Writing a Family History
Terrick FitzHugh offers advice on how to convert lists of names and dates into family histories.
The following is a chapter from FitzHugh's book which helps amateur genealogists find the information they need to turn a family tree into a family history. From research and record keeping techniques to proper narrative and use of illustrations, FitzHugh's book enables readers to dress the skeletons of their family trees with the flesh and blood of real people in the social environment of their day. The information is useful to anyone with ancestors from England.
TO A GENEALOGIST, the lives of Victorian ancestors began with their births as recorded in the General Register; and in earlier times only with their baptisms. But birth is the climax of a process; and the preceding pregnancy may sometimes be a condition worth narrative attention.
An example that I have in mind from my own family was when the English Civil War (between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians) had just broken out - in 1642 - and London was the first target of the King's forces. The Roundhead FitzHughs lived at the first house on Old London Bridge from the Southwark side, which, being the only river crossing, was the obvious point for any royalist attack from the south.
Worse, they were outside the city's defences, because the bridge's portcullised gatehouse and drawbridge stood between them and the north bank. The threat of attack and their exposure to it, worrying in themselves, must have been all the more stressful for my ancestress Mary Fitzhugh, who was eight months pregnant.
As events turned out, the advancing Cavalier army got no further than the outer western suburbs of London, and retreated without mounting a siege, but the fact that the circumstances of Mary's pregnancy and fear of flight from home were unrecorded could result in the historians missing a time of family stress and a link with national events that combined to provide an excellent narrative opportunity.
Although before 1 July 1837 in England the earliest recorded sign of life in an ancestor was usually the entry of his or her baptism in a parish register, some parsons or parish clerks did sometimes add dates of actual birth or provided the same information by saying how old the child was at baptism. Of this latter type of entry it must be remembered that until well into the 19th century, periods of time, when reckoned in smaller units such as the
days of a month or years of a century, were counted from the first unit, instead of from its completion as we do now. Because of this, a baby was thought to be one day, or even one year, old directly it was born; and George III's Golden Jubilee celebrations started on the very first day of his 50th year on the throne. So if an early baptismal entry mentions that the child was eleven days old, it means that he or she was ten days old by modern computation.
Another thing to bear in mind about a birth is that it cannot always be safely assumed to have happened a few days or weeks before the christening.
Infant baptism, though expected by the Church of England, was not invariable in practice. There were parents whom the Church's influence did not fully reach. Their children might go unbaptised for years. Sometimes it was the zeal of a new incumbent, paying his initial visits around the parish and finding a couple with an unchristened child, that caused it to be admitted into the Church several years late. If there were a number of little heathens in the family, they might then be baptized together in a batch. I have read in a family history of a boy, registered at baptism as illegitimate, who, according to the historian, married at the age of fourteen a woman in her twenties. A far more likely interpretation of the evidence would be that he had not been baptized as an infant.
Ten or a dozen births in a family were not uncommon even into the 19th century, and in families of that size the baptisms sometimes followed one another at surprisingly brief intervals. These indicated that the mother, by not breast-feeding a child, had curtailed the lactation period during which she could not conceive again. Many working-class women lost their children after a few weeks or months of life, and so were available to be employed as wet-nurses for the infants of mothers with a number of other children on their hands. This had the unintended effect of bringing forward the employing mother's liability to conceive again.
Occasionally the fact that a child was put out to nurse is documented, but this usually occurs only when it dies in infancy and the burial register describes it as a nurse-child.
In my family, William Fitzhugh, a third child, was baptized on Oct. 30, 1717, only eleven months after his next elder brother, who therefore must have been a nurse-child; and then, when William himself died in infancy, the register of St. John's, Hackney read:
William Fitzhugh, a nurse-child, was buried on the 18th day of July 1718.
A fifth child, Richard, was baptized in February, 1720, only 14 months after his sister. Eight months later he died, and the register of St. John's recorded:
Richard Fitzhugh, a nurse-child, was carried away on the 6th day of October 1720.
