'Genealogy can be fun' by Derrick Phillips (Classics, 1956 - 1959)

Genealogy can be fun

by Derrick Phillips (Classics, 1956 - 1959)

In a TV advert, the comedienne Maureen Lipman quips with her grandson, who says he has failed in all his exams except sociology - “You got an ‘ology’ and you say you’ve failed? You’re a scientist!”.

Well, you don’t need an ‘ology’ or an ‘alogy’ to ‘do’ Genealogy, but perhaps you have to have the ‘allergy’ or the genealogy bug in your genes. Enough puns. Family research does need patience and determination, but it really can be fun – not just an obsession collecting countless names and details of births, marriages and deaths of ancestors and their relatives and drawing pretty family trees. It does not simply mean rummaging for hours on end in record offices and libraries or browsing the internet exploring others’ family trees. Yes, it may involve a tiring and boring side, but family research should be more than that. It can be a challenge and fun.

You need not just patience but to be a bit of a detective with lateral thinking, especially when you hit a brick wall, thinking you cannot go any further with a particular ancestor. In this article I do not presume to give the reader lessons in how to find ancestors – rather to show how family research can indeed be fun and deeply interesting. Yes, you need to do the spadework getting the ‘vital details’ of births, marriages and deaths and locations, and following up parents and siblings. But it should not stop there – the real interest is finding and identifying photos or portraits (I’ve managed some 30 spanning the years back to the early 1600s) and building up life stories and achievements of your relatives, and an understanding of the times and conditions in which they lived. I hope in this article to highlight a little of what I have discovered in a family that stretches over all five continents in numerous countries, over many centuries and to give snapshots of some of the more colourful persons.  

People often ask why on earth one should spend time (metaphorically!) digging up one’s ancestors. “We are probably all related to each other and probably all come down from William the Conqueror and Adam”, I’ve been told -  and yes, scientific research points to everyone descending from peoples who emigrated from Africa to Europe. Well, that may be so but do you have the names and life stories of your actual predecessors? So why do it? Well (like the Classics graduate that I am) let me quote Cicero, who said, ‘To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the lives of our ancestors by the study of history?’ And also one Alex Haley, who wrote: ‘In all of us is a hunger, marrow deep, to know our heritage – to know who we are and where we came from. Without this enriching knowledge, there is a hollow yearning. No matter what our attainments in life, there is still a vacuum, an emptiness and the most disquieting loneliness.’ Overegging the pudding? Maybe, but ‘Verb. Sap’, as the saying goes.

Budding genealogists are always advised to start by talking to all living relations and gathering information and photos from them. But you have to have luck and I admit I had a head start when we discovered a hoard of letters and documents in a trunk of our aunt, when she had died, revealing details of my mother’s English and Anglo-Irish families in England, Jamaica and India and a branch in Flanders; and then a phone call from a cousin of my deceased father who had been searching for years trying to find us, to pass on information of my Dad’s French maternal forbears, stretching back to the Crusades!  But without boring you just with names and dates, let me recount some of the stories I have unearthed about some prominent members of the family.

Guillaume de Pierre, Seigneur de Ganges, is recorded as fighting in the Crusades - during the siege of Antioch (1098), the capture of Jerusalem (1099) and at the Siege of Tyre (1111-1112), where his ardour led him to enter the city virtually on his own and he was put to death by the Saracens. Foolish chap! But finding him has enabled me to trace even his ancestors. More interesting, coming down some seven centuries, I have found photos not just of the remains of the ancestral home and farm in Champagne, the Château d’Errey, which over the years was once sacked by the Cossacks and sadly was blitzed by the Luftwaffe, but also a painting of the Château in all its eighteenth century glory and a detailed description of its rooms, gardens and vineyards.

The French Revolution played havoc with the aristocracy and landed gentry, who either were executed or fled the country, as my French ancestors did – to Mauritius and eventually India, where I was born into the Phillips family, into which the French ones had married. My French great grandfather, I found, built the first railway in Mauritius (I have a photo of a surviving bridge) and was responsible for building railways in India, following in the footsteps of his father, who had built bridges in France. Another ancestor introduced the mongoose to Jamaica, with disastrous results to the natural environment. Returning to India half a century after we came to England when India was granted independence, I have been thrilled to trace the footsteps of several branches of my family, discovering not just their graves but where they lived and worked. A great grandfather served the Nizam of Hyderabad and, like me, caught and recovered from smallpox!

