After sixteen years researching my families on three sides – mother, father and stepfather – there’s no doubt the folk I enjoy discovering the most are the naughty ones. Those who broke society’s rules, willingly or not.

Many of my researcher friends say the same, but there are plenty of others who find ancestral transgressions hard to think about. It’s interesting to consider why there’s such a need for rosey specs when we build the lives and characters of our relatives beyond the bare bones of BMDs.

I guess we all prefer to feel proud of our kin and often that means being able to tell positive stories of work success, personal achievement, happy marriages, warm homes and plenty to eat, much like the Christmas Round Robin.

For people my age, born in the fifties, and particularly for the next generation back, there’s still a powerful fear of social shame even though society has changed so much since our childhoods. The old stigmas that tainted so many lives in the past can still hold sway: being ‘illegitimate’, an unmarried mother, divorcee, deserted wife, on the dole – or simply poor. Not to mention gay. Or criminal – lugged to court or serving time. Women who ‘slept around’ or left their husbands were scandalous, even when escaping violence (which of course was never spoken of).

All these pulls of shame can still operate when we discover an ancestor was one of the above – there can be an anxious urge to tug a curtain over vintage shame. But I’ve found myself becoming increasingly proud and happy with my family transgressors. Maybe that’s because I’ve found so many of them, especially on my father’s side. First in the league is my great-granny Isabella Clavering, whose life was so eventful I’m currently writing a novel based on her life.

As a taster (far from the complete story), I now know that Isabella’s second husband, William Danforth (a south Yorkshire steelworker) married her bigamously, that his first wife Elizabeth Ellen had run off with another man, steelworker Richard Price, and lived with him ‘as married’ until his death. I’ve found that Isabella’s sister Dora ran off to Scotland with another steelworker, Charles White and also lived with him ‘as married’ until her death, while he stayed in contact with his legal wife and three children in Sheffield.

Effectively triple bigamy in one family. Maybe it was part of a steelworker’s job description.

To add to that, Elizabeth Ellen returned with ‘husband’ Richard to her birthplace Hoyland Nether in Yorkshire, and he died there (what?). Her legal husband Bigamous Bill Danforth returned there too from Glasgow after Isabella’s death, to live with his son from his first marriage (what?). For the last few years of his life, Bill and Ellen were living within a few doors of each other in Hoyland (what?). As for Charlie White, after Dora died, he married twice more in Glasgow, the last one, Annie, being only 22 when he was 62. And Annie went to visit Charlie’s Sheffield family in the 1930s, probably at the time of his death in 1938 (what?).

All those whats relate to the fact that bigamists and family-deserters never normally returned to their old haunts or kept contact with those left behind. My family seem to have made a habit of it.

I’m delighting in all this non-conformity, and it certainly makes for good plot-lines in the novel, but I do wonder how other descendants of Bella, Bill, Richard, Ellen, Dora and Charlie might feel about their ancestors’ transgressions being laid bare with scant rosiness applied. It comes down to a question all family researchers have to face – how much truth to tell.



Since I moved to Sheffield in March, I’ve started to write a novel. It’s based on the life of my favourite ancestor, already mentioned several times on this blog – great-granny Isabella Clavering (1845-1906).

The facts about Bella that I’ve collected work well as a ready-made chapter list and there’s a consistent theme in her life that can be woven in : secrets and lies. She also experienced a dreadful amount of bereavement, so much it’s a challenge to think how I can introduce humour and positive notes. No-one will fight their way through to the end if it’s unceasing tragedy. We don’t relish death and melodrama in the way the Victorians did.

Now that I’m picturing her as a real person and not a set of dry facts, I see an incredibly resolute and strong woman, to have survived what she did.

But of course, she was not alone with these challenges in the late 19th century. At that time, the majority of people in Britain were in the ‘working classes’ or, even worse, among the destitute. The dividing line between those two states was fine and porous. A drop to the very bottom was easy for anyone. I can still remember how that felt in my own time, when my father was too ill to work, reliant on a ‘sick club’ that paid him a few shillings a week for only a short period. And how the older generation in the sixties, who’d grown up in the pre-welfare-state, worried mightily about how their children would pay for a burial. Many took out small insurance policies just for that, doing without essentials to cover the cost. It accompanied the terrible prospect of a ‘pauper’s grave’ if no provision was made during life.

