Genealogical Ponderings

the Professional Family History Blog

Professional Family History Blog
  1. Uncovering Illegitimacy: Who was Royce Brownjohn?

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    Clara Annie Jane Young was my first cousin three times removed (or my great grandfather’s first cousin). She was added to my family tree some time ago but I have only recently begun to research her family.

    Relationship between myself and Clara Annie Jane Young

    Clara married Joseph Henry Brownjohn in 1903 in Sparkhill, near Birmingham. By the time of the 1911 census the couple had moved to Leeds. An extract is shown below (click on the image to make it larger):

    1911 census for Clara Annie Jane Brownjohn formerly Young (RG14PN27070 RG78PN1549 RD500 SD4 ED17 SN264)

    There are four children listed and yet the details of the children born to Clara tells us she only had three children. At first glance it looks as though there has been a mistake on the census return.

    Thanks to the new BMD indexes available directly from the GRO we can now search birth indexes with a cross reference on mother’s maiden name before 1911. A search for Brownjohn births registered 1901-1911 with mother’s maiden name Young finds only:

    So who was Royce Brownjohn?

    Another search of the index finds:

    The “-” in the new birth index indicates illegitimacy. On websites such as Ancestry you will find the mother’s maiden name is the same as the child’s name instead, but here the child was a Brownjohn and listed as illegitimate, so who’s son was he?

    A copy of the PDF birth certificate from the GRO provides the answer (again, click on the image for a larger version):

    Birth certificate or Royce Brownjohn

    Royce Brownjohn was the illegitimate son of Clara’s husband, Joseph Henry Brownjohn and another lady, Dorothy Fern Harden. He was a typewriter salesman, she was a typist…

    The rather unusual element of this certificate is that the father is named. From 1875 the father’s name could only be included on the birth registration if both mother and father signed as informants and more often you will find certificates with the mother named only. The fact that Joseph went to the birth registration indicates that he acknowledged the child as his own. It also explains why Royce was indexed in the GRO birth index as a Brownjohn even though he was illegitimate.

    So let’s look back at the 1911 census. The relationship given is specifically to the head of the household rather than the couple, so it is correct: Christina, Cyril, Norman and Royce were all children of Joseph Henry Brownjohn. The line regarding marriage and children applies to the wife, so this is also correct: Clara married in 1903 and had three children: Christina, Cyril and Norman.

    What is most fascinating though is this: take a look again at the name of the boarder living with the Brownjohn family, none other than Dorothy Fern Harden!

  2. How do you research your family tree?

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    How do you research your family tree?

    It’s not a trick question, I would like to know. There are so many adverts these days for the big commercial websites: “just type your name in and see what you will discover” and I am concerned we may be losing knowledge of how to conduct proper genealogical research.

    It’s not a question of clicking links on Ancestry (other commercial websites are available) and adding people to your tree, or, even worse, basing research on shaking green leaves or hints. Yes, you can easily create a family tree this way but, and I say this with tongue in cheek, you could end up barking up completely the wrong tree!

    There is far more to genealogical research: knowledge and methodology.

    To conduct genealogical research effectively you need an understanding of sources. What sources should you investigate for a particular research need? When were they created and why? What is the likelihood that your ancestor will be included? There are many courses available to increase your knowledge of different sources, such as those from the Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies (IHGS), Pharos and the Universities of Strathclyde and Dundee. There are also lots and lots of books available, e.g. the “My Ancestor was…” series from the Society of Genealogists and the “Tracing Your … Ancestors” series from Pen and Sword and many articles in the family history magazines.

    Even with an understanding of sources there is still a need for caution with the data available on Ancestry, Find My Past and the like. What sources are actually included in a database? Is the database complete or will more records be added later? What are the most effective search techniques and how do you untangle the results you find?

    I saw this posted on a social media group recently:

    “Which side do you work from and why? Family Tree Maker or Ancestry?”

    Aggh! That had me positively jumping up and down on my soap box! Are we really led to believe that “everything is on Ancestry”? Is that what people think? Good quality research considers what sources are required THEN where they are, not the other way around.

    This brings me onto methodology. In the UK we really do not give methodology much air time. Our US cousins are far better at formalising genealogy methodology. In my opinion we really need to think about this more.