And next day's entry in the register of St. Peter's Cornhill, where the family lived, read: 1720 October 7. Richard Fitzhugh buried: South Chapel
Every discovered incident in a family's history should, if possible, be set within its background. Outdoors, at an ancestor's birth and any other time, there was always the English weather. A casual mention of rain or sunshine conveys a sense of intimacy with the situation. One good source of meteorological information for a particular place - our weather being extremely local - is private diaries, many of which have been published, while others survive in manuscript in record offices and private collections. Anyone with ancestors living near Dorothy Wordsworth will have plenty of meteorological background to draw upon. I have occasionally been lucky in this respect, and never more so than at the baptism of William Fitzhugh on Old London Bridge at the beginning of January, 1684 - which is why I am mentioning the weather at this particular point. He came into the world during one of the coldest spells the capital had ever experienced; and there on the spot, among many others who described the famous scene, was the diarist John Evelyn, who wrote:
January the 9th I went across the Thames upon the ice, which was now become so incredibly thick as to bear not only whose streets of booths, in which they roasted meat and had divers shops of wares as in a town, but also coaches and carts and horses, which passed over....
And when, in the same bleak month of the year 1800, Thomas Fitzhugh died in London, my account of the sad event will include the sympathetic reaction of the heavens. The issue of the Evening Mail that announced his death also reported:
From the rain, snow and hail that fell on Wednesday night and Thursday morning, the streets of London were never known more slippery; several accidents happened.
In past centuries religion, and consequently the influence of the Church authorities, permeated most aspects of social life. Did the ancestor remain faithful to the tenets in which his parents brought him up, or did he undergo the stresses of doubt and conversion to another denomination? If, after being himself christened as a member of the Church of England (Anglican), he had his children baptized in a non-conformist chapel, what was it that brought about that change? A question that a family historian must be asking himself at all changes, and looking for the answer. Was it perhaps the influence of his wife? To find out, a search of the earlier records of the chapel should be made for signs of her and/or her parents as members of the congregation. The fact that the couple were married in a Church of England church was, between 1754 and 1837, no indication of their adherence to its tenets, because no one except Quakers and Jews were given any option in the matter. Also, in early non-conformist days, the fact that the ancestor or his family was buried in the parochial churchyard would not necessarily indicate reversion back to the Church of England; a more likely explanation might, according to the period, be that the chapel had not yet acquired a burial ground of its own. Some Anglican clergy who buried non-conformists in their churchyard were apt to label them in their registers as "Anabaptists", regardless of what denomination they belonged to.
Early non-conformist congregations suffered persecution or restriction, and these experiences may have been recorded. The Quakers have a wealth of historical archives at Friend's House; the Baptists, Congregationalists and Presbyterians have their own historical societies; and the Methodists have archivists from each of their administrative areas. Descendants of non-conformist ancestors should also consult printed works and manuscripts at Dr. Williams Library, once called the Dissenter's Library, at 14 Gordon Square, London WC1.
Ancestors' religious opinions may be revealed in their Last Wills and Testaments. These documents, due for submission to ecclesiastical courts for probate, usually started with a religious preamble commending the testator's soul to God. The manner in which this was worded is an indication of the religious opinions of somebody, but whether that somebody was the testator himself or a lawyer who drew up the will, or the scrivan (clerk) who wrote it out, may be difficult to decide, though for a document in which commendation ones soul took priority a testator is likely to have employed the services of a co-religionist. Any reference to a hope of being among the Elect is an indication of Calvinism. Bequests made to the parish church, the "mother church" (cathedral of the diocese) and the poor of the parish are indications of being Church of England.
In August, 1558, the will of Jane Fitzhugh, widow, made her religious faith very clear: I bequeath my soul unto Almighty God to be presented through the meek intercession of the most glorious Virgin Mary and the holy communion of heaven...To a priest to sing for my soul and my husbands soul and for all my friends souls and all Christian souls, 10 pounds.
But, as far as the priest's intercession was concerned, Jane's request was frustrated through her survival until the following summer. By that time Catholic Queen Mary was dead, Protestant Queen Elizabeth was on the throne, and prayers for the souls of the dead were proscribed.
There have been two periods of English history during which the religious life of the whole population has been thrown into turmoil. The first was the Reformation, covering the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI and Mary I and into that of Elizabeth I. The process of change from Catholicism to Protestantism swayed to and fro for half a century, and ordinary people had to watch their steps. Letters and Papers of the Reign of Henry VIII and State Papers (Domestic) contain decrees banning certain books as heretical or subversive, refusal to translate the Bible into English, and other efforts to keep the populace in step with the current monarch's policy.
My own family was split between a Catholic head of the family and his Protestant brother, who, as a Justice of the Peace, was responsible for bringing Catholics to "justice". Any family history covering this period should attempt to reflect the uncertainties and fears that shook all levels of the population.
