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 Ancestry.co.uk) 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!

Posted in Genealogy | Leave a comment

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

Farewell to a year full of surprises!

The Christmas season and the beginning of a new year is a time of celebration and reflection. It is a good moment to stop in your tracks, take a step back, and think of all the marvellous discoveries you have made throughout the year which is about to end. 2016 will, no doubt, be looked upon not just by us but by historians as a very eventful, if not tumultuous year. Whether you are reading this in the Spain or Syria, the UK or the USA, you will know what I mean.

But what has 2016 taught you, as a family historian and genealogy researcher? What brick walls have you managed to overcome? Which new mysteries have you come across? Which new online collections have made your research easier? How many relatives have you managed to contact throughout this past year?

My own 2016 began reflecting on my great-grandparents’ life as immigrants (or emigrants, depending which point of view you take) in early 20th-century New York. Having abandoned their respective hometowns in Italy, both my great-grandfather Giacomo and his wife-to-be Giovanna made the crossing to America in just over a week. I was (very pleasantly) informed by a fellow researcher with an interest in the same region in Piedmont that FamilySearch has a great collection of civil registration papers covering four decades, from 1866 to 1910. This includes images of original birth, marriage and death certificates, as well as citizenship applications and marriage banns. Needless to say my findings allowed not just to find collateral branches via brothers and sisters of my long-forgotten ancestors, but also to go back up to four generations thanks to the information contained therein.

In April I took part in my first-ever Who Do You Think You Are? Live exhibition – and boy, what a productive day I spent in Birmingham! Not only did I meet fascinating people (some of whom gave me great tips and advice on how to go about my own personal research) but I also purchased a truckload of material which has helped me in my research ever since: maps of areas where my ancestors lived, CDs containing marriage transcripts from Herefordshire all the way back to the 1500’s… That same month I also wrote a history about the house where my grandmother was born and raised. I was fortunate enough to visit the place later in October, and the present owner (who is not related to my family) very kindly allowed us to visit the lovely home which once belonged to my lot.

By June I took my genealogical research to the next level by ordering an AncestryDNA test for myself, my Mum and my Dad (oh and my partner to whom I can now safely say I am not closely related to). It was a fabulous experience, not just learning about my genetic makeup, but also being able to find possible DNA matches from all corners of the earth. Since then, alas, I have only established one definitive link with a fellow Ancestry user (a lady who is descended from a brother of my great-great-great-grandmother, and who was adopted when she was a baby), but I have been trying to find the link between myself and other purported genetic matches, which is obviously keeping me very busy!

In light of the numerous requests I often received from blog readers, I decided in August to write a few guidelines and tips on how to order a birth certificate in Spain. I gather it has been a rather successful blog post, since several users contacted me to say they had received the document!

By September I was starting to give up on any new discoveries, or indeed breaking down brick walls. In spite of this, I decided to order a few certificates from the church archives in Italy where my ancestors come from, and to my great surprise (and satisfaction) I realised that a certificate of death I had found years ago was in fact that of one of my most remote, direct ancestors! Just shows you – never give up, and never discard a finding, as it may come in handy one day!

My year could not be complete without mentioning the breakthrough I had in November. You may recall how I have been looking for the origins of my 3x great-grandmother Ann, whose details I took from a transcription someone volunteered some ten years ago… And much to my dismay during all that time, I was barking up the wrong tree. I eventually found out I had been looking for the wrong person (or the wrong surname), hence my frustration. Now I have managed to climb up the family tree successfully several generations!

Now I start planning, daydreaming and fantasising about what wonderful discoveries I will make in 2017!

Wishing you all the best in your hopefully successful research for the new year. Merry Christmas!


Posted in DNA, Genealogy | 2 Comments

A mystery, finally solved?


Years ago, when I first started investigating the origins of my Allen ancestors, I inevitably turned to the Internet for help. The 1841, 1851 and 1861 census records I had access to at the time revealed that my most remote ancestor, Edward Allen, lived in Colwall (Herefordshire) with his wife and their four children: Ann (who only made it as far as the 1841 census, since she died two years later), John (born in 1842), William Henry (b.1845) and Clara (b.1849). They, like their parents, were listed as having been born in Colwall. With that much information I thought it would be fairly easy to trace a marriage for Edward and Ann, and in the face of it, it seemed fairly likely that they would have married locally.

My hopes were dashed when marriage transcripts, which are available in a number of sources including this fabulous page with information provided by Sheila Marsh, revealed that there was no marriage between Edward Allen and Ann X around the correct time-frame.

