Posts Tagged ‘family history’

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.



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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.

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I have just rediscovered a piece I wrote in 2012 and completely forgotten about. I hope it will bring a smile, much-needed in our troubled times perhaps.  Imagine a small, community evening class of family history beginners, and a well-intentioned tutor…

Right class, so where do we always start in genealogy?
Not with a G, Kenneth – oh, Ken, sorry – and no, not with a J either.  Anyone else?

No, Lisa, ha ha, we don’t start with William the Conqueror!!
What’s that?  Your 4th cousin twice removed in America has got your surname going back all the way to the Conk?  Oh, to Charlemagne, indeed, well, we’ll see…

Maisie?  I know, they’re being a bit loud aren’t they?  You’ll have to speak up!
Class!  Would everyone take a breath please, you’ll all have a chance to tell your stories.

OK Maisie?
Well, dear, gooseberry bushes have gone a bit out of fashion, wouldn’t you say?  Oh, your mum always said it’s where you came from………….

George!  Where do you think we should start?
In bed? Ha ha, that’s one way of looking at it.
Or in your case on the wrong side of the blanket?
Now now, everyone, this is a serious point actually… these days we’re a bit more polite, we say “out-of-wedlock” instead… no, not illegit…. not bast…!
Not spawn of Satan either…

Rosemary, I can see you’re waving a piece of paper there, is it something you want to share?  It says your Scottish grandmother was born in fornication… yes, well, that’s the Scots for you…
Hang on, don’t start shouting, I CAN say that, I’m half-Scottish!

Which brings me back to my first question – how do I KNOW I’m half Scottish?
Thank you Henry, not because one leg is shorter than the other and I run round hills.
No Sophie, I don’t start fights in pubs and eat chips every night
[Only every other night, hehe…]

I’ll give you a clue.

When you’re starting out in family history, you always begin with [pointing] ……


You start by writing down everything you know about yourself.
And then your parents….

Sorry, Maggie, say that again?  Ah, you were an orphan.  And Bob?  Adopted.  Well those are two very good reasons for wanting to find out…..  yes, I understand, I do, here’s a tissue, don’t upset yourself dear, we’ll see what we can do…

Tom – what’s that?  Your dad was a sailor… OK?  A wife in every port, I see

Deirdre… Your mum loved cooking?  That’s good… ah, gas oven… her head, well let’s not go too far down…

Class!  Time’s up for today.  I think we can safely say there are two things to remember when we start genealogy … don’t believe anything you hear (not unless you have three lots of documentation to back it up) – and always expect the unexpected!


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An American colleague and I were agreeing the other day that some of the most exciting finds in our years of ancestor-chasing were discovered when we wandered off the straight and narrow road of research. Instead of just looking at the most logical locations and sources for ancestors, it was often fun to mosey down side roads and muddy paths – in defiance of logic, and the rules we’d been taught. Just because… because it felt like fun, a vague hunch took us there, an unusual occupation turned up, or no apparent reason at all. With the internet, of course, this ‘stream of consciousness’ kind of research has become far easier to do than when it was all paper and pencil in actual archives.

I’m convinced that a willingness to follow a hunch and wander about for no definite reason only develops with experience. When we’re newbies, most often we think in straight lines, chasing single surnames, and the next ancestor up the tree. In those days, the discovery moments, when we find out who each of our great-greats were, these are moments of glory, air-punching excitement, and we don’t feel a need to stop and look round corners. Once we’ve filled a lot of our tree however, those triumphs are sadly rare – unless we look further afield.

Our ancestors were human after all. Just like us now, they often acted unpredictably. We can’t expect their lives to have been lived entirely on the straight and narrow, even if the superficial neat-and-tidiness of birth, marriage and death registrations, parish registers and census records give us that impression. We can rediscover that old, breath-taking excitement of discovery, when we look for and find them in unlikely places.

Recently, after discovering that a couple of my Danforth cousins had emigrated in the 19th century, I decided to do a search for any other British Danforths in foreign records. As far as I knew, no-one in my dad’s immediate family, other than my lost aunt Christina, had jumped any ponds. So here was a muddy path I decided to mosey along, just on a whim.

To my absolute astonishment, I found a passenger list of 1929, for the ship Doric, sailing from Greenock to Montreal that included my Scottish uncle Ernest Clavering Danforth (born Clydebank in 1908), my dad’s carrot-haired brother, my uncle Ernie. Who had lived all his life in Scotland – hadn’t he?

The details in the passenger list suggested he was aiming to settle in Canada, farming in Winnipeg, where his aunt Susan had already made a home some years previously. This was information that had never been mentioned in my family before, so I now have more side roads to look down in Canada.

Ernest & Nan (Wren) Danforth on bench1a

Ernie & Nan Danforth

Ernie didn’t stay there though, he was home by 1942 when he married aunt Nan, back in Scotland, where they both died. But this trip to Canada may explain where he was in otherwise lost years between 1929 and 1942.