In the next century came a period, known as the Puritan Revolution, when the Church of England's Anglican establishment was under attack from within by people of ultra-Protestant views. Clashes in parochial life may appear in parish records and also in the numerous petitions sent in to Parliament by aggrieved groups and individuals. It was in the latter that I first discovered the side my ancestor took in these troubled times. In March, 1642, the opposed Anglican and Puritan parishioners of St. Olave's, South-wark, held separate meetings and elected different churchwardens. The Puritans took the precaution of getting all their voters to sign their names or make their marks, and William Fitzhugh was one of their signatories. Being therefore one of the Puritans, he probably had not altogether disapproved the violence perpetrated by them some months before in the parish church. This was described in another Petition to Parliament by the frightened Anglican curate, the Rev'd Oliver Whitby:On Sunday last, being the 6 of June (1641), in the administration of the Holy Communion, there happened a great uproar in the said church by some who are disobedient to the laws of the state and Church of England....Those disturbers of God's peace and the King's, after 500 had received the sacrament kneeling, would force your petitioner to give it to them sitting, contrary to law ...and thereupon made a great shout in the church, put on their hats, some crying: `Lay hands on him! Kick him out of the church! Pull him by the ears! Baal's priest, bald-pate, carry home your consecrated bread and sop your pottage!' Others thronged about him, laid hands on him, reviled him and laboured to hinder those who were willing to kneel, insomuch that God's holy ordinances were much dishonoured and many good Christians affrighted from the Holy Communion that day....They threaten...if he will not give them the sacrament next Sunday as they please, they will drag him by the heels about the church.
Stirring times. These petitions to Parliament are now to be found at the House of Lord's Record Office. Once the Civil War began, religious observances in parliamentary areas were successively overturned. The Book of Common Prayer was done away with and a Directory for the Public Worship of God substituted; Sunday sports and the celebration of Christmas were forbidden. These were all changes in the lives of ordinary people, our ancestors, and therefore materials for our family history. For the innovations of this period, not only in religious matters, the Acts and Ordinances of the Interregnum, compiled by C.H. Firth and R.S. Rait, is essential browsing.
This aspect of an ancestor's career will largely depend upon his parents' station in life. The attendance registers of the local National School (Church of England) or British School (non-conformist) may survive either in local or county record office keeping.
Alternatively, or subsequently, the boy may have been sent to the nearest grammar school. If his parents were sufficiently well off to send him to a private school followed by a public school (in England, then as now, a public school is actually private!), these may have been in any part of the country, not necessarily near home. Most public and many grammar school registers are in print. These and also the university registers are conveniently kept together in the library of the Society of Genealogists, where even non-members may search on payment of a day's, or part-of-a-day's, search fee. Some school histories have been written and may contain interesting facts about periods when our ancestors were pupils.
In past centuries a marriage could be initiated in several ways, either arranged by the parties' parent or permitted by their approval, or just proposed by the suitor and accepted by his lady-love. Between members of the aristocracy, among whom considerations of property and rank were usually taken into account, a marriage might be arranged. Among the gentry and middle classes, a suitor was expected to ask permission of the young woman's father to pay her his addresses or, at least, having already paid them, to ask for his permission for the marriage. If the suitor failed to come up to papa's expectations, he had to look elsewhere and the daughter of the house to wait for another admirer.
Only working-class couples seem always to have had the freedom to "keep company" before marriage. However, among most people, a strong personal preference would play its part, so this period of ancestral life can be treated as a "love story". Too often, though, a wooing and its successful outcome are covered by the family historian in some such words as:
`And on 3rd June 1846, John married Harriet, daughter of George Smith, apothecary, of the parish of Little Slowcombe.'
- as though she had suddenly descended upon him in wedding dress when nothing was further from his thoughts. That is no way to write a love story. Marriage was the climax of a process known as "courting"; therefore as historian you should try to find out how "Grandpapa met Grandmama."
You will not manage to pin it down to "the second minuet", but you may well be able to show how they would have, or could have, come to know each other. If the marriage entry in the parish register describes them as "both of this parish", you have no difficulty; they were near neighbours, attending the same church and other functions of the ecclesiastical parish; so, with a little skill, you should be able to bring in a mention of the young woman, or at least her family, before the reader has any notion of what lies in store for the couple. You could perhaps do this when describing their home village. Her father may have been the parson or a member of the parish vestry, or the innkeeper or blacksmith, or some other person whose activities would warrant an easy mention. Or he may have been of the same occupation as the ancestor, or an allied one. In my professional searches I came across a bridegroom who described himself as "Sergeant of the Militia", and I found that his father-in-law was a "Military Cap-maker" in the nearest town. As historian, you would not, on the strength of that, be justified in saying that when the sergeant went to buy a new cap, there, behind the counter, stood the cap-maker's lovely daughter; but, without committing yourself to any such precision, you can set your reader's imagination working. Each one will fill in the details to his or her own satisfaction.
If the parish register shows not only that they were both of the same parish, but that they had both been baptised there, then they grew up in proximity, joined in the same church festivals, danced round the same maypole and perhaps, depending on the period, attended the same village school. If they married young, it was "a boy and girl affair".
More often, the bride and bridegroom will have lived in different parishes, so how did they get to know each other in the days before cars, buses or even bicycles? There were two features in rural life that regularly brought inhabitants together over a fairly wide area, the weekly or bi-weekly market at the market town, and the annual or bi-annual fair at the same place. A country village rarely had more than one tiny shop, if that; so for goods that the people could not make themselves they set out regularly for the market. On that day the town's shops were supplemented by the stalls of neighbouring farmers and traders; and they themselves might have produce to sell. With everybody congregating there, it was also a social occasion. Markets and fairs as the means of bringing young people together formed a subject for folk song, though the old versifiers tended to sing of the fair rather than the market, presumably because of the rhyme difficulty. The problem of what to do with the car had yet to arise.
As I was going to Strawberry Fair,
I met a maiden carrying her ware.
Her eyes were blue, and golden her hair
As she went on to Strawberry Fair.
Oh dear, what can the matter be!
Johnny's so long at the fair
He promised he'd buy me a bunch of blue ribbons
To tie up my bonnie brown hair.
Beneath that bonnie brown hair lurked the suspicion that some blonde was chatting Johnny up.
It is worth studying the map and consulting the Victoria History of your county, and Lewis's Topographical Dictionary of England and Wales, to gauge whether the parties would have shared the same market town. Once a young man was attracted, he would, in those days, have thought nothing of walking many miles to keep a tryst.
If your ancestors were what were known in some circles as "carriage folk" they would have been able to take in a wider geographical range of acquaintance. In the local papers of the 19th century, the accounts of charity, county and hunt balls and other social functions included the names of those present. You may well find mentions of a young man and woman, later to become Mr. and Mrs., at the same event.
From 1731, weddings reported in The Gentleman's Magazine might even, impertinently, mention that entirely private matter, the marriage settlement, as it did in 1769:
Thos. Fitzhugh, Esq. to Miss Lloyd with £10,000.
The dowry was a big one, which is probably why the magazine mentioned it. Miss Lloyd was a catch!
Local newspaper accounts for weddings in the 19th century were not as numerous as they are today, being confined to those that could, by some stretch of imagination, be described as "fashionable", meaning those of the county gentry. These, however, were reported as considerable length, including the name or names of the officiating clergy, descriptions of the bride's, bridesmaid's and even bride's mother's dresses, together with the hymns chosen, and extracts from the parson's address, ending with a long and useful list of these relations and friends of both families who were present or had been invited.
With success in a proposal of marriage dependent on acceptance from both the young man's intended and her father, courtship was a process calling for circumspection. Matters could not be rushed. In his youth, my father (before meeting my mother) was attracted to a Miss Mabel Sugden. His diary for 1900 contains the following entry:
Thursday, 12th July...Dined with the Sugdens and bicycled afterwards by moonlight. Had a long talk with Emmie. She says that I ought to let Mabel know everything, anyhow before I go. She also said that Mabel suspected something. Mabel told me I could call her Mabel. Hurrah!
But, being at that time a mere agricultural student, my father probably discerned no approving glint in Mr. Sugden's eye. At any rate, he sailed away to the Argentine without telling Mabel "anything".
Until the Married Women's Property Act of 1882, a woman became at marriage a penniless creature. Her situation was spelt out in a document signed by an ancestor and ancestress of mine who got married in Constantinople in 1754. To bring their marital property affairs into line with English practice, the following Marriage Agreement was drawn up between them:
I, Valentine Fitzhugh, in consideration of Elizabeth Palmentiers concessions, oblige and bind myself at my decease that my executors, heirs or assigns shall pay to my said wife Elizabeth Palmentier one third part of my estate, whether it be in money, lands, houses, credits, jewels etc, which at her decease, shall be disposed of as I, Valentine Fitzhugh, shall directly will. In consideration whereof, I, Elizabeth Palmentier, do absolutely invest the said Valentine Fitzhugh will full power and authority to seize, claim and take in his possession all money, jewels, credits, lands, houses, tenements and furniture or whatever I am at present possessed of or may be hereafter entitled to, and that all and every part of these effects shall be entirely at the said Valentine Fitzhugh's disposal; further declaring by these presents that I do now absolutely dispossess myself of all my effects whatsoever.
