Showing posts with label Family stories. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Family stories. Show all posts

Monday, 14 June 2021

Con Colleano and Winifred Constance Stanley Trevail

Winifred Constance Stanley Trevail and Con Colleano

My 2nd cousin, twice removed, Winifred Constance Stanley Trevail, daughter of Herbert Fleming Trevail and Alice Maud Stanley Blazey was the wife of - IMDB is the only source to list a date (but no other details) for their marriage as 10 July 1926 - Con Colleano (Cornelius Sullivan), who was the most famous and highest paid "swashbuckling circus performer with matinee idol looks" of his time, known as “The Australian Wizard of the Wire”. A member of the Circus Hall of Fame, Con Colleano is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the first person to prefect the forward somersault on the tight wire.

"Winnie Trevail began appearing on the stage in Sydney (and before that in New Zealand) as a child [...] "Mrs. Winnie Colleano (neé Trevail) was herself a well known Australian Vaudeville Soubrette", dancer and trapeze artist.

Con Colleano on a slack-wire, circa 1920
Con Colleano, born Cornelius Sullivan, on 26 Dec 1899 in Lismore, New South Wales, was of Aboriginal, Anglo-Irish and West Indian descent and adopted a Spanish persona and a costume of a ‘toreador’ or bullfighter. 

Colleano’s Indigenous heritage was unknown to his fans – which included one of history’s most infamous racists - "Few people are aware of the fact that in the 1930’s, Adolf Hitler issued an Aboriginal Australian tightrope walker with a German passport so he could come and go as he pleased."

Trevail abandoned her own career in 1924 to travel with her husband.

Passenger lists reveal that Cornelius Sullivan and Winifred C. S. Trevail left Southampton, England on 13 Sep 1924, on the RMS Berengaria (former SS Imperator), The first Cunard "Queen". This was their first trip to the US, so their port of arrival was the infamous Ellis Island, New York. Various sources tell us that, in 1924, Con made his debut at the New York Hippodrome before returning to the circus with Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

There is a subsequent record of Cornelius and Winifred C Sullivan Colleano travelling from Southampton to New York, on the Berengaria, on 24 Feb 1937. 

On 7 Jan 1938, Cornelius and Winifred (Sullivan) Colleano, left Sydney, bound for California, on the luxury American ocean linerSS Mariposa (1931).

On 8 Sep 1939, Cornelius and Winifred Sullivan, listed as British, board the Italian ocean linerSS Rex, leaving the port of Genoa, bound for New York.

These, I'm sure are just the tip of a globe-trotting iceberg, but it was finding these records of voyages that led me to discover more of their story.

The former Albion Hotel (pub) at Forbes, New South WalesShebaCC BY-SA 2.0

"Sadly Con and Winnie ultimately lost all their money indulging in a luxurious lifestyle, giving it away to friends and making a disastrous investment in a pub in outback Australia in the 1950s (what were they thinking?)." 

Con died, in Miami, on 13 Nov 1973, after which Winnie returned to Australia, where she died, in Sydney, in January 1986. They had no children.


Were they really married? Who cares?

IMDB is the only place to list a supposed date, but not place, for their marriage. I've [so far] been unable find a record of a marriage anywhere in the world, which, of course, doesn't mean there wasn't one. However, in all the articles I've read about the couple, including Con's obituary, not once is the date and place of their marriage ever mentioned, which I find strange. On the other hand, I did find a record of a marriage of a Winifred C Trevail, in Victoria, Australia, in 1919 to a Leonard Mendoza. It would take $20 AUS to obtain the certificate to see if there are enough clues to tell whether this is the same Winifred C Trevail or not, but several things occur to me: Just how many people named Winifred C Trevail are there likely to be? One source claims that Winnie met Con, in Melbourne, which of course is in Victoria, when she was 22. Not hard to imagine that she may have met and married someone else there when she was 19. Someone with the surname Mendoza even sounds like her "type". Who knows? 

You know that I'm much amused by the frequent, self-aggrandising family stories, but this one probably takes the biscuit - although no surprise perhaps among theatrical types. In several articles, it mentions that Winnie "claimed descent from the Earls of Derby" and it appears that the source of that quote is her own brother, Eric, so it may well have been a story perpetuated in the family. A claim doesn't make it true though! And through which side would that be, I wonder? The line we share: the 'illegitimate born' former dyer who downgraded to labourer in Norfolk, or the bankrupted tenant farmer in Cornwall? Lovely people, I'm sure, but Earls or any other type of nobs they were not!

Sources (many of these links contain images):

Further reading: The wizard of the wire : the story of Con Colleano 

Wednesday, 2 June 2021

David Jones Naval Pensioner

The stern gallery of HMS Implacable, formerly the Duguay-Trouin, on display at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. Geni, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

My great-grandfather, David Jones, made much of the fact that he was a Naval Pensioner, especially when filling out official forms, and it seems certain that it was 'useful' in obtaining him the position of Sexton at the Christ Church, Church of Ireland, Rushbrooke, Cobh (Queenstown, as it was then), Ireland. 

My late cousin Margery in Ireland (David's brother Nicholas' granddaughter) had told me that David had "lost a hand in battle". You gotta love a family story. As I keep saying, there's always a grain of truth in them, but usually some self-serving embellishment. We searched high and low for a naval battle in the right era and came up with nothing. "In battle" sounds more heroic, clearly.

It also proved handy (pun intended) in attracting him two wives, it seems!

Margery recounted that her older sister had remembered visiting the family in Rushbrooke and seeing David's 'Sunday Best' gloved hand hanging up in the kitchen (such a creepy image) and continued that, apparently, he had a fork attachment for everyday - from which we may deduce that it was his left hand he lost - that attached to a metal pin that was inserted at his wrist. 

Because David had always claimed to come from Wales, I almost missed his naval record. In fact, I'd dismissed it twice, because, although many other details were close enough, the boy was born in Lincolnshire, which didn't seem relevant at all. Then I found his father's posting to Sutton Bridge, Lincolnshire and David's birth there and the pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place.

At the time David was enlisted in the Royal Navy as a Boy Second Class, on 7 July 1865, he would have been just shy of his 15th birthday. His father, Thomas Jones, and mother, Mary, co-signed the papers. David was described as being 4ft 8½in tall, with a sallow complexion, dark brown hair and hazel eyes. Once he was 18, his period of engagement was intended to last ten years, obviously intending to follow in the footsteps of his father's naval career. 

David Jones' Naval Record

The rest of David's naval record fits onto one line. At 14 he was assigned to HMS Implacable, which had become the Royal Navy's first training ship at Devonport in 1855. But instead of continuing his service as planned, David was discharged on 17 Oct 1866, when he will have been just 16. The last item on the line, under the Cause of Discharge, is the abbreviation for Invalided.

There not being more detail, nor medical records we can access, we have to surmise the rest of story. That he lost a hand is not in question. Clearly, he was still in training, so there was no 'battle'. But I think that taking into consideration that this was 1866 - general anesthesia was still very much in experimental infancy - and my feeling is that the only place that such a procedure as inserting a metal pin into his wrist was likely to take place was in a military hospital and at that time there was the the former Royal Naval Hospital, Stonehouse.

And the fact that they did this and sent him off with a pension at 16, suggests this was certainly not as the result of a boy larking about. We need to do more research, but there were guns likely to have been used in training at that time, known to cause accidents and that looks like the most likely occurrence.

The former Royal Naval Hospital now called Millfields, Stonehouse, Plymouth

Saturday, 24 April 2021

The Tompsons in Canada

House on the left 131 Morrison Avenue, Toronto, Canada

Family stories, at best, usually have a mere grain of truth in them, almost universally contain large measures of exaggeration and "self-aggrandisement" and sometimes, huge amounts of complete fiction. Researching family history, therefore, becomes an exercise in debunking the family myths. Some relatives are more prone to bigging themselves and their forebears up, so you learn to question (read completely disbelieve) their tales, so you could honestly have knocked me down with a feather when I found this one was mostly true.

My mother had always said that one of the Tompsons had gone to Canada and set up a business. The story wasn't without some exaggeration, as she did make it sound like they'd set up a massive corporation and given the impression that if one were to go to any place in the vast country that is Canada and mention "Tompsons" everyone would instantly know the household name - when reality was a couple of self-employed brickies - but they do turn up in Canada.

To be fair, my mother will have got this story too from her grandmother, Eliza Louisa Sweeney (née Tompson), but my mother didn't seem to know who among the Tompsons had gone to Canada and the way the story came across is that it was some very distant relative, not Eliza Louisa's own father, Dan.

R.M.S. Corsican Image: Eric Eggertson Some rights reserved

It seems Dan's son, Eliza Louisa's half-brother, George Daniel Tompson, had gone first in 1908, but on 6 Jul 1912, Dan (63), along with daughters Amelia (21) and Ellen (19), embarked in London bound for Montreal on the R.M.S. Corinthian. Strangely, they're on the passenger list under "The Salvation Army Pantel". The Profession, Occupation or Calling listed for Dan is "Farming" (nope, he was a Bricklayer) and of the girls, Domestic. (Presumably some ruse to get themselves cheap passages.) They were travelling 3rd class, or Steerage.

Then separately, on 18 Oct 1912, wife Sarah Jane (listed as 36, was actually 61), youngest daughter, Ivy (17) and Willie Thompson (8) - this has to be the "mystery" grandchild listed on the 1911 Census as William Charles Roizen - embarked in Liverpool aboard the SS Corsican, also bound for Montreal.


The family set up home in the Earlscourt neighbourhood in Toronto, settled in 1906 by labourers from the British Isles. Even in 1914 it still had a “shack town” reputation though. This article about the area, which talks of a "Building Boom", I think tells why the Tompsons went there, "The modest sized lots on empty fields appealed to those looking for affordable land, low taxes and lax building regulations." Reading between the lines, my belief is that the family acquired one of the plots and split it between father and son. George Daniel initially lived in the house on the right of the top picture, 133 Morrison Avenue and Dan settled in the house on the left, 131 Morrison Avenue. Given they were bricklayers, I reckon there's a good chance they built the houses themselves.

In the 1913 Toronto City Directory, Dan Tompson is listed at 131 Morrison Avenue, Torontoas a bricklayer

In the 1917 directory, Dan is listed at 73 Ashburnham Rd, Toronto, while son George was listed at 131 Morrison Avenue, Toronto

On the 1921 Census of Canada, Dan (72), Sarah Jane (69), Amelia Mary (31), Ellen (29), Ivy Maud (27) and Willie Christie (18) - the mystery grandson with the ever-changing surname - were all living at 131 Morrison Avenue, Toronto.

Grave of Dan Tompson at Prospect Cemetery in Toronto

Dan Tompson died on 1 Aug 1924, from "Senility". He was actually only 75. He was buried on 4 Aug 1924 at Prospect Cemetery, Section 17, Plot 509. (Plan)

They must have travelled back to the UK at some point, because on 17 Sep 1926, Amelia Mary Thompson (35) and Ellen Hoile Thompson (32), embark in Liverpool, bound for Montreal once again, on the R.M.S. Regina. Interestingly, they give their last address in the United Kingdom as c/o Mrs Sweeney, 102 Fore Street, London (my great-grandmother, their half-sister). 

Then on 19 Sep 1931, Ellen (38) and Ivy Maud (36) made the crossing from Liverpool to New York, in transit to Canada, on the R.M.S. Adriatic. They state that they are citizens of Canada. (Until 1947, settlers from Britain were considered citizens of Canada without needing to naturalize.)

Sarah Jane Tompson died on 4 Aug 1937 and was buried with her husband.

The three Tompson girls all appeared in the Toronto Centennial City Directory of 1934 at 131 Morrison Avenue, Toronto. However, in 1939, they were all living together at Way Homesteads, Broadway, Yaxley, Cambridgeshire. Amelia and Ellen were dressmakers, while Ivy was a School Teacher (Technical). 
 
On 12 Sep 1939, Probate was granted to Amelia Mary Tompson and Ivy Maud Tompson on the estates of both Dan Tompson and Sarah Jane Tompson. They left effects of £400 (worth around £26,000 today), hardly a fortune.