    Two things happened whilst I was at “WDYTYA Live” in Birmingham recently that left me with completely opposing opinions of “the way things are”. Firstly I went to a talk from American, Robert Charles Anderson, on the methodology he describes in his book Elements of Genealogical Analysis. It describes a systematic methodical approach to analysing your research and coming to sound conclusions. Some of you may be familiar with the Genealogical Proof Standard, more commonly used in the US but, again, a sound methodology to establishing “proof”. That deserves a series of blog post on its own so I won’t go into it further here. I thought Mr Anderson’s approach was excellent but around half the audience got up during the talk and walked out. Was it just the American records bias of the talk or are people really no longer interested in doing things properly?

    At the complete opposite end of the scale, a new book had just been published by Pen and Sword from a colleague of mine, John Wintrip, Tracing Your Pre-Victorian Ancestors. The title is deceptive and really does not show it off to the best of the publisher’s abilities. Yes, there is much discussion on the specifics of research in the pre-Victorian period but it is the subtitle that is important: “A Guide to Research Methods for Family Historians“. I understand that it was sold out by the end of day 2, and I certainly did not see any copies for sale on the last day, so maybe we are still taking this seriously after all.

    We need more of this in the UK: Sound advice on how to conduct proper, good quality genealogical research.

    John starts by considering the skills and knowledge needed for genealogical research and breaks this down into four areas:

    • knowledge of sources
    • searching skills
    • analytical and problem solving skills
    • external knowledge

    There are chapters on sources, distinguishing between original and derivative sources and records, and search techniques, including how to get the best from online databases.

    Special consideration is given to names, social status, religion, occupations and migration and how these may affect your research journey but there is much focus on methodology: using archives, evidence and proof and techniques such as family reconstitution.

    John’s book describes research techniques as used by the professionals and those who take their family history seriously. It introduces the concept of considering the records you are using in the context of what was happening from a historical perspective at the time. Filled with useful case studies from his own research John teaches you to consider the wider picture. Is it possible that a birth you may be looking for is not where you thought because the father was in the militia at the time and stationed elsewhere?

    We do not have a lot of information about genealogy research methodology in the UK. The only other recent publication that comes to mind is the also excellent Genealogy: Essential Research Methods from Helen Osborn. Taking a slightly different approach to John Wintrip’s book I heartily recommend both volumes to anyone serious about their research.


    Please, and I know I have used this word repeatedly, can we do this properly?


  3. Reading up on the ancestors

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    Over the last week I have been teaching students about the various routes to Continuing Professional Development in professional genealogy and it made me think about the increasing pile of books I’ve been accumulating, but still haven’t found time to read. Is it just me? I’m a self confessed book buying addict, if I don’t have a copy I need one. Perhaps it’s a genealogist thing.


    A selection of my reading material


    I decided to take some time out and have some dedicated reading time. As this was a luxury in itself I went a step further and picked a couple of titles relevant to my own research! I was born in Sutton Coldfield near Birmingham, so many of my recent ancestors came from the Birmingham area. Ah, I have a book about that.



    My maternal grandfather, George Hollings Jenkins, was born in Hunslet, Leeds in 1908. George is shown pictured centre in the photograph below, with his younger brothers Alfred (left) and Tom (right). Tom Jenkins was a violinist, famed for his position as leader of the BBC Palm Court Orchestra in the radio programme “Grand Hotel”. By the mid 1930s George had moved down to Birmingham.


    Albert, George and Tom Jenkins c.1917


    It therefore made sense to focus on Tracing Your Birmingham Ancestors and Tracing Your Leeds Ancestors together and I thought I would share my views of these two titles with you*.

    The Tracing Your… series is a popular series from publishers Pen and Sword. The difficulty with reading two books from the same publisher about tracing ancestors in cities is that you do notice more the similarities, a formula starts to shine through. However, there were some definite differences in style and content.