Which seems to cover everything.
That particular marriage eventually became the subject of a tradition passed down in the family by word of mouth. Such tales are told and retold in may families, and nowadays they are treated seriously by historians. They fall under two headings, Oral History and Oral Tradition. The former consists of the early personal experiences of old people related by word of mouth at first hand. Oral tradition differs in having been already passed down to the teller through one or more generations. Much oral history may of course include older traditional tales heard in the teller's youth. For the family historian, the main difference between the two lies in the amount of reliance that can be placed upon them. Every time a story is repeated it risks alteration.
In traditional tales, tricks of memory, all too likely to occur even in first-hand recollections, can be compounded by historical misunderstandings and wishful interpretation. The oral tradition passed down about the above marriage, was that "Valentine married a beautiful Circassian"; and the romantic bride was held to be the genetic source of the dark good looks of certain contemporaries of mine. Actually Miss Elizabeth Palmentier of Constantinople was a French Huguenot. Word-of-mouth communication across the centuries needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. Oral tradition usually consists of a core of truth in a coating of fiction, and the fiction improves the story.
Orally traditional in many families is a ghost story, which the family historian may well feel worth re-telling. We have one in our family, about the phantom coach that drove up to the front door to call for Great-Aunt Lizzie's soul. However, I will not detain you with that.
A few old letters are often to be found treasured by some member of the family, constituting all that can be described as family papers. Recently several family history journals have been publishing correspondence from early emigrants to their relations at home, containing fascinating details of the primitive conditions with which they were having to cope. Unfortunately, letters of a more routine nature tend to follow the easy path down to the waste-paper basket. Sometimes, however, an ancestor may have had occasion to correspond with some person who was, or later became, of sufficient distinction to have his papers preserved; and so family letters and autographs may now be hobnobbing with those of the great in some record repository. Among the vast number of Additional MS in the British Library MSS Library, at the British Museum, I found several letters written by Valentine Fitzhugh at Constantinople to James Porter, formerly British Ambassador there and later knighted. These supplied not only valuable additions to my knowledge of Valentine's career, but also gave me an insight into his character. In one of them he wrote:
...The 20th past (October 1762), two-thirds of Pera (the Christian residential suburb of Constantinople) was unfortunately burnt down, my house and furniture amongst the rest. My clerk had only time to save the counting house. I shall be a loser by this accident at least D.5000,- -. For my part I always endeavour to avoid misfortunes, but when they happen they affect me very little, `The Almighty giveth, he taketh away, Blessed be his name for ever'. It began at St. Antonio's (convent) and burnt to the butchery, in all about 60 houses, and very little furniture saved.... This affair has so much disgusted both Mrs. Fitzhugh and myself that we have taken the resolution to leave this country, for we see nothing but misery and destruction before us, for which purpose we have fixed upon Neufchatel, where there is good society, great liberty, and very cheap living, three points very essential. England would be very disagreeable to Mrs. Fitzhugh as she does not talk the language. Besides, my fortune is not sufficient to live as I should choose. There I can live very genteelly, and I hope very happily.
The somewhat priggish claim that his mind was impervious to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune followed only a few lines later by its complete contradiction is rather endearing. The full correspondence showed me that, but for a change of destination on Valentine's part, I might well now be a Swiss national.
I have recently been told of the existence of some more letters from a member of my family to a historical celebrity, in this case from my great-great-aunt Emily to Lady Byron, the poet's wife. When, on hearing this, I said that I must arrange to see them, my informant said, "Oh, there is nothing in them of any interest whatever." Never pay the slightest attention to such a comment. No one but you, the family historian, can tell what evidence you will find useful. It may well be that most important items in those letters are Emily's address and the dates, revealing where she was at certain times. In this particular case, I do expect to get more than that, because at present I know of no reason at all why Emily should be writing to Lady Byron; so, even if her letters are deadly dull, they are bound to reveal a subject of correspondence hitherto unsuspected; and what may be merely implied in them may lead me on to some activity of Emily's that I should know about.
