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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