I always feel uneasy when researching ancestors with common name and surname combinations – it is so easy to be misled by the wrong record, and to end up barking up the wrong (family) tree! This is a lesson I learned the hard way: ever since I realised that for a number of years I’d been following the wrong lead with one of my ancestor’s marriages, I’ve tried to be doubly cautious when researching relatives with fairly ordinary names. That is precisely what I’ve tried to do with my great-great-great-grandfather John Davis, whose year of birth (and consequently, his parentage) remains something of a mystery. My (over-)cautiousness has led me to distrust even the most obvious of solutions, simply for fear of following the wrong trail. It is now time to set the record straight.
All sources point to the fact that John Davis was born in the village of Colwall, Herefordshire during the first decade of the 19th century. His age is consistently recorded in the censuses as 35 in 1841 (although his age may have been rounded down slightly), 46 in 1851 and 56 in 1861, but that does not provide me with a definitive answer as to his birth year. His widow’s marriage to her second husband in 1868 leaves me in no doubt that he died between 1861 and 1868, but even his exact date of death remains uncertain. So let’s analyse the facts to see if we can find an answer to all these questions surrounding my ancestor’s life.
When was John Davis born?
If we are to believe the details contained in the census (and I have no particular reason to question this information), John Davis was born in Colwall between 1800 and 1810 – as we have seen, either in 1805, 1806 or 1807, depending on which census we believe and depending on whether his birthday was before or after the census was taken.
There are two boys called John Davis who were baptised in Colwall during that period and, interestingly, they were related to each other: the first possibility was a boy baptised on 26 June 1803, the illegitimate son of Mary Davis. Mary was herself the daughter of another John Davis and his wife Elizabeth (formerly Harfield).
The second candidate was baptised on 5 April 1807, the son of John and Phoebe Davis. John Sr. had been born in 1782, himself the illegitimate son of Sarah Davis (who was also a daughter of John Davis and Elizabeth Harfield. In other words, the two John Davis I’m currently trying to establish as my ancestor were the grandson (via Mary Davis) or else the great-grandson (via Sarah Davis) of John Davis and Elizabeth Harfield.
I know that my ancestor John Davis was married twice, but his first marriage took place before civil registration was introduced in England and Wales. In 1825 he married Ann Wilks in Little Malvern, Worcestershire, a short distance from Colwall. Twenty years later he was married a second time, to my great-great-great-grandmother Maria Parker. The certificate for this second marriage reassuringly states that John was a widower and, more importantly, the son of John Davis, a labourer. This last detail would therefore suggest that John’s parents were John and Phoebe Davis, and that he was the John Davis baptised in 1807. However, for the sake of argument, if he was in fact the bastard son of Mary Davis, he may well have made up his father’s identity. More on that later.
John Davis on the census…
Let’s analyse John’s entries in the three censuses where he would have been recorded prior to his death sometime in the 1860s. John made his first entry in the census in 1841, when he was listed as a carpenter, living near The Wyche pass in Colwall, married to his first wife Ann. Present in the same household are their three children called Ann, Hannah and John, who are aged between 9 and 13. I know for a fact that John’s wife died suddenly just over two years later and he, as we have seen, chose to marry Maria Parker as his second wife in 1845. Their daughter Jane (my great-great-grandmother) was born the following year.
The 1851 and 1861 census record John (again described as a carpenter and a wood dealer, respectively) and his second wife Maria living with their daughter Jane, but there is no trace of his children from his first marriage. His daughter Hannah, who died of consumption aged only 22 in 1852, was listed in the 1851 census living in Worcester with her elder sister Ann, who was by then married to James Allsop and on the brink of giving birth to her second-born child. Meanwhile, John’s namesake son appears to be more elusive, in light of the fact that he has a very common name and, rather confusingly, he was born in a different county than his sisters, who were both born in Herefordshire.
By 1861 John Davis was living in Colwall with his second wife Maria and their daughter Jane, but seven years later Maria married her second husband John Maisey. We can therefore assume that John Davis had passed away by 1868. Interestingly, his daughter Jane’s 1867 marriage certificate to my great-great-grandfather also states that her father, “John Davis, timber dealer”, was deceased. This limits John’s date of death to between April 1861 and July 1867. We seem to be getting closer to the truth. Or are we?
Which of these men called “John Davis” is my ancestor?
There is no shortage of men called John Davis (or Davies) in Ledbury registration district between 1861 and 1867: there are five in total, although fortunately we can discard a couple of them for being of the wrong age: the John Davis who died in 1861 was 76 years old, the John Davies (sic) who died that same year was not yet a year old, and the John Davis who died in 1867 was seven years of age. I was therefore left with two possible candidates: John Davis, died aged 63 in 1864, or John Davis, died aged 62 in 1866. Given the uncertainty surrounding his real year of birth, ordering both death certificates seems to be the only way forward, as I hope that the address, the description or at least the informant’s identity will shed some light on which one of them is my ancestor.
Except, of course, things are not always as simple as we’d like. The first John Davis died on 5 September 1864 in the market town of Ledbury, which is admittedly not far from the village of Colwall, but the deceased is described as a journeyman stonemason (a far cry from being a carpenter or wood dealer) and the informant is Edmund Davis, who I assume is likely some sort of relation. Next!
