Surname Saturday: The Howlett family

Today’s ‘Surname Saturday’ post takes us back in time to meet the Howlett family.

The Howlett family are part of my paternal family tree, and give me one of very few tickets back through time beyond the fenland of Cambridgeshire.

Okay, admittedly it’s only to the adjoining county of Suffolk, but compared to most of the rest my ancestry – that’s the equivalent of the moon!

My most recent Howlett ancestor was Elizabeth Howlett. She was born to Thomas Howlett and his wife Caroline (née Clark) on 3rd March 1856, in the small parish of Kenny Hill – not far from Mildenhall, Suffolk, England.

Elizabeth Howlett with her husband James Gilbert, Burnt Fen, Cambridgeshire.
Elizabeth Howlett with her husband James Gilbert, Burnt Fen, Cambridgeshire. Photo: Andrew Martin

Thomas was the 6th of the 7 children of John Howlett and his second wife Elizabeth (formerly Goodings, née Poll), and the 8th child for Elizabeth after her first marriage to Michael Goodings ended with his premature death at just 27yrs.

John Howlett – my Great x 4 Grandfather, born in about 1786 in Ashfield, Norfolk is currently the extremity of my research. Likely suspects for his parents remain elusive.

At the ripe old age of 38, John married widow Eizabeth Goodings (née Poll) on 17th May 1824 at Wymondham, Norfolk, England, and around 3 months later she gave birth to the first of their eventual 7 children:

  • James Howlett b.1824
  • Hannah Howlett b.1827
  • Robert Howlett b.1828
  • Ellen Howlett b.1832
  • Honour Howlett b.1832
  • Thomas Howlett b.1835
  • Elizabeth Howlett b.1838

For John, this was his second marriage, and as I look back through my file, I see that I don’t yet know who my earlier Step-4x Great Grandmother was… or whether there was an earlier flock of Howlett children. I suspect there may have been – 38yrs in the 1820s, was probably leaving things a bit late!

Weaving in Wymondham

John is noted as a Weaver in 1824, and again in 1828 – just like his new-found father-in-law, Ishmael Poll (who is specifically noted as being a silk weaver). Wymondham had a booming weaving industry, and therefore once mastering weaving, there would have been plenty of looms around. Trade via Norwich, and Norfolk’s plentiful coast, no doubt aided this.  By 1841 though, he’s left weaving, and Norfolk, and appears on the 1841 census for Lakenheath, Suffolk, and has become a ‘labourer’ – undoubtedly on the fertile land surrounding his new home. He’d stay in the Mildenhall area of Suffolk until his death in February 1861.

Meanwhile, by the mid-1800’s John and Elizabeth’s children are marrying and bringing new branches to their family tree. All seven marry – some twice, and most have children.

Thomas’ little sister Elizabeth Howlett (1838) married George Gipp in 1854, and together they had 11 children – including the wonderfully named Rainauld Ishmael Gipp – presumably a nod to the child’s maternal silk weaving great grandfather.

Thomas Howlett

Thomas meanwhile, is working as an agricultural labourer. He married my 3x Great Grandmother, Caroline Clark in Mildenhall on 25th May 1855.

Thomas Howlett and Caroline Clark marriage register signatures
Thomas and Caroline were illiterate, both signing the marriage register with an ‘x’.

Ten months later, their daughter (and my 2x Great Grandmother) Elizabeth Howlett arrives. Life would have been hard for this young little family in the fenland, but it was about to get harder.

Caroline Coe (formerly Howlett, née Clark) - my Great x3 Grandmother c.1911.
Caroline Coe (formerly Howlett, née Clark) – my Great x3 Grandmother c.1911. Photo: Andrew Martin.

Thomas died aged 23 on 28th May 1858. Just days after his 3rd wedding anniversary, and just weeks after his daughter’s 2nd birthday.

He died at Whelpmoor, after suffering from Phthisis (essentially, Tuberculosis) for 9 months.

He must have been in severe pain, whilst desperately trying to provide for his family. Caroline was by his side as he died.

In later life, Caroline would go on to re-marry, to Robert ‘Dadda Bob’ Coe, and this new couple would spend their later years living next-door to her daughter Elizabeth as she married and raised her own family – this time with the Gilbert name.

 

 

Breathing new life into an old photograph

I thought i’d try out a photo restoration service to see if it could breathe new life into an old WWI photograph of my Gt Grandfather – here’s the results!

You might remember that during my 2015 Genealogy Resolutions, I aimed to grow my collection of family photographs.

