Where There’s A Will

“Do you know anything about Aunt Lizzie’s will?” This question was put to me a few weeks ago by the wife of one of my father’s cousins. She went on to explain that she had been told that her daughter and myself were beneficiaries in the Will of our great-aunt, Elizabeth Pears, who died in 1967. Her daughter had not received anything and she clearly thought that something was amiss. I knew absolutely nothing about the Will; to be honest I was rather surprised that Lizzie had taken the trouble to make one, and even more surprised to learn that I was a beneficiary. It took only a few days to obtain a copy of the Will and the cause of the misunderstanding became clear. My second cousin and myself were certainly mentioned in the Will but we would only have benefited if another relative had died before Lizzie, and this had not been the case.

This recent example illustrates a phenomenon which must be quite common – suspicion, usually unfounded, that the affairs of a dead relative have not been handled fairly. There have been several such cases involving my own relatives and I propose to describe two more, both on the Pears side of the family.

Back in 1968, when I was just beginning to take an interest in genealogy, I met George Hall, one of my late grandfather’s few surviving cousins. Now George had an obsession which he was keen to share with me. He was convinced that his mother, Ann Pears, my great-grandfather Thomas Pears, and their sister Hannah had been cheated out of their share of a ‘fortune’ by their uncles and aunts. For years George had religiously checked the ‘Unclaimed Money’ section in the News of the World in the vain hope that some lawyer would belatedly discover the error and advertise for the rightful heirs. His story was that Ann, Thomas and Hannah had lost their mother, Jane Ann Pears, formerly Brown, when they were very young. Their father became an alcoholic and neglected the children. This state of affairs was unacceptable to Jane Ann’s relations and the children were soon taken off to Rookhope, County Durham, where they were brought up by their mother’s brothers. Ann went to live with her uncle Joe Brown and, when she was about thirteen (1877), Joe had a visitor. This visitor, presumably a lawyer, told Joe that an old army officer called James Heron had died in India leaving a large sum of money to Joe’s father. As the father was dead the money was to be divided among his children. Joe and his surviving brothers and sisters received their shares as did the two children of Joe’s late brother James Brown, but Jane Ann’s three children never received a penny.

Spurred on by George’s fascinating story I eventually (that word conceals six years work) managed to piece together a fairly comprehensive history of my Pears and Brown ancestors spanning eight generations. I used the usual genealogical sources but in addition 1 was lucky enough to come across a set of 25 letters written to Ann Pears over the period 1883 to 1888. Of these, all but five were from her father, the rest from her brother, sister and a cousin. These letters provided lots of little anecdotes and insights not usually accessible to the genealogist.

Before returning to George’s story it is perhaps worthwhile having a more general look at the tree as it illustrates some of the complexities which can cause nightmares for the family historian. George had mentioned to me that somewhere along the line a Pears had married another Pears. He was wrong – it was much more intriguing than that. There were really three most unlikely, but nonetheless fully documented, coincidences. Firstly, George and I both descend from two Pears lines which may be quite distinct. There is a possible link but it is so tenuous that I have never dared commit it to paper. Secondly, my great-great-great-great-grandmother Jane Pears had an illegitimate son, Thomas Pears, who became Thomas Brown on his mother’s subsequent marriage; then Thomas’ daughter, Jane Ann Brown, had two illegitimate children, Ann and Thomas Brown, who became Ann and Thomas Pears when their mother married. Incidentally, Jane Pears’ illegitimate son was almost certainly the son of the man she married; she took him to court on a charge of ‘bastardy’ (Northumberland Quarter Sessions, 17 July 1817) and their marriage took place within a year. Likewise Jane Ann Brown’s two illegitimate children seem to have been the children of Francis Pears – they were both baptised at Rookhope Church as children of Francis and Jane Ann Pears on 20 December 1868, the day after their parents’ marriage. Finally, Ann Pears married widower William Joseph Hall on 2 February 1889. William’s first wife had been, believe it or not, Mary Jane Pears. The children of both marriages thought that Ann and Mary Jane were cousins – Mary Jane being the daughter of William Pears, brother of Francis. However it turns out that Mary Jane was William’s stepdaughter, and until her widowed mother married William she had been Mary Jane Dinsdale.


