Thursday, 9 July 2020

A Middle Name

This story is inspired by the prompt “middle”.  Discovering my ancestor Elizabeth Harvie explained the unusual (for a girl) middle name of my more recent ancestor Elizabeth Harvie McDonald, the subject of a previous post.

I think Elizabeth Harvie was baptised 10 August 1735 in the parish of Killearn, Stirlingshire, Scotland.  Elizabeth Harvie was the youngest child, that I know of, of Andrew Harvey and Agnes Neilson.  Andrew and Agnes had at least six other children baptised in Killearn: Elizabeth (who presumably died before 1735*), Janet, Jean, John, Andrew and Agnes.  Father, Andrew, had a farm at Ballinkinrain just outside of Balfron in Stirlingshire, only a few miles from the Highlands.

Tuesday, 2 June 2020

Macro Mystery

This story is inspired by the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks prompt “Uncertain”.  I am uncertain who Charles Macro’s parents were.  There are a few possibilities but I have no definite evidence.

Charles Macro was born around 1780, probably somewhere in the vicinity of Barrow, Suffolk.  There were members of the Macro family living in and near Barrow at the time and some of them were named Charles but none were close to the right age to be my ancestor.

Thursday, 23 April 2020

A Yeoman’s Will

This post is inspired by the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks topic “Land”*.  I thought I’d write about one of my many yeoman ancestors.  English yeoman were farmers who owned the land they worked.  They were not quite landed gentry but were still prominent members of their local community and relatively wealthy.

Timothy Briggs was born about 1649 in Thurnham, in the parish of Cockerham, Lancashire, England.  The Briggs family had lived in the Thurnham area for at least two generations before Timothy.  He was the youngest child, as far as I know, of Edmund Briggs and Margaret Wilkins.  His older siblings were Anna, Elizabeth, Rebecca, John (who died in infancy), Mary (who died in infancy) and Joshua.

Margaret Briggs nee Wilkins died in 1667 and Edmund Briggs died in 1671.  Brother Joshua only survived his father by a year, dying in 1672.

On 9 October 1672, Timothy married Agnes Deane at St Mary’s church in Lancaster.  While the Briggs family were baptised and buried in Cockerham, they seemed to prefer nearby Lancaster for weddings.  Maybe this was because it is a more impressive church for a big wedding?  Timothy and Agnes had at least three children: Edmund (my ancestor), Abigail and Hannah.

On 7th December 1697, Timothy wrote his will (which I have a copy of).  He claimed to be in sound and perfect health.  However, within weeks he was dead aged only 49.  I am not sure of the exact date of death as the Cockerham burial registers for that period are water damaged and haven’t been scanned.  The inventory of his goods and chattels was taken on 18 January 1698 (it says 1697 because at that time the year started on 25 March). Probate was granted on 20 July 1698.

Timothy left most of his estate to his son Edmund, however he also left bequests to his wife and daughters.  Wife Agnes got £20 plus £4 a year.  His will is not long but does have a few points of interest.  Both his sons-in-law are mentioned: Abigail was the wife of Henry Langton, and they had a son, Timothy.  Hannah was married to Thomas Hodgkinson, to recently to have children.

What makes interesting reading is the inventory that accompanies the will.  The inventory list all of Timothy’s possessions at the time of his death.  His most valuable possessions were 3 cows valued at £11 and Oats and Barley, also valued at £11.  As well as the cows, livestock included 2 oxen, possibly for ploughing his fields, 4 young steers (castrated males), 1 young heifer (female who hasn’t had a calf), 3 calves and 2 horses.  The horses were valued at £10.

The inventory also gives an indication of the size of house that Timothy and his family lived in.  A buttery, kitchen, parlour, a house chamber, east chamber and a bed room are mentioned, so it sounds like a reasonably sizable residence for the time.  The kitchen furniture, including a table and chairs, was valued at £5.
As he had cows and a buttery, I guess he may have partly been a dairy farmer but it seems that he might also have farmed oats and barley.  Thurham is near the sea (Morecombe bay) and some of the area nearby is tidal estuary with dangerous quick sands, so may not have been good arable land.  There are also now canals through Thurnham, so it was likely very damp back in Timothy’s time.