None of these three sisters ever married and they returned to Whittlesey.

Ellen died in 1976. She will have been 83. Amelia Mary Tompson of 81 Benwick Road, Whittlesey, died on 4 Mar 1986. She was 95. Ivy Maud Tompson of Keneydon House, 2 Delph Street, Whittlesey (a Residential Dementia care home) died on 12 Feb 1991, just eleven days before her 96th birthday.

Wednesday, 30 December 2020

Champion & Wilton Saddlers and Harness Makers

Oxford Street at Selfridges the most famous street of shops on the planet
cc-by-sa/2.0 - © Ben Brooksbank - geograph.org.uk/p/4661642

As juxtapositions go, with my last post having been about the workhouse-poor matchgirls, I could not have found a more starkly contrasting one if I'd planned it. I didn't. Whilst looking for an entirely different store, of an entirely different branch of the family, I'd come across Pigot's Directory of Essex 1823, which listed a Henry Wilton as a saddler in Great Dunmow, he was uncle of ... The matchgirl's father, my 3rd great-grandfather, Richard Wilton, a harness maker and his older brother, Henry Wilton, also a saddler. Right now though, we're concerned with Henry Wilton's son, Henry Staines Wilton, who you'll deduce is a first cousin to the unfortunate match girl. Just five miles apart in distance, in fortunes it was a whole world away. As the son of my 3rd great-grand uncle, Henry Staines Wilton is therefore my 1st cousin 4 times removed. 

However, as Henry Staines Wilton's mother, Sarah Staines, was the daughter of Thomas Staines and Sally Hockley and Sally Hockley was the daughter of Daniel Hockley and Sarah Turner, my 5th great-grandparents, means Sally was my 4th great-grand aunt (William Hockley at the The Chequers Inn was her uncle). Sarah Staines, therefore, was my 1st cousin 5 times removed, so that makes Henry Staines Wilton also my 2nd cousin 4 times removed. 

Confused, you will be! Twice blood related anyway.

St. Giles Church, near Mountnessing
cc-by-sa/2.0 - © Malc McDonald geograph.org.uk/p/4514320

Henry Staines Wilton, son of Henry Wilton, Saddler, and his wife Sarah (née Staines), was baptised on 27 Sep 1840 at St Giles Church, Mountnessing and is listed, aged 0, with his parents on the 1841 Census in High Street, Great Dunmow, where Henry Wilton had his saddlery business. 

As the census returns for 1851 in Great Dunmow are missing, we next catch up with Henry Staines Wilton, Saddler, in 1861, aged 20, staying with his grandparents, Thomas and Sally Staines at Lord Peters (Sir William Petre) Alms Houses, Stone Field, Ingatestone, Chelmsford.

Bridge Street, Bishop's Stortford
cc-by-sa/2.0 - © Bill Boaden - geograph.org.uk/p/6410237

Having set up business next door to his future father-in-law, on 4 Aug 1868, Henry Staines Wilton, Harness Maker, married Amelia Palmer, daughter of William Palmer a Tallow Chandler of Bridge Street, Bishop's Stortford at the church of St Michael, Bishop's Stortford, Hertfordshire. Witnesses to the marriage were the bride's father, William Palmer, the bridegroom's parents, Henry and Sarah Wilton and Martha Palmer, the bride's older sister. 

This looks like a 'beneficial match' for him, because Amelia's Great Western Railway shares passed to her husband on their marriage. This is, of course, before the Married Women's Property Act 1882, when anything a woman owned, became her husband's by default, effectively becoming dowry

