Surname Saturday: Boulter

The pop-up family of Boulter are the subject of this week’s Surname Saturday theme. Can you shed any light on this name in Cambridgeshire, England?

An unusual family name that stays in one village – simply popping up in records and then vanishing again.

My Boulter line came to an end when my maternal Great Great Grandmother Elizabeth Boulter married John Freeman Dewey in 1878 at the tiny village of Wentworth in Cambridgeshire.

Elizabeth’s parents were Robert Boulter and Mary Ann Moden who also married at Wentworth. After marrying in 1852, the couple went on to have 10 children with Elizabeth being the oldest. Out of the ten children, seven of them were daughters (one of whom did not survive infancy).

The earliest Boulter ancestors i’ve found so far is William Boulter and his wife Ann Covell – Robert’s parents. They married in 1815 (again, in Wentworth), and had at least four children – 3 sons and a daughter. I don’t yet know where William came from before his marriage to Ann – although she was from the neighbouring village of Witchford, so perhaps William was living in Wentworth in 1815.

John and Edward Boulter
John Boulter (right), my Gt Gt Grandmother’s illegitimate first child, with his son Edward ‘Happy’ Boulter (left) – the only part of the Boulter family that I have photographs for.

The mysteriousness of the family continues, with only one part of the Boulter family (not ancestral) that I have photographs of in my collection (see above) – given to me by a fellow researcher (and distant relative). The photo shows John Boulter (right), the illegitimate first son of my Gt Gt Grandmother Elizabeth Boulter, who was born five years before she married my Gt Gt Grandfather John Freeman Dewey. John Boulter occasionally takes the surname of Dewey in census returns, but this may have been more an attempt to hide the stigma attached to illegitimacy than it might have been to suggest that John was actually his father. In fact, when John got married in 1896, he names his father as ‘John Boulter – deceased’ – did he ever know the truth, or was he using his step-father’s first name?

John Boulter moved to London when he was just 17 where he married Alice Watts and started a family of 11 children (the photo shows him with his third son Edward). Eventually, he joined the Corporation of London as a groom and often rode First Postilion on the Lord Mayor of London’s coach during the annual show.

Distribution of the surname

With Robert and Mary’s family consisting of a larger number of female children than male, it may go some way to explaining how/why the surname has struggled to survive in the area – with the name becoming redundant upon marriage.

Distribution of Boulter families in England, 1891
Ancestry.com’s mapping of the distribution of Boulter families in England, according to the 1891 census.

Ancestry.com have plotted the 1891 census data for the surname, allowing me to see the distribution of 1,661 Boulter families (note – not individuals). According to this data, Cambridgeshire had just 21 families with the surname. Norfolk is the 4th highest concentration of Boulter families with 102 – with it being a neighbouring county, this data might suggest that the family went there or even came from there. Unsurprisingly London led the way with 310 and Leicestershire came second with 240 families. Wiltshire was third with 121.

Origin of the surname

John Ayto offers a couple of different origins for the surname, probably due to it’s common misspellings. In his book ‘Encyclopedia of Surnames
he suggests that the origin is either from a ‘maker of bolts’ (as in for arrows or crossbow); a name given to someone short and stocky; or to the name of someone who sifts flour (from the Middle English term ‘bolten’ – to sift flour).

Where next for research?

I hope one day to find a photograph of my Gt Gt Grandmother Elizabeth Dewey (née Boulter), particularly as I have a photo of her husband, and I know where her grave is. She is my closest ancestor of whom I don’t have a photograph.

As for finding the surname’s next generation back – I’ll be resuming the search in neighbouring parishes for clues (Witcham and Sutton are top of my list) on William’s parents, and I’ll be checking Wills to see if there are any clues left there.

If you have stumbled across this unusual name in your research, please do drop me a line!

The Baby and The Hornet

After giving birth to an illegitimate son, Sarah Dewey left for Australia aboard The Hornet.

A family rumour finally unravels into a story of difficult choices.

Years ago I recall being told about a story in my maternal Dewey family from Witchford, Cambridgeshire, that, although rather scant on details, was essentially a story of emigration and how its impact ‘broke up’ the family that were left behind.

Having researched the Dewey family group in which it was believed to have occurred, I had found nothing. No sign of anyone leaving for foreign shores, other than those in the First World War.

I gave up looking. Perhaps it was just an idle rumour with an element of ‘Chinese whispers’.

However, it was a message from fellow researcher and distant relative Craig Watson who gave me the piece of information that I needed – his ancestor had emigrated, and he had found one of my ancestors in the passenger lists.

The Baby

In 1856, 18 year old Sarah Dewey gave birth to a son. She was not married. Just days after he turned six months old, she left for Australia without him.

I can’t begin to imagine what it must have been like for Sarah, my Great Great Great Grandmother to decide to hand her son (my Great Great Grandfather) over to her ageing parents and leave everything behind to start a new life in Australia in the mid nineteenth century.

An illegitimate child brought with it a significant stigma. Not just for the mother, but also for the child, who would find it hard to escape from the negativity from the disapproving society around them. Illegitimate children were often brought up by their grandparents – making them appear to be a sibling to their own mother, or the mother would soon marry in a bid to avoid the ‘shame’ of being an unmarried mother.

As for the baby, John Freeman Dewey – my Great Great Grandfather, he married Elizabeth Boulter, a seamstress of the neighbouring village of Wentworth, and also a single mother. Together they went on to have nine children.

The Hornet

Hornet, an American clipper ship of the 1850s
Hornet, an American clipper ship of the 1850s

Perhaps Sarah knew that her son John Freeman Dewey would stand a better chance in England with his grandparents, rather than with her on a lengthy voyage at sea to an uncertain future in a ‘new’ country?

Was Sarah running away? Had she faced problems in England and thought that a new life was the best thing? Had she fallen out with her parents? Unless letters miraculously appear, I guess I’ll never know.

On 24th May 1857, Sarah boarded “The Hornet” – a clipper which was well known for its speed. Sarah is noted as ‘government assisted’. She arrived in Hobson’s Bay on Wednesday 2nd September, according to the ‘Shipping Intelligence’ column in The Argus newspaper.

I’ve found no record of her activities whilst in Australia – so far there’s no clue as to what she did, who she met, or whether she wrote home to her parents and son.

Her younger sister, Rebecca Dewey, followed Sarah out on an 87 day voyage aboard the ‘Commodore Perry’ to Australia in 1859, but unlike Sarah, Rebecca stayed in Australia. She married a Cornwall-born Joseph Kendall and settled with him in Geelong with a family of eight children. It is from her, that researcher and distant relative Craig Watson descends.

Coming Home

Something made Sarah return to her family in Witchford in 1861, just missing the census, aboard the “Donald McKay” clipper. Perhaps it was her mother’s ailing health that made her return?

Her mother, Mary (née Tabraham) died in 1866 although I do not currently know her cause of death. Her father re-married to widow Isabel Watson in 1878, and Sarah herself finally settles down to marry at 42 years old, to widower John Gooby in 1879.

Sarah died in 1896, just weeks before the birth of my Great Grandfather.

Further Reading: