Is there a ghost in my family tree?

It’s not every day that you find a possible relative who was reportedly haunting a street. I turn ghost-hunter, meets ghost-buster, to see whether there’s any truth in the story.

I love a good ghost story, and more so the ones that are written about the area that I know well.

A victorian photograph of a mocked haunting
Did Jeremiah Newell return from the grave? Does he return, looking for his bed? Photo: Getty

There’s lots of ghostly stories about Cambridgeshire – ranging from ghosts of Oliver Cromwell, to the beastly Black Shuck. I’ve even been shut in the pitch black of Peterborough Museum basement overnight with night vision cameras. I’m a complete sceptic, and one that doesn’t get scared.

On one of my many ventures into bookstores, I picked up ‘Ghosts & Legends of Cambridgeshire‘ by Polly Howat (1998, Countryside Books), and when I got to page 41, I found myself reaching for a pad, pencil, census returns and parish register transcripts.

Howat’s story is about a Jeremiah Newell of Ely, Cambridgeshire. This uncommon surname and the location fits perfectly with my Newell family tree.

According to her write-up, Jeremiah, or Jerry to the locals, liked a drink. And on one night he had been drinking in his local pub – The Royal Oak on the corner of Potter’s Lane and Back Hill.

The Royal Oak pub, Ely, Cambridgeshire
The Royal Oak pub (now private house) sits on the corner of Potter’s Lane and Back Hill, Ely. Photo: Simon K.

He would have waved goodbye to (or been ejected by) landlord William Fenn, and made his way down the side of the pub towards his bed in Potter’s Lane. It appears to have been his last.

It’s safe to assume that Jeremiah was likely to be somewhat drunk as he staggered that short familiar few meters home.

The next morning, the residents discovered Jeremiah curled up, on top of a dung heap. Presumably, this would have seemed warm and comfy to a drunken Jeremiah, and perhaps he mistook it for his bed… but he had died during the night.

The Cambridge Chronicle of 17th November 1866 backs up the story  – with a guess at what Jeremiah had slept in or on, and complete with quotes from two residents who witnessed Jeremiah’s return (one of whom appears to be quite the wordsmith).

Cambridge Chronicle 17th November 1866
The Cambridge Chronicle report of Jeremiah’s death and subsequent haunting of Potter’s Lane residents in Ely. Copy held at the Cambridgeshire Collection.

The newspaper article suggests an exorcism was requested by residents, but it is not clear whether it ever took place (not sure where i’d find that information), or whether the drama of the story led the reporter or their contacts, to stray a little from reality.

The Stamford Mercury

The Stamford Mercury, which is not the local newspaper, and perhaps therefore has a different set of reporters, carries a very different story. I found a copy of this on FindMyPast. It’s dated from the day of Jeremiah’s funeral (2nd November 1866), and so doesn’t make reference to his ghostly return.

The Stamford Mercury claimed:

  • Jeremiah Newell was found alive in a puddle by a gas man (the gas works were right nearby)
  • Jeremiah Newell was escorted to The Black Swan pub – next to The Royal Oak (and just off to the left of the photo above).
  • Jeremiah Newell was given beer, demanded gin, and then hit his head after dozing and falling over.
  • Jeremiah Newell was laid outside in the sunshine but was found dead shortly after.

These events are completely different from the other two, and I’m tempted to believe that the report from the non-local Stamford Mercury may well be more accurate.

Finding the facts on Jeremiah Newell’s death

Believer or non-believer bit aside, how can I get closer to telling the proper version of this fun story on Halloween?

To try to help me resolve this, I ordered his death certificate (to find cause and location), and I contacted the team at Cambridgeshire Archives to attempt to locate a copy of the Inquest.

Sadly, floods in the 1960s decimated a lot of Ely records (including the 1861 census), and according to the Cambridgeshire Archives team, it seems that the inquest book covering this period was lost. This is a big shame for unpicking this story.