The up-shot of that is that I have about a dozen old original photos that are creased, flaking, distorted, torn – I’m sure I’m not alone in having these. I also have a few that are modern prints of damaged photographs – where I’ve been able to temporarily borrow a photo to copy it.

Each one of these is just that little bit imperfect that it doesn’t quite make the grade when it comes to enlarging, printing or framing.

As the new year chimed in, I received an email out of the blue from Pick Nick Photo Restoration Services, in Kent, here in the UK.

Pick Nick Photo Restoration Services logo

I’d not really prioritised my photo restoration, as I can meander my way around the likes of Photoshop okay-ish and have made some improvements to the lesser-damaged images in the past, but nothing too adventurous. I think I’d mentally filed the more damaged images in my ‘to-do’ file… you know, the one that must be huge and probably has a 10yr waiting list. That one.

Trying out a photo restoration service

So, on the offer of a freebie, I thought that I’d give it a go. Why not? I get a photo repaired and Pick Nick gets a photo to show off in their portfolio. Everyone’s happy.

So, let’s take a look at the original – this is a photograph of my Great Grandfather, Ernest Edward Thomas Dewey. He served as a Private in the First World War, with The Suffolk Regiment, The Royal Munster Regiment, and The Royal Irish Fusiliers, and saw action in Gallipoli.

Pte Ernest Edward Thomas Dewey on horse (before)
BEFORE: My Great Grandfather Pte Ernest Dewey on a horse during the First World War. Photo: Andrew Martin.

…and within a few days, I received an email back from Pick Nick with the photo restoration job done.

Pte Ernest Dewey on horse - after photo restoration by Pick Nick
ABOVE: My Great Grandfather’s WWI photo looks as good as new after Pick Nick’s restoration (the watermark is purely to protect this image online – i have one without).

I’m really impressed at the result. The photo is much crisper and the sepia level is less aggressive, but those creases have been removed, and the missing bits of the photo that have long since flaked away, have been replaced – seamlessly returned to their rightful place about 100 years since the photograph was first taken.

To feed my curiosity (I’m never one to shy away from such nerdery), Pick Nick sent me a video link that shows the photo restoration done in 3 minutes. From my own dabbling experience, I know it would have taken hours rather than the 3 minutes to do – it’s a very tricky art to master!

So, bringing new life to an old photo has inspired me to rummage and find some more photos that could do with a new lease of life in 2016.

For now though, I definitely know who to recommend if I’m looking for someone to restore my old photos in future.

Happiness, Sadness, and Pride: writing the eulogy

With the death of my grandmother, I was asked to write her eulogy. The happiest, saddest, and proudest piece of writing i’ve ever done.

My grandmother passed away on New Year’s Eve, after several months of hospital care from the ever-brilliant NHS. She was 83, and the last of my grandparents.

My grandmother with her very first Great Grandchild, c.2005. Photo: Andrew Martin.
My grandmother with her third Great Grandchild, c.2008. Photo: Andrew Martin.

As we wait, for what here in the UK feels like a huge drawn-out time for churchyard burial to take place, I found myself being asked to write her eulogy by my mother and her siblings.

I won’t be reading it out. Nor will I post it here. But taking the phone call from my mother where she asked me to write it, I soon found myself feeling a huge wave of happiness, sadness, and pride all rushing at me all at once.

I spent a lot of time with my grandmother during school holidays – playing games, helping her and my grandfather in their allotment, helping what felt like an ever-lasting task of weeding the rockery and not trying to fall in their pond, singing and dancing to records, walking to her local village shops and on to her parents and in-laws to whom she provided daily care, and many bus trips in to Ely.

I remember my mother catching me packing my suitcase for my first solo stay – i was putting loose eggs in my suitcase. I didn’t know how these things worked, and I wanted to be sure I’d get fed. Of course I was.

grandparents marriage 1953
My grandparents’ marriage in 1953. Photo: Andrew Martin

In later life, after the death of my grandfather and her reliance on a wheelchair, as both of us lived alone, we were also kindred spirits. She’d revel in telling me funny risqué stories of her teenage years of dating, or the trouble she caused her parents, and of adventures of dances and trips away with her local friends – and her ‘how i met your grandfather’ stories that she’d certainly never tell my mother, aunt, or uncle!

She was my rebel grandmother. Game for a laugh, a joke, and a singsong. A gadget girl – she was the first person i knew to get a thing called a ‘microwave’ – a huge white thing which she kept in the cupboard, and it weighed a ton. She also had DVDs and CDs long before I or my parents did.

She also had a lazy susan in a kitchen cupboard that spun merrily around to reveal ‘the tin’ – which was where the chocolates lived (albeit briefly) and were magically replenished by kind unseen hands.

