnames” and still be, legally and biologically, full siblings.

It was also during the medieval period that some of today’s most common Spanish surnames came into existence, developing from simple patronymic variations of first names. These are easily recognisable by their ending -ez (or the variant -es, which is predominant in Portuguese). This ending denotes “son of” or “of the family of”, and so the surname Fernández means “son of Fernando”, Pérez means “son of Pero/Pedro”, Rodríguez means “son of Rodrigo”, and so on. Most surnames which end in -oz  are usually derived from first names (like Muñoz, which means “son of Munio”); in this last instance, however, we should note that surnames like Galduroz, which also end in -oz, are not derived from first names; Galduroz is a toponymical surname, as it derives from a place name (Galduroz being a town in the Spanish province of Navarre). Nowadays, seven out of ten of the most common surnames in Spain end in -ez!


However, the pattern in which a surname was inherited changed over time. Over the centuries, the system became more rigid, and thus left less space for individual choice. In fact, until the late 1700’s it was fairly common for men to use their father’s last name, while women would tended to use their mother’s surname. And so, we may still find cases as recently as the 1790’s where two siblings share both parents but do not make use of the same surname. This custom was discontinued by the 1800’s, although it is likely to come up in any Spanish family tree which stretches roughly seven or eight generations back.

But that is not all. You may have often wondered why Spaniards have such “long” names. This is due, partially, to giving children several Christian names (a tradition which is not as popular today as it was, for instance, one or two generations ago); this tradition often stemmed from the belief that being given several names implied Divine protection on behalf of the saint whose name the child bore – thus, the more names a child had, the larger the chances to lead a longer and healthier life. But going back to surnames, the fact that Spaniards have long names is partly explained by the fact that Spanish tradition allocates not one but two surnames to an individual (historically even to children born in Spain to foreign parents). To understand how this works I have created a simplified (fake) family tree:


As per the above, you can see that Pedro García López, who has two surnames (García and López) marries Catalina Galindo Fernández. Their son, Antonio García Galindo, therefore inherits his father’s first surname and, in the second place, his mother’s first surname. When Antonio marries Sara Rodríguez Pena, their children will have the surname García in first place, and the maternal surname Rodríguez in second place. Antonio’s sister Luisa, on the other hand, married a man called Eduardo Ortega Sánchez. Their children will bear Eduardo’s first surname followed by Luisa’s first surname, thus becoming Ortega García. This means that surnames in the paternal line tend to be perpetuated in future generations, while maternal surnames are usually lost in the next generation. Nowadays this is not necessarily so, as parents can choose the order of their children’s surnames, but the traditional practice of “father’s name first” continues to be the most usual.

After explaining the above, you may have noticed that the tree I created does not show women’s married names; this is because, quite simply, women in Spain never adopt their husband’s surname. In other words, women keep their maiden name throughout their lives.

Curiously, in some countries married women (particularly of  certain generation) used to attach their husband’s surname to their last name to denote that they were married; thus, María Cordero de Arias would seem to indicate that the woman’s husband was called Mr. Arias, and she wished to make the fact known to her interlocutor. This practice, however, is rarely used today and is not officially recognised.

During your Spanish family research, you may well encounter cases where a surname has a de/del/de la between words. It is often asserted that this “mark” denotes an ancestor who was of noble birth, and is therefore out gateway to fame and fortune. Unfortunately (no pun intended), this is very rarely the case. Surnames such as de la Iglesia or del Rey may well indicate illegitimacy somewhere in your family tree, while others like de la Plaza or de Orellana are generally considered to be toponymics, and may therefore be indicative of a place of origin (plaza meaning “square” or “meeting place” and Orellana may refer to any of the places in the Spanish-speaking world with that name).

That said, some surnames have, with the passing of time, become compounds, either by way of a hyphen (such as in Martínez-Bordiú) or by a particle which, in effect, turns two surnames into one fixed form (like García de la Concha). Just be sure, when researching your ancestors’ surnames, that you do not split surnames in the wrong place!

As you can see, there is no black or white when it comes to Spanish surnames. There are many variants, many exceptions and overall a lot of details which the researcher needs to bear in mind to avoid mistakes – but that’s what genealogy is all about, isn’t it?



Posted in Genealogy, Spain | 1 Comment

Blind Expectations

Well, what a week this is proving to be what with one thing and another! It seems my Allen ancestors still have much to say about our family history, and now, thanks to the wills I had copied last week from Hereford Records Office, I have managed to make out new branches of the family I had not yet discovered.