Jeremiah  Newell's death certificate, noting his cause of death.
Jeremiah Newell’s death certificate, noting his cause of death.

As for the death certificate, it revealed that he died on Halloween – precisely 148 years ago today.

In what is probably one of the fullest descriptions given in a ‘Cause of death’ column that I’ve yet seen:

“Congestion of the Brain occasioned by drunkenness, exposure to cold, and a fall whilst in a state of intoxication”

The informant box is equally crammed with writing:

“Information received from William Marshall Coroner for Isle of Ely, Ely. Inquest held 2nd November 1866 (P.[?].)”

So, it seems that Jeremiah died following The Stamford Mercury’s account of events.

Perhaps with his death taking place on 31st October 1866 – Halloween – the residents had taken the opportunity to dramatise his departure, when really he was just victim to his alcohol abuse.

I imagine that the Inquest may have specified any evidence of the gas man, and also which pub he died in, but that now remains a mystery.

Is Jeremiah Newell related?

He’s in the right place, at the right time, but linking him up has proved a little tricky.

Jeremiah was the second of three known children – John (b.c.1809), Jeremiah (b.c. 1814) and Mary (b.c. 1816). All were baptised at Holy Trinity, Ely, Cambridgeshire, as the children of John Newell and his wife Alice (née Block/Black).

Whilst it’s possible to see them together in 1841 and 1851, it’s the earlier records beyond Jeremiah’s Newell grandparents that are ambiguous with common names.

My Newell’s remain in Ely either side of the dates that I’ve found for Jeremiah, his parents, and his nieces and nephews. The connection remains elusive, but tantalisingly close. I guess this bit will haunt me a bit longer.

Jeremiah Newell’s timeline:

  • Jeremiah Newell was baptised on 25th June 1814, at Holy Trinity church, Ely, Cambridgeshire.
  • He was the second of three known children of John Newell (soldier) and his wife Alice (née Block).
  • Jeremiah appears to have married widow Susannah Bidwell (née Pigeon) on 4th September 1858 at Ely.
  • Jeremiah died on 31st October 1866, of injuries sustained whilst drunk, and in cold weather.
  • Jeremiah was buried, aged 52yrs, on 2nd November 1866 at Ely cemetery.
  • The burial register notes him as having lived on ‘Back Hill’ (which is the adjoining road).
  • The Cambridge Chronicle reported the haunting on 17th November 1866.
  • Polly Howat’s book, re-tells the story, 132 years after his death.

Does the ghost of Jeremiah Newell continue to wander Potter’s Lane?

I’ve previously wondered whether the dead could help solve genealogy puzzles, so perhaps I should pop along tonight to see if Jeremiah is willing to talk…. and clear up the confusion over what really did happen that fateful night in 1866.

He might even be stone-cold sober by now.

Happy Genealogy Halloween!

Surname Saturday – the Harrison family

Surname Saturday: Today’s Surname Saturday post takes a look at the HARRISON family, who lived in Cambridgeshire during the 18th Century.

This week’s Surname Saturday themed post looks at the Harrison family who have lived in the Cambridgeshire village of Little Downham since at least the 18th century.

Finding Frances Harrison

The most recent brush with the Harrison family is through my Great x 4 Grandmother, Fanny Harrison – often also named ‘Frances’.  She first appears in the village of Little Downham in Cambridgeshire in 1802, and was the fifth of eight children to Richard and Esther.

Fanny married Robert Tingey on 17th December 1820 at the Little Downham parish church. She was illiterate and signed the marriage register with an ‘x’. Robert was about four years older than her. The couple settled down to grow a family of at least 12 children over 28 years. My Great Great Great Grandmother, Mary, was their oldest child, born in 1820.

All seems well documented for Fanny and Robert, but when it comes to the 1861 census – right in the middle of a documented run – they’re missing. Both appear in the same street that they were in in 1851, and remain there in 1871, but where did they go for 1861? Searches on Ancestry and FindMyPast have proven unsuccessful, and in my attempt to avoid the simple transcription errors, I’ve also view the entire scanned set of folios for that area.