Information about collections of correspondence in private hands can be obtained, in many reference libraries, from the volumes of Reports of the Historical Manuscripts Commission, and also by consulting the National Register of Archives, but for collections cataloged by the latter you will need to have some previous idea as to what you are looking for. The Commission and National Register are both at Quality House, Quality Court, Chancery Lane, London WC2.
During the 19th century, sporting and other spare-time activities were plentifully reported in local newspapers. As evidence, newspaper reports are not entirely trustworthy. However, precautions can be taken. For many areas of the country, more than one local newspaper survives; so some cross checking is possible. In a case of doubt, a further precaution is to include the incident in your history by quotation from the paper. This absolves you from inaccuracy and enables you to exploit the literary style of the report, which usually has its own period charm. The following extracts from the Sussex Advertiser are examples of ancestral leisure activities regularly reported in 19th century local papers, and therefore worth their search time.
East Hoathly and Neighbourhood v Lewes Priory. This match was played on Saturday last (27th June 1857) in the Priory Ground, when the outward party brought...a powerful eleven, the names of Picknell, Carpenter and Marchant being somewhat formidable to their adversaries. The game, however, proceeded, and for a second-rate match, any lover of this scientific game must have been satisfied....On the part of the Priory Club the batting of FitzHugh, Tamplin, E. Monk and E. Beard was very creditable....The dinner was in Mr. Eager's usual good style ...
South Saxon Archers. This society held its grand and final meeting on Wednesday (30th August 1848) in Coneyborough Park. The day was delightfully fine, and the assemblage...presented an imposing appearance. A commodious tent was erected, where refreshments were supplied; and in the evening the junior part of the company enjoyed themselves by dancing quadrilles. There were no less than 150 ladies and gentlemen present, who commenced shooting shortly after 12 o'clock. At half past three the company partook of an excellent repast, provided by Mr. Jones of the Star Hotel. The archery was recommenced about half past four, when a first rate display of sill was afforded by the company, both by the ladies and gentlemen. The following is the result of the shooting: Best of numbers (Gentlemen) - Mr. Flood, Mr. Willis, Mr. Slater, Mr. FitzHugh jun. Best of numbers (Ladies) - Miss Slater, Miss F. Bonham, Miss P. Partington, Miss FitzHugh....Among the company present, we noticed the following....Mrs., Miss and Mr. W. FitzHugh.
A popular annual event was the local Horticultural Show, always attended by the FitzHughs. The three classes under which the entrants could compete with their flowers, fruit and vegetables reflected the sharply defined social class structure of the time, as did also the manner of reporting the function. At Chailey, Sussex, on Aug. 30, 1850:
The show was held in a meadow adjoining the King's Head, where a couple of commodious booths had been erected having an internal communication, forming as it were two rooms en suite....The first booth was appropriated to the productions exhibited by Gentlemen's Gardeners....Passing from the first to the second booth, the visitor found himself among the contributions from the Amateurs....But however excellent the display in other classes, we confess that to our view the main interest of the exhibition was centered in the Cottagers' contributions, which were really alike creditable to their skill and industry....They tell of care and attention in moments snatched from long days of toil; they tell of hours spent in the quiet enjoyment of home and its endearments; hours perhaps once devoted to the vitiated but too successful attractions of the beer-shop.
And in the winter evenings there were the balls, such as the following on Jan. 12, 1849: The Annual Southdown (Hunt) Ball. This ball took place at the Corn Exchange Rooms on Friday evening and was fashionably and most numerously attended....The room was fitted up with much taste, wreaths and festoons of evergreens being suspended from the sides and ceiling, interspersed with flags and banners....We believe the credit due for this pleasing addition to the appearance of the room is due to Mr. Jones of the Star Hotel....At an early hour the guests began to arrive, and before nine o'clock the dancing had commenced. Kirchner's band was in attendance, and their exertions gave entire satisfaction....A separate apartment was appropriated to the Card Room, where those not under the inspiration of Terpsichore might enjoy themselves in other fashion. Dancing was kept up with infinite spirit till a late hour in the morning - indeed some idea may be formed of the gaiety which prevailed, when we state that a little before four o'clock no less than twenty couples stood up to a country dance, in which old and young alike joined....All classes seemed to enjoy themselves thoroughly, and while the greatest ease prevailed, there was no one circumstance which could offend the most fastidious. The entire arrangements were extremely good and reflected much credit on Mr. Jones....Amongst the company present we observed the following: (a long list, including, in a party) Miss FitzHugh.
