Serendipity and Hard Work.

Family History research is a fascinating hobby which has kept me entertained for 45 years.  First you build the basic skeleton of the family tree taking each branch back as far as possible, that is until you reach a “brick wall” where you simply get stuck for one reason or another and can’t take that branch back any further. Then you flesh out the basic tree by learning all you can about the individuals, where they lived, what they did for a living and so on. As well as brick-walls, every family also has its mysteries, puzzles and riddles which beg for explanation.

There’s always more that can be learnt about every ancestor, so one never runs out of things to do, but every now and then it’s fun to revisit brick walls and puzzles  to see if a fresh approach can cast light on long standing problems.  There’s also the possibility of serendipity – something pops up out of the blue and provides a solution.

In the last week  a fortunate stroke of serendipity and, quite separately, a systematic attack on a problem, have provided the definitive answer to one mystery, and the tantalizing possibility of a solution to another.

First the serendipity. Susannah Betty Sprague Curnow, 1850-1930, was a great great grandmother of mine and quite a character. She was a bigamist, mother to 12 kids, and a well-practised and highly inventive liar – both of her marriage certificates and some of her children’s birth certificates being largely works of fiction worthy of literary awards.  It was easy to understand the reasons behind the lies – they allowed her to get what she wanted  or to hide illegality or  embarrassment – but the detail of one was a puzzle.

Susannah Betty Sprague Curnow, bigamist and inveterate liar.
Susannah Betty Sprague Curnow, bigamist and inveterate liar.

On her eldest son’s birth certificate she gave her maiden name as “Stephens” instead of “Curnow”.  This doubtless came as a shock to that son when he applied for his birth certificate in 1925 for National Insurance purposes. On the application form which is on the back of the certificate, he’d written his mother’s maiden name as “Curnow”, but on the certificate itself it was “Stephens”. I’d love to have been present when he next spoke to his mother.  The question, of course, is – why “Stephens”?

Susannah doubtless learnt her lying skills from her parents, John Curnow, a tin and copper miner, and Susanna Curnow nee Millett, who were benefit cheats. Around 1861 Susanna pretended to have been widowed and she claimed relief for herself and her eight children. Meanwhile her husband was in lodgings a few miles away. The family lived in Cornwall, but John eventually came up to Northumberland as a strike-breaker during a coal miners’ strike. He stayed and he was later joined by his wife and some of his children – doubtless relieved to get away from all lies and deceit back home in Cornwall.

I knew that John Curnow’s father was another John, but that’s all I knew, and I never did make any further progress with that line. Not because I couldn’t find a John Curnow, son of John, born in Cornwall at the appropriate time, but rather because there were far too many of them. There were at least fifteen John Curnows, sons of John, born within a year or two of each other, and all in the same area, and I had no  idea which one was “mine”.  Had these people lived in the North-East I might have attempted to sort the families out, but researching in an area at the other end of the country is much more difficult, and I’d decided not to try.

Then last week, out of the blue, I had an e-mail from a lady I know only as “Sue”. Sue had made an extensive study of all things “Curnow”, and when she’d come across something I’d written about my Curnow ancestors, she knew immediately which branch I belonged to. So, thanks to Sue, I now have two more generations to my Curnow branch, and a solution to that 40 year-old “Stephens” mystery – Susannah Betty Sprague Curnow’s paternal grandmother was born Jennifer Stephens! Susannah had used her grannie’s maiden name on her son’s birth certificate. Serendipity indeed!

The other longstanding problem related to my great great great grandmother, Hannah Jordan, who was born in Hunstanworth, Co Durham in 1818 to farmer, Joseph Jordan, and his wife, Ann. Joseph gave up farming and became a Carrier, almost certainly transporting goods and material for the local lead mines. Around 1830 Joseph took his family and his business a few miles south to the village of Rookhope, probably working mostly for the nearby Boltsburn Lead Mine.