The 1861 census for Ely was destroyed in floods, and unless the couple are hiding under a different surname for a census (which happened for another part of my family), then maybe they were visiting someone and are recorded as so on the now lost Ely census. The mystery continues.

The 1970s Harrison Red Herring

Fast forward for a bit to about 1974, and my sister’s baby record book. In this keepsake is a family tree. This was probably the first family tree I ever saw (although not the one that got me into family history), and noted on it, is a mystery Harrison relative as my paternal great grandmother.

A family tree in a baby's keepsake book
A mystery and erroneous Harrison relative appears too recent in this tree from my sister’s baby keepsake book from 1974.

This Harrison appearance was two generations too late, and the role here belongs to Daisy Burnell.

Whilst the appearance of an error here is a red herring, it does at least suggest that the knowledge of a Harrison connection was there, handed down the family.

The 18th Century Harrisons

Let’s head back in time again, to Fanny’s parents – who appear to have been Richard Harrison (b.c.1770) and Esther (b.c.1772, d.c.1826).

Fanny was the fifth of their eight children – all christened at Little Downham, Cambridgeshire:

  • Elizabeth (b.c.1791)
  • Mary (b.c.1793)
  • Hannah (b.c.1796)
  • Richard (b.c.1798)
  • Fanny (1802-1881)
  • Sarah (1804-?)
  • Esther (1806-?)
  • Rebecca (1808-?)

Richard’s parents (Fanny’s grandparents, and my 6x Great Grandparents), appear to have been William Harrison (bc.1746, d.c Nov 1819) and Margaret Granger (d.c. March 1798).

I’ve yet to locate their marriage, but they themselves became parents in about 1764, when the first of their eventual nine children (William) was born.

  • William (b.c.1764, d.c March 1810)
  • Granger (b.c.1766)
  • Elizabeth (b.c.1767)
  • Francis (b.c.1768)
  • Richard (b.c.1770 – and the Richard mentioned above)
  • Mary (b.c.1773, d. July 1774)
  • Mary (b.c.1775)
  • Ellin (b.c.1777)
  • Margaret (b.c.1779)

Granger Harrison

Of this group of children, you’ll notice that the second child (a son) has fortunately been given the maiden name of his mother as his first name. With it being unusual, it makes him fairly easy to spot in records, and even turns up in google search results.

Come 2nd February 1816, Granger Harrison, who now appears to be living in the nearby hamlet of Pymoor, but ‘is about to quit his farm’, is having a live and dead stock auction. Everything from standing crops, to land, to animals through to a ‘large heap of manure’ is listed for sale in this notice published in an edition of the Cambridge Chronicle.

A Sale Notice for Dead and Live Stock belonging to Granger Harrison in 1816.
A Sale Notice for Dead and Live Stock belonging to Granger Harrison in 1816. Click image for original.

It seems that Granger probably remained in Little Downham, where his grandchildren were baptised. One of which, was also named Granger Harrison (b.c.1841, d.1910) – and who is equally blessed with turning up in census returns and search results.

This Granger Harrison is my own 2nd Cousin, 5 times removed… so pretty darn distant.. but with my own connection to the Harrison family being a little distant, and entirely photo-less, I’ll cast the net wide.

Here, Granger junior appears on the online family tree of Pete Bradshaw and Wendy Often. The site seems like it hasn’t been updated for a while, but I’ve sent them an email in a bid to expand my Harrison tree further.

If you have Harrison, Tingey, or Granger ancestors, drop me a line!


Standard or News?

Guest blogger Jane Freeman writes about using local history sources in print and online to research her Stretham roots.

Ooooh, this is a bit scary …. my first “guest” blog. Let’s start with the fact that I’m nearly related to Andrew, via a chap called Francis Yarrow, of Little Thetford, who married Anne Langford in Stretham, back in the mists of time. So, Andrew & I are related in a rather tenuous way best described by my maternal grandmother as “their cat ran over our doorstep”.