    Tracing Your Birmingham Ancestors (Michael Sharpe)



    This is a very well written and thoroughly enjoyable account of the unique nature of Birmingham and the surrounding areas, including Solihull and Sutton Coldfield (where I was born). Mike Sharpe describes the growth of Birmingham from its days as a rather insignificant parish compared to its neighbouring, more wealthy, Aston to the modern conurbation we see today. The complexity of changes in boundaries and jurisdictions is explained: “Where is Birmingham?”, “It depends” and put into context with the search for genealogical records. The history of Birmingham is followed by a description of the major genealogical sources and where to find them. Rather than attempt to teach the basics of family history, not appropriate in a volume of this type, the descriptions are focused on the records available for Birmingham. Areas of focus include religion, trades, education, health, transport, crime and housing. I found the section on industry particularly interesting as a number of my ancestors were in the trades: brass workers, wire drawers, gunmakers and even a brass bedstead maker.

    The major repositories in the Midlands area are described, references provided for the major classes of records and details given of many indexes and paper catalogues not available through the online catalogues. However, Mike doesn’t just focus on archives in Birmingham but also tells you where else to get access to Birmingham records. There are many references to specialist websites and museums and the BMSGH (Birmingham and Midland Society for Genealogy and Heraldry) and the Midlands Historical Data website feature repeatedly.

    Thoroughly recommended for anyone with ancestors from Birmingham and the Midlands.


    Tracing Your Leeds Ancestors (Rachel Bellerby)



    A very specific title but useful to those, like myself, with ancestors from Leeds. Whilst the scope of the book is quite small an attempt is made to cover a vast array of material. There are excellent chapters on the history and development of the city and the rest of the book is broken down into themes, e.g. trades, education, poverty. Records and repositories relevant to Leeds are described in detail and information included about where to find different record types (not as straightforward as you might believe).

    However, I wonder whether an attempt has not been made to cover too much in one volume. Whilst the majority of the book is written with Leeds specific research in mind there are some areas, e.g. Basic Resources, when an attempt is made to generalise and this is not always successful. The description of general family history resources is too brief and a referral to a general family history text would have been better placed. House history, a significant subject in it own right, gets only a page and a half of coverage.

    Overall though, well worth a read if you have ancestors from Leeds.

    * Disclaimer: I was provided with a free copy of Tracing Your Leeds Ancestors in exchange for a review, though this was such a long time ago they may not even remember!

  4. Research at the Norfolk / Cambridgeshire border


    One of the parts of my job that I love the most is having the privilege to look at original historical documents. With more and more material becoming available online it can be a real treat to have the opportunity to examine documents in person.

    I have recently been working on a very interesting case, for a client I’ve been working with for a number of years. During my last piece of work I spent almost as much time searching for what records survived and where they were held as I did examining documents. The family came from the Wisbech area in Cambridgeshire which, as you can see from the map below, is close to the borders with Lincolnshire and Norfolk.

    Location of Wisbech St Mary

    My most recent work involved looking for two things: surviving poor law and associated records for Wisbech St Mary and parish registers, Bishop’s Transcripts and poor law records for the nearby parishes of West Walton, Walsoken and Emneth in Norfolk. You would think this would fairly straightforward, surely a combination of visits to Cambridgeshire Archives and Norfolk Record Office?

    In fact it was far more complex than that. The parishes of interest all fall within the Deanery of Wisbech Lynn Marshland and the majority of records for these parishes are held at neither county archive but at the Wisbech and Fenland Museum.

    Of course, only the majority of records are there. There are some poor law records for Wisbech St Mary at Cambridgeshire Archives and some at the Wisbech and Fenland Museum.

    The parish registers for West Walton, Walsoken and Emneth are held at the Wisbech and Fenland Museum but Norfolk Record Office has microfiche copies.

    The parishes West Walton, Walsoken and Emneth may all be in Norfolk but, whilst West Walton and Walsoken were under the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Norwich, Emneth was in the Diocese of Ely. Bishops Transcripts (BTs) for the Diocese of Norwich are are now easily accessed via the Family Search or Ancestry websites. To further complicate matters this part of the country also has Archdeacon’s Transcripts or Register Bills (RBs). These are also available on Family Search and Ancestry.

    Cambridgeshire Archives is not the Diocesan Archive. The records of the Diocese of Ely are held within the Manuscripts Department at Cambridge University Library.

    I now had a number of options. After extensive searching, emailing and telephone calls I established that the Wisbech St Mary poor law records for my period of interest were at Cambridgeshire Archives:

    Cambridgeshire Archives hold some of the poor law records for Wisbech St Mary

    I examined my West Walton and Walsoken BTs and RBs online but travelled to Cambridgeshire University library to look at the BTs for Emneth, a rare opportunity to examine these original documents in person.

