Patronymic Surnames

In modern times in Scotland (and many other countries) the way surnames are assigned is well known to us. As a child you get the same surname as one or both of your parents. This has been the case since around the same time as the Statutory Records began in 1855. In Scotland, a Statutory Birth record provides both the parents names and the child’s full name so there is no doubt the name the child has been given.

The prior records, kept before 1855, are nowhere near as verbose. These Old Parish Baptism Records record the father’s full name and address and the child’s first name. Here’s an example.

Baptisms 1802
Oct 24 Thomas Johnson, Cliprogarth a Son John

You might be thinking, well, that’s not a problem, the child’s full name is easy to extrapolate from the father’s surname. Clearly the child is called John Johnson. You would not be alone in thinking that since that is how the various online indexes would interpret this record too. However, this is where the practice of using patronymic surnames comes in and confuses the issue.

Patronymic Surname

A patronymic is where the child does not inherit the surname of their parent but instead gains a surname based on the father’s first name. In the example above, if the child had a patronymic they would be known as John Thomason, that is John son of Thomas.

This is a pattern that I believe was inherited from the Norse people who settled Shetland. Going back far enough in the records I am studying you do also come across the female form of this pattern, for example Joanna Williamdottir, that is Joanna daughter of William. There are not many examples of these and it seems that by 1800 the girls were following the male pattern, so Joanna would be Williamson just like her brothers.

So how do you know which surname pattern is in use in this time period prior to the start of Statutory Records? The answer is you can’t tell from just one record. You simply have to remember to bear it in mind when searching for records about a person. Some people used them and some did not.

For further reading, the Icelandic scheme still in use today is similar to how it was in Shetland in the early 19th century.

I’ve written a few blog posts where patronymic surnames have played a part in the research:-

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Tracking Thomas Johnson

I can’t resist a puzzle, and when someone posted a question about an Unst ancestor in the Shetland Genealogy Facebook Group, I couldn’t resist taking a closer look. Their 4th Great-Grandparents were John Thomason and Barbara Jane Winwick who I had in the Unst Family Tree already, and they were trying to determine John’s parents. John died on 8 April 1847 which is before 1855 and thus part of the Old Parish Records which means that no parents of the deceased are recorded.

Obituary. Burials at Baliasta 1847
Died Buried
John Thomason, Watquoy 8 April 10 Apr at Baliasta

She had found a John Thomason born to parents Thomas Johnson and Ann Williamson, and wondered whether that John could be the same one.

Thomas Johnson from Unst, and Ann Williamson from Yell (the neighbouring island) were married in Unst on 29 November 1801. From the Old Parish Record of their marriage contract we also know that Thomas was from Clipragrath.

1801 Contracts of Marriage
Nov 29 Thomas Johnson, Clipragarth and Ann Williamson

Ann Williamson/Johnson can be found in the 1841 and 1851 census returns living with her daughter Mary. She is recorded as a widow in the 1851 census, and was likely a widow in 1841 as well, but that early census does not record such data. To double check this is the same Ann Williamson, I found her daughter Mary’s death record in Unst on 10 July 1877 which shows her parents to be Thomas Johnson and Ann Williamson. So we have the correct person here. Finding all the siblings seemed to be the right thing to follow.

Looking through the Unst Old Parish Baptism Records from 1800 until 1823 (starting just before they were married in case there was a first child out of wedlock) for all children born to a father of Thomas Johnson, yields the following list.

  • 1802 Oct 24 Thomas Johnson Cliprogarth a Son John
  • 1804 May 2 Thomas Johnson Cliprogarth a daughter Mary (this one is written on the end of the list of 1804, after all the December entries, it could be an infant who died young, or a recording error.)
  • 1805 May 10 Thomas Johnson Cliprogarth a daughter Mary
  • 1808 July 15 Thomas Johnson Cliprogarth a daughter Jean Barbara
  • 1808 July 15 Thomas Johnson Cliprogarth a daughter Elizabeth
  • 1814 Feb 17 Thomas Johnson Cliprogarth a daughter Margaret
  • 1818 Aug 23 Thomas Johnston Gardie a Son WIlliam born 20 Aug
  • 1819 Nov 1 Thomas Johnson Midyell a daughter Ann
  • 1820 May 14 Thomas Johnson Haroldswick a Son Thomas born 7 May
  • 1822 Sep 1 Thomas Johnston Skaw a Son John born 11 Aug

Clearly these are not all the same father, however, the first five children (with Mary recorded twice) all born to a Thomas Johnson of Cliprogarth look very likely to be siblings.

