I think of myself as not only almost completely British, but almost completely Southern as well – most of my research is within Kent and Essex. But I am actually one eighth Yorkshirese. My great grandmother, Elizabeth Danby, came from a little town near Harrogate. She met my great grandfather, Frederick Downing, when he was stationed at a nearby Army training camp at the beginning of WW1. Elizabeth Danby’s blood was pure northern.
I will tell you more about the Danbies later but first I am going to skip back a couple of generations to Elizabeth’s paternal grandmother, Elizabeth Southern, and a curious family that I haven’t quite unravelled. Incidentally, I find it quite amusing that my northern relatives have the surname Southern, and also find the various spellings of this name that pop up – Sotheran, Sootheran, Southran, etc – quite beautiful. You can just hear the northern accent.
Elizabeth Southern was born in 1827 and the 1841 census (which just lists the names of family members and not how they are related to each other) lists her as living with Charles and Ann Southern, both 50, and three younger children (Annie, Charles and Eliza). At first glance, the family looks like a standard parent and children set up. But it isn’t. The 1851 census reveals that Eliza is actually Ann and Charles’s granddaughter. I was stumped by this, because Eliza’s mother is nowhere to be seen on either census, and sent off for her birth certificate, which revealed her to be the illegitimate daughter of a Jane Southern. Further perusal of the Easingwold parish register lead me to discover that Annie and Charles were also the children of this Jane, not of Charles and Ann.
For a long time I hunted high and low for the mythical Jane. There seemed to be no trace of her ever having existed and for a while I wondered if she had been invented to cover up… something… I looked for every Jane born in Easingwold at the right time, but the only clue I could find was the marriage of a Jane Southern to a John Miller in 1841. Eventually I tracked this couple down to Liverpool in 1851, and sure enough, it was Jane, who had seemingly dumped her three illegitimate children on their grandparents and disappeared to start married life afresh. Charming.
The reason I had had such difficulty finding Jane was because she had not been born in Easingwold or even in Yorkshire. She had, in fact, been born at entirely the other end of the country – at the barracks in Woodbridge, Suffolk. It turned out Charles Southern was a soldier. His military records were intact, and showed that he fought at the battle of Waterloo, in Salamanca and in India. They also showed that in 1827, when Elizabeth Southern was conceived, Charles Southern was not in the country. I looked the the original of Elizabeth’s baptism. It read:
“Baptised Elizabeth Southern, daughter of Ann (single woman)”
Now, this confused me because Ann was not single – she was a married woman temporarily living alone. Had Ann got pregnant by another man whilst Charles was away? Did she present herself as a single woman with an illegitimate child to the church, thinking this marginally less shameful than being a woman who cheats on her husband? Or was Elizabeth actually another grandchild? Yet another child of that naughty Jane? Perhaps Ann and Jane had taken baby Elizabeth to be baptised and the vicar had confused the names of mother and grandmother? Or perhaps Jane had a sister named Ann, who had also flown under the radar? Ann would have been 45 and Jane 21 when Elizabeth was born.
In summary, I’ve been unable to make head nor tail of where my third great grandmother Elizabeth Southern fits in, except to conclude that Ann Southern was either her mother or grandmother, and that Charles Southern was definitely not her father (but may have been her grandfather). I’m hoping that DNA will give me some clues. So far, I have twelve matches who have ancestors born in Easingwold, and am focusing on these, looking for a family name common to all which may give me a clue. If this proves fruitless, I may just have to take a trip to the other end of the country to see if the parish chest holds any bastardy or poor law records that might be of assistance. I won’t be doing this until next summer though: the north is very cold and the seven eighths of me that come from the south can’t handle it.