Above: 1872 Smith wedding - the bride is Bill's great-great-grandmother, Sarah Smith, and the boy on the far left is his great-grandfather James Smith. The family lived and worked at Wyld Court Farm, Hampstead Norreys
HAVE I ever told you that I’m a direct descendent of King Henry III and Robert the Bruce on my mother’s side? I have? It means I can trace my line back all the way to King Herod, you know. And it makes me a distant cousin of the Queen. Isn’t that fascinating? Where are you going? Come back!
When I first started researching my family tree (to be fair, I already had a general idea about my royal ancestry), it was the big hitters that floated my boat. William the Conquerer? Get in there! Ethelred the Unready? Back of the net! But after a while, all the names started to merge into one, and it all got a bit dull. After all, the theory goes that statistically it’s quite likely that every European living today is descended from the ninth century emperor Charlemagne. Yes, even you.
That’s not to say that I didn’t uncover some interesting facts along the way - I’m a distant relative of Gabriel Cox, the second mayor of Newbury (and thus can claim the coveted kinship to John and Frances West - meaning I could attend Christ’s Hospital school if I really wanted to); and my great-grandfather x 12 was Sir John Hawkins, Admiral of Elizabeth I’s fleet, hero of the Armada, cousin to Sir Francis Drake, and, er, “father of slavery”. Maybe I should keep that one quiet.
However, once I’d stopped being dazzled by these celebrities of the past, I became more interested in looking a bit closer to home, time-wise (I blame Richard Madeley’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are?. That man could turn me on to anything). In particular, although both my parents were children of Reading, it was surprising how many branches of my dad’s tree brought me back to West Berkshire; while on my mum’s side, I found it greatly amusing that her parents, with the surnames McDougall and McIver, and terribly proud of their Scottish roots, were in fact Londoners back through several generations - and with an interesting possible native marriage in India in the mid-19th century which might explain our dark colouring.
While some surmising had to be done without the help of the army of researchers that celebrities on Who Do You Think You Are? have at their disposal, I’ve been able to piece together some interesting life stories; generations of labourers uprooted from their isolated existence in the rural idyl of Chute Forest in Wiltshire to work firstly on the estates of grand landowners such as the Benyons of Englefield (explains why I have an urge to tug my forelock whenever I see our MP) and then into the factories of Reading; the fate of many of our ancestors not so very long ago.
The biggest bombshell for me was the discovery that my grandfather was the product of a first-cousin marriage - probably family-engineered after both parties were widowed and left with children to support during the First World War. Turned out that this was a surprise to no one but me, with the rest of the family having been fully aware of it for many decades. Sadly, his father died just a few years later, leaving his mother with even more children. Unable to cope, she was forced to send her youngest children away from Reading to an orphanage in Hampshire. Fortunately my grandad had happy memory of these years, and he remained particularly close to the brother and sister who had been there with him.
As I got into the swing of my research (aided by useful, if sometimes pricey websites such as Ancestry, Find My Past and Genes Reunited), I expanded to start looking into the family history of my husband Bill. With his mum and dad born and bred in Hungerford and Thatcham respectively, I wasn’t surprised to discover that both sides of the family can be traced back through West Berkshire and its surroundings for several generations. They included a George Liddiard of Aldbourne, who in the 1830 agricultural workers' uprising known as the Swing Riots, destroyed a threshing machine and was sentenced to 18 months' hard labour in Reading Gaol. He was lucky not to be deported to Australia, the fate of many of his fellow rioters. His absence appears to have hit his daughter hard and maybe she indulged in a little teenage rebellion; by the time George was released, he was unexpectedly a grandfather.
A particular treat was to stumble across the wedding photo of BIll’s Great-Great Grandmother, Sarah Smith, on the Ancestry website, uploaded by another distant relative. I am pretty sure that the boy on the far left of the photo is his Great Grandfather James Smith, another child born out of wedlock to the teenage Sarah. His dark colouring certainly seems to have survived through the generations, although I am glad to say that the women of the family are not so plain these days. James never took his mother’s married name, but did move with his mother and new stepfather from Wyld Court Farm (today home to The Living Rainforest) in Hampstead Norreys, where his family lived and worked as servants and farmhands, to the nearby hamlet of Eling.
Yet another apparently fatherless boy in BIll’s family was his great-grandfather Henry Ainsworth. With a surname originating in the North West of England, it is almost certain that Henry was the first Ainsworth to arrive in West Berkshire. He had spent much of his childhood in a London orphanage before being boarded out to Newbury at the age of 13 in 1887 - possibly to work on a farm, as in the 1891 census he is listed as living as a boarder with the family of a carter called George Hillier at Bradford’s Farm in Speen.
Henry had been orphaned at the age of 10, when his mother, Fanny, died in a London hospital. Other than a record of her death, I have been unable to find out little about Fanny. Was she a Londoner, married to an Ainsworth, or had she arrived in the capital as an unmarried mother from another part of the country, maybe hoping to pass as a widow rather than a fallen woman? Her story will probably never be known.
