Back when I was a teenager and first started researching my family history, Pop, my paternal grandfather, told me about the Blake “Diary”. This diary had been written by his grandfather, James Jesse Blake, and was passed down to the oldest Blake male in each generation. It was then (and still is) in the possession of a cousin. I was soon able to get a copy of the diary and my father transcribed it, so I have an electronic version.
The document is not actually a diary. It is an autobiography called “An Epitome of My Life”, written by James Jesse Blake, probably when he was bout 70. I subsequently discovered that he wrote copies for at least two of his children, James William Blake (my great grandfather) and Elizabeth Ann Flanagan nee Blake.
As a teenager, I didn’t fully appreciate how fortunate I was to have this document. It is truly amazing to have the detailed story of my ancestor’s life and life in general in the East End of London in the second half of the nineteenth century, when so many who lived there would have been illiterate. James Jesse Blake also recorded his personal philosophy and justification of decisions he made. I suspect it might be the later that led him to writing the story; there were things that he wanted to explain to his children. I will cover the details of James’ life in another blog post.
Apart from having my ancestor’s life story, I also have a document that contains some good lessons for all family historians.
There are factual errors in the story, events where James’ memory differs from official documents. He recorded the time of day his wife, Eliza Blake nee Todd, died but got the year wrong, recording it as 1890 instead of 1891 as per the death certificate. Another puzzle is that one of his children seems to have died twice in the story. Several close family members died within a few years of each other, so perhaps it is not surprising the details got a bit jumbled in his mind years later. It is good to keep in mind that family stories might not always be accurate.
At one point in the diary, there is an intriguing clue. In referring to his grandmother, James wrote Mrs Gilbert, crossed it out and then wrote Mrs Blake. How could he get his beloved grandmother’s name wrong? Well, the answer is, he didn't! At one point she was almost certainly Mrs Blake, although I am yet to find a marriage record. She later married John Gilbert, a ships caulker, and had been widowed twice by the time she became a grandmother. Searching for Elizabeth Gilbert instead of Elizabeth Blake filled in some gaps in my family history. Also, for some reason, James Jesse Blake is recorded in the 1871 census as James Jesse Gilbert. What at first appeared to be a mistake turned out to be valuable information.
James Jesse Blake had a life full of adventures that don’t show up in the official records. He had a habit of falling into rivers and canals, including an accidental dip in the Thames on a foggy January day. He was rescued by a Swedish sailor who later tried (and failed) to convince him to migrate to Queensland. On other occasion, he found himself caught in a Canadian snow storm. This makes me wonder what happened to my other ancestor that I may never be able to find out about. However, I hope that through writing this blog I can put a bit of flesh on the names and dates that form the bones of my family’s history.
Notes on lineage: me > Dad > John Edward Blake > James William Blake > James Jesse Blake
The photo is of James Jesse Blake.