My maternal grandmother, that is, who came from Stretham, and whose wedding photo started me on my genealogical travellings. Kate Langford was born in 1889 and left the village, as girls her age did, to go into service. Her brothers mostly stayed there and my visits to Stretham as a child were to see “Uncle Bill”, her older brother, by then a widower living with two of his step-daughters. Cis & Ethel – one of them was an excellent cook and to this day I remember her mince pies & sausage rolls at Christmas!

These are the kind of memories which I most like about family history; collecting names and occupations is fine, and satisfying in its own way, but I like to make them into “real” people again and this part of my research is being aided and abetted at the moment by the British Newspaper Archives. A brilliant resource, albeit slightly expensive – its Australian counterpart “Trove” is free. But I digress: my latest find was in the Chelmsford Chronicle, May 1844, under the heading “Awfully destructive fire at Stretham”, which described a widespread fire in the village affecting “not fewer than 25 houses, &c………including habitations of wealthy agriculturists and humble labourers….” (see below for transcription of the full article). Although these articles are very useful in telling one who was around at the time, the writing of them also fascinates me. They didn’t have photographs, of course, to show the destruction so the journalists had only words to use; and how well did they use them.

Stretham - A Feast of Memories by Beatrice Stevens

More up to date, but every bit as informative, is “Stretham: A Feast of Memories” by the late Beatrice Stevens. This book gives a portrait of life in the village in the early 20th century and is an absolute gold-mine of detail. The Cambridgeshire library has a number of copies and I recommend it highly for those who have an interest in the village! In its pages I discovered that Uncle Bill’s step-son emigrated to Canada, returning a few years later to fight in the Great War (wherein he was wounded and lost an eye – in the Ely Standard, that one) and returned once more to Stretham, this time with his wife. Because of these clues I went to the Outgoing Passenger Lists on FindMyPast, and thence to the Canadian Library & Archives for his Attestation Papers. Never mind that I’m not at all related to him – I just had to know what happened to him. He sailed on the “Tunisian” to Halifax, Nova Scotia, leaving Liverpool three days after the 1911 census, and subsequently joined the Canadian Mounted Rifles when the Great War broke out.

So, while I couldn’t live without the census and parish registers, it’s the “off-piste” information which I enjoy most of all; the only problem is that I get so easily side-tracked – I mean, what’s not to like about some of the old adverts or, my particular favourite, seeing articles in the Cambridge papers of the late 19th/early 20th century which are complaining about traffic chaos!

‘Awfully destructive fire at Stretham’


One of the most awful fires which it was ever our province to record took place Wednesday week, at Stretham, near Ely. The destruction of property is enormous; and when we say that not fewer than 25 houses, &c. have been razed to the ground, including habitations of wealthy agriculturists and humble labourers, the reader will imagine for himself the extent of misery which must be the consequence of this lamentable visitation.

The fire originated in small hovel adjoining the blacksmith’s shop of Mr. John Westby. It is supposed that some sparks of hot iron were the immediate cause of the catastrophe, but this does not quite clearly appear. At any rate, about one o’clock in the day the hovel was discovered to be in flames; and although assistance was hand, and the fire seemed at first but trifling, so dry were the materials of which the hovel was composed that it was very soon enveloped in flames, which communicated with Mr. Westbv’s house on one side, and Mr. Wright’s stack-yard the other. No sooner were Mr. Wright’s extensive and well-stored premises seized upon by the devouring element, than the utmost alarm for the safety of the village was entertained. Nor was this alarm unfounded, for the flames spread with such frightful rapidity, on both sides of the street, that in a little more than an hour from the time of their breaking out twenty-five occupations, extending over about fifteen acres of ground were in a blaze. To describe the scene would be impossible. The reader will conceive the terrible fright and disorder which prevailed, and the awful character of the destruction going on. So wonderfully rapid was the spread of the names, and so great the heat emanating from the immense mass of burning materials, that many those who fancied their premises secure when the fire first broke out, and consequently neglected to take care their own furniture, clothes, &c. were unable to secure a particle. Some have lost every chip and every rag, save the garments they happened to have on at the time. There is no engine at Stretham. About two o’clock the Haddenham engine arrived, and to the good use made of it, under the most active and energetic directions of the Rev. S. Banks, incumbent of Haddenham, may be attributed the saving of great part of the village. On one side of the street, the progress of the flames was arrested at a cow-lodge, belonging to Mr. Hazel, and the other side the yard of the public-house, next Messrs. Senet and Graves’s premises. In order that the reader may form an idea the extent of damage done by this destructive conflagration, we will give a list of the premises burnt.

