Family History Stories, Uncategorized

Do You Have An Eccentric In Your Family History?

What is lurking in your past?

by Michelle Barber

Have you ever thought of having your family history researched but decided that it’s not worth it because your family probably weren’t that interesting? You may be surprised to find that you are not on your own. Many people make presumptions about their ancestors and the real truth is that unless you get someone to research them or do it yourself, you will never know what may be the fascinating truth.

In this article, I’m exploring eccentrics.  The most well documented ones tend to be aristocrats and habitually male at that. Although they make an interesting read, I have discarded them with savoury vigour because they are common on the web and you can read about them elsewhere.  Essentially, what I hope to demonstrate is that any one of us could have an eccentric in our family history whatever it turns out to be.

Charles Howard lunactic asylum

Lunatic or not?

Even though it was a long time ago that I found out that my great great grandfather, Charles Howard lived a large part of his life in a lunatic asylum, I can still remember how I felt when I first discovered it. I felt sick for him but I also felt worried in case he had done something horrendous like a series of murders.  In hindsight, I really should have known better because I knew what the Victorians were like for flinging folks in asylums. However, it seems that when it comes to our own family even though it is four generations back, all good sense disappears up the chimney. In other words, until I read the actual notes on his incarceration, my mind danced through all sorts of scenarios that involved cut throats and strait jackets.  It probably didn’t help that another researcher told me a gory story about one of their ancestors that was in a lunatic asylum for cutting the throats of their immediate family.

My ancestor, Charles Howard was born in 1823 in Wigan, Lancashire but moved to Hull, East Yorkshire for work and then marriage. On the 4th April 1867, he was admitted into Hull Asylum.  His youngest child, my great grandfather was two years old.  His wife, Ann was left with five children to support plus the shame of her husband being put into an asylum.

As far as I can see from reading the doctor’s observations of Charles, his only crime was that he was eccentric.  In 1867, he walked from Hull to Wigan (his home town) and back four times. These days, he would be applauded for walking right across the country and probably be able to raise money for charity too. His other crime was that he had a creative mind and talked about inventing something that would help the government.  One thing is for certain after reading all the medical notes and that is that when Charles entered the asylum he was probably just eccentric but being in the asylum for such a long period actually caused mental illness. He withdrew into himself to such an extent that he seemed to lose touch with the world outside of himself.

Charles died in the asylum in 1898 at the age of 76. He died of a heart condition. What I find questionable in this particular situation, is whether Charles would have been put into an asylum if he had been of a higher class.   Was it viewed that there had to be something mentally wrong with a working class man that liked hiking and had a creative mind because surely that was something just for the upper echelons of society? I know what I think.

Shakespeare, a pub and a painting or two.

Shakespeare Hirst

The next eccentric, Shakespeare Hirst has a far jollier existence than Charles Howard – well, up until his wife’s demise and then his own, that is.  Shakespeare Hirst was born in Almondbury, Huddersfield in 1841 into a family of woollen weavers. His father, Henry was a strong enthusiast of the work of William Shakespeare and so called his second son after him.  By the 1871 census, the family have moved into the Shakespeare Inn and are no long woollen weavers. Henry Hirst is a publican and Shakespeare is an elocutionist.

The local newspapers of the time often report on what Shakespeare Hirst was up to. A favourite event at the Huddersfield inn was the commemoration of William Shakespeare’s birthday on April 23rd. A large banquet was laid on with lots of drinks and speeches. After which, Shakespeare Hirst would recite his favourite Shakespearean monologues whilst in full costume.

On top of that, Mr Hirst would often have a reciting hour early on Sunday evening in his public house. During that period, drinks were not served. Apparently, his favourite party piece was doing the strangulation scene from Othello. He used the pump handle to demonstrate the strangulation. What an amazing sight that must have been.

Shakespeare Hirst also loved art and he claimed to own an original painting of the Bard by Adam Elsheimer. He alleged that the painting was done in 1608 in Rome. Mr Hirst was of the opinion that Shakespeare often travelled to Rome, of that there is no evidence. He also claimed that other pictures in his collection were by Titian, Rubens, Turner, Caravaggio, Raphael, Leonardo De Vinci and a host of others. However, after his death the auction, unfortunately, only realised about £1,000.

Shakespeare Hotel Huddersfield

  • In 1889, he held an exhibition of his old masters at his home.
  • He bought two properties 83 and 85 Town End in Almondbury, Huddersfield and named them Shakespeare House.
  • Shakespeare Hirst named all his children in connection to Shakespeare. They were Cordelia, Henry, Ophelia, Shakespeare Elsheimer and Miranda.