She had a green and yellow budgie named Joey (probably more than one to be honest) – who eventually learnt to say his name back to her after years of her saying ‘Joe-Joe Dewey’ at it. My cousins would secretly do impressions of her saying that – which I’ve got here on cassette somewhere.

My grandmother, reading me a story, whilst my sister pretends to be angelic.
My grandmother, reading me a story, whilst my sister pretends to be angelic, and 70’s wallpaper upstages us all. Photo: Andrew Martin.

She was also an absolute raffle fiend, and would win at least 2 prizes for every raffle she took part in – even if it was to win a wholly unsuitable prize – that prize was hers, and like some strange economy, she’d often put those prizes back in to the next raffle. I swear that tin of Heinz Ravioli did the local raffle/bingo circuit for a good few years.

She also delighted my 7yr old ears one school holiday breakfast time, when she went to pick up a bottle of milk she’d had delivered by the milkman. She dropped it. It broke. Then, in a flash of a second which instantly boosted my adoration of her, she ran a 5 word string of mild expletives without pause or breath. I think she realised that I had heard her from the kitchen as it was only herself and I in the house, but my little ears were utterly impressed, and I can hear her say it right now as I type – these 30 years later.

I’ve never written a eulogy before. I heard my cousin (on my other side of the family) read one for  his mother a few years back. I don’t quite remember what was in it, more the way he delivered it, but in a way, I just knew how to write my grandmother’s one. I knew I had to make it funny (to match her sheer sense of mischief), respectful (to match the occasion), and touching, with lots of memories for those cousins, neighbours, friends etc listening.

Pamela Maud Barber c1938
My grandmother in an almost timeless photo, circa 1938. Photo: Andrew Martin.

Keeping roughly to chronology, I found it easy to write, and not as daunting as I first thought, but I had to partly put my family historian aside, and let it just come from the heart too.

I emailed it to my mother. Her only words were ‘perfect. thank you‘, and thankfully my aunt, and my uncle agreed. I don’t know why they thought I should write it, but I’m very grateful they did.

It is a bit rollercoaster, but in a verse I found in my grandmother’s Ely Senior Girls school exercise book from June 1945, I found some inspiration that got me writing, and wondered whether this inspired her in life too as she wrote it down (it seems to be a copy of something, but I don’t know what):

When oft-times plans don’t work out right,
And you are feeling blue.
There is one way to make you bright,
I recommend to you…
– keep smiling.

And that kind of sums her up really. Laughter, happiness, joy, mischief, and a never-ending stream of positivity, and without a doubt, huge waves of love for us all.

My grandmother with my sister, cousin, and me (yes, i'm the squawker at 11wks old). Photo: Andrew Martin
My grandmother with my sister, cousin, and me (yes, i’m the squawker at 11wks old). Photo: Andrew Martin

My 5 New Year Genealogy Resolutions for 2016

As Old Father Time heads off into the sunset, and a new year arrives, what Genealogy Resolutions shall I challenge myself with in 2016?

This is my 4th year of setting myself some New Year Genealogy Resolutions (you can read last year’s here).

I think it’s fair to say that if you’re a hobbying family historian like me, that when you set yourself a target to achieve in your family history research, it’s likely you’re about to get absolutely side-tracked up/down/sideways along your trees. I mean, why would you want to halt research that’s going so well in order to go back to that brick wall yet again?

So, here’s my ‘research plan’ for 2016:

1. Kill Simpson Bishop

Carried over from 2015, the mystery of Simpson Bishop has continued. After his surprise appearance in Lancashire – he abandoned the agricultural fenland of Cambridgeshire and entered the cotton mill industry. He gets married twice more – the latter in 1868, has further children (and grandchildren) but mysteriously lives apart from his wife from 1871 onwards. His wife finally calls herself a ‘widow’ in 1901, even though I haven’t seen him in records since 1874 when two of his daughters died.

What happened to him after 1874? He’s appearing sometimes as James Simpson Bishop (his son’s name), J S Bishop, Simpson Bishop, Sampson Bishop… his variants and the spread of his children makes him fair game to turn up anywhere in the UK and beyond.

I’d like to kill him off, or at the very least find a next piece in his puzzle (emigration? prison? another marriage? a next census return?).

I feel a whiteboard evidence timeline moment coming on.

2. Read other written family histories

Sitting on my bookshelf are The Valley (2014) by Richard Benson, and Family Secrets (2013) by Deborah Cohen.

'The Valley' by Richard Benson, and 'Family Secrets' by Deborah Cohen.
‘The Valley’ by Richard Benson, and ‘Family Secrets’ by Deborah Cohen. I’ll bump these two to the top of my reading list in 2016.