By 1871, Henry Staines Wilton, Saddler and Harness Maker, Employing 2 men, 2 apprentices and 1 boy, is doing well enough to also employ a general servant and a nurse as he and Amelia grew their family of 5 children:
  1. William Palmer Wilton was born 19 Sep 1869, and baptised 28 Nov 1869 at St Michael's, Bishop's Stortford
  2. Mary Henrietta Wilton, was baptised 30 Apr 1871 in Bishop's Stortford
  3. Olive Martha Wilton born 25 Dec 1872, baptised 28 Feb 1873 in Bishop's Stortford. (Olive Martha Wilton, artist, died, aged 45, on 14 Apr 1918 in Ringwood, Hampshire. She is not buried with the family.)
  4. John Staines Wilton, baptised 24 Apr 1874 in Bishop's Stortford. (John Staines Wilton didn't marry either. He died on 6 May 1936.)
  5. Margaret Staines Wilton born 1877 in the district of St. George Hanover Square. (Margaret also remained single. She was buried, on 31 Dec 1957, in Hampstead Cemetery, with her parents and brothers.)
As you can see from the location of the birth of their fifth child, the family had moved into London. This was because, in 1875, Henry Staines Wilton had bought into an established saddlery company in Oxford Street and became associated with Henry Champion, and from the merger of the names of its two owners, the Champion & Wilton brand officially appeared. [Source]
"Champion and Wilton were founded in 1780 and had premises in Oxford Street, opposite Selfridges, in London’s West End. At one time they employed over one hundred saddlers making saddles, harness and other saddlery items and became, as holders of the Royal Warrant, the most highly respected firm in the country and I don’t doubt that many a stately home will still have a Champion and Wilton saddle tucked away somewhere in their tack room." - Keith Jenkin, SMSQF of Minster Saddlery
In The London Gazette of 4 January 1878, there is a notice regarding a Patent application: Henry Staines Wilton, of Bishop's Stortford, in the county of Herts, Saddler, for an invention of "improvements in the construction of saddles and saddle girths."—Dated 24th December, 1874. Then in 1879: 

In addition to the quality of the product, the main peculiarity that distinguished the saddles of this brand, owed much to the invention made in 1879 by Henry Wilton, who patented the well-known safety system, still in use and much appreciated today, which represented a technical revolution. 

In their time, it is said that Champion & Wilton held Royal Warrants to Queen Victoria, King Edward VII, King George V, King George VI, Queen Elizabeth II, and the Duke of Edinburgh, as well as to the German Emperor, Queen Maud of Norway and Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands. 

A neighbouring firm of saddlers, Samuel Blackwell, also long-established, was taken over by Champion & Wilton in the 1880s. 

In 1891, the family were living at Braywick, High Town Road, Bray, Cookham, Berkshire. At the time of daughter, Mary Henrietta Wilton's marriage to Augustus Percival Bartley (of the equally top-notch Bartley & Sons, Military and Hunting Bootmakers, of 493, Oxford Street), on 11 Aug 1894, at St Michael's Church, Bray, Berkshire, the Wilton family resided at the rather stately Stafferton Lodge, Braywick Road, Maidenhead

Fake news is not a new thing: Apparently, according to this document (PDF), in Vol IV No 5 of 'Saddlery and Harness' November 1894, a spurious claim appears, "p.101 Notable Members of the Trade: Mr H S Wilton (Champion and Wilton) Owner of Champion and Wilton. At 457/459 Oxford Street. One of the leading West End saddlery firms. Made Queen Victoria's first saddle when HSW was only 19 years old, some 63 years ago [i.e. 1831]." Complete and utter bull poop, of course, like so many family stories, as he wasn't even born until 1840! (My feeling is the Oxford Street company that became Champion & Wilton did make Queen Victoria's first saddle. It was Henry Staines Wilton's personal involvement that got tacked (pun intended) on as an embellishment.)

By 1901, the Wilton family had moved back into town to 29, St Johns Wood Park, in the affluent community of Hampstead, where they remained in 1911. 

The Rebuilding of Oxford Street

"Nos. 453–459 (odd) Oxford Street and Nos. 22 and 23 North Audley Street, a small but elegant set of shops with flats over, were designed by Herbert Read and Robert Falconer Macdonald and built by Holloway Brothers in 1900–2 (Plate 46b). The client was E. H. Wilton of Champion and Wilton, saddlers, of Nos. 457 and 459 Oxford Street. The building had three storeys towards North Audley Street and five on to Oxford Street. The ground floor was of Doulting stone, the upper storeys of red brick with stone dressings, and the style a picturesque and effective Arts and Crafts treatment."