So, in trying to picture great-granny Bella’s life in 1870s Manchester, I’m trying to see the ordinary details of every poor city-woman’s life back then, not just hers. I’ve discovered quickly how little I know. Questions fill my head. She had babies – were there nappies? How did baby poo get disposed of? Where was the nearest drinkable water? How was food prepared – was it just bought, as pies and fish-and-chips perhaps? Or was their only food bread? How did she do her hair? Did she have a mirror, or brush? What clothes did she possess? Maybe just one dress?

I haven’t considered a work-life for her yet because in the 1870s she appears to have helped out at her brother-in-law’s pub, the Crown and Anchor in Lever Street, Manchester. But it might be easier for me as a writer if she’d had occupations – servant, mill-worker, dressmaker, charwoman, etc. – because books have been written about 19th century female occupations, providing helpful details (though any or all could have been euphemisms for the oldest job in the world. It’s not beyond possibility that Isabella did as so many other women, turning to the street for income when she had no other option).

But, from a first look around, it doesn’t appear that many books have been written about the lives that most poor and working-class women had in their own domestic environments. Those mundane, ordinary details, even as basic as the location of a loo, or a sink, seem barely documented. Go up a step to middle-class and much more was written about women’s lives (or how they were supposed to live), both at the time and since. Newspapers at that period are full of stories and adverts we can use as guides, but not for writing the life of a poor woman, unless she got hauled before magistrates for soliciting, thieving, drunkenness or fighting.

I’ll gladly hear of suggestions from readers for books and articles that throw light on poor city-women’s lives during the full onslaught of industrialisation, in the last quarter of the 19th century up to the first war. Otherwise, I’ll have to rely on my own imagination to conjure up the missing details. But how can any of us know, from our present-day experience, how our ancestors lived 150 years ago? That question leads me to the sad thought that no matter how many ‘facts’ we dig up, we can never pay our foremothers the full respect they’re due, of really ‘knowing’ them.

People who are as ancient as me will remember the Andrews Sisters singing “Is you is or is you aint my baby?” It jumped into my mind from the darkest depths of childhood memory, just now, as I mouthed curses at my brickwall Danforth ancestor or rather the baby born in 1684/5 who SHOULD be him.

Every family researcher will recognise the agony. A brickwall that’s stood for a decade or more and when you find what you think is the right baptism…. there’s an inkblot in just the wrong place, the second crucial line has been eaten away by mice, or the vicar forgot to write the year or the father’s name… you can guarantee there’ll be something. And so it is for me.

The brickwall in my paternal Danforth line for nearly 15 years has been my 6xgreat-grandfather John Danforth, currier, of Kexbrough in Darton parish, West Riding of Yorkshire (nowadays in South Yorkshire) who married Mary Hinch in Rotherham on 30 December 1712. He even got himself a licence to seal the deal which, for a modestly placed person like him, was unusual at such an early date. That licence raises eyebrows just on its own.

When John obtained the licence, he gave his abode as Darton, but when he married Mary, the Rotherham register entry recorded his abode as nearby Thornhill. That makes sense because John was the first Danforth ever to appear in Darton while Thornhill was fit to bursting with Danforths (actually Dunforths to begin with) from the start of the PRs in Tudor times onwards. So there we have a nice neat link between Darton and Thornhill which, surely, should solve all the issues.

But of course, there is no suitable baptism for John in Thornhill. Well, a John Danforth was baptised there at the right time period but he seems to have stayed put, married and died in Thornhill, so can’t be the one who wandered to Darton.

I was overjoyed a few years ago to find on Ancestry a baptism on 1 February 1684/5 at Darton for John Danforth, son of John… until I checked the original. Reader, this is the classic example of the ACTO rule, the number one rule of Genealogy: Always Check The Original!

In an image of the page in the register which shows baptisms of February 1684/5, I found this:

It reads: “John Danforth son of John ^Danforth (ie. inserted above the line, followed up by a squiggle) Sladen. Bapt: Feb: first (1684/5)

Seldom in the history of genealogy has a squiggle been so crucial.

After huge amounts of lip-chewing and comparison between this and the vicar’s signature (who always signed ‘Ric. Smethurst, vic.’), I’ve concluded the squiggle says ‘vic’ and is an indication that the vicar made the change, signing to show it’s legit. This was vital in the days when a parish register entry was usually the only way to prove identity. The only other word I can read into the squiggle is ‘viz’ (or where we would nowadays put ‘ie.’)

So the logical reading of the entry is: John Danforth (surname Sladen) son of John Danforth Sladen.

