A brief biography of Frances Morrell (c. 1771 – 1854) & Thomas Robinson (c. 1771 – 1848)

St Andrew’s Church, Aldborough, 2023. Own photo.

What lovelier question could there be to ask a family historian on her birthday weekend than “What churchyard do you want to visit today?” “Kirkby Hill” I responded promptly, as I’d long wanted to go and find the gravestone of my great, great Uncle Walter, who was killed by a shotgun at the age of seven. “Along the way we could call in and see the Roman mosaics at Aldborough?”. We found the gravestone in question, bumped into my Aunty Sue in the Oxfam in Boroughbridge (which led to a whole new set of discoveries), visited the mosaics and found ourselves unexpectedly enjoying tea and cakes on the village green of Aldborough. I left Mum and Joe chatting with strangers on the next door table and wondered off to mooch around the old church. A perfect day.

Aldborough (“old town”) feels like somewhere time stopped. Trade had long since moved to its upstart neighbour, Boroughbridge (when the Roman’s built a bridge there). By the 1700s, it had become a rotten borough, controlled by the local landowner, with parliamentary seats available for a price, more lucrative than investing in the village itself. St Andrew’s Church, though, remained the centre of a significant parish, including Boroughbridge, as late as 1866. The church was rebuilt around 1330 after being destroyed by Scottish raiders, with a chancel and tower built in the fifteenth century. The stained-glass windows were a much later addition, but it looks, and feels, largely as it would have at the end of the eighteenth century.

Largely as it did, I discovered later that week, when my 5xG Grandparents, Frances (Morell) and Thomas Robinson were married there on 25 August 1796, two hundred and twenty-seven years and four days before I walked through the same heavy oak doors.

Thomas was an agricultural labourer and although this is a potentially iterant profession, the family appear to have settled in Boroughbridge where children arrived at regular intervals to be baptised at St Andrew’s: George (11 June 1797), Thomas (27 October 1799), Mary (my ancestor) (17 December 1802), Sarah (10 February 1805) and finally William (21 March 1812).

Unlike with many other of my lines, this was not to be the start of a generational connection to Boroughbridge, for the children scattered. George moved to Marton cum Grafton where he followed in his father’s footsteps taking up agricultural labouring work, Thomas moved to Colne, Lancashire, although returned to marry Mary Dickinson in 1821 and, potentially, became a soot merchant. Mary moved to Leeds and then, following her marriage to John Howson, to North Rigton. Sarah did marry a local man, George Johnson, in 1829, but he appears to have died before they had any children, as she too, moved to Leeds where she married John Kerton in 1838. Of William there is, as yet, no sign.

THE Shelves for Bread to be distributed to the Poor of Aldborough every Sunday from the Bounty of Mark Smithson Esq

St Andrew’s holds a potential clue, a Georgian bread shelf, indicating the necessity of charity for the parish poor. Work, at least work which paid sufficiently well to support a family, was likely in short supply. The growing towns and cities of the industrial north provided a solution.

1841 census for Boroughbridge showing the Robinson household including their granddaughter, Jane Howson, the national archives via ancestry.

I’ve often wondered how, or even whether, illiterate families from the nineteenth century stayed in touch once children moved. This was too early for the train, so travel would have been expensive and time consuming, and if the parents couldn’t read, and the child couldn’t write, what was the point of a letter? In this case, it seems they must have done, for in the 1841 census, Thomas (68) and “Fanny” (56) had visitors, John Robinson (8) and Jane Howson (14), two grandchildren sent to live with and support their elderly grandparents. I am grateful they were not alone, and even more grateful that it was my 3xG Grandmother, Jane, who was there because it was her presence, together with the birthplace of her mother, Mary, which had led me to identify Frances and Thomas in the first place.

Thomas Robinson’s death certificate. Note age and place of death. General Registry Office.

Not that grandchildren took away the need to work. By his seventies, Thomas would have been struggling to find employment, yet still he laboured. For on the 16 August 1848, he died, of a palsy fit, in Spring Field in Hutton Conyers. In his death certificate, an illiterate co-worker gave Thomas’s age as sixty-six. In his burial record, at Aldborough two days later, his more likely age of seventy-seven was listed. It was harvest time, when any physically able ag lab should be able to find work and yet Thomas was working nearly eight miles from home and, it appears, had felt it necessary to knock a decade off his age in order to secure the position.

Frances struggled on alone in Boroughbridge, which is where we find her in 1851, aged 76, her occupation listed simply as “poor” perhaps struggling to make the weekly service at St Andrew’s in order to claim some bread for the week. Eventually though, she must have moved in with her son George, for it was in his home in Marton cum Grafton where she died, aged 83, of nothing more specific than “old age” on 19 July 1854. I like to hope that she is buried back at St Andrew’s, with Thomas and where her records start, but her burial remains untraced.

Despite records surviving from the 1770s in Aldborough, there are no obvious baptisms. Morrell should have been a traceable family, especially as George also married a Mary Morrell, but I have found nothing that fits. Thomas was an agricultural labourer and, with only the 1841 census to go on, could have been born anywhere in Yorkshire. Illiterate, it is no surprise that the ages given in the various records are not entirely consistent. So, I’ve called it. They are not a brick wall but can be celebrated and written about as an end of the line, being as far back as I am expecting to trace. With much gratitude to my 5xG Grandparents, Frances Morell, Thomas Robinson and their granddaughter Jane Howson for being together on 6 June 1841 and to my Mum’s husband who suggested a spontaneous trip to Aldborough which supported the writing of this story.

End of the line…..or not!

