Monday
Aug082011

The Suffolk Trinity and The Norfolk Union

This week, my blog takes a turn into equine genealogy. 

First things first, I introduce you to the Suffolk Punch, in case you’ve not come across one before. This is Mum Ruby and nine week old son Trojan, currently summering at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse just north of Dereham in Norfolk: 

If you’ve not seen a Suffolk before, the first thing that will probably strike you is their size. Weighing in at around a tonne and up to 17.2 hh (this means around 70 inches from the ground to the withers - in other words getting on for six foot before you take the head and neck into account!). These are powerful, beautiful animals. It was their strength which made them perfect for agricultural work in the days before mechanisation. All Suffolks are chesnut (traditionally spelt deliberately without a ’t’). 

I’ve been a fan of the Suffolk Horse (also sometimes known as the Suffolk Sorrel) for a very long time. A few weeks ago, Mum sent me a scanned copy of a letter I wrote as a teenager which was printed in the East Anglian Daily Times. The letter was in support of their ‘Save the Suffolk Punch’ campaign which was launched in 2001 when the stud at Hollesley was under threat. I was 15 at the time and a typo lives on to haunt me to this day: 

Did you spot the mistake I was referring to? If you’re not ‘into’ Suffolk Punches, you probably didn’t, because you would need to know that every Suffolk Punch alive today can ultimately trace its ancestry back to one male, named Crisp’s Horse of Ufford, who was foaled in 1768 – now that’s some well recorded family tree! Although the breed has origins further back, Suffolk Punches have really been ‘devoted to us’ for less than 500 years. Norfolk and Suffolk’s relatively isolated position meant that breeds that were developed here were unique to those elsewhere in the country. 

Thankfully, ten years on from writing the letter above, you can still find Suffolks in stables up and down the Country. However, to the best of my knowledge, they are still rarer than the Giant Panda, as indeed they were in 2001. I’ve even been privileged enough to spend time with a few of the gentle giants, my favourite of whom was Major, who once met the children at Easton Farm Park on a regular basis.

Once a common sight on farms across East Anglia, numbers crashed in the 1960s. With the advent of mechanisation, there was simply much less of a need for horses in agriculture. With a concerted effort, numbers of the Punches are now slowly growing again. Just this weekend I visited Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse in Norfolk. Despite having lived close by for many years, I have only ever visited for work, either for meetings or manning stands. Taking advantage of the weekend’s special event – harvesting by the heavy horses – I have finally put this to rights. 

Gressenhall is interesting for many reasons. It is home to the only House of Industry open to the public in Norfolk, built in 1776 for the hundreds of Mitford and Launditch and becoming a Poor Law Union in 1836 (see photos below with a less-than-glamorous assistant real ominous skies). The site is enormous and included Union Farm which provided work and produced food for the residents. The register for Gressenhall St Mary, not to be confused with the work house chapel, is particularly useful for researchers because reputed fathers were regularly named on the baptism records for illegitimate children. St Mary itself is a slightly unusal church because of its central tower (as opposed to a tower on the end of the nave).  

However, this is not a post about the workhouse – although I would definitely recommend a visit to see it for yourself. If you are interested in finding out more, many people have already written about it, and of course Peter Higginbotham’s website, www.workhouses.org provides a wealth of information. 

Crossing from the Workhouse to the Farm, Sunday was really about the horses. A little Lightroom wizardry to remove bystanders and a combine and you might be able to fool the occasional person that this is an old photo! As will be no shock to everybody reading this, I actually took the photo below at about 3 o’clock in the afternoon last Sunday. Harvesting with heavy horses is actually a surprisingly fast activity....for as long as they can travel in a straight line.

A lot of people seem to have a bad habit of saying their ancestors were ‘only ag labs’. Did you think your ag labs were boring? Going to see something like this makes you realise how much skill they needed to possess and how hard they had to work to make a living. You can’t just put a horse in front of a plough and hope for the best (like you would a tractor!?). Years of care and training are necessary in order to bring in a successful harvest, and the bond between man and horse is a very close one.

Suffolk Punches make up a third of the Suffolk Trinity. The other legs on the tripod are the Red Poll cow (pictured below) and the Suffolk Sheep. Additionally, there is also the the Large Black pig (also pictured) which some might argue is a fourth ‘Suffolk’, or at least East Anglian, breed – a similar pig was bred at around the same time in Devon/Cornwall however.