Perhaps the most important part of my research has been tracing the story of Charlotte Gertrude MacCarthy, the daughter of my 4 x great uncle Thomas MacCarthy. Since the death of Henry Howard, the Earl of Stafford, the peerage had lain vacant and in 1825 she made a claim to it, citing parish records that Henry had married her great grandmother Ann (my 7 x great grandmother). There were two other claimants, people already with titles and determined that a commoner should not succeed to the Earldom. The claims went before the House of Lords. Charlotte failed in her claim because she could not produce evidence of the marriage. She showed evidence of the parish record of her first marriage to one Edward Rawlins in which it was clearly stated that Ann was

the daughter of the Hon. Henry Howard. She produced further evidence of the parish record of her second marriage to one Thomas Gorden, in which it was clearly stated that she was the granddaughter of the late Viscount Stafford (the father of Henry Howard). According to our 200 year old family pedigree Ann came from Gloucester, was a Protestant and married Henry Howard in 1667 or 1668 or 1669. I surmised she would have been born round between 1647 and 1655, but proper evidence of her date of birth had continually eluded everyone.

In the 1820s my 3 x great grandfather John Edward Connor MacCarthy (who vigorously claimed to be the great-great grandson of Ann and Henry) recorded that the MacCarthy claimants offered £2000 (a huge sum for those days, equal to about £100,000 today) to anyone who could produce proof of her marriage to Henry Howard. It is not surprising however that it proved impossible to obtain proof, and the marriage could have been clandestine. According to our family records Ann was a Protestant, while Henry was from an ancient and noble Catholic family. It is probable that Ann was a commoner. The Jernigham family (a rich titled family) hired so-called handwriting experts who testified that the marriage records of Ann had been tampered with. The House of Lords panel rejected Charlotte’s claim, not because they agreed with the forgery accusations, but solely because Charlotte could not produce any documentary evidence of Ann’s marriage to Henry. Oral evidence supplied by servants of Thomas Gorden and Ann and by members of the MacCarthy family was ruled unacceptable.

In 2001 my sister and I were invited to take part in a BBC/Open University documentary on using parish records for family research. They asked us for ideas for a story and chose the Charlotte MacCarthy case. This involved us taking part in filming in the London Metropolitan Archives Record Office and in the Evesham church and Worcester County Record Office. The BBC employed Elizabeth Dansbury of University College, London, an eminent handwriting expert to examine the original parish records which the Jerningham family had alleged were forgeries. We were not allowed to speak to her until she had finished her thorough examination of the parcment. To our joy she pronounced the entries genuine and not altered. She explained that the ink was clearly from the 1600s and not the nineteenth century. But she said that this only proved the entries were not forged and not that the claims of connection with the Howard/Stafford family were true, only that Ann had said they were true. The BBC documentary was shown in March 2001, entitled ‘Breaking the Seal’ and it became standard Open University viewing for some years.

I mentioned that the MacCarthy family had in 1825 looked in vain for concrete documentary evidence of the marriage of Henry and Ann. Well, believe it or not, I came across on the Latter Day Saints website, in the International Index (I.G.I.) the following marriage entry: Henry Stafford married Ann Gilbert, 3rd February 1669 at St. Margaret’s, Westminster

This thrilled me, as our pedigree chart (drawn in 1825) showed the marriage to have been in 1667 or 1668 or 1669 in St. Margaret’s, Westminster. It is situated next to Westminster Abbey and has over the centuries been the fashionable church for baptisms, marriages and deaths for nobility. Then I unfortunately realised that Henry Howard became Earl of Stafford only in 1688, after which he adopted the surname Stafford - Howard. However it then occurred to me that in 1669 his parents were styled Viscount and Countess Stafford respectively. I realised that Henry had adopted the surname Stafford-Howard and it seemed plausible that, as his parents were at the time styled Viscount and Countess Stafford, he would have used the surname Stafford. My hypothesis was strengthened when my sisters later obtained details of the baptism of Ann Gilbert – she was the daughter of Thomas Gilbert and was christened on 28th August 1654 in Ashleworth, Gloucestershire. The facts that ‘our’ Ann was known as ‘Ann of Gloucester’ (reinforced in the House of Lords Hansard record as being ‘a Lady of Gloucester of the name of Ann’); and that Ann Gilbert was indeed born in Gloucestershire added grist to the mill.

I always thought it plausible to surmise that the marriage of a Catholic Earl, with a peerage and wealth and estates to protect from going outside the ancient family, to a Protestant girl possibly but not necessarily from a poor background, was carried out secretly to avoid whatever consequences. All the history books say Henry only married once, to Claude-Charlotte Gramont from whom he separated and that he died childless. But I think we know better!

