Six Short Lessons in Family History in England

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The following stories have been chosen (as an adjunct to the article Proving a Pedigree in England) to illustrate some if the problems that face genealogists. The object in bringing them together is to encourage searchers to ask themselves questions about their approach to the family histories and pedigrees that they are constructing.

Find a second source and don’t trust a stated age
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Norman Burrows believed that his family had always come from Leicestershire. His grandfather Charles Burrows married at the age of twenty-five on 5 January 1891 and the certificate obtained from the General Register Office shows that he was the son of a William Burrows. From this Norman knew that Charles was probably born between 5 January 1865 and 5 January 1866.

There were eleven births in the name Charles Burrows in the indexes at the General Register Office and he had them all checked against their fathers’ names. Only one was the son of a William and although he was born slightly outside the above period, on 16 January 1866, he was born at Witherley in Leicestershire, and so seemed most likely to be his ancestor.

For several years Mr Burrows traced the ancestors of this man and he got back five generations and was quite pleased with the results. However, when in 1992 the 1891 census returns were opened to public search, he found that Charles Burrows said that he was born, not at Witherley, but at Tur Langton, some twenty-five miles away, but still in Leicestershire.

It transpired that Charles Burrows was born at Tur Langton on 16 November 1864 and was thus just a little older than he admitted when he married. In fact there were two Charles Burrows births registered in Leicestershire in the December quarter of 1864 and both were the sons of Williams, and so without the census it would not have been possible to say which was the correct one.

The moral of this story is not to accept something merely because it fits the known facts. There are probably thousands of incorrect identifications made as a result of searches such as this where the names involved are relatively frequent and the occupations provide little or no confirmatory evidence. Never accept the result of such a search without some other corroborating evidence, and never accept at face value an age given at marriage or at death.

Take all the entries, follow the strays and seek corroboration
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Mr R.W.H. Carter was brought up to believe that his ancestors came from Oxfordshire and, fifty years ago, when he started out on his searches, he found his first known relative, John Carter, in the 1851 census returns of Toot Baldon in that county. Sure enough John Carter said that he was born at Toot Baldon in about 1815 and his baptism was found in the Toot Baldon parish registers, he being the son of Henry and Elizabeth Carter.

However, the marriage of Henry and Elizabeth could not be found, though Henry’s burial was at Toot Baldon in 1839. Mr Carter searched ‘half of Oxfordshire’ for the earlier history of his family without success.

Fifty years later, not having made any progress in the meantime, he looked at the 1851 census of Toot Baldon again and noticed some older Carters who said that they were born at Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire. He made searches at Aylesbury and found that Henry Carter was not only married there, but baptised there as well. Indeed, Henry had had his first child baptised at Aylesbury before moving to Toot Baldon.

The moral of that story is to take out all the entries of the name from the source that is being consulted. Anyone of the same name in the immediate area is likely to be related and even if you don’t want to trace all your cousins, knowing about them often helps to trace the family further back. If the surname is frequent it may be that only by taking out all the entries and building up pedigrees of all the families, that it will be possible to identify those entries that relate to your family.

Of course if, as in this case, you look someone up in a census and he or she says that they were born in a certain place, and you then go to the parish registers of that place and find a baptism, the only one in that name, at the right date, do you go away, as thousands do, assuming that this is the correct entry? That would, indeed, only be an assumption.

Look again, particularly at the burials
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James and Hannah Thacker lived at Leamington Spa in Warwickshire. In the 1841 census returns Hannah said that she was not born in that county, but in 1851 she said that she was born at Butlers Marston in Warwickshire. In 1861 she said that she was born at Culworth in Northamptonshire and by 1871 she was dead.

The ages in the three census returns all roughly agree. Although she said ‘no’ in 1841 an appropriate baptism was actually found for her at Butlers Marston in Warwickshire. We are thus left wondering what connection she had with Culworth in Northamptonshire.

Almost by accident whilst searching for other deaths, the death of a Hannah Thacker was noticed at Leamington Spa in 1853. This was the death of the first Hannah. James Thacker married another woman, also called Hannah, of about the same age as his first wife, and she was born at Culworth.