A few days ago I received a copy of the will written by my great-great-great-great-grandfather Thomas Allen in 1842, only a few weeks before he passed away at the grand old age of 82. Thomas’s marriage to Sarah Jones had produced ten children, and although I had found the baptism entry for each and one of them, I had presumed their own story would be easy to tell – or at least, that I could track them down on the census. Wrong! Although this was indeed the case, son William is turning out to be a bit of a mystery. He isn’t mentioned in his father’s will in 1842, but he is recorded in the 1841 census – did he die during that narrow space of time, or was he disinherited? The former seems to be easier to prove than the latter, but as there is no shortage of William Allens who died in the right place during that period, it seems I will have to put off my “William Allen research” till another time.

The next mystery I had stumbled across was daughter Mary Ann, whose total absence from the censuses of 1841 and onward (at least under the surname of Allen) made me believe she may have died young. You will therefore understand my excitement when I discovered that she is listed on her father’s will, and not just that, but it also gives me the name of her husband: “my daughter Mary Ann, the wife of Richard Alford”.


Reference on Thomas Allen’s 1842 will confirming his daughter Mary Ann was “the wife of Richard Alford (sic)”

A quick glance at the census typing in Mary Ann’s name, estimated year of birth and place of birth, together with her newly found husband’s surname, and voilà, I easily locate her in 1851 living with husband Richard and – surprise!- two children, Sarah Alford, who is a 9 year-old at the time, and a son called Charles Hide. Hang on… Hide? Surely he can’t be their son if his surname isn’t Alford or Allen, can he? Well, a quick search for a birth of a Charles Hide (or Hyde, which is a more conventional spelling) brings up few results, but as he would have been born around 1830 (in other words, before the introduction of civil registration) the relevant baptism record may not be available online.


The 1827 marriage in Worcester between Mary Ann Allen and her first husband, William Hyde. The marriage is likely to have lasted about ten years or so.

I then decide to go down another route: as daughter Sarah appears as being just under ten years of age, chances are Richard and Mary Ann married about ten years before the 1851 census was taken. I find no immediately obvious results on FamilySearch for a marriage between an Alford and an Allen, but by doing a wildcard search I stumble across an interesting marriage entry: not only do I find a marriage dated 1840 between a Richard Halford and a Mary Ann Hyde, but the marriage transcript also mentions her father as Thomas Allen! If I was ever in any doubt that I was on the right track, this certainly confirmed that I was!


Entry of marriage between Mary Ann Hyde (née Allen) and her second husband, Richard Halford. The marriage lasted 15 years.

It therefore seemed increasingly likely that Mary Ann was married not once, but twice, and that she had a son by her first marriage, and a daughter by her second. It did not take me long to locate a marriage between a Mr Hyde and Mary Ann Allen – only one possible result showing a wedding that took place in 1827, when Mary Ann would have been just 19. I have yet to locate the death of her husband, whose name was William Hyde, but for now I have decided to focus on Mary Ann.

Following her marriage to Richard Halford/Alford, Mary Ann seems to have lived for a period in Little Cowarne, in Herefordshire, where she and her husband welcomed their daughter Sarah. By 1851 they were already living in Cradley, but a burial record for a Richard Halford in Colwall in 1855 suggests the marriage was short-lived, as indeed proven by the 1861 census, when Mary Ann is listed on the census as a widow. By then Mary Ann was forced to work as a housekeeper in order to survive, but I was relieved to find her living with her children (son Charles was a farm labourer, daughter Sarah a laundress). The family had by then made Colwall their permanent residence, and it was there that Mary Ann is likely to have died, as there is a death record for a Mary Ann Halford listed in 1884, showing the right age, in Ledbury registration district.

Sarah’s own story goes cold thereafter – I need to devote an hour or two to find out what happened to her after 1861- but Charles seems to have stayed close to his mother, and in 1868 he was married in Colwall to a woman called Martha Williams. The couple seems to have started a family early on, as confirmed by the baptism records available online: William (born 1869), twins Rosanna and Marianne (1872), Charles (1874), another Charles (1876), John (1878) and Herbert (who died in his first year of life in 1883).

