Surname Saturday: Skeel

Skeel – An unusual and widely mis-spelt ancestral surname that appears to have roots in 18th Century Middlesex, is this week’s Surname Saturday themed post.

An unusual and widely mis-spelt ancestral surname that appears to have roots in 18th Century Middlesex.

My most recent Skeel ancestor, Elizabeth, was my 4x Great Grandmother. She was born in 1802 in the village of Swaffham Bulbeck, Cambridgeshire, and was the oldest of a total of ten children – her parents having married the year before her birth.

St Mary's church, Swaffham Bulbeck, Cambridgeshire.
St Mary’s church, Swaffham Bulbeck, Cambridgeshire.

Elizabeth’s parents were Job Skeel and Elizabeth Richardson. Whilst Elizabeth was born and died in Swaffham Bulbeck (c.1781 – November 1872), Job’s origins were from outside this small village community, although he ended his days there in July 1860.

Skeel in Middlesex

The only clue so far, as to Job Skeels origins comes from the 1851 census (his last) – where it is noted that he is a ‘former Horse Breaker’ and was born Brentford, Middlesex (now part of modern-day Greater London). If his age was correct in 1851 (74 years), it means that he would have been born in approximately 1777.

In 1841, Job is noted as a ‘Fishmonger’ and because this census simply asks if the person was from within the county, it simply says ‘N’ for no.

Whilst there are many Skeels in and around Middlesex during the 1770s, there are also Skeels in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk – where a Job Skeels (of William and Mary) is baptised in 1777, and closer still to Swaffham Bulbeck, the surname appears in Chatteris, Cambridgeshire.

Great Yarmouth might have been where Job lived after his birth, because this would perhaps support why he’d become a fishmonger – with Great Yarmouth having been a major fishing port until it’s decline in the latter part of the 20th Century.

It is therefore unclear as to where his family were from, and whether they had only been in Brentford for a short while, having come from Norfolk or Cambridgeshire previously.

Further research of either the Brentford or Great Yarmouth parish registers may help to confirm his parents, and whether he had any siblings. For now, it remains a mystery.

Variants of Skeel

The surname attracts a number of variants – possibly due to illiteracy, or maybe due to regional accents (perhaps further support of the potential Norfolk connection?).

  • Skeel
  • Skeels
  • Scate
  • Scale
  • Scales

Why keeping up with the neighbours is important in genealogy

If you’re not examining your ancestor’s neighbours, then you could be missing some key information.

These days, quite a lot of people have no idea who their neighbours are – their names, what they do, where they work etc, and the only interaction may be a quick ‘hello’, a nod, or occasionally collecting parcels from each other.

It’s just a sad sign of the times that as our lives become busier, and as families become more geographically spread, that we just don’t have the time or inclination to socialise with the people who live just a few feet away.

It’s not always been like this though – looking to the censuses of at least the early 1900s, you may discover that your ancestor’s neighbours play a much more significant role in your family.

‘Neighbours. Everybody needs good neighbours’

When the 1861 census took place, the enumerator for Swaffham Bulbeck in Cambridgeshire, England, visited Village Street and noted down the names and details of everyone there including four families who were all living nextdoor to eachother – each with different surnames.

1861 census return for Village Street, Swaffham Bulbeck, Cambridgeshire.
The 1861 census of Village Street in Swaffham Bulbeck, shows a number of families.

The enumerator may well have known the Newman, Skeels, Fordham and Levitt families seen in the example above, but the census does not shed any light onto the significance of the proximity of these 18 people.

The 18 people on this census folio are actually four generations of the same family, and this folio is a snapshot of how they had stayed together as the families grew. By trawling back to the 1851 census, you are able to find the core family again, in a much smaller family group.

The seventy-seven year old widow, Elizabeth Skeels, née Richardson, is the great grandmother and matriarch of the family. She appears here in 1861 as living just feet away from her daughter’s (Elizabeth Levitt, née Skeels) family, and is surrounded by the families of her daughter’s oldest children (Emma Newman, née Levitt and Harriet Fordham, née Levitt) whilst the younger children are still at home.

At first glance, I would have spotted Skeels, or if i had been in Newman or Levitt ‘research mode’ I’d have seen them and not necessarily spotted or realised the importance of the families around them.

So, keeping an eye on what’s happening nextdoor on the census returns can help you in your research.

Four families in a row is probably my best when it comes to related neighbours – can you beat that? Or have your ancestors had a famous/infamous neighbour? Let me know in the comments below.