Tracing footsteps has been particularly fulfilling. The Phillips (originally HaLevi) family, I have discovered, were Jews. I have traced them back to the 1600s in Prague, a magical city to visit, after which they made their way through Poland, Prussia and Holland to England (and then India). In this country two became Lord Mayors of London, while my mother’s Anglo-Irish and also Huguenot ancestral families boasted three Lord Mayors of Dublin in the 1600s. An 11 x great grandfather, William Harrison, wrote ‘Description of England’, the authoritative book on everyday life in the era of Elizabeth I, while my 7 x great grandfather Johann Martin Brunck, who became a monk after his wife’s death and took the name Gervasius,  wrote a number of theological books in Latin. I have copies of books of both Harrison and Brunck.

Among the documents we inherited from my aunt we found Army commissions and documents from which I have been able to uncover stories of service in the West Indies, India during and after the Indian Mutiny and in the earlier Peninsular War in Spain and Portugal, when our armies took on and vanquished Napoleon. In fact I have managed to buy a Second Edition copy of a book written by another 3 x great grandfather, John Edward Connor MacCarthy, in which he records his part in the Storming of the Castle of Badajoz and the Battle of Corunna and other battles. Tracing, through Oman’s history and a regimental history, the plight of the army when it trekked through the snows of Portugal to Corunna makes interesting but tragic reading.

I have made the trip to Badajoz myself and went to the Castle and looked over its frighteningly high walls, reliving the words of my ancestor, who recounted how he led a group of soldiers to the walls, while the besieged French rained down hot tar, cannonballs and sheets of fire, led an escalade over the walls, then got shot in the thigh by a cannonball, leaving him on the flat of his back for 18 months. His book is today considered a primary source of history of the war. 

Then there is yet one more very colourful great-great-great grandfather, Robert Monroe Harrison (we call him RMH), one of my heroes, despite his not being a lover of the British. I first discovered his name from his signature cut off a letter he had sent to his granddaughter, who had pasted it into a sort of autograph book which she kept.  With a lot of research I found that he had been the unpaid US Consul in Jamaica for over 27 years. He wrote hundreds of letters and memoranda, which have been microfilmed and stored in the US Library of Congress.  A total stranger living in Virginia discovered me via the internet and lent me rolls of these records he had bought.

This unravelled undreamt-of facts – RMH was born in Virginia, the son of the great Robert Hanson Harrison (whose ancestors hailed from England and who was Military Secretary to George Washington). RMH was half-brother to President William Harrison, was educated in England, pressganged into the British Navy onto an English man-o’-war and raised immediately to the rank of Midshipman. He served for seven years in the Mediterranean, it being the practice to draft all Americans from one ship to another in order to keep them in the British Navy. 

His mother had reluctantly allowed him to go to London to be instructed in navigation by the celebrated John Hamilton Moore and he was proud to record that for 30 years he was a seaman, although he also had the title of Colonel in the army. During his naval career he served as Sailing Master on the USS ‘Constellation’. The epitaph on his grave in Kingston, Jamaica records that, while a Lieutenant on the frigate USS ‘Constellation’, he received a musket ball in the side in an engagement with a French vessel. This would have been under the command of Captain Truxton during the so-called undeclared ‘Quasi-War’ against France.  He might well have been involved in the capture in 1799 of two French privateers, the ‘Diligent’ and the ‘Union’. After a brief voyage without incident, while under the command of Captain S. Barron, the ‘Constellation’ again under Truxton’s command sailed in December 1799 for the West India patrols. RMH was doubtless involved in another incident when, on the evening of 1st February 1800, the ‘Constellation’ sighted the 52-gun frigate ‘Vengeance’ and engaged her in a lengthy and furious battle. Although ‘Vengeance’ twice struck her colours and was close to sinking, she was able to utilise the cover of darkness to escape from ‘Constellation’, who herself disabled by the loss of her mainmast was unable to pursue. More success came in 1800, when RMH was still serving on her, with the recapture of three American merchantmen from French possession. At the end of the Franco-American dispute, ‘Constellation’ sailed back to home waters. Anchoring in Delaware Bay on 10th April 1801, the ship was caught in winds and an ebb tide which laid her over on her beam ends to ground, thereby occasioning need for extensive repair and refitting. RMH was discharged from the Constellation in 1801. From 1812 to 1814 however he commanded the US ‘Richmond’ Gun Brig 14 in the war against Britain.

The frigate Constellation was laid up in Norfolk, Virginia and eventually broken up in 1853. But it was rebuilt as a sloop and is currently on exhibition in Baltimore Harbour. I had the good fortune to go there and board the ship. Although it was not the original, it was a great feeling to be on board and to see the quarters and the type of food that the US officers and sailors ate in the days of my ancestor.