The family is fairly easy to track down on the 1881 census, only this time I learn something new  about Charles himself: instead of having a profession, he is listed as “unable to work” – the first time I have ever come across such a note in my family’s research. The answer to the puzzle can be found a few columns over on the census record, as he is listed as “blind”. I quickly check previous census entries to see if I had overlooked such a heart-breaking fact, but there is no indication that before the 1880’s Charles had any eye problems.

The 1891 census offers no further clues – Charles is listed as “nearly blind” and continues to be without a profession, a situation which forced his wife as a “church caretaker and cleaner” – so Martha likely cleaned the church of Saint James, where all of my Allen ancestors were baptised for the last 300 years!

Ten years on the family is listed in the census complete for the last time, as Martha appears to have died in 1902, followed by Charles in 1906. I am however quite happy to see that living in the same household is a Alice Jane Sweatman, who shortly after married their son Charles – a nice revelation to end what had by then become a somewhat melancholy story of a very resilient and close-knit family!


The 1901 census, showing Charles Hyde as being “blind” (last column on the right) with his family and daughter-in-law-to-be.

Posted in 1841 Census, 1851 Census, 1861 Census, 1871 Census, 1881 Census, 1891 Census, 1901 Census,, Birth, Colwall, England, Family Search, Genealogy, Herefordshire, Marriage | Leave a comment

Where There’s a Will…

Most of you by now are aware of my ongoing interest in my Allen ancestors, from the parish of Colwall, on the Herefordshire side of the Malvern Hills. The fact that I live nowhere near the area makes onsite research – including a visit to the Hereford Records Office, where the parish records are currently kept- an impossible task! And so, you will understand why recently I leapt at the chance to have four copies of ancestors’ wills and testaments sent to me for the price of three!

I started off by doing a search on the Hereford Records Office website of available wills for the parish of Colwall. Choosing the documents I wanted copied was not too difficult – it seems not many of my ancestor left a will- but I could still have my pick among several possibilities. I already had a copy of the will left by my most remote Allen ancestor, the ‘husbandman’ Richard Allen, which was probated on 24th May 1716 – that’s a whopping three centuries ago. I remember finding the document very useful, as it not only confirmed the names of Richard’s four sons, but also gave me the name of an additional daughter, Mary, whose existence I had entirely overlooked.

In the same spirit, desirous to confirm and gather further information about my most distant ancestors, I went on to order the next will, chronologically speaking. I had been fortunate enough to find the will of the aforementioned Richard’s son William on, and as the latter died without issue, the document was doubly useful to identify nieces of nephews whose position in the family tree had been somewhat confusing up till then. Not only did he leave varying amounts of money to two of his surviving brothers, but also to several of his nieces and nephews and other relatives further removed, among whom we can count Elizabeth Pitt (widow of his nephew Richard), the young Margaret King (daughter of his late niece Elizabeth King, née Allen), the recently-married Hannah Wall (daughter of his late nephew Richard Allen), his Harwood cousins, the Blackways, and many others. I was rather happily surprised to see that he named his nephew and namesake, my ancestor William Allen, as his executor and the beneficiary of his will, once all other legacies to his remaining heirs had been paid. With such generous gifts as his last will in this earth, it is little wonder William Allen Sr. is described as a ‘gentleman’ on his gravestone.

And so, we come to the 1802 will of my own ancestor William Allen, nephew of the latter, grandson of the former, and only son of another Richard Allen – you will understand how confusing these repetitious names become after a couple of generations.  The will in itself is perhaps not as detailed as that of his uncle, as it only mentions the children who are alive at the time – which, luckily, matches my earlier research which confirms his son Joseph died at 15. It is also proof that two sons, William and John, whose date of death I had as yet not discovered, were alive at the time, and goes on to mention the youngest daughter by her married name – a new revelation and a prospective door to a new branch of relatives.