Hermione screamed in pain, and Harry turned his wand on her in time to see a jewelled goblet tumbling from her grip. But as it fell, it split, became a shower of goblets, so that a second later, with a great clatter, the floor was covered in identical cups rolling in every direction, the original impossible to discern amongst them.”

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, chapter 26.

The Doubling Charm or Gemino Curse is a wonderful analogy for family history. Each ancestor we identify creates two new people to research. Go beyond the basics and each person you add to your tree creates a multiplicity of avenues to follow: parents and children, villages and towns, occupations and religions, local history and world changing events.

Most of the time it’s why I love family history; there’s always a new direction to explore, a new connection to make. But for the completer-finisher part of me it can be a bit of a curse. The stories increase exponentially and I’m barely managing to systematically capture the basics. I am starting to drown in the genealogical gold.

This is why I was weirdly excited to get to know Frances (Morrell) and Thomas Robinson, two of my 5xG Grandparents. I have their marriage (on 25 August 1796 at St Andrews Church in Aldborough), their children’s baptisms, their burials and a story idea linking them back to the present. But neither were baptised in Aldborough, there is no record of a Frances Morrell being baptised anywhere in the locality and there are so many potential options for Thomas that I am never going to be able to identify which one is mine. They are officially the end of the line, and it feels powerful.

I thought Frances and Thomas’s story will be the first of a new blog series entitled “the end of the line,” but then as I started to the ancestors to which this might apply and found that almost every short line offered some plausible hints as to the next generation and, often, the bones of a story. Hence the “…or not,” to recognise that those exploding goblets just don’t want to be contained!

The official end of line stories are listed below.


Wid Swinden (remembered in poetry) – 7xG Grandmother, mother of Ann Swinden, mother of Martha Bottom, mother of Rachel Hall, mother of George Bentley, mother of Annie Bentley, mother of Marion Moody, mother of Nana.


Sarah Dickinson and John Windsor (in a tale of the impact of an Icelandic volcano eruption on a remote village in Yorkshire) – 5xG Grandparents, being parents of Mary Windsor, mother of Thomas Wellock, father of Richard Wellock, father of Mary Wellock, mother of Grandpy. I do have a clue on the Windsor side, as John may have been baptised on 27 October 1745 at Arncliffe, the son of a Thomas Windsor.

Mary and James Sympson (the beginning of our connection with Garnshaw) – 9xG Grandparents, being parents of Agnes Symson, mother of William (3) Wellock, father of William (2) Wellock, father of William Wellock, father of Richard (2) Wellock, father of Thomas Wellock, father of Richard Wellock, father of Mary Wellock, mother of Grandpy.



Frances Morrell and Thomas Robinson – 5xG Grandparents, being parents of Mary Robinson, mother of Jane Howson, mother of Mary Ann Wilkinson, mother of Mary Abigail Clapham, mother of Grandad.

The toffee crunch tin

The toffee crunch tin. Own photo.

The tin is old and worn, the once bright orange dahlias on the side have been scrubbed to a mottled yellow or even further to white, there’s a ding on the lid and rust spots on the bottom.

And yet, of all the objects we sorted through after Grandpy died, it was the one all five siblings coveted. For love, and toffee crunch, had filled it for many years.

The logo on the botton of the tin. Own photo.

Once upon a time it must have been filled with Jacob’s Cream Crackers, for W.&R. Jacob & Co (L’Pool) Ltd, Biscuit Manufacturers, Liverpool, England is emblazoned across the bottom. Cheese and crackers, the perfect afternoon tea in front of the fire, with wrestling on the tv. At least that’s how I remember it, but the crackers from this tin would have been long gone before I arrived on the scene. Instead, my first memory is of it being filled with Nana’s perfect crumbly flapjack. Flapjack so good, that I almost never choose to eat it nowadays, for nothing can match it.

It’s toffee crunch though (or possibly toffee crispie depending on which family member you ask) for which this tin was famous for containing. Lined with greaseproof paper, stacked sideways with golden squares of deliciousness.

The recipe is super simple. My version is just thirteen words long. Apparently, I didn’t even think I needed to specify units of measurement.

Recipe for toffee crunch, Natasha’s version.

The secret was in the toffee. Mum was always on the look out for slab toffee (which normally came in 4oz packs). Werther’s Originals could, with a lot of unwrapping, be deployed as a slightly inferior alternative.

Heading back to university each term, I was presented with a large plastic bag of toffee crunch to take with me and after Nana died, Grandpy kept up the tradition, never failing to open the cupboard and pull out the tin to send me back to Leeds with sustenance. It never lasted long. One bite of the sweet, chewy, crunchy square quickly led to another and then another.

After Grandpy died we managed a fairly amicable split of his possessions. In the early days we put aside anything that two or more of us wanted and left it for a few months until the memory of his death had lost some of its sharpness that could have caused disagreement. Somehow, I ended up with the tin. It was only when I got home and opened that discovered Grandpy had been prepared until the end as it was full of the very last toffee crunch Grandpy would ever make.

With much gratitude to my Nana and Grandpy for all their love and toffee crunch.

Andy, Jenny & Bob too

A letter from “Aunty” to Andy, Jenny & Bob too – Friday, 26 September

A letter full of love and affection, mushrooms & blackberry jam. There’s a new baby (Jenny), a date, if not a year, and mention of another relative, Andy’s Aunty Hilda, plus there’s an address at the top of the letter. A heady cocktail. Anyone who is even vaguely interested in family history would want to know more about Aunty & Uncle Charlie, Andy, Bob & Baby Jenny and would believe, that with all those names and other details, they should be able to identify the protagonists.

It’s a beautiful letter and one that never fails to make me smile when I read it, for I am Baby Jenny.