My original sin

I therefore ventured forth and shared my frustration with fellow researchers online, hoping someone might have access to different sources which might help. Looking for a marriage can be tricky, especially as the information on marriage certificates dating back to the 19th century are notoriously opaque when it comes to information about the bride and groom’s originas (i.e. only the respective fathers’ names are mentioned, there is no detail given about the mothers or even the couple’s place of birth, with just their current abode mentioned). As a consequence, you may find yourself ordering the wrong marriage certificate just because the names and place seem to match, and unknowingly be ingoring the correct document.

An anonymous online user at the time kindly did a search for me and found a transcript that confirmed that an Edward Allen married Ann Lewis in 26 March 1838 in the parish of Withington, Herefordshire. It was, in fact, the only marriage that fitted the bill around the period I was focusing on, and the only marriage which took place between an Edward Allen and a woman called Ann in all of Herefordshire. Interestingly, the bride’s father was a Thomas Williams, which seemed to suggest that Ann had been married to a man called Lewis before she married my ancestor. I blindly added the information to my tree without thinking twice. That was to be my original sin.

The mystery begins

Having a maiden name for Ann meant I could at least now look for her baptism back in Colwall, where, according to the (not one but three) census records, she had been born. Frustratingly, I drew a blank. No Ann Williams was baptised in Colwall around the right time (1808-1810, if we trust the ages given for Ann in each census entry), and moreover, no couple with the surname Williams was having children in Colwall at the time. The only possibility, which I have long discarded for lack of supporting evidence, was a couple called Thomas Williams and his wife Mary (née Thomas), who married in 1816 and had three sons. I did consider the possibility that Ann was born to Mary as an illegitimate child, and was then either adopted or recognised as Thomas Williams’ daughter once her parents married. As logical as this possibility would seem, no baptism for an Ann Thomas or any other illegitimate Ann, daughter of Mary, was recorded in Colwall at the time.

For years I concluded that Ann must have therefore been baptised elsewhere, but she gave Colwall as her birthplace in the censuses either because a) she was actually born there, or b) she had lived there for practically all her life. This, of course, made looking for her baptism doubly difficult.

The search drags on

Inspired by other tales of victory over genealogical brick-walls, I often went back to Ann in the hope that I would find something about her or her immediate family which could give me a clue: her father’s will, a possible relative staying with her on census night, alternative spellings of her name… Frustratingly, nothing ever turned up. It’s as if before she married Edward Allen, Ann had had no life at all. I got so frustrated I even dedicated a blog article to her.

There was, of course, the first marriage to contemplate. Remember that Ann’s name at the time of her marriage to Edward Allen in Withington was not Williams, but Lewis, so there must have been a marriage sometime before 1838. The fact that I was delving into the pre-civil registration era made me realise the search would be far from easy, but still I hoped to find either a marriage between an Ann Williams and a Mr Lewis (likely to have taken place either in Colwall or Withington) or a death for a Mr Lewis in the Withington area (why else would Ann have married there if not because she had set home in that parish after her first marriage took place?). Annoyingly, nothing came up which fitted the details: all possible marriages or deaths were recorded either in the wrong parish or at the wrong time, plus Lewis and Williams are such common names that it was very difficult to actually know if I was on the right track without having access to the original records. Once again, I left Ann there to wait for a miracle.

An epiphany

As the years went by, I started learning about archiving family records, and so began to organise all the information that I have since collected about my family history. It was then that I realised that I did not have a copy of Edward and Ann’s marriage certificate, but the details I had (exact date of marriage, her father’s maiden name) made me feel sure I had actually seen the original document. Frustrated, I recently admitted defeat and decided to fork out the money to order the dreaded marriage certificate. Surely one day I would come across the first copy I had and pull my hair out for not having been more organised.

At length, the certificate arrived last week and I was pleased (and surprised) with the information it contained: firstly, it gave both the bride and the groom’s place of residence as Withington. I had expected to see that in Ann’s case, but for Edward too? This seemed very fishy. The second clue which made my mouth drop was the fact that not only is Ann Lewis mentioned as a widow, but Edward too is mentioned as a widower! And that, I know, is news to me! So, turns out I had never purchased the marriage certificate, or else I would have also looked for Edward’s first wife, and furthermore, it confirms their place of residence as Withington, and not Colwall. Again, something I would have taken into account had I ever had the original certificate.