Unfortunately, even the death of his wife and himself would not have been out of place in a tragedy. In 1891, his wife Mary Ann committed suicide by drinking mixture of carbolic acid and glycerine. It was for treating ear canker in dogs. She was 36.  1907 Shakespeare Hirst died at the age of 63 through an excess of alcohol. His daughter, Ophelia stated that he drank a quart of brandy a day.

A female second Jesus Christ – Mary Ann Girling

Mary Ann Girling

It seems that female eccentrics are more difficult to find than males. However, I think that Mary Ann Girling can beat most chaps on the eccentricity scale.  As you shall see, up to Christmas Day 1864, her life was just plain ordinary and then it all kicked off. She was born Mary Ann Clouting on the 27th April in Little Glemham, Suffolk. Her parents were Emma (nee Gibbs) and William Clouting, a farmer. In 1863 at Lowestoft in Suffolk, she married George Stanton Stirling and they had a number of children, the youngest being William.

On Christmas Day 1864, she got a message from God that she was the second coming of Jesus Christ.  It has been alleged that one sign of this was that she had stigmata on her hands, feet and side.  Apparently, from then on celibacy was the order of the day. She then set up a religious order called the Children of God in the New Forest. The community was referred to as the Shakers by other people.

Although the community were celibate and worked hard, they still managed to be looked down on and get into debt and ended up being evicted. At one stage in 1878, they had all their belongings out on the road blocking it and they stayed there for a couple of days but were given notice to leave. The Shakers went from one state of hard living to another but it never seemed to deter Mary Ann.

Mrs Girling only wrote one piece which was entitled “The Close of the Dispensation: the last message to the church and world.  She signed off with – “I close this letter with the true and loving declaration that I am the second appearing of Jesus, the Christ of God, the Bride, the Lamb’s Wife, the God-mother and Saviour, life from heaven and there will not be another. She died from cancer in 1886 aged 59.

The one that swallowed a water-wolf.

7 Prospect Street, Haworth

Again we have a woman that lived a very ordinary life until one day… Maria Judson, 7 Prospect Street in Haworth claimed that while drinking some water from a Spring at Lee Shaw, a water-wolf jumped down her throat.  The creature then started to grow inside her for a full six years. Apparently, she could feel it getting bigger.

One day, she was cooking onions in butter when she could feel the thing wriggling and squirming up into her throat. Luckily, Maria was cooking her dinner in a tin over the open fire. She opened her mouth and the water wolf went into the fire. According to Maria, she couldn’t quite describe the water wolf but it could have been like a grey frog. Furthermore, she had heard that they were partial to a bit of cooked onion.  Apparently, she wasn’t the only one that had had a situation with a water wolf, she heard that a woman at the crossroads had had similar problems.

Eccentrics seem to come in all states of reality – well, it is their reality that is why we consider them eccentric.  Do you think that you might have an eccentric lurking in your family history? Anyone of us could have. If you would like to have an article written about your ancestors, please email us at

Family History Stories, Uncategorized

Homosexuality and Blackmail in 1808 – Family History Revealed.

by Michelle Barber



Think your family history might be dull because all your ancestors are agricultural labourers?  There could be nothing further from the truth.

One of the family history questions that I have been asked is “how can family history be interesting if all your ancestors are agricultural labourers?”

My answer was that people are more than their trade. They also have love, hate, trouble and happiness. When I said that, I hadn’t realised what was lurking in the depths of my own family history with an agricultural labourer. I came across this troubling story while researching one of my direct ancestors.


In 1808, my 4X great uncle, Robert Escritt and his friend John Paul were in the pillory 3 times for conspiring to blackmail concerning homosexuality; homosexuality was a hanging offence then.  In fact, they were the last recorded case for the pillory in Driffield, East Yorkshire.  Reading the court documents for his trial would be enough to make any relative squirm at being related to such a cad.


Robert Escritt was an ordinary agricultural labourer who by a wicked twist of fate had his normal life turned into what can only be imagined as a nightmare.

He was born in 1780 at Kirkburn, East Yorkshire to William Escritt and Elizabeth Bentley.  He married Ann Braithwaite in 1802 and they lived in Garton on the Wolds.

