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.

Happy 120th Birthday Ethel

Today (January 28th) is the 120th anniversary of Ethel May Martin’s birth – my great great aunt, to whom I am indebted with memories that helped power my early research into my family tree.

Today would have been the 120th birthday of my Great Great Aunt Ethel May Martin.

Ethel May Martin with bike circa 1908
Ethel May Everitt (née Martin) with bike circa 1908.

I sadly never met her, but her memories were able to feed in to my early family history research, via phone calls to my father’s uncle and my 1st Cousin twice removed, and verbally to my own uncle. She also had a huge box of family photos, stretching back to her own childhood, and a few of those family members from earlier generations.

She died on 4th June 1999 at the age of 104.

Ethel May Martin was born on 28th January 1895, in the fenland to the North West of the village of Little Downham, Cambridgeshire, England. She was the penultimate and eleventh child of railway platelayer, James Martin, and his wife Sarah Elizabeth Giddings.

When she reached 101, she was featured in local newspaper, The Ely Standard. In their piece, she explained that she was born during a severe snow blizzard.

“When I was born, my father had to walk through the snow storm to fetch the doctor”.

“My father came back and had to sit by the fire to thaw the icicles which had formed on his whiskers. The doctor then arrived on horseback.”

The article also sees Ethel recall that ‘one of her earliest memories is playing in a garden with a skipping rope with her brothers around her’.

In her working life, Ethel appears as a Domestic Servant in 1911, living at home on census night. She went on to work in domestic service in Littleport, Ely, and London, often alongside her older sister Rose, before returning to care for her elderly mother. Her first annual wage was £6.

She also spent some time working as a fruit picker, before marrying Ebenezer Everitt on Christmas Eve 1931.

The couple had one daughter.

Without Ethel’s memories, writings, and photograph collection, my family tree research may never have grown green shoots.

Surname Saturday: The Crisp family

Today’s SURNAME SATURDAY themed post takes a look at the CRISP family of Cambridgeshire, and unravels an old family story.

Today’s Surname Saturday theme follows the CRISP family, and it’s also home to one of the earliest verbal family stories that I ever heard in my research, some 19 years back.

The story went something like this:

“Your great great great grandmother was married to a Mr Crisp. They had a son, and then Mr Crisp died. She remarried to your great great great Martin grandfather, and that’s where we descend from.

Their son, married a woman called Selina. They had a number of children, moved up north, and most caught measles. Mr Crisp Jnr and most of the children died. His widow Selina, returned and lived near Soham, Cambridgeshire.”

Fairly vague, and probably not an uncommon style of storytelling of family rumours. But, there’s some interesting story details in there, and considering that this would have happened so long ago, it’s interesting to see that it survived into living memory.. so there must be something in it, and someone who has reason to believe it, right?

Putting it on the back-burner, as it’s a ‘sideline’ family, from whom I don’t descend, I parked it for about 19yrs whilst I focussed on the addiction that is tracing ancestors.

I was tidying up some old files again, and a slip of paper summarising the story above fell out. In all those years, the amount of, and types of, records available online has absolutely snowballed, and so i thought that I would casually go rummaging.

Finding Crisps in the records

(Face it, you knew I was going to put that pun down here somewhere).

A photograph of Mary Crisp (née Tingey, later Martin and Watling), with copies of her marriage certificate to John Crisp, and the birth certificate of their only son, William Crisp.
A photograph of Mary Crisp (née Tingey, later Martin and Watling), with copies of her marriage certificate to John Crisp, and the birth certificate of their only son, William Crisp.

I already had Mr Crisp Jnr’s (William Crisp) birth certificate from 1846, and the marriage and death certificate of his father John Crisp (m: 1846, d: 1847). By July 1850, widow Mary Crisp (née Tingey) had married her second of three husbands – my great great great grandfather – James Martin.

William Crisp remains with his mother for the 1851 and 1861 censuses in Little Downham, at the household of his step-father. In fact, the 1861 census lists him as William Martin, rather than William Crisp.

Things get rectified by 1871, when his Crisp name is reinstated. Here, he’s living in the fenland parish of Isleham. This village isn’t far from Soham, and is not a parish that any of my other relatives appear to have passed through (hence having not stumbled across him before).