Fortunately, Henry had a happier ending - he married Mary Cox, a Hungerford girl, and they had five sons and two daughters. Although we know nothing of his experiences as a youthful farmhand, at a time when many of his contemporary orphans were deported to the British colonies, where it is widely documented that they were often badly mistreated, it appears that fate may have been a luckier one. If you meet an Ainsworth in West Berkshire nowadays, it is quite likely that they will be a descendent of Henry, the London orphan.
My great-grandmother Helen Eyles, born at 3 Englefield Street on the Englefield estate where her parents worked, pictured with all her children. My grandfather, Reginald Reeves, whom my son George resembles, is on the right
FOR those who want to take their family history research a step further, the Berkshire Family History Society offers wealth of excellent resources. The editor of the society’s quarterly journal, Berkshire Family Historian, Penny Stokes, told me more about it.
Catriona Reeves: What do those joining or contacting Berkshire FHS tend to be most interested in finding out?
Penny Stokes: Most people know the basic - dates and places of birth, marriage and death - of their parents, and to a lesser extent their grandparents. From then on, working back to 1837 (the start of civil registration) and 1841 (the first systematic census) seems fairly easy, because so much is online. But the quality of online material is so variable that many people need help in exploring the alternative routes when they can't find what ought to be there, such as a great-grandparent who is unaccountably missing from the census, or a birth which seems not to have been registered.
Before 1837 it gets trickier: you have to search parish records for baptisms, marriages and burials. Some of these are online (again, in varying quality) but many are not. There are of course a myriad of other sources. The society has a wonderful Family History Research Centre in Reading, where members can access a vast range of sources online, on CD, on microfiche and in print. I have no Berkshire family, but I've been a member of Berkshire Family History Society since the early 1990s because the society's resources are so much wider than just Berkshire.
CR: What have you found out about your own family through your personal research?
PS: I learned that one of my great-grandfathers was Bram Stoker's accountant, and on my mother's side there were some very active Irish republicans in the struggle for independence. So I describe myself as a cross between Irish rebels and Dracula's accountant. I haven't gone back much before the mid-18th century because I'm really more interested in finding out the stories behind the most recent six or eight generations.
CR: A lot of mine and my husband's ancestors were farm labourers in the villages around West Berkshire. Would the Berkshire FHS be able to help me learn more about what life would have been like for them?
PS: Most people researching family history want to fill in the background of how their ancestors lived, so local and social history play a large part in family history. The Berkshire Family History Society has regional branches (one in Newbury) where monthly meetings are held with speakers, and the topics focus on just this sort of thing.
House history too is a major interest; if your ancestors lived in, say, a particular farmhouse for three generations you'd want to find out about the house too, and as far as Berkshire is concerned the Berkshire Record Office is the place to do that. And it just happens to be right next door to the society's Family History Research Centre in Reading!
CR: Something we have noticed in our research is that there appears to be a fair bit of illegitimacy in our West Berks family trees, with the father being unnamed - more than I expected. Have society members have come across that a lot in their own trees?
PS: There's never yet been a family which didn't have secrets; it doesn't do to be too sensitive or judgmental. Pregnant brides are were very common, particularly in rural areas, where it was almost the norm for a couple to test their fertility before marriage, and disgrace only attached to failing to get to the altar before the birth. If an unmarried father isn't named in the birth or baptism record, he may be traceable in the records of the overseers of the poor, who may have awarded maintenance.
Illegitimacy sometimes arose because of religious dissent - a Quaker couple, for example, might refuse on principle to marry in a C of E church. They could find themselves being reported in the churchwardens' presentments. Other skeletons in the cupboard could be children given away or abandoned, bigamy, a spell in the workhouse, criminality, insanity... Most of these things are on record somewhere.
CR: Through your editorship of the journal, is there anything unexpected that you've discovered about old Berkshire?
PS: I was surprised to find how local surnames have remained strongly local, despite the massive increase in geographical mobility. West of Newbury there is still a concentration of names like Coxhead, Pocock, Liddiard and Tubb, just as there was in parish registers of the seventeenth century. You can check surname distribution out, comparing 1881 with 1998 on http://gbnames.publicprofiler.org
CR: What advice would you give to those starting to research their families, beyond using the usual websites, and any pitfalls that they should avoid?
PS: Start with all the information you can glean from living relatives. Read a good book on the whole subject so that you understand the sources before you start blundering around on the web (which can get expensive). Don't imagine you can do it all on the web; much valuable information is not online but in record offices, and nothing beats actually getting out and walking the ground that your ancestors walked.
And, of course, join the Berkshire Family History Society, through which you will get a great deal of information and support, not to mention the company of like-minded people.
CR: And what makes it so fascinating for those that do start researching their family?
PS: It becomes utterly compulsive, particularly if you are in the second half of your life, and your parents are no longer alive. Roots are important. Having had an RAF upbringing I thought I had no home town, so I was delighted to find that I was a seventh-generation Londoner. It's as well to remember, though, that almost nobody is going to be quite as excited by your discoveries as you are!
* First published in Out & About magazine, May 2012