This tells us where the Champion and Wilton premises were, on the diagonally opposite corner to where Selfridges was later built. The building is long gone and replaced, with currently, a branch of Zara on that corner. The curious thing is that I cannot find anyone with the initials E. H. in the Wilton family. 

Henry Staines Wilton died on 31 May 1915 and his funeral took place on Thursday 3 Jun 1915. He is interred in Hampstead Cemetery (Camden) grave reference WE/222. He left his fortune to his two sons, William Palmer Wilton and John Staines Wilton, saddlers, and his son-in-law, Augustus Percival Bartley, bootmaker. The Probate record shows that he left £57,256 11s 4d, which is worth just shy of six million pounds today (£5,925,591 in 2020).

Amelia Wilton died, aged 77 and was buried, on 17 Dec 1919, in Hampstead Cemetery, along with her husband. 

Thursday, 5 November 2020

Press Gangs and the King’s Shilling

Colindale Hospital around 1920

As family stories go, this has to be one of the best (as in the myth is about as far away from the truth as it's possible to get), but also one of the saddest. 

Throughout her life, my mother recounted this story so many times it would be impossible to count: The story went that her grandfather, Job Sweeney, had been "press ganged" into the navy no less than three times. Once would be unlucky, you'd have thought. Anyway, this account, undoubtedly passed down to her by her grandmother, Eliza Louisa Sweeney (née Tompson), was embellished with the assertion that Job liked his drink rather too much, hence was always in the pub and the worse for wear and, therefore, had been tricked, in serial fashion, into taking the King's Shilling. All absolute poppycock, of course.

As I say, I'd heard and nodded along to the retelling of this story umpteen times, but had never really considered or questioned it. It wasn't until I met the current 'him indoors' who knows his military history, who immediately said "wrong century", that it became obvious that the whole thing was invention.

With hindsight, I can see where it will have come from. Job's father was a dock labourer (sometimes listed as a stevedore); his great-grandfather a mariner and many of their ancestors had been sailors, ship's carpenters and shipwrights. Eliza Louisa's family had run pubs around the London docks area. They will have grown up with 'press gang' stories and other seafaring folklore.

My great-grandfather, Job Sweeney, son of John Henry Charles Sweeney and Susannah Harvey, was born on 6 Feb 1870 and baptised, on 11 May 1871, at the church of St John, Limehouse Fields (which was bombed on 19 Sep 1940 and subsequently demolished). He'd married Eliza Louisa Tompson at St Anthony, Stepney on On 5 Jan 1893. 

My mother won't have known her grandfather, as he had died on 6 December 1924, aged 54, when she would have been only a few months old.

Having spent his entire life in the East End, it was finding that his death had been registered in Hendon that made me dig further in order to solve the mystery. It even crossed my mind that holidays 'At His Majesty's Pleasure' might well have explained these absences that we were all led to believe were when he was 'at sea', but it was not so. Having ordered his death certificate, this confirmed that the actual place of death was Colindale Hospital.

Built originally as the The Central London District Sick Asylum in 1898-1900 - to provide care for the sick poor in London, separate from the workhouse - in 1919, it was taken over by The Metropolitan Asylums Board and used as male TB sanatorium. The cause of Job Sweeney's death was given as 'Pulmonary Tuberculosis, Certified by Marcus Patterson MD.' 

Dr. Marcus Sinclair Paterson (1870–1932) was the medical superintendent of the Colindale Hospital for Pulmonary Tuberculosis, Hendon. "Here Paterson made valuable innovations in the symptomatic treatment of advanced cases", says his obituary in the BMJ. He developed a system of treatment called 'graduated labour'. "He has described how his observations on out-patients led him to the idea of introducing manual work, as well as walking, into the sanatorium regime, with the hope of fitting his patients for immediate return to their work, and of successfully meeting the charge that sanatoriums turned out work-shy loafers." (Not unlike the attitude to the sick today.)

(Looks like we can see who was originally responsible for ideas that led to the much maligned, ineffective and unsafe Graded exercise therapy (GET) too.)