With the census found, it told me that he was now 24yrs old, living at Lark Farm Cottage, with his wife Tabitha, and their 2mth old son John (in memory of both of their fathers). A quick dig on Ancestry, and FreeBMD showed that Tabitha was most likely Tabitha Large.

Where was the Selina that the story had spoken of?

Another census shows the family at the West Bank of River Lark in the parish of Isleham, Cambridgeshire for 1881. William was ’30’, and heading up a family of 6 children (John, James, Rosetta, Eliza Ann, Susan, and Mary) with Tabitha.

However, by the 1891 he’s missing, and so is Tabitha. Was this the tragedy with measles?

The North?

A little further digging, and some of the Crisp children turned up – still living at West Bank, but this time, George Butcher is head of the household, with Tabitha (now Butcher). A young Alfred Butcher is also included in the household, born about 1890.

Next stop was the Isleham parish registers to find out what’s been going on.

Here, I find that Tabitha Large (confirmed!), and William Crisp, having married on 20th May 1869 at Isleham parish church, went on to have eight children between 1871 and 1886.

FreeBMD notes that William died in in 1886, but Isleham and Soham don’t contain his burial. I shall have to explore this further. His burial did not take place in his native Little Downham, Ely Cemetery, Wicken, Fordham, or a number of other nearby churchyards.

Having lost William for now, I continue after Tabitha, but I soon find that she’s missing too… only to find her in 1901, aged 47 years, up at 29 Charles Lane, Milnrow, Lancashire, England.

There’s that ‘move up North‘ then.

Into the mills

At this time, George is noted a labourer at a Brickyard. Tabitha’s son Isaac Crisp is noted as a ‘Cotton Presser’, Rosetta Crisp as a ‘Woolen Weaver’, Eliza Ann Crisp as a ‘Pattern Card Room Hand’, and Mary Crisp is noted as a ‘Bread Maker’. It’s possible that the children were employed at the nearby Ellenroad Mill. Clearly the mills were putting a roof over the family’s head.

By the time of the 1911 census, it’s revealed that Tabitha has had 4 children and that 3 of them died. This must surely refer to her children with George Butcher, but i’ve not yet checked for their names.

The Traveller’s Rest

Whilst I lose George after 1911 (was this the measles?), Tabitha ends her days back at  the aptly named ‘The Traveller’s Rest‘ in Towns End, Soham, Cambridgeshire on 29th June 1921. She was 69 years old. Why was she back there?

Well, her second child, James Crisp (known as ‘Jim’) is noted as Publican – presumably of The Traveller’s Rest. He is noted as an executor of her estate.

But what about Selina?

Twenty-five years before Tabitha’s death at James’ pub in Soham, he had walked the aisle on 17th October 1896…. when he married Selina Collen. Selina outlived James (who died in 1944), having raised a family of at least five children with him.

Unravel those stories and memories

So, what turned out to be a snippet of oral history, handed around and down my branch of Martin family, which is vaguely related to the Crisp family (William Crisp is apparently my Half Great Great Great Uncle!), it turns out to be loaded with facts… albeit somewhat jumbled.

There’s still a few loose ends – death certificates will, or newspaper articles might, reveal details of whether the measles story is true. The identity of Selina was also generation out, and the wrong bit of family went ‘up North’ – it was all in the story.

For me, it proves that those little oral snippets, or those scribbled notes, are just as important as those official records. In fact, they are often more interesting. Using official records to help untangle these family stories is the trick…. regardless of how long you take to start work on them!

Happy hunting!


Happy 101st Birthday, Percy

Today would have been my paternal grandfather’s 101st Birthday. Here’s a little ‘happy birthday’ nod to him, and some photos from his life.

Today would have been my paternal grandfather’s 101st birthday.

Percy Martin was born on the 1st October 1913, as the third of four sons of Daisy (née Burnell) and Herbert Martin of Little Downham, Cambridgeshire.

In 1917, during the First World War, when he was only a little over 4yrs old, his father was killed in a train accident in Boulogne, France.