Timothy had books valued at £2. I am not sure if that means he had a lot of books or if books were very valuable. 

I particularly like that bacon gets a mention in the inventory.  He had beef and bacon valued at £1 10s.  I would guess that this was a lot of meat as some of the live animals were not worth much more.

Finally, Timothy had £7 in money and apparel.

His total goods and chattles were valued at £116 7s. In addition to this, he had title to the land he farmed. It doesn’t seem like much at all, but he would have been wealthy compared to many of his contemporaries.

It is nice to be able to get an idea of how one of my ancestors lived off the land that he owned.

*I am not managing to write about 52 ancestors in 52 weeks.

Notes on Lineage: Me > Mum > Daphne Smith > Esther Lees > Fanny Sarah Eliza Briggs > Frederick Henderson Briggs > Henry Sparrow Briggs > Jehu Briggs > Timothy Briggs > Edmund Briggs > Timothy Briggs

Saturday, 29 February 2020


At the time of writing, the world is on the verge of a Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.  As it is dominating the news and many discussions, I have been thinking about how my ancestors and their families might have been affected by epidemic diseases.  It is rare to find historical information about those who survived infections, although I would guess that many of my ancestors suffered from infectious illness during their lifetimes.  It is easier to find out about those who didn’t survive where their cause of death is recorded on death certificates or, occasionally, in parish registers.

My ancestor James Jesse Blake wrote his life story.  Sometime in the 1880’s, he caught small pox and was lucky to survive.  Here his experience is documented in his own words:

A vessel came into the London Docks from Jamaica, W.I., some work had to be done hurriedly, so Mr Buchan sent me to get measurements, as the ship had to get away to sea again.  I felt quite ill when I got home that night, but went to work again the next day, but I soon became worse.  I went home, and sent for Dr Bowkett of Poplar.  He said I had got smallpox and must be isolated.  It being a very respectable neighbourhood, the authorities came making enquiries. Dr Bowkett opposed them, giving all directions what to do.  I became blind.  My poor wife wore herself out.  My mother also came and sat up with me many nights. 3 months elapsed after getting my sight before the doctor would let me go out.  My sister Catherine, the mother of many children, often came to see me.  My brother in Law and I went for a four days trip to the Isle of Wight.  After that I went to work again, at the same shop, under Mr Buchan.  One of my mates suggested I should belong to the Royal Standard Sick Benefit Society, which I did do, I am thankful to say.

It is interesting to see that at the time, he was put in isolation and the authorities investigated the case; not so different to the stories dominating the news at the moment.  James Jesse Blake would have known all too well how bad small pox could be.  His sister-in-law, Emma Ginn nee Macro (aka Todd)* was widowed when her husband, George, died of the disease in 1871, leaving behind two young sons.

My ancestor Mary Ann Elliston nee Simmonds (aka Hardy)*, mother of three, died of small pox in 1885.  She lived in West Ham, not that far away from Limehouse where James Jesse Blake lived, so maybe they were infected during the same epidemic.

Several of my ancestors lost children to small pox:
  • Malcolm Macdonald and Agnes Donaldson’s son Angus died of the disease aged 4, in 1837 in Glasgow, Scotland.  Maybe other family members caught the disease and survived.
  • Two of Jonathan Henshaw and Amy Blonk’s adult children, Major and Anne, died of the disease in 1746 in Wicken, Northamptonshire. I do not know why they called one of their sons “Major”.  They were the only two recorded as having the disease so I wonder if Major brought it from elsewhere and his spinster sister nursed him, catching the disease.
Thankfully, vaccination finally eradicated small pox in 1977, nearly two hundred years after the vaccine was developed in 1796.

James Jesse Blake lost one son to dysentery, a highly infectious disease.  Henry Earnest Blake was a merchant seaman who got caught up in the Boar War and died at Ladysmith, in 1900, of the disease, rather than from battle wounds.