Imagine Robert Escritt, like thousands of other agricultural labourers, wearing a wide brimmed hat to protect himself from the elements, a smock which would reach down to his knees and his only pair of boots made of leather with steel toe caps and hobnailed soles.


ag labourer

At the top of the hierarchy in village life would be the landowner or village squire.  After him would be the tenant farmer who tended the landowner’s livestock and land.  Usually the tenant farmer would be provided with a farmhouse.  The farmers who tended a large farm with fertile soil would be able to enjoy a comfortable lifestyle.  In the middle of the village hierarchy would be the skilled craftsmen such as blacksmiths, carpenters, saddlers, thatchers and coopers.  These men were vital to the smooth running of the village.

At the very bottom of the heap would be the poor labourers like Robert Escritt and John Paul.   They would have constantly done back breaking work but the landowner would have enjoyed most of the profit.  The landowner would give the farmer his share and the labourers would get a pittance for all the relentless work they were forced to do in order to earn a meagre living.

Agricultural labourers were often the poorest people in England.  Even though their rewards were minimal, the work and suffering they had to endure was not.  For instance, during the planting season the whole family would be expected to work out in the fields, in freezing cold weather, from dawn to dusk.  Alternatively, during harvest the whole family could be toiling in the fields from dawn to dusk in the blazing sun.  He certainly would not have had much in the way of comfort but that life was probably viewed as much better than what was to come.


I was not aware of Robert Escritt’s existence until I was looking for my two of my great grandfathers by the same name.  I had decided to look on the Beverley Treasure House Archives.  The search for Robert Escritt brought up the form QSF/399/B/6 – Indictment of John Paul and Robert Escritt of Garton labourers 26th April 1808.  I knew it could not be one of my direct line Roberts as one was a farmer who had died in 1800 and the other was a cooper who was yet to be born.

After looking on FamilySearch to find out if I could place that Robert Escritt, I found out that he had married Ann Braithwaite.  I referred to my family tree on and was able to place Robert Escritt as my 4X great uncle.  A trip to the Treasure House was in order to see what was in the document.


The journey was met with both trepidation and excitement.  I knew he had done something unlawful but what?  As the archivist brought the 200-year-old document to me, my mind was buzzing with every single crime that could be committed – was he a murderer, a burglar, a petty thief?  The list was endless but of course, I was nowhere near the truth.

The document was placed before me and weighted down.  The first court hearing was 28th July 1807.  Robert Escritt and John Paul were:

persons of ill name and fame and dishonest and unlawfully contriving to deprive one Francis Brown the younger of his good name, credit and reputation and also to obtain and get themselves of and from large sums of money on the 10th day of July in the reign of our sovereign Lord George the third with accusing him of the unnatural act of sodomy, commonly known as buggery” 

It was stated that John Paul and Robert Escritt conspired to accuse Francis Brown, gentleman, of sodomy to try to obtain large amounts of money from him.

On the 11th day of July they had gone to Henry Grimston Esquire, being one of His Majesty’s justice, to keep the peace, and told him that Francis Brown had sodomised John Paul.   Robert Escritt had witnessed it.   If they were blackmailing Francis Brown for sodomy when he was not guilty, but he would not pay up, surely they would have gone on to another victim who might be so frightened that he would hand over the cash.  It does not make sense that they would have gone to the magistrate, after all they were supposed to be in it simply for the money.  However, they were poor labourers and Francis Brown was a gentleman farmer, they were not believed.  They were taken to court and suffered the humiliation of an embarrassing cross examination on a subject which in those days was considered so terrible that it was a hanging offence.  On the 12th of January 1808 both men were found guilty of conspiracy to blackmail.


The sentence was a year in the House of Correction and to stand in the pillory for three consecutive market days.   The court document states that Robert Escritt and John Paul should stand in the pillory for one hour between twelve and 2 o’clock in the afternoon.  Robert Escritt and John Paul would have had the humiliation of standing at the top of Exchange Street, Driffield for 3 consecutive market days.   Their heads and hands would have been put into the carved out slots in the wood and then a second piece of wood would have been closed down upon them so that they could not move from the missiles which would have been thrown at them.   Decayed fruit and vegetables, rotten eggs, excrement, dead rats and sometimes hard rocks would be hurled at the person in the pillory.  Often, a pillory would be rotated so that the public could get a good look at the person trapped in it.


Beverley Guild Hall

Robert Escritt and John Paul were also sentenced to one year in the House of Correction at Beverley.   The House of Correction at Beverley is famous for holding Dick Turpin the highwayman in 1738.  His real name was John Palmer and he was incarcerated in the House of Correction for shooting his landlord’s cockerel.  In those days the House of Correction was situated at Beverley Guildhall.  It had one small courtyard for all prisoners with a work shed in it but no water.  When the prisoners were allowed water, the gaoler would have to fetch it from across the way.  Men and women felons each had a separate day room upstairs and the room where the women would sleep would adjoin it.  The smell was overwhelming for lack of sewers.