Paternal Grandfather, Percy Martin (1914-1991)
Percy Martin (1913-1991), outside St Owen’s School, Third Drove, Little Downham.

Percy appears to have gone to St Owen’s School on Third Drove of Little Downham Fen, alongside his Martin brothers and cousins.

The Martin family in about 1916.
L-R: Sydney James, Daisy (née Burnell), baby Cyril, Percy, Herbert, and Herbert George Martin – circa 1916. Within months, Herbert would be killed in a train accident in Boulogne, France.

The photograph above shows the four sons and their parents – within less than a year, his father was dead.

His widowed mother, now with four sons all under the age of 8yrs, eventually re-married in 1919, and had three further children – half-siblings to Percy.

Edna and Percy, with Percy's half-sister Edith Shelton, visiting the seaside, circa 1935.
Edna and Percy, with Percy’s half-sister Edith Shelton, visiting the seaside, circa 1935.

Percy married my Grandmother Edna in 1937, and together they had four children, although they later divorced. Percy re-married to Irene.

He worked mostly for the Great Ouse River Authority in Cambridgeshire.

I was fortunate to know my grandfather for about 13 years (both grandfathers as it happens), and whilst it saddens me that I never really got to know him, and not at all as an adult, I’m pleased that we were able to spend a little time together.

Percy died on 9th September 1991 in Ely.

Happy 101st Birthday Grandad.

The Great Great Rose and The Orphan

The Great Great Aunt – photograph of my great great aunt Rose Ellen Martin, with her niece Mary Goodge – a photo that would have been taken around the time that Mary lost both of her parents in war.

This photograph shows my Great Great Aunt, Rose Ellen Martin, with her niece Mary Goodge.

Rose Ellen Martin with her niece Mary Goodge
Rose Ellen Martin with her niece Mary Goodge

I’m unsure of Mary’s age in this photograph, but I imagine that it sits right on the cusp of the tragedy that claimed Rose’ sister Emma Jane Martin, Emma’s husband John William Goodge, and left a six year old Mary as an orphan.

Together with her mother (Mary’s grandmother, Sarah Elizabeth), and likely Mary’s other grandparents Henry and Amelia Goodge, Rose cared for Mary.


Mary’s father John died on 12th February 1917. He was Private 34480 of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry. He is buried in Pas de Calais, France in grave I.B.19 at the Wanquetin Communal Cemetery Extension. He was 31 years old.

Mary’s mother Emma Jane (Rose’s younger sister) died 7 months later on 17th September 1917, aged just 29 years old. Having tuned into family grapevine (yes, I know, dangerous…  but it often contains clues and not always facts) I believe that a wall collapsed onto her. She was buried 4 days later in Littleport, Cambridgeshire. I’ve checked the British Newspaper Archive and the story hasn’t appeared there.. so this may be a death certificate purchase if I want to know the cause (as above,  i know the date).

These losses would have been hard to bear, and unsurprisingly they weren’t alone. During a period of 11 consecutive months, not only did Mary become an orphan, but Rose also lost two of her brothers to the First World War.

The photo below shows Emma with Rose, some years earlier.

Emma Jane Martin with sister Rose Ellen Martin
Emma Jane with sister Rose Ellen Martin some years earlier.

Good teeth in Clapham

Rose remained unmarried, and never had any children of her own. She entered life of servitude at the age of at least 15, when she appears on the 1891 census as living at home as a ‘Domestic Assistant’.

She goes on to leave home, and by the 1901 census, she’s living in Clapham, London, and working as a ‘Parlourmaid‘ for Dental Surgeon William John Parks, of 32 The Chase. She remains here for at least another 10 years, where she appears living with Mr Parks’ widow Hannah in 1911.

After working for a doctor in Littleport, Rose went on to live a long life – reaching the age of 79 years when she died on 23rd May 1955.

Rose Ellen Martin with sister-in-law Rebecca Ann (née Lythell) in later years.
Rose Ellen Martin (standing) with sister-in-law Rebecca Ann (née Lythell) in later years.

She was buried alone, with a headstone, in Little Downham cemetery.