The second death certificate is for a John Davis who died on 27 April 1866 in Colwall (bingo?) aged 62, but (frustratingly…) his profession is given as an innkeeper, and the informant is a Mary Carless, of Back Lane, Ledbury. I can’t even begin to guess who this Mary Carless could be, but as she does not fit in with any of “my” John’s relatives, I can only leave this certificate on the “maybe” pile too.
I am therefore left at a dead end once again. The first one definitely doesn’t appear to be my ancestor; nor does the second, save for the coincidence that he died in Colwall, where my ancestor lived all his life. I am therefore left to wonder if my John Davis even died within Ledbury registration district. Who knows if he died elsewhere – and if he did, how am I ever going to find him with such a common name…?
Where there’s a will…
This was pretty much the state of things for several years. I was left to wonder whether I would ever find John’s death certificate, and whether it could possibly lead me to discover more about his origins, which also remain as inconclusive as they did on the first day of my research.
It was only a couple of weeks ago that I thought about the possibility of checking if he had left a will. After all, there were some properties which came into the family via his daughter, so chances were he made some sort of arrangement prior to his death. I searched the wills search engine on the website of Herefordshire.gov.uk, but unfortunately they cover the period prior to 1858, which is just about a decade too early. I contacted Herefordshire Records Office to enquire if they might have any information about a will made in the 1860s, and they not only pointed me in the direction of the governmental website for wills, probate and inheritance records, but also dug out a probate index entry which seemed very promising: the will of John Davis, late of The Wyche, Colwall, which was proved in 1866 by his widow Maria Davis. This surely had to be our man!
I ordered the will via the said website after willingly paying the ten pounds for the service. And boy, wasn’t my patience rewarded! There it was, on my screen, and at long last, the will of John Davis, timber dealer of The Wyche, Colwall, who died on 27 April 1866. That date was definitely familiar. I checked the two death certificates I’d ordered years ago to see if either of them matched with this newly-found information, and bingo, there it was, in my family archive all this time: the death certificate I had for John Davis, innkeeper (sic), registered by one Mary Carless in 1866 was that of none other than my great-great-great-grandfather.
I don’t know why John would have been described as an innkeeper and not a wood dealer. Even more crucially, I was left wondering who this Mary Carless was, and how she could have been connected to my ancestor. Maybe she hardly knew him – which would explain why she described him as an innkeeper as opposed to a timber dealer…
Again, my patience was rewarded when I read his will in detail, and realised that John decreed that his properties should be divided between his widow Maria and their daughter Jane, but also included his daughters (from his first marriage) Ann, wife of James Allsop, and Mary, wife of Richard Carless. Mary Carless! Could it be that John had an additional daughter I knew nothing about?
Thanks to the fact that I knew her husband’s name, finding Mary Carless on the census was not difficult. She was born around 1826 in Little Malvern, and would therefore be the eldest child born to John Davis and his first wife Ann. I hadn’t come across this daughter before because she wasn’t listed with either her father nor her sisters in any of the censuses, and therefore escaped my notice. But there she was, in black and white and almost in plain sight all this time. Mary had left home young to work in service, and by the mid-1850s she’d given birth to two illegitimate sons. In 1861 she married Richard Carless; he wouldn’t have been the boys’ father as neither of them seems to have used the surname Carless during their lifetime – they remained Davis/Davies throughout their lives. Mary and Richard did however have two daughters together: Hannah, who would go on to marry John Watkins after they too had had two children out of wedlock, and Harriet, who sadly died in infancy.
But that’s not all. One of the sons Mary had before marrying Richard Carless also seems to have had several children before marrying. This family seems not have cared one bit about social norms of the time regarding illegitimate children! What is more, the censuses prove that these different family members remained close throughout the century – thus signifying that the fact they were illegitimate was of little concern to the family.
Revisiting John Davis’s story made me reflect on his own shaky origins. His age at death in April 1866 was recorded as 62 – thus born in around 1804, while all the census entries would have him born in either 1806 or 1807. His death certificate is the only source which mentions him being an innkeeper – could this be an error? If so, was his age also recorded wrongly?
Knowing John’s date of birth would provide the necessary clue to know who hsi parents were. Was he the illegitimate son of Mary Davis, born in June 1803, or the legitimate son of John and Phoebe Davis, born in April 1807?
Personally, having analysed all possible clues I have been able to find, if I had to hazard a guess I would say he was the son of John and Phoebe Davis, if anything because John does state in the entry for his second marriage that his father was John Davis – and given his family’s attitude to illegitimacy during his own lifetime, I have no reason to suppose he was not telling the truth. Of course, one might argue that he named his first child Mary after his own mother, in which case he would be the illegitimate son of Mary Davis. Sigh…
One thing is for sure: thanks to having ordered my ancestor’s will for a pittance, I am now satisfied to have discovered not only a new branch of the family tree, but to have finally been able to pin-point his true date of death and the likeliest identity of his parents.
Time to move on to the next brick wall I suppose!