But… in the 15 years before that entry in the parish register (which I have today gone through inch by inch), there is absolutely no other entry where a middle name or a double-barrelled surname appears. It just didn’t happen in those days, not even among the rich. What used to appear instead were ‘aliases’, and there are a number of those in Darton’s register, eg. Baptism 8 November 1682 for the son of Joshua LEE alias HAIGE.

We tend to assume in our modern world that when an alias appears, it’s associated with crime or deception but that didn’t apply in 1685. It might indicate an out-of-wedlock birth, with the alleged father’s surname thrown in beside the mother’s, but most often it was to do with inheritance. Many early deaths in those days, and many remarriages… it could be crucial to be known legally by both or all heritable surnames.

Considering that possibility I tried every squint and magnification in my power to turn that crucial squiggle in the baptism entry into ‘als’ for ‘alias’ but no can do.

So now what I’m left with is the most mysterious entry in the Darton parish register (so far at least), about half a dozen different possible interpretations of it and a perfectly solid Danforth brickwall still standing.

Any help or suggestions gratefully received.

Last week, it finally arrived, after nine horrendous months – the day I settled into my new home. I’ve made the tremendous leap north of twelve miles from Chesterfield to the leafy S11 area of Sheffield. I am extraordinarily happy to be in a city again, with all its buzz and opportunities, but especially THIS city.

Here’s why. Not just because it has the reputation as one of the safest cities in the country. Or because its residents are so friendly. And there’s real feminist activity going on (Feminists Over Fifty overflowing with members), and the independent cinema shows all the latest films WITH SUBTITLES every Monday…

For my research addiction, archives and local studies library are just a bus ride away. But most of all, I’m following my forefathers’ footsteps. Or more accurately, their short sojourn here, but it was a significant one. On 16 August 1878, my grandfather Ernest Danforth was born here, at 23 Sussex Street (in the south-east area of Darnall/Wicker near the present-day Cobweb Bridge). That was just seven months and a bit after the (bigamous) marriage of his parents William Danforth and Isabella Tamplin nee Clavering on 5 January 1878. We probably don’t need to ask why they married, in a Register Office, with unrelated witnesses.

The reason they were in Sheffield at all was only because Isabella, a Gateshead girl by birth, moved here from Manchester with first husband Joe Tamplin, an early Sheffield policeman. By the time she fell pregnant with grandad Ernest, Bella had lost Joe to TB only six months before, and all three of her previous children to scarlatina in 1875. A destitute widow, she brought in some pennies by running a little shop from her front room in Sussex Street. Perhaps Bill frequented her shop. As a steel puddler from Hoyland Nether just up t’road near Barnsley, he may have worked in the steelworks on Sussex Street (a decidedly industrial location) and called in to Mrs Tamplin’s shop for small purchases. More likely they met in the North Pole inn.

They didn’t stay long. By the 1881 census, they were in Brinsworth in Rotherham and Bill was a mill labourer, no longer using his muscles for steel-puddling. Local newspapers report devastating levels of poverty and destitution in Sheffield in the 1870s-80s as its steel manufacturers lost out to works in other parts of the country. The family’s further move to Glasgow a year or two later was probably a search for work (Bill had been there before in the 1860s with his first wife), although the long arm of the anti-bigamy law might have been a push factor too. As a result, grandad Ernest grew up a thoroughly east-Glasgow lad, reportedly with such a strong Glaswegian accent, no-one knew his Yorkshire roots. And for the rest of his life, his was the only Danforth family in Scotland.

In fact, the Danforth name is pretty rare in the UK generally. Thick on the ground in the USA because of two Danforth pilgrims from Framlingham in Suffolk who migrated in the early 17th century. But they are not related to my lot. In Thornhill, south Yorkshire, the name was first Dunforth, locational after a small habitation in that area, and probably pronounced in the local accent something like D’nf’d, so Dunford and Danford are regular variants, as well as many stranger ones.

Moving back to my Yorkshire roots at the start of the new-old year (March 25th) seems an appropriate time to launch a Yorkshire Danforth One Name Study. Well, more of a gentle push into the genealogical boating pond. Later I’ll set up an ONS website or blog but now is the start of data-gathering, and contacting potential Danforth matches via DNA test results (more about that to come).

Anyone reading this who is a Yorkshire Danforth, Danford or Dunford, please get in touch! Leave a comment below, or email me: celiarenshawATgmail.com.