What about Mary Goodge?

As for Mary… technically she might be 104 years old by now.

Her life remains a complete mystery to me. With few ageing relatives left to ask, I’d like to find out what became of her before it gets any more difficult.

Did she marry, have children, or go into servitude like Rose? I’d love to find out.

INFOGRAPHIC: The life expectancy of a Martin descendant

I’ve been crunching data again, and following on from my previous infographics, this time it’s the turn of my own surname – Martin. How do the life statistics stack up?

The Martin surname life expectancy infographic

There’s a few things evident from this infographic:

  • The average life-span of a Martin descendant is lower
  • Winter weddings are popular with Martins
  • Winter children are common with Martins
  • Martin men most commonly die around agricultural calendars (May and September)

Maybe the last three are connected? Is data showing that the agricultural occupations of the male Martin name-bearers was central to their home lives?

As for the age of death for men, fitting in with agricultural calendars – there may be some truth in this, similar to the parallel decline in UK heavy industry and the increase in male life expectancy in the 1980s.

As for me, well, it looks like that statistically i’ve got about 16 years left, will have one child, still have time to marry, and will probably die at one of my birthday parties (May).

I look forward to skewing the figures (the good way!).

Baby Fever!

With the Royal Baby mania sweeping the media, I dusted off my own baby book, and took myself back to a time when things were a little simpler.

Okay, so whilst there’s a lot of royal baby fever sweeping the media, I’ve dusted off the baby book that my mother kept in my first few years. I’ve also got my sister’s book too. Do you have something similar to these?

Two books containing the first years of a baby's achievements

The blue one is my baby book – printed by Wm. Collins Sons & Co Ltd of London & Glasgow. It’s illustrated throughout (see example at foot of this post).

Inside are a collection of notes written mainly by my mother, but include some of my own writing later on where i’m listing and describing my birthday presents (apparently my sixth birthday presents included “marbles, a r2d2, a smurfland, cars”).

It’s funny reading this back. I’m the second baby, but it’s clear that every entry was written here with a great sense of pride at my achievements. Even my first haircut gets a mention – with a lock of my extremely blond hair, carefully tucked away in a little airtight bag that’s taped to a page.

Apparently it took me 5 weeks to smile and 12 weeks to laugh. By the time I was 5 months old, i’d mastered that old ‘got big toe in mouth’ trick – a great ice breaker!

At 6 months i’d mastered my first word ‘dad’. Sorry Mum, but you had your turn within the next 6 months alongside ‘bow-wow’ and ‘no’.

Both books are fascinating, all carefully noting baby’s progress – weight, words, birthday presents, crawling/standing, and scattered with photographs and names of gift givers (and their gifts).

Independently from these books, the other day I was looking through a photograph album that my aunt had lent to my mother (so that i could look through it, and scan what i wanted), and I found the earliest photo i’ve ever seen of myself – just 4 days old.

For William and Catherine, their baby will be well documented. Probably one of the most documented babies yet. They probably won’t need to keep their own record, but I bet they do.

I know for one thing, that if and when it’s my turn, I’ll be keeping a book too, and perhaps in another 35 years, you’ll read the next generation’s blog post about it here too!

Have you ever stumbled across a baby book in your family? How did/do your family record their new arrivals?

baby illustration

Why getting your family tree wrong is the best thing you could do

Why making a mistake in your family tree research is one of the most important things you can do.

Getting something wrong is not something that we like to admit, but it’s probably one of the best things that you could do when researching your family tree.

My sister, who is an avid horse-rider, taught me at a young age the saying ‘You can’t ride a horse until you’ve fallen off’. This easily applies to researching – you can’t research, until you’ve got it wrong.

But… there’s always lots of moaning about the quality of data when you discover online that your family tree has been ripped to bits by another less-careful researcher, thrown back together with some random names from say – Ohio, leaving you obliterated from existence in their tree.

So why is getting a tree wrong actually important?