In addition to covering these regularly recurring events, the same newspaper occasionally contained reports of untoward incidents in which members of the family were mentioned.
On Wednesday last (3 October 1860), as Mr. Botting, the respected and well-known breeder of Sussex stock, was showing a bull to the Rev. Mr. FitzHugh of Streat, the halter, a new one,slightly yielded to the animal's pressure and, getting partial liberty, it struck Mr. Botting with the point of its horn, which entered the upper part of the eyebrow and cut a gash in his forehead; at the same time the ferocious animal got Mr. Botting against the manger....Mr. FitzHugh called for assistance to remove the animal, which, becoming more infuriated, got Mr. Botting down and commenced trampling on him....Assistance coming to hand, the bull was secured and Mr. Botting removed from his perilous position....The injuries sustained are of so serious a character as to cause considerable anxiety to his family.
To search unindexed newspaper files solely on the off chance of finding some such exceptional incident would obviously not justify the time it would take, but if the researcher finds that his family is regularly mentioned at local sporting and social events of the kind quoted above, the searches become worthwhile and any exceptional incident gets harvested along with the rest.
Sickness and Death
These two often quite separate events in an ancestor's life have to be dealt with together here because there is little information obtainable except in connection with terminal illness.
Ever since July 1, 1837, everyone has had its last illness or injury recorded on his death certificate, together with the length of time he was attended for it by his doctor. My grandfather's certificate showed his cause of death in 1886 as:Apoplexy, 5 days. Certified by J.B. Curgenven, M.R.C.S.
What used to be called "an apoplectic fit" is now known as a stroke, so the first attack will have come as a sudden shock. Thanks to my practice of transcribing the names of everyone in an ancestors street, I recognised the name of the certifier. Mr. J. Brendon Curgenven, surgeon, lived almost opposite my grandfather in Craven Hill Gardens, Bayswater; so I can envisage a member of the family, or a servant scurrying across the road for his urgent assistance.
In families with a high infant or child mortality, as was still common in the 19th century, the doctor signing the death certificates will have been an all-too-frequent visitor in the home. In order to find out whether and how far some member of the family had to hurry, often on foot, to fetch him, the best source of information for his address is of course the current local directory.
Some late 18th century burial register books contain a column for Cause of Death and so make it possible, even earlier than the General Register, for the historian to prepare the reader's mind for the worst. Death from illness is an event which, like birth and marriage, the historian should not spring upon his readers. From the purely narrative point of view, he could be wasting good story material.
Illness was liable to turn the sufferers mind toward his Will, either because it was not yet made or because changes were needed. In putting this matter in order, the testator would often mention his state of bodily health, good or bad, as well as his more important claim to be of sound mind and memory. On Feb. 3, 1632, when Henry Fitzhugh of Bedford made his will, he was "weak in body", and he died three weeks later. On the following Jan. 9 his brother William too was feeling "somewhat sickly disposed in body", but he lingered on for nearly three months. On Feb. 12, 1679, another William Fitzhugh was "aged and weak in body"; but, at 79, he was probably only feeling his age, because he lived until the end of the following December.
Though discoveries of non-terminal illness are rare, in the 1720s the chronic malady suffered by Captain William Fitzhugh was mentioned several times in the journals of East Indiamen, and also in East India House Correspondence, as for instance when his ship, the Derby, was about to set out from England for Calcutta in 1726. The Secretary of the Company had to write to her Chief Mate:
The Directors are informed that Captain Fitzhugh is so grievously affected with the gout that he is utterly unable to be removed from his bed in order to be got aboard the ship; and if he should so continue, it will be impossible for him to proceed the voyage. Wherefore the Directors order me to acquaint you that if the Captain's illness should continue so that he can't come aboard, you do then weigh anchor and proceed along with the Essex whenever the wind presents for moving and sailing.
However, just in time the Captain recovered sufficiently to catch up with the ship at Deal and be hauled aboard.
There are other sources of sickness and death. In 1731, ship's purser Thomas Fitzhugh's final illness, "flux and fever", was recorded by his captain in the ship's journal; and in 1793 The Gentleman's Magazine mentioned that Nancy Purling, née Fitzhugh, had died "after a short illness".
