Genealogical Ponderings

the Professional Family History Blog

Professional Family History Blog
  1. The Cowlings of Cambridgeshire

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    It has been a while since I have written about my own family history. I am lucky enough to conduct professional research in the archives where some of my own ancestors are recorded (if only there was more “spare” time!) and thought I would share some of the treasures I have found.

    The photo below is my favourite family photo: the Cowling family. My Grandma, Joyce Cowling, is in the front row, second from the right. My great grandparents, Hubert John Cowling and Edith Dent are at the far left of the photo. The chap at the back with the magnificent moustache is my great grandfather, John Cowling.


    The Cowlings of Cambridgeshire


    Grandma and her two sisters were born in Birmingham but their father, Hubert, was from a long line of Cambridgeshire Cowlings. Hubert was born 30th April 1888 in Sawston, Cambridgeshire, the third of four children: Wilfred, Winifred, Hubert and Cyril. As well as tracing the family through online records such as certificates and census records, I have found a host of records at Cambridgeshire Archives and elsewhere.

    For example, all four children are recorded in the Sawston school log books. Hubert arrived at the infant school on 16th February 1892 “Have admitted two new pupils this week, Hubert Cowling & Bertie Woolley, both 4 yrs of age…”. Wilfred and Cyril both gained scholarships to attend schools in  Cambridge, Wilfred’s being to the prestigious Perse School. Winifred (pictured in the centre of the photo above) went on to become a teacher in Sawston. The infant school log book from 30th November 1900 reads “Miss Barker leaves to-day… I have every hope that Winnie Cowling will in time turn out to be a useful teacher & I should be glad if she could be appointed as monitress in this school.” Indeed, Winifred appears in the staff lists from 1900. The School Board Minutes from 5th November 1901 record “… The Indentures of Miss E Wilson and Miss W Cowling were read over in their presence with their fathers and duly sealed by all.”  On 2nd November 1906 Winifred was recorded in the log books as  “absent… for the day” and on 17th November 1906 she left the school. It seems likely that she was absent to attend a job interview. Certainly by 1911 she was working as a teacher in Fenny Stratford, Buckinghamshire. Winifred later married and moved to The Midlands like her brother, Hubert.

    The future for Hubert’s two brothers was not so bright. Wilfred died from pneumonia at only 16 years old. Cyril died in the First World War and is remembered on the Sawston War Memorial. My search for Cyril in a number of military records has been the subject of other blog posts.

    Hubert’s father, John Cowling, was a compositor and the foreman in the printing office at Cramptons of Sawston and can be seen at work in his suit in the photograph below.



    John Cowling at Cramptons, taken from T F Teversham’s The Story of a Country Printing House


    John was a man of standing in Sawston: the Cambridge Independent Press of 21st March 1913 reports that John Cowling was a member of the Parish Council who was re-elected at the AGM. John’s wife, Agnes, was probably the “Mrs Cowling” who came second place for her fern in the plant section in the Sawston Annual Show, reported in The Cambridge Independent Press, 8th August 1913.

    However, John was not born in Sawston; he was born a few miles down the road in Ickleton, Cambridgeshire, the middle of five children of Daniel Cowling. John came from a number of generations of agricultural labourers and was the third generation of Cowlings to have been born in Ickleton.


    Ickleton parish church


    The older generations of the Cowling family: Daniel (b. 1832), another John Cowling (b c.1804), and Sell Cowling (b. c.1775) all appear at various times in the Ickleton charity accounts, in receipt of “Chrisell Charity money”. This volume of accounts gives us lots of information. The very first payment found was in 1825 to “Cell (sic) Cowling, 6 children“, confirming the number of surviving children by this time. John Cowling (b. c.1804)’s death can be traced through these accounts as his payment then went to his widow. Birth certificates for Daniel Cowling’s children indicate that he left Ickleton for Saffron Walden, Essex between November 1861 and August 1865. The charity accounts narrow this window to between September 1864 and August 1865.

    The Cowling family can be traced back to Sell Cowling who was born in around 1775, but there the trail goes cold for now. Sell died in 1850, frustratingly the year before the 1851 census, and the 1841 census tells us only that he was born in Cambridgeshire. There is no baptism for him in the Cambridgeshire records. He may not have been baptised but I have a couple of hunches where there are gaps in the records. More research required! However, as the only evidence of Sell’s place of birth is essentially a single squiggle on the 1841 census, which could have been copied wrongly, my research is also taking me further out into the surrounding counties.

    Do you have Cowlings in your family tree? If so I would love to hear from you.

  2. Public or Private Family Tree?


    I’ve found the opportunity recently to spend some time actually working on my own research and it’s led me to revisit the old debate: to have or not to have a public family tree?

    Many of the websites offer the opportunity to upload or create a family tree. There are many reasons you may want to do this. Some use this service simply as a repository for their research.

    Some use the “hints” or “matches” with record sets on the websites to expand their family tree. The most well known of these are the “shaking green leaves” on Ancestry. These come with their own inaccuracies and do not take away the need for thorough and proper research (a blog post in its own right).

    Another reason you might want your family tree online is to share your research or provide the ability for others researching the same families as you to get in touch.

    Most websites offer “private” or “public” versions for your family tree. A typical public tree entry in search results is shown below (tree owner information removed):

    Details on an individual in a public tree

    Some “private” trees let names appear in searches but require contact with you to get access to your full family tree:

    Limited information appears in search results for a private tree

    What’s your preference?

    When I first started out, long before thoughts of “going professional”, I happily uploaded everything I’d found to Ancestry in the hope of making contact with distant cousins (many other websites now offer this facility).

    However, I look back and wonder at my naivety. I made contact with people, who confirmed a connection. In most cases we would share information and hopefully add to each other’s research. However, some people, who’d done very little for themselves, just helped themselves to everything I’d done! I still see examples of this now in others’ public family trees, the wording from our family Bible gives it away. I was most put out; it was ME who’d spent hours on that research and ME who’d spent lots of money on certificates proving things and it was just being taken. Was I wrong to feel hard done by? Was I not entering the spirit of sharing? What threw me the most was that my whole tree was being copied, not just the part related by blood to the individual of interest. Surely, that’s not quite right? Was I being too precious? Is family history not a collaborative affair? Should we not be thinking in terms of free and fair exchange of information?

    For years since then I’ve only had the “partially private” option. I like to have something out there, so the names of my ancestors appear in searches, but I await contact before sharing any more detail.

    I can’t talk about about online family trees without mentioning accuracy. Let’s be frank: there are a LOT of mistakes! I recently found the same couple, who were born in Cambridgeshire, originating from both Cornwall and Yorkshire, popping to Cambridgeshire to have one child and then returning to their place of origin to have the rest of their family. I’ve Birmingham family in the back to backs who apparently popped to the US to get married WHILST having children in Brum. I’m sure you have similar tales. So then it occurred to me, wouldn’t it be better if all the “right” trees were public too, to increase the likelihood of it being the correct information that was copied from tree to tree to tree? Is that not what we should be doing?

    The key to my recent dilemma however, is DNA testing. This is potentially fantastic tool for genealogist, but can only perform to its true potential with collaboration and sharing of data. So now I’m finding myself looking at DNA matches who, for whatever reason, have chosen to keep their tree private. The shoe is most definitely on the other foot now.

    Do I go public?

    What do you think?

  3. Remembering Cyril Frank Cowling (1892-1916)

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    As today is the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War it seems an appropriate time to remember my great x2 uncle on my paternal grandmother’s side: Cyril Frank Cowling.

    Cyril was born on 18th March 1892 in Sawston, Cambridgeshire, the son of John Cowling, a printer’s compositor, and Agnes Mary Cowling formerly Cornwell. Cyril is recorded in the Cowling family Bible as having died at “High Wood”, France in 1916.

    Cyril Cowling's death recorded in the Cowling Family Bible

    Cyril Cowling’s death recorded in the Cowling Family Bible

    At the time of the 1911 census, Cyril was single, working as a clerical assistant at a postal engineering branch and living in Birmingham.

    Service records for Cyril Frank Cowling have not survived but it has been possible to piece together information regarding Cyril’s military career using a number of documentary sources including the records of the CWGC, military memorials, Soldiers died in the Great War 1914-1919, GRO death records, medal records, WFA pension records, soldiers’ wills, war diaries, published regimental histories and newspaper reports.

    In fact, prior to joining the army, Cyril Frank Cowling had worked for the Civil Service in London, Birmingham and Cambridge. At the time of the outbreak of the First World War Cyril was working at the Post Office Engineering Office in Hills Road, Cambridge. He enlisted in London with the 15th Prince of Wales Own Civil Service Rifles with a group of friends, during or shortly after June 1915, as Private 4110 in the 1/15th battalion.

    When Cyril enlisted he would have gone to Hazeley Down near Winchester for thirteen weeks training before being liable for overseas service. At some point Cyril was stationed at Chelsea Barracks and, whilst there, became a Signalling Instructor. When he returned to Winchester he discovered that his friends had been drafted to France and Cyril put in a request to also be sent to France. On arrival in France Cyril would have undergone final training at a divisional base before going “up the line”.

    The 1/15th Battalion spent the first part of September 1916 on training at Franvillers, France and suffered no casualties between the 1st and the 14th September 1916. At 6pm on 14th September 1916 the 1/15th Battalion relieved two companies of the 21st London Regiment at High Wood. On the same day Cyril, mindful of the fact that his battalion were going to the frontline, wrote a brief will in which he left all of his possessions to his mother, Agnes Mary Cowling.

    On 15th September 1916 the Battalion took part in the “Battle of Flers-Courcelette”, a general attack by the IV Army on High Wood. By 11am the IV Army were in possession of the whole of High Wood and Switch Line. However, at 6pm the 21st London Regiment were attacked from High Wood and were “practically annihilated by artillery and machine gun fire”. The severe losses observed at High Wood have been attributed in part to the fact that the battle was the first use of British tanks and the tanks were unable to move forward as intended due to the terrain and conditions.

    At some point during the 15th September Cyril was with others in a captured German trench and was sending a message to the rear when he was hit in the neck by shrapnel. An artery was severed and the wound proved fatal. He left behind a girlfriend, a Miss N. Parker of Birmingham.

    Cyril was awarded the British War and Victory medals for his active service. He has no known grave but is remembered at the Thiepval Memorial, also known as the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme on pier 13, face C. The information recorded in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC)’s Register of War Dead is as follows:

    CWGC record for Cyril Frank Cowling (

    CWGC record for Cyril Frank Cowling (

    Cyril’s name is also included on the war memorial in Sawston, Cambridgeshire and on the memorials within St Mary’s Church, Sawston and St Paul’s Church, Cambridge.

    War Memorial, Sawston, Cambridgeshire (author's photograph)

    War Memorial, Sawston, Cambridgeshire (author’s photograph)

    Cyril’s mother died shortly after his death but a dependents’ war pension was claimed for a time by his father, John Cowling. Cyril’s death was recorded in the local Cambridge newspapers, from which the following photograph was taken:

    Cyril Cowling (taken from the Cambridge Independent Press, 15th December 1916)

    Cyril Cowling (taken from the Cambridge Independent Press, 15th December 1916)


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