Although the certificate holds information which fits nicely with the rest of the story (Edward’s father’s name, for instance, is absolutely correct), I started wondering whether I may have been following the wrong track all these years: firstly, the connection with Withington (some 30 miles from Colwall) bore absolutely no apparent connection with the family; second, the fact that the couple’s first child Ann was baptised in Colwall in April 1838, less than a month after her parents’ purported marriage in far away Withington, made me feel distrust the certificate I had before me; thirdly, the lack of matching baptism records for Ann in Colwall in the right time-frame suggested I could well be looking at the wrong couple.


It then dawned upon me: what if Edward Allen and his wife Ann were not married in Herefordshire, but in neighbouring Worcestershire? Colwall is, after all, on the edge of the Malvern Hills, and in many ways people from the area would have felt a stronger connection with Malvern and other towns in Worcestershire than with more distant locations in Herefordshire.

I then searched for a marriage of an Edward Allen and Ann around 1835 (5 years up/5 years down) and came across a rather promising piece of information. A marriage between a Edward Allen and an Ann Roadway took place in the church of St. John the Baptist, Claines, Worcestershire on 21 November 1835. The surname did ring a bell with me, as I know there are Rodways in the Allen family tree (in fact Edward and Ann’s grandson married a Rodway in 1889), so I turned once again to the baptisms in Colwall. And would you believe it, there is an Ann Rodway, daughter of James and Elizabeth, baptised in Colwall on 18 April 1810! This fits perfectly with the census records I have had all these years.

But now is the time to be cautious. Without hard proof, I have decided not to include my most recent find to the family tree until I have confirmation of Ann’s maiden name. After all, Claines is located north of the city of Worcester and is therefore even further from Colwall than Withington! Again, Ann may well have worked there and married her fellow Colwallian suitor in Claines out of convenience. Whatever the case, in a last moment of desperation I turned to fellow genealogist and e-friend Steve Atcherley for help, and he kindly sent me a copy of the transcript he found on FreeReg. Annoyingly, the transcript does not give Colwall as the bride or the groom’s parish – it just says Claines- but that may well have meant that they both lived there at the time (which is entirely possible) and could well have been born in Colwall.

Time to unravel the mystery?

My insatiable appetite for family mysteries has somewhat exceeded my expectations. I need to know whether Ann’s maiden name was indeed Rodway/Roadway, and the only way I can see of actually solving this mystery is by ordering her son’s birth certificate (let us remember that her purported marriage to Edward Allen predates the introduction of civil registration).

The search goes on, and as I place an order for their son’s birth certificate, my heart races at the thought that I may once again have started barking up the wrong tree, or else that I have finally solved a mystery which has lasted many, many years.

Rest assured, I will keep you posted as soon as I know more about my elusive ancestress.


And so, the birth certificate for John Allen (Edward and Ann’s eldest son) arrived on my doorstep. You can imagine the trepidation I felt when I glanced at the scribbled names on the document, only to (happily) verify that Ann’s maiden name had been Rodway! Mystery solved! Time to remove Ann Williams and her father from my family tree, and insert a whole new branch of Rodways which I need to start digging up.

Posted in 1841 Census, 1851 Census, 1861 Census, Adoption, Ancestry.com, Birth, Civil Registration, Colwall, Engagement, England, Genealogy, Herefordshire, Illegitimacy, Marriage, Women, Worcestershire | 2 Comments

The mystery of John Davis: Part 1

For years I have been puzzled by the figure of my great-great-great-grandfather, John Davis, whose death as well as origins are very obscure. Before I explain why he is such a mysterious character, I will give you the facts (and by facts I mean anything which I have been able to document by reliable sources).

John Davis was born towards the beginning of the 19th century in Colwall, Herefordshire (close to the border with Worcestershire). He is listed in the 1841 census living up on the Wyche with his first wife Ann and their three children, Ann (13), Hannah (11) and John (9). Unlike John and his daughters, John’s wife and son are listed as not being born in the county, i.e. they were born outside of Herefordshire. John’s profession is given as carpenter, and he is listed as being 35 or over (i.e. he would have been between 35 and 39, as ages were rounded down in that census to the nearest 5 year span). This also means he could have been born at any point between 1806 and 1802. This means he could well have been the John Davis baptised in Colwall in 1803, the illegitimate son of Mary Davis, or (perhaps a little less likely, given the year of birth) the John Davis baptised in Colwall in 1807, the (legitimate) son of another John Davis and his wife Phoebe. But the story of John’s parentage will be discussed in another post…

I know I am descended from John’s second marriage, which took place in 1845 in Mathon, Worcestershire. He is indeed listed as a widower,  and his profession is given as a carpenter, which is consistent with the information we have from the census taken four years before (incidentally, a burial record in 1843 would seem to confirm his first wife’s death, as there is a death for an Ann Davis, 48, in 1843). The certificate for his second marriage does not mention John’s age at the time (it only says “full age”, meaning he was 21 or older), but it does state his father’s name as John Davis, a labourer. This would certainly seem to indicate that John was the baby baptised in 1807 (mentioned above), but I am rather sceptical, as we shall see on another occasion.

