Friday, November 14, 2014

Genealogical Misconceptions

I love Who Do You Think You Are. I really do. But it has given rise to some widely held misconceptions.

(Photo by Tom Coates, posted on Wikimedia Commons)
The first is that all women who said they were seamstresses in the censuses were actually prostitutes.  I'm sure some of them were, but there were plenty of women who had to work as seamstresses or milliners or laundresses, especially if their husband died leaving them with dependent children.

The other, which I have heard several people state, is that if a woman had several children who died young, she must have had syphilis. This comes from the Martin Freeman episode. 

Yes, it is certainly true that many people in Victorian England had syphilis (10% according to Dr Peter Greenhouse), but there are other possible cause for repeated child deaths.

One is deaths due to the Rhesus (Rh) factor. You either have, or don't have, the Rhesus factor on your red blood cells.  If you are O+ (for example), you are Rh-positive.  Someone who is O- is Rh-negative.  If an Rh-negative woman has an Rh-positive baby, and their bloods mix (which often doesn't happen until the birth) the mother will start to develop antibodies against the Rhesus factor, which can attack and destroy a baby's red blood cells. Because this usually happens at birth, the first baby is usually fine. But subsequent children will be born very ill and jaundiced due to the destruction of these blood cells. Nowadays this is managed with blood transfusions.  But in the past most of those babies would have died.

A key point that was made in the Martin Freeman episode was that at first the babies of a woman with syphilis would be stillborn, then they would die shortly after birth, and eventually the children would survive, but perhaps with a disability like blindness.

Then there are other cases like one of my husband's ancestors.  I have no definite explanation for this case.

John Bell & Louisa Lewell had the following children (all events in Wood Dalling, Norfolk):
    1. Mary, bap 10 Oct 1824, buried 28 Aug 1825
    2. John, bap 12 May 1826, bur 8 Jun 1826
    3. Mary Elizabeth, bap 3 Jun 1827, bur 20 Dec 1829
    4. Samuel, bap 5 Jul 1829, died 8 Apr 1896 (my husbands ancestor)
    5. Susanna Mary, bap 15 May 1831, bur 31 May 1831
    6. William, bap 28 Oct 1832, bur 29 Jan 1833
    7. Thomas, bap 8 Dec 1833, bur 15 Dec 1833
So of all their children, only one lived past the page of 3.

Was it bad luck, a congential problem, or something more unpleasant?

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Possibly Baby Farmers

The Baby Farmers, 
by Annie Cossins
Some time ago I read a book The Baby Farmers by Annie Cossins. It is about Sarah and John Makin who killed at least 13 babies that they had taken in the early 1890s. The mothers of these illegitimate babies paid the Makins to take in their child, but the children died shortly after, either by being murdered, deliberately starved and neglected, or overdosed on Godfrey's Cordial (a freely available opiate used to quiet children when they were teething, unwell, or otherwise unable to sleep). At that time forensics analysis of corpses was not what it is now, so an exact cause of death could not be determined.

"Baby farming" was, sadly, a wide-spread occurrence at that time, particularly in Britain. Because of the high rates of infant mortality at the time these crimes often went undetected, but there were several high-profile cases in England resulting in the conviction of baby farmers.

Well, I think I may have discovered another case, possibly a hitherto unknown one. 

One of my clients gave me a pile of their family papers as part of the research I was doing for them. Amongst them were transcripts of the birth and death of a baby boy. I am changing the name of all the parties involved in case I have misinterpreted the case, though dates and places are as on the original

Albert Thomas Hunter was born on 31 Oct 1885 at Glebe Road. He was the illegitimate son of Mary Elizabeth Hunter who was aged 19.

Albert died just over two weeks later, on 15 November 1885, at Commercial Road, West Callan Park, Leichhardt. His cause of death was given as "Atrophy" (could just as well been called "failure to thrive") lasting about 3 days. The informant was "Sarah L.S. White, acting as adopted parent of child, in conjunction with her husband William White, Commercial Road, West Callan Park, Leichhardt".

The child was buried the next day in Balmain Cemetery, and the presiding minister was listed as Master Albert William White.

