Tuesday, 23 September 2014


When we research our family history what we are primarily doing is discovering stories. Almost always these are stories that we are discovering for the first time. They are unique and our own. We are explorers trudging through the darkest jungles of dusty records until the moment of recognition….. Dr Livingston I presume.  Sometimes though the story is found not by what is written on the page but by what is not written. The blank page says more than words could ever say. There is an emotional profundity, a silence, a space, as we find in the final page of a war record or the death record for a child.

In the St Nicolas Church graveyard in Nuneaton, Warwickshire there is a headstone for an Elizabeth Ball. It says, whose death was occasioned by her fall from her horse.  A few words. A tragedy encapsulated in a sentence. Nothing else about her is said.
St Nicolas Church, Nuneaton parish burial record
It’s always harder to find information about female ancestors than male ones. There were no photographs back then. Women would appear on very few documents. They wouldn’t appear on tax records or voting records or military records as their husbands did. Her story can only be surmised through the lives of the people who lived around her. Her story is told by the silent spaces.

She died on the 7th of July 1793 when she was 52 years old. She had 9 children five of which were under 18 years of age, the youngest, William was aged 10. What happened to them?

She was Mrs Ball after marriage and she was Miss Ball before it. Her husband Timothy Ball was most likely a cousin. He was two years younger than her. They were baptised, married, worshipped and buried in St Nicolas Church Nuneaton. Did they meet there too?
Parish record from St Nicolas Church, Nuneaton
Timothy Ball was variously described as a yeoman and a grazier. He owned land in a place nearby called Hides Pasture. He was a prominent citizen of his local community.  His name appears on many documents but not much is known about him either.

Timothy remarried a year after Elizabeth’s death but then died himself shortly after in 1795. Was this from grief?

It’s not known if Timothy’s second wife, Hannah, became a step mother to the orphaned children. In her will of 1830 she leaves Timothy’s children 50 pounds each, referring to them as her ‘friends’. Were they more than that?
For all of us who pursue genealogical research we are always collecting fragments like these; a name, a birth date, a death date, an occupation and so on. No matter how many fragments we find we are always just looking at the tip and trying to piece together the iceberg of our ancestor’s lives. It is an iceberg that is only conceived when we imagine the vastness of the ocean that contains it. It is what’s not said that speaks the loudest here. The story is told by the spaces that surround the fragments. It’s a story that comes from the silences.

Twenty seven years after Elizabeth Ball’s death, in a church 1 kilometre away from St Nicolas, Nuneaton a baby girl was christened. Unlike most women of her age her thoughts feelings and life would be well-documented. Thought to be too physically unattractive to have any serious prospects of marriage but having a sharp intellect her father decided to invest in her education. Something not typically afforded women at that time.
Mary Ann Evans, who was christened on 29th November 1819 in All Saints Church in Chilvers Coton, was educated and grew up in Nuneaton and the surrounding area. She was an intelligent and voracious reader and when she wrote what was to become her first novel, at age 37, it was her childhood and adolescent memories that she drew from. Choosing the nom de plume George Eliot, the characters in her novels were said to have been based on people that she knew from her early life.
Mary Ann Evans (1819-1880) aka George Eliot

There is only one character from her novels which is definitely thought to be someone from my family tree. The character of Rev Archibald Duke from her book Scenes of Clerical Life (1858) was thought to have been based on the real Rev Henry Hake, vicar of Chilvers Coton. He was the husband of Elizabeth Ball’s great niece.

Her description says he was: a very dyspeptic and evangelical man… whose hair is brushed straight up, evidently with the intention of giving him a height somewhat less disproportionate to his sense of his own importance than the measure of five feet three accorded him by an oversight of nature.

She doesn’t describe him as much of an iceberg. Mostly ‘tip’ I think.

As with any ‘person of note’ the events of Mary Ann Evans life are incredibly well documented. Her novels have been described as psychological portraits of the characters within them and as such, I think, they are also psychological portraits of herself. This much genealogical information for an ancestor would be an exceptional find for anyone let alone for a woman of that era.

Elizabeth Ball’s grandson John Ball was, like Mary Ann Evans’ father, a farmer. John farmed a small piece of land in a hamlet called Griff not far from Nuneaton. He went to All Saints Church, Chilvers Coton, where his son Benjamin , my grandfather’s grandfather, was christened.
It’s hard to believe that Mary Ann Evans who lived nearby in Griff House wouldn’t have had some contact with the Ball family nearby. Did she see them passing on the street? Did she ever say hello, have a conversation or shake their hands? I’ll never see what filled the silent spaces of my ancestor’s lives, but did she? Did they inspire a character, a sentence, a word in one of her books? I can only imagine.

The spaces of our lives can never be known without imagining the vastness of the ocean that contains us. The blank pages and record fragments that are left from a life will never tell it all. It’s what is unsaid that often speaks louder than what is said. Will our descendants find our stories, will they understand them, or will they only be revealed through the silent spaces?