Robert Escritt and John Paul would have slept in one of the two dirty cells below.  They measured about four square yards and were badly ventilated.  There was a small window with bars in each room.  Their beds would have had straw in the ticking and they were allowed two blankets and a rug for warmth.  To pass the time they would have been made to pound tile-shards which they were paid 6d a bushel for.


What happened to Francis Brown?  I searched for him on and found him in the England and Wales Criminal Register 1791-1892.  He was transported for 7 years.  It was time to research in The Treasure House archives again.

A week earlier, I had been reading what a dishonest person my ancestor was for intending to deprive Francis Brown of his good name and reputation.  The document before me named Francis Brown as a common cheat.  He had promised George Sproxton, a tailor from Driffield, a house and land for £150.  The house and land had belonged to the late Francis Brown, Brown’s father.  The property had never been Brown junior’s to sell.  He simply intended to relieve George Sproxton of his money.


Robert Escritt settled down to live what seems to be a quiet family life.  He returned home to Garton-on-the-Wolds to his wife, Ann.  She gave birth to Robert in 1810 and Hannah in 1812.  Robert and Ann are both on the 1841 and 1851 census, still living in Garton-on-the Wolds.  Even at the age of 71, Robert put his occupation down as an agricultural labourer.  He died at the age of 77, which considering the mortality rate of the period and what he had been through, he survived quite well.

The true story of Robert Escritt and John Paul proves that ancestors who were agricultural labourers can have colourful histories.   Your agricultural labourer’s history might make my story seem like watching paint dry.   We never know what is lurking in the archives.

If you would like an article written about one of your ancestors as an unusual gift for a relative, please email us at


Family History Stories, Uncategorized

Victorian, Roman Catholic and Living in Sin – Family History Revealed.

by Michelle Barber.

Family history not worth discovering because all your ancestors are mill workers?


Think again.

The title of this article is ‘Victorian, Roman Catholic and Living in Sin’, although Mary Jane was cohabiting in the Edwardian period, I consider her to be a Victorian as the first 30 years of her life which were her formative years was during the Victorian period.

I feel that one of the reasons people do not embark upon their family history or stop when they get through the censuses is that they presume it is just a tale of cotton mill workers.  In this article I want to demonstrate that the occupation does not make the person.  People from all walks of life have fascinating stories if only we dig deeply enough for them.  It is the odd human being that gets through their life without any problems.  The deeper we search, the more chance we have of finding out our own ancestor’s specific problems – I believe there has to be some.  We simply have to keep on looking.

It was whilst looking at my grandfather’s (Percy Barber) birth certificate that I first came across his mother.  She was called Mary Jane Barber, formerly Dunn.  It was the days before the internet was worldwide and I was just beginning to show an interest in family history.  The date of the birth certificate was October 1909.  Whilst looking at the birth certificate with my mother, she told me that Mary Jane had been married before because my grandfather, Percy Barber had a half-brother named Sam Dunn.   Years later, that name but not that person was going be the basis of mystery and shocks.


My grandfather’s birth certificate told me that his father was Lewis Barber – a slater.  When I got my first subscription to a family history site, I typed in that name before any other. He came up on the 1901 census for England.  It was at that point that the mysteries started to unfold.

Lewis was a lodger in the household of a Mary Shay.  Mary Shay’s daughter was Mary Jane Dunn (my great grandmother) who had two children Mary Alice Dunn and Sam Dunn.  Lewis Barber, my great grandfather was a widower with a 10 month old son, William.    At the time, I surmised that my great grandparents met when Lewis became a lodger in Mary Shay’s household.   It seemed odd that Lewis was a male with a young baby in the household. Normally, a man in that situation would go to his family for help.  Would no one else help him?  Things were not what they looked like on the census.  When you look at it, it reads as if Lewis’s dead wife is William’s mother. This was my first presumption.

When looking at census forms, it is should always be remembered that people change their names, particularly women.  The surnames on that census form were Shay, Dunn and Barber but they all had one vital connection which was not on the census form.