It's a bit suspicious. The child was so young, died of "atrophy", which could be a result of neglect or malnutrition, and it was reported by the "adoptive" parents (who are unlikely to have taken the child out of the goodness of their heart alone).

Maybe the Whites were innocent, but maybe they were undiscovered baby farmers. 

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Brickwall did actually get broken down

Despite what I said in an earlier blog about some brickwalls remaining intact, after many many years of searching I may have finally found the key to revealing my William Flynn.  He was the only ancestor who I had not managed to get out of Australia and back to his place of origin, so you can imagine why I was keen to find out about him.

Firstly, let me recap about my journey to discover William Flynn.

Way back in 1995 I obtained a copy of the marriage certificate of my g-g-grandparents, James Annesley & Mary Ann Flynn.  The marriage took place in 1875 at St Stephen's Church in Kurrajong.  No parents for either party were specified on the certificate, and the only information given for the bride was that she was a spinster, her occupation was specified as labourer's daughter, and her usual place of residence was Sallys Bottoms, Kurrajong. I subsequently obtained her 1930 death certificate, which said she was aged 78 (therefore born about 1852), born in Parramatta, and that her father was William Flynn, a labourer, and her mother was Lucretia. The NSW BDM indexes did not include a marriage of a William Flynn to a Lucretia, and the huge number of William Flynns precluded purchasing a copy of the death certificate of every possible candidate. If I had been able to find Lucretia's death that might have narrowed down a date for William's death if it specified that she was the wife or widow of William Flynn.  But I could not find any sign of her death either.

The NSW indexes did show the death in 1919 of William Flynn, and the baptism in 1852 of Albert Flynn, both sons of William and Lucretia, so I duly obtained these certificates. Albert's baptism, which took place in the Roman Catholic Church of St Patrick's at Parramatta, said he was born on the 6th June 1852, and baptised on the 10th of that month (I subsequently obtained a copy of the burial entry for Albert which said that he was buried on the 11th June aged 7 days - I know that doesn't add up correctly, but never mind). The death certificate I had obtained for the William Flynn showed he was the aged 76 (therefore born about 1843), born in Parramatta, the husband of Annie Amelia King and the son of William Flynn (labourer) and Lucretia Haslam.  So this gave me a surname for Lucretia.

With a common name like William Flynn, all I could surmise that he was catholic (from the baptism of his son Albert), and it was likely that he was of Irish descent (based on his surname). But that was all.

It even took years for me to find out where Sally's Bottoms was located. It wasn't until I obtained a copy of Michelle Nichols' Pictorial History Hawkesbury that I discovered it is now called Tennyson.

Years passed. I never stopped hoping that something would turn up (because that has happened before after many years), but I wasn't holding my breath.

St Stephens Church, Kurrajong
Photo by Bardaster,
And then I heard about a new book containing transcriptions from St Stephens in Kurrajong.  In the hope that it would include Mary Ann Julia Flynn's parents name and any information not on her marriage certificate, I sent off for a copy.  When it arrived I was disappointed to find that it contained the names of James Annesley's parents (which I knew anyway), but it was blank as regards Mary Ann's parents. HOWEVER, I looked at the names in the index (as you do) and I noticed that there were some other Flynn entries. So I checked them out an what did I find but the burial of William Flynn, age 63, abode Sally's Bottoms, on the 12th October 1875.

Well this looked like it couldn't be a coincidence - Sally's Bottoms isn't that big - but I sent off for the corresponding death certificate, and when it arrived I knew I had found my man. The details were that on the 9th Oct 1875 at North Richmond, William Flynn, a Labourer aged 63 was accidentally killed by a fall from his horse.  His parents were shown as William (surname not listed) and Hannah Day and he had been born in England (not Ireland!). And here is the clincher - the spouse was shown as Lucretia Haslem, though no age at marriage or place at marriage was given. The time in the colony/state was also "not known".

So I now have more to investigate - his approximate date of birth, his parents, a birth in England... although, any of that could be incorrect. But it gives me something to go on. 

Now all I need to do is find Lucretia's death.