Researchers into the origins and ancestry of Edward Starbuck of Nantucket (1603/4-1690) may be interested in a new discovery – it’s possible we’ve found his paternal granny … a much-widowed woman, born Elizabeth Pepper, who died in Bingham, Nottinghamshire in June 1611.

On 27 February 1603/4 at Derby All Saints church, an Edward Starbuck was baptised, son of Edward senior. This is thought to be the baptism of Nantucket Edward and is the starting point of the current quest for Edward’s origins.

In 1595, a “tuition bond” was granted by a probate court in Nottingham to Thomas Pepper, granting him responsibility for three people: another Thomas Pepper, Ann Thompson and Edward Starbuck. Legally, these were minors but as guardianship laws stood then, they could have been aged up to 25. 1595 is too early for this Edward Starbuck to be Nantucket Edward but could be his (supposed) father Edward senior.

Starbucks were disinclined to leave Wills in those days, probably because they weren’t very well off, so I widened the trawl by looking at Wills of people associated with them (this is the FAN club approach to research – Friends, Associates, Neighbours). Because of the tuition bond, Thompsons and Peppers seemed a good place to start. I found a partial Will at Nottinghamshire Archives for a Thomas Pepper of Bingham, dated 1595, evidently linked to the 1595 Tuition Bond. But the Will is only one line long, telling us nothing more than the testator’s name and location. But the location detail is critical – I could now look at other testators in Bingham.

Into my film-reader’s sights rolled the Will of John Worthington, written on 6 September 1600 and proved at Nottingham on 22 January 1600/1. He was buried at Bingham on 16 September 1600, only ten days after making his Will. Among his beneficiaries were three “sons-in-law”: Humfrey Bludworth and William and Edward Starbuck, plus his brother-in-law Thomas Pepper. His wife was named Elizabeth.

After restraining my arm from punching the air in Strangelove fashion – mentions of Starbucks in 16th century documents are like hens’ teeth – I digested what this could mean. In 1600, the term “in-law” could refer to a number of relationships – but I started with the most obvious, ie. his wife was sister to Thomas Pepper and she’d had two previous marriages, to a Bludworth and a Starbuck, producing three children from those marriages. John called them sons-in-law where today we’d say stepchildren.

At Bunny in Notts, I found this marriage: 15 Jul 1588 – Edmund Blodworth, of Bingham, & Elizabeth Starbuckle, “of Breeson [Breaston], within the sucken [? Soke] of Sawley, [Derbyshire] married by lic. from thence”. I later found out that Bunny was a Pepper location in the 16th century.

Stitching together the various bits of information, we can suggest the following picture of John Worthington’s wife Elizabeth:

  • She was probably born about 1550-60 and there is a baptism at Bunny on 22 Feb 1559/60 for an Elizabeth Pepper (no parents are named in Bunny baptisms until 1597).
  • She had a brother Thomas Pepper and they were both children of Thomas Pepper senior of Bingham, who died in 1595
  • She first married a man named Starbuck, probably about 1575-80 and probably in Sawley, Derbyshire (for which no parish registers exist until 1640). They had at least two children, William and Edward, before Mr Starbuck departed this life. In a 1566 rental for Sawley, there was a William Starbuck occupying a cottage in Long Eaton with a small amount of land. It’s possible he, or maybe a son of his, was Elizabeth’s husband.
  • In 1588, still a resident of Breaston in Sawley parish, but marrying in her birthplace of Bunny, widow Elizabeth plighted her troth with Edmund Bludworth of Bingham. They had one child Humfrey before Edmund also departed this life, before 1598 when Bingham PRs begin. Sadly, young Humfrey also died soon after his father, buried in Bingham in November 1601
  • Elizabeth married a third time to John Worthington of Bingham, who had also been married before, with several children named in his Will. It seems likely they had little time together as John died in September 1600.
  • Four months later on 19 January 1600/1 in Bingham, thrice-widowed Elizabeth married a fourth time to Clement Clifford. It’s possible that in her early 40s, she had two more children, John and Thomas Clifford, born in Bingham in 1602 and 1604, both of whom died as babies
  • On 8 June 1611, Elizabeth the wife of Clement Clifford was buried at Bingham. She was probably in her early fifties. In her modest half-century of life she had experienced a terrible tally of bereavement, losing three husbands and at least one child, probably three.

