Tag Archives: family history

Planting seeds and recording sources



I am ever the optimist when it comes to remembering what I have done. I plant seeds in my garden secure in the knowledge that when they come up I will remember what they are – mostly I don’t and mostly they grow anyway. By the time they bear fruit it is obvious what they were, but I don’t have any record of what I did to ensure that I have a good chance of doing the same again next year. Sometimes, as with the lovely cactus flower above, I get a total surprise, a present I didn’t deserve and did nothing to achieve beyond remembering to water it.

So it has been with genealogy. I am often in such a rush to find the end of the story that I merely sketch out a family tree sure that by the time I am ready to tell the story I will remember where I found the pieces of the jigsaw. Sadly, as with my garden, optimism is no substitute for keeping records!

When I began researching my own family history there were very few on-line resources and so apart from family records such as birth certificates I could be sure that a baptism record would have come from what was then known as the IGI, now familysearch.org and so felt no need to record where I had found the data. I made the beginner’s mistake also of recording the baptism date as the birth date  unaware that a baptism might occur any time from the hour of birth to several years afterwards.

There is a suggestion that in Jamaica baptism was often left until the child was expected to survive (no theological fears of eternity in limbo troubled the parents). In fact the reason may have been the more prosaic one that the local vicar had just died of fever, or the child born on the plantation was so far from the centre of the parish that baptisms were done in batches when the vicar found time to visit; or the planter waited for the next Races or Assembly Meeting in Spanish Town to have his child baptised there.

As a historian I have always insisted on being able to prove any assertion by providing the sources, as a genealogist I am afraid I have generally fallen far short.

So time to do something about it. I am studying for a postgraduate certificate in Genealogical, Palaeographic and Heraldic Studies with the University of Strathclyde. It is taught on-line so no need to travel to Scotland, much as I would love to. Already I am learning how to document my sources carefully so that anyone coming after me will be able to check that I have made no mistakes and drawn no false conclusions. The downside of what really is a valuable discipline is that it slows me down – no longer can I rush ahead to sketch out the story trusting that when I reach the end of the road I will still be able to see where I came from! It is also time consuming and has taken me away from Jamaica and this blog.

So I hope you will forgive me if postings here are intermittent for a while. I hope that when I have time for full time research once again it will be more securely anchored and the flowers and fruits will be properly labelled.


Family stories – the vital clues

If you ever doubt how much can be gleaned from even the smallest scraps of information left by your ancestors take a look at the piece of paper my mother received in the 1950s in a bundle of family papers collected by an aunt.

Aunt Alice was a young girl when her grandmother, born Charlotte  Heap in 1808, died in 1890, but her grandmother had noted fragmentary details of the family story of an ‘Indian Princess’ and from this eventually grew a database of several thousand close and distant ancestors, and my book A Parcel of Ribbons.

One common, but frustrating, genealogical puzzle comes when you are given only the surname and no first names and this is especially acute if you are tracking through the female line of your family with surname changes every generation as in this example. In the end I came at this problem from two directions at once, both working backwards from Charlotte Heap and also looking for two sisters surnamed Jaques, one who had married a Lee and another a Marleton (in fact spelled Marlton).

Another problem with handwritten notes is interpreting connections without a diagram or helpful punctuation. For example ‘his father married a creole’ in the above example could apply to Richard Lee or to Richard Lee’s father or his grandfather. Another piece of paper written by Aunt Alice said that her father had referred to a creole but she had always heard ‘Indian Princess’.

I had very little to go on geographically other than that the family was based in England, Charlotte was born in Kendal in Cumbria but her mother came from Suffolk and it emerged that the roots were all in London. Without the internet and computerised indexes the search would have been all but impossible.

Two key findings helped in unravelling the story. One was a marriage licence issued in 1720 for Joseph Lee and Frances Jaques (I have still not found the marriage record), and the later discovery that Frances’s sister Mary had married Thomas Marlton. The other was the combined information from the Will of Richard Lee in 1857 (which left a small legacy to Charlotte and various members of her family) together with the 1851 census record for Richard Lee giving his birthplace as Jamaica. This last was a total surprise, since until then no-one in the family had any idea there was a Jamaican connection. Indeed in a family with slight connections with North America and extensive ones from the early eighteenth century in India, the search had been on for either a family Pocahontas or the daughter of an Indian Rajah!