The moral of this story is to search all the available census returns and not just to rely on one of them. Watch the span over which a run of children is being born and note any gap in that run which may indicate that a child has been baptised elsewhere. If the run is lengthy always bear in mind that there may be two mother with the same forename. In all cases search the burial registers throughout the period the family lived in the parish and for some years afterwards in case members of the family are taken back there for burial.

Something is lacking and further evidence is needed[edit | edit source]

Val Greenwood has evidence, it seems from a Family Bible, that his ancestor William Greenwood was born at Heptonstall in Yorkshire, on 1 March 1778. However, the surname is extremely frequent in the area and the parish registers of Heptonstall show five William Greenwoods baptised that year. Unfortunately, the entries do not show the children’s birth dates.

This is a very frequent problem and one that may bring the pedigree to an abrupt end unless other sources are available. William Greenwood named one of his sons Foster Greenwood and searches in the Heptonstall registers showed that one of the Williams baptised in 1778 was the son of a Paul Greenwood by a wife Mary Foster.

It has therefore been supposed that William Greenwood’s parents were Paul Greenwood and Mary Foster but as Val Greenwood wrote, ‘That may be a correct connection, but there has been no other evidence found to support it’. Foster is, of course, a very frequent surname and the appearance of a Mary Foster may be pure coincidence. Indeed, the name Foster may not be ancestral at all. It could equally come from an aunt on either side of the family married to someone called Foster who acted as a god-parent for the child. The fact that the forename Paul does not appear amongst William’s descendants greatly weakens any argument that this relationship is proven.

The moral of this story is not to jump to conclusions just because the facts seem to point in one direction. This is a case in which some confirmatory evidence is desperately needed.

Probability based on circumstantial evidence
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When Thomas Camp, a farmer, died aged 45 at Cottered in Hertfordshire in 1768, he left a widow Ann whose burial could not be found, but somehow or other she had to be ‘killed off’. She was not buried at Cottered or in the neighbouring parish of Ardeley where one of her children lived. A widowed mother or elderly father may go to live with one of the children, but all the other children apparently lived at Cottered.

If you cannot find the death or burial of a woman you should always ask yourself if she married again and the Hertfordshire Marriage Index shows the marriage of an Ann Camp, widow, to John Hall, widower, at Weston in 1769, some eight months after Thomas Camp’s death. The marriage was by banns and the names of the witnesses were not those of known relatives.

In the absence of any Hall wills, how does one prove that this is the correct marriage? The couple were not buried at Weston but returning to the Cottered registers it was found that Ann ‘wife of John Hall, farmer’ was buried in 1796, followed by ‘John Hall, Farmer’ in 1806. No ages were given.
When her first husband died it was almost ten years since Ann had had a child but a search was made to see if she had children by her presumed second husband. There was one child, Benjamin Hall, born four years after the marriage. If this was the same mother it was 27 years after the baptism of her first child and she would have been 48. A search was made to see if the child died young, but without result.

A little later whilst searching the accounts of the Overseers of the Poor a regular series of payments was found in 1819 to ‘Mrs Camp for Hall’s wife’ which suggested that Mrs Camp was looking after her. One presumed that this was Benjamin Hall’s wife. Quite by chance when winding the account book off the microfilm reader it was noticed that written on its cover was ‘1819 Benjamin Hall Came out of Prison the 12th July’, followed by notes of some monies received from him, perhaps in repayment of the money paid for the care of his wife. He had, in fact, been put in prison for deserting his wife, something he had done before, in 1813.

A wider search of the Cottered registers was indicated, at least for his marriage and the baptisms of his children. It was found that Benjamin Hall married Ann Hornett on 24 December 1795 on the very day that the man presumed to be his nephew, William Camp, married Sarah Kent. The Mrs Camp who looked after Benjamin’s wife is on one occasion called ‘Mary’ and this is fortunate as Mary was William’s mother and the wife of Benjamin’s presumed half-brother.