    Cambridgeshire University Library holds the Diocese of Ely archives

    Bishops Transcripts

    I then visited the Wisbech and Fenland Museum to examine parish registers and poor law records for my Norfolk parishes.

    Wisbech and Fenland Museum

    Parish registers

    This particular piece of work may only have been looking at the more common sources for family history research but the location of the documents added its own level of complexity. This was a first visit to the Wisbech and Fenland Museum for me and a fantastic opportunity to look at a variety of documents. It is only a very small archive compared to others but the staff are exceedingly helpful and I really enjoyed visiting somewhere new.

  5. New GRO BMD indexes and cheaper PDF certificate option


    On 3rd November 2016 the General Register Office (GRO) quietly launched its own version of birth, marriage and death indexes via its usual Certificate Ordering Service.

    What’s New?

    The new front page includes a link to both order and search for certificates, as shown below:


    At this time only the births for 1837-1915 and deaths for 1837-1957 can be searched.

    Why is this so exciting for family historians?

    Well, firstly the indexes have been created afresh from the register images themselves. This means that where you have been unable to find an entry before due to errors in the GRO indexes available on the major websites, there is a chance that the new index may include your entry. On the downside, it is likely that different errors have been introduced.

    More importantly though:

    The new birth indexes include mother’s maiden name for births BEFORE 1911.

    The new death indexes include age at death for deaths BEFORE 1865.

    This can make it really easy to find or confirm which birth or death entry is correct before having to order multiple certificates.

    What can the new indexes reveal?

    Here’s an example of how the new indexes can help. My great great grandparents, Joseph Hopkins and Isabella Wells, were recorded on the 1911 census as having had ten children, only five of whom had survived until 1911. I had identified nine children using a variety of sources, and a family grave lead me to believe the tenth child was an Edmund Hopkins. Searches for birth and deaths had so far been unsuccessful.

    I used the new birth indexes to identify any Hopkins children born in the Aston or Birmingham registration districts in a twenty year period from Joseph and Isabella Wells’ marriage in 1869, with mother’s maiden name Wells. One birth appeared that I had not found before:


    A search of the new death indexes to find an Edward James Hopkins who died between 1888 and the 1891 census found only:


    It therefore seems that there is an error on my family grave. The missing child was Edward not Edmund. Excited to have potentially solved this puzzle I ordered both the birth and death for confirmation (see below).

    Using the new search

    The new search, whilst offering the potential to solve problems, is not exactly user friendly. A search range of only +/- 2 years is possible and males and females have to be searched for separately. A screen shot of the birth search screen can be seen below:


    It is not possible to use wildcards in the search though there are options for “sounds similar” and “phonetically similar” searches. Where the mother’s maiden name is the same as the surname under which the child has been registered the mother’s maiden name seems to have been left blank or marked as – in these indexes. Hopefully this will be improved as things progress.

    Ordering certificates 

    Certificates can still be ordered as before though there is an option to click on “order certificate” fro the search results, saving you having to type in the GRO index reference.

    However, for a limited time only non-certified copies of some births, marriages and deaths can be order in PDF form at a reduced cost of £6. This type of ordering is limited to:

    Births: 1837 – 1934 and 2007 on
    Deaths: 1837 – 1957 and 2007 on
    Marriages: 2011 on
    Civil Partnerships: 2005 on

    The service started on 9th November 2016 but is limited to the first 45,000 orders so be quick if you want to take advantage of this service.

    PDF copies

    I ordered my first batch of births and deaths on 9th November and they all arrived by email today (13th November). The image below shows the birth for Edward James Hopkins:


    The details confirm to me that this is the child of interest. The copy of the death register indicates that Edward died at only 36 hours old.

    I ordered around twenty birth and death register entry copies using this method on 9th November. All arrived today and only one is a little difficult to read (reflecting the usual variety of image quality of the certified copies).