Scaring away the cuckoo

PatPatPatPatPatMat Great Great Great Great Grandmother, Avis
Avis Wisbey (formerly Martin, née Tall) or ‘Mary Waters’

Discovering an error in your family tree is something that every genealogist should do at least once during their research. If you’ve never done this, then maybe you’re staring at a ‘cuckoo’ – a person who is using your tree to borrow the love and care that you have for your ancestor, when actually they are from a completely unrelated line.

Saying goodbye to that surrogate family is hard. If you’ve invested your time and effort, and perhaps some affection, then it can be a sad moment when you have to lose them.

Admitting your error

Okay, so here we go…

For years, I stared at the photograph above, of my Great x 4 Grandmother – thinking ‘what a great photo’ and ‘how lovely Mary Waters must have been’, when actually, she was Avis Tall.

I’d allowed a simple mistake creep into my research and onto my website – where I’d simply scrimped on spending time checking sources that I had in my files before adding data to my database and to my website.

A Mary Waters did indeed marry a James Martin, and together they had a son also called James Martin, but it wasn’t until revisiting a marriage certificate in my files for James Martin Jnr, that i realised that the father was actually a Robert Martin a couple of villages away, which then led me to finding his marriage to Avis Tall, and then finding references to them having the son called James Martin.

Marriage certificate
Revisiting the marriage certificate gave me a terrible realisation.

This changed my tree significantly, as I’d put a lot of effort into tracing back the Mary Waters and James Martin families, and had even found modern-day relatives who descended from them.

Updating… everything

Once you’ve found that mistake, your attention and eye for detail is swiftly improved. After finding that Mary Waters was completely wrong, I was straight back to my core tree and re-checking my trees using various sources.

Avis Tall as Mary Waters on updated my website, I updated my database, and then I updated my distant relatives who had also run with the information i’d fed them.

Whilst my site is updated, even now, years on, the effect of the cuckoo lives on – with my ancestor enjoying an existence as ‘Mary Waters’ in new trees within sites such as

Getting it wrong makes your research better

By getting your research wrong, realising it, and correcting it, you end up being a far more diligent researcher. Having got it wrong once, you know the pain and embarrassment of sawing off large boughs of your family tree, and then staring at the weedy twig that’s left behind.

So, before you commit that ancestor to your tree – check. Check again. Then cross-check, or the cuckoos will get you.

The death of a child

William Martin died aged 10 in 1890 when he was entrusted with a horse and cart. The Factory Act (1891) could have protected him and many others from a working childhood.

Long before health and safety was invented, before ‘risk assessments’ unified a workforce with a sigh, and compulsory education was implemented, children were commonplace in factories, mines and other workplaces.

William was the fourth of the twelve children of my Great Great Grandparents, James Martin and his wife Sarah Elizabeth (née Giddings), and one of two of their children to die that year.

An inquest was held at Pyemoor, on the body of William Martin, a boy of ten years of age. He was entrusted, the previous day, with a horse and manure cart. He was lifted on the horse and afterwards found face downwards on the ground with an internal injury and died before the doctor arrived. The jury returned a verdict of “Accidental Death”, expressing their disapproval of children so young being entrusted with a horse and cart, the boy’s master being one of the jury – 31st July 1890.

Like most of those families living in fenland during the 19th century, children working in agriculture meant that the family could afford to keep food on their table and avoid the workhouse.

Whether William, at 10yrs of age, was employed or whether he was just there, is unclear (‘master’ may have been employer or his father), but his accidental death would never have been an easy situation to deal with.

The Factory Act (1878-1901)

The Factory Act (1878) meant that children under the age of 10 could not be employed in any trade, and that compulsory education ran up until the age of 10.

Group of child workers from the 19th century.
A group of unknown Victorian child workers.

This act was key at keeping the youngest of children away from dangerous environments such as mills, mines, glassworks, and other industries with heavy machinery – or at least it meant that those who continued to employ children under 10 could be prosecuted (and this was quite common).

The act also meant that 10-14yr old children were allowed to work half-days.

The act was revised again in 1891, upping the age to 11 years, and again with the introduction of The Factory and Workshop Act in 1901 to 12 years.

The slow pace of laws to protect children in the UK, and the harsh reality of bringing up a family on a railway labourer’s wage, may have contributed to William going to work at aged 10 on that fateful day.