treeGeorge’s account of his mother’s childhood turned out to be quite accurate, but there was one crucial error to which I will return later. What follows is my corrected and amplified version of George’s tale. Jane Ann Brown, the first and only child of Thomas and Hannah Brown, was born at Rookhope on 14 July 1842. Before her first birthday both of her parents were dead, and she was raised by her grandparents Thomas and Jane Brown. Jane Ann had two illegitimate children; Ann born 11 June 1864, and Thomas born 13 August 1867. On 19 December 1868 she married the children’s father, Francis Pears, at Durham Register Office, and next day the children were baptised. The family moved to Iveston, near Leadgate, where Francis was working as a coal miner and their third child Hannah was born there, on 23 November 1869. A smallpox epidemic broke out in the area and sadly Jane Ann was one of its early victims. She died on 22 March 1870 and was buried next day at St. Ives Church at Leadgate. On the very day of her mother’s funeral and at the same church, baby Hannah was baptised. Francis was overcome with grief at his wife’s horrible death and on one occasion was found lying on her grave in a distraught condition wishing himself dead. He turned to drink to drown his sorrows and even drank away the money provided by Jane Ann’s relations for a headstone. When one of these relations, her uncle John Brown, visited Francis and the children soon afterwards, he found them living in absolute squalor and he took the two elder children back to Rookhope with him. John and his wife took Thomas into their family and Ann went to live with her great-grandparents, Thomas and Jane. This latter arrangement did not last long as both Thomas and Jane were dead by mid 1872 and Ann spent the remainder of her childhood with her great-uncle Joseph Brown. Inexplicably four-month-old Hannah had stayed with her father at Iveston but they spent much of the next decade in Lanchester Union Workhouse. Eventually Hannah was taken in by her mother’s second-cousin Elizabeth who, with her husband James Scott, ran the Robin Hood Inn at Hexham. Francis was temporarily ‘saved’ by the Salvation Army around 1883; an article in the magazine ‘War Cry’ dated 14 April 1883 vividly describes the events immediately following his wife’s death and his recent conquest of the ‘demon drink’. (One of Francis’ letters to his daughter mentioned the article and the Salvation Army kindly found it for me.) He even married his ‘Army’ colleague and landlady, Bessy Whitfield, and re-established contact with his daughter Ann. His other two children would have nothing to do with him; Thomas, and later his family too, used the surname Brown until around 1910 when they reverted to Pears; Hannah changed her name to Pearce and later, another remarkable coincidence, she married a William Brown. The respite in Francis’ tragic life was not to last long; I can only assume that he must have returned to drinking, for he spent much of his last eight years back in Lanchester Workhouse where he died on 2 October 1904 aged 64.

Back to the supposed fortune. There is a Heron in the family but I have not succeeded in establishing any link with a James Heron and an extensive search of military records has failed to reveal any officer of that name who served in India. Nonetheless if we proceed on the assumption that someone left some money posthumously to Thomas Brown, husband of Jane, there is one simple fact which explains why Ann, Thomas and Hannah did not share any of it; perhaps the reader has spotted it already. Thomas, the eldest son of Thomas and Jane, was illegitimate and, as the law then stood (in fact it was only changed very recently), he was not entitled to inherit from his father. If Thomas had no claim then neither did his daughter, Jane Ann, nor his grandchildren Ann, Thomas and Hannah. It is clear from George’s account that he and his mother thought that Jane Ann was the youngest daughter of Thomas and Jane, not their orphaned granddaughter. In view of the age at which she lost her parents it is even possible that Jane Ann herself had the same idea. I had proved to my own satisfaction that nobody had been cheated but I never did convince George. I would not be at all surprised if he continued to check the News of the World until his death in 1982. –