St Michaels Church 1St Michael's Church, Middleton


Searching for the marriage certificate between Mary Jane Dunn and Lewis Barber did not prove easy.  It was only when I looked as far as 1915 that I found it.  On the marriage certificate Mary Jane was down as a widow.  At that point, I surmised that because of Mary Jane’s Roman Catholic beliefs, she had had to wait for Samuel Dunn to die before she married Lewis.  The shadows of the past, however, were following Mary Jane.  This story proves that when researching family history, we must follow every person up who is involved in the story.  This is often where the most interesting events are to be found.

Marriage certificate Mary Jane Dunn 001 (2)

Mary Jane was of Irish descent.  The daughter of Mary Shay/ O’Brien and Peter O’Brien.  She grew up in Ancoats, Manchester which was probably one of the most poor and deprived areas of the city.  The Victorian Ancoats is renowned for its dreadful conditions, this meant that the poor who lived and worked there could expect low wages and unhealthy working circumstances.  Their home surroundings would have been too cramped to promote anything except ill health.  The lavatories were a hole dug into a yard.  At times in Ancoats up to a 100 houses could share the privy.  Cesspits were rarely cleared away and were known to overflow at periods of heavy rain.  Manchester is renowned for its rainfall.  The houses were not built to keep the weather out and so the homes would suffer from damp, often with water running down the walls.  By the 1850s clean drinking water could be had in Ancoats from the Longendale reservoir.   The poor would have to queue up in the street to get it from standpipes.


Ancoats was made up of 40% Irish immigrants and also had an area which became named ‘Little Italy’ because of the Italian immigrants.  It is supposed to be the world’s first industrial suburb.  It has been written about and the basis of sociological studies.  Probably the most famous study is that of Engels – “The Condition of the Working Class in England” (1844).  Official figures tell us that there were more paupers in the township of Manchester than anywhere else in England, even the east end of London.   Mary Jane lived and worked there until she met her first husband, Samuel Dunn.

On the 1891 census, Mary Jane was married to Samuel Dunn and lived in Farnworth near Bolton.  Samuel Dunn was a miner and the head of the household.   They had one daughter, Mary Alice who was one.  Also living with them was Mary O’Brien, Mary Jane’s mother.   Mary Shay and Mary O’Brien are the same woman.  Alice Dunn (Samuel’s sister-in-law) and her 4 children also shared the house.  Alice’s husband John was in the army.

Although Mary Jane married and moved out from Ancoats, she was not escaping the hard toil of the cotton mills. She moved to Farnworth and so was still in Lancashire.  Lancashire was the place of the cotton mill.  It was chosen because of the damp climate which was ideal for keeping the moisture in fine cotton yarns.  Poor women of that time, even though they had small children, would have to work long hours in dirty, dangerous conditions.  Mary Jane was no exception; she worked in the cotton mills as a cotton polisher and a cotton winder.

Samuel Dunn, like Mary Jane had Irish parents.  He worked in a factory and then in a coal mine.  On the 5th of April 1891, the census tells us that the Dunn household were all together – Samuel, his young wife and baby daughter.  On 1st September, 1891 Samuel had been called up for twelve years service in The Cheshire Regiment.  On the form which asks if he is married he states ‘no.’  I have read the army document with his marriage certificate to my great grandmother in front of me.  The date of their marriage is 24th May 1888.  They married in St Anne’s Roman Catholic Church, Ancoats, Manchester according to the rites and ceremonies of the Catholic Church.   Samuel gives his next of kin as his mother, Bridget Dunn on his army declaration.  The form specifies that anyone found lying about any of the questions will be liable to a punishment of 2 years imprisonment with hard labour.

Marriage certificate Mary Jane O'Brien 001 (2)



Often we have no idea what our ancestors actually look like.   This can make it difficult when trying to imagine them, especially when following a story which is fraught and intimate.  The army records give a good physical description.  Samuel Dunn was 5ft 5¼ inches tall and weighed 126 lbs.  His chest measured 34½ inches.  His complexion was fresh. He had hazel coloured eyes and his hair was light brown.  His distinctive marks were a scar from a boil near his nose and a scar on the front of his right shoulder.  Most telling of all though are the numerous colliery scratches on his back.

Life for Samuel as a miner would not have been just about the hard work but the danger of the pits also.  Every work day would be filled with the dark, the fear of rock falls, flooding and gas.  Past, painful deaths of members of the community were a constant reminder of the risks being taken.  The pit could be at least 300 yards deep with the work extending a distance of about a mile from the shaft.  Miners had little protection; Samuel’s army records show that he had already been hurt in the pits.  He moved from risking his life in the mines every day and living in a two roomed house with eight other people to being in the army.  It was not exactly a life of sunshine and beaches for Samuel.



