Gold Star advice: follow up the lives of your ancestors’ siblings

I like to regard myself as a committed family reconstitutionist.  Andrew Todd, in Nuts and Bolts, makes a strong case for family reconstitution and it’s perhaps the tool I recommend most ardently to my students and colleagues.   Time and again I see the benefits of following up the siblings of your ancestors, something that amateurs, aiming their sights on getting further and further back, dismiss as a distraction.

In my work on the Ham War Memorial, I have researched three grandsons of John George Darnell and his wife Elizabeth Chambers.   They are George Samuel Darnell, William Alfred Read Fricker and Harry Thornton Fricker.

Online family trees provided no clues to a Thornton so today’s post is also an offering to George’s great nieces.  When they passed on to me a copy of George’s last letter home, in which he referred to news he had received of ‘Thornton’ and his military association with ‘the Canadians’, my curiosity about Harry’s middle name grew.

I began the quite unnecessary task—in terms of this a memorial project—of tracing the person whose surname was behind his middle name. Those who know my determination to hang on to any bone with even a sliver of meat on it, are probably rolling their eyes at this point.  So I started to dig and here’s how and why I dug.

Readers of the post about William Fricker will know that I have found the namesakes behind the recurrent surnames Read and Sumner in this family.  I wondered whether Thornton, which is used just the once amongst these grandchildren, might provide a clue to one of their ancestors.  Harry is an established nickname for Henry so, at the back of my mind, I had been anticipating finding a possible namesake in a relative or friend called ‘Henry Thornton’.

Having eliminated all Harry’s grandparents as potential sources of Thornton, I proceeded to look for great grandparents.  The census revealed that Harry’s great grandmother, Sarah Chambers, had been born in Wakefield, and, as I was already aware that Thornton is a surname originating in Yorkshire, I was keen to establish whether this might have been Sarah’s maiden name.  Public Profiler indicates that, in 1881, Thornton was to be found in its highest frequency in the very area of Yorkshire in which Sarah was born.

I was able to locate James Chambers’ marriage to Sarah finding that this leap day baby married on his 20th birthday—which was also his fifth—on 29 February 1824.  In this search, I specifically avoided using ‘Thornton’ and searched only for a bride called Sarah. As his wife was not a Londoner, I did not enter a place for their marriage, intending, if necessary, to refine the location later.  The results prioritised three marriage records, one of which was that of James Chambers and Sarah Thornton, in Isleworth, a year before the birth of their daughter, Mary Ann.  While not contiguous to Ham, Isleworth is within easy reach of it.

The ages given for Sarah Thornton in the census returns of 1841, 1861 and 1871 (45, 65 and 75 respectively) suggest a birth in 1795 or 1796, with 1795 being more likely, given the date on which the censuses were taken.  The 1851 census, in which she was employed as a Cook at Rose Villa, Ham Common, in the household of William Stedman Gillett, gives her age as 51. She may have underplayed her age, or her employer may simply have guessed at it. On the other hand, the burial register entry for Sarah, in the fourth quarter of 1880, gave her age as 86, suggesting a birth in about 1794.

I found two baptisms for a Sarah Thornton in Wakefield, in the period 1793 to 1798.  The first, on 29 June 1794, was for the daughter of Henry and Martha Thornton.  Martha does not appear in the names of any of the Chambers granddaughters, who were named Mary Ann, Emma, Harriet Jane, Sarah and Elizabeth, the latter being the grandmother of Harry Fricker.   Harriet is a name also derived from Henry. Following up the marriage of Henry and Martha, will provide a possible clue to Martha’s maiden name.  This Sarah would have been less than a month away from her 86th birthday at the time of the death of Sarah Chambers in December 1880.

The second ‘Sarah Thornton’ was baptised on 24 December 1796, also at All Saints, Wakefield.  She was the daughter of Thomas Thornton and Mary.  As Mary Ann was the name of the eldest daughter of James and Sarah, if they were following the traditional naming pattern, we cannot rule out this second Sarah as being the wife of James Chambers.  Mary Ann was also the name given to her only daughter by Louisa’s maternal aunt, Sarah Hodgkins. This second Sarah Thornton would have been 83 rather than 86 at the time of the death of Sarah Chambers and have been 44, 64 and 74 in the 1841, 1861 and 1871 censuses.

Throw into the pot the combination of economic hardship, vanity and innumeracy and narrowing down the Sarahs can become even more confusing. One also has to consider whether a minister might have followed the not-infrequent custom of giving ages at death with the next birthday in sight, for example by noting “in her 86th year” for someone aged 85.

There is a third  possible Sarah, the daughter of John Thornton, who was baptised in on Christmas Day 1797 at St Peter’s in Leeds but as Sarah’s birthday is consistently given as Wakefield, she has not been investigated at this stage..

Sarah Thornton outlived her husband by a decade, and was a resident, towards the end of her life, in the Old Almshouses which were off Ham Street.  Her life overlapped that of her granddaughter, Louisa, the mother of Harry Thornton, by twenty years, so Sarah may well have talked about her parents to her granddaughter.  This could have encouraged Louisa to name her second son after Henry Thornton, who may have been her great grandfather or perhaps a great uncle given the same name.

Further ‘confirmation’ that Harry was named after someone called Henry Thornton, came with the release of the Register of Soldiers’ Effects.  This can offer, in the absence of a service record, provide at least the name of the next of kin.  I am finding it invaluable!  When I first began to research Harry, this was not available online, and the only records to which I had recourse, were his Medal Index Card, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s database, the associated resource UK Soldiers Died in the Great War, and his battalion’s War Diary.

Despite all the records, including his birth registration, in which he appears as Harry Thornton, and even his being called Thornton by family members, there was no marriage registration for a Harry T Fricker.  His entry in the Register of Soldiers’ Effects, records that he left a widow, “Elizabeth R O”, and a daughter, Lilian, born on 31 March 1913.  A fresh search on the inimitable Free BMD for this marriage, using the name Henry, found a Henry T Fricker’s marriage in Whitchurch in 1912, and a check of the relevant page gave one of the two possible brides as Elizabeth R O Wiltshire.  Given her string of names, it is almost certainly the ‘correct’ match.

It shows also that, in spite of a birth registration as Harry, his link to someone called Henry Thornton was known to him at the time of his marriage in 1913. It doesn’t seal the deal on Henry and Martha Thornton being the parents of Sarah Thornton, and thus the great great grandparents of William, Harry and George, but it helps to make them rather more convincing contenders for the role.

 Further reading:
Todd, Andrew, Nuts and Bolts:  Family History Problem Solving through Family Reconstitution Techniques, Allen & Todd, 2003.  There is a more recent, revised edition (2015).