After he procured a discharge, RMH travelled extensively on the continent, visiting places of interest as far as St. Petersburg at the north and Madrid at the south. He returned to the United States about the time of St. Clair’s defeat [that would be in 1791], and received a commission of second lieutenant in the army, and joined General Harrison’s regiment. His health failing, he sought the mild climate of the south of France. He was appointed to the navy by Washington; and the date of commission was the same as that of Com. Rodgers.  He was the friend and associate of Truxton, and resigned his commission during Jefferson’s administration. He then went to Russia and witnessed some of the stirring scenes consequent upon the invasion of Napoleon, and participated in the Battle of Borodino. In Sweden he married a ward of Count Fersien, Swedish Minister of State, who was afterwards stoned to death by the populace of Stockholm; and when the war of 1812 broke out, RMH immediately offered his services to his own Government, and on his way home was carried a prisoner to Cowes, England. From there he escaped and went to the Danish island of St. Thomas, and there found a commission as consul for that place waiting for him. Since then he served in the same capacity in several important places, and was United States consul for the Island of Jamaica for his last 27 years.

His appearance was described as imposing – of a medium height, erect, with dignified bearing, and hair with long flowing beard as white as snow. His wife Margret was said to remind one of pictures of courtly dames of the ‘Old Dominion’ of Washington’s times. Born in 1770, he died in 1858.

Earlier I mentioned the trek of my ancestors across Europe and India, but surely one of the most awesome concerned Isaac Elias and Joannis Sinan. They were Jewish merchants from Julfa (in what was Iran in the 1600s but is now in Azerbaijan) who crossed Asia Minor to Pondicherry in French India. Like the HaLevi/Phillips Jewish ancestors who came from Prague and eventually married a French Catholic lady, Isaac and Joannis married into French Catholic families.

Probably my most iconic and unbelievable find was to trace back through my mother’s fiercely Protestant ancestors in England back to Catholic days and to discover that, at the time when English Catholic priests were allowed to marry, Ealdhun, the last Bishop of Lindisfarne and first Bishop of Durham, was my 19 x great grandfather! I must have been fated to come to St. Cuthbert’s Society 1000 years after he and the monks brought St. Cuthbert to rest in Durham!

Researching my family has enabled me to combine it with the pleasures of holiday travel to different parts of the world – Boston and Portsmouth, New Hampshire, USA, the Czech Republic and India - seeking out graves, houses where we lived when I was a child and schools I attended and still remember, residences of grandparents and great grandparents, churches in which we were baptised and my relations were married, while also seeing wonders like the Taj Mahal, the Nizam’s palace and library, the monuments and the buildings of colonial America, places I might not have seen otherwise.

Many of you readers may well be even more versed in genealogy than I am, but for those who are not, I hope I have shown that researching one’s family history can be interesting, instructive and fun. Before I started on my research I knew little about modern history beyond the Tudors but I have learned a lot from my research. I could go on forever but will stop with my extended snapshots of my ancestors. Most of the information on the lives and activities of these folk was not passed down to me but unearthed over a number of years by my sisters and me. A word of warning – researching might uncover details which some might not like – for example, ancestors who went to prisons. One well-off branch of my ancestors managed to have four persons who landed themselves in a debtor’s prison until they had paid off their debt. The fascinating thing is that many folk from rich families obtained privileges like living in better quarters outside the worst parts of the prison. Plus ça change?

On a mad note, how’s this for a Genealogical Carol – last verse?:

On the twelfth day of Christmas, on my family tree, 12 clerics a-preaching, 11 officers parading, 10 merchants hawking, 9 sculptors carving, 8 painters painting , 7 French aristocrats fleeing, 6 sailors sailing. 5 Lord May-ay-ors, 4 innkeepers drinking, 3 authors scribbling, 2 lawyers soliciting, but not a Partridge in the family tree (just hundreds of Phillipses!)

Well, that will probably put any budding historians off family research! So, let me finish with a final telling quotation, from a Swedish source:

Genealogical research can be compared to working with a jig-saw puzzle. A jig-saw where you have no idea how many pieces there are, there are no edges and it can grow in any direction at any time, you will never know what turn things will take and where you might end up. Genealogy is a journey without end, and one that you will miss as soon as you take a break. It is also good for heart and mind as it is relaxing and demands undivided attention. You also grow as a person when you realise that you are an important part of a long unbroken chain of human lives. On top of this one learns interesting historical facts and many will also discover now living relatives that were unknown.

Posted by Richard on Sun, 12/06/2016 - 9:50pm