This picture of the life of Elizabeth Pepper-Starbuck-Bludworth-Worthington-Clifford needs additional verification of course, as does the deduction that her son Edward Starbuck was the father of Nantucket Edward. It is entirely possible that this Starbuck line is quite separate from Nantucket Edward’s. However, there are so few known Starbucks around in late 16th century Notts and Derbyshire, and even fewer Edwards, that this deduction must be considered reasonable.

Documentary evidence and additional information about Peppers, Thompsons,  Bingham and Bunny can be requested by emailing me: celiarenshawATgmail.com.


In 2008, during BBC4’s ‘Medieval Mind’ series, TV historian Michael Wood presented what I consider the best single historical TV programme, ever. It shows us in words and pictures the ordinary lives of ordinary people in a period we usually only know from stories of kings, queens and warring nobles. Michael explains and demonstrates how people lived on a daily basis – their homes, food, animals, faith – and the disasters that beset them, killing vast numbers, in the 14th century. He shows how these details of ordinary lives can be found in documents normally used only by academics – manorial and tax records. In some cases, these ancient documents, six or seven hundred years old, look as fresh as the day they were written – the ink still dark, handwriting neat and legible on clean parchment. Nowadays we have trouble with the Latin but help’s available for that, should we venture to look. Seeing Michael unroll and read those records was like watching Tut’s tomb being opened!

Most importantly though, the programme focuses fully on the life of one medieval woman – Christina Cok. She stands for the millions of women whose lives have been lost to our history, even when records about them exist. A female voice-over, speaking in the words and accents of Middle English, movingly talks to us from Wills and letters written by women at the time. And at the end, we’re taken through a montage of pictures of women over the centuries, while Michael tells us: this is the forgotten half of our ancestry – the women.

The programme has been re-broadcast numerous times and I’ve watched it every time. I never fail to shed tears at the end – in my aching regret for the forgotten half of my ancestry. In my experience, no other TV historian has highlighted the lost history of ordinary women in this way – something that was very long overdue in 2008 and much more is still needed.

“Christina – a Medieval Life” may be available to buy on DVD from Maya Vision International, as listed here: http://bufvc.ac.uk/dvdfind/index.php/title/av74666. And you may also be able to view it on Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/102878103.


All my life I’ve remembered the name of the house where my great-aunt and uncle Hilda & Harold Turney lived, though I’ve never known why they chose that name for it. They had it built in the thirties on Pond Lane in Knapton near Mundesley, Norfolk.

I have one memory of visiting Kimaggan as a child, probably aged about 7 or 8, and a vivid picture of standing with aunt and mum in the middle of a sunken lawn with sloping sides, part of a very big garden around an old-fashioned bungalow.

My great-aunt, who was born Hilda Eva Tyler on 3 March 1899, married Harold William Turney on 4 April 1935 in Erpingham Register Office. She was 36, a career nurse, and he 41, a shipping rep and former purser in the merchant navy. After retirement with disability, he worked as an optician, which seems a rather odd turn in life. They did not have children. Hilda died first in March 1979 and Harold on 8 March 1983.pond-lane

Skate forward to 19 Oct 2016 and I have the first chance to revisit Kimaggan. My friend and I found the place, still rather isolated in its acre of garden on Pond Lane in Knapton – I recognised it instantly – but now called North Acre. And it still had a sunken front lawn with sloping sides!

The present okimaggan1wner showed us round the gardens and, being a local born and bred, gave us loads of information about aunt and uncle, and the history of the bungalow, now considerably extended. He also took us into his work-shed and showed us the old house-name ‘Kimaggan’ nailed to a beam.


A rather tame little story perhaps? It’s hard to convey in writing how full of  excitement and pleasure I was to rediscover this place of my memories… happy memories because aunt Hilda was fun and my mum loved her. Tragically for mum and me, her Tyler families were long-distant from where we lived in Stony Stratford, now part of Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire.

Grandfather Walter Henry Tyler (Wal to family and friends) was a London boy. Three of his seven sibs died young, and his parents departed this life early too within months of each other in 1903, when Wal was 16. He joined the Army shortly after. The other surviving four children were scattered among nearby relatives and later settled in various parts of Britain: Wilfred in Billericay after an Army career; Horace in Stratford (slap bang where the Olympic site now is); Louise with her head waiter husband Jacques Jaeger in St Anne’s on Sea; and Hilda with Harold in Norfolk. All of them too far away for more than occasional get-togethers.

My visit to Kimaggan last week brought some of my barely-known Tyler relatives back into my heart and gave me new memories to treasure. With many thanks to the present owner of North Acre for making this gift to a complete stranger turning up on his doorstep.