I’ve had them both from new and have (shamefully) yet to get them to the top of my reading pile. I feel that by reading these two books, it will teach me plenty about writing better family stories, and help me to find a way to address earlier resolutions about writing.

If you’d like to recommend some other written family histories/stories, then feel free to do so in the comments below (although my reading pile is already about 150 books tall).

3. Finish a site re-launch

Back in April, Google announced that mobile-friendly sites would get priority in search results. Understandable really, considering that research has shown that most searches are now done on mobile devices rather than desktop.

Therefore, it’s made sense to me to rebuild my FamilyTreeUK website so that it uses a responsive web design. I’m fluent in HTML and CSS, so it’s been no big deal to do build the old sites, and not so hard to do this from-scratch re-build so that it works on a range of devices. I’ve been adding in search boxes, and lots of goodies specifically for search engines to read, so hopefully once done it is going to fare well.

What will now take time though is deploying it across all the lovingly handcrafted profile pages (there’s probably 130ish at least). I’ll be doing this over Christmas 2015, and probably whilst this post goes live.

Hang in there, it’ll look a bit weirdly disjoined for a bit, but once it’s complete it should hopefully future proof it for a good many years to come and make it more discoverable and user friendly.

4. Run another AncestryDNA test

So, back in May, my mother and I took our AncestryDNA tests, which gave us both some interesting and unexpected ethnicity estimates. There were some indicators that my father’s DNA should answer some of the ‘where the hell did that come from?’ questions, and also show me what the 50% i didn’t inherit from him might have been (and consequently might be lurking in my sister’s DNA).

So, I hope to encourage my father to take his test. He did show some initial interest in taking it but with the test price increasing a little, and the postage cost being a bit of a mood killer (£20?!? – why is this so much? Why not get Amazon to carry it in stock for you too and reach more potential users, and via cheaper P&P?) he’s held back.

AncestryDNA postage costs
AncestryDNA postage costs are a bit of a mystery.

I managed to get my first two for £79 each at Who Do You Think You Are? Live, (cheaper and minus the P&P), so i’m hoping they repeat the deal when I’m back there in April 2016.

Of course, there is the question after taking these tests as to what you do with that info… it does feel good to see it, but the chance of linking it back to a close common ancestor of another Ancestry user seems to be slim so far.

5. Meet more relatives

One thing that has happened over the last few years is that people stumble across this blog and my website and send me a message – and every now and then they’re someone who is related to me.

Therefore, in 2016, I hope to get to meet (within reasonable geography) some of these more distant relatives to find out about their branches and our common ancestors.

I wrote about how a cousin’s family is like a world looking in on your family and that therefore they’re a great source of photos of your closer family.

Plus, as an adult and family historian, I always believe that you should talk to strangers… it helps make the world get a little bit smaller, and a little bit friendlier.

 

Those 2015 New Year Genealogy Resolutions

Remember those Genealogy Resolutions from 2015? Well, let’s see how I’ve done so far…

Right at the tail end of 2014, I set myself some more New Year Genealogy Resolutions, in a bid to get myself to focus on solving some more problems (if only in a rush in December 2015). So, how did I get on?

1. Source and Scan even more photographs

I can confidently say that I have achieved this.

In my resolution, I included a screenshot of my current archived collection of photos, and it stated that I had 258 faces across 273 photographs. As of right now, I have tagged 283 different relatives faces across 321 photographs.

iPhoto showing a selection of Faces.
iPhoto showing a selection of Faces in my family tree photo collection.

Okay, that’s an increase, but I didn’t even start talking to my more distant Gilbert relatives, or my elderly uncle, so I think I could easily improve on that if I tried harder.

2. Kill off Mary Clarke

Honestly, this woman just won’t die. Mary Bailey (née Clarke) was my 4x Great Grandmother, and she has survived conviction and hard labour for abusing, neglecting, and cruelty towards her step-children, and a few periods in the workhouse, and yet she continues to dodge death.

In my resolution, I hinted towards a possible lead that might place her burial place under what is now a housing estate. However, the death certificate proved incorrect, and so she remains – out there.

Somewhere. Almost teasing me.

I’ll get you Mary!

3. Delve into new record sets

It’s easy to stick to censuses and parish records, but there’s so much more out there.

In 2015 I achieved this – I explored the newly launched online Wills service – which allowed me to download copies of relatives Wills from the comfort of my desk.

I’ve continued to explore newspapers, and these have often thrown me some new slivers of information – or leads to go on at least.

As I write this post, I’ve just had an email from Alex Cox at the FindMyPast team telling me about yet another batch of records they’ve added to their site. Honestly, you guys ruin my weekends!!

