The mystery of Sarah Jones’s background

My great-great-great-great-grandfather Thomas Allen (b.1760) was a well-to-do farmer from Colwall, on the Herefordshire-Worcestershire border. On 29 May 1801, when he would have been about 41 years old, he married Sarah Jones, my great-great-great-great-grandmother. Despite their apparent age difference (see below), the couple seems to have enjoyed a fruitful and long-lasting marriage, which ended when Thomas passed away in 1843 from “old age”. Sarah would outlive her husband by almost two decades, passing away in Colwall on 15 May 1861.

Thomas and Sarah’s marriage produced ten children: Thomas (1802-1870), Edward (1803-1889), William (1805-?), Mary Ann (1807-1884), Joseph (1809-1875), Anne Maria (1812-1877), Sarah (1814-1879), Margaret (1817-1839), Henry (1819-1850) and Robert (1821-1900).

Sarah’s first entry in my family history is her 1801 marriage. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find a full transcript nor an image of her actual marriage record (Herefordshire Archive and Records Centre will be my next port of call), but online researchers as well as my own access to the Herefordshire FHS’s handy marriage index confirms the above date of 29 May 1801.

The Herefordshire FHS marriage index showing the entry for Thomas Allen and Sarah Jones. Note the absence of references as to either spouse being widowed or from another parish.

Sarah’s next entry on official records is the 1841 census, when she had already been married to Thomas Allen for forty years. Sixty-year-old Sarah is living in Evendine (a part of the parish of Colwall) with Thomas and three of their surviving sons. All but Sarah are listed as having been born in the county (i.e. Herefordshire), which begs the question: were was Sarah born?

The 1841 census listing Sarah Allen as about 60 years of age, and not born in the county (i.e. not in Herefordshire).

The 1851 census shows Sarah listed as a widow and living at The Knell (also known as Knell Farm) in Colwall. She is 71, which is consistent with a birth year of about 1780, give or take, making her roughly twenty years her late husband’s junior. Described as a farmer, Sarah shared her house with her son Joseph, his wife Hannah, their children Ann and Joseph, as well as a servant. Interestingly, Sarah’s place of birth is given as “Dº Whitbourne”, in other words ditto (referring to Worcestershire, mentioned a few lines above) and Whitbourne. My geographical knowledge of the area is not the best, but from a simple Google search I can easily locate Whitbourne, although most online sources refer to it as being in Herefordshire; indeed, it lies on the border with Worcestershire, just east of the River Teme.

The 1861 census showing Sarah Allen, widowed, born in Whitbourne, Worcestershire.

The fact that Whitbourne lies on the border may account for the discrepancy on the next census record. The 1861 census is Sarah’s last entry before her death. Aged 83, but still listed as the head of the household and a farmer – she must have been tough!-, she is living with her son Joseph, daughter-in-law Hannah and their son Herbert (that’s the infant Joseph mentioned in 1851, by the way). This time, the census enumerator has listed Sarah as being born in Colwall, Herefordshire, which contradicts the information provided in the previous census. Her age, however, remains more or less consistent with a birth somewhere in or around 1780.

The 1861 census, listing Sarah as being 83; this time her birthplace is Colwall, Herefordshire.

Sarah’s death certificate later that same year was issued following the declaration made by her daughter-in-law Hannah Allen. Sarah was 83, and died in Colwall. Other than her status as Thomas Allen’s widow, there is little else to suggest what her origins were.

Extract from Sarah’s 1861 death record, stating her age as 83.

The main question that arises from this small handful of records is of course “Where was Sarah actually born?”. My gut instinct tells me that, while she may have spent her entire adult life in Colwall, she probably was actually born in nearby Whitbourne. Assuming that Jones was her maiden name and that she wasn’t widowed when she married Thomas Allen in 1801 (when she would have been roughly 21), then we can try to find a baptism for her either in Whitbourne or, even though it is less likely, in Colwall. I am quite fortunate in that most Colwall baptisms, marriages and burials have been transcribed and made available online for free, and can be consulted here. Unfortunately there are gaps (for instance Sarah’s marriage to Thomas Allen is not recorded, as there are a few years missing) but if Sarah was indeed born and baptised in Colwall roughly between 1775 and 1785, then there is no likely candidate that fits the bill.

I am therefore inclined to think that Sarah indeed came from Whitbourne. If I search for a baptism for a Sarah Jones in 1780 (give or take 5 years either way) on FindMyPast, Ancestry and FamilySearch, I get the same results on all three search engines:

  • Sarah Jones, baptised 22 November 1778, daughter of William and Elizabeth Jones.
  • Sarah Jones, baptised 10 December 1780, daughter of Edward and Mary Jones.
  • Sarah Jones, baptised 11 December 1785, daughter of Guy and Mary Jones.

There is a fourth candidate called Sarah Jones, baptised on 16 April 1786, daughter of William and Betty Jones.

Without further clues, it is virtually impossible to identify Sarah’s true parentage. In my opinion, the two youngest are probably too young to have been my Sarah Jones, considering she married the much older Thomas Allen in May 1801 (making them barely 15!).

If I had to make an educated guess (and this, I fully realise, is not how one researches genealogy!), I would probably bet my Sarah is either the one for in 1778 or else the one born in 1780. The first one seems a nice fit considering her age at death and on the census returns, but then again, ages tend to be muddled quite a bit. The second one is definitely a likely candidate in my opinion, not just because age-wise she also ticks all the boxes, but because her parents are Edward and Mary, names which my Sarah gave to her second-born son and eldest daughter. Can that be more than just a mere coincidence? What would you do in my place? Can you help me find out more about Sarah Jones’s origins? Will DNA hold the key?