There is no direct evidence of any relationship in these entries but it seems reasonable to assume that Thomas Camp’s widow married John Hall. The likelihood of this connection is strengthened by the negative evidence that no other marriage of an Ann Camp took place in Hertfordshire at that time, for the marriage index is complete, and that the surname Hall is not otherwise found at Cottered. The fact that the two couples seem to have had a joint marriage ceremony also indicates a close connection.

Negative evidence may prove a pedigree
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Sometimes positive proof is entirely lacking and then one has to draw more and more on negative proof. The late Sir Anthony Wagner provided an excellent example in which the rarity of the surname made all the difference between success and failure.

William Vestey, who made a large fortune from refrigeration in the twentieth century, was created Lord Vestey in 1922. His coat of arms included an iceberg and three eggs. Vestey is a rare surname but even so lengthy searches carried out by the College of Arms failed to establish the origin of his first known ancestor, Samuel Vestey, who died in 1805. Samuel was a wheelwright and he first appeared in history when he married at Manchester in 1764.

The searches revealed that the surname Vestey was found earlier in Leicestershire but not elsewhere and a widespread search of baptismal registers was therefore made in that county. Only one possible entry was found, that of Samuel, son of William and Alice Vestey, baptised at Sileby, on 27 November 1743.

Though this Samuel Vestey could presumably be the man who married when twenty-one at Manchester in 1764, the genealogist needs to provide further evidence of that identification. In this case only negative evidence could be provided, but it satisfied the examiners at the College of Arms. It was pointed out that much research had brought to light no earlier Vesteys in the Manchester area or, indeed, anywhere but in Leicestershire. The extensive Leicestershire searches had produced only one likely candidate and, most importantly, further searches in later records had revealed no entry which could refer to the Samuel baptised at Sileby in 1743. He certainly did not marry or die in the area.

If these two people were not the same then there were, as Anthony Wagner said, ‘two contemporary Samuels (who) were men of mystery – one appearing out of nothingness, the other vanishing into it’. Much more positively there is the evidence of the forenames used by the family. Among the grandchildren of the Samuel of Manchester occur the names Alice, Elizabeth, John, Joseph, Mary, Thomas and William, and these were the names of Samuel’s brothers and sisters at Sileby. Of course, the surname is particularly uncommon and that helps greatly to substantiate the case.

Wherever one has to prove an identity in this way, it is most important to attempt to disprove the connection, and if these attempts fail then the case for identity is greatly strengthened. Samuel did not die and was not married at Sileby, but that is not the end of the story. One needs to search out the subsequent histories of his parents, of his aunts and uncles, and, indeed, of his brothers and sisters and perhaps even their children, in the hope that some connecting clue may be found in their wills or other records.

The names of the witnesses at Samuel’s marriage may be all important. If they are the names of a married sister and her husband that will only be discovered by searching out the subsequent histories of the presumed brothers and sisters at Sileby. Such a find would obviously be highly important. Samuel is unlikely to have gone to Manchester without some family connection or acquaintance already there.

The later history of Samuel’s own family in Manchester is of equal importance. All his children and their wives must be searched out in detail. It is difficult to imagine that one of them did not at some time go back to Sileby to visit their uncles and aunts.

If you have made an assumption of this kind it must be written up and the reasons for your assumption carefully recorded. Some element of caution, pending further discoveries, must be noted in the family history, together with a careful statement of what has been searched and what was found. Then somebody else in the future, perhaps with greater time or easier access to further sources, can take the matter further and does not have to go over all the ground again.

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The Burrows example is taken from The Midland Ancestor (December 1994); that of Carter from Origins (June 1995); that of Thacker from Donald Hansen in Grinz Yearbook (1993); that of Greenwood from the Genealogical Journal (vol. 25, no. 2, 1997), and that of Vestey from Sir Anthony Wagner,English Genealogy (1983).

[Adapted with permission from Anthony Camp’s article ‘Six short lessons in Family History’ in Family Tree Magazine (UK;, vol. 20, no. 2 (December 2003) pages 4-6].