So, there you have it. The Suffolk Trinity at Norfolk’s Union Farm. I’ve said it many times, but if you can visit places like this, see the buildings close up and meet the breeds your forebears tended day after day, you can really bring your family research to life. For more photographs, visit my facebook page

This is not supposed to be a blog about the ins and outs of the different breeds – I do not own any of the trinity! If you are interested you may like to visit some of the following websites: 

The Suffolk Horse Society

The Suffolk Punch Trust

Red Poll Cattle Society

Suffolk Sheep Society

Large Black Pig Breeders Club

Let’s hope scenes like this will be around for some time to come....

Monday
Aug012011

Smallburgh: A Story of the Trorys

Nestled between Wroxham and Hickling, just under 15 km north east of Norwich, Smallburgh misses much of the tourist traffic heading to honey pot locations. Perhaps for that reason, this is a lovely part of the world. Today the village is, as it’s name might lead you to believe, a small place in terms of population - just 518 in 2001. Don’t be misled though. The name is nothing to do with the size of the place but actually derives from the River Smale, now known as the River Ant, which borders the parish.

Despite being a somewhat diminutive parish in terms of numbers - if not acreage - Smallburgh once punched much above its weight in terms of local influence. In 1785, a House of Industry was constructed, one of the ‘Norfolk Hundred Incorporations’ formed by local acts of parliament. The House provided a place for the poor and infirm of all the parishes of the Tunstead and Happing hundreds except North Walsham. This meant that it catered for over 40 parishes in North Norfolk. Indeed, Smallburgh’s influence was great enough with this facility that even until the 1974 local government reorganisation, the local Rural District Council was that of Smallburgh.

Extended in 1836, the House of Industry did not become the Smallburgh Poor Law Union until 1869. Long before this time, in 1808, the burial ground lying to the south of the site was consecrated (see the NRO’s catalogue at www.archives.norfolk.gov.uk). Today, only a commemoration stone remains to show the location of the cemetery, shaded in this peaceful part of the Country by several large trees. The church’s parish register contains many burials which contain the words “from the work house”. So many, that the official regularly just notes ‘do’ under each successive entry.

The old House of Industry burial ground in Smallburgh. Look closely and you can see the commemoration stone by the fence to the left of the picture.

The House of Industry appears to have never been used to capacity. Having been built to house 800 souls, it seems to have regularly housed less than 100, and rarely any able-bodied inmates to use its own ‘one penny tokens’ on local produce. In later years, much of the building was boarded up and finally demolished in the 1950s. Only some minor buildings (now residential) survive today, along with the telltale street names of “Workhouse Road” and “Union Street”. For more about the workhouse, please visit Peter Higgenbotham’s website: www.workhouses.org.uk.

Excuse the effects, I couldn't resist a little fun with the photographs! To the left are buildings remaining, to the right the road sign.

So to St Peter's church, a newer structure on top of what was once possibly a much older building. The church lost its tower in 1677, probably before my ancestors arrived. Unlike Alderton in Suffolk there is no suggestion that the tower's collapse brought about the demise of a local cow during a Sunday service! The west end as we see it today was constructed only in 1902, replacing a small square tower as sketched in a drawing hosted by Picture Norfolk (search ‘Smallburgh’ at www.picture.norfolk.gov.uk). It is not a ‘typical’ looking church, as in one a child might draw with a high square tower and oblong nave. In my opinion this works in the building's favour – this is not a church that will blend in with others I have visited recently.

To my untrained eye, the bells hang in too narrow a surround, and the walls are too high for the ‘tower’ and the length of the building. However, I love the crossed-keys on the outside and the somewhat minimalist nature of the interior, complete with steps covered by a grate in the aisle and a spiral stair case to nowhere in the wall. It’s quite easy to imagine my forebears standing at the font or the alter.

 

Nearby Dilham also has a unique place in my memory because its ‘ruined’ tower is rather too perfect and could perhaps be a folly. Not being an expert on medieval churches, I direct you to Simon Knott’s fabulous www.norfolkchurches.co.uk for more enlightened observations than I could possibly give.