So my advice to newbies and oldies in family research: get the boots on and start walking down the muddy paths, check unlikely sources and places, take time to ‘smell the roses’ too. By that I mean, stopping to look again at what you’ve already found: what IS this record I’m viewing? what else does it tell me, other than names and dates? who’s living next door? what was going on, locally and nationally, at that time? why was that person a witness? any question you can think of.

It’s amazing how much more we can find out about our relatives when we get off the main roads, look for more than names and dates, chase the unexpected – and it’s much more fun than sticking to the ‘rules and regs’ of family research.

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My father’s Danforth family came from Yorkshire, via Clydebank and Glasgow.

It was always rumoured that despite possessing the thickest of Glasgow accents, dad’s father, Ernest Danforth, was born in Yorkshire, and that proved to be true. Ernest was born to William Danforth and Isabella (nee Clavering) on 16 August 1878 in Sheffield, at 23 Sussex Street. Sadly, by the time I held the certificate in my hands, there was no-one to share the news. All my Danforth family had passed on, my grandparents, my dad, his two brothers and adopted sister, all by then interred in Scottish cemeteries. My two uncles, Robert and Ernest, had no children and my aunt Margaret, who was a Kemp by birth, bestowed her husband’s French name on her children. So, in the Scottish tradition whereby wives retain their maiden name as well as married name, for years I believed I was the only Danforth left from my grandad Ernest’s line.

But I’m far from being the only blood-descendant of Ernest’s father William Danforth.

Bill arrived on 25 May 1838 in Hoyland Nether near Barnsley, the third of ten rumbunctious children born to John Danforth and Hannah (nee May). Eight were girls – two died young and three thought little of producing baby Danforths without benefit of marriage. The eldest, Mary, had three, in the space of 13 years, and never married. But none of these out-of-wedlocks produced male descendants. From William’s generation, only his brother, my great-great-uncle Daniel, was fated to keep the Danforth flag flying in the Hoyland area.

Bigamous Bill

Bill meanwhile, ventured far away from Hoyland, to the steelworks and tenements of east Glasgow, before retiring back home again. He married a Hoyland girl first (Elizabeth Ellen Greenwood) and produced two sons with her – John William and Walter. But before the 1881 census, Ellen had disappeared, resurfacing in Cumbria in 1891 with a ‘husband’ named Richard Price. Both sons ended up there too, in Workington and Maryport, and the sizeable dynasties of Danforths they produced have scattered around the world, though some returned to Hoyland before spreading into other parts of Yorkshire.

I strongly suspect that first wife Ellen did a runner, for reasons we can only guess, leaving her grown sons with Bill. She must have left before 1878 because on 5 January that year, at Sheffield Register Office, Bill remarried to my great-grandmother Isabella. Bill lied that he was a widower and Isabella must have been just pregnant, since grandfather Ernest was born in early August. Strictly speaking therefore, grandad was ‘illegitimate’.

Bill, Isabella and Ernest were in Rotherham in 1881 but by 1885 they had settled in the east end of Glasgow where Bill no doubt puddled steel in the vast works at Parkhead Forge. Perhaps he was escaping the law. Bigamy, it turns out, was very common in the Victorian era when most people were unable to obtain divorces. Desertion, never to be seen again by the family left behind, was considered the ‘poor man’s divorce’ – but those caught were still severely punished by the law. Second wife Isabella died in Glasgow in 1906. Bill stayed on for a few years, and saw son Ernest respectably employed as a Postman and married to my grandmother Cecilia, but then came the strangest development. By the 1911 census, Bill had returned to Hoyland Nether, to live with son John William in Elizabeth Street – and just a few doors away in the same street was none other than first wife Ellen, still calling herself Price.

They must have continued in this close proximity until their deaths, Bill in 1914 and Ellen in 1920. Both died in son John William’s house. The big surprise is that they weren’t buried together. They had separate graves in Hoyland church’s burial ground – but John William buried his mum as a Danforth, not Price. I have never heard of any other story of desertion or bigamy where the parties ended up back in the same place together.

So now, my great-grandfather William Danforth is always ‘Bigamous Bill’ to me, and stories of his life and my great-grandmother Isabella’s could surely spawn a thick family saga or two.

Inspired by them, I have now reignited my Danforth research, treating the Yorkshire Danforths as a one-name-study, so look out for plenty more articles to come.





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Today I watched a TED talk given by A J Jacobs about the importance of genealogy, one of the most entertaining presentations I’ve ever seen. It lasts a matter of minutes, definitely a coffee-break choice. I agree 100% with his wonderment and enthusiasm for the fact that we are all related!

You can find the talk here and also see his plans for the biggest ever family reunion. Sounds like great fun, and I hope he’s organising a virtual event too for those of us who can’t get to New York next year (though how I wish I could!).