  6. Family Anecdotes of an Explosive Nature

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    The fundamental starting point when beginning to research your family history is to start with what you know. You hear it time and time again – dig out old documents and talk to family members. The trouble with talking to family members is, of course, where do you start? If you sit down Great Aunt Edith and say “tell me about the family” it’s going to be a short conversation. You need to be careful with how you word your questions to ensure you get the most information. Any family anecdotes add colour to your story and may include snippets of information that will later help progress your research. A student of mine told me other day that she’d been tracing one line for a while and stumbled upon the record of a potential family grave which had a huge impact on the direction research should take. When she questioned the family she was told they knew all about it but “didn’t think it was important”.

    I’ve been questioning my poor Dad relentlessly since I became interested in family history and I thought I’d extracted all the humorous tales over the years. Until the other weekend when the sentence started “the day the policeman brought me home”! I’m sorry, what?

    Pictured below is my Dad aged two. A sweet looking child I’m sure you’ll agree.

    Youngs of Birmingham


    So my, until now crime-free, Dad was messing about with some friends near an old hollow tree when the local Bobby walked by. Suspicion aroused by their cagey behaviour he approached them to ask them what they were up to and stuck his head into the tree for a closer look just as the bangers they’d thrown in exploded! Dad was understandably walked home so the policeman could have a word with his parents. This was the 1950s and the front door wasn’t often used. Dad automatically took the policeman around the back of the house where he was given a friendly greeting by the family Alsatian. The policeman, or in the dog’s eyes, the intruder didn’t fare so well and my Dad left him pinned against the garden wall whilst he went to fetch my Grandma.

    Unfortunately it appears that playing with explosives runs in the family. During the Second World War Birmingham was hit a number of times by incendiary bombs. On one of these raids my great grandfather secured an unexploded incendiary bomb as a “souvenir”. I know what you’re thinking: he wasn’t daft. A mechanic by trade, he carefully unwound the end of the bomb containing the explosive and removed the explosive, thus making it safe. He then proceeded to engrave the date on the side of the bomb casing for posterity and it was hung above the fireplace. Years later after my great grandparents had died and my grandparents had inherited the souvenir, some remodelling was ongoing and my Grandma wanted rid of it. She is quoted as saying to my Grandad “you can’t put a bomb in the bin!” So he decided the best thing to do was build a nice big bonfire, get it nice and hot and melt it. At the time my Dad and his friends (let’s just call them the “hooligans” now shall we?) were playing out on an area behind the bottom of the garden. They heard the massive explosion and ran to see what had happened just in time to see my Grandad crawling back out of the hedge on the other side of the garden that the blast had thrown him into. So apparently there was also an small explosive charge in an incendiary bomb, the device that had hung over the family fireplace for years. I believe the local Constable made a visit that day too.

    Remember to keep questioning your relatives, you never know what you’ll uncover!

  7. Why did you trace your family tree? A personal perspective.



    Erdington Abbey (Church of St Thomas of Canterbury), near Birmingham

    The last few weeks have been an introspective time for me: 8th February marked the fifteenth anniversary of the death of my mother, Joyce Winifred Young formerly Jenkins, and last month I went to visit her grave at Erdington Abbey near Birmingham.

    As I was standing there I reflected upon the fact that the first time I had been there was with Mum in the 1980s when she had taken me to visit my Grandma (Winifred Hearn late Jenkins formerly Hopkins)’s resting place for the first time. I remembered standing there as she explained to me who all the other names were. She’d always told me stories about the Hopkins and I’d always been interested in “one day” finding out more but it was only when my own Mum died that I began any research in earnest.

    Hopkins family grave, Erdington Abbey

    Now as you can see, I was particularly lucky when I began my research: I have four generations of Hopkins in one place. In fact, this one grave is only part of the story. There are a number of Hopkins buried here and the images below all include my direct ancestors:

    Hopkins of Erdington Hopkins of Erdington 2

    I can go back five generations before I’ve even left the graveyard! I was born in the Midlands and assumed that all my family was born from there. Little did I know when I began my searches that I would find ancestors in Suffolk, Essex and Cambridgeshire, the area in which I now live and research professionally.

    The start of my family history journey is one I hear over and over as a professional genealogist. So many people write asking if I can research their family tree not long after a parent or grandparent dies. Sometimes it is because it’s something “Dad was interested in”, other times they have an overwhelming desire to find out “where they come from”. Another moment so often connected to the start of a search is the impending birth of a child. In both cases a change to the family tree is the common theme.


    Why did you start yours?