The well ordered gravestones, almost all in family groups, are something of a boon to genealogists on the trail of their ancestors. Nestled in the back corner lie several members of the Trory/Trorey family. My last direct line Trory was my 4x Great Grandmother Hannah Trory, baptised in the village in 1821. Before her, I have tracked her father James (baptised 1800 in Smallburgh) and grandfather John (possibly baptised a few miles away in Sutton in 1763?). Beyond John, my trail currently falters. 

Mr Pewegwin and I take a look at my ancestor's grave. Just occasionally I trust my significant other with my camera!

‘Trory’ is not a common name. Interestingly, it is one that appears to have origins very much localised to the Hickling/Smallburgh area of the Norfolk Broads. Personally, I have a theory that potentially an original John, who may have married a ‘Brigitt’ in 1750 (French sounding? Or a red herring?), was of Huguenot descent. Perhaps this is too tempting an explanation to explain the sudden arrival of the Trory family, but I am hoping that the parish records, as opposed to the parish registers, may hold some clues when I get a chance to sit down and go through them. It is said that many of the Huguenots who settled in Norfolk were employed draining the Broads to the north east of Norwich – could this apply to my own family?

Curiously, neighbouring stones from the 1800s for husband and wife - in not one but two cases - feature different spellings of the name; sometimes ‘Trory’ and sometimes ‘Trorey’. Just goes to show how surnames have only become standardised in relatively recent times. Those entries in the register that include occupation describe this family line as husbandmen by the 1800s (free tenant farmers below the social status of a yeoman). To my knowledge to date they avoided spending any time within the local House of Industry.

Local people reading this may make a connection between the Trory name and Trory Street in Norwich, not far from Chapelfield Gardens – if you know the connection I’d be interested to hear it! I think it is very likely that there is one, as even in 1841 the surname was likely restricted to Norfolk. It seems that everybody with Trory ancestry in Norfolk is ultimately related to one another. (No jokes about our wonderful County please!). It is true to say that the men bearing this name were quite prolific, often having more than ten children, which explains how perhaps one original gentleman bearing the name came to leave such a legacy in the County.

Smallburgh is a fabulous example of a North Norfolk settlement with a rich history. There is nothing better than visiting the places connected to your tree - you never know what you might find! If you have any Trory ancestry feel free to get in touch, I would be very interested to hear from you.

Tuesday
Jul192011

Working lives: choices, opportunities and that beyond our control

As I reflect on a tumultuous year in which Your Local History has gradually grown from a idea into a successful business; in which my old career was shattered by the spending review; in which I have spent many months in an 'un-chosen' job and finally achieved my longstanding dream of working full time in an archive; I have come to reflect on how lucky I have been to have had so many career opportunities - and how the working lives of my ancestors differed. 

Leaving aside the fact that, until relatively recently, as a female I would have had a very different education – if much at all – I have already had a far more changeable career than many of my ancestors, and much more choice over its direction. The old adage ‘a job for life’ has had little relevance to my personal experiences.

A country girl to the core, my first job was working for a local lady who wanted help to muck out her horses. It is perhaps the only job I have held which would be immediately recognisable to generations past. There are many in my tree who worked as stable hands, ostlers, horsemen or teamsters (driving a team of horses on a farm) who would have been as familiar with horse muck as I became! 

Later I worked in a veterinary surgery as a ‘Saturday girl’. My ancestors would have been acquainted with some form of veterinary medicine, even back as far as the years BC. However, the rapid advancement of the profession since the end of WWII means that injuries and diseases which would once have been fatal, even endemic, were treatable and preventable by the time of my employment. The face of veterinary medicine had changed a great deal within a century. For the history of veterinary science, try http://vetblog.co.uk/vetblog/the-history-of-veterinary-medicine, a blog I discovered while researching for this piece. 

My last foray into what might be called a ‘rural’ career was my time at a Farm Park where I manned reception and the gift shop and on occasion was able to spend time with the beautiful Suffolk Punches (the horse, not Ipswich Town Football Club). ‘Tourism’ and ‘leisure’ would have been foreign concepts to a good proportion of earlier inhabitants of the Country. Back then, the horses were a common sight pulling ploughs across the East Anglian countryside for their keep; involved in food production, not entertainment and education.

By the time I moved into more new-fangled jobs things become far removed from my forebears. What on Earth would they have made of selling CDs and DVDs for a Top Dog? The idea of chain stores and branding didn’t really boom, regardless of product, until the expansion of the railways. And what about promoting sustainable travel through major developments and behaviour change in schools and businesses? What other choice did people originally have than their two feet, a boat or perhaps later, a train? This one is a prime example of how ‘progress’ can backfire! As for business continuity, wouldn’t that have been called ‘using your common sense, and trying not to injure yourself – or worse’!? 

The generations before me show a gradual shift, as with most families, from the traditional ‘job for life’ to the likes of me - moving from one job and organisation to another as opportunities arise, choices make themselves available (perhaps as qualifications and experience grow) and decisions beyond an individual’s control force their hand. 

Not that these influences are purely a new phenomenon. While ancestors did regularly pass a trade from father to son for generations – be it shoe making, weaving, farming (you’d never guess much of ancestry was East Anglian!) – there are plenty of examples of ancestors who changed their occupations. 

The following characters from my family tree illustrate a few of these changes: 

  • Sisters Alice, Florence, Jane and Kate all moved with their families to Saltley in Birmingham from Suffolk. Many of their family members worked in local munitions factories from around 1900 where a generation earlier their families had been farmers and agricultural labourers. Did they choose to migrate, or was there really little choice as demand for agricultural workers reduced? 
  • A father believing in education was able to pave the way for three of his sons to become doctors where previously the family had lived from their lands. These sons went on to ‘sponsor’ the children of their cousins who were similarly able to take up the opportunities of further education and even an associated Grand Tour while their own father’s fortune declined. 
  • A clergyman found a way to get his son a position as an Officer in the Bengal Army, perhaps as a way of elevating the family’s influence and the son’s standing in society. Sadly the individual in question died at just 19. 
  • A distant uncle became a ginger-beer maker as the weaving industry in Wymondham on which he had previously relied collapsed. Ten years later he had made the move to London to work in a factory as part of the tide of movement during the industrial revolution. 
  • The son of a labourer entered the police force and worked his way up to Sergeant, retiring to a farm of his own while his father had been at the beck and call of another man. 

The difference between myself and these people has much to do with the balance of choice and necessity. I have been lucky enough to make several informed choices about the direction of my career. My journey to this point perhaps began in Primary School when my teacher put ‘excellent work – a future village recorder?’ on a research project about the history of Peasenhall. However, the path my ancestors followed was often ‘decided’ before birth, or at least decisions might be taken by their parents before they were adults.

The level of choice we have, in education and in career, might be very different to that of our predecessors, but what we do have in common is that we are not immune to external influences. A decision made in the corridors of power, a change in the economy or a social upheaval can still have an impact on individuals, just as it did a century or a millennium ago. I have not been immune to this – the spending review forced my hand on one occasion, but unlike Ezekiel Coman, the weaver mentioned above, I was able to find another post relatively easily as skills for one customer-focussed job were transferable to another. In Ezekiel’s day, the tertiary sector was hardly a big employer.

A family history means more if it is placed in the context of the time in which it was played out. I am where I am - in my work and more generally - because the decisions I have made, the forces exerted on me and the choices available to me have brought me here. It was no different for my ancestors, and understanding these influences on their lives also helps me to understand them.

Wednesday
Jul062011

Stitches in time: tracking elusive cousins (part two)

Good evening! Welcome back to my blog about elusive cousins - investigating common themes which complicate the search for relatives. This time I’ll be looking at some examples of relocation and deaths of key family members as well as re-introducing you to a ‘rogue’ in my family tree. 

It’s a common belief that people didn’t move around in the old days. While that’s true for many, I’m constantly surprised by how many people did manage to travel around the globe, even before the peak of the British Empire. My Outerbridges seem to have arrived in Bermuda, possibly from Yorkshire, in 1617 - one of the first English families to settle there. My forebears only returned to the British Isles for good (at least on my direct line) between 1838 and 1841 when they landed once again in Swansea but remained closely tied to the sea through merchant shipping. 