New India records available on findmypast
Alex Cox’s email telling me of new India records available on findmypast

So, just a couple of minutes ago, I took advantage of some newly available British India Ecclesiastical Returns and downloaded a copy of the marriage entry for a Sgt Thomas Yarrow and his wife Catherine O’Keefe (née Cambert) in 1863 at Faizabad. I already have a great deal of information on these two (including a family photo), but the marriage entry finally gives me the exact date of this event.

4. Write more

I kind of wrote more…. but unlike my resolution, it didn’t involve a book.

Instead, after Google announced it’s ‘mobilegeddon‘ update back in April 2015 (where Search Results will be biased towards mobile-friendly sites), I’ve been busy designing a fully responsive website template with which to upgrade The Family Tree UK website. I’ve done this from scratch, and now I’m slowly migrating the content across.

So yes, I did write more, but it was in HTML5, CSS3 and all in the name of future proofing my site. I also took the opportunity to tidy up some data and links too – so essentially all behind the scenes stuff.

5. Complete Simpson Bishop’s timeline

This one has puzzled me for a while ever since I stumbled across an unexpected departure from rural fenland up to the cotton mills, and an extra two marriages.

I lose Simpson Bishop after the deaths and burials of two of his young daughters in 1874. At the time of the 1871 census, he is not living with his third wife. Instead, he is living a short distance away with some of his older children.

He goes AWOL 1881-1891, whilst his third wife Sarah is easy to find – yet she states that she is ‘married’. She finally states she is a widow on the 1901 census.

Did he abandon her? Were they simply living apart on the census because they had a big family that wouldn’t fit in one small house for cotton mill workers like them? Did he emigrate? Did he die just after the 1871 census?

These questions puzzle me, and I feel that I need to give more attention to the Lancashire records and maps so that I can make judgements as to where he might have gone and why.

So, like Mary Clarke, he’s still out there… and I will find him.

Did you have any Genealogy Resolutions from 2015?

Last year a few of you suggested that you might participate with your own resolutions, so I’m wondering how yours fared – better or worse than mine?

It’s so easy to get sidetracked in family history if its your hobby as your attention competes with everything else that’s going on in your life. I’d like to think that professional genealogists, being more focussed and deadline conscious, would be better at Genealogy Resolutions. What do you think?

Anyway, have a think about what you might aim to do in 2016, as my 2016 Genealogy Resolutions are almost ready!

In the meantime, Happy Holidays!

Andrew :)

The Littleport Society Open Day 2015

The Littleport Society Open Day takes place at The Barn, Littleport, Cambridgeshire, on Saturday 19th September 2015, 10am – 4pm, with FREE ENTRY.

The Littleport Society crestThe Littleport Society are opening their doors on Saturday 19th September 2015 – with free entry to a range of specially built displays.

I’ve known the Society for many years, having helped them with their first web presence back in 1998.

Earlier this year I was co-opted onto their Committee, and this is allowing me to help them with digitally cataloguing their huge archive of items which ranges from dinosaur fossils, right through to Manorial Records, wartime documents, and the latest community leaflets and photos from 2015!

The Open Day will give you the chance to learn more about your Littleport ancestors, find out what your ancestors may have done, and how The Great War affected the lives of those in Littleport.

Entry and parking is FREE, and the doors open at The Barn (off Main Street) from 10am until 4pm.

For the latest information, check out The Littleport Society website.

Cambridgeshire Family and Local History Fair 2015

The Cambridgeshire Family and Local History Fair 2015 takes place on Saturday 5th September 2015.

The team over at the Cambridgeshire Family History Society are running their annual History Fair again this year on Saturday 5th September 2015.

The Main Hall at the Cambridgeshire Family History Fair 2014.
The Main Hall at the Cambridgeshire Family History Fair 2014.

Once again, Girton Glebe Primary School plays host from 10am until 4pm. It’s free entry, and the school has parking and public transport links.

This year’s speakers include:

  • Mike Petty on Cambridge at War
  • Helen Brown on Family History Software and Apps
  • Mike Sharpe on Writing your Family History
  • Janet Few on 17th Century Life – complete with artefacts and costume!

Each talk costs £2 per person.

As in previous years, a wide range of local history and genealogy societies and genealogy suppliers will be exhibiting in the main hall.

For the fullest and most up to date details of the Fair, please check out the Cambridgeshire Family History Society’s website.

Smoke and Censuses – a lucky escape for Matilda Johnson

In 1837, a tragedy strikes, leaving infant Matilda Johnson in the care of her elderly grandmother, Avis Wisby.