So, I think we can deduce that the "press gang" story was made up to explain a series of absences, which were probably stays for 'treatment' - forced work when you're already too ill to do your normal work - at the sanatorium. And the saddest part of all is that this tells us that, so strong was the social stigma attached to TB that families preferred to paint their nearest and dearest as 'feckless, drunken, work-shy', etc., rather than admit they had an infectious, then incurable, disease undoubtedly contracted through no fault of their own. 

Sunday, 19 July 2020

Regency Relatives or Early Eastenders

Regent's Canal, Limehouse, 1823

For many years I’ve had a passing interest in researching my family history, but generally hadn’t pursued this further than the last couple of generations of relations who were within someone’s living memory, not least because with a bunch of very commonly named folk, many of whom were manual (particularly farm) labourers, I didn’t think there’d be much recorded about them.

How wrong I was! Of course, it’s so much easier to research now that so many records are available online and, since communicating with other family members (some for the first time) who are researching their parts of the story, I’ve been unearthing all sorts of records I didn’t think I’d ever encounter and the further I go back, the more fascinating and magical it becomes.

One particular interest was my mother’s father, because now two of us, completely separately, believe him to have been Jewish (from his mother’s line), but while the circumstantial evidence is pretty great for having at least some Jewish blood - which probably applies to everyone with East End ancestors to be honest - I’ve yet to prove it conclusively. When the 1911 Census records were first made available online, I’d acquired copies of the records relevant to both my maternal grandparents, who were children at the time, but got no further as further searches had come up fruitless.

Throughout her life, my mother had been most pedantic that her maiden name was spelled Sweeney “with three Es.” Of course it should have occurred to me earlier to ignore that and, lo and behold, I find that most of the records from 1901 backwards are listed with the spelling of Sweney, sometimes Sweeny and even Swaney. (Important lesson: never, ever trust 'family stories'.)

Listing for John and Ann 'Swaney' in Stepney in 1841

Hence, by trying various spellings – double checking other details, such as locations, dates, ages, occupations and other family members listed, via census records, I’ve now got the line as far back as one John Swaney (as he’s listed in the 1841 Census in Stepney), Sweeny in 1851, Sweney in 1861 and 1871, born 1809, who died, in Stepney, as John Sweeney, in 1878.

He had married Anne Elizabeth Gabbaday (b.1811). They never stray outside the East End of London; an area famous for successive influxes of foreign immigrants - then, in particular, Irish weavers and Ashkenazi Jews.

The surname Sweeney is now most commonly found in the Province of Munster and in County Cork in particular where the majority of descendants can be found and, there are those who claim that John Sweeney (or his parents) were born in County Cork, but have yet to see any records that can confirm this.

And the origin of the surname Gabbaday, I'm told, is probably Jewish.

To put these ancestors into their historical context:
See: Timeline of the formal Regency

Friday, 17 July 2020

Everyone has a story

Family stories, at best, usually have a mere grain of truth in them, almost universally contain large measures of exaggeration and "self-aggrandisement" and sometimes, huge amounts of complete fiction. Researching family history, therefore, becomes an exercise in debunking the family myths.

And I'll happily tell you that the reason I began researching my family was because my mother strenuously attempted to deter me from doing so. 

This blog format was primarily a great way to keep, organise and cross-reference my own notes in this process, where I could also include links, photos and other media quite simply. And, whilst I could still do all of that and make it private, i.e. only for my own use, it may be of interest to others and is of use to me to be able to share the bits I know, when I need help on brick walls. If I'm really lucky, a long Lost Cousin might find something relevant to them ...

If you're related to any of the people written about, I'm guessing you'll recognise them from the surnames. If you are, do please get in touch. Whilst I'm happy to share research, records, family trees, I won't do so publicly and only to vetted individuals. Depending who you are, I might tell you who I am. That information isn't public to protect me, as well as other people who may still be alive. 

And even if you aren't in any way related, I hope you will still enjoy or learn something from these as stand-alone stories.

Insanity is inherited ...


Randomly, I came across this definition. Unfortunately, a business already has the name Sonder, so I didn't want to tread on their toes. Then the term 'inherited craziness', literally jumped out at me and I doubt even my own relatives would disagree with that as a name for our family history blog. :)

sonder 
n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.