  8. Missing But Not Forgotten – Men of the Thiepval Memorial


    Regular readers of this blog will remember the story of my great x 2 uncle, Cyril Frank Cowling (1892-1916). Cyril enlisted in London with the 1st/15th Prince of Wales Own Civil Service Rifles, part of the London Regiment, with a group of friends in around June 1915. He died on 15th September 1916 in the “Battle of Flers-Courcelette” at High Wood during the Battle of the Somme. He is remembered at the Thiepval Memorial.

    The Thiepval Memorial commemorates over 72,000 men from the British and South African regiments and corps who lost their lives on the Somme Front between July 1915 and March 1918 and have no known grave.  Of those over 90% fell during the Battle of the Somme between July and November 1916. Most of those remembered were in the Army but there are also those from the Royal Navy, Royal Marines and Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve.

    Missing But Not Forgotten

    I was recently given the opportunity* to review a new release from Pen and Sword books, Missing But Not Forgotten – Men of the Thiepval Memorial Somme, from Pam and Ken Linge.

    The book represents part of a huge undertaking by the authors to provide the stories of all the missing men commemorated at Thiepval and provide them with a fitting memorial. It does not aim to provide the history of the First World War at the Somme but, rather, provides the personal stories of a sample of the men who fell. To avoid the volume becoming unwieldy only 200 of the over 72,000 biographies are included. It is must have been almost impossible to decide which individuals to include but an attempt has been made to include examples from each battalion and regiment represented at Thiepval.

    What is demonstrated is the range of social backgrounds, educational levels and ranks of those who were killed at the Somme. George Leonard Jenkins, a Private in the East Surrey Regiment, was the son of a manager to a metal merchant. Alexander Young, a Lieutenant in the South African Infantry, was educated at Model School , Galway and was awarded the Victoria Cross for services during Boer War. Claude Theodore Church, a Sergeant in the Norfolk Regiment was a footman serving in the Royal Mews at Buckingham Palace.

    The biographical entries for each serviceman contain details of parents, wives, siblings, extracts from letters home and extracts from the letters sent to grieving parents and wives by superior officers and comrades notifying them that their loved one was missing or dead. There are comments about the individual’s disposition “always so cheery”, “I considered him a friend” and so on that bring to life the faceless names on the memorial. There are many tales of a number of brothers who died within a short time of one another. One particularly poignant story is the entry for Frederick William Bennett and his friend William Bentley. Both lived in Burton Street in Tutbury near Burton-on-Trent and worked at the local Nestle’s Condensary. They enlisted together and served in Gallipoli, Egypt and France. On 30th September 1916 they were both killed by the same shell in fighting near Thiepval.

    My relative, Cyril Frank Cowling, is unfortunately not one of the ones included in the book. There is, however, a biography of one of Cyril’s battalion, Charles Bertram Stalley, Private 2812 of the 1st/15th. Like Cyril, Charles died on 15th September 1916 at High Wood. Charles was one of at least six children of Alfred and Sarah Stalley (formerly Hardy) of Romford, Essex. Charles worked for the Great Eastern Railway and whilst he was on active service some of his letters and sketches were published in the staff magazine. Part of one of these, published in the book, is reproduced below:

    I’ve seen a few ruined towns but none to equal this – its desolation struck me more forcibly than ever. Picture those marches to the trenches… We do not look like the smart soldiers you see at home. We move off in fours, and as we approach the fighting zone drop to two deep, later to single file. No smoking, no talking. By the time we approach the trenches we are fatigued….

    In summary the book provides a fitting memorial to a number of those who fell at the Somme and even where an individual is not included it is possible to gain from the stories of those in the same battalion and regiment.

    The Centenary of the Battle of the Somme commemoration will take place at the Thiepval memorial on 1st July 2016. Tickets are available by ballot until 18th November 2015. Click here for more information.

    * Disclaimer: I was provided with a free copy of the book in exchange for providing a review.

  9. More bigamist antics – the importance of using “offline” records

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    Henry Thomas Dent was the subject of my last blog post, My Bigamist Black Sheep. An uncle of my paternal grandmother, family members remembered him to have been a bigamist with one wife in England and another in Australia!