The third will I uncovered this past week is that of (yet another!) William Allen, a first cousin of the William Allen whose will we have just analysed. This new William Allen, a contemporary of my own ancestor, seems to have been widowed toward the end of his long life. His marriage to his late wife Anne produced at least ten children, of whom at least two died in infancy. His will is helpful, in that it mentions several of his surviving children by name, but perhaps the most exciting revelation was that he mentions leaving some money to his daughter Lucy, the wife of Henry Turner. Now, a long time ago I had tried to find a link between this Lucy Allen and my own family, as her descendants emigrated to America in the 1800’s and converted to Mormonism, as detailed in one of my older blog posts. The problem originally was that all sources I have found describe Lucy as being the daughter of “William and Mary” – however, William’s will confirms her to be his daughter, and knowing his wife was called Anne, I can safely assume the mother’s name on the baptism record is wrong (it wouldn’t be the first time such an error comes up in my research). One further point of interest is that old William Allen left some of his possessions to Philip, the illegitimate son of his daughter Lucy. I had not yet made a link between Philip Allen and my own family, but I now know that before marrying Henry Turner, Lucy had a son out of wedlock. What became of him is a mystery, but I can’t wait to unearth more information about him, and whether he went to America with his half-siblings too.

The final will which is of relevance to my Allen research is that of Thomas Allen, a son of the one of the William Allens listed above. Once again, the will is particularly useful not only because it gives us the names of his living sons at the time, but also because it goes on to confirm the married name of one of his daughters – one whose marriage I had completely overlooked! Also, interestingly, the document mentions Thomas’s wish to be buried next to the grave of his great-uncle William Allen (that generous man we analysed at the beginning of this article) – a wish I am happy to say was finally granted as the below photographs shows.

My overall conclusion after reading these different wills is that not only do you get an idea of a family’s fortunes over the course of time, but you also learn a lot about the people whose names you have discovered via parish records. You get a feeling of their relationships, of how close people were to their wider family, and naturally you discover new identities, married names and living relatives at the time the will was made. A goldmine of information if ever there was one!


Me standing behind the graves of my 4x great-grandfather Thomas Allen (r), whose 1842 will reveals he wished to be buried next to the grave of his great-uncle William (l), who died in 1765 after leaving generous amounts of money to his extended family.

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Researching Clara Allen

Several years ago I learned, thanks to the English census, that my great-great-grandfather John Allen had a younger sister called Clara. For some inexplicable reason, I have always felt an interest in Clara’s story – perhaps because for many years she was the only female living in a very masculine household, or perhaps because she was outlived by most of her immediate family members, having herself lost some of her nearest and dearest during her relatively short lifetime.


The church of Saint James, Colwall, where Clara was baptised in 1849.

Clara was born in Colwall, Herefordshire probably at the beginning of 1849 (I have not ordered her birth certificate), and was baptised in the local parish church of Saint James on Sunday, 8th April 1849. Her father, Edward Allen, was described as a farmer, which is consistent with the various census entries on which he is listed, and her mother was his wife Ann, née Rodway. Clara was their fourth (and last) child as well as their second daughter, having been preceded in the cradle by sister Ann and brothers John and William Henry. Sadly, Clara’s sister Ann passed away in 1843, before reaching her fourth birthday, and thus died several years before Clara was born. Clara must therefore have been a very welcome addition, being the only living daughter in a household with two sons.

The first occasion on which Clara made he entry in the census was of course in 1851, when she was recorded living with her parents and two elder brothers living at the Wyche, in Upper Colwall, near some relatives of her mother’s, the Rodways. Her father was described as an agricultural labourer, while her brothers are both listed as “scholars”.

Ten years on, and we find Clara still living at home – although brother William Henry was by then earning a living elsewhere. The family were listed as living in Portugal Cottage, which I suspect may well have been Victoria Cottage or, quite possibly, Ash Villa, where my own grandmother was born a century ago. Be that as it may, Edward Allen’s profession is still listed in 1861 as an agricultural labourer, while his wife was categorised as an upholsterer. You can understand how proud I was to find out that my own great-great-great-grandmother had some sort of trade as far back as 1861!

Sadly, the tight-knit family to which Clara belonged lost one of its core members when in 1867 her 58 year-old mother Ann died of “apoplexy” (probably a stroke), leaving her husband Edward to fend for himself and their children; Clara would have been 18 at the time, and with her eyes set on forming a family of her own. However, until the time came, she remained at home (as proven by the 1871 census, which by the way wrongly gives her age as 32, when she was in fact 22!). But far from being a hanger-on while her brothers left and started forming their own families, Clara began working as a “seamstress (machine)” which I take to mean she made and mended clothes with the help of a sowing machine. Not only were the women in my family entrepreneurial, but they also seemed to welcome technological advances too!