Which is fortunate as if I hadn’t known Baby Jenny was me, I would have found it almost impossible to work out who was who. It would have been relatively easy to use the address to work out that “Aunty & Uncle Charlie” were Edith “Edie” (Moody) & Charles Hardy for they lived at Elmwood Grove for many years. But “Aunty” stands for Great Aunt, and “Aunty Hilda” is in fact the Edie’s niece. Then there are the trio to whom the letter is addressed. “Andy” is Elizabeth Ann, known both as Ann & Liz, I have been known as Natasha, rather than Jenny, since I was six months old and “Bob” (my Dad) was born George Christopher. Collectively, my Mum, Dad & I, have adopted names designed for maximum confusion if you are researching at a distance.

So I’ve scribbled relevant names (in pencil) on the letter and written this brief blog to preserve a message of love between generations for the next.  

And yes, there may be a brief cultural reference in the phrasing of the title. Any guesses?

Fizzing with Florence

Florence Wellock (1874 – 1916)

Memorial stone of Florence Wellock and her family. Photo taken by Kyle of findagrave

It all started with a plan to research and connect the Wellocks on findagrave in anticipation of maybe, one day, starting a one named study into the surname Wellock (and yes, I should probably just own that’s exactly what I am doing). The stories just pop out in almost every set of family gravestones. I’ve broken down brick walls, discovered connections between unconnected Wellocks (who are connected through the sisters they married) and even found a tale of bigamy. But it is Florence Wellock’s memorial stone that has completely drawn me in for it’s one of those wonderful family stones – father, mother, four children and a grandmother – which are just brilliant for connecting people.

Jumping straight into the research it was clear that this was THE OTHER BRANCH, the Wellocks who descend from the as yet unconnected Henry who lived in Kirkby Malham in the 1600s. It really was okay to just stop after linking the direct family.

But it didn’t take long to realise that Florence Wellock was the end of the line. Her three siblings, Mary Elizabeth, Christopher & Emma had died as children. The weird eight year gap between the three oldest and Emma could have occurred for all sorts of reasons, but losing two children in quick succession had quite possibly put Florence’s parents, Emma & John, off from trying for another.

So that left Florence. The only one of the four children to make it into a census. There was clearly a close relationship with her maternal cousins. One, Herbert Hough, was captured staying with the Wellocks in 1891, then Florence was recorded with Herbert in 1901, and with another cousin, Thomas Lyth, in 1911. Her will, in 1914, split her estate between the two. For Florence never married. Working as a tailoress (I am assuming dressmaker rather than sweat labourer), she both inherited and earned her own money leaving an estate of £466. Which is why, I imagine, she left instructions for a memorial remembering her parents and her long dead siblings (including reference to the fact that Christopher was buried elsewhere) and, randomly also, her paternal Grandmother, Mary (Hewitt) Wellock.

I thought at first, she’d fallen out with her mother, Emma, who had remarried after her father had died. But then she left her estate to her maternal cousins. Uncharitably I figured her paternal Grandfather, Christopher, may just have been aloof, and maybe that holds some truth. But he died just before Florence’s younger sister, Emma, died, and the likely story is that Grandma Mary came to live with Florence and her parents and helped them all through that last, terrible, death.

Aah, Flo, you truly deserve a remembering. I just suspect you weren’t expecting it to be from the third cousin, twice removed, of the sister-in-law, of the husband, of your third cousin once removed or from someone who feels a connection to a surname, has a niece with a middle name Florence, shares a birthday with the death day of your mother, and has a soft spot for dressmakers as it was her Nana’s profession. My hope is that this story piques the interest of someone closer to you, but if not, your memorial has served it’s likely intention of keeping your family’s story alive.

Killed on a trainline – John Scott (1860 – 1920)

For several minutes Maria watched as the wheelbarrow slowly appeared out of the gloom.

John had been very particular about the view when he built their “forever” home. Prospect House was well-named, offering clear sight as far as the railway at least it would have if the sun had been shining. Maria was still getting used to the quiet after Gertie’s wedding. Just Clarrie & Madge left; the soft giggling from upstairs gave them away as being not quite appropriate for respectable young woman of the time. It was giggling that was soon to be brought to an abrupt halt.

There was just something about the approaching group which left Maria with a sense of disquiet. They were slow in their approach without any apparent sense of animated conversation. Heads were bowed. As the clock continued with its soft ticking the bundle in the barrow gradually gained precision in Maria’s view.

Before they even rung the bell, Maria knew. She knew, just as she had known as she watched her darling Charles slowly dying from septicaemia after a simple scratch from a loose nail in his wooden playpen. She knew, just as she had known when she had flown to her sister Nellie’s home in Kirby Hill to hear her beloved Walter’s last words. At some point, she likely swore, in a way that good upper middle class Victorian women should never do. “What the blazes John, you were just posting a few dratted letters?”

Death certificate of John Scott.

John Scott was 59 years old when he was killed after being knocked down by a goods train just a few short minutes from his home in Pickhill on 12 April 1920. Grandma (John & Maria’s granddaughter through their daughter Hilda Mary) told me of his story when I was just a child, alongside those of his sons, Charles & Walter. The way she told it, he had stopped on the line to rescue a carriage of some kind, possibly, as it turned out, it was nothing grander than the wheelbarrow in which he was brought home. Of course I was fascinated, and these stories are a large part of why I became so obsessed with family history.

Unlike the time I researched the death of his son Walter, I’ve struggled to learn more about what happened. John’s death certificate records the details of “an engine of a goods train” and “on his way home from the post office” but despite my understanding that the Scotts were prominent members of their local society, I’ve been unable to find any newspaper articles or other documents that might provide more detail on what happened.