As I scrolled through Samuel’s army records for 1892, I stopped dead.  The moment when you read the word ‘desertion’ is one of shock.  It takes a while to think about it.  Samuel joined the Cheshire Regiment at Chester on the 6th September 1891.  He became Private Samuel Dunn 3437.  He was transferred to Sheffield on the 14th of November 1891.  By the 18th of November he had reported in sick as the army form B115 declares ‘no admission’ into hospital.  By the 9th January 1892 there was a court case.

The court declares that no. 3437 Private Samuel Dunn of the Cheshire Regiment is still absent and further that he is deficient with the following articles : 1 belt, 1 cleaning rod, 1 sight protector, 1 flag,  3pairs of boots, 2 jerseys, 4 pairs of trousers, 1 frock, 1 cap, 1 pair of mitts, 1 set collar, 1 great coat, 1 haversack, 1 cape, 1 helmet 1 pair of leggings, 1 kit bag, 1 tin of blacking, 1 pair of braces, 1 clothes brush, 1 shaving brush, 1 polishing brush, 1 blacking brush, 1 button brass, 1 bible and prayer book, 1 comb, 1 knife and fork, 1 pipe clay sponge, 2 towels, 1 pocket ledger and other items but the writing cannot be deciphered.” 

At a later court hearing on the 3rd of February, 1892 Samuel was still absent with his whole army kit.

Samuel had disappeared from Mary Jane’s life.  Or had he?  By September 1892, Mary Jane had given birth to Sam Dunn, my grandfather’s half-brother.  Sam would have been conceived in January 1892, the time when Samuel senior deserted the army.  Did he return to Mary Jane to hide or did Mary have a lover?  Mary Jane had given the appearance that young Sam was Samuel’s son but it was 1892 and she was a Roman Catholic.  We know that she would lie on official documents to keep up appearances.  She puts herself down as Mary Jane Barber on the Barber children’s birth certificates and also on the 1911 census.  Times were hard for Mary but she had to be able to hold her head up where her children’s births were concerned.

In the 1901 census for that household, there were the names Shay, Dunn and Barber.  There was one vital link between them all – the name O’Brien.  There was Mary Shay who was the head of the house.  Mary Shay was her maiden name, she was O’Brien by marriage.  I do not know why Mary reverted to her maiden name and suddenly became the head of the household.  It could be that they simply wanted to make a new start.  It would have been tough for them being related to an army deserter in those days.  Mary Jane Dunn was O’Brien by birth.  Further research led me to the fact that Lewis Barber was married to Catherine O’Brien who was a relative of Mary. With further digging, I learned that Catherine could not be William’s mother as she died in 1896, three years before William was born. He proved to be Mary’s baby as well as Lewis’s. This demonstrates that we cannot presume the relationship between people without checking upon it. Sometimes our ancestors massage the facts for personal reasons. When filling in the census form, Mary did not want to admit to having an illegitimate child and so the cohabiting couple acted as if the child was from Lewis but not from her.

Both Lewis’s and Mary Jane’s lives were hit by dreadful troubles with their first marriages.  The strangest thought is that if Lewis’s wife Catherine O’Brien had not died tragically young and Samuel Dunn had not deserted from the army, I would not be writing the article about them because I would not be here.


If you would like an article written about one of your ancestors as an unusual gift for a relative or friend please email us at















Family History Stories

Ephraim daCosta: Judging the Judge

By Will Barber Taylor

Family History is a subject which can take you to all sorts of unexpected places that you cannot imagine. From one parent, or one grandparent, you can travel to all sorts of incredible places – sometimes a journey can take you half way across the world to find your ancestors. One such family, from which I am descended are the da Costa family. The da Costa family, though originally from Spain, settled in India and worked in the service of the East India Company and later the British Civil Service. Though Roman Catholic and originating in Europe, the da Costas seamlessly fitted into the world of the British Raji. They worked within the civil service, sent their children to public schools in Britain and India and were, as far as one could tell, the height of respectability. Or so it seemed.

Researching the da Costa family lead me to discover my five times great uncle, Ephraim da Costa. Ephraim, like his brothers Samuel and Joseph, worked in the service of the East India Company as lawyers and judges. In India, any legal matters that involved locals or Europeans were dealt with by the administrative courts – also known as Zillah Courts. As a rule, for most of the 19th century, the British didn’t like to engage too much with the squalid goings on with the subjects of their empire and so left it up to people like the da Costas to judge and preside over. This isn’t to say the Zillah Courts were unimportant – for local Indians they were their easiest means of settling a dispute. For the British, they were seen as necessary but ultimately unimportant.