By the end of the year Clara had herself become a married woman. On 24 September 1871, in the parish church of Saint Martin, Worcester she married one Edward Devereux Tyler, who was a few months her junior and worked as a domestic coachman. Why they decided to marry in Worcester, and not in Colwall or even Malvern (where Edward was from) is a mystery. At any rate, the family seems to have remained in the Malvern area, as their first daughter, Florence Eleanor Tyler, was born in Colwall in late 1872. However, the family does not seem to have remained in Colwall for long, for in 1881 we find the Tylers living at 4, Victoria Street in Clifton (now a part of Bristol, on the fringes between Gloucestershire and Somerset). The census also reveals the names of two additional daughters, born to Clara and Edward over the preceding nine years: Dorcas Emily, born in 1875, and Ethel Clara, born in 1879. The profession of their closest neighbours, which include a photographer, a shipwright, two dressmakers and a porter, seems to indicate it was mainly lower middle-class residents who lived in the same street.


Number 9, Dowry Square in Clifton, Bristol, was where Clara Tyler (née Allen) lived with her family in the 1890’s.

By 1891 the family seems to have moved to a new location, not far from Victoria Street. They are listed in the census living at Nr 10, Dowry Square, which at least on Google Street View looks to me like a very nice location – although they would have occupied a flat on one of the floors, as there are a number of families living at the same address. By then the Tylers had had a fourth daughter, Gertrude Annie, who was born in 1887 in Portishead, Somerset, while their eldest, Florence Eleanor, had gone into service by this time, being in the employment of a Mr and Mrs George King, of Clifton. Less than a year later she too would become engaged, and married a Frank Mark Christopher, who was a carpenter and joiner, by whom she had a large family.

Things came to a halt in 1897 when Clara’s husband of twenty-six years died aged about 47. As there is no record of Clara having a profession during her married years, one can only assume she gave up any thought of earning any money when she became Edward’s wife – a common occurrence in those days. Once widowed, and having lost her main source of income, she was once again forced to look for a way of sustaining herself and her as yet unmarried daughters who lived by her side.

The next census confirms that Clara had once again become professionally active, this time taking of work as a monthly nurse. As such, she would have lived as a boarded in a household other than her own and helped nurse back a sick person back to health, as well as women who had recently given birth and were still “convalescing”. In 1901 for instance Clara is mentioned as a monthly nurse in the house of a Mr William Hunt, a schoolmaster whose one-month old baby daughter Annie was sick.


Clara Tyler’s entry in the 1901 census, showing her as the monthly nurse of Mr and Mrs Hunt’s sick baby.

Unfortunately, sickness had likely played a role in Clara’s family not long before, with tragic consequences. In 1900 her youngest daughter, Gertrude Annie, died at the age of 12. This, coupled with the loss of her husband only three years earlier, must have plunged Clara into unimaginable grief. Fortunately for her, she had two other daughters by her side (not counting the eldest, who as we have seen had begun a family of her own). By 1900 both Dorcas and Ethel were still single, a fact confirmed eleven years later according to the 1911 census. The census shows Clara, still very much professionally active as a monthly nurse, living in a two-room house on 11 Dowry Parade (quite possibly a door or two down from her previous home during the 1890’s). The census does reveal one interesting fact, in that Clara had actually had five children, of whom only three are living. It is thus fairly evident that Gertrude Annie was not the first child she lost, but with all the Tylers born in the area at the time, it is difficult to ascertain the identity of her missing fifth child.

M0011224 "The Monthly Nurse".

“The Monthly Nurse”, by David Wilkie.

Living with Clara at the time the 1911 census was taken are daughters Dorcas, who worked in a chocolate factory as a box packer, and Ethel, who was a box maker. It is quite likely they worked for a local company founded in 1881, “H.J. Packer”, which later became Elizabeth Shaw. I cannot imagine their wages were very high at all, despite being in their thirties and having a fairly entrepreneurial mother. By the end of the year, however, Ethel managed to escape her previous life by marrying one William T. Sims, by whom she appears to have had two children: Ethel D. Sims (b. 1912) and William D. Sims (b.1919).

Clara Tyler died at the of 65 in 1915, while the First World War was raging. Although I have not seen her death certificate, it may well be that she suffered a stroke as her mother had years before, or that the effects of the war took their toll on her failing health, and she slipped away.

As for her three surviving daughters, who probably mourned her until their own demises, we know that Florence Christopher (née Tyler) died in Bristol in 1940, during another, even more killing war; Dorcas never married, and died relatively young in 1919, shortly after the end of the Great War; Ethel, the youngest surviving daughter of Clara’s, passed away in 1933, aged 54.