    Using online records I had found that Henry was tried at the Sydney Quarter Sessions in December 1924 on a charge of bigamy. He had married a Lillian Kate Mant in 1919 in Paddington, London but on 30th April 1921 Henry married an Elsie Victoria Usher at Annandale, New South Wales “the said Lillian Kate Mant being then alive”. Henry was sentenced to six months hard labour. Initial searches of indexes at New South Wales archives in Australia had not found any additional information.

    Since that time I am very excited to report that, with the assistance of a genealogist in Australia, I have been able to access the court papers for the case in question and a gaol entry book entry including a photograph of Henry, over 50 pages of information! Included in the case papers was another photograph of Henry, his marriage certificate to Elsie, letters from Henry to Lilian and depositions from Lilian, Elsie, and Elise’s father, Joseph Usher.

    The documents reveal that Henry had first arrived in Australia in 1911. He had met Elsie in around 1912 in Mount Victoria and therefore knew her before he married Lilian Mant. He joined the AIF (Australian Imperial Force) in 1914 and was in correspondence with Elsie whilst he was away on active service during the First World War.

    Henry had previously been in Children’s Court in Sydney in September 1924 for refusing to pay Lilian Mant maintenance for their child in England. It was at this time he was accused of also being married to Elsie Usher, his response to which was “yes but I don’t want her to know anything about it”. In fact when a warrant was issued for his arrest on the bigamy charge in October 1924 Henry was quoted as saying “I thought they had forgotten all about it”. Was Henry a little naive or a bit of a chancer?

    Letter extract

    The examination of Lilian reveals that Henry returned to Australia in 1920 to be demobilised from the army. He had told his wife he would return to England as soon as he received his discharge. The image above is the first page of a letter Henry wrote to Lilian in July 1920, only a month before their daughter was born. As you can see it begins “My Darling Wife”. It is full of terms of care and affection and is signed off “I remain your Affectionate Hubby, Harry XXX”. Lovely for me is the fact that “Biddy” was the pet name for my grandmother and Doris was her sister. However, the letter does reveal that Henry had already got a job working as a carpenter at the “Hotel Australia” so perhaps he had already decided to stay in Australia.

    On 25th April 1921 Lilian, determined to be reunited with her husband, purchased her passage to Australia and was due to sail in around July 1921. The date of the purchase was a mere five days before Henry married Elsie Usher! Unsurprisingly, Henry cabled Lilian telling her not to come, with promises that he would soon be home.

    The last letter Henry sent to Lilian is transcribed in full below:

    “12 Dec 1921
    Box 13 Oxford St
    My Dear Kiddie
    I hardly know how to write to you after so long an absence. Well, I sent you a Cable today, saying that I would write explaining but now that I come to do it on paper I hardly know what to say.
    Well I am extremely sorry that I have kept you so long without any news but I have had to keep quiet for a purpose & now that everything is OK I will do my best towards you, so if you are still willing to come out here I will arrange a passage for you on this side or you can do it over there, just as you like, I know it takes a long time but I hope everything will be alright.
    I met my old Pal on Saturday Mr Pickard & he told me you had wrote to him & I was rather surprised but still, I suppose you did not know what to do.
    Well I must draw to a close as I was to catch the Mail so trusting it will not be long before we meet & settle down, & that you are keeping well, so with best love & kisses to you & Babs
    I remain
    Your Loving Husband
    Harry xxx
    PS It is not much use putting on the address where I am living as I might be leaving there after Xmas.”

    The lack of a return address is telling and the tone of the letter very different from the previous one even if Henry did end with “I remain Your Loving Husband”. The phrase “I have had to keep quiet for a purpose” I find particularly intriguing. Did Henry know his days of “getting away with it” were numbered?

    Over in Australia Henry’s second wife, Elsie, declared on examination that “since going through the form of marriage with him I have lived happily with him” and her father,  Joseph, stated “he has always been a well behaved man”. In fact when Henry had served his gaol time he returned to Elsie, and they had two children.

    Did Henry know Lilian before he met Elsie? Was Elsie a particularly forgiving woman or had she been his first love from when they met in 1911? Of course we can’t know for sure but the romantic in me would prefer it to be the latter.

    The key point here is that there is so much information that is NOT available online. Don’t stop there. If you can’t visit an archive in person to carry on digging use a researcher local to the area. Who knows? You may end up with a treasure trove like this one.

