(to see who falls out)

I’ve never been a particularly family-oriented person. My family are just fine; I love them and think of them affectionately. However, we do seem to get on best when we’re on opposite sides of the world.

I was taught to be independent and self-reliant as a child, and well, I took the lesson to heart.

Dad later apologised to my newly-wed wife for that. The seed of independence was sown in fertile ground, Dad. Don’t give yourself too much credit.

So … it was a bit of a surprise to everyone, including myself, when I embarked on extensive family research on Ancestry several years ago. Probably Dad’s sudden death in 2012 prompted it. I realised that my family, particularly its senior members, wasn’t going to be around for ever, and that there was a lot that I wanted to know.


It took a couple of years for the idea to percolate through to action and what seemed — and still seems — an extravagantly expensive Ancestry subscription.

On Dad’s side, I started with little more than a vague (and incorrect) recollection of my paternal grandfather’s first name. On Mum’s side, not much more.

My wife, whose family is much more illustrious and better documented than mine, and therefore of little interest to her, wondered aloud why I was spending so much time on my ‘dead rellies’.

Seven years down the track, my paternal family tree numbers 485 people and stretches back to 1610. My maternal family tree comprises 205 people. It extends back to 1669. Here I concentrated only on my maternal grandfather’s side, as my grandmother’s side of the family had already been researched.

Now, you may greet these numbers with a degree of scepticism, gentle reader; and rightly so. There are many amateur family sleuths on Ancestry and elsewhere, and a lot of their sleuthing is … a bit dodgy.

Hand on heart: I have often had to resort to conjecture myself to get beyond a dead end — then try to confirm or refute my hypothesis with reasonably solid evidence. The DNA test helped.

I’m neither a genealogist nor an archivist, but I am a literary historian by training (my PhD is in early printed German works), so I’m not entirely naïve when it comes to archival research.

Anyhow, never mind the quantity of dead relatives: what about the quality?

Here are a few of the more interesting ‘dead rellies’ that I found:

The Fendts

I’m descended from a celebrated family of London luthiers. Born in the small Bavarian town of Füssen, a hub of violin manufacture, Bernhard Simmon Fendt (1769–1832) journeyed to Paris to serve his apprenticeship at his uncle Franz’ (aka François Placidus Fendt) workshop. Just in time for the French Revolution. It was probably rather an … interesting time to be a musical instrument maker in France. Uncle Franz died in 1796, a tumultuous year of famine and insurrection in Paris.

Thence, presumably as a master luthier, Bernhard made his way across the Channel to London. He went on to found a dynasty of luthiers, with several of his sons and grandsons also taking up the craft — only for the stringed instrument market to go into recession in the mid-1800s and two of his sons to be swept away by an influenza epidemic. Another son, my ancestor Alfred Simon Fendt, went into the new-fangled dry cleaning business. Such a splendidly Victorian thing to do.

The Bullens and Slarcks

The Bullens were gardeners and bakers around the Thames-side settlements Richmond and Kew. They did a fair bit of social climbing during the 18th century, acquiring property portfolios and the trappings of upper-class respectability. Richard Bullen (1762–1828), my 4 x great grandfather, was a wealthy London ironmonger who came to fancy himself a gentleman — declaring as much in his extensive will. He married Elizabeth, the daughter of the delightfully onomatopoeic James Slarck — a wine merchant. (Of course!)

Frances Sheldon Bullen (1795–1863), Richard and Elizabeth’s daughter and my 3 x great grandmother, let the side down somewhat by marrying John Frederick Williams, a lowly glass cutter. Frances seems to have been a woman of some spirit and resilience. She was disinherited by her grandfather for ‘insulting’ his friend (perhaps turning down his hand in marriage?) and went on to survive at least two of her three husbands. I have a real soft spot for Frances.

Isaac Batt

Isaac Batt (1730–91), my 5 x great-uncle, was a fur trader in Canada for the Hudson’s Bay Company. He married a Cree woman, Nikawiy, as well as a Hertfordshire woman, Sarah Fowler, who seems to have had a daughter with someone else while her husband was in Canada. Fair enough under the circumstances, I guess.

Isaac and Nikawiy were inseparable by all accounts. It was not a ‘marriage’ between a trader and a native girl, but a marriage. They had at least one child, Margaret Nestichio Batt.

Isaac has the dubious honour of being the first Hudson’s Bay Company employee killed by First Nations people in Saskatchewan. Although he was illiterate himself, he is by far the most thoroughly documented of my relatives and has a long entry in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography.

Sadly, he was not a direct ancestor. I’m descended from his brother Dantzick who stayed home in rural Hertfordshire and took over the family butcher’s shop. Darn!

Isaac Lecount

My 4 x great grandfather, Isaac Lecount, penniless Hertfordshire-born scion of a wealthy East Anglian farming family, survived the entire Napoleonic Wars as a seaman in the Royal Navy. Cast ashore in 1815, he promptly got hitched in Portsmouth to a local lass from back home in Sawbridgeworth, fathered two heirs and died in the workhouse in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, two years later. Evidently married life ashore suited his constitution less than salted pork, ship’s biscuit and being shot at by Frenchmen.

His son, Isaac Allen, changed his surname, tried his hand as an innkeeper, a milkman, a general dealer and many other trades and married his own stepdaughter. Let’s pause and take that in for a moment.

To be fair: a decent amount of time had elapsed since the death of his first wife, and his stepdaughter was in her mid-20s, having entered his household as a 15-year-old, but even so … It’s just not a good look, Isaac.

The Nevells

My maternal great grandparents, in a prolonged outbreak of appellative folly, gave all four of their children remarkable, pretentious names, two of them alluding back to the Lecount ancestry. My grandfather missed out on being called ‘Lecount’ like his brother Lecount Leonard Percival, but was lumbered with Marmaduke Cecil Harcourt Nevell instead. That was just not a good name for a postman’s son in the East End of London. Bill and Dot, what were you thinking?

No wonder the poor bloke called himself Nev.

How do I feel about all of this family? Well, I feel a little more grounded.


4 thoughts on “Shaking the Family Tree

  1. Frances seems like a trooper. My wife loves doing genealogy. It’s always interesting to conjecture on what their lives must have been like. One thing is for certain, it was probably a lot harder than ours.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely; much, much harder than my cosy existence, that’s for sure. The fascination for me is the social history: having skin (or DNA) in the game brings the whole thing to life. I’d love to know more about Victorian, Regency and Georgian London, for example.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m so impressed you managed to trace your ancestry back to the 1600s! And such a fascinating, colourful history. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, but never sure how to start being of Chinese ancestry and not knowing the language. Will you continue going back further? 🙂

    Like

    1. I don’t know that I’ll be able to get back any further, as parish records become very rare in England before that and spellings of surnames are quite random. Unless I have some kind of a breakthrough in one particular line. It’s quite absorbing, I’d definitely recommend giving it a go if you can.

      Like

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