Sadly I have never seen a photograph of Clara or any of her descendants, but wouldn’t it be great if one of them came across this article and was able to get in touch and fill in the gaps? I live to hope…

Posted in 1851 Census, 1861 Census, 1871 Census, 1881 Census, 1891 Census, 1901 Census, 1911 Census, Birth, Colwall, Death, England, Genealogy, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Illness, War, Women, Work, World War I, World War II | Leave a comment

A Spanish bigamy Story for J. Carmen

The following is a summary of the recent discoveries I have made, together with a fellow researcher, for a fellow historian, genealogist and researcher, J. Carmen Smith, who follows me on Twitter and who some years ago published an account of her Spanish grandmother’s life in England. What you are about to read relates to J. Carmen’s maternal grandfather’s family.

Up until a week ago, all that J.Carmen knew was that her grandfather, José Viñas Novo, was a seaman who came from the small town of Betanzos, in Spain’s rural region of Galicia. Various sources point to his year of birth as 1865 or there abouts. His profession often took him to Liverpool, where his company’s headquarters were based; however, by the early 20th century José had left Spain for good, having established himself in England, and it was there that in 1907 he married J. Carmen’s grandmother (and fellow Galician) Micaela.

Up to that point there is nothing particularly unusual about José’s story. It wasn’t until J. Carmen was told by Sonia, a fellow genealogist and Twitter follower, that her grandfather may have had a past life, that she began to delve into José’s years in Spain. A census entry taken in Betanzos at the end of the 19th century showed a man with an identical name, living with his wife and two infant children. Now, José’s surnames are not that unusual, but the age given was almost a perfect match. Furthermore, the existence of José’s first marriage in Spain is not in itself unusual bearing in mind he would have been in his 30’s or early 40’s by the time he left his homeland; what is striking, however, is the fact that he stated he was a bachelor on the marriage certificate when he became Micaela’s husband in 1907.

To try to get to the bottom of the mystery, I took the initiative of asking J. Carmen (who as I said is not only a historian and avid researcher but also one of my most loyal Twitter followers) for a few details concerning the children born to José and his (supposed) first wife. Thanks to the said census we are able to guess an approximate year of birth for the two children: José Jr, born around 1889, and Antonia, born around 1892.

I then took the liberty of ordering the children’s birth certificates and see, once and for all, if the José Viñas Novo in J. Carmen’s story and the man listed as their father on the census is one and the same person. This week, at length, I received an envelope from the Betanzos civil registry office. I was at first rather disappointed when I saw a note from the registrar saying that one of the certificates (that of José Jr.) had not turned up. This could be due to a multitude of reasons: the baby’s birth was not recorded, the year was off, he was born elsewhere and therefore registered in another town; or that he was born illegitimate and therefore registered under the mother’s surname. Be it as it may, since Spain (unlike the UK) has no birth, marriage and death index available to the public to enable researchers to track down specific life events, I have temporarily decided to leave the matter of the missing son aside.

My patience and resignation were somewhat rewarded when a second paper fell out of the envelope, revealing a copy of the birth certificate for the daughter, Antonia. Here is, in a nutshell, what the document reveals:

“That on the morning of 22nd of April of 1893 Vicente García Varela, 36 years of age, married, a seaman, a native of San Pantaleón das Viñas [a hamlet of Paderne, near Betanzos] and resident in Santa María do Souto [also very close to Paderne], registered the birth of a girl, born at 3 AM of the previous day, and that the said girl was the legitimate daughter of José Viñas Novo, seaman, a native of Santa María do Souto, currently absent at sea, and of his wife, Rita García Varela, a housewife, a native of San Pantaleón das Viñas and resident of this city [of Betanzos]. That the child is the paternal granddaughter of Carlos Viñas, labourer, a native of Santa Eulalia das Viñas [near Betanzos], a neighbour of Souto, and of Antonia Novo, a native of this said parish, where she has since passed away; and the maternal granddaughter of José García, a native of Santa María de la Regueira, and of his wife, Antonia Varela, a native of San Pantaleón das Viñas, both labourers, deceased; and that the said child shall be named Antonia.”

