In the course of your research, have you ever come across any relatives who just sit there, perched on your family tree, and no matter how many times you tried to find either a marriage or a death record for them, you simply cannot move forward? I think we all have quite a few of those, so you’ll understand my utter joy when I was recently able to knock down a little brick-wall after years of intense search.
For a number of years I’ve known that my Colwallian ancestors, Thomas and Sarah Allen, had begotten ten children. My main problem was tracking all of them down on the 1841 census and beyond. OK, so I knew already that one daughter, Margaret, died in 1839 aged only 22, after what must have been a very short-lived marriage to a man called Thomas Croft – this much was clear from her gravestone, which also features her parent’s respective date of death, as well as that of her younger, unmarried brother Henry. Phew! Two down, eight to go.
Fortunately, records for Colwall and the surrounding area are relatively well preserved, and it was fairly easy to find marriages for most of Thomas and Sarah’s children. There was just one daughter Mary Ann, who I simply could not find the answer to. Did she die young? Or had she moved away? She could have emigrated, or have ended up locked up in some dreadful Victorian institution and was forgotten by all who once knew and loved her. The answer was just impossible to fathom with the tools I had at my disposal.
Time to review the facts: Mary Ann Allen had been born in 1807 – and was baptised in the parish church of Colwall on Boxing Day 1807. The fact that she was born thirty years before the introduction of civil registration in England and Wales made it highly unlikely that her marriage (if indeed she had survived to adulthood and found herself a husband) had even made it to the General Records Office. Entries of death were equally misleading or seemed improbable, and anyway, with a common name like Mary Ann Allen (and all its variants!) I was not willing to fork out an arm and a leg to cover the cost of countless death certificates.
For years I resigned myself to the idea that I would never learn what had become of Mary Ann. I was ready to accept the idea that she had died young, even though I didn’t have any records to prove it, and that would have been that. Then, not so long ago, someone told me about the online index of wills of the Herefordshire Records Office, where I could also order a copy of my ancestor’s will. The Allens, I knew, had been living in the area since at least the 1600s, and owned some property in Colwall as recently as the 1960s. Surely some of them must have owned land and made a will at some earlier stage during those three centuries!
Eureka! I found what seemed to be my ancestor Thomas Allen’s will, dated December 1842 (this had to be him, since my Thomas died in January 1843, as per his gravestone). I sent for a copy of the will and held my breath for a few days. Then, at last, I got an e-mail, with a PDF file attached, and before I could say Jack Robinson, there was the rather fuzzy copy of my four-times-great-grandfather Thomas Allen’s will.
I scrolled down the “Amens” and the Christian burial details and the other usual jargon one finds in this kind of document, only to find that the section where he disposed of his worldly goods was fuzzier than the rest – in fact, it was practically illegible. I was able to discern a name here and there, but for the most part the few key lines which mentioned Thomas’s children were a blank. Undeterred, I decided to contact the Herefordshire Records Office again and asked for a clearer copy of that particular page. Their staff member was most obliging, and very soon I found myself reading what turned out to be a key piece of the puzzle.
There it was, in black and white, Thomas’s list of children: Thomas, Edward, Joseph, the unfortunate Henry who is buried with his parents… oh, and Mary Ann! But she wasn’t Mary Ann Allen any more, but “Mary Ann the wife of Richard Alford”! Now there was a surname I hadn’t heard of before,! And so, I set out to find Mary Ann’s marriage to Mr Alford.
My luck ran out pretty quickly. At every turn I drew a blank: no Allens marrying a Richard Alford or a Halford (the local accent is pretty strong, and locals tends to drop and bring back the “h” whenever they feel like it). I even tried searching across the border (Colwall is after all between Herefordshire and Worcestershire), to no avail. I then decided to try a different tack, and dropped Mary Ann’s maiden name in case she had a different surname when she married Richard Alford/Halford.
Aha! Here we go! FamilySearch held the key: Mary Ann Hyde, daughter of Thomas Allen, married Richard Halford (sic), son of John Halford, in the parish of Little Cowarne, Herefordshire, on 12 October 1840. It is fairly obvious to me by this stage that Mary Ann had been married once before she became Mrs Halford (or was it Alford? Whatever…). Finding Mary Ann’s marriage to a Mr Hyde should not prove too difficult considering Mary Ann was about 31 when she married her second husband – and thus had little chance to have been married more than once before, right?
Indeed, Mary Ann Allen married William Hyde on 21 January 1827 in the city of Worcester (so a different county from where she got married the second time), according to FamilySearch. And as it took place ten full years before 1837, it is little wonder that I wasn’t able to find her marriage on the FreeBMD index.
Having uncovered only a few documents and references, I was soon able to draw a picture of Mary Ann in my mind – married at just 19, widowed by her late-twenties, remarried at 31… But how much longer did she live, and perhaps more poignantly, did she have any children of her own?
I already knew Mary Ann was alive when her father wrote his last will and testament in December 1842 – chances were therefore that I would be able to pin her down on the 1841 census – and indeed, there she was, Mary Halford (sic), living with Richard Halford, an agricultural labourer, with a twelve year-old boy called Charles Hyde. Well, no sign of any children born from her second marriage, but it certainly looks like Mary Ann’s first marriage bore at least one fruit!
