The family bible is one of the most precious heirlooms a genealogist can have. A few years ago, my father was visiting his brother in England, and the subject of the family bible came up. My uncle was kind enough to pass the bible on to me, knowing of my passion for genealogy. It is a beautiful, large, and heavy bible, about 14 inches x 10 inches and almost 5 inches wide.
Our biggest hurdle was getting the bible from England to the U.S. where I lived. I did not want to send it via the mail. Fortunately, my father was staying at a guest house with a couple from the U.S. who had brought their daughter over to York to begin university. These strangers very kindly offered to bring the bible back with them to the U.S. and send it on to me.
The bible is titled, ‘Brown’s Self Interpreting Bible’ and the cover is embossed leather with metal on each edge and beautifully engraved metal clasps (one of which is missing). The Self Interpreting Bible was Rev. John Brown’s (1722-1787) most successful work. It contained the scriptures with marginal references and explanations for the ordinary person.
The inside of the bible contains beautiful pictures of various bible scenes, in vivid color.
In the middle of the bible are the pages that every genealogist hopes to see. Those that contain handwritten names and dates of birth, marriage and death. I can see from the handwriting that most of the names and dates were written by one person at one time, not at the time of each event. And the names are of only one family, the James Thomas and Margaret Bruce family. They are my great grandparents, who lived in County Durham, England. 1
James Thomas was born in 18622 in Medomsley, Durham, and Margaret Bruce was born in 18663 in Sherburn, Durham. They married in 1888 at Bethany Church 4, a Christian Lay Church in Sunderland, Durham.
James and Margaret Thomas went on to have six children with only two surviving infancy. Those names are written in their bible. How sad it must have been to write down the death dates of their precious little ones.
The Thomas family bible is a valuable resource but it is more than that. To me it is the precious feeling of being able to hold in my hands something that I know my great grandparents once treasured.
Thomas Family Bible, The Holy Bible (Newcastle Upon Tyne: Adam & Co. Lmt), “Births, Deaths”; privately held by Sue McNelly, [address for private use,] Arizona, 2010. ↩
England, birth certificate for James Thomas, born 29 January 1862; registered March quarter 1862, Durham District 10a/265, Lanchester Sub-district, Durham; General Registry Office, Southport. ↩
England, birth certificate for Margaret Bruce, born 4 May 1866; registered June quarter 1866, Durham District 10a/365, Saint Nicholas Sub-district, Durham; General Registry Office, Southport. ↩
England, marriage certificate for James Thomas and Margaret Bruce, married 3 March 1888, registered March quarter 1888, Sunderland District 10a/715, Bethany Church, Durham; General Registry Office, Southport. ↩
Longevity (or in my coal mining ancestors, the lack thereof)
Coal mining was not an occupation that promoted longevity in those who worked from before daybreak to after dark, six out of seven days a week, month after month and year after year. Most miners began work down the mines as young as age 8. Back breaking, dangerous and physically exhausting labor, accidents and disease, most often meant that many miners never reached old age. While David Bellis, a Welsh coal miner, and my 2nd great grandfather, lived to the age of 81 and his son, John Bellas (the name is spelled both Bellis and Bellas in the records), my great grandfather, lived to age 78, the majority of their sons and extended family died fairly young. All of them spent their entire working lives in the mine.
Year of Birth
Year of Death
Age at death
John Bellis (3rd great grandfather)
John Bellis (2nd great granduncle)
Hugh Bellis (2nd great granduncle)
David Bellis (2nd great grandfather)
John Bellas (Great grandfather)
John W. Bellis (1st Cousin 3R)
Thomas Bellas (Great granduncle)
William Bellas (Great granduncle)
Tom Bellas (granduncle)
John William Bellis died while working in Etherley Colliery near Escomb, County Durham, England in 1883. John was an Incline Man which was someone who “attended to work on an incline plane”. The Mine Inspectors Report described the accident as “died from the effects of a sprain received on 22nd January last while lifting a tub on the way.” Sadly, John was only 23 years old.
Read any of the historical data on mining deaths in England in the 1800s and you will come across lives lost far too young. The risk of accidental death or disease was high but for many families of Northeast England it was the only occupation open to them.