Ephraim da Costa seemed at first to be like his brothers – an upstanding member of society who had an uneventful life. The only great upset that seemed to have occurred was when his house nearly fell down as a result of the great Nepal Earthquake of 1836. However, things began to become interesting when I found his wife and children on the 1871 UK census in Paddington. Ephraim’s wife was Elizabeth Boilard; she came from a respected French Catholic family. The Boilards and the da Costas were close; Elizabeth’s sister Emilia married Ephraim’s brother Samuel and members of the both families would often pop up as witnesses to the other family’s weddings. Yet here was Elizabeth and her children, thousands of miles away from husband? Initially, I thought perhaps the move might have been because of Ephraim’s death. Ephraim had indeed died in 1871 but not when the census was taken; the date on which the census was taken was the 21st of April 1871 whilst Ephraim died in June of that year. Why then were the family separated? Was their eldest daughter Cordelia trying to recover from the death of her husband Thomas four years earlier? If this was the case, why was Ephraim not with the family? And why had they decided to go thousands of miles away shortly before Ephraim’s death? It truly was a family history mystery.

For two years it remained a mystery. Then, out of the blue, I was contacted by a book dealer in Brighton. He had found a book called The Family Journal of the da Costa family, written by Ephraim’s nephew, my ancestor, Samuel da Costa. The book contained a detailed and scandalous account of the da Costa family. After some correspondence with the owner, I was able to purchase the book. Upon receiving it I was able to piece together what had exactly happened with Ephraim.

Samuel begins his account of his uncle by stating the facts to his life and how he had been an upstanding member of society, who he married, the names of his children and his career. Samuel then moved on to, in his words “the downfall of his spirit.” Ominous words which lead up to a startling revelation.

It soon became clear that the reason Elizabeth and her children had left India for London was because they had discovered a secret that had forced them to flee their home. It was that Ephraim, respected judge and supposedly a devout Roman Catholic, had a mistress! The revelation was shocking to begin with, but the shocks did not end there. It turned out that Ephraim had three children by his mistress, who he had set up running a boarding house in Calcutta. Ephraim, it seemed would regularly “go and visit this lady” telling his wife he was doing official business.

After Elizabeth’s departure, Ephraim began to make plans for his retirement. By this time Ephraim was in his mid-60s and seemed to intend to settle with his mistress, now that his wife and children had deserted him. Deciding it would be better to settle with his mistress in Calcutta rather than attempt to explain his wife’s absence to his neighbours, Ephraim sent for an assortment of his valuables that had been at his boarding house. When he received the boxes that should have contained his valuables he found that they had been all taken. In a scene reminiscent of Dickens and witnessed by Samuel himself, Ephraim slapped his hand across his face and cried out in anguish “I am undone! This wretched woman has undone me!”

With some hesitation, Samuel decided to allow his broken uncle to stay with him. Though a strictly religious man who saw Ephraim’s deeds as “foul profanity” and “ungodly”, Samuel clearly felt that family was family; his father had died relatively young and Ephraim was someone who he had known since childhood. Ephraim was, however, not a well man. Whether it was a result of his activities as a judge or because the two women in his life had left him, Ephraim soon became ill. It was apparent that he was on his death bed. Realising that unless he had his last rights, Samuel attempted to find a priest who would give them to Ephraim. Unfortunately, none of the many local Roman Catholic priest would agree to give Ephraim the last rites – the news of his wife’s departure and the flight of his mistress had been spread far and wide. Eventually, Samuel was able to obtain the services of a Bengali priest of dubious qualification. So dubious was his claim to be a Roman Catholic priest that Samuel ended up describing how he had to constantly correct the “ignorant man” whilst his uncle lay dying!

Ephraim’s life was one of contradictions and tragedy. Whilst he strove to be the model of respectability, he carried on a double life than eventually caused him to die without his wife or children whilst his nephew and a Bengali priest argued over his body. Perhaps if he attempted to live up more to the responsibility of his position he may have had a happier life and a happier end? We can never no.

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Family History Stories

Family History Mysteries – John Taylor

By Will Barber Taylor

Family history can be a fascinating but at times a frustrating subject. It can consume hours without you ever learning anything about the person or families that you’re looking for. This is something that often puts people of doing their family tree as they feel that it is impossible to find the ancestors that they want to. However, not all is lost – even the most impossible to find ancestors can be tracked down through a mixture of persistence, DNA and the historical record. Such was the case when researching my paternal great grandfather John Taylor.