To double-check sibling-ship, we need to find the death records for those who died after 1855.

  • Mary Thomason we found already, died in Unst on 10 July 1877. Her death record confirms both parents.
  • Elizabeth Thomason died in Unst on 17 May 1899. Her death record confirms both parents.
  • Jean Thomason is living with her twin sister in the 1861 census, and the relationship recorded confirms her as Elizabeth’s sister.
  • Margaret Thomson died in Unst on 18 December 1884. Her death record confirms both parents.

Confirmation of the parentage of all the sisters, who died after 1855, and the high likelihood that all the children born to Thomas Johnson of Cliprogarth are siblings, leaves me in no doubt that John Thomason was the son of Thomas Johnson and Ann Williamson as well.

Finally we must ask, could there be any other John Thomason born around the same time who is the man married to Barbara Jane Winwick? All we really know of John is from the 1841 census return where his age (which will have been rounded down) is given as 40.

Looking through the Unst Old Parish Baptism Records from 1795 until 1805 for all children called John, yielded a list of 46 Johns. It is unknown when looking at such entries, what surname the child will use in future records, as patronymic surnames were still very much in use at this time and the OPR entry only records the child’s given name (regardless of how some genealogy websites choose to transcribe it!). Considering both surname forms, we end up with the following list of John’s to follow-up on.

OPR Baptism Entry Patronymic Name Name
1798 June 17 George Thomson Gunister, a twin Son John John Georgeson John Thomson
1798 Sep 9 Thomas Miller, Skreveld, a Son John John Thomason John Miller
1802 Oct 24 Thomas Johnson Cliprogarth a Son John John Thomason John Johnson
1804 Mar 10 Laurence Thomson Setter a Son John John Laurenson John Thomson
1804 July 8 Thomas Harrison & Ursula Williamson a Son John John Thomason John Harrison
1804 Dec 14 Thomas Anderson Cliff a Son John John Thomason John Anderson

Here’s what we know about the above John’s.

  • John Thom[p]son, son of George Thom[p]son, lived and died in Bighton and married Ann Spence Trail. He is not the John we are looking for.
  • John Miller, son of Thomas Miller, lived and died in Petister and married Catherine Thomson. He is not the John we are looking for.
  • John Thomson, son of Laurence Thomson, married Margaret Mathewson. He is not the John we are looking for.
  • John Harrison, son of Thomas Harrison & Ursula Williamson, was a mariner, lived outside of Shetland, and married Margaret and Sarah. He is not the John we are looking for.
  • I don’t know anything about John son of Thomas Anderson, but the other children born to Thomas Anderson of Cliff used the surname Anderson, so I don’t believe he is the John we are looking for.

Through a process of elimination, we can therefore confidently say that John Thomason, son of Thomas Johnson of Cliprogarth, is the same man that married Barbara Jane Winwick. There is no other man it could be.

John Thomason and Siblings

John Thomason and Siblings with their spouses

Chain of Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness

I have a profile on the Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness (RAOGK) website (actually I have two, that one and one for my Unst work). I was recently contacted by a gentleman who was trying to track down the child of a couple and had no luck and wondered if there was anything I could do from within NZ as he had exhausted the online databases.

The couple were Mabel Meredith Maitland (b.16 Jun 1869, NZ) and John Arthur Mason (b. 1864, Woodford, Essex, England). They were married on 8 Jul 1891 in St Matthews Church, Dunedin, Otago, NZ, and their marriage can be found in the local paper, the Otago Witness.

MARRIAGES.
MASON-MAITLAND.-On the 8th July, at St. Matthew’s Church, Dunedin, by the Right Rev. Bishop Nevill, assisted by the Rev. R. T. Howell, John Arthur, eldest son of Thos. Mason of Merleswood, Woodford, Essex, to Mabel Meredith, younger daughter of the late W. G. Maitland, Moylneux, Otago.

There was also a report on the fashion and social attendance of the wedding in this newspaper report.

Also in the papers was their divorce, an extract of which is shown below. It was this report that showed that there was a child from this union, but that child was no where to be found in any of the online genealogy databases.