Embankment on road out of Pickhill in the direction of Prospect House which “may” have been where John’s accident happened. Own photo, June 2021

Yet there are always more places to look. A recent speculative letter to a Scott cousin revealed that the story had travelled down her line too. This time with details of foggy weather and of John being brought home in a wheelbarrow. She also had a copy of John Scott’s funeral card showing he was interred at Pickhill Church just after 2pm on 15 April 1920. Studying old maps, I was able to identify Prospect House as now called Highfield Farm. Whilst the train line no longer runs to Pickhill, a visit to the village revealed that it was possible to trace its route across an embankment on either side of the road that leads from the village proper to John & Maria’s home.  

Maria took over the farm after John’s death and lived another lifetime (30 years). Their six surviving children, thrived too, allowing John’s story, together with those of his sons, to reach down through the generations ready to be pieced together by his great, great granddaughter a century later.

With much gratitude to both Grandma for passing on this story, to Susie Pennock for sharing the extra details as well as to Natalie Pithers and the Curious Descendants Club for an inspirational workshop on writing about death. My thanks also go to Mike at the “Railway Work, Life & Death Project” for his encouragement on twitter and with hope that John Scott’s accident might pop as part of their project in the future!

Icelandic volcanoes, snow and poverty in eighteenth century Arncliffe

Snow on Greenhow Hill – March 2023. If this is your photo, please let me know so I can credit you!

We’ve been sharing snowy pictures on the family whatsapp this week – one of my sister’s even shared a picture of some drifts which had formed at Greenhow Hill – a sign that some element of these stories is being absorbed. There was a bit of grumbling about school closures and disrupted travel plans but mostly it was delight in the white wonderland outside the window.

We, however, have solid, insulated, centrally heated homes, warm clothes and, even if tomatoes are scare, a functioning food system. Our 18th century ancestors had none of these things. The poorest amongst them were living in shabbily built huts where the cold wind whistled through both open spaces for light and gaps in the walls, roofs and doors. Clothing was limited and threadbare, food dependent on what a daily wage would provide. Winters, a daily struggle to survive.

It might well have been snowing when Sarah (Dickinson) & John Windsor married at St Oswald’s in Arncliffe on 15 January 1771 but there would have been comfort in hearing the old bell, already 400 years old, pealing out loud and clear down Skirfare valley. In their first few years of married life Sarah & John made regular, happy, trips to the church to see their children christened. Mary (our 4x great grandmother) was the first to arrive, baptised on 23 February 1773. She was followed by Jane (ch. 24 July 1774), Issabella (ch. 7 July 1776), John (ch. 9 November 1777) and Sarah (ch. 7 May 1780). Sadly Sarah survived only a few weeks and was buried on 10 June 1780. Still four children out of five surviving infancy was pretty good odds in the late eighteen century.

St Oswald’s church, Arncliffe, courtesy of an ex-colleague Steve Roecliffe.

In the church baptism records John is listed as John Junior, recognising another, older, John Windsor who was also producing children at this time. However, it also tells us that John Junior did not have another distinguishing factor such as a trade or a farm tenancy. The family’s ability to survive would have depended on both John & Sarah working every day that work was available.

When baby William was baptised on 6 July 1783, news of the violent eruption of the Laki volcano in Iceland may not even have reached Arncliffe. Arncliffe was a bit of a backwater – it was still using the Gregorian calendar to record baptisms and burials thirty years after we officially adopted the Julian one. The sulphur dioxide gas smothered Europe, blocking ports and increasing deaths amongst outdoor workers. It was disastrous for Iceland, some 20 – 25% of the population were to die as a result of both the immediate explosions and the following famine.  But in Arncliffe, far from the sea and protected by hills? The understanding of a volcanic winter is a new one.

Temperatures dropped by an average of 1OC and the winter of 1783 – 1784 was especially severe. In the UK alone it is estimated to have caused an additional 8,000 deaths. Based on Sarah & John’s experience, and that of the parish of Arncliffe as a whole, it seems this number could be significantly understated.

Extract from “The Registers of the Ancient Parish of Arncliffe including those of Halton Gill and Hubberholme 1663 – 1812” transcribed and edited by William Arthur Shuffrey M. A. 1910 for 1783/4.

Burials in Arncliffe for the year 1783 (meaning 25 March 1783 to 24 March 1784) were approximately double those in the preceding five years. Amongst them were John (bu. 10 January 1783/4, aged six), William (bu. 16 January 1783/4, not yet one) and Jane (bu. 21 January 1783/4, aged eight), all children of John Windsor, now described as “a poor man.”

When families faced starvation in the eighteenth century, food for was prioritised for the workers to ensure they could keep earning. John, as the adult male, would have been first, Sarah, as an adult female, second. Mary, the eldest child, would have been eleven and she too, would have been contributing financially, and, presumably, fed. Assuming all three were out looking for any available work that would have left eight year old Sarah in charge of three shivering, starving children. Records don’t show whether it was starvation or sickness which killed the three children in just two weeks, but I am sure it was Laki.

After that long, cold winter life improved for the Windsors, at least as far as the next generation were concerned. Sarah & John had three more children: James (ch. 13 November 1784). Barnabas (ch. 23 July 1786) and finally Betty (ch. 21 October 1792) who was likely younger than her niece Jenny, Mary’s oldest child. Whilst I haven’t yet been able to trace what happened to Isabella & Betty, James & Barnabas both moved to Leeds, learnt trades, had families and lived long lives. Mary married Richard (2) Wellock and became part of my Wellock story. Together they re-established the Wellock family link to High Garnshaw and went on to have around fifty grandchildren including our own great great grandfather Richard Wellock. I am the legacy of the hard choices which Sarah & John faced during that bleak winter of 1783 and I am grateful for them.