Distance can inevitably complicate family links, particularly if miles were put between people before the advent of modern technologies. When I think how quickly I have lost touch with some university friends, it is easy to understand how the difficulties of communicating across counties, or even continents, could have widened the gap between cousins and other relatives. While to a certain extent the likes of twitter and facebook are bringing distant family members back together, the generations in between ourselves and the original travellers could have been left adrift from each other. 

A couple of examples from my own research now. The infamous (to me) William Coman, who will be featured later, had two sisters who left Wymondham in 1853 to travel to Salt Lake City. One of the sisters is documented in “Covered Wagon Women: 1853-1854”, recently digitised by Google (http://tinyurl.com/5rp8pbc) as emigrating with her husband and two daughters and giving birth to a son “somewhere along the banks of the Platte” (the river famous for it’s location on the Mormon trail). "Covered Wagon Women Volume 6: Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails" takes up the story and contains the following passage about Harriet Coman Dye:

“Monday 18th felt tolerably - Sister Dye confined last night with a son – these Mormon women - I think I should have been left in my grave in a similar case – but truly God fits the back to the burden – This we realize daily and I think in nothing more than in such cases – She went on with the Train and reported “all right” at night “Going on well” “Beautiful boy” &c &c” (sic)" 

Could the sisters have kept in regular touch with the family members they left in Norfolk? I think probably not, especially as many of those left in East Anglia could not read and write at the time. I can find no evidence of any visits across the ocean by relatives either. Would all of them have even supported such a move to the other side of the world? Perhaps the rest of the family had declined the offer of a new life in Utah. 

Several decades later, in 1913, 49 year old Caroline Raynham (nee Bloomfield) moved from Suffolk with her husband and children to Canada to farm. The family were much better off than the Comans before them and it seems they did keep in touch with brothers and sisters back at home to a certain extent. Caroline was a farmer’s daughter and her husband Arthur originally a grocer and later a farm bailiff. 

The couple’s ship manifest shows that they were stamped as “British Bonus Allowed”. Effectively, this was a marketing tool from the Canadian authorities -the government’s immigration branch paid commission to steamship booking agents to find suitable immigrants, often farmers like the Raynhams, to settle lands in Canada. Upon proof of settlement, the immigrants themselves received a separate monetary bonus. The British Bonus came into effect on 27 September 1890 and lasted over twenty years. 

Finally, a case of a family with European connections that moved around a lot but nevertheless left behind traces of their many travels, causing little difficulty for their descendants’ research. My beautifully named 4x Great Grandmother, Francisca Amelia Augusta du Bois, was born in Belgium to a British mother and Belgian father. Despite missing out on the odd census, some of her letters have made their way to The Bright Collection at the Shropshire Archives (http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/a2a/records.aspx?cat=166-807&cid=-1#-1), discussing amongst other things, the competence of Parisian doctors with leeches, Boudoir curtains (at length!) and the bitter cold in Brussels. 

Not only do letters exist, but additionally, a note on the burial register says that Augusta died in Madeira and was brought back to Lydbury North for burial (she lived with her husband, the Reverend, at Totterton Hall nearby). So, in this case, the most affluent of the three examples, relocation has had much less impact on the family, chiefly because of the ability to correspond eloquently by letter and the increased mobility brought by money and elevated class. 

Another barrier to your search for cousins is the death of a ‘key ancestor’. Perhaps this person took a secret with them. Perhaps they never meant to keep a secret but circumstances meant that they never shared information about part of the family because they were never asked. There is also the possibility that somebody died young and their family moved away or started a new life, intentionally or not. A new husband for example could mean moving in new circles and losing touch with old acquaintences. 

For example, until last week I was not aware that a relative of mine survived WWII (just) but died shortly after when he was hit by a car in a Suffolk village. It is easy to jump to conclusions when men died during key military events but until you have that all important proof, try to keep your options open. This incident was covered in the press and I now have a whole new trail to persue. A close ancestor of mine would have known this and been able to tell me all about it, but sadly he is no longer with us. 

If you have a missing ‘key ancestor’ like this, don’t despair. There are still ways of finding out more, it might just be a little more difficult. After all, even where people do give you leads, rumours need to be corroborated. People have a tendency to remember things differently as time goes on, and things like dates in particular are not often remembered correctly – more likely, the person will be able to tell you roughly when something happened in relation to something else e.g. ‘so and so was still alive at Auntie Hilda’s wedding but wasn’t at the baptism of Cousin Reginald’. 