The flu pandemic of 1918-1919 killed two of my ancestors, husband and wife Oscar John Kirby and Harriet Kirby nee Partridge.  While my great grandmother, Constance Mary Charley nee Macdonald died of flu and pneumonia shortly after arriving in New York from Australia, in January 1929.  She left her husband Walter George Charley a widower with four sons to look after.  He had been in Cuba when she fell ill.  Seasonal flu still kills many people but vaccination has reduced the number of fatalities.

Of course, the most famous pandemic is the Black Death or Bubonic Plague.  I don’t know if any of my ancestors or their families died during the original pandemic of 1347-1351, records from that period are scarce, but I guess it is likely.  I do have ancestors (on my Briggs line) who died of the Black Death in later epidemics.  Thomas Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, died of the disease in 1369 and Peter of Luxembourg, Count of St Pol, died of Black Death in 1433.

For so many of my ancestors and their children, I have no idea of their cause of death, but I am sure many died of infectious diseases that I haven’t had to worry about because of vaccines, good hygiene  and modern medicine.  My direct ancestors were, of course, survivors who grew up to have children.  Many lived long enough to die of age related causes rather than infection.

*The two women with multiple surnames listed were illegitimate and used their step-father’s surname after their mothers married.

Saturday, 1 February 2020

Gaining a T

John Elson was born around 1734 in Rugby, Warwickshire, the oldest son of John Elson and Mary Fawks. He was baptised at St Andrews church in Rugby on 6 May 1734.  He had two brothers: Marmaduke and Arthur, and two sisters, Mary and Ann.  Marmaduke and Arthur were Fawks family names.  John Elson senior was a cordwainer (shoe maker), as was brother Marmaduke.  As it was the family trade, it is possible that John Elson junior was also a cordwainer.
John’s parents may have had an unequal marriage.  The Fawks family were landed gentry from Dunchurch, a village near Rugby, compared with the Elson tradesmen.  Coincidently, Dunchurch is also linked to Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder plot, although he does not appear to be related to the Dunchurch family.

Whatever his occupation, as a young man, John Elson (b. 1734) moved from Rugby to the then nearby village of Hillmorton (now a Rugby suburb).  His family appears to have remained in Rugby.  John was resident in Hillmorton when he obtained a marriage licence to marry Ann Heritage in 1758.  John Elson and Ann Heritage were married in Bicester, Oxfordshire, on 8 September 1758.  Both signed with a mark rather than their names, so may not have been literate.  John’s surname was written as Ellson in the register and he is described as a sojourner in the parish, so he was a visitor or recent resident.  

I don’t know how John and Ann met, Rugby and Bicester are market towns about 60kms (38 miles) apart – a 12 to 13 hours walk, according to Google.  Bicester did have a popular and well attended horse race, and in 1758, Bicester was required to undertake some major roadworks, so either could have brought John to town.  Ann’s family were long time Bicester residents.

John and Ann Elson had nine children: Humphrey, Mary, Martha, William, John, Ann, Joseph (my ancestor), Thomas and Elizabeth.  I am not sure where Humphrey and Mary were born, but the other children were all baptised in Bicester.  Humphrey was an Elson family name.  When Thomas was baptised in 1774, the new vicar, Rev. George Bray, wrote the surname as “Elston” and from that point onwards the T was part of the surname.  Several of the children signed their marriage records, or witnessed their siblings’ marriages, as “Elston” or “Elstone”. 

All of the children, with the possible exception of John, survived to adulthood.

John Elson died in Jun 1790, aged only 56 years old but a grandfather of at least 3 children.  His parents were both still alive and living in Rugby at the time; I don’t know if they were in contact.  The Bicester burial register records John Elstone being buried on 10 Jun 1790.

John has been interesting to research.  It took a long time for me to discover that he came from Rugby.  I find it curious that thanks to an apparent whim on the part of a vicar, the surname changed, gaining the T.