The 1851 census, which unlike the 1841 census does mention a person’s place of birth, confirms Mary Ann’s place of birth as Colwall; I therefore have no doubt I have the right person. Moreover, I’m also able to learn that Mary Ann’s son Charles had been born in 1830 in the city of Hereford, and like his step-father, he became a labourer. But that’s not all, for it seems the new Mr and Mrs Alford/Halford had a child together, a daughter whom they called Sarah! Do I take it little Sarah was named after her mother’s mother? Seems more than likely. So Mary Ann had not one, but two children. Gosh, this family tree is growing by the minute!
The 1861 census again features Charles and Sarah living with their mother, but there is no sign of Mary Ann’s husband anywhere. A quick look at the FreeBMD records throws up a likely candidate: the death for Richard Alford (sic), died in 1855 in the Ledbury registration district. A quick check on the GRO index shows he was 45 years old when he died. I guess that’s almost definitely our man, as I later prove correct when I find his burial in the online Colwall parish transcripts. How sad for Mary Ann to have been left a widow again at such a relatively young age…
Worse was to come: I can easily locate her son Charles and his growing family (wife Martha, son William) living in Colwall on the 1871 census, but no trace of Mary Ann. A possible candidate is a Mary Ann Alford, right age, listed living in Colwall but unmarried and born, supposedly, in Welland, in neighbouring Worcestershire. Seems this is Mary Ann in disguise, if you ask me! But where is her daughter Sarah? My search for her on the census and on the marriage index draws a blank, so I turn to the likeliest alternative: a death.
And indeed, I find that poor Sarah died in 1862 aged only 21 years. I send off for her death certificate, not knowing what I might expect, only to find out she died of “softening of the brain” and had been ill for four years. Now, I am no expert, but I do know that “softening of the brain” is an antiquated term which usually refers to senile dementia; it seems unlikely Sarah would have suffered from senility at the age of just 21, but it may be that she was afflicted by some kind of bacteriological ailment, or perhaps developed a wasting mental disease which afflicted her for the last four years of her life. Whatever the case, the pain of seeing her daughter in poor health for four years must have been devastating for Mary Ann.
The 1881 census brings Mary Ann Alford back to the surface – there she is, a simple washerwoman, living in Colwall in a cottage by herself – albeit next to Knell Farm, which I already know was run, if not owned, by her nephew Herbert Allen. But the fact that she is not living with, or next to, her only surviving son Charles Hyde fills me with a slight feeling of dismay. Did they fall out with each other? Was she perhaps bitter in her later years due to her personal losses? Were she and Charles even on speaking terms?
Charles was in the meantime heading a family of his own – he and Martha welcomed William in 1869, twin girls called Rosanna and Marianne, and two more sons in 1876 and 1878 – in addition to two other babies who died young. What is striking from the 1881 census, however, is not Charles’s growing family, but his profession, or should I say, the lack of it: the space where his occupation should normally be listed says “Unable to work”. Fortunately for me, the column which lists people’s infirmities has also been filled in: “Blind”. Well I never! Charles Hyde, the head of a large household, was making his way in life being blind! It makes sense then that his wife does have an occupation (as a charwoman), but the children are all scholars – how on earth did they make ends meet? And without any live-in servants, I wonder how Martha coped with a disabled husband and so many children to feed? I’m liking Martha a lot at this stage.
But before I move on to the 1891 census for more information, I take a deep breath and check again the 1871 census for Charles, to see if his blindness had already set in by the early stages of his marriage (certainly the earlier censuses do not mention his condition). Aha, here we go, Charles Hide (sic), a stone mason, living with his wife Martha, no profession, and their one-year-old son William. Clearly Charles was in good health at the time, and professionally active. My suspicion is that something must have happened between 1871 and 1881 to account for his eventual blindness. Maybe an accident at work? I don’t think we’ll ever know…
On to the 1891 census, and I look for Mary Ann, who at this stage would already have been in her mid-eighties. Nothing. Not even a likely candidate. Did she move away? In view of her advanced age, I think we can all guess what the likeliest scenario is. On to FreeBMD to see if I can locate a death – and so there is, Mary Ann Alford, aged 76, June quarter 1884, Ledbury registration district. This is spot on. I send off for Mary Ann’s death certificate to learn more about the circumstances of her demise, and within days I have the answer at my doorstep: it seems she died of a “diffused phlegmon and erysipelas, 11 days” – clearly she suffered from some kind of suppurating skin disease. Poor Mary Ann!!! But hang on, who is the informant who registered her death? Well, none other than Charles Hyde himself! OK, so he wasn’t able to sign the register, leaving only his “mark” as proof, but I am so glad to see at least he did the right thing by being there when his mother was about to face her maker!
Additional research into Mary Ann’s line will be needed to understand if her descendants made it into the 20th century. I know that her daughter-in-law Martha passed away in 1902, four years before Charles. I hope one of his children was still around to look after him when he needed it the most…! But that’s another story, so we’ll have to leave it there, until another time.