  10. My Bigamist Black Sheep


    Black sheep


    I recently took a break from my usual family history research in Cambridgeshire, Essex and Suffolk and investigated a family tale of my own – the black sheep of the family.

    Much of my own family history research has focused on my four grandparents and I have had little opportunity to investigate the family of my great grandmother, Edith Lilian Cowling formerly Dent.

    Looking back through some old emails recently I found the tale of Edith’s brother, Tom, who allegedly was a bigamist who ran off to Australia never to be spoken of again. Now quite often with family stories like these there has been some embellishment over the years and the reality is far less exciting. However, I couldn’t resist the urge to do a little digging.

    Henry Thomas (Tom) Dent was born in Woodford, Essex in 1886, the son of Henry Dent, a gardener, and Minnie Dent formerly Riches. In 1919 he married Kate Lilian Mant, the daughter of a railway guard, in Paddington, London and in August 1920 they had a daughter, Marjorie Edith Dent. It all sounds good so far, yes?

    Then the fun begins. I was having a play on Ancestry and typed in “Henry Thomas Dent” into the Australian records collection. The first result that caught my eye was a couple of entries in the NSW Police Gazette. Ah…

    Henry Thomas Dent was tried at the Sydney Quarter Sessions in December 1924 for, you’ve guessed it, a charge of bigamy. The documents include Henry’s marriage to  Lillian Kate Mant in 1919 in Paddington but reveal that on 30th April 1921 Henry married an Elsie Victoria Usher at Annandale, New South Wales “the said Lillian Kate Mant being then alive”. Henry was sentenced to six months hard labour. The entry on the Police Gazette relating to Henry’s discharge described him as 5ft 7.5in with fair complexion and brown hair. He was also recorded as having a long nose and a large mouth!

    Also included in the Police Gazette records was a reference to a photo book. As I have no photos of Henry, this had me very excited. Many of these photo books have recently been made available online at Find May Past and more information may be found here: New South Wales Gaol Photographic Description Books 1871-1969. Unfortunately, the book of interest here is not included in this collection and consultation with an Australian genealogist revealed that this book does not appear to have survived. Frustratingly, the same researcher found that Henry was not included in the surviving  Quarter Sessions Index or Gaol Entry books.

    However, more information was to be found in the newspaper reports for the trial amongst the marvellous collection at The National Library of Australia’s Trove website. Two of my favourite articles are transcribed below:

    First in the Evening News (Sydney) dated Thursday 6 November 1924:

    HENRY Thomas Dent, 38, carpenter, was committed for trial at Paddington Court to-day on a charge of bigamy. It was alleged that Dent was married at Paddington, England, in November, 1919, and on April 30, 1921, went through the marriage ceremony with another woman at Annandale. When arrested Dent, It was alleged, admitted that he knew his wife was alive when the second ceremony took place. ‘I don’t know, why I did It,’ he was said to have added. ‘I must have been mad’.

    and secondly, in the Evening News (Sidney) dated Wednesday 10 December 1924:

    Ignoring a promise to go back to his wife in England as soon as he had fixed up his affairs in Australia Henry Thomas Dent, 38, carpenter went through the ceremony of marriage with a woman he had known before the war, according to evidence at Darlinghurst Sessions today. Dent pleaded guilty to a charge of bigamy. Mr J W Abigail, for accused, said he had served over five years in the AIF. Acting-Judge Rowland: He was in the provost corps. It was stated that Dent married Lillian Kate Mant in London, in November 1919. There was one child of the marriage. He did not tell his second wife of his marriage in England. He had known her for 12 years and she had corresponded with him all the time he was abroad.
    According to the wife’s statement, Dent had not only failed to keep his promise to return, but he had prevented her coming to Australia. She had paid £23 for a steamer passage, but she had cancelled it on receiving a cable from Dent to the effect that he was leaving for England. However, he did not come. In 1920 he sent her £200, but she had received nothing from then until the end of 1922, when he commenced payments of £2 about every three months. Mr J W Abigail said that Dent had asked his wife to come to Australia but she said she would not leave her aged mother. Dent was remanded for sentence.

    This family story of the black sheep of the family turned out out to be true. I particularly like the quote from Henry ‘I don’t know, why I did It, I must have been mad’



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