Parish registers can be an absolute goldmine in helping fill in the blanks caused by a missing ancestor. This is the case not only when simply trying to ‘kill ancestors off’ but when looking to find additional details e.g. information about the circumstances of their death and details of the family they left behind. Gravestones and other monuments can also flesh out details. I’ve found stones giving clues to adopted children, unknown relationships and even occupations (perhaps I am at an advantage here as I have stone masons in the family – this occupation is often pointed out by the mason working on the memorial!). 

If you are lucky enough to have ancestors from Wells-next-the-Sea for example, the helpful clergy wrote down cause of death next to many of the entries. Not only can this reveal information about an individual ‘shot in the leg with a gun’ (perhaps try the local press if this gentleman belongs to you) but can also give you some context – perhaps a child died along with several others during an epidemic of a childhood disease. Other entries at Wells include the exact location of graves (in one case a former reverend is buried ‘in the brick vault’) and further entries include details of parents and/or children. Scans of the burial registers are available here: http://tinyurl.com/3ses4co 

And finally, I turn to the ‘black sheep’ who seems to disappear off the face of the Earth, effectively sealing off access to his relatives living or dead. Way back when I started writing a blog I appealed for information about my 4x Great Grandfather William Coman. His wife Lucy called herself married in two successive census records but William was nowhere to be seen. I couldn’t kill him off, nor find him on any census records elsewhere. Quarter Session records mentioned a William Coman but alone could not be definitively proved as relating to the right William Coman. 

A few months later I had some amazing emails from a distant cousin in Australia with an incredible story. She thinks that William Coman was indeed a convict. He could have been sentenced to imprisonment at Norwich Castle for desertion of Lucy and his children, and also for drunken disorderly behaviour on more than one ocassion. She thinks that after a couple of stints incarcerated in the Castle, William chose to join the army to avoid further imprisonment and ended up in India. Why does she think this? Because a William Coman turns up in a Courts Martial for drunkenly trying to punch a bombardier which seems to match his previous character. Whilst this story seems to make sense, so far the information is consequential and I need further records to find out whether it’s correct. I’m currently planning a trip to London in order to consult Courts Martial records at the British Library and need to find reports of the Norwich Quarter Sessions to see what else I can find out. 

William Coman’s example includes a family separation, a relocation (whether William ended up in India or only moved a few miles and changed his name), and even the death of relatives that might have known the answers – his estranged wife died when my Great Grandmother was very young. While these themes can complicate family research, they nevertheless make the trail more interesting. If all our ancestors were good citizens, lived in the same parish for hundreds of years, got on with everybody in their family and passed up opportunities to travel, would our adventures in family history be so interesting? I think not. 

It’s our job to logically seek out records and piece together rumours, keepsakes and the contributions of distant relatives in order to fill in the missing stitches - making up for the one lost in time which cast branches of the family adrift in the first place. 

Tuesday
Jul052011

Stitches in time: tracking elusive cousins (part one)

During the last week I’ve been looking into a sometimes neglected branch of my family tree – the living elements! This has meant following my own advice and asking relatives what they know about their cousins, nieces and nephews. 

Specifically, I’ve been trying to collect information about my second cousins, most of whom I have met, if only briefly at baptisms, marriages and funerals. Coming from a fairly average 2.4 children family myself, it has been a few generations since more than three children was the norm. I’ve always known how many ‘ordinary’ cousins I have: two. Both of them are relatively local and of a similar age to myself – no problem there, then. 

My second cousins (the children of my parents’ cousins) are much more difficult to quantify because they span a much greater time and space continuum. They range in age from infants to at least middle-aged folk, and occupy at least three continents. Some have emigrated themselves, others were born in other countries as second or third generations of the family in that area. 

During my efforts to expand my recent tree sideways, I have come across recurring themes which will be familiar to many. Over the next two entries I take a look at some of the reasons why both current, and previous, generations might be difficult to trace and provide some teasers from my own family tree along with some hints as to where to overcome these challenges. There are overlaps between the themes as you will see. Tonight’s installment will be followed by another tomorrow. 