Reflections on a month of writing

Tracking my writing progress over the course of November 2022.

And so my first attempt at #NaNoWriMo draws to a close.

For those who are not familiar with concept, hundreds of thousands of people from across the globe commit all their free time and then some to sitting in front of their computers, typing, attempting to write 50,000 words of a new novel. Natalie Pithers of Curious Descendants had the bright idea of turning this into a family history writing challenge, encouraging us all to write more by sending daily prompts.

That’s a great idea I thought, it’ll encourage me to get more of my research off the tree and into a readable format. Here’s what I’ll do. I’ll count the words in any blog I publish this month plus any decent paragraphs I write in response to the daily prompts which might form a blog in future. 50,000 words doesn’t sound that hard.

The first few days went smoothly enough. Two shorter blogs were quickly rattled off and I’d also made progress on a few more. Then on the 8 November I joined a co-working session with fellow Curious Descendants. Two hours later, I’d written just 800 words. Admittedly there’s always a good catch up at the beginning and end of the session, but that meant I’d need to commit three hours a day, every day, just to write 50,000 words. Then there was the editing, sourcing of photos, additional research and finally uploading it all to my blog all of which could easily double or more the time taken. Natalie kindly suggested I develop a more realistic goal. But no, I was convinced that once I reduced my target once I’d be all too willing to reduce it again. I was only 9,000 words behind.

Initially I shared each blog I wrote with all my family & friends on facebook but I soon realised there was a limit to the number of words even my mother might be willing to read. Sharing would better be done over time.

Then came a week where I had no time for writing. I started to revise my goal. If I could reach 25,000 words published with another 5,000 words well written ready to integrate into other stories, I would be happy.

All thoughts of applying for new jobs went out the window, as did the garden which desperately needs some attention. I wore the same dress for days in a row. I started checking my phone for Natalie’s daily prompt as soon as I woke up so as to start mulling on what I would write as I showered. I drafted sentences in my head as I cooked and ate and reviewed what I knew of an ancestor just before I went to sleep in the desperate hope that I would dream up some inspiration.

The total slowly rose but ultimately 50,000 words is a lot for someone who nearly failed her economics A-level because she couldn’t write essays. The C-grade was almost entirely down to the multiple-choice section. I even thought about just publishing my Grandma’s memoirs as they stood. 34,000 words in one go. But that would have done my Grandma a disservice. I intend to annotate and illustrate before publishing, maybe that can be next November’s goal.

The word count dropped and motivation too, meaning the word count fell further behind until I reached out to my fellow curious descendants, one of whom advised me to “mind you don’t end up not worrying about the quality but feeling the width.” It was time for the final sprint. If I wasn’t going to reach 50,000 words, what was it that would make me proud of this month?

A couple of days later, Vu, the author of my favourite non-profit blog, shared his weekly missive entitled “18 tips to help you become a badass writer!” including two perfect pieces of advice for the last sprint: “Writing is a lot like cooking or water puppetry: the more you practice at it, the better you get” and “You can publish first and edit later.”

I set out to write up our family history to ensure it was both accessible and better preserved, but I also wanted to improve the quality and speed of my writing more generally. I had also set myself a goal about eighteen months ago to complete short biographies of each of our sixteen great great great Grandparent couples. There were seven left at the start of the month and just three left at this stage all involving a woman called Elizabeth, two of whom were married to a man called Thomas. They were also, invariably, ones where I had doubts or questions about the research. I realised I needed to stop prevaricating and find a way to write what I knew.

Now, as the clock counts down to midnight, it’s time to take stock.

First, advice to my future self, should I choose to do this again.

  • Have a goal beyond the words. When all else failed those great great great Grandparents biographies just had to be finished.
  • An extensive stock of research is a prerequisite. The quickest stories to write were those where I had already collated all available evidence, the slowest those where I to wait for various certificates to arrive.  Which basically means spending the month before writing looking for gaps.
  • As are ideas for stories with relevant links to content. I thought I had this, but most of the ideas needed a lot more research than I had time to devote to them. On the flip side, I was able to finish a number of stories which I had already explored in detail.
  • Consistency is key. On the days I wrote, I averaged over 2,000 words.
  • Find a cohort to provide ideas and motivation when both are slowing. Thank you, Curious Descendants!
  • And finally, wine is a mixed blessing, the words flow at night, the editing is harder the next day

Ultimately, I didn’t write fifty thousand words. In the month of November, I wrote 30,500 words including 25,792 which are now live online in twenty different blogs. 61% of the total, higher than I’ve been all month – that last sprint made such a difference. More importantly I’ve completed my goal of writing up the stories of all sixteen of my great great great grandparent couple biographies with half of them written this month. Two further blogs stand out. The first is the story behind an 1899 divorce of two Wellock cousins, an astonishing story of domestic cruelty and the courage Ellen needed to free herself from it. The second “the death of a farmer” is much more personal as although it is the tale of death of my great grandmother’s uncle, the circumstances so exactly mirror those of my father one hundred and one years later, it has taken me a while to get it right. And I’m not out of ideas yet. As well as my Grandma’s memoirs, I’m also mulling on a series of annotated maps linking the stories geographically.

So yes, it really was worth it and I am proud but with Christmas rapidly approaching, I may just down my pen for a while!

Cracking open the bubbly. Photo from 2018. As neither 2020 (lockdown) nor 2021 (poorly) family Christmasses happened I am looking forward to this one! Sharon’s photo.

Our gamekeeping heritage

Hornby Castle in its 19th century glory. From Morris’s “Country Seats” (1880).