Notes on Lineage: Me > Mum > Daphne Madge Smith > John Henry Smith > Harry Smith > John Smith > Elizabeth Elston > Joseph Elston > John Elson

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

A Whitechapel Butcher

Continuing on my stories about tradesmen ancestors, this is the tale of Nicholas Foskett*, ten generations back.  In addition to being a butcher, he had an uncommon (but difficult to spell and transcribe) name, which has helped with uncovering the story of his life.

Nicholas Foskett was born in Whitechapel, London, England, around 1716.  In his baptism record, his family’s address was given as “Over against the church”.  I am not quite sure what this means but it doesn’t sound very salubrious.  The mentioned church must have been St Mary’s Whitechapel, where he was baptised.  Nicholas was the eighth of nine children of John Foskett, a Throwster (silk weaver) and Isabel Mallard.  The two oldest children, Samuel and Sarah both died infancy.  I am not sure what happened to most of his other brothers and sisters: Elizabeth, John, Richard, Thomas, Mary and George.  In spite of their unusual surname, the only one I can find record of as an adult is John, who married Elizabeth Christian.  I wonder if Foskett might be an anglicised version of a French name.  Many East End silk weavers were of French Huguenot background.  

Mother Isabel died when Nicholas was only six years old and his father, John, remarried to Alice Cornwell with indecent haste (the likely subject of a future story).  It seems likely that Nicholas’s childhood was not easy with his parents perhaps not having a happy marriage and his mother being replaced when she was barely cold in the ground.  He may not have had much education as he does not appear to have been literate; he marked rather than signed his name on his marriage records.

Probably around the age of 14, Nicholas would have been apprenticed as a butcher.  I haven’t found a record of this, so it seems likely that he worked for a relative, although not his father, as more formal apprenticeships at the time were recorded and taxed.  I need to track down a Foskett or Mallard butcher.  Apprenticeships typically lasted seven years.

At about the age of 21, presumably having just completed his apprenticeship, Nicholas Foskett married Margaret.  I haven’t found their marriage, so don’t know Margaret’s surname.  The marriage St Mary Whitechapel registers for several years around 1737 are missing.  Yes, there are some gaps in this story and I have avenues for further research about Nicholas’s early life. Nicholas and Margaret had four children: Samuel (my ancestor), John (who died in infancy), Mary and Henry.  Margaret then died in 1745. 

Unlike his father, Nicholas didn’t rush into his second marriage, although his third was another matter.  He married Sarah Bennett in Jul 1769 by licence.  As marriage licences were expensive, he must have been doing reasonably well in his butchery trade by then.  Sarah died in August 1787, and Nicholas married Mary Pether at the end of September the same year, weeks later, by banns.  Mary outlived Nicholas by several years.  I haven’t found any record of Nicholas having children by his second or third wives.

I have found Land tax records showing that Nicholas lived in Whitechapel for most of his adult life.  He lived in good enough circumstances to be able to pay Land tax (this was before the days of income tax), which not everyone could manage.

Nicholas plied his trade via a butcher’s cart rather than selling from a shop. He cart features in his grandson James’s story.  Butchers took meat around to streets to prospective customers.  Butchery was (and is) a messy business but meat was to some extent a luxury item, so while  butchery was consigned to the East end and other not so nice parts of London, a butcher could do well taking his product to nicer parts of town.  However, in 1759, I have a record of Nicholas working as a coal dealer.  Maybe there was a downturn in the meat trade so he put his cart to other uses or perhaps the work was seasonal.  The butchers trade was also closely associated with leather, for obvious reasons, and Nicholas’s son Samuel was a leather worker.  It seems likely that Nicholas took on his grandson James as an apprentice, or at least played a role in his career choice.  However, as per James’s story, that didn’t work out so well and he disinherited James.

A butcher's cart (Public Domain via Wikipedia)
Although a long time Whitechapel resident, when he died in February 1792, Nicholas Foskett was living in nearby Stepney.  His cause of death was given as “decline” and he was buried at Whitechapel.

Nicholas left a detailed will written after his marriage to Mary Pether with a codicil added after his son Henry died around 1788.  In that short time, James had caused his grandfather enough offence to be cut out of the will.