Since learning the hard way, I’ve always been an advocate of exploring your relative’s neighbours and house guests in census returns. In one such case, I unraveled a mystery that led me to a tragic yet peaceful accident.

When their youngest child was no more than 2 years old, my Gtx4 Grandmother Avis Martin (née Tall) lost her husband Robert Martin at the age of 41 in the March of 1826. With his death prior to certification, any efforts to find the cause would likely be zero. The burial register of the fenland village of Little Downham, Cambridgeshire, England, gives no clue.

The couple had become parents six times since their marriage in 1812, but life had dealt them a cruel hand in these bleak fens – their first (William), fourth (Elizabeth) and fifth child (Robert), all failing to thrive. Elizabeth made it to 2, Robert less, and William died just 4 months after their father in July 1826. He was 13.

Avis was now a widow at 38 years in a remote fenland village with three remaining children (James, Sarah, and a second Robert). By August 1827, she re-married, this time to James Wisbey, and by 1830 the couple had their first son. For once, life was a bit ‘on the up’.

By 1834, her daughter Sarah Martin had married James Johnson at Little Downham, and their daughter Matilda Johnson entered the church for her baptism on 3rd January 1836.

Matilda and Avis

PatPatPatPatPatMat Great Great Great Great Grandmother, Avis
Photo believed to be of Gt x4 Grandmother Avis.

In my beloved 1851 census, I found Avis Wisbey as an ‘out door labourer‘ in what was to be her final census. I’d already killed her off in August 1858, but I noticed that she wasn’t alone. I didn’t know Matilda at this point, so was curious as to who this 17 year old Matilda Johnson was. My only clue was that she was noted as ‘granddaughter’.

I back tracked to the less reliable 1841 census – and there she was again – this time aged ‘5’ years, and again living with her grandmother.

Heading backwards through the records, I found her baptism in January 1836, and then found the Johnson/Martin marriage that belonged to her parents in 1834 – and proving her connection to Sarah Martin and Avis.

But where had her parents gone?

It didn’t take me long to find a burial register entry that hinted at a bigger story. On 5th February 1837, James (23yrs) and Sarah (20yrs) Johnson are buried with the register giving a clue of ‘husband and wife by suffocation‘.

Matilda in the headlines

That’s the first time that I’ve seen ‘suffocation’ given as a cause of death, and with both husband and wife dying together by the same cause, I sensed that there must be more information. Was it foul play? Or was there some terrible accident?

A search of newspapers provided me with the answer, and they made several different ones:

The Huntingdon, Bedford & Peterborough Gazette of the 18th February states:

“DEATH FROM SUFFOCATION – Inquests were held on Friday se’nnight in the parish of Downham, on the bodies of James Johnson and Sarah, his wife, who died from the effects of charcoal burning in the bed-room. Verdict accordingly”

The story unfolds a little further courtesy of a number of newspapers that including The Cambridge Chronicle, and The Morning Post, and this cutting from Jackson’s Oxford Journal also of 18th February 1837, which carries a long and detailed report on the whole incident.

Here it states that due to a pan of ashes being in the bedroom, the wife suffocated. The husband died of apoplexy having seemingly woken but dying shortly afterwards, and that the daughter (Matilda) survived only because she was tucked further down in the the bed and saved by the sheets. It notes that Matilda entered the care of her grandmother.

Death from Suffocation - 1837 deaths of James and Sarah Johnson
The story made front page news of Jackson’s Oxford Journal in February 1837.

It seems that an innocent accident brought tragedy for the family. And that only by luck, through the action of neighbours, and the positioning of some bed sheets, that Matilda survived in bed – not even 2yrs old, laying amongst the bodies of her dead parents.

What became of Matilda?

In Avis’ care, orphaned Matilda Johnson grew up. Eight months after the 1851 UK census, Matilda married John Artingstall of Lancashire, in the Little Downham church where her parents had just 17 years earlier.

After a sad start to their own parenthood (their first child, Elizabeth Artingstall died as an infant), they went on to become parents a further nine times in Gorton, Lancashire. The family appear at Far Lane (briefly at No. 10) and 56 Far Lane, Gorton.

John died in 1897 aged 69, and Matilda reached the ripe old age of 81, dying in 1917.

She survived tragedy by a stroke of luck, and lived a full life, becoming a grandmother herself, via her own daughter, who took here late mother’s name – Sarah.

Taking an autosomal DNA test with AncestryDNA (Part Two)

The Ancestry DNA results are in for my mother and I… but what do you get, and how can they be interpreted?

It’s been a few patient weeks since I did my AncestryDNA test but the email has come through. The results of the AncestryDNA tests for my mother and I have arrived.