Finally, we reach the last in this series of 3xg grandparents biographies, that of Elizabeth Prout (1822 – 1875) & Thomas Barrett (1820 – 1890), Grandpy’s great grandparents through his father’s father, Henry. Born outside of Yorkshire, to parents with no previous connection to the county they are the couple I think of as being responsible for the almost in “An almost Yorkshire family”. Not that I hold that against them, but is has left me with an almost unanswerable question – why did a woman from Wales and a man from Gloucestershire choose to build their life together in Yorkshire?

It doesn’t help that I am unable to find half the birth certificates for this apparently well-researched family. Nor a reliable marriage certificate. Yet the censuses and other documents all consistently record the same detailed information, down to which property the children were born at. In the end I have decided to focus this blog on what I do know and explore their earlier lives in the future.

Thomas was born c. 1820 in Tetbury, Gloucestershire and Elizabeth c. 1822 in Amroth, Llanelli, Pembrokeshire. By the time Thomas died, in 1890, he had just completed fifty years of service as a gamekeeper for the Dukes of Leeds (the 7th duke succeeded in 1838, the 9th in 1872) and at some date before 1845 must have moved to Hornby Castle, near Bedale, Yorkshire, where the couple were to spend the remainder of their lives. The connection with the estate has to be the best guess as to how the couple met. 

Intriguingly, Elizabeth wasn’t the only Prout sister to end up in Yorkshire as Mary, too, married a man from Bedale. I do wonder if Elizabeth had spotted an opportunity for her to work in the big house. Another reason for me to try and find those estate records. 

In the nineteenth century, Hornby Castle was simply stunning worthy of being made the main seat of residence for the Dukes of Leeds. It contained all the usual trappings of a major stately home including a detached Banqueting House, no less than three icehouses, an eagle aviary and landscaped parkland as good as any designed by Capability Brown.

Mum & I in front of Hornby Castle. Summer 2021. We did knock at a couple of the doors to see if we could take a peek inside, but sadly non-one was at home. Own photo

It’s now a shadow of its former self. In 1930, the 11th duke was forced to sell the property after a “no-holds barred baccarat game” in Monte Carlo, more fool him. The house was due to be demolished with the rubble to be used to build roads. Fortunately, one of those tasked with stripping the property thought better, and a proportion was saved. The tower, inner courtyard and a few other remaining parts are now split into several smaller properties.

Holy Bible with dates of birth of the Barrett children. Mum’s collection. Strangely one son, James, born 1858, seems to be missing.

The 1845 date, with which I can start this couples’ story, comes from the birth of their first child, Reuben, who was born at Barn House in nearby Ainderby Miers. Eleven more children followed: Margaret Ann (b. 1847), Thomas Philip (b. 1849), John (b. 1850), Charles (b. 1852), Elizabeth (b. 1854), Henry (b. 1856) (our ancestor), James (b. 1858), James (b. 1860), Richard (b. 1864), Mary (b. 1864) & William (b. 1865).

1861 census listing children’s birthplace as Barn House, parish of Hornby. I am very thankful that the enumerator, Mr Francis Jameson, took his job so seriously. Reuben, the couple’s first child, appears on the previous page, a live-in servant at the big house. His birthplace is listed the same.

Through the wonderfully detailed censuses we can tell that the family moved to West Appleton at some point between Richard & Mary’s births (4 July 1862 and 2 April 1864).

The 1871 enumerator, Mr Edward Fisher, wasn’t quite as particular in his facts though as his predecessor. For in this census another “daughter” Isabel has appeared on the census. Isabel turned out to be a granddaughter, the illegitimate child of Margaret Ann. Margaret went on to marry and have two more legitimate children, taking her Isabel with her. Alice was not so fortunate. You might have thought the family would have learnt from this necessary deceit, but no, for four years later, Elizabeth, the second Barrett daughter, also had a child, Alice (b. 1872), out of wedlock. Something about being a female servant on a large estate perhaps. Sadly, Elizabeth died in childbirth and Alice too, died young at the relatively young age of twenty-one.

Elizabeth (the daughter) & Alice (the granddaughter) were not alone in dying young for this was not a long-lived clan: The Richmond & Ripon Chronicle was awash with notices for the Barrett children. The two James’s both died in infancy, which would be fairly typical, but then, in what must have been an annus horriblis in 1871/1872, John, Charles and Elizabeth all died as teenagers. Richard & Mary too died relatively young. They outlived both parents only because they were amongst the last to be born for both were barely thirty when they died.

Elizabeth herself was just 53 when she died on 24 September 1875.

Thomas remarried, another Elizabeth, a widow, on 20 December 1876. This second Elizabeth was born in Moffatt, Dumfriesshire neatly bringing Great Britain’s three nations together in one family.

There may well have been a good reason for Thomas to choose another outsider as his second wife for gamekeepers occupied a somewhat controversial position in the Victorian countryside. On the one hand they were one of the more respected senior servants on the estate and developed a deep knowledge of the local countryside. On the other they were the upholders of fiercely contested laws preventing public access to land and to game, regularly required to catch and prosecute poachers who were often their neighbours. Many gamekeepers felt a swift hiding was more effective than bringing the offenders to court, but Thomas seems to be quite a regular at the local petty sessions.

Nor was Thomas always on the right side of the law. The following, lengthy, report details a game trespass claim made against Thomas and his son Reuben. Ultimately the magistrates decided that “as the tenant of the farm had allowed the Duke of Leeds to shoot over the land for a number of years without using the right of letting the shooting himself, and as he had stated that he had a perfect right to the shooting, he not having signed any agreement, they would dismiss the case.” Phew.