Fast-forward six years to the 1851 census and John is living in Colwall with his second wife and their four year-old daughter (his daughters from his first marriage are living in the parish of St Clement’s in Worcester). Again, John’s profession is given as carpenter, and he is listed as being 46 years old (so, born in or around 1805). If we care to look at the 1861 census, which is the last time John would be recorded on such a document, we will find that he is living in Colwall, still married and with his youngest daughter under his roof, working as a wood dealer. His age, again consistently with previous censuses, is 56 (so, born 1805).

John Davis does not appear on the 1871 census because he had died by then. This is confirmed by his wife’s remarriage to a man called John Maisey in November 1868. The couple are in fact listed, still living in Colwall, in 1871. This means that John Davis would have died sometime between 1861 and 1868, when his wife remarried.

So far, that is all I have been able to prove, and so here come the questions and doubts:

Rather usefully, or so I thought, the burials for Colwall up to 1863 are publicly available on an Internet website. This enabled me to look for a possible death for John Davis between the last census he was mentioned in and the end date of the source. No results matched my criteria, even if I looked for the alternative spelling of Davies. Thus I concluded he must have died after 1863 but before 1868. And so, several years ago I ordered the death certificate for John Davis. The likeliest candidate seemed one John Davis who died in the Ledbury registration district in 1866, aged 62 (given the ages stated on the census returns). I sent for that one, but the document I received has made me wonder whether I have the right man: the certificate is for a John Davis, who did indeed die in Colwall, and being 62 at the time, he would have been born in c. 1804, which matches my earlier deduction from the 1841 census, and so on. However, the man on the certificate is not a carpenter or wood dealer, but an innkeeper! Rather more surprisingly, the person who registered the death is a Mary Carless, of Back Lane, Ledbury. This woman, whoever she was, bears no similarity to any other name I have on the tree, and therefore I cannot conclude she was related to John Davis at all.

The coincidence of age, name and location seemed to confirm I was on the right track, but the disparity in profession has haunted me ever since. Could there be a second John Davis whose death was the one I was looking for? Another search on the FreeBMD index shows there are at least two other possible candidates who died within the right time-frame in the Ledbury registration district: John Davis, no age given, died in the third quarter of 1864, and John Davis, aged 66, who died in the third quarter of 1868 (so, born 1802).

While I cannot conclude that the first of these two alternatives is or is not my ancestor, the second one seems a bit more promising – again, his age at the time of death seems to fit the census entry of 1841, but not the ones of 1851 and 1861. However, ages are notoriously unreliable in the census, and it may well be significant to note that this John Davis would have died within weeks of his widow’s remarriage…

It seems a bit of a gamble to order a second death certificate without actual proof that I am on the right track, and I may need to ask someone to pay a visit to the Hereford Records Office and see if they can unearth a burial record, but if that doesn’t work out I may need to fork out the £9.25 for a new death certificate. Phew! Let’s start counting the pennies!

Posted in 1841 Census, 1851 Census, 1861 Census, 1871 Census, Birth, Colwall, Death, England, Genealogy, Herefordshire, Marriage, Worcestershire, Work | 1 Comment

Under my nose all this time!

The church of Saint Marziano, in San Marzano Oliveto, where many of my ancestors were married.

The church of Saint Marziano, in San Marzano Oliveto, where many of my ancestors were married.

Thanks to the helpful assistance of the church archives in Acqui Terme (NW Italy) I have been able to progress in my family tree research to boundaries I never knew or expected I could reach. Archives in that particular area are fairly well preserved in the diocese’s headquarters, and include baptism, marriage and burial records from the early 1800’s onwards. Earlier records, which I have yet to explore, are still kept mostly at parish level.

Similarly, some time ago I was told by a fellow researcher that civil records up until 1910 (which in that particular area of the country start in 1866, shortly after Italy’s unification) are also available online via FamilySearch. Although not all the places I’m currently researching are included, the records for my great-grandmother’s home town of San Marzano Oliveto are fully viewable.