Excitedly I clicked on my name first to see what it would reveal.

When you get your results you’re presented with a kind of ‘dashboard’. This includes your name and a brief summary of your Ethnicity Estimate and your DNA Matches.

Able to see the top three results in this dashboard view, I clicked through to view the complete geographic/ethnicity estimate map and results.

AncestryDNA 'Ethnicity Estimate' results  and map.
My AncestryDNA ‘Ethnicity Estimate’ results and map.

With little surprise, Great Britain appeared at the top. Although DNA runs through us all from our very evolution, my family history research (which is a nanosecond snapshot by comparison) has given me a set of documented ancestors who have never strayed outside of England.

Of course, documents lie but DNA doesn’t, but in both cases – it’s all in the interpretation.

After Great Britain, coming in second and as a complete surprise was my 18% Irish genes. So far, I’ve found no Irish ancestors, and only 1-2 Irish relatives. I can’t even put my finger on a few possible Irish surnames… but, they appear to be in the mix somewhere.

In third place, with a nice 11% is my highly anticipated (and hoped for) Scandinavian DNA.   Having been surprised by the Irish DNA, I’d have expected this or Europe West to have turned up as second.

These three are then followed by what Ancestry calls ‘Trace Regions’. They explain that these are small traces of ethnicity, but that they may be unreliable. They’ve included them just in case.

For me, I’m amused by being 4% Italian/Greek, 3% Finn and Northwest Russian, but surprisingly a lowly 3% Western European.

Setting contexts

What is useful, and acts almost as a caveat to the percentage and map, is the potted history of the region when you click on its name. When reading this, you realise that for someone with 61% Great Britain score (the average Great Briton has 60%, so i only just scraped in), seeing Scandinavian in my DNA is absolutely no surprise. Also, seeing Irish and Scandinavian together is no surprise either, and that’s down to the trade and settlement of the Vikings who held around 1/3rd of England by the late 800s. Vikings of course made their way to Ireland too, so it would be unsurprising for both Scandinavian and Irish DNA to turn up.

Reassuringly, Ancestry’s test had spotted that there was a parent/child relationship between myself and my mother’s DNA.

Comparing DNA with my mother

When you look at my mother’s DNA results in comparison, you get a hint of the 50% of the DNA that I didn’t inherit, and a hint at what DNA may well be lurking in my father.

My mother's AncestryDNA ethnicity estimate
My mother’s AncestryDNA results reveal she’s more European than me.

For my mother, her ‘Ethnicity Estimate’ pitches her as 8% more than the average Great Briton, at 68%.

Then, what is my lowest estimated score (of 1%), my mother has as second – she’s 13% Western European. That’s roughly the percentage that I’d have expected to have seen in my result, given ancestral surnames of the likes of the German sounding Moden and Swiss sounding Gothard surnames in her tree.

With delight, I revealed her Scandinavian roots too (she’s a big Vikings fan, and we share a Viking-sounding Yarrow ancestral surname). Her percent is less than mine, so maybe this hints at some Scandinavian DNA in my father too?

It’s not until you reach her ‘Trace Regions’ that Irish DNA turns up – and for her it’s just 3%, whereas mine was 18%. Maybe this also suggests that there’s Irish DNA in my father.

Also amongst my mother’s Trace Regions is 5% Iberian Peninsula, and our shared Finland/Northwest Russa DNA (at 2%).

I’d guess that when looking at geography – for someone with an estimate so high of Western Europe, then seeing the Iberian Peninsula is no surprise. The Fin and Russian ethnicity traces may well be echoes through our Scandinavian DNA too.

Finally, my mother’s Trace Regions end with what has made me chuckle. She’s 1% Eastern European.  She’s a Daily Mail reader, and I continually mock-plead with her to stop reading that ‘newspaper’… which is packed with shock stories and hatred for people from Ukraine, Poland and other Eastern European countries. Hopefully that 1% will serve as another reason she should stop buying it!!

So, what can I do with this new-found knowledge?

This was my questioning right from the out-set. You get a set of data that spans right back through human life – far too far back into history for you to research. At it’s top level, and for those who aren’t really interested in family history, this is a kind of ‘genetic tourism’ or ‘family tree tourism’. Dr Adam Rutherford‘s recent radio feature on The Business of Genetic Ancestry kind of puts it nicely.

AncestryDNA sold this autosomal DNA testing concept to me when they showed what they’d do next with the data – and that’s to use it alongside all the other users who get their test results, and use it to suggest DNA matches to you. It was this point at Who Do You Think You Are? Live that I decided to pay up.