  1. The hovel in which the fire originated.
  2. John Westby, blacksmith.—House, furniture, and clothes destroyed.
  3. Mr. Boultentarf, miller.—House, furniture, out-buildings, hay, &c.
  4. Mr. Wright, farmer.—Mr. Wright’s premises occupy both sides the street; at present we are describing the property on the south, but we include Mr. Wright’s total loss. Two barns, stables, cart-lodges, 300 coombs of wheat, 4 wheat stacks, 3 hay stacks, 2 straw stacks, a large number of pigs and fowls, &c. destroyed. House saved.
  5. Mr. Coy, farmer.—Dwelling-house, new barn, granary, stables, machines, wagons, out-buildings, wheat stack, beanstack, hay stack, straw stack, about 12 pigs, fowls, &c.
  6. Mr. Murfitt.—House, furniture, barn, stables, hay, &c.
  7. Mr. Lester, butcher.—House, furniture, clothes, stables, cart, five £5 notes, and 40s. in silver.
  8. Mr. Jackson.—House, barn, hay stable, & building in the yard.
  9. Mr. S. Wright.—House, bam, stables, hay stack, wheat, peas, and beans.
  10. Mr. Philips, baker.—House, furniture, clothes, stock-in-trade, and in fact every thing.
  11. Alms-houses—two families.
  12. Ditto —four families.
  13. Mr. John Wheeler, shoemaker and brewer.—House, furniture, stock in trade, warehouse, &c.
  14. Mr. Hazel.—Cow-lodge. Here the fire was stopped on this side of the street.
  15. Mr. Wright.—See No. 4.
  16. Mr. R. Wheeler.—House and out-buildings.
  17. Mr. Gibbons, shoemaker.—House, furniture, stock in trade, and every thing.
  18. Mr. Dimmock.—House, buildings, &c.
  19. Mr. Langford, linen-draper.—House, furniture, stocktrade, and every thing.
  20. Mr. Baxter, harness-maker.-The same.
  21. Mr. Savidge, tailor.—The same.
  22. Mr. T. Grainger farmer.—Barn, stables, every outbuilding, haystack, straw stack, 30 coomb of beans, about 40 coomb oats, 14 pigs, a quantity of fowls, &c. Mr. Grainger’s barn was the largest the county: nothing but the walls are left, and so intense was the heat that the brickwork seems in some places to have been almost molten. The house was saved.
  23. Mr. L Langford – House, stable, barn & other buildings.
  24. Mr. Dring, veterinary surgeon – House and furniture.
  25. Messrs. Senet and Graves.—House, barn, and stables.

It will be understood from the foregoing that the desolation is heart-rending. The Church was made the receptacle of the furniture, &c. which could saved: and as to the numerous persons deprived of house and home, they were accommodated as well as circumstances would admit, and every attention paid to them by the clergyman and their neighbours. Two engines from Ely were present: and the Superintendent and some men of the isle Ely constabulary rendered great service in the prevention of depredations. It is of course difficult to speak with any thing like accuracy but it has been estimated at between £15,000 and £20,000, a great portion of the property being, we fear, uninsured.— Cambridge Chronicle.