During the course of my researches I had visited several of the areas where my ancestors had lived. In most cases these had changed beyond recognition and most of their houses had long since gone. However the Ordnance Survey maps still showed Broaddale House at Rookhope, where Jane Ann Brown and her father had been raised, and a farm called Greendikes, near Allendale, where Jane Pears and most of her brothers and sisters had been born. Rookhope and Allendale are not easy places to reach using public transport and I never managed to see them until I passed my driving test early in 1976. 1 found that Broaddale House now houses sheep but externally it is probably exactly as it was when Thomas Brown brought his new wife and their baby there in 1818. The farm buildings at Greendikes have clearly changed somewhat, but the fields, roads, streams and bleak landscape must be almost as they were in 1781 when Matthew and Esther Pears first lived there. I even found a Pears’ Well and a Pears’ Quarry on the nearby fells and I don’t think I returned to the twentieth century for days!

In view of the many coincidences associated with the Pears family perhaps I should not have been too surprised by what happened two months after my day at Greendikes. Out of the blue a Walter Robert Pears visited my home. He explained that he was interested in family history and he had heard that I had some information on the Pears families of Allendale. To this day I don’t know how he found me or knew of my hobby; we were hardly close relatives, he being my sixth cousin. He asked me if I had heard of a poem called “Greendikes, or the Forged Will” by Matthew Wilson. I hadn’t. He went on to tell how, when he was a child, his grandfather had often shown him a printed copy of a very long poem with the above title. When Walter had recently asked to see the poem again, his grandfather had refused. However Walter remembered the general theme of the poem. When Matthew Pears died in 1825 his wife, Esther, forged a will which essentially disinherited the eldest son, also Matthew, in favour of her younger sons. The eldest son expected the farm to be his and he made a considerable fuss until his sudden – and, for his brothers, fortuitous – death shortly thereafter. Henry Pears, one of the sons of Matthew and Esther, bought the farm outright from his brothers and worked the farm for several years. Henry died but his widow and their sons kept the farm going. A few miles away at Baldon Shield near Blanchland, Joseph Pears, one of the sons of Matthew and Esther who had originally shared the farm, lay on his deathbed. He made a confession to his wife Betty, telling her that his mother had forged his father’s will. When Joe was dead Betty contacted the poet, Matthew Wilson of Hexham, who was a family friend, and together they passed on the confession to the eldest son of the disinherited Matthew, yet another Matthew. A Lawyer called Abraham Dawson was hired and he went off to York to see the will and then off to London to consult counsel. The Witnesses to the will were contacted and they admitted witnessing a document with Matthew’s signature after Matthew’s death. The lawyer was convinced that he had a strong case and at the time the poem was written, 10 January 1845, the case was about to come to court, despite a lot of pressure from several influential people who had been party to various deals involving the farm since Matthew’s death, all of which would presumably be invalid if the will was proven false.

It is hard to describe my feelings at that point. I had known who had lived at Greendikes over the years and of most of the births, marriages and deaths in the family. I had even known of Matthew’s untimely end, since this event is described in the Allendale Burial Register along with the usual details: 7 February 1831 Matthew Pears, Allendale Town, 46 yrs, Farmer. Perished in the storm between Derwent and Allendale Town!1 However, the information which Walter had related was all entirely new to me. I hadn’t previously had the faintest notion of the dramatic events which had surrounded the family.

Walter had traced his ancestry back to Matthew Pears grandson of Matthew and Esther, but had not managed to make the links to Matthew and Esther. I willingly supplied him with all the information in my possession and he left promising to try once again to get access to the poem and make a copy. He phoned a few days later to say he had been unsuccessful and I have not seen or heard of him since.

I spent several months trying to locate another copy of the poem. The British Library came closest; they found a poem by the same author which gloried in the title “The Pea Hen; a Hudibrastic Poem”! It wasn’t a lot of help. Finally, in desperation, I tracked down Walter’s grandfather in West Boldon and presented myself at his front door. I introduced myself and told him of my interest in the poem. He invited me in and promptly produced the poem. I asked if I might sit down and make a copy but to my amazement he suggested that instead I should take it away with me and return it at a later date. He even apologised for its tattered condition which was the result of his father having sewn it into his great coat where it remained throughout the Great War. By that evening, with the aid of a photo-copier, I finally had a copy of the poem, all 54 verses of it.