And so I begin by looking at family feuds… 

If your family doesn’t have any rifts, unfortunately, you are probably in the minority. Today, as in times past, there are a million reasons why family members can become estranged from one another. Perhaps you will find a reason for this – a significant family event, a business disagreement, arguments over inheritance, an ‘unsuitable’ marriage or an illegitimate birth. However, it is possible that the rift formed over something trivial that escalated until no one could remember the original disagreement. Both sides may have been too pigheaded to approach the other and renew family ties! In this case, you may never find out the true reason for the division. You may have family stories, letters, wills or newspaper articles which can help you piece together why a rift exists. Alternatively, you might just have imagined two brothers falling out over one too many quarts of beer! 

As a family, you might say we are known for our stubbornness. Looking at a family tree for one particular branch I would guess that this is not just a recent trait as there are reasons to suspect splits in the family over several generations! For example, I have as yet been unable to tell why the eldest son of a country gent ended up driving a cab in London while his two younger brothers went on to have lands of their own which passed on down the generations to their own sons. I have several ideas, any of which could be close to the mark or wildly incorrect at this point: 

  • I know this man was given land in his 20s – did he have one chance and blow it? Perhaps his father wouldn’t or couldn’t finance him a second time? (His father is remembered as ‘convivial’ and ‘generous’ – does this mean he used all the money up?!)
  • This gentleman moved to the city after his second marriage. Was there a local scandal? Did his family not approve? Was it too painful to stay where he had memories of his first wife?
  • Was he simply an adventurer, looking for excitement in the big smoke that couldn’t be found in East Bilney? (a small village near Dereham in central Norfolk)
  • Could he have been a gambler who fell on hard times, shunned by his father and brothers?
  • Perhaps having followed the promise of wealth in the city he could not face returning to his family when it did not come to fruition?
  • Was he really no worse off than his brothers, who, for all their lands, were actually in debt themselves but managed to avoid going to work for somebody else? 

Wills can be very telling in these situations, and I hope to one day update you on this case having sourced the necessary documentation – as a distant uncle I have not yet got all the wills I would like to see in this regard. There may also be family letters in the possession of relatives, or descendants of this gentleman who I may one day hear from. The internet, while providing an enormous amount of unreliable material, also has its uses!

A will for another ancestor however proved (no pun intended) useful because I learned that this man had not left anything to his son at all. Rather, he left his estate to his third wife and her children (a question mark remains as to whether these children were actually his biological offspring). This information, together with family tales and divorce papers, helped explain why there was so little knowledge of that side of the family, and why some people were simply not spoken of – in effect, the silence had erased them from history for a few decades. 

Today, while I can piece together a picture of the will writer’s character from what I have discovered on paper, perhaps he has been cast in a negative light due to the documentation I’ve managed to access. It is easy to jump to conclusions as the following tale will illustrate:

 

  • This individual had three wives and his first died from alcoholism. 
  • He then had a baby with his housekeeper, whom he later married. 
  • This wife divorced him in 1919 because he had allegedly started living with another woman in 1913 – the couple had originally separated because he was ‘cruel’. In his defence, he said that he had not intended to throw a plate at his second wife, it was just that his eyesight was bad. 
  • He eventually married the woman he was cohabiting with at the time of his divorce, leaving her and her children his estate.

Should this evidence, taken with his frequent name-changing, convince me that he was bad through and through, or am I adding two and two and making too many?  

A word of warning: emotionally, investigating old family feuds may prove easier than looking at current ones. Only you can decide whether it's worth investigating why current parts of the family don't communicate and there are lots of things that you may decide would be better left well alone - it may not be sensible to stir up old tensions and the risk of upsetting people may easily be greater than choosing to investigate interests elsewhere. 

Feuds and ensuing family rifts are but one of the complicating factors in tracing both living and deceased relatives – tomorrow I will continue this blog with a look at relocation, death of key family members and ‘black sheep’ in the family.

As ever, I am keen to hear your stories, particularly if there is a local or family connection. My research so far suggests I have at least 15 times more second cousins than I do firsts, and beyond that, the numbers really begin to add up – I am bound to have some distant cousins reading this at some point, and indeed some have already made contact having found previous blog entries. 

Until tomorrow…!