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One of the best moments in family research is to discover an address where ancestors  lived, perhaps from census entries or a Will.  It can be fun to make a pilgrimage there – but also very disappointing if we find that the old place has been cleared away during the intervening years, with only modern roads or buildings to see now.

But, as I’ve discovered in Newcastle-Gateshead, there can still be hope of priceless, detailed information, even when the home itself has gone.

The majority of us in the UK are descendants of industrial and agricultural workers who had little choice in where they lived – usually somewhere cheap and small, in walking distance of work.  As a result most were crowded into the jerry-built back-to-backs and tenements of Victorian cities or equally unsanitary cottages and hovels in the countryside.  As well as overcrowding, levels of pollution and dirt were appalling.  For many working people this remained the only choice of housing well into the 20th century.  However, as that century progressed, so too did efforts around the country to clear slums and improve amenities.  As a result, detailed official records do exist including maps, plans and photographs, of the houses and streets that were cleared away.

It’s entirely possible that, if you can identify the specific location of your ancestors’ lost home in the first half of the 20th century, you can find precious details about it in slum clearance and redevelopment records of the local authority, usually held at the relevant record office.  I discovered this when looking for information about Oakwellgate and Cannon Street in Gateshead where my Corbett and Clavering ancestors lived in the 19th century.

Cannon street date unknown

On the left is a view of Cannon Street, taken from the churchyard  of neighbouring St Mary’s.   Below is how it looks today.

Cannon Street 2013

Turn 180 degrees from where the second photo was taken and you’ll see
the view in the third photo – the dramatic Sage Centre has been built where
the gas works, railway lines and factory works once dominated the area
my folks lived in.
Sage Centre & Millennium Bridge 2013

But these are only the most recent of the redevelopments in Gateshead.  From the 1910s, overcrowding surveys were undertaken and as late as 1936 it was found that Gateshead was the second most overcrowded county borough in the country.  Conditions were notoriously awful, but it wasn’t until the 1930s that slum clearance began in earnest with further waves in the 1950s/60s, as well as recent years.

To give you an idea of records you might find in clearance and redevelopment records, the following details come from a page in Gateshead Council’s Register of houses declared unfit 1910-35, for a tenement in Oakwellgate (Tyne & Wear Archives ref. CB.GA/PH/4/2/1):

Inspected: 7 Mar 1912
Dwelling-house: 47 & 49 (Easton Bank), Oakwellgate
Description: Tenements.  No. 47 down.  No. 49 upstairs
Owner: Miss Eleanor Pearson, 40 Bewick Road, Gateshead (now 9 LynnholmeGardens)
Name of occupier: Four [note that names of occupiers are given on most of the survey cards, but not this one]
Number of rooms: 6, on ground floor 3, on first floor 3 (two empty)
Number of inhabitants: 8 Adults and 5 children under 13 years (in 4 rooms)
Water-supply: Town supply.  Tap in entrance to 47.
Closet accommodation: None.  Fallen down.  Using Public accommodation opposite.
Drainage: One gully
Light: Bad.  None at back & building shut in at front
Free circulation of air: Moderate
Dampness: Walls & ceilings damp
Cleanliness: Fair to bad
Paving, Draining & Sanitary condition of any yard or outhouses: No yard or outhouses
Arrangements for refuse & ashes: Tenants own pails, removed daily
Other matters: This house is one of most ancient in Oakwellgate, reputed to be the former town residence of the Bishop, & known as “BishopsPalace”.  Stone built, dilapidated & porous joints.  Roof tiled & very dilapidated.  Spouting very defective.  Internal walls, ceilings, stairs very defective & broken.  Wood floors defective & one bricked & in very bad order.
Remedies suggested: To close & demolish.
Demolished: 8 Jan 1930 [18 years after the survey!]

1934 Plan Dun Cow Yard area  It’s hard to believe people were living in these conditions as late as the 1930s.

Once you get into Slum Clearance and Compulsory Purchase files, you may also be lucky enough to find photographs and detailed plans,like the one on the left for Oakwellgate and Dun Cow Yard drawn in 1934 (Tyne & Wear Archives ref. CB.GA/PH/5/2).  A 1930 photo of the view also exists:

Duncow Yard between high street and oakwellgate 1930

It may be sad and disappointing to be unable to see the actual place where our ancestors lived, but slum clearance and redevelopment records can be a gift of detailed descriptions and photographs, maybe taking us closer to the truth of our ancestors’ living conditions than a still-standing but modernised and transformed building can do.

With thanks to staff of Tyne & Wear Archives for help with research into the Gateshead slum clearance and overcrowding files.  Old photos of Gateshead have been supplied by Gateshead Central Library and reproduced with the kind permission of Gateshead Council.  Modern photos taken by myself in June 2013.

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