This post is the second of a two-part account of my introduction to family history. Here I pick up where my previous post left off and describe how the discovery of my grandfather’s wartime letters led to further revelations about his life and ancestry.
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Having found out so much about my grandfather Frederick England’s wartime experiences I wanted to learn more about his life during peacetime. In addition to photographs and personal correspondences, some of the most useful items I found among my mother’s family records were financial records like his account books, solicitors’ fees and insurance policies which tracked his major purchases and varying fortunes over the years. For example a receipt from F.G. & P.M. Robinson, Solicitors reveals that the family purchased their second house in June 1959 for £1,650, almost £1,000 below the national average house price for that year and worth approximately £25,245 in today’s money. His ‘borrower’s passbook’ from the same year shows their mortgage repayments were initially £8 18s. 2d. per month (about £136.30 today) at a time when an average worker’s monthly earnings was around £46.
Financial records like these can help us understand our ancestors’ position in society but can also tell us about relationships between individuals. For example, from an account of the estate of Frederick’s mother Maud England I not only found out that her personal wealth at the time she died was £985 2s. 3 ½ d., worth around £22,440.86 today and surprisingly high for a miner’s widow, but also the names and addresses of her descendants who inherited it. This list of names enabled me to expand my family tree significantly and opened up several new avenues for research.
One such avenue was that of Harry England, Maud’s eldest surviving son and brother of Frederick whose obituary in the Ripley and Heanor News (see below) was among the more interesting items I found among my family records.
This clipping included his address (7 Grace Crescent, Heanor) and inferred date of death (26 January 1958), a photograph and details of his life including the fact that he had been “a staunch worker for the Labour Party” and had served as a town councillor for Heanor.
Another document I was only able to make sense of after studying the account Maud England’s estate was a very old and fragile marriage certificate bearing the names England and Ling (see below). The certificate had been folded into eighths and at some point the left quarter of the document containing the year and bride and groom’s first names had become detached and lost, so it was unclear which of my ancestors it had belonged to. Fortunately however I knew from her estate records that Maud England’s maiden name had been Ling, and therefore the marriage certificate had to belong to her and my great-grandfather Thomas England.
This marriage certificate confirmed that Thomas was employed as a miner, the couple’s ages and the fact that they were resident in Alfreton at the time. Crucially though it also included the names and occupations of their fathers Thomas England Sr. (a chemical manager) and John Ling (deceased, a general dealer), plus two witnesses George William England and Lucy Ann England whose names suggested they were related to the groom.
This wealth of information enabled me to find Thomas and Maud in the 1901 census via Ancestry, and I then worked my way back through the earlier censuses all the way to 1841, taking in several generations of Englands and Lings along the way. Without this document I doubt my family history research could have progressed much further along this branch without recourse to ordering a number of expensive certificates, and though I did not realise it at the time it was also my first clue that my grandfather’s much-talked-about traveller connection was more than just a family legend.
My second clue, which was similarly lost on me at the time, came in the form of another certificate, this one pertaining to the death of someone named Mary Ann Bestwick who died on 30 July 1938 in Storthes Hall Mental Hospital near Huddersfield (see below).
As neither I nor my mother had any idea who this was and did not recognise the name Bestwick, I initially ascribed little importance to it. Later however I discovered a letter from the superintendent registrar for the Belper Registration District which revealed that someone in my grandfather’s family had gone to great lengths to track down this certificate. This suggested they required proof of their relationship to this person, perhaps because an inheritance was at stake?
I cross-checked Mary Ann Bestwick’s details as presented in her death certificate with those of everyone else I had uncovered in my grandfather’s family and noticed that she shared a first name and approximate birth year (c. 1850) with his maternal grandmother Mary Ann Ling. I knew that Mary Ann Ling’s husband John had died at some point before 1901 as he is marked as deceased in their daughter Maud’s marriage certificate from that year (see above), and as Mary Ann would have only been around fifty at the time it seemed quite plausible that she could have subsequently remarried and taken the name Bestwick.
I checked Ancestry to see if I could find any evidence to back up this hunch and quickly found that she had married a Thomas Bestwick in 1910, thereby confirming that the death certificate was indeed that of my great-great-grandmother. Taking into account her age and the probable date of the photograph (as well as her intimate positioning next to Maud and the arguable family resemblance) I believe Mary Ann Bestwick is the unidentified woman second from the left in the picture below.
Having established my relationship to Mary Ann Bestwick I began examining her death certificate more closely and was intrigued to see that under ‘Rank or profession’ the superintendent registrar had entered “of Caravan, Toll Gate, Hotel Yard.” I had initially overlooked this detail but now that I knew Mary Ann was Frederick England’s grandmother, the fact that she had been living in a caravan immediately called to mind Frederick’s supposed traveller origins. Looking again at his parents’ marriage certificate for further clues I decided to do a Google search for John Ling’s given occupation “general dealer,” and sure enough I found a number of sources which confirmed that the terms ‘dealer’ and general ‘dealer’ were used by Gypsies and travellers in the late 19th Century. This revelation led to many fascinating discoveries about the lives of my traveller ancestors on the Ling side, including a book one of them had published entitled Memories of a Travelling Life which deals with a branch of the family who became successful travelling showmen.
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I will hopefully be returning to the Ling family again soon as theirs is one of the more unusual stories I have uncovered during my research. Before leaving Mary Ann however, there is a postscript to her story which it seems appropriate to include here.
Several years after finding out about Mary Ann and her connection to the famous showmen family the Lings, I decided to check out the National Fairground Archive website to see if they held any records relating to them. Their site contained a fantastic collection of photographs of caravans and rides which various Lings had owned at one time or another, but most exciting of all was the description of a four-generation family photograph in their list of digital media which featured a ‘G’mother Mary A Buxton.’ After viewing the photograph at the archive I was no longer in any doubt that the woman standing next to my great-grandmother Maud in the previous photograph was indeed my great-great grandmother.
The ‘G’mother Mary A Buxton’ identified in the photo above is seated on the far left and her resemblance to the older woman in the previous photo (taken around thirty years later) is undeniable. In addition to Mary Ann, this photo also provided me with my first look at her mother (my great-great-great-grandmother!) Miriam Buxton (née Hall), her daughter Annie Elizabeth Hobson (née Ling) and granddaughter Isabella Cicely Hobson. Finding multi-generational photographs like this is sure a rare treat for family historians. I particularly like how this one captures how women’s fashions were evolving at this time, with Miriam and Mary Ann’s Victorian mourning garb contrasting with Annie and Isabella’s more practical Edwardian look.
Many thanks to the National Fairground Archive for their help during this research.