Our elusive ancestors

Elusive ancestors. We all have them. We all chase them. And very often, they remain a mystery. Who among you has not come across a distant forebear who will just not turn up in the usual sources?

In England and Wales, births, marriages and deaths have been recorded since civil registration was introduced in 1837, previous records being kept by the church. Therefore, any of these three types of events should have been registered in the district’s General Registry Office. At least, that’s how the theory goes.

In practice, however, many events have, for some reason or another, gone unrecorded, and this I’m afraid you will discover the hard way. In late 1887 my great-great-grandmother gave birth to her sixth and last child, a daughter she and her husband named Anne. The child was born on 10 November and was five days later was baptised in the local church. Had the baby girl survived, she should have been recorded in the next (i.e. 1891) census, but as it happens, Anne Morris simply vanishes into thin air after her baptism. The 1901 census also fails to mention her (at least there is no trace of her in her parents’ house), but the census taken ten years later does seem to offer the first real clue as to her fate.

When the 1911 census was taken in England, it was the first time that people were asked to state how many children they had had up to date, and how many of them were alive at the time. In my great-great-grandmother’s case, she confirmed that of her five children, four were still alive (another one being the stillborn son she had in 1885, who was therefore not taken into account). I know full well that Anne’s four siblings died in old age, leading me to the painful and certain conclusion that by 1911 Anne was dead.

Sarnesfield St Mary's church in Herefordshire could unlock the mystery to Anne's untimely death. Could she have been buried within the churchyard's walls?

Sarnesfield St Mary’s church in Herefordshire could unlock the mystery to Anne’s untimely death. Could she have been buried within the churchyard’s walls? Source: WikiCommons.

The fact that Anne was not mentioned in the 1891 and 1901 censuses makes me believe that she probably died at a very early age, though there are several other possibilities for her otherwise illogical absence: for instance, she may have been given up for adoption, her parents not willing or being able to bring up a fifth mouth to feed. This theory, however, is highly unlikely, since the Morrises actually adopted a distant relative’s baby daughter in the early 1890’s. Another possibility is that Anne may have been brought up by her childless maternal aunt Milborough, who lived in the same village as the Morrises with her husband John Hollings. Nevertheless, the couple are listed living by themselves in 1891, again without showing any trace of little Anne. If Anne was alive in 1891, she was certainly not living with any of her closest relatives (including grandparents, uncles and cousins). I suppose there is  a slight possibility she may have been born with some kind of health problem and was therefore raised in an institution, but this is for now no more than a hypothetical alternative to an otherwise all-too common and untimely demise in Victorian England. To my mind, it certainly seems that Anne died an infant before 1891.

The FreeBMD website offers free, easy-to-use access to Civil Registration index of births, marriages and deaths for England and Wales. Although this is a tremendously useful and essential tool, FreeBMD does have some omissions and transcription errors which often turn ancestor-tracking into a very hard nut to crack. My attempts to search for Anne (using various spellings such as Ann, Annie, Anna and even Hannah), even under her aunt’s married name of Hollings, prove fruitless.

Lacking family documents such as diaries and other personal sources of information, my only option now is to turn to local church records, assuming that Anne died in the same place where she was born (that’s Sarnesfield, in Herefordshire). Unfortunately, sources like Findmypast.co.uk and Familysearch.org, not to mention Ancestry.co.uk, have produced no results whatsoever. This gives me a nasty feeling that, even if I accessed the Sarnesfield church burial records (presumably kept in Herefordshire Records Office), I wouldn’t find a thing.

I ought perhaps to remain positive and hope that one day I’ll find poor little Anne’s name scribbled on a piece of paper next to a date of death. But between you and me, it all looks very bleak to me…

This entry was posted in 1891 Census, 1901 Census, 1911 Census, Adoption, Birth, Death, England, Genealogy, Herefordshire. Bookmark the permalink.

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