There, Hannah met local lead-miner, Thomas Brown. They married at the Parish Church at Stanhope on 15th April 1840 and set up home at Boltsburn near to the mine.  Thomas and Hannah’s only child, Jane Ann, was born on 14th July 1842. All seemed well with the world until tragedy struck the following year when Thomas developed scrofula – now known to be tuberculosis of the neck – and what was then diagnosed as “bronchitis”, but was probably tuberculosis of the lungs.  Thomas died of the illness on 13th September 1843.

So that left baby, Jane Ann, with her mother Hannah – or did it?  In 1851 and 1861 census returns tell us that Jane Ann was living with her paternal grandparents, Thomas and Jane Brown, so where was Hannah?  The last time Hannah actually appears on any record was when her daughter, Jane Ann, was baptized at Stanhope Parish Church on 16th October 1842. She didn’t even register her husband’s death, that was done by Thomas’s brother, James Brown, who also lived and worked at Boltsburn.  What happened to Hannah?

I couldn’t find a suitable Hannah Brown on the 1851 census, so I assumed at first that she must have died or remarried before then. I determined that there had been 10 marriages and 10 deaths of Hannah Browns in the period up to April 1851 and within roughly 25 miles of Boltsburn, and I set about checking them out one by one. Frustratingly all could be eliminated because they were the wrong age, or were the daughter, wife or widow of the wrong persons. I reached that point nearly 40 years ago and I had made no further progress, so last year I decided to revisit the problem.

I realised that I could have lost Hannah because she’d migrated further afield or even emigrated, but I decided to press on and search for a death or remarriage in the same area as before, but over the next ten years, that is from 1851 to 1861. I identified a further 12 marriages and 15 deaths of Hannah Browns, I was able to eliminate all but 10 of these using online resources, but I would need certificates for those remaining 10 – 2 marriages and 8 deaths. Each certificate costs £9.25, so I took things slowly and ordered one or two every few weeks as and when I could afford them. By early March I’d eliminated both marriages and five of the deaths, then, last week a certificate arrived which was different. I couldn’t eliminate it. This Hannah Brown could be my elusive ancestor!

She had died on 14th June 1858 at Shotley Villa, a large house at Shotley Bridge, where she’d been housekeeper, and she was the right age, 40, for an 1818 birth. My initial interest soon declined, however, when I realised that the only reason I couldn’t eliminate this person, was that, apart from her name and age, the certificate tells us nothing whatsoever about Hannah. It doesn’t give her marital status, it doesn’t mention her father or husband.  So here was a Hannah Brown who could be my ancestor, but there’s nothing at all to link this lady with the Hannah widowed back in Boltsburn 15 years earlier.

I decided to look at her employers at Shotley Villa – it was actually quite difficult to identify them, but I eventually found that she’d worked for an elderly couple, John and Hannah Nicholson. The 1861 census revealed an interesting fact – Hannah Nicholson was born in Weardale. Suddenly things looked interesting again – here was a link back to the Boltsburn area.

70 year-old John Nicholson is described as a “House and Land Proprietor” on the 1861 census, but I wondered what he’d done earlier, so I found him on the 1851 census, and that’s when my interest really peaked. Why? Because in 1851 John Nicholson was a “Proprietor of Lead Mine”!

Of course that could just be a coincidence, and I’ve no idea which mine John owned, but I can’t help wondering if  John Nicholson had been Thomas Brown’s employer at Boltsburn Mine, and when he was looking for a housekeeper for his new (1855) house at Shotley Bridge, he’d felt empathy towards Hannah Brown, the widow of his former employee, and given her the job. A very long shot!  But after 40 years I’m certainly going to thoroughly road test this idea.

There’s a lot more work to do, and I’ll need real evidence, not just possibilities, before I’ll take this idea really seriously. At any stage the whole idea can be shot down in flames by just one piece of contradictory evidence, but maybe, just maybe, this lady is my long-lost great great great grandmother. Watch this space!

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