William Bailey ‘Died by the visitation of God’

William Bailey died whilst cutting oats in a field in Wicken in 1861. The inquest’s verdict was ‘died by visitation of God’.

William Bailey - killed 'by God'

Newspaper report from page 5 of the Cambridge Chronicle, dated 31st August 1861, details the sudden death of labourer William Bailey of Wicken. After an inquest took place, the cause of death was noted as ‘Died by the visitation of God’.

Needless to say, the culprit was subsequently not brought to justice.

Surname Saturday: NEWMAN

The Newman family of Cambridgeshire are this week’s Geneabloggers topic for ‘Surname Saturday’ – a story of illegitimacy, windmills and dinosaur poop.

A killer windmill, illegitimacy and dinosaur poop all play a part in shaping my paternal Newman family of Cambridgeshire.

Alfred and Harriet Newman
Alfred and Harriet Newman

My earliest known ancestor (so far) was John Newman, the husband of Hannah (née Squire). They lived in and were married in Fenstanton, Huntingdonshire (as it was then in 1750). There’s no record of any earlier Newmans before this date and after parenting my ancestor Philip in 1760, there doesn’t seem to be another mention of them again.

When Philip reached 19yrs old he marries Lydia Ingle in Haddenham, Cambridgeshire in 1779 and they begin a family together. However, after their sons Thomas and Philip are born, baby Philip and Lydia die – both being buried on the same day in Somersham. This appears to leave Philip (senior) with his young son Thomas.

In September 1785, Philip re-marries, to Elizabeth Whitehead of Haddenham. The couple soon grow their family – having six children, although sadly their first (William) and fourth and fifth (Robert and James) children do not survive infancy. This leaves two daughters (Ann and Rebecca) and William.

The Windmill

In 1809 tragedy struck as Philip, working as a Miller at the mill of William and Robert Pate of Haddenham on 20th July 1809 “was caught in the works of his mill, and unfortunately killed” – as reported by the Cambridge Chronicle, dated 22nd July 1809. Philip was promptly buried the following day at Haddenham parish church where the register notes him as being both a miller and a baker. He was 49 years old.

The mill (known most recently as ‘Neville’s Mill’) no longer stands, although the windmill (The Great Mill) opposite the site is still standing and is being lovingly restored – well worth a visit to see what working in a mill may have been like.

Elias Dann

Having lost her father to the horrific sounding windmill accident at the age of about 5yrs, Rebecca Newman gave birth to a son Charles Newman in Somersham at only about 16 years of age. Whilst she was not married, parish records name an ‘Elias Dann’ as the father.

Rebecca does not go on to marry Elias, as it would seem that Elias may have already been living with his wife in nearby Wilburton. Being a fatherless teenage single mother must have been excruciatingly difficult for Rebecca in the 1820s. However, by 1826 she had married  John Seymore of Haddenham and bore him two daughters.

It appears that illegitimate Charles Newman was fully aware of who his father was, as he names him when he marries Emma Levitt at Swaffham Bulbeck, Cambridgeshire in 1847. The couple also name their youngest son ‘Elias Newman’. The couple remain in the village, with Charles becoming a blacksmith, and have six children.


Coprolites (fossilised animal dung) were found to be excellent sources of fertilizer in the 1840s. Digging them soon became big business in the fens during the mid 19th century, although it began to decrease by the 1880s. Massive manual labour forces were needed to trace and dig out the seams of dung (you can even buy them today on ebay!) and my Newman relatives briefly became part of the workforce.

The 1871 census lists Alfred Newman (the son of blacksmith Charles Newman and Emma Levitt), along with his brother Charles as a ‘Coprolite Digger’. By the time of the next census though, the industry has downsized and neither are digging for dung.

In 1877, Alfred Newman marries Harriet Cooper in Ely, Cambridgeshire. It is here where the Newman family has reached today – with many descendants of their large family still in the city and surrounding villages.

The Newman family faced terrible tragedies, but they have survived.