Thanks to the civil records online, and to the assistance of the church’s archivist, I have been able to go as far back as two of my ancestors’ marriage in 1850. The record (which is mercifully written in Italian, and not in Latin) mentions the groom, Giacomo Amerio, and his parents, Giovanni Amerio, deceased, and Margherita Paroldi, who appears to be still alive, as there is no reference to her passing (usually indicated by the expression fu, meaning “was” or “late”).

First ever reference I found for Margherita Paroldi in her son's 1850 marriage certificate.

First ever reference I found for Margherita Paroldi in her son’s 1850 marriage certificate. Notice the spelling of the surname, which looks like Paroldi.

Knowing that much, I ventured forth and asked the archivist in Acqui Terme to see if she could dig out a death record for a Giovanni Amerio before 1850, and a death record for a Margherita Paroldi, widow of Giovanni Amerio, sometime after 1850. Meanwhile I combed the civil records online from 1866 onwards, to see if I could come across Margherita’s death certificate. Unfortunately I drew a blank, as there was no one who fitted the bill under the surname Paroldi nor a widow for a Giovanni Amerio (women in Italy don’t take their husband’s surname). The closest I could get was for a Maria Margherita Parodi (notice the additional first name Maria and the difference in spelling in the surname), who was married to a man called Vincenzo Pastore, who died in 1873. Definitely not my ancestor – or so I thought. For months the death record of Vincenzo Pastore’s wife stood silently among my archives, in the hope that one day, possibly, I would find a link between that marriage and any of my ancestral lines in the area.

Meanwhile, the search in the archives was not yielding positive results either. Not only was Margherita Paroldi’s death certificate not appearing within the 1850-1900 time frame, but the death certificate of her husband Giovanni Amerio before 1850 was nowhere to be seen! At that point I was starting to give up on them, thinking they may have passed away in another village and thus their deaths were not recorded in the parish they came from.

Then, one day, while I was slowly waking up to get ready for work, I had a genealogical epiphany. What if I had already found the certificate for Margherita Paroldi, and she was the same person as Maria Margherita Parodi. Apart from the differences in spelling, the names were so similar that I instantly felt like such a fool for having discarded a link right away, without contemplating such an obvious and simple alternative: Margherita may have remarried! It took me seconds to draft an e-mail (in my pigeon Italian) to the archivist, apologising for coming back yet again with the same request, this time asking for a marriage certificate between the widowed Margherita Parodi (or Paroldi) and Vincenzo Pastore.

A segment of the marriage certificate relating to Margherita Paro(l)di and Vincenzo Pastore.

A segment of the marriage certificate relating to Margherita Paro(l)di and Vincenzo Pastore.

Yesterday my prayers were answered. The archivist got in touch to inform me that the marriage certificate had finally appeared (dating all the way back to 1841) and, indeed, Margherita Parodi (not Paroldi as my other source said) was a widow when she married Vincenzo Pastore. So, not only did I discover that the original surname I had written down was misspelt, but turns out I’ve had Margherita’s death certificate among my records all along. I instantly added Margherita’s date of death to my tree, as well as her second husband. As they were both in their 50’s when they married, it’s safe to assume this marriage was childless.

An additional stroke of luck is of course the discovery of Margherita’s parents’ names, as they are both mentioned in her (second) marriage certificate. Curiously, the mother’s maiden name, Sardi, also appears on another branch of my family tree – do I smell a bit of inbreeding among my Italian ancestors?

Proof that Margherita's first husband was Giovanni Amerio.

Proof that Margherita’s first husband was Giovanni Amerio.

Unfortunately, Giovanni Amerio’s death certificate is yet to be unearthed. I have, however, asked the archivist to send me all death certificates for a Giovanni Amerio who died before 1850 (turns out now he must have died before 1841, when his widow remarried). I received several certificates, but thanks to his wife’s 1841 marriage I am now able to exclude any candidates who died after that date, leaving two possible candidates, assuming that Giovanni died locally: one who died in 1839 aged 26 (which seems unlikely -but not impossible- as his wife would have been about two decades older), and one who died in 1832 aged 45 (so, born in around 1787 – which sounds more likely). Neither death certificate cites whether the deceased man is single or married, but it does mention the parents in one case, and the father in another, so it may be worth checking to see if I can find Giovanni and Margherita’s marriage certificate via the diocesan archive to exclude or include the dead man’s details in my family tree, and move on to the next generation.