Walter’s summary was remarkably accurate and nothing of any real significance had been omitted, but not surprisingly he hadn’t really done justice to the wealth of detail it contained. Systematically I compared every snippet of information in the poem with what I already knew and, aided by the poem, I was able to locate more original material including the allegedly forged will (still at York) and an 1802 deed of mortgage on Greendikes. Everything checked out; even minor details such as the names of the farm workers were exactly as given in the 1841 census. It would require far too much space to reproduce the poem here2 but I cannot resist quoting two verses which describe a rather humorous incident. The poet and Matthew Pears tried to break into Greendikes one evening after having tea at a neighbouring farm! They failed and decided to spend the night in a shepherds’ shelter on the fells. This hut, because it was located quite a distance to the south of the farm, was, and indeed still is, known as ‘London’. There, the two men were spotted by 90 year-old farm hind George Bright:-

The night was cold we built afire,
The wind arose higher and higher;
We were amused at poor old Bright,
Who got a fearful shock that night-
He saw us, and possess’d with dread,
He turned, and down the fell he fled!

At the Greendikes a tale he told,
Which made the widow’s blood run cold-
“That up at London, two men were
Most fearful,” so he did declare,
“They have a mastiff I can tell,
Like a hyena fierce and fell!

Despite my efforts since obtaining the poem, I have to admit that I just don’t know the results of the lawyer’s efforts to correct the supposed injustice. It is difficult to imagine just what would have happened if the will had been proved a forgery. How could the many legal transactions based on the will be undone? We should probably expect some sort of change at Greendikes if the lawyer had succeeded and no such changes are apparent. In 1845 when the poem was written, the farm was occupied by Henry’s widow, Mary Pears, and her sons. Six years later they were still there. In fact two of the sons were still there in 1880. So perhaps on this evidence we should conclude that the lawyer failed. However if we look at the sons of the supposedly disinherited Matthew Pears we get a different picture. During the period 1841 to 1851 two, at least, of Matthew’s three sons went up in the world somewhat. Both had been leadminers but at some point during those ten years Thomas had acquired a retail business in Allendale and William had become a ‘landed proprietor’. Of course this is not conclusive either, but their enhanced circumstances just might have been due to some restitution awarded by a court or perhaps they were ‘bought off’ before the case ever got going. On the other hand, the eldest son, Matthew, who seemed most intent on pressing a claim, does not appear to have enjoyed any change in his lifestyle. In 1841 he was a coal miner and so he remained. It would be nice to know for certain exactly what did happen back in 1845.

1. Matthew’s death was even recorded in George Dickinson’s “Allendale and Whitfield” :- 1831, January 27. “A terrible snowstorm commenced on this day, accompanied by wind, and continued with slight intermission for six weeks. On February 4th a man named Matthew Pears was lost on the moor between Hexhamshire and Allendale, and the storm was for many years spoken of as “Matt. Pears’ storm.” Coincidentally, a similar death overtook another member of the family on 1 4 November 1896. This time the moor’s victim was John, the 23 year-old illegitimate son of John Brown’s only daughter, Jane Elizabeth. Yet more coincidences. The second wife of the above mentioned John Brown was Elizabeth Rowell and Jane Elizabeth, his daughter, married Joseph Rowell. The second wife of Francis Pears was Elizabeth Whitfield, Whitfield being both her maiden name and her first married name for, in 1868, 25 year-old Elizabeth Whitfield had married 52 year-old widower. Utrick Whitfield. Not only that; the maiden name of Elizabeth’s mother was Matilda Brown and Utrick’s first wife had been Isabella Brown, yes, Browns yet again! Perhaps the reader will forgive me for not trying to illustrate these cases on the tree and will understand why the Pears and Brown families took six years to disentangle!

2. The poem with detailed explanatory notes is available as a PDF document entitled “Greendikes – A tale of forgery and greed” (921 Kb).