“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” is the opening line of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and I think this holds true for family history. It is more often the sad and bad stories that left records and, I think, make the most interesting reading. Happy families who lived contentedly in one location for generations didn’t always leave much trace of their lives. This is not a story of a happy family.
I discovered my ancestor Mary Ann Simmonds* early on in my research but I have only very recently uncovered the full story of her family, which I have decided to cover in three blog entries. She is of particular interest to me as she was the last ancestor of her generation where I couldn’t find both parents.
Years before the days of digitised records, when the 1881 Census index was published on microfiche, I found a Mary Ann Elliston living with her husband and children in West Ham. It said she was 24, so born around 1856, and from Lynn, Norfolk. I rightly assumed that Lynn was King’s Lynn. Also in the house was her father William Simmonds, born in Lincoln; extended family members in census records are always an exciting find. However, it took me a while to discover the red herrings.
I was not able to find a likely birth for Mary Ann around 1856 in the registry office indexes. I did discover that Simmonds is a challenging name to research because of the many spelling variations – y instead of I, an optional d and varied number of m’s. Also, indexers sometimes transcribe capital S’s as L.
Mary Ann Simmonds married George Elliston 1 February 1874 in West Ham, Essex. The marriage certificate said she was of full age, which did not fit with the 1881 census index, and listed her father as William Simmonds, which did.
I resolved the issue of Mary Ann’s age after careful checking of the original 1881 census record and by getting a copy of her death certificate. Mary Ann died 7 Feb 1885 from small pox, aged only about 35, leaving 3 young children, Alice (my great grandmother), George and Walter. Small pox vaccination was made compulsory in the UK in 1853 for new born children, so Mary Ann had missed out on this by just a couple of years.
Confirming Mary Ann’s age didn’t help me with locating a birth record.
My next step was to search other censuses for Mary Ann and her family. I haven’t found her in the 1871 census. I assume she was working as a servant and that the age and place of birth place given were incorrect. I have come across a few possibilities. I did find William Simmonds*, a widower from Upwell, Norfolk, living with children Caroline, Lydia, Susanna and Thomas, all younger than Mary Ann.
I was easily able to locate birth certificates for Caroline and Lydia, thanks to their less common names. The certificates both give their mother’s name as Rebecca Harding. I have not yet found a marriage certificate for William Simmonds and Rebecca Harding (or any other variation of their names).
It took some imaginative searches, making good use of wildcards and filters, to find Rebecca and her daughters in the 1861 census. They are listed by their initials only, living in the Wisbech workhouse in Cambridgeshire and the surname indexed as Semmons, although I think it looks like Simmons in the original record. Mary Ann’s place of birth was given as King’s Lynn. Wisbech poor law union covered the Norfolk parishes of Upwell and Outwell, the other Simmonds children were born. A workhouse was where people went when they had no money and no other options. Life in work houses was regimented and tough by did provide food, shelter and sometimes work. I have not yet found William Simmonds in the 1861 census. It is possible that William had moved away to find work, leaving his family in the workhouse until he could support them. This seems likely given that son/brother Thomas was born around 1862 in Woolwich, Kent.
Some more inventive searching led me to a Rebecca Hardy living in King’s Lynn in 1851. I have not identified William Simmonds. I will cover the details of Rebecca’s story in part 2, however the key points from the 1851 census for this story are:
- It was taken on 30 March.
- The household lists Ann Taylor as head with John Briton, William Smith and Rebecca Hardy as lodgers, listed in that order.
- Ann and Rebecca are listed as Concubines. As far as I can work out, that may have just meant they were living with men they were not married to. They had neighbours who were listed as prostitutes…
I now knew that Mary Ann must have been born sometime between 30 March 1851 and mid-1852, as her sister Caroline was born in July 1853. Wondering if Mary Ann might have been illegitimate, I searched for a Hardy or Harding birth certificate. Mary Ann Hardy was born 7 December 1851 in the Union House, St Margaret’s King Lynn (a workhouse). As well as finding a birth certificate, I also found a record of the birth in the Norfolk poor law records on Ancestry.com. Single women often ended up at workhouse hospitals for their lying in (i.e. labour). Readers who are good at maths and biology might have worked out that Mary Ann was born roughly 9 months after the 1851 census was taken. This led me to the conclusion that William Smith is the most likely candidate to be her biological father. Given that Mary Ann was known by her step father’s surname and he lived with her family later in life rather than with any of his younger children, I wonder if Mary Ann had any idea of the circumstances surrounding her birth.
In spite of her difficult early years, my hope is that Mary Ann found happiness during her marriage.
*I have stuck with one spelling variation for names in this story so as to not confuse the reader, however in the original records I have come across other variants of several names. I have also referred to my ancestor as Mary Ann Simmonds, rather than Hardy, as that is the name she was mostly known by.
Notes on Lineage: Me > Dad > John Edward Blake > Alice Mary Elliston > Mary Ann Simmonds (AKA Hardy)