Family history has been something that everyone in our family has always been interested in. Yet, John Taylor was something of a mystery. We didn’t know when exactly he was born – sometime around the turn of the century; we didn’t know anything about his father other than that they shared the same name. He had been in the army but for how long was anyone’s guess. He was said to have been born in Gibraltar, but this wasn’t certain. So, as you can imagine the prospect of finding someone with such a common name would prove difficult if not impossible to find. However, I now know a great deal more about my great grandfather. How is this? It’s all down to persistence and knowing how to work through the historical records.

Blackrod in the early 1900s – where Ethel and John got married 

The first and easiest document to come across was John’s marriage to my great grandmother Ethel. As they had got married in Blackrod, Lancashire it was easy to order the certificate off Ancestry and find out more information about them. John’s occupation was gunner in the Royal Artillery, which made sense as they got married in 1919. John was listed as living in Suffolk at the time of his marriage which made sense – at the end of his life, John had gone to live in Suffolk with relatives. His father’s name, as expected, was included. Marriage certificates can often prove useful in finding lost ancestors as they provide the occupations not only of the bride and groom but their father’s too. Unfortunately, John Taylor senior had died prior to the 1919 marriage meaning that his occupation was not listed – he was simply stated as “deceased.” This didn’t help at all as it meant we had no idea whether the John Taylor we would find would be our John’s father. According to collective family memory, John senior had been in the army like his great grandson. However, this wasn’t confirmed, and he may not have spent long in the army. As you’d expect, the marriage certificate raised more questions than it did answers. This is where we hit a brick wall.

Years passed, and it seemed as if we wouldn’t find out anything more about John Taylor. There had seemingly been a break – a boy born in Gibraltar about the same time with the same name was living with his grandfather, a retired Police Inspector in London was on the 1911 England and Wales Census. The problem was it turned out not to be our John but another John Taylor who just happened to have been born in the same place at around the same time. This is one of the difficulties that can put people off when researching their family trees; particularly with a name like John Taylor it can be difficult to figure out which one is the right one.

John Taylor’s Royal Artillery Attestation Record 

However, a break finally emerged when I decided to scan Ancestry’s family trees and by chance they had a John Taylor who seemed to match my John, who’s father was also John and seemed to have siblings that matched the vague references that had been passed down through the family lore. I decided to check further and searched Gibraltar’s National Archives to find out more. This particular John seemed to fit exactly with the outline of my great grandfather’s life that we knew as a fact – born on Gibraltar, his father had served in the military and his mother was Spanish, just like our John. The records from the GNA proved to further support the case that the John found on the Ancestry tree was my John Taylor – they showed John snr’s marriage to a Spanish woman called Rosalia, the 1911 Gibraltar Census where Rosalia and her youngest daughter were living were not far from the British army barracks and it all seemed to fit together. I contacted the owner of the Ancestry family tree and it soon became clear that my great grandfather did fit exactly into their family story and they were able to tell me details about John’s siblings. The piece of evidence that finally clinched it was finding John Taylor’s Royal Artillery service record. The document made clear that the John Taylor I had been investigating was my great grandfather. To be able to finally pin him down was a fascinating and elating experience and one that only family history can provide. John Taylor and his story had always been a part of me but one that I did not know anything about. I finally knew a great deal more about him.

This wasn’t all though. My cousin who made the family tree were able to provide pictures of Rosalia and her younger children and provide in depth details about the lives of John’s siblings. This all helped build a clearer image of John’s life.

John Taylor later on in life. 

Four years later and through DNA we were able to discover even more about John Taylor and his half siblings. After the death of John Taylor senior in 1906, Rosalia had married again and had several more children with her second husband, William Capon. What exactly had happened to the Capons and whether they knew anything else about our shared ancestress remained unclear. That is until a DNA match with one of the descendants from this line enabled us to contact this other long-lost section of the family. Through the family tree produced by my cousins and the matches to other relatives of John that we had already identified, we were easily able to determine how the new DNA match was related to us. It soon emerged from conversation with these new Capon cousins that Rosalia had not only been Spanish but that she was half French as well! The Capons were able to provide a photograph of Rosalia’s mother, a woman whose name we have yet to discover.

As one door closes another opens – we have discovered a great deal about John Taylor and his life, information that would seem impossible to find based on the scant evidence that we began with. Yet, through perseverance, the use of records and DNA we were able to trace his father’s side back several hundred years and begin to find out about his elusive mother.

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