The 1832 certificate, in Latin, showing the death of a Giovanni Amerio, son of Giuseppe, aged 45. Could he be MArgherita's first husband?

The 1832 certificate, in Latin, showing the death of a Giovanni Amerio, son of Giuseppe, aged 45. Could he be Margherita’s first husband?

Posted in Civil Registration, Death, Genealogy, Italy, Marriage, San Marzano Oliveto, Women | Leave a comment

Those who stayed behind

In 1910 my great-grandfather Giacomo Jack Ameglio left Italy and crossed the Atlantic Ocean, bound for America -the first of several transatlantic crossings he would complete in his lifetime. When he reached New York, he moved into an apartment in Manhattan where other fellow Italian immigrants had set up house more or less temporarily, until they were able to earn a living by themselves. One such immigrant was Jack’s namesake, Giacomo Amerio (the similarity between names means mixing them up is an easy mistake to make). The two probably became friends, being from the same area in Piedmont, and their friendship was reinforced two years later when the latter’s seventeen year-old sister Giovanna arrived. She and Jack became engaged, and in 1915 the two were married in Manhattan’s Municipal Building, the construction of which had been completed a mere year earlier.

Giovanna’s womanhood had barely blossomed by the time she had boarded a steamer bound for New York three years before. It was November when she reached Genoa from her native village of San Marzano Oliveto, in the next region up north, on the foot of the Italian Alps. She probably made the trip to Genoa by train, partly, and the rest on foot or cart. The ship she had booked a passage on,  the Duca di Genova, was packed with migrants from all corners of Italy, and many different accents would have been heard on and below deck. The sinking of the RMS Titanic earlier that same year while making a similar crossing would surely have been one of the main topics of conversation on board, and quite possibly Giovanna tried to keep her eyes open for icebergs as this new episode in her life unfolded.

As we have seen, Giovanna was not the first of her siblings to leave the family back home in Italy. Her brother had made the crossing three years before, and her sister Cesarina (Rina) one year after that. Seeing familiar faces upon her arrival must have been a happy sight for my great-grandmother, once she made it through the health inspection in New York.

Back in Italy, Giovanna’s parents must have awaited impatiently for news confirming the safe arrival of their daughter in America. The couple, Pietro Amerio and Maria Maddalena Terzano (who went by the name Amalia) had been blessed with the births of twelve children over the course of their marriage, including three sets of twins, but sadly five of them died young.

Both Pietro and Amalia belonged to large, ramified and interconnected families. They were probably related to each other, as most of their ancestry was deeply rooted in San Marzano Oliveto, and they even shared two surnames on either side – Amerio and Terzano are surnames that appear on both sides of my great-great-grandparents’ family tree. Both families were on the lower end of the social scale; they worked the land, and probably had little money, which would explain why three of their children decided to emigrate to America. Amalia’s ageing mother, Giuseppina, still lived in the nearby town of Nizza Monferrato, and in fact she would outlive her own granddaughter Giovanna, who sadly died in New York four years after the birth of her only son – my grandfather.

Old grandmother Giuseppina’s husband had died back in the 1890’s, but she was definitely a survivor. Of her parents’ seven children, she was one of two siblings who actually made it past childhood. She had lost both parents by the age of about 30, but she still had to take care of her own, frail grandmother, Clara Bussi, who died at the ripe old age of 93.

The other side of the family, the Amerios, were not much better off than the Terzanos, but recent research has shown that one of the families from which I am descended on that line were landowners, and several of their members were described as benestante, or well-to-do neighbours of the parish. The fact that they descend from a Maria Asinari may be indicative of a distant connection with the Marquesses of San Marzano Oliveto, who ruled the area in the Medieval era. My family’s fortunes seem to have dwindled when one of their kin, my ancestor Antonia Piemonte, married a Giovanni Battista Terzano, who was a simple agricultural labourer. His profession was replicated by most of their seven children, and there is little indication that their former fortunes were resurrected thereafter. Their granddaughter Luigia Terzano, who also worked the land, married the equally penniless Giacomo Amerio, Giovanna’s paternal grandfather.

Such stories of wealth and poverty, along with the family ties that interlinked them all, have laid buried for decades in church archives and in cardboard boxes filled with memories which distant cousins now own.

View of the countryside surrounding San Marzano Oliveto, Piedmont. Author's private collection.

View of the countryside surrounding San Marzano Oliveto, Piedmont. Author’s private collection.

Posted in Emigration, Genealogy, Italy, New York City, Property, United States | Leave a comment