Discovering your family's stories
Researching your family history is a lovely mixture: in some cases you just discover things by accident, and in others you get results by being patient, going over and over your existing knowledge, thinking creatively, reaching out to others, and never giving up. Learning about your family’s history helps you understand why they made certain choices and how they were affected by world events, why you were born where you were, and even why certain recipes or songs have been passed down in your family.
The examples below highlight discoveries I’ve made over the years. I hope they inspire you.
1. Wilful murder (or why you should splash out on the death certificate!)
If possible, always see if you can obtain your ancestor’s death certificate. The death certificate of my husband’s 4x great-grandfather, William Taylor, provided an unexpected clue to a previously unknown story. William was a nail maker who had died in Derbyshire, England, in 1849, at the age of 65. In the space for ‘cause of death’, the registrar had written ‘wilful murder by Tomkinson Grainger’. The informant was the Derby coroner.
From this information, I was able to uncover the details of the murder from the local newspapers. This account was published in the Nottinghamshire Guardian on 9 August 1849 (available on Findmypast.co.uk)
Tomkinson Grainger was committed to Derby County Gaol. He was charged with manslaughter, but found guilty of common assault. His punishment, recorded in the England & Wales Criminal Registers 1791–1892 on Ancestry.co.uk, was four days in prison and a surety of £20 to keep the peace for three years.
2. Sad stories: discovering a child’s death
When you’re researching, it’s quite likely that you will discover that your ancestors had children who died at a young age. These children can be revealed by gaps of several years between the births of other children, which you might notice in a census return. Look for censuses that tell you how many children the mother had given birth to, such as the 1911 census in the UK, or the 1900 and 1910 census in the US. You can also try to find these missing children in the UK by checking the births against the mother’s maiden name, using the GRO registers.
I found out that the parents of my great-grandmother Raye had lost a baby daughter. (The 1911 census told me that her mother had given birth to six children, and that one had died.) The child’s name was Annie Rose Cohen. She was born on 27 August 1893 at 24 Green Dragon Yard in Whitechapel, London and died there on 26 January 1894, from measles and congestion of the lungs. My great-grandmother would have been three at the time.
This is a picture of her grave at West Ham Jewish Cemetery:
3. Finding the birth family of an adopted child
My mother-in-law’s mother, Winifred Morris, was adopted as a baby and, although we had a copy of the birth certificate, there were no definite leads to help me find her birth family. We knew she was a milliner, but her name – Annie Morris – was not unusual, so there was no way to be sure who she was.
I had spent many hours searching for an Annie Morris, age unknown, milliner, with no luck. Then I bought a well-known book by Ruth Paley called My Ancestor was a Bastard, at the wonderful National Archives bookshop. The author suggested looking at the birth address, just in case it turns out to have been a nursing home or institution that might have records.
In this case, Winifred’s birth certificate just gave a street address in Belper, Derbyshire, but no house number. While I was looking at the certificate and thinking about this, it occurred to me that it might be possible to see if another child had been born at the same address, i.e. a sibling of Winifred’s.
It is possible to use the indexes on the General Register Office website to check for births and see the maiden name of the mother. As Winifred was born in 1903, I started by looking for a male or female baby with the surname Morris and mother’s maiden name blank (i.e. Morris) in 1901, but nothing came up as a match. Then I tried 1905 and found a Frederick Hargreaves Morris born in 1904 and an Ida Morris born in 1905.
I could then use the 1911 census to search for these two children and their families. Frederick was ruled out because his mother’s name was Agnes. Ida was a bit harder to find as her name had been transcribed as Jda, but I found her with a mother called Annie, who was unmarried and aged 30, and she was a milliner! They were living with Annie’s parents, William and Caroline Morris, in Derby.
Of course, this then raised many questions. Why did Annie keep Ida but give Winifred up for adoption? Did the two girls have the same father? Did Winifred know that she had a sister? Did Annie and Ida ever go and see her or keep in touch? Who was the friend or relation in Belper, with whom Annie stayed to have the baby? I am still not sure what happened to Annie and Ida. Did they go to America, as some family members believed?
4. Thinking creatively: could they have changed their name?
If you’ve searched for someone and haven’t found them, there is always a possibility that there has been a name change. People change their names for all kinds of reasons, e.g. marriage or divorce, to honour a family member or ancestor, to restore a surname that was changed in the past, as a condition of an inheritance, or to have a name that’s easier for others to spell or pronounce.
In this case I was looking for the parents of twin boys whose surname was Clarke. I knew from the GRO birth indexes that their mother’s maiden name was Sandler, so the next step was to look for a marriage of a man named Clarke and a woman named Sandler. Nothing came up in the search. Sandler is not such a common name, so I tried searching for all marriages where the woman had that name. The most likely result was a marriage that took place in the year before the twin boys were born and in the same registration district. The husband’s name was Caplan. The marriage was reported in the Jewish Chronicle:
Jewish Chronicle, 22 July 1932, p. 9.
Could Samuel have changed his name from Caplan to Clarke? I knew that the family was Jewish, and Clarke is not a typically Jewish name. Wherever the family came from before they came to England, they must have had a name that was not Clarke. So Caplan seemed a possibility. Sometimes you can find records of name changes in the London Gazette, but there is no requirement to change your name by deed poll.
In this case, it seems that he changed his name twice, once from Caplan to Carson, and then from Carson to Clarke:
London Gazette, 28 July 1933, p. 5084.
London Gazette, 19 September 1933, p. 6126.
5. Caught up in the Oddingley Murders
One of my grandson’s ancestors (on his father’s side) was a farmer in Oddingley in Worcestershire by the name of John Perkins. While researching him and his wife Betty, I discovered that they were caught up in a bizarre murder mystery – two linked murders that took place in 1806 and 1830. John ended up giving his account of what had happened at the inquest. The full story is told in the book Damn His Blood by Peter Moore.
The murder took place on 24 June 1806 (Midsummer Day). Peter Moore describes the village that day, with “… scores of parishioners at work in the meadows. Most were preparing for the clover harvest or hacking at thistles and weeds. … John Perkins, another farmer, was tending a bonfire outside Oddingley Lane Farm” (p. 8).
“At around four thirty in the afternoon Perkins gathered the cammock into a heap, and at five o’clock he set his little bonfire alight. He did not hear anything unusual. There was just the dim rustle of a harvest scythe, the occasional sweep or creak of a wheelbarrow, and the gentle sound of birdsong. … Unlike James Tustin and the two butchers half a mile away at Pound Farm, he did not hear the blast of a shotgun or Reverend Parker’s piercing, desperate cry of murder” (p. 95).
“John Perkins learnt of the murder at about half past five … when ‘a little girl’ appeared in his field. She told Perkins that the Reverend had been shot and Mrs Parker would like to see him ‘directly’. Perkins threw down his tools and ran into the lane, leaving the bonfire burning behind him” (p. 99).
The book contains plenty of references to John and Betty, supported by evidence from newspaper reports, court reports and witness testimony. The book was well worth reading, and it was very exciting to find that a family member had played a role in these events.