There were so many clues that can be deduced from this snippet of text that I was sure J. Carmen would be able to answer many bugging questions about her recent family history. Firstly, this confirms that this is indeed the child of her own grandfather, given the matching names, place and profession. In addition, this also seems to indicate that José was indeed married at the time of his daughter’s birth in 1893, as Rita is mentioned as his wife and the daughter is recorded as legitimate. However, this may not necessarily be conclusive evidence that José was a bigamist, as we would need to find proof of his (first) wife’s death in or after 1907 to corroborate this story. There does seem to be ample indications pointing to the fact that José omitted the fact that he had been married before he became Micaela’s husband in Liverpool fourteen years later, when he said he was a bachelor and not a widower. Moreover, the fact that (as we now know) he was absent during Antonia’s birth could imply he spent few precious moments with his family, and thus was able to detach himself from them when it came to it.

One final, and unfortunately sad side of the story is the fact that the birth certificate contains a side note, which mentions the death of the young Antonia on 16 May 1907 when she would have been fourteen – two months after her father was marrying J. Carmen’s grandmother in Liverpool.

So what now? Obviously the next step is to order the young Antonia’s death certificate, to know what status is given to her parents at the time. I would also like to know, once and for all, if there is indeed a marriage certificate for José and Rita, which would at least confirm that he did have a wife back in Spain before emigrating.

I must admit I felt a bit uneasy about not having seen the Spanish census with my own eyes and corroborate the information that Rita and her children were listed in Betanzos at the end of the 19th century, so knowing that FamilySearch contains censuses for a number of areas in Galicia, I decided to try my luck – with spectacular results. I found the 1889 census, which lists Rita and her son (baby Antonia’s name was, oddly enough, added at a later date by a different hand), together with a note that says:

“Rita’s husband called José Novo Viñas [sic] is currently serving at sea as a seaman on a Spanish steamer of the merchant navy.”

Although absent at the time the 1889 census was taken, it is obvious that José Sr. returned home at least once, given that his daughter Antonia was born in April of 1893. The visit must have been a brief one, as he was again absent by the time of her birth, as we have seen above.

The following censuses are even more revealing. The 1897 again includes Rita, who by the way is listed as an illiterate agricultural journeywoman, living at Nr 3, Carretera de Castilla in central Betanzos. Living with her are her two children, José Jr and Antonia, but no trace whatsoever of the father. A rather helpful note at the bottom of the page is, however, quite telling:

“José Viñas, husband of Rita, is currently at sea and has been absent for the past four years.”

By 1900 the situation seems to be very much the same, with José’s permanent absence confirmed by another hand-written note; five years on he is referred to on the 1905 census as “absent in an unknown place”. The 1910 census was, however, the real jackpot, as it confirms Rita was very much alive (living with her son José; Antonia, we must remember, died in 1907). This means that José Sr, who we know was already living in England, married and forming a new family with his (second) wife Micaela, was unquestionably a bigamist, divorce being non-existent in early 20th century Spain.


The Spanish 1910 census showing Rita García Varela and her son José. The note below confirms her husband (by then bigamously married to another woman in the UK) had been absent from the family home for 14 years. (Source: FamilySearch).

We know that Rita was still alive by 1920 (as she is listed on the 1920 and the earlier 1915 census), although it is doubtful she ever knew of her husband’s whereabouts or of his second, bigamous marriage. She had, at least for a time, the consolation of her son’s company, but by 1929 José Jr. appears on a passenger list bound from Cherbourg (France) to New York City. We know this is José Sr.’s son because he gives Rita García as his mother and next-of-kin, thus confirming Rita was also alive as late as 1929. One has to wonder whether she survived her husband, who passed away in Liverpool in 1934!

On the other hand, it seems that the younger José spent a great deal of time in America (perhaps fleeing, as his father once had, the claustrophobic atmosphere of poverty and illiteracy that dominated his home in Betanzos). We find him again on a passenger list (available on in 1936 sailing from La Coruña (Spain) to New York; the passenger list mentions him as being single, but rather surprisingly, he is a naturalised citizen of the United States (having become naturalised in New Orleans on 27 July 1934, the same year his father died in England). He once again travelled from Spain to America in 1940 – this time he is listed as a married man, but the trail goes cold thereafter.

I would love to find José Jr.’s naturalisation papers from 1934, as well as his purported marriage between 1936 and 1940, and perhaps even a reference to him on a US Census, but for now I think it is time to take a step back, focus on the earlier records and see if we can piece the missing (but likely) clues together to corroborate the bigamy story. Hopefully Sonia, J. Carmen and I will be able to meet in the upcoming Who Do You Think You Are! Live 2017 show – the culmination of an incredible genealogical adventure.