The Knaresborough Post article, Saturday, 27 November 1880.

The above article also illustrates the strong tradition of gamekeeping being handed down from father to son. Reuben, the eldest, was ultimately to take over his father’s position at Hornby Castle. Henry, our ancestor, moved to work for the Yorke family on their Bewerley Estate at Middlesmoor. Like any profession, the younger training starts, the more skilled an individual could become and in, what was a twenty-four-hour, seven-days-a-week occupation, children with a gamekeeper for a father had a tremendous head start.

And it was a skilled profession. Gamekeepers had to master a variety of countryside skills to raise the game and keep it safe from poachers and vermin. Each gamekeeper developed his own means of doing so and these tips and recipes would be passed on from father to son. I think that’s what this receipt is. It was found in my great uncle Henry Barrett’s papers, but it clearly written in his father, my great grandfather, George Thomas Barrett’s, handwriting. I’d love to think that he, in turn, had inherited from his grandfather, Thomas.

A receipt to draw vermin, believed to be in George Thomas Barrett’s handwriting. Own collection.

5 drops of Roses, 5 drops of Rhodium, 10 drops of Anyseeds [Aniseed], 10 drops of Carayway [Caraway] Seeds

For drawing Cat dog or anything you like. Keep closed corked.

Gamekeepers, the least violent ones at least, also had to be skilled at handling a wide range of people, from local labourers caught poaching to the highest toffs in the land during major shoots. Thomas, I feel, had this cracked. For after he died, on 7 June 1890, after fifty years of service, his well-attended funeral, was considered of sufficient worth as to have been reported on in detail in none other than the York Herald.

“Funeral of Mr Thomas Barrett, of Hornby Castle – On Tuesday afternoon the remains of Mr T Barrett were interred in the Hornby Churchyard amidst every token of respect. Mr Barrett had just completed a service of 50 years, having been head gamekeeper to the Duke of Leeds the largest portion of that time. Several beautiful wreaths were sent by Mr S T Jones, steward on the Dukes Estate, Mr Nichol, head gardener, Mrs Waters, the housekeeper, and Mr Hutchinson and Mr Hallam of Leeds and others. A very large number of tenants and workspeople on the estate as well as tradespeople and relatives and friends paid their last tribute of respect. The service at the grave and in the church was most impressively read by the Rev D Moore, vicar of Hornby””. (York Herald on 14 June 1890)

The gravestone of Thomas Barrett in Hornby Church. Note the lack of any mention of his wives. Own photo. Thus, this series of biographies of our great, great, great grandparents come to an end. Although this not the end of the tales!

Thus, this series of biographies of our great, great, great grandparents come to an end. Although this not the end of the tales as each one has left me with something new to research.

With much gratitude to all my great, great, great grandparents who have provided me with such a rich range of material through which to get to know them just a little bit better.

What surnames can add to the knowledge of our beginnings

We begin our family history journey at the end. There are many logical reasons for this, for after all, what would be the beginning? The generationally oldest ancestors? I believe I know something about eighteen 12x great grandparents who lived in the 1500s but far from enough to make their life interesting and what about the other 8,174 of them (endogamy aside)? DNA? Mine simply supports what I already know – my ancestors are mostly from Yorkshire. However, there is one other angle, that of surnames which can provide an insight into ancestors much further back than we will ever be able to prove.

In this article, the numbers born refer to the period from the start of civil registration, currently transcribed on freebmd (1837 – 1992 approx). The counts for the first seven surnames were taken on 3 August 2022, for more distant ancestors on 29 November 2022.


Jesse Houseman (Grandma’s Dad)’s signature at the end of a letter to his landlord. 1920. Own collection.

Born a Houseman, like my Grandma, I plan to die as one. Although I’m resorting to changing my name back by deed poll whilst my Grandma just married a Houseman. As the subtitle to my website notes “it’s who I am.” It is, though, only my second favourite surname. Largely, I think, because it’s already been well-researched and I am forever grateful to Gary Houseman who proved the link between my two paternal grandparents.

Whilst this surname is believed to originate from an occupation, from someone working at or associated with the local “great” house, it is relatively uncommon and highly geographically concentrated. 43% of the 2,651 Housemans born in England & Wales between 1837 and 1992 (as counted on 3 August 2022) were born in Yorkshire counties and of these there is only one branch who are not directly related. I was delighted to find that the one family in Yorkshire who are not related by blood can still be connected into my tree as William Shaw Houseman (b. 1848) who’s father, Robert, was born in London, married Hannah Smith, who’s mother was a Houseman!


Grandpy’s entry in my autograph book. 1985. Own collection.

By contrast, I’ve never felt the same connection to my mother’s maiden name. It crops up too often for me to be sure I’ve found the right family. There’s even a shoe store which carries the name. Our Barretts had the audacity to originate from Gloucestershire and it’s Norman in origin. Sorry Grandpy, I love you, but it’s not a surname that holds my attention.


Nana’s Booth signature at the front of her own autograph book. c. 1939. Own collection.

Nana’s birth name.

Many years ago I spotted a beautiful seventeenth century wooden tray painted with the names of a Booth family. £400 was an awful lot of money but I was severely tempted, convinced the family would be related somehow. Whilst I still hold a slight sense of regret the chances that the tray family were in anyway related is slim to non-existent for there were nearly 50x as many Booths born as Housemans.

Booth is considered to be a northern name (over a quarter of those registered births were in Yorkshire) originating from the old Danish word “bōth” meaning a temporary shelter such as a cattle-herdsman’s hut. We were cattle keepers, probably the most appropriate of our surnames throughout my paper history. It also accounts for the 2% of Swedish & Danish ancestry in my Mum’s DNA profile.