Friday, April 25, 2014

2014 Anzac Day Challenge: Reginald Roy Annesley

Reginald Roy Annesley (the first cousin of my great-grandmother, Merab Annesley) was born in 1893 in Katoomba, NSW, the second son of David Joseph Annesley and Mary Brady, who lived in Warriga St, Katoomba. He was known as Roy, or "Paddy" (because of his temper).

He was a crack shot and a member of the Katoomba Rifle Reserves.  His love of guns had got him into trouble with the law in 1909, when as a 16 year old, he and another lad "borrowed" a gun and stole some ammunition from a William Lynch.  Roy was fined 5 shillings and 4 shillings 3 pence in costs.

He was also well known as a boxer in the Mountains, Maitland and Newcastle districts, having won the lightweight championship in the Blue Mountains and several professional contests in the Newcastle district. A Stadium try-out was being arranged when war broke out.

On the 29th August, 1914 (less than four weeks after Britain had declared war on Germany), Roy left Newcastle, where he was working as a labourer, and travelled to Sydney. There he enlisted in the 3rd Battalion. He was 5 foot 6 inches tall, 9 stone 10lbs.
Sydney Morning Herald, 23 June 1915
On the 20th October the blue eyed young man with brown hair boarded HMAT Euripides and sailed off to war. They stopped first in Albany in Western Australia, then landed in Egypt on 2nd December. From there he wrote to his mother in January 1915:
"The Britishers took over Egypt on Saturday last, our battalion (3rd) and the 7th being chosen for the pulling down of the Turkish flag and the hoisting of the good old Union Jack. All things considered, they took it well. It was something new for us all, and we will never forgot the historic incident. We have been considerably harassed here by religious desert fanatics. They want rifles and bayonets, and will steal anything. Last night our watch fell foul of a couple. With a comrade, I was doing patrol duty near a big date farm, when two bewhiskered fanatics made straight for us. We gave them the "halt," but you might as well have reeled off a bar of "Tipperary" for all they know. We then fired, and both fell wounded. It was a bit exciting at the time, but soon blew over. It is rumoured here that we are to be shipped to Marseilles on the 6th of February. We have been busily engaged entrenching for the past ten days, about twenty miles of the desert being entrenched all around. I have received a very pretty gold sovereign case as a present from one of the German prisoners off the Emden. I shaved four of them the other morning. Poor, harmless devils, they appear very anxious to make friends, and indicate that great pressure is being used to goad them on to war. We are gathering lots of little knick-knacks here, which will be interesting when we get home again."
Of course, history records that they did not go to Marseilles, but were amongst those who landed on Gallipoli on April 25th. The 3rd Battalion formed the second and third waves.
Before the landing at Gallipoli, Roy took part in boxing matches with the forces in Egypt, winning several prizes and medals.
On the 19th May 1915 Private 1296 Reginald Roy Annesley was shot and killed at Lone Pine. He was the first person from Katoomba to die in the war.  He was just 22 years old.
The Battalion diary for 19 May states:
"A fierce attack was made by the enemy who advanced in considerable force at a few minutes after midnight. Another demonstration was made by them at 1:45 am. The main attack on our position developed at 2.45 am. We were specially warned by DIV HDQRS to expect an attack in force during the night & were "standing to arms" at 2.45 am when the main attack began. The attack extended along the whole front of the army CORPs. The TURKS attacked in successive lines, which were close together and came on with great determination. They pushed right forward to our firing line & in the part formed by the new sap & a few far right on the parapet. As they got closer the light was improving & as soon as we were able to distinguish them clearly our fire became very deadly, so much so that the TURKS were compelled to retreat with very heavy loss. As soon as the enemy commenced to retreat our men exposed themselves along the parapet and it was from this time that our losses were heaviest as the enemy's retreat was covered by fire from their trenches & hill in rear. During the evening we were subjected to very heavy bombardment by enemy artillery.
Casualties 1 officer killed 2 wounded. Other ranks 41 killed 49 wounded."
Even after his parents had been notified of his death, they continued to receive letters from him, including a letter probably written less than a week before he died:
“Just a line, during a recess, hoping you all are as well as this leaves us.  We are having an off day, and Eric Bell, Jack ?, George Kay and myself are here hale and hearty.  We have now put in over three weeks right in the front of the firing line.  We have beaten the Turks back all along the line, and I fancy we will be due to a spell soon.  We do not think the war will last long here – at least, out portion of it.  I see Bill Burns every day, and he is all right and very fit.  (Burns is married to Annesley’s sister.)  Don’t worry about our fellows.  We will be all right, and pull through.  Love to all Mountain friends.” 
Reginald Roy ("Paddy") Annesley is buried in the 4th Battalion Parade Ground Cemetery in the Gallipoli Peninsula. He is summed up in an obituary in the Blue Mountains Echo, 25 Jun 1915:
"The deceased hero was a typical Australian, rough and ready; as much at home in a rough-and-tumble as at a good dinner; yet, withal, with a heart, as big as a house, as was evidenced by many actions, not the least of which were his letters and cable to his mother not to worry. He was a promising pugilist, and won several tournaments and semi-professional bouts prior to enlisting. He also won two competitions whilst under the colours. General regret was expressed locally, especially in sporting circles, at the sad ending of such a promising young man, and genuine sympathy was freely extended to his sorrowing parents."
Roy's name on the wall at the Australian War Memorial