At all periods since parish registers were introduced, exceptional causes of death, especially violent ones, moved parish incumbents to mention them in their registers. Some of these cases would become the subject of a coroner's inquest. When an interval has occurred between death and the issue of a certificate, it is likely to have been because an inquest was held, and in such cases the coroner will be entered as the "informant". The official coroner's inquest records are not available until after 75 years, but reports of the proceedings appear in the local press, and provide the family historian with sad but interesting stories. In cases of suicide it is worth remembering that until recent times, killing oneself while of sound mind was both a crime in the eyes of the law and a sin in the eyes of the Church, which was why any available evidence of mental derangement would be brought in evidence by the sorrowing relatives.
In 1609 and again in 1754 court proceedings over the will of deceased members of my family provided me with information not only about the state of their health during their last days, but also about the expectations entertained by their children. These too can be drawn upon to enable the historian to write a fuller and more interesting account of an ancestor's death than a bare mention of his burial.
A will can leave clues to the late-lamented's feeling towards his family and to the sort of person he was. When Thomas Fitzhugh, widower (1728-1800), made his will in 1799 he left bequests not only to all his children and grandchildren, but also to his brothers and sisters, their consorts and their children and grandchildren, and his brother-in-law and his wife, and also snuff-boxes, watches and mourning rings to a number of friends, conveying a strong impression of an extroverted, friendly, warm-hearted likeable old boy.
On the other hand, my ancestress Mary Fitzhugh (1607-c.1650) was evidently not in her father's good book when he made his will in 1638. He left his eldest daughter land, and several younger daughters sums of 200 and 100 pounds each, but went on to make other bequests without mentioning Mary. Then, right at the end of his will, he left her 10 pounds. Even this was probably only the legal precaution commonly resorted to by testators when cutting children out of their wills. Inserting a derisory legacy prevented them from making a claim on the estate on the grounds that the impaired condition of the testator's memory had caused him to forget them. Mary's marriage seems a likely cause of her fathers disapproval, probably on religious ground, because her Fitzhugh husband was a Puritan.
Death may not be your end of an ancestor's story. He had still to be borne to the churchyard. The legal requirements for all bodies to be buried wrapped in noting but woollen may be worth mentioning as a novelty at the first family interment after the Act of 1666; but a death in the family at any date may provide something of individual interest in the funeral, or at least in how the deceased wished it to be conducted. In 1740 my ancestress Mary Fitzhugh laid down in her Will that she was to be interred:
without any funeral pomp or pall-bearers; and it is my express will, order and request that the house in which I now live, or wherein I shall or may happen to die, be not hung with any sort of mourning of any kind.
Burial registers occasionally contain entries showing that the heart and sometimes bowels of the deceased were buried separately from the body. Instructions for this Partial Burial were given by my ancestor Valentine Fitzhugh in 1793 in a letter (one of our few family papers) that his wife was to open at his death: It is my particular desire to be buried where I may die in the plainest and least expensive manner possible, for I know nothing more absurd than to throw away money idly in transporting the dead to distant places. (And) that twenty-four hours after my death I may be opened, my heart taken out and divided into two equal parts, each put into a silver box, one of which to be laid on my most honoured and most dearly beloved Mother's coffin; the other whenever my dearest Babet may die, to be placed near her heart and buried with her; and this I intend as the last and dearest mark I can leave them of the most sincere and affectionate love I bear them.
Affecting indeed, but as far as expense goes this request by Valentine seems as contradictory as his professed and actual reactions to the burning-down of his house in Constantinople, quoted above. His granddaughter Emily, Fanny Kemble's friend, would have felt little sympathy with such a romantic gesture. In 1856 she stipulated in her Will:
I particularly request that my funeral may be conducted in the simplest manner; that I may be interred in the nearest cemetery or village church yard; a walking funeral, to be borne by poor men to my grave; no crepe, scarves and drapery and other absurd customs of an undertaker.
And at Robert Fitzhugh's funeral in February 1609, sorrow was not the only emotion in the mourners' minds. As one witness in a Star Chamber suit gave evidence:
Upon the day of the burial of the said Robert Fitzhugh there was days appointed to search as well for more writings as also for money and plate.
And that was the beginning of a legal battle over his estate that lasted more than a decade - and provided me with a whole chapter for my history.
The documentary sources mentioned here apply to an ancestor in his capacity of private person, but they do begin to round out his brief entry on the family tree into a once-living member of the family. There are, of course, a number of other aspects of his life and character that can be examined.
From How to Write a Family History: The Lives and Times of Our Ancestors, by Terrick V.H. FitzHugh, 1988, ISBN 0 7136 3078 7, published by Alphabooks Ltd. Reprinted with kind permission.