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.

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.

Mother’s Day 2013

It’s Mother’s Day today in the UK – here’s a photographic gallery of my female ancestors.

Today is Mothering Sunday here in the UK, so what better way to mark it than to share a gallery of photos of my female ancestors.

The photographs show both my paternal and maternal direct-line of mothers, reaching from my mother to my Great Great Great Grandmother (Ann Bowers) on my maternal line, and from my father’s mother to my Great Great Great Great Grandmother (Avis Tall) on my paternal line.

Click on any of the photos below to see a larger version, and to view them as a slideshow.

Happy Mother’s Day!

My Maternal branch of Mothers

My Paternal branch of Mothers