Thursday, April 3, 2014

There might not be any information

I was talking recently to a friend about one of her brick walls.  Her ancestor, Mary Smith, had a daughter (Sarah Agnes Smith) in Yass Gaol on 22 July 1879. Sarah's birth certificate does not have a father listed.
On 16 January 1880, Sarah (listed as being aged 2, though she would have been less than 6 months old) was discharged from the Industrial School to Joseph Territt or Ferritt of Crookwell (SRNSW: NRS 14723 [5/4837]; Reel 3852, Page 25-26).  The Industrial School was where destitute children were sent at that time. She was returned to the Industrial school on 25 July as the man who adopted her had died.
From then nothing is known about Sarah until she married Thomas Fanning on 29 November 1894 when she said she was 17 (though she would have been 15). On her marriage certificate it lists her father as John Smith, deceased and she makes no mention of a mother. Also on the certificate Naomie Veness is listed as guardian. There is no connection (as far as can be found) between the Smiths and the Veness or Ferritt/Territt families.
My friend wants to know what happened to Sarah between being returned to the Industrial School and getting married.  She is also interested to know what happened to Sarah's mother, Mary.
The first thing to bear in mind is that some really good research had already been done on this person. Not only had the records of the fostering of Sarah been found, but so had and advertisement in the NSW Police Gazette that showed where Mary was before Sarah was born. 
Information is requested respecting Mary Smith, who left her service with Mrs. Oddy, of Goulburn, op the 30th ultimo, and has not since been heard of. She is 24 years of age, medium height, strong build, fair complexion, fair hair , blue or hazel eyes; dressed in black lustre dress , black hat with white feather, and red and black plaid shawl. Mary Smith is said to have been far advanced in pregnancy, and it is feared that she has committed suicide. Information to the Inspector General of Police.
NSW Police Gazette, 9 July 1879, p 263 

Mary is not in the admission records of Yass Gaol, which are held by State records. Perhaps she was just taken into the gaol to give birth. 

Sadly, sometimes we will not be able to find the answer because it is not out there to be found. And it is not out there to be found because it was not created in the first place. Record keeping was not so prevalent in the 19th century as it is in the 21st. Firstly, there was no formal adoption in NSW until 1923. Before that informal arrangement were made to foster children (with or without the involvement of government departments), or children remained at an Industrial School or Orphan school until old enough to go out to work or to become an apprentice.  So there may well be no paperwork explaining Sarah's connection to Naomie Veness.  

But the good news is that there might be a clue as to what happened to Sarah's mother, Mary.

The NSW indexes to births, deaths and marriages ( have an entry for the birth of Sarah Agnes Smith, mother Mary Agnes (note the middle name), in Yass in 1879.  And there is a marriage of Agnes Mary Smith to to James MacInerhenry or McInerhenry in Wagga Wagga in 1880.  For those who don't know NSW geography, Yass is quite close to Wagga Wagga.  It is not uncommon for people to switch around their first and middle names, so I suggest that it is worth looking at this marriage to see if it is the right person. This illustrates how important it is to make note of any middle names, and to consider all possible variations on names when looking for "missing" events.

