Who would you rather be descended from – a worthy notable of a provincial town, whose munificence or moral rectitude resulted in a glowing obituary, or a city wide-boy whose exploits were recorded in newspapers and trial reports?
A few generations ago, you may well have said the former. Many people I’ve spoked to have grandparents who were horrified at the idea of having a criminal forebear, and who would have eagerly covered up the crimes – metaphorically, of course – with a focus on someone more deserving.
But times change, and now, it seems we all want to have a naughty ancestor caught stealing ladies’ underwear or even killing someone in a pub brawl. As long as it’s sufficiently in the past, it becomes a thing of interest, something that makes your family – and you – stand out.
I’ve been researching my family tree for years, and so far, it’s brought up a big, fat nothing in terms of trial reports or criminal records. On my father’s side, I am descended from generations of Dorset farmers, who were asked to be on juries, determining the fate of local miscreants, but who were law-abiding, middle-class individuals.
The worst thing I have found out about a member of this family is that the obituary of one of them insinuated that he was a bit annoying. That’s not really interesting enough, is it?
On my mother’s side, again, there’s little evidence of criminality, but much of being upstanding members of a community. One ancestor was one of the first policemen in Gloucester; he took on the job to help look after his aged, widowed mother financially (bless). Another was a neighbour of Dr Johnson‘s, living in Gough Square in the City of London. This ancestor is certainly listed on the Old Bailey Online website – but only as a jury member. A third represented his Oxford ward as a Poor Law Guardian, and had a keen interest in the welfare of the poor and conditions in the local workhouse.
I should be proud of having public-minded individuals as ancestors, who wanted to be involved in their local areas, and who helped ensure not only that local administration processes worked as smoothly as possible, but who helped put criminals behind bars. I am, honestly. Perhaps the problem is that these men, all good and true, do not have their achievements recorded to the same extent as criminals do with their offences.
Obituaries are key to remembering the achievements of local worthies, but mine were minor in their achievements, and of the two obituaries I’ve found for my Dorset lot, one is short and makes that slightly disparaging comment as though it is the most significant thing it can record about the individual; and the other exists mainly to note that my ancestor died in 1852, at the age of 96, from a ‘visitation of God‘.
So, weirdly to some, but perhaps inevitable given my research interests in crime, I’ve been really trying to find some evidence of criminality amongst my ancestors. As those who have read my book, Life on the Victorian Stage, will know, my great-grandfather had three sisters, all of whom were on the stage, and two of whom died at tragically early ages.
They sound good company: one eloped with an already married actor, the two marrying in an illegal ceremony in front of one of the other sisters and her (legal) husband; and one had an illegitimate child who she created a made-up father for, but who was given the name of her sister’s husband, making me wonder if he was actually the natural father of her child. But although fascinating, they weren’t ‘criminals’ in the sense that we usually mean it.
Their grandfather, though, shows more promise. He claimed to have been born in Hanwell, west London, but there’s no trace of his birth of baptism either there or anywhere, in fact. There’s no record of him existing prior to his marriage at a fairly advanced age. He claimed to be a captain in the British army, but The National Archives has no army records relating to him at all.
His wife had a substantial amount of money, and her family took steps to ensure that her husband wouldn’t receive a penny of it, instead passing it down to her daughters. Did they suspect him of only marrying for the cash?
And, most intriguingly, are two stories in the press that seem to refer to him, both later in life: in one, his wife is charged with assault after going after a woman she believes is having an affair with him; and in the other, he is charged with fathering a child by his gentry neighbour’s far younger servant. The newspaper reports how the court thought it hilarious that this elderly man could have possibly got up to anything with a young girl, let alone fathered a daughter; more intriguingly, it states that this man ‘calls himself a Captain’, as though they also doubted his origins and his claims of army employment.
The latter stories help flesh out this unknown ancestor – he appears to have been a ladies’ man, at least. The lack of records relating to him, his lack of family, mean that I can speculate that he was a fraudster, a man with an assumed identity, someone who desired money, and sex, and had affairs.
The reality might be more prosaic: the relevant records might not have been digitised; he may have been born in one place but baptised somewhere different, or been told he was born in a certain place when he wasn’t…. and so, perhaps, the unknown is sometimes better than the known, for with the former, you can create the person you hope your ancestor was; whereas, in truth, all I know for sure is that he, like so many of my other ancestors, was also another blooming Poor Law Guardian.