Small Errors In My Great-Great Grandfather’s Will

I am a bit of a pedant and so I got slightly annoyed recently with a number of small inaccuracies that I found in a copy of a 1908 will and have wondered if the solicitor for my great-great-grandfather knew him at all and whether my ancestor actually read the will that he signed three months before his death!

Captain Henry Thomas Thorne on the GWR Dolphin, Dartmouth, Devon.
Captain Henry Thomas Thorne on the GWR Dolphin, Dartmouth.

 

I have got hot under the collar because I had sent off for my forebear’s will. The story is that recently, while looking around the Ancestry.co.uk site, I discovered, within the National Probate Calendar for England & Wales, a listing for my 2x great-grandfather Henry Thomas Thorne. I was aware that he had died in 1908 in Dartmouth, Devon, but until then I had no idea that he had left a will. He was the son of a boatman and one time cordwainer from Dartmouth. Henry had moved, in his youth, to Portsmouth to work in the Royal Naval dockyard as a ropemaker.

It was here that he met and married his wife Ellen Malser, the daughter of a Master Mariner if the records are to be believed. Henry and Ellen soon moved back to Dartmouth where Henry obtained a job, in 1864, as the steersman of the railway ferry that crossed the Dart from Kingswear to Dartmouth. He was to eventually became the Captain of the steamer, called the Dolphin, that replaced it.

Henry Thomas Thorne spent 40 years working on that vessel and even had the privilege of sailing King Edward VII & Queen Alexandra across the Dart, when they came to lay the foundation stone for the Royal Naval College. From that time on the townsfolk nicknamed Henry “The Admiral”, according to sources that I have read.

With the details, from the National Probate Calendar, I was able to download a form (PA1S) from the Government’s Justice website and send off my cheque to the Postal Searches and Copies Department, which is in Leeds.

http://hmctscourtfinder.justice.gov.uk/HMCTS/GetForm.do?court_forms_id=739

When the will arrived, on my door mat, I was somewhat confused to find that it contained some interesting errors.

Henry Thomas Thorne was listed as a retired “Ropemaker”, an occupation that he had pursued in his youth in Portsmouth. But surely, with 44 years as the steersman and then Captain of the railway steamer across the Dart, it would have been more appropriate for the solicitor to have identified him as a retired mariner? No matter, I thought, and read on.

Next Henry appoints his wife Helen, along with the solicitor to be executors.

Helen, I wonder, who was this wife called Helen? It was, of course Ellen.

The will goes on to mention his “free-hold house situate at Victoria Road, Dartmouth, which had me looking on a map as all his census records show him living on South Ford Road and his death certificate mentions Fernleigh. From the map I can see that a Ferndale is an extension of South Ford Street and it overlooks Victoria Road. Using Google Street View I could see that Ferndale was not navigable by the Street View car and is a sort of walk rising up the hill. So perhaps I can assume that his house at Fernleigh was indeed in the area of Ferndale, but was it on Victoria Road?

He bequeaths money, in trust, to his daughter Florence Melzer Thorne. She was named after her mother’s family, Malser and not Melzer. In fact she was actually named Ellen Florence Malser Thorne, but I digress!

So it is a lesson to us all to take what is written down in any record that we find, even a will, as not necessarily being completely accurate. Check several sources before you can be sure of any fact.

In this case I wondered if the solicitor was new to the area. However a check of the census, in 1901, shows me that he would have been 33 in 1908 and had been born in the town. As such he would have, no doubt, been ferried across the river by my 2x great-grandfather on any occasions that he had need of catching the GWR train as Dartmouth had no railway lines itself. He must have been familiar with the character called The Admiral, who had been in the same job on the water from before the solicitor’s birth!

 

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Surname Research in British Family Trees

I’ve heard tell that there are over 25,000 different surnames in use in the British Isles today!

When you consider that, until the medieval times, most people would not have had a hereditary last name, this does seem quite a variety. And yet, in family history research, there is the perennial problem of how to research a common surname, indicating that for some of us there would perhaps be a preference for even more examples of surnames to have been added to the total.

If we were to go back to the time before the 11th century, then most of the population of these isles were known by a personal name, or nickname and would not have possessed a surname. The church would have baptised them with Christian names, usually those of a saint, as this was of more concern to the ecclesiastic authorities.