Booth is also one of the two surnames I planned to use if I was ever to write under a pen name, which leads me onto….


Ernest Moody (Nana’s grandfather)’s autograph from Nana’s book. 1939. Own collection.

Nana’s mother’s birth name and the other pen name I would choose.

From the Middle English mody meaning ‘proud, haughty, angry, fierce, bold, brave, or rash’ not grumpy as it is now.

I broke freebmd trying to work out what percentage of people had been born in Yorkshire, but in the 2021 census, Yorkshire was home to about 9% of the population of England & Wales so essentially anything over 10% represents a northern bias and Moody, at 14% is no exception.

But as for Moodys being proud & haughty? This was the most unassuming branch of our family tree. We’d obviously not inherited those genes.


Mary (Pollie) Wellock, Grandpy’s mother. From her date book. 1907. Own collection.

Grandpy’s mother’s birth name.

I love the Wellock surname. Most recently it’s enabled a wonderful Canadian adventure. Every Wellock alive today can be traced back to just two men. They are either descendants of Henry (born in the late 1500s in Kirby Malham) or of Robert (b. c. 1546 in Linton in Craven). The two are undoubtably related but I am always disappointed when a Wellock is descended from Henry.

Common thinking is that Wellock is a derivation of de Wheelock suggesting Norman ancestry, but given that the Wellock (or Walock) name is only held by those from Craven, Yorkshire, my interest stops there.


John Scott (Grandma’s grandfather) from his will dated 1920. Own collection.

Grandma’s mother’s birth name.

Ultimately it’s a man from Scotland. Which could mean anything. Weirdly, my Mum’s DNA contains a lot of unexplained Scottish DNA whilst my paternal Uncle’s contains none. It’s also the most common surname amongst my great grandparents. Combine it with John and you’ve got a genealogical nightmare. So I just feel grateful that I’ve been able to trace this line as far back as my 6x great grandfather, John Scott, born in the early to mid 1700s in Branton Green, North Yorkshire.


Martha (Handley) Clapham (Grandad’s grandmother)’s signature from the 1911 census. Own collection.

Grandad’s mother’s birth name.

The last of my great grandparents surnames is slowly gaining my attention. Growing up there were a lot of Claphams and I thought it must be a common name. But there were under 10,000 of them born between 1837 and 1992 and of those, over 40% were born in Yorkshire. Which explains why there were a lot of them about when I was growing up.

More interestingly (for me), I have Claphams on my maternal side too – my 5x great grandmother, Elizabeth Clapham was born in Lawkland about three miles from the village of Clapham.

Given that Clapham is believed to originate from the name of a village that could suggest a connection for whilst there are Clapham villages and (different) family branches originating as far away as Bedfordshire, Surrey, Sussex and even Devon, my Grandad’s mother’s family had been slowly tracking south and east away from the original Clapham village. 

Could this be the elusive connection between my Mum & my Dad’s family trees?

Earlier generations

Going back to my 3xG grandparents adds a further twenty-four surnames. It seems I’m unlikely to ever find a familial connection to my friends Sarah Walker & Helen Cooper (being the two most popular surnames in my tree with over 300,000 of each of them born). There were fullers and coopers in almost every village from which these surnames derive.

There are some though which will be worthy of further exploration.

  • Stansfield, Furniss and Hinchcliffe are all relatively rare. They are locational surnames recognising people from Stansfield (near Todmorden), Furness (Cumberland) and Hinchliff (near Holmfirth) so it is not surprising that around 50% of these births were in Yorkshire. Each one might give me a hint as to where the families originated from. Each also has a number of different variants and the exact spelling could be useful in tracing my line.
  • I grew up surrounded by Beecrofts and they pop up on both sides of my tree so was surprised to learn how uncommon the name was both generally and in Yorkshire. It’s a locational name based on an apparently “lost” village named “beo-croft” meaning bee farm. Tracing potential locations in the region could help me bring together the two sides of my family.
  • Down to those names with fewer than 5,000 children born. Teal has my favourite origin story, as it is thought to be a nickname, meaning like a water-bird. One of my distant ancestors must have been graceful in their deportment. The Teal variant of the name is also strongly associated with Yorkshire with over half those born being from Yorkshire.
  • There were fewer Reynards born than Housemans. Reynard does not in fact mean fox-like, but rather a popular medieval story book fox character was given this name and it stuck. It’s a surname with a number of variants, but 64% of the people born carrying the surname in this form were from Yorkshire meaning I stand a good chance of bringing them together in one tree.  
  • And finally, my favourite 3xG Grandmother, Hannah Demaine, keeps on giving. Surprisingly, given it means someone from the ancient French province of Maine, it’s a surname even more rare than Wellock and just as heavily concentrated in Yorkshire. The variant Demain, which I have also seen, only adds a few hundred births. This family of agricultural labourers are about as far from a Norman knight as it is possible to be and has whetted my appetite to research further.

There are a few more ancient names I should mention as being gateway surnames that have enabled me to reach back much further than I would otherwise have done: Wigglesworth, Hebden and Swale are all locational from Yorkshire. Pettyt leads me to a cousin, William, appointed Keeper of the Records in the Tower of London in 1689, who invented a wonderful family history claiming descent from King Arthur and might provide a connection to my oldest friend, Andrea (nee Petty). Finally, there’s Inglesant is a rare example of a surname derived from a woman demonstrating the strength of my female ancestry right back into the medieval ages.   

And so it is that my beginnings reflect the end. It’s an (almost) Yorkshire story.

With much gratitude to Natalie Pithers for her two prompts, beginnings & surnames, which led to this blog and to all my ancient ancestors for picking such wonderful surnames.