Some brickwalls just can't be demolished, but sometimes others can with a little bit of lateral thinking.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

My Genealogical Epiphany

I recently read a book that had absolutely nothing to do with genealogy, but it lead to me having a Genealogical Epiphany – a light bulb moment, if you like.  It has completely changed my mindset about how to approach genealogy & genealogical problems. [I apologise for the length of this blog post – it is necessary, so bear with me].

The book is The Riddleof the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code by Margalit Fox.
The book is all about the history of the decoding of the Linear B tablets from Crete.  Let me give you a little background.  In 1900, British archaeologist Arthur Evans found a number of inscribed clay tablet in the ruins of a Bronze Age Palace, which he declared was the Palace of King Minos.  The tablets had three different types of writing on them.  The oldest was a form of hieroglyphic writing which was unconnected to Egyptian hieroglyphics. The next they named Linear-A, and the final type they named Linear-B.  They all predate any known form of Greek writing (possibly any writing of any kind). It is just the last of these that have been deciphered. Scholars could not read the symbols on the tablets because they were small pictograms not used in any other known script (see below for a picture). To make matters even more difficult, they had no idea what language that were even written in. It can be hard enough to crack a code when only one of those things is unknown, but when both are unknown it unimaginably difficult.

Several people had theories about the scripts. Many people had developed ideas about which language they would represent (Etruscan, Hittite etc.) and tried to "force" that language onto the writings. In the 1940s an American woman, Alice Kober, set out to decipher the tablets. She was not the only one trying to do so at this stage. Other people (especially Arthur Evans) had been trying ever since they were discovered in 1900. She didn't even manage to fully decipher them before her death in 1950, but made such progress that an Englishman, Michael Ventris, was able to finally identify the language and decipher the tablets in 1952.
Clay tablet with Linear B inscription (Wikimedia Commons)

It is her approach to the problem that has led to my epiphany.

As I said, most people approached the tablets with pre-conceived ideas about the language they recorded, and attempted to prove their theory and use that to decode them.  Kober not only had a different approach, but she was total disapproving of those who were trying to use them to prove some theory or other.

Her approach was to let the data speak for itself.  She spent years and years collating how often each symbol appeared in conjunction with other symbols, what "words" there were that stated with each symbol, and so on.  Her meticulous work helped her identify male and female forms of certain words, and to identify that it was an inflected language, like Latin, where the word ending indicates which part of  speech the word represents in that sentence (i.e. subject, object, etc.). She made huge advances, and if not for her early death at age 43 would very probably have solved the riddle herself.

But I imagine you are wondering how this could lead to an epiphany. Well, it is "let the data speak for itself".  So often we come to a family history with preconceived ideas ('Grandma always said we were descended from Sir Walter Scott') or we have received a family tree from a relative who had "done it before" which we assume is absolutely correct.  It is easy for people to convince themselves that there must have been another child of so-an-so that did not appear in the parish registers when we either believe we are, or desire to be, related to a particular family. Even worse is the temptation to believe the published genealogies without verifying every step ourselves.  This is particularly the case with the pedigrees produced by John and Bernard Burke in the 19th centuries.  Most people seem to think that "Burkes" and "Burkes Peerage" are infallible sources of family genealogies.  In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

The moral of the story is to try to remove any preconceived ideas from your head.  Study the data.  Use ONLY to data to reconstruct a family tree.  If that agrees with a published tree, or a tree sent to you by a relative, then good. Otherwise, trust the data.

Oh, and the book makes a fantastic read – I highly recommend it.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Could family histories help with Dementia?

I recently compiled a family history for a client, who was intending to give copies to her mother and sisters.  Her mother is 85 and suffering from dementia.  Having a family history to read, which was laid out in a structured and chronological order, has apparently helped her memory and improved her response to people now.  The photos which my client provided and which I included in the family history also helped prompt her mother's memories.

One case on its own does not constitute a scientific study, of course, but it is interesting.  I wonder if the same effect has been seen before?
The bound 263-page report I provided