It would have been as a result of the arrival of written documents, in the 11th and 12th centuries, that the need for people to be identified more precisely would have led to the gradual adoption of surnames. The problem associated with the use of nicknames was that they were not fixed. A person could be known by several during the course of their lives and so this was not conducive to the operation of a bureaucracy.

Most surnames fall into one of six types.

There are the Place names derived from towns, areas or perhaps a farm. So we assume that the ex-Formula 1 racing driver, Derek Warwick’s name comes from the town in the Midlands.

The second type is taken from a physical feature. So we have such names as Hall, Westlake, Thorn and my parent’s next door neighbours the Underwoods.

Thirdly there are the surnames that owe their origins to a nickname, or physical characteristic. The likes of Large, Long, Short etc. fall into this category.

Johnson and Richardson are example of the fourth type; those that are from family relationships. Mostly these are from “son of…” but I have to say until I started doing a little research I was unaware that there are some derived from the maternal line, thus the son of Matilda is Tillotson.

A fifth type to consider is that of an ancestor’s occupation. so we have Cooper, Smith, Archer and Baker, to name but a few.

Lastly there are the surnames that are derived from forenames. Alan, Stephens

But this is not all, because there are the surnames that have entered common use in this country that are from elsewhere. So in England you have Scottish, Irish, French Huguenot and Jewish surnames all established and quite common. What is more, surnames may have had several different origins and may have evolved over time, so making the precise definition very difficult.

Surnames may be important to our family history research, but it should be remembered that they are an imprecise science. While many of them may be quite local and remain so even to this day, the chances are that your ancestors moved from their place of origin and so making it more difficult for you to tie them down. It is, therefore, very unlikely that a surname will be able to pinpoint a family’s origin, except in the case of a rare name which owes its existence to a particular location, where the name itself is very common.

Names changed over the years for a variety of reasons, some because the holder was illiterate and it was interpreted to be spelt in one way or another by the vicar, some changed because the holder decided to change it. I am fascinated why my surname, Thorne spelt with an “e” only goes back to my 2 times great-grandfather who in the 1861 census is without the “e” and yet in the 1871 census is with!

So while we all have surnames today, it is by no means certain that yours has not changed through time.

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Am I really sure about that ancestor?

Family Tree on a computer

In my ancestor research I have to admit that I’ve been guilty of narrow thinking sometimes. Have you?

What I’m talking about here is the occasions when I’ve focused too strictly on what I am sure are the correct facts about a forebear.  I may have been sure that I knew that his or her name had been spelt in a particular way, or that they came from a particular place. Now here is the warning I am guilty of ignoring: Am I really so sure I know the facts?

When we, as family historians, ignore this question then we can so easily cause ourselves unnecessary grief and so much wasted time. Perhaps we were searching in the right place, but were we guilty of searching in the wrong way? What we need to do is to open up our minds to researching in a smarter fashion and often we will be rewarded by finding that record that we were looking for.

Just think how your on-line research could possibly improve if you were always to:

  • keep handy a list of the known surname variants for your ancestor’s name. For example in my family I have names that could be spelt as Thorn, Thorne, Stephens, Stevens and all manner of spelling of Sissill.
  • think about what common first-name nicknames may apply and also any regularly used shortened forms of names. For example Thomas may be written as Thos. Elizabeth as Eliz. or Eliza. and I have found a John as Jono.
  • have written down some of the capital letters that can easily be confused like J and I, for example
  • remember that place names can be confused – in my Devon branch there are two Galmptons very near each other and I jumped to the conclusion that my great grandmother came from the one near to where they lived. Wrong!
  • think about the length of normal life-spans and don’t chase someone with a similar name thinking they are one and the same. What about the date ranges for their marriages, deaths and births of their children?
  • keep notes, or research logs for your family searches so that you keep track of what you have already done.
  • remain aware of the gaps that there are in any particular record collections. If you are searching a particular period and can’t find an ancestor and this time frame also matches a known gap in the data, then this will stop you wasting more time than necessary looking.

So just remember these seven ways to avoid family research pitfalls and don’t make the mistakes that I did in the past!

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