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.

SOLVED: Elizabeth Levitt Where Are You?

Genealogy solved! John, Elizabeth and Richard Levitt have been found – hiding as a ‘Harding’ in the 1871 Swaffham Bulbeck census from Cambridgeshire.

Last night, after posting about how I was struggling to find some Levitt relatives on the 1871 census, I stumbled across them.

I’d spent quite some time trawling through records on sites like, and FindMyPast. I even manually went through each folio scan one-by-one, courtesy of my copy of the 1871 census for Cambridgeshire from S&N Genealogy. There was no sign of them at all in Swaffham Bulbeck.

Assuming that all three had perhaps eluded the census enumerator (as a few people did), despite being in the same place before and after this census, I gave up and put them aside for another rainy day.

One last little search on just before retiring for bed saw me searching very vaguely for any John and Elizabeth in Cambridgeshire 1871 with a John being born in 1838 or 1839.

A list of search results appeared and nothing remotely Levitt, Livett, Levet, Levit etc stood out. So I thought that I would just work my way through a few and started clicking to view the census returns regardless of the surname it had turned up – after-all I had exhausted all other search ideas.

The faux-Hardings on the 1871 census
The Levitt family were 'hiding' as Hardings.

John and Elizabeth Harding were just one of these, and after clicking through and staring at the census return for a few seconds, I noticed that Elizabeth Skeel was living immediately next-door aged 90.

This was significant as Elizabeth Skeel was an ancestor – that was certain. She was the mother of the Elizabeth Levitt that I was looking for.

I then noticed that one of the Hardings was a 27yr old unmarried Richard S Harding. Again, Richard Skeel Levitt never married and would have been 27yrs old.

I’d found them!

So who were the Hardings? Well, amongst John and Elizabeth Levitt’s children was an Ann Maria Levitt born about 1841. She went on to marry a George Hunt Harding. This fact help me unravel what I was staring at.

John ‘Harding’ was noted as the ‘Head’ of the household, with Elizabeth ‘Harding’ noted as his wife. Then, the unmarried Richard S ‘Harding’ was listed as the son. Following him was the married Ann Harding noted as the daughter, and lastly two children noted as ‘grandson/granddaughter’.

This doesn’t exactly make sense. At first glance, you might have thought that Richard and Ann were married with two children and were living with his parents. If Ann was Richard’s wife, then she would have usually been noted as something like ‘son’s wife’ or ‘daughter-in-law’. Noticing Richard’s marital status was the final piece of the jigsaw.

One question here is though, and maybe it was one that confused the enumerator, was that whilst Ann Harding is noted as married, there’s no sign of her husband George. I’ve started looking for him, but as yet, he’s missing… so the search starts again!


WANTED: Dead Or Alive

Killing off your relatives is a crucial part of your work…. as a genealogist, not as a marauding tyrant.

I’m hoping that aside from in genealogy, that there’s nowhere else where the mark of a successful day is one where you’ve killed off a load of your relatives.

Anyone tracing their family tree is sure to stumbled across at least one elusive relative at some point in their research. That relative will cause them to spend many hours following potential leads and plenty of head scratching and brow creasing before either solving or putting it off until a rainier day.

This is a routine I know well.

Help! My Grandmother was a zombie

William Yarrow and his wife Elizabeth
Elizabeth Yarrow (née Wright) seems to have died and been buried more than once.

I’ve recently struggled to kill off a maternal 4x Great Grandmother called Elizabeth Yarrow (née Wright), who appears to have died twice (about 2yrs apart) and been buried – in neighbouring parishes (!). Her death(s) fall right at the start of Death Certification in England and Wales. One of them is even noted as being in London and that her body was carried back on the train.

However, there’s seemingly no death certificate for her (the only one that matched in name turned out to be a baby), and parish records and the gravestone all contradict eachother.

The hidden Grandparents and Uncle

I’m currently struggling to find a my paternal Gtx4 Grandparents John Levitt with Elizabeth (née Skeel), and one of their sons Richard Skeel Levitt, during the 1871 census. I can find the rest of their children, but for some reason in 1871 they vanish.

I have them living in the same parish in all the censuses before and after this particular one. So, did they elude the enumerator? Were they away somewhere? – and if so, why don’t they appear somewhere else?

The surname has many variants but having done some pretty vague searches and very specific ones too, they remain elusive. Richard never married and seems to stick with his parents until their death, after which he goes to live with his other unmarried brother. It’s odd that all three seem to be missing.

The Serial Bride

Mary Watlington (formerly Martin, formerly Crisp, née Tingey)
Mary Watlington (formerly Martin, formerly Crisp, née Tingey)

Okay, to be fair, three marriages is probably nothing compared to some, but Mary Tingey surprised me. Born in 1820, she married to John Crisp in 1846. He died soon after their son was born. Within 4 years she had remarried to widower James Martin (my Gtx3 Grandfather) in 1850 and the following year they started their own family. After 5 children – with seemingly just one surviving (my ancestor) tuberculosis and scarlet fever, and then the tragic train accident that claimed her husband, Mary lived alone as a widow.  I’d hunted for her death for some time, but the searches were unsuccessful.

I hadn’t considered that instead of being buried somewhere out of step with the rest of her family or that she had been recorded for some reason under an earlier name, that she had remarried. One evening I stumbled across the marriage in 1877 with 57yr old widow Mary Martin, formerly Crisp (née Tingey) becoming the second Mrs Matthew Watlington. To add to the confusion, the new surname occasionally appears as Watling.

Check, check, check and then cross-check…. again…

These are just three of several situations where I’ve struggled to solve a puzzle. Whilst I know that checking and cross-checking is absolutely crucial to accurately recording your genealogy, it can be all too easy to accept even documentation and gravestones of the time as being accurate.

I’d like to say that I’ve learnt my lesson the hard way… but I say that every time it happens.