Wednesday, 10 September 2014


How far back does your family tree go? Usually people with an English ancestry, with a lot of hard work and a bit of luck, can get back to around the 1600s, or late 1500s. This was when the parishes started recording baptisms, burials, marriages and the like. However if one of your ancestors was nobility you can often go back much further. If you were a noble it was because you were born one. It was in your blood it was your pedigree. Your privileges depended on a well recorded line of descent. Each aristocratic family had one. It was vitally important for them that they had a record of this.
If you are lucky enough to find someone of noble birth lurking somewhere in your family tree you can often find a recorded trail of descent that goes back 1000 years. There were books of pedigrees that were published such as Burkes Peerage in the UK or the Almanach De Gotha in continental Europe that can be a great source of information about this.
Almanach De Gotha
My Great Great Grandmother was Caroline Davenport (1846-1921) who was born, and died in Davenport, New York. The town she lived in was thought to have been named after Thomas Davenport (1615-1685) who was Caroline’s Great Great Great Great Grandfather. Thomas Davenport arrived in Massachusetts Bay Colony around 1635. Thomas was born in 1618 in Macclesfield, Cheshire, England. His grandfather was William V Davenport (1561-1640) Lord of Bramall Hall. The Davenports lived in Bramall Hall for 500 years. They have a well-documented pedigree that goes back to Orme de Davenport who was thought to have been born in Normandy in 1086.
All people named Davenport in the English speaking world all go back to Orme who was part of the Norman conquest of England and was thought to be a cousin of William the Conqueror. The Davenport family owned numerous manor houses in the Cheshire area.
You might feel disappointed that you don’t have an ancestor that you know of who lived as far back as Orme de Davenport but you shouldn’t. Because if you have English ancestry I can tell you with absolute certainty that he is your ancestor too. Yes, Orme de Davenport is your ancestor as well as he is mine. In fact it’s been estimated that 86% of the people who lived in England at the time of the Norman Conquests in 1066 are your ancestors if you have English ancestry. The 14% who aren’t are people who didn’t have children.
In fact just about everyone who lived in England in 1066 (1.11 million people) are ancestors to all current residents of England. For anyone with an English ancestry that means you.
He's one of your ancestors
Not only is Orme de Davenport your ancestor once he is your ancestor multiple times. If you read my last blog post you will know that if you go back 30 generations you have a trillion ancestors, which is more people than have ever lived, so ancestors will appear in your tree multiple times. We are all cousins with each other many times over.

A page from the Domesday Book c1086
86% of the people in this book are your ancestors
Does this sound incredible? It did to me but this is a mathematical certainty. I’ll tell you why.
If a family tree was binary, that is the number of ancestors doubles every generation you go back, then when you go back 30 generations you would have 1,073,741,824 ancestors, which is impossible. Because cousins marry that number is much less. So how much less? If we were all Egyptian pharaohs and we married our sisters, as they did, after 30 generation going backwards we would have two ancestors. If every generation going back first cousins married then after 30 generations we would have 60 ancestors. We know that both of these scenarios are impossible. If every generation going back were 2nd cousins marrying then 30 generations back we would have 4,356,616 ancestors. That is still more ancestors than there were people in England back then. For 3rd and 4th cousins there is a smaller increase than the 2nd cousins marrying scenario, but still much too many.
The only way that you will find enough ancestors to fill every spot in your family tree is if everyone who lived back then was your ancestor. That's right everyone. For people with an English ancestry the point at which this happens is around the 1300s. If you have partial English ancestry you might just have to go back a little further, but not much further.
A disagreement between a group of your ancestors
aka The Battle of Hastings 1066
You might ask things like what if my ancestors only stayed in a little village for generations isolated from everyone else. I know from my family tree that this did happen but not for a thousand years and no village is totally isolated from every other village anyway. There were often sudden mass movements of people as well for various reasons.
Looking at it this way genealogy really is a pointless occupation. If you are looking to see if you have an ancestor like Orme de Davenport you don’t really have to. He is your ancestor. Everyone who lived back then was your ancestor. There is no need to find a line of descent at all. I’m personally going to cancel my subscription to Ancestry.com immediately. What’s the point? Why do I write this blog at all. I could be watching re runs of ‘I Love Lucy’.
Lucille Désirée Ball (1911-1989)
no relation
For European family trees you will never get much further than the 1000s. No one has yet gotten past the European ‘Dark Ages’ but there is a family tree that does go back further. It goes back to 1675 BC. This is a family tree that is still actively being worked on and living descendants added to. It is none other than the family tree of Kong Qiu 孔丘who is known to us in the west as Confucius.
If you are interested in pointlessness this one the most pointless of them all. The Confucius family tree has about 2 million known and registered descendants and goes back 77 generations to reach Confucius (551-479 BC). It starts way before Confucius with an ancestor who lived in 1675 BC named Zhao Ming. This ancestor lived before the Romans and the Ancient Greeks. He lived in the Bronze Age. There are people alive today who can trace an ancestry back to him.

Confucius (551- 479BC)
The Confucius Genealogy Compilation Committee meets regularly to update this tree which records male ancestors only. To make it really pointless, in 2007, the Committee decided that women should be included too. This is pointless not because women don’t deserve to be included but because if you include them then it will inevitably include every living Chinese person. It’s a mathematical certainty. How pointless is that?