Phew, what a story!

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The Gaskells of Bollington

For quite some time, a branch of my family tree has stood there, undisturbed and unexplored. I have often wondered what became of my great-great-grandmother’s sister Diana, her seven children, and their descendants. Surely, with seven children, there must be someone out there who is related to me via this mysterious great-aunt! Let’s see if we can track them down…

Diana Vickress was born in Lyonshall, Herefordshire in 1851, the third child of Frederick and Ann Vickress; her eldest sister Elizabeth was my grandmother’s grandmother. I can only presume she was given the name Diana in memory of her paternal aunt, another Diana Gaskell, who sadly died of consumption aged 21 the same year the younger Diana was born.

Diana’s first years were spent living with her family in Herefordshire. Unlike most of her siblings, however, she was not destined to spend her life in the Herefordshire countryside, and by the late 1870’s had moved north to Cheshire, where on 4 September 1878 she married a man called Robert Gaskell who was a hatter and wool washer. The couple soon welcomed their first son, Frederick, so named in honour of his maternal grandfather.

The couple’s first entry in the census was in 1881, when they were recorded as living in Mill Brook Cottage in Rainow, on the outskirts of Macclesfield and within close proximity of the industrial dreariness of Manchester. Over the next ten years, Robert and Diana would welcome four more children into their home: Ann (1883), Florence (1885), Elizabeth (1887) and Samuel (1889). The family, by now living in Bollington, would be complete with the arrival of two more daughters: Emma (1893) and Dora (1896).

Bollington, Cheshire where the Gaskell family lived at the turn of the last century. Photo source: Happy Valley.

Bollington, Cheshire where the Gaskell family lived at the turn of the last century. Photo source: Happy Valley.

The family was not to remain complete for long, for in 1898, at the age of 45, Robert Gaskell died leaving a young widow with seven mouths to feed. By then, the elder children were already forced to earn a living to ensure the family’s survival (Fred, the eldest son, was listed as a “mill hand” in the 1891 census, when he was just 11).

The fact that by 1901 (and again, 1911) Diana’s profession in the census is left blank leads me to believe she may not have been able to work, whatever the reason for this may have been – certainly no incapacity was given. All of her children, however, started to work early. By 1911 Fred was working as a “calenderer hand” (i.e. someone who presses paper or cloth through rolls to make it glossy and smooth), while sisters Ann and Dora worked as “paper stainers” and Samuel and Emma worked in a cotton spinning factory. Having to undertake such manual work from an early age, life must have been harsh.

By the early 20’s Diana’s children started leaving the nest, although by then some were fast approaching their forties, and thus had narrower chances of starting their own families. Samuel seems to have been the first to marry, in 1920, to a Mary Jepson, but lack of evidence seems to show they were childless; Samuel died in 1961 in Bollington, Cheshire.

Diana’s eldest daughter Ann married a Harry Whiston in 1924, but at 41 she was probably too old to start having children; I certainly have found no information relating to this couple’s possible descendants. Similarly, her sister Emma married a Charles H. Bevan in 1936, when she would have been 43. I have not been able to trace a marriage for siblings Frederick or Florence.

Dora and Elizabeth seem to have been luckier at finding partners, as they each married brothers: Dora married Harry Banks Hawley in 1927 (no issue, that I can find) while Elizabeth married George Hawley in 1922. The latter seem to have had two or three children, although there is some confusion as to the number of children they had. There are three Hawley children recorded in the early 1920’s with Gaskell as their mother’s name, but one (Muriel) was born in 1920 – two years before Elizabeth and George’s marriage- and the other two, Lois and Herbert were born in the same year (June quarter and December quarter of 1923 – perhaps too close to actually be siblings?).

Lois Hawley married Andrew Gibson, and appears to have given birth to two children in the 1950’s. Her brother Herbert married Doreen Lees in 1949 and also fathered two sons. These four cousins seem to be the only living descendants of my distant great-aunt Diana Gaskell, who died in 1935 at the ripe old age of 84.

Posted in 1881 Census, 1891 Census, 1901 Census, 1911 Census, Cheshire, Genealogy, Herefordshire, Lyonshall, Manchester, Marriage | Leave a comment