Ryan Taylor Family legends can help solve illegitimacy problems


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By Ryan Taylor

Finding the father of a 19th century out-of-wedlock child is one of the most difficult questions in genealogy.

English law had a procedure for naming fathers in the 18th century. It gradually wore away in Victorian times, as the 'blame' for the situation devolved solely on the mother. Eventually it became illegal to name the father. His good name had to be protected.

Two students at the recent Research Academy on English genealogy in Salt Lake City had illegitimate ancestors whose fathers they wanted to find.

One of them was hampered because the baby's name was Jones. Harriett Jones had a son in the fall of 1891 in Sherburne, Dorset. The father was said to have died in a railway accident, and even a vague idea of the area where he died was given. The boy dropped his Jones name for a time as a youth and was known as Charles Davis, but then returned to his birth name for the rest of his life.

One piece of luck in this search was that the birth was in a census year. At the time the census was taken, in the spring of 1891, Harriett Jones would already have been pregnant.

In those less-mobile days, people often married their neighbours, because those were the people they saw and knew. I suggested the researcher have a look at Harriett's entry in the Sherburne census.

She lived in Westbury, a street or neighbourhood, and was a boarder in the house of the Chubb family. A glance down the page at other residents of Westbury showed that there was a man named Charles Davis living a few doors away.

Davis is a Welsh name, not as common in England. There were only a handful of Charles Davises in all of Dorset in 1891. That one of them lived so near Harriett seemed a convenient coincidence.

Charles was a railway porter-here was a railway connection which fitted with family tradition. He was 20 and unmarried, living with his mother, Jane Davis. Both Charles and Jane were natives of the neighbouring county, Somerset, having been born at Corton Denham.

A review of the Chubb family showed that Emma Chubb, the mother of the family, had also been born in Corton Denham. She was a suitable age to be Jane Davis' daughter.

Research in an earlier census confirmed that Emma Chubb had been born Emma Davis and was Charles' sister.

This left too many coincidences to be dismissed. Charles Davis would certainly have been in and out of his sister's house in Westbury, and could not help knowing Harriett. The fact that young Jones had been called Charles Davis for a time was a strong indication.

The story was that Harriett's beau had been killed before he could marry her. A preliminary search for Charles Davis' death in 1891 turned up no results, but it will be necessary to do the work in England itself to be sure.

Certainly this researcher has good reason to think that he has found his ancestor's unmarried father, even if concrete proof is still lacking. Given the situation of the law and custom at the time, there may be no actual document which names Charles Davis as Harriett's lover.

This case study was a good example of how genealogical searching must always include the friends and neighbours of our ancestors. They lived much more in their immediate communities than we do.

It also shows that family legend, so often untrustworthy, can be used as an indicator of where the truth lies. The legend may have changed over the years, but a grain of the original situation remains within it.

Posted December 12, 2004
Column copyright © 2004 Ryan Taylor

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