Monthly Archives: June 2013

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Female Ancestry: Following the Maternal Path

The vast majority of our clients want us to concentrate on their paternal ancestry, which is understandable as this is the traditional way in which we view our family history in Britain. Looking from the child to its father, and then to its father’s father, is deeply engrained in our sense of self. The transfer of material wealth and reputation has followed the same paths through the ages, tagged with the father’s name alone. Many early parish register entries do not even bother to record the name of the mother of a child at baptism. (Some of our clients follow the same tradition with their starting information…)

Very occasionally, however – perhaps once among a thousand clients – someone wants to look at their ancestry from a different angle: to follow the thread back not from son to father but from daughter to mother, and this matrilineal approach makes a refreshing change. If we are interested from a biological point of view in how we became what we are, researching our female ancestry is no less logical than chasing a surname through the ages.

In traditional English families, maternal surnames are quite often preserved as middle names: we find this in all classes, but particularly where money or property entered the family via a wife. These are of course helpful clues for the genealogist. In extreme cases – among the wealthy – this gratitude was expressed (or demanded) by abandoning one’s paternal surname in favour of that of a generous female relative; or by hitching the two names together with a hyphen.

The Scottish tradition among women of never quite abandoning their maiden name after marriage, but preserving it as an alternative or middle name, is always a welcome sight. It reflects traditional practice in societies such as Iceland, where identity focuses on the given name, although surnames still refer to the father, not the mother. (An Icelandic surname is likely to refer to the father’s given name, as in early Welsh naming patterns.) Icelandic telephone directories are arranged not by surname but by given name.

In general (but few generalities in genealogy are safe), following the female line is more challenging. When concentrating on a single surname we can make blanket searches of records, sifting out all possible references to a family; and if we hit a difficulty, there are fewer clues to guide us out of it. If a marriage was not recorded, or perhaps just did not take place, we can get completely stuck.

On the positive side, however, as a client recently pointed out, the genealogy is likely to be more watertight: it is difficult to wrongly identify the mother of a newborn baby, but how many birth certificates or baptismal records do not accurately name the true father? Now that DNA tests have become more accessible, we may be about to find out.

Following the female path is the more adventurous option: a female line is more likely to take you farther afield, to a new area or even a new country. Genealogy is always full of surprises, but by leaping at each step to a new surname, who knows what you may find?

Click on the link to see one we did earlier:
A matrilineal pedigree

In praise of books

Like many other areas of life, genealogy has become heavily internet-dependent, which on the whole has been a welcome boost for both the professional and the amateur genealogist.

Here at Debrett we are still nevertheless surrounded by walls full of books, many of which inspire our affection as well as our respect.

We are therefore flying our small flag here for the printed word, and will be highlighting volumes that might be of interest to others in the field.

First in the list is an old favourite:

Haydn’s Dictionary of Dates (16th edition, 1878)

Haydn on shelf compressed

The full title of this magnificent volume describes itself with full-blown Victorian confidence as a Dictionary of Dates and Universal Information relating to all ages and nations, containing the history of the world to the autumn of 1878.  Running to 870 closely-printed pages, this was the Google of the day, whose articles range from lengthy potted histories of nations to brief one-liners explaining an obscure term or announcing a scientific discovery.

Handling this volume is a pleasure in itself; our office edition of 1878 (bought for 10 shillings by the late genealogist Frank Leeson, whose library we acquired in 1986) is quarter-leather bound, much used but still perfectly serviceable.

Many articles are still valuable to the researcher: for example, Theatres in England presents a calendar of theatre history from 1574 onwards, not just in London but (straying a little from its title) also in Dublin and Edinburgh.  The death dates of writers, managers and actors are noted, as were notable incidents: the 18 persons trampled to death at Sadler’s Wells in 1807 on a false alarm of fire; the man killed by a lion at Astley’s Amphitheatre in 1861; the appearance of a Japanese troupe at the Lyceum in 1868.

There are many legal articles of value to the genealogist; as well as pithy definitions of obsolete legal terms and explanations of specific Acts, we peer into numerous dark corners such as the Hanaper Office, the Tubman and the Postman of the ancient court of Chancery.

Politically correct it is not: an alarming number of beliefs are consigned to the article Imposters and in the section on Mormonites the author notes that ‘Missionaries are propagating these doctrines in Europe with more success than would be expected’.  As the very first page of the book announces, this is a dictionary of ‘remarkable occurrences, ancient and modern…. PARTICULARLY OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE’.

The real charm of this book, however, is how the eye will stray from the sought article to unexpected  nuggets: where else would we (accidentally) learn that ‘Bibliomania (or book madness) very much prevailed in 1811’ or that the word stationer derives from the early practice of booksellers of having stalls at the corners of street and in markets?  All this while seeking an article on Mortality rates (see Bills of)…

So who was Haydn?  The author of the 16th edition was actually Benjamin Vincent, librarian of the Royal Institution of Great Britain.   Joseph Haydn (died 1856) was the compiler of the first edition, published in 1841, and we must let him have the last word:

The design of the Author has been to attempt the compression of the greatest body of general information that has ever appeared in a single volume, and to produce a Book of Reference whose extensive usefulness may render its possession material to every individual…

(Preface, 1st edition: London, May 1841)

Quite so: every home should have one.