I think there are two lessons to be drawn from all of this. The first is always to take seriously any information your ancestors leave whether as stories or documents. The second is, that having taken it seriously, don’t be surprised if what you find is not at all what you expect. Indeed over the passage of time (Charlotte’s notes were made in the late 1880’s and referred to events nearly a century before she was born) a kernal of truth may well have acquired an auro of myth by the time it comes down to you.




Jubilees, Longevity and connecting with the past

Source: history1800s.about.com

This last week has seen the Diamond Jubilee celebrations for Queen Elizabeth II both here in the UK and around the world. The Queen is not yet Britain’s longest reigning monarch. George III lived to be nearly eighty-two and reigned for just short of sixty years. Queen Victoria reigned for sixty-three years and seven months, so our present Queen has only to reign for a further three and a half years to become the longest reigning British Monarch.

Queen Victoria celebrated two Jubilees, following a period of relative unpopularity after the death of Prince Albert in 1861 when she went into deep mourning and relative seclusion.  Her Golden Jubilee was celebrated in 1887 and her Diamond Jubilee in 1897.

In 1977 when the present Queen celebrated her Silver Jubilee after twenty-five years on the throne, my four year old daughter peered through rain and gloom, similar to that experienced across Britain last Sunday, to see a distant Jubilee Beacon. By her side was my grandmother who in 1887 at the same age had watched the beacon for Victoria’s Golden Jubilee.

This got me to thinking about those historical links that excite the imagination and allow us to jump backwards into history. When my mother was about twelve in the 1920s, and had been ill, she was taken to the seaside to recover. Staying in the same hotel was an old lady whose father as a young boy had fought at the battle of Waterloo.

In 1991 I read the obituary of Alexandra Stewart, the last speaker of Perthshire Gaelic. As a young girl she had met Lizzie Lothian, who died in 1911 aged 93, and who remembered her grandfather John Lothian’s  tales of escaping from the battle of Culloden in 1745.

Making such lengthy connections for Jamaica’s early history is much harder since so many of the colonists died young.  John Favell, whose Will was dated 1720, and who was probably born about 1649, is most unusual in mentioning a great-grandchild – Susanna Bernard, daughter of his grand-daughter Mary Bernard. He left her £150 in plate. Susanna must have been an infant when John Favell died and so unlikely to remember him.

The only other Jamaica Will I know of that mentions great grandchildren is that of Mary Dehany (born Mary Gregory in Jamaica) who died in London in 1813 aged ninety.  Her grandmother Jane Gallimore had also lived to be ninety and had lived through the reigns of six British Monarchs – seven if you count William and Mary as two! Good genes in that family.

You can play a game similar to ‘six degrees of separation’ by thinking of the longest backward links you can make into our past through someone you have met. So I can get to the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 in two moves through my mother. Do you have anything similar in your family?

Like skimming pebbles on a pond the ripples of our memories fade out into the past.


The Importance of Family in Family History


This week’s piece is necessarily brief as family activities have taken me away from the computer, however in the week of my mother’s ninety-sixth birthday I wanted to cherish the importance of those family members who are the custodians and guardians of our history.

The lovely photograph above is my maternal grandmother taken for her wedding in India at the beginning of the twentieth century, whither she had gone as the first white woman doctor ever seen in that part of south India. Her sister Alice was the principal researcher of the family history, but she was following in the footsteps of their great grandfather, and as a result I have inherited a variety of notes and papers compiled in the days when the only way to get a baptism record was to write to the parish priest of the parish where you thought the event had taken place.

Also through my mother, who now holds the family archive, I first heard the story of the ‘Indian Princess’ that led me through a round about route to Jamaica. A tiny fragment of paper with a sketchy line of descent from the eighteenth century had been written down by my mother’s grandfather after a conversation with his mother in about 1889.

From that we arrive at this website, and in due course I hope also a book.

So cherish your family and the stories they tell – you never know where it may lead!