“The little trapper of eight years of ages lies quiet in bed…It is now between two and three in the morning, and his mother shakes him, and desires him to rise, and tells him that his father has an hour ago gone off to the pit. He turns on his side, rubs his eyes, and gets up, and comes to the blazing fire, and puts on his clothes. His coffee, such as it is, stands by the side of the fire, and bread is laid down for him…He then fills his tin bottle with coffee, and takes a lump of bread, and sets out for the pit, into which he goes down in the cage, and walking along the horseway for upwards of a mile…He knows his place of work. It is inside one of the doors called trap-doors, for the purpose of forcing the stream of air, which passes in its long, many miled course from the down shaft to the up-shaft of the pit; but which door must be opened whenever men or boys, with or without carriages, may wish to pass through. He seats himself in a little hole, about the size of a common fire-place, and with the string in his hand: and all his work is to pull that string when he has to open the door, and when man or boy has passed through, then to allow the door to shut itself…He may not stir above a dozen steps with safety from his charge, lest he should be found neglecting his duty, and suffer for the same. He sits solitary by himself, and has no one to talk to him; …. For he himself has no light. His hours, except at such times, are passed in total darkness. For the first week of his service in the pit his father had allowed him candles to light one after another, but the expense of three halfpence a-day was so extravagant expenditure out of ten pence, the boy’s daily wages, that his father, of course, withdrew that allowance the second week, all except one or two candles in the morning, and the week after the allowance was altogether taken away; and now, except a neighbour kinder than his father now and then drop him a candle, as he passes, the boy has no light of his own.” Dr. Mitchell’s report of the Collieries of South Wales, Children in Mines and Collieries, 1839, p38-39. “The History of Mining in Durham & Northumberland”, Newcastle University, (http://www.ncl.ac.uk/library/services/education-outreach/outreach/mining/children.php : accessed 17 January 2018).
Many years ago I received the birth certificate for my great-grandfather James Thomas, born in Medomsley, County Durham, England in 1862. I knew his parents to be William and Susan Thomas, but I had not been able to find Susan’s maiden name. I eagerly opened the envelope anticipating the beautifully written maiden name of my great great grandmother. It was not to be. The handwriting, while not the worst I have ever seen, was not that easily read:
From James’ birth record I was able to make out that Susan was formerly BASH-something. It looked like it could be BASHLON, BASHLOW, or BASHTON. I noticed too that Susan was not able to sign her name and instead had added her mark (x).
Using James as a starting point I was able to find the family on the 1871 U.K. census. This gave me the names of some of James’ siblings, specifically of his older brother, William Henry Thomas. I sent off for William Henry’s birth certificate, hoping for better handwriting that would confirm his mother Susan’s maiden name.
While waiting for the birth certificate to arrive from London I began a search to see if I could locate a marriage record between William Thomas and Susan BASH-(something). I was fairly confident that the maiden name began with ‘Bash’ as those were the 4 letters I could easily read. No luck!
Six weeks later I had my hands on William Henry Thomas’ birth certificate. The handwriting was better and there was Susan’s maiden name …. BASTON. Not what I was expecting to find.
What I had thought was BASH-(something) was now BASTON. The 1871 U.K. census had shown that William Henry Thomas had been born in Cardiganshire, Wales but that he had an older sister, Mary Ann Thomas who had been born in St. Agnes, Cornwall circa 1857. Hoping that Mary Ann Thomas was their first child, I began a new search for a marriage record for William Thomas and Susan BASTON, in Cornwall in the years before 1857. The search was negative again. Using FreeBMD I was able to search for all marriages between 1850 and 1857 (when Mary Ann was born), with William Thomas and Susan (leaving out any last name) as parents, and across all districts and all counties in the U.K. I received 44 results. I searched through each one looking at the maiden name of the bride. The only record which came close was a marriage between William Thomas and a Susan BOSTON, in Aberystwyth, Wales in 1854. Could they have met and married in Wales, moved back to Cornwall and had Mary Ann Thomas there in 1857, and returned to Wales where William Henry Thomas was born in 1859?
Working backwards from the 1871 census to the 1861 and 1851 U.K.censuses I was able to track the family’s movements and noted that in 1851 William Thomas, aged 17, was living with his parents in the village of Goginan, Melindwr, Cardiganshire, Wales which is within the Aberystwyth registration district. The FreeBMD marriage index I had previously found seemed to be the right one.
So far my search for Susan’s maiden name had resulted in:
1854: Marriage of William Thomas and Susan BOSTON
1859: Birth of son William Henry Thomas – mother’s maiden name BASTON
1862: Birth of son James Thomas – mother’s maiden name BASH-(lon, ton, low, tow)
The recent launch of birth, marriage and death indexes at the General Register Office in England has given genealogists the opportunity to search for births with a maiden name, which was not possible before (only available now for births before 1911). I began to search for each of William and Susan’s children with the following results:
1857: Birth of Mary Ann Thomas (mother’s maiden name is BACTIAN)
1859: Birth of William Henry Thomas (mother’s maiden name is BASTON)
1862: Birth of James Thomas (mother’s maiden name is BASHTON)
1864: Birth of Emma Thomas (mother’s maiden name is BASHTON)
1867: Birth of Matilda Thomas (mother’s maiden name is BASHTON)
1869: Birth of Elizabeth Thomas (mother’s maiden name is BUSHTON)
1879: Birth of Joseph Thomas (mother’s maiden name is BASHTON)
This is certainly a great way to get a first look at information before ordering a certificate.
You would think that with BASHTON being the most commonly occurring name in all the records so far that I would be fairly confident in thinking that to be Susan’s maiden name. The other variations of the name can be ascribed to the fact that it’s probable neither Susan or her husband William were able to write their names (they always used their mark ‘x’ in place of a signature) and BASHTON can easily sound like BASTON or BOSTON or BUSHTON to the person they were reporting the birth to. Right?
Wrong! Using her ages given on the various census to come up with an approximate birth year, my searches for a birth record for a Susan BASHTON born about 1837 in Chacewater, Cornwall were all negative. However, an 1851 Welsh census record for a family with a daughter named Susannah, born about 1837 in ‘Chesswater, Cornwall’ caught my eye. This family was living in Melindwr, Cardiganshire, putting them in the same place as William Thomas and his family, at the same time. And the last name of the family was BASTIAN.
A quick look back at the birth of Mary Ann Thomas (first child of William and Susan Thomas) revealed that the maiden name of the mother was BACTIAN, only a slight variation from BASTIAN. Unfortunately, despite searching through parish records, page by page, and surrounding parishes to Chacewater, Cornwall, I have not been able to find Susan BASTIAN’s birth or christening record.
My confidence in Susan’s maiden name as BASTIAN comes from:
Susan’s parents and siblings are recorded as BASTIAN on the 1841 and 1851 census.
In 1841 Susan and her family are living in Kerley Downs, Kea, Cornwall. Kerley Downs is described as a very small moorland to the southeast of Chacewater. There are 7 very large BASTIAN families living there.
The christening records for all of Susan’s younger siblings show BASTIAN as the last name.
The marriage record for Susan’s parents, John and Susanna Evans, shows the last name as BASTIAN.
Susan’s father, John was christened in 1805 as ‘John, son of Henry BASTIAN’
It is an interesting lesson in not always believing the first record you find. Had I not gone any further than the first 2 birth certificates ordered I would today have in my records a great great grandmother with the incorrect maiden name of Bashton. And while the General Register Office search facility is extremely helpful in being able to provide results coupled with a maiden name, those results must always be corroborated with further proof. This is the emphasis of the third point of the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS) – all information, sources, and evidence must be analyzed and conflicting evidence resolved, resulting in a credible conclusion. And of course, all of this rests on the first point of the GPS, reasonably exhaustive research. My search therefore continues to find Susan’s birth record and confirm that Susan’s maiden name was in fact BASTIAN.
As genealogist’s we know the value of probate records in our research. Probate records are court records made after the death of an individual and relate to how that person’s estate is dispersed, the directions to heirs and creditors and the care of dependents. There are numerous records created during the probate process including wills, petitions and inventories. Probate records may include a death certificate, guardianship records and sometimes even land records.
A will can sometimes be the only document you find that shows a relationship between people, or which gives you the name of a family member you did not know about. It provides the full name of the individual, the date of death and often occupation. A will may name the spouse and children, may give a daughter’s married name and many times the names of grandchildren. A will gives us a personal glimpse into what was important to our ancestor.
So how do we go about finding an ancestor’s will? Much of my research is in the British Isles and this post focuses on finding a will in England. I recently came across a service provided by gov.uk. The Find a Will website is located at https://www.gov.uk/search-will-probate and consists of three databases:
Wills and Probate 1858-1996
Wills and Probate 1996 to date
I decided to try to find the will of my great-aunt, Charlotte Lillie Davis, who I have recently discovered had married in Germany, to a man by the name of Oluf Antonius Jensen. The Find a Will website requires that you already know the year of death. So there is a little work to do if you do not already have this information. Besides parish registers, below are a couple of databases that may help you find a year of death:
FreeBMD contains information from the Civil Registration Index to Births, Marriages and Deaths from 1837-1983. Not all years are complete yet. (Free)
Ancestry.com has the Civil Registration Death Index 1916-2007 ($)
Ancestry.com also has the England & Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1858-1996, 1973-1995 ($)
Findmypast.com also has Probate Calendars of England and Wales 1858-1959 as well as many individual County probate indexes. ($)
I did not have Charlotte’s year of death but a quick search on Ancestry.com came up with both a civil registration death index record and a probate record.
According to the Civil Death Index Charlotte Lillie Jensen’s death was registered in the 4th Quarter of 1982. The Probate record gave me the specific date of death as 13 December 1982 and a probate date of 11 February 1983.
Using this information I went to the Find a Will website and entered the Surname and Year of Death.
Charlotte Lillie Jensen was at the top of the second page of Probate Indexes.
The next step is to use the information you have just found in the Probate Index and fill in the form to the left of the results. I was able to find Charlotte Lillie Jensen’s probate index entry using Ancestry.com but the Find a Will website will search the Probate Index provided you have the year of death.
A PDF of the will costs £10 (about $12) and can take up to 10 working days to be delivered electronically. Once you receive an email letting you know the will is available you have 30 days to download it.
I ordered Charlotte Lillie Jensen’s will on October 19, 2016 and it was ready for download by October 24, 2016. This is an easy to use and valuable service for genealogists. In my opinion it is well worth the £10.