That AncestryDNA dashboard shows you some of those matches, each with a rating of how confident they are at the matches.. and then it’s over to you to reach out to them and explore that connection through Ancestry.

AncestryDNA matches
AncestryDNA shows you who has varying degree of DNA matches with your results.

I’ve already begun reaching out to a few – and it was reassuring to see matches with people I’ve already linked to through good old fashioned family history research, and also a number of people who are strangers but carry some of my obscurer family surnames too.

Ancestry, I’m impressed. All I need to do now, is think of who best to test next. My father? My sister? The oldest blood relative I can find?

Taking an autosomal DNA test with AncestryDNA (Part One)

Part One of my autosomal DNA test with AncestryDNA.

It’s more than a month since I picked up two of the AncestryDNA kits from the Who Do You Think You Are? Live show at Birmingham. One kit is for me, the other is for my mother.

AncestryDNA talks
AncestryDNA has been a heavily promoted product this year’s WDYTYA? Live show.

This weekend I finally had the chance to sit and do my part of the autosomal DNA test with my mother.

An autosomal test allows you to track both sides of your family – giving you a more ‘tree-like’ view of your family.

You might be asking now, why would my mother bother spending money on having the test done too, when I’ve done the test? Well, aside from her excited response when I texted her from WDYTYA? Live to tell her I’d bought a kit and asked her whether she would also like one, there is value in testing near relatives.

This is because whilst 50% of my DNA comes from each of my parents, I won’t know which 50%. With my mother being tested too, it should give me a better understanding of what’s lurking in my maternal DNA, and a rough idea as to what’s lurking in my father’s un-tested DNA.

Also, because I’m only 50% of my maternal DNA, it means, which bits of my maternal grandparents DNA am I missing? If my sister took this test, she would no doubt have a different set of DNA, with some commonly handed-down bits, but also some of the bits that I didn’t get.  Similarly, if my maternal grandmother took the test, we may see that there’s a load of DNA in her sample, that never made it to my mother, or that did make it to my mother, and to me, but not my sister – simply because DNA takes a random 50% sample each time.

When you get your AncestryDNA kit, you realise just how smart and slick the packaging looks – almost as if it’s something from the Apple range. As soon as you open it, you’re greeted by a welcome and the instructions guide.

Inside an AncestryDNA test box
Open the box, and the instructions are right there, and really clear.

There really is two steps you need to do for this test. The first is activate kit online. This is so important – and Ancestry have been sure to put your activation code everywhere on your kit – it’s on the back of the instructions card, it’s on the plastic carton containing the kit, and it’s on the sample itself.

If you still fail to note that code, and activate it at their ancestrydna.co.uk/activate (I activated my code a month before I actually did the test), then when you send off your samples, the AncestryDNA team will have no idea who did the test, or who/how to return the results. You’ll have wasted your time and money.

Underneath the instructions card is a plastic carton containing your sample tube, and a cap containing blue sample stabilising solution. There’s also a grey plastic envelope, and, in the case of UK and Republic of Ireland, there’s also a postage-paid box. That’s it.

Aside from making sure that you have activated your kit (or will activate as soon as you post it), the other piece of advice is not to ‘eat, drink, smoke, or chew gum for 30 minutes before giving your saliva sample‘. These activities would no doubt make your sample become more of a dietary analysis, than a DNA one.

Filling the little tube with your saliva is actually quite a challenge, and there is no elegant way of doing it. Both myself and my mother found that we were good at frothing into the little funnel, but we both got levels up to the wavy line eventually.

AncestryDNA sample
My DNA sample with the blue stabilising solution cap screwed on.

The next step was to remove the slobbery funnel, and then screw on the cap containing the blue solution. Whilst screwing this on, it breaks the seal in the cap, allowing the solution to fall down into your sample. The instructions then tell you to shake your sample for at least 5 seconds to mix it, and then put the sample in the grey plastic bag.

Having sealed that up, my mother and I popped our samples into the postage-paid boxes, sealed those up, and I posted them.

Once you’ve activated your kit, you get a little progress bar in your account that tells you about your sample:

AncestryDNA sample progress bar
The progress bar keeps you informed of your sample’s journey.

With the seemingly big buzz at Who Do You Think You Are? Live, and the AncestryDNA campaign in total, I’m sure that the results processing time has been busy for their labs, so the 6-8 weeks timeframe given on my indicator is fine with me.

I’m looking forward to the results. As an Ancestry user, I’ll be interested to see which other testers have DNA matches, and whether I know of those people already, but like my mother, we’re both interested in seeing the geographic distribution estimate maps.

We’re hoping our inner-Viking will appear!