I think knowing even a little about an ancestor’s work makes them fell much more real than just a few dates and places can do.

Notes on lineage: Me > Mum > John Macdonald Charley > Walter George Charley > John Joseph Charley > Catherine Thompson > Catherine Foskett > James Foskett > Samuel Foskett > Nicholas Foskett

*Also Fosket, Faskett, Fosset, Fosgate, plus other spellings and poor transcriptions, including Sosket.

Saturday, 18 May 2019

What is a cordwainer?

I thought it would be interesting to investigate some of the trades my ancestors had.  I will start one that sounds exotic but isn’t – a cordwainer (which Microsoft Word doesn’t have in its dictionary).  I have several forebears who were cordwainers and will share the story of one of them, William Ayers*.  The word cordwainer is derived from the Spanish word “cordovan”, a type of leather, and people who worked with cordovan to make shoes were known as cordwainers or shoemakers.   A cordwainer is different to a cobbler, a cobbler repairs shoes, whereas a cordwainer made them.  Shoemaking was a very traditional trade with the process changing very little from the Middle Ages until the mid-1800s when it became industrialised.  Here is a picture of a shoemaker at work.
Public domain photo found via Google images.

William Ayers was born around 1755 in Fairford, Gloucestershire, the seventh of eight children of Richard Ayers and Mary Hughes, although at least three of the children had died before William was born.  The other children were: John (died young), Elizabeth, John, James, David, Temperance and Richard.  With a Temperance in the family, I wonder if the Ayers family had puritan tendencies.  The children were all baptised in Fairford parish church.  Curiously, another line of my family also lived in Fairford at this time but those two lines didn’t join until 1878.

In 1767, age about 12, William Ayers of Fairford was apprenticed to Thomas Bond for £8 bond.  Like all trades, an apprenticeship was the first step in a career and typically lasted 7 years.  Sometime after completing his apprenticeship, William moved to nearby Coln St Aldwyns, Gloucestershire.  In 1788, he took on his own apprentice, John Porter.  It is likely that William was the only cordwainer in Coln St Aldwyns and he would have made everyone’s shoes, so he would have been an important figure in the village (Coln St Aldwyns is still a village).  In spite of this, shoemakers often had to take on a second job to be able to afford to maintain their families, perhaps something like farming.  As mentioned further on, I have some reason to think that the Ayers family had some money or another source of income.

In January 1782, William Ayres married Mary Mihill by licence at Coln St Aldwyns.  Mary was underage, 19 years old, and her father Thomas was also named in the licence.  The money for the licence may have come from the Mihill family, who were Yeoman farmers, rather than from the Ayers family, although I haven’t found any record of Richard Ayers prior to his marriage to Mary Hughes, to indicate anything about the family background.  In any case, William’s family appear to have been well off enough to afford property and further marriage licences.  I know from land tax records that William owned the property in Coln St Aldwyns.

William and Mary had seven children: Thomas, Lydia, Mary (my ancestor), David, Lucy, Rose, Jane.  All of the children were born in Coln St Aldwyns.  I am curious about the children’s names as Lydia, David, Lucy and Rose were not common names at the time.

Before 1811, the family moved to Chedworth, Gloucestershire.  Chedworth’s claim to fame is the ruins of a Roman Villa, which I have visited.  I am not sure what took them there but several of the children, including my ancestor Mary, were married in the village.  The children married by licence rather than banns, suggesting that the family continued to have funds available to them.

I am not sure what happened to William’s wife Mary.  She may have been buried in Fairford in April 1792, although daughter Rose wasn’t baptised until May the following year.

William lived to a good age of 84 before he died and was buried in Chedworth.

Waller, Ian 2015 “My Ancestor was a Leather Worker” pub. Society of Genaologist.

*Spelling variations include Ayres, Eyers & Eyres.

Notes on lineage: Me > Dad > Helen Francis Ruth Akeroyd > Florence Ruth Kirby > Oscar John Kirby > Henry Kirby > Mary Ayers > William Ayers