DIVORCE COURT
In the Divorce Court yesterday the Chief Justice heard the undefended suit Mason v. Mason, a wife’s petition for dissolution of the marriage.
Mabel Meredieth Mason, the petitioner, said she was married to John Arthur Mason in Denedin on the 8th July, 1891. There was one child as issue of the marriage.

I tracked down the divorce record which was found to be held in Wellington. It was free to go along to the Wellington Reading Room to view the document. However, I am not in Wellington, so it was not free to me. So I went back on the RAOGK website and found a Wellington based volunteer, and she was very happy to go along to the reading room and see what this document contained. It was a stack of about 15 documents, each with numerous pages, in a bundle and tied with a pink ribbon. They were folded legal docs and the pile stood about 3 inches high. She was so relieved when all the pertinent genealogical information was found on the first page!

Under “The Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act 1867”

TO SIR JAMES PRENDERGAST KNIGHT CHIEF JUSTICE.
THE 26th day of November 1897.
THE Petition of Mabel Meredith Mason of the City of Wellington sheweth.
1. THAT your Petitioner was on the 8th day of July 1891 lawfully married to John Arthur Mason at St.Matthew’s Church Dunedin by the Reverend Bishop Neville.
2. THAT after her said marriage your Petitioner lived and co-habited with her said husband at Tapanui in Otago, New Zealand, Melbourne in Victoria Australia and at Plymouth in England and that your Petitioner and her said husband had issue of their said marriage one child to wit John Clifford Stuart Mason aged 1year and 10 months.

I have to assume that the quoted age of the child is at the time of the document, since we know the child still lives as Mabel is granted custody of the child, according to the newspaper article on the divorce.

His Honor said he though a divorce should be granted, He gave the petitioner the custody of the child, leaving power to the respondent to apply under the Children’s Custody Act, of he desired to do so afterwards.

This would mean that John Clifford Stuart Mason would have been born around Jan or Feb 1896. From the newspaper report on the divorce we know a little of their travels around that time.

About five years ago they left New Zealand. They arrived in England in January, 1895. Whilst they were in England there was a quarrel between her husband and herself, and she returned to New Zealand with her mother in February 1896. She left her husband three or four months before that.

So would she have traveled when heavily pregnant and had John in New Zealand, or perhaps on board the ship? Or is the three or four months wait between leaving her husband and traveling to New Zealand because she waited and had the baby before traveling? This would mean that John was born in the UK.

Mabel actually married three times. She has a helpfully unique combination of names and so searching Papers Past found her several times. After her divorce from John Arthur Mason she then married Frederick Stuart Des Barres on 1 Sep 1900 in the Registry Office, Napier, Hawkes’ Bay, New Zealand. This marriage also ended in divorce on 14 Mar 1912, as per another newspaper report. Then she married a third time, in 1913, to James Ambrose Eivers and shows up in the papers again trying to get back the jewelry that her second husband used as security on an overdraft.

Helpfully, Mabel’s son John also has a seemingly unique combination of names, so I searched for his names. Nothing came up to start with, so I dropped the surname, and up popped a war record in the Auckland Museum Online Cenotaph for a John Clifford Stuart Des Barres. Des Barres was his mother Mable’s second married name. Could this be him? Reading through the record, in the listing of his company:-

1st NEW ZEALAND CYCLIST COMPANY
Reg. No. Rank. Name. Occupation. Name and Address of Next-of-kin.
10747 Corporal Des Barres, Clifford Stuart Picture-show Manager Mrs. M. Eivers (mother), Opotiki.

John Clifford Stuart Mason/Des Barres

John Clifford Stuart Mason/Des Barres
Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 31-B53

He died on 30 Sep 1916, by which time his mother had married a third time and was now Mrs. Eivers. It is definitely him! And there’s even a photo of him! It seems he had dropped the John and was more commonly known as Clifford Stuart.

Knowing how he was referred to, I was then able to find a report of his death in Papers Past, in the New Zealand Herald.

Roll of HONOUR.
DES BARRES.-On September 30, 1916, killed in action in France, Corporal Clifford Stuart des Barres, eldest son of Mrs. J. A. Eivers, Te Telo, Whakatane; aged 19 years.

I stopped briefly when I saw the mother’s name here, wondering if I’d mixed up two different people. But then I realised Mabel Meredith was also Mrs James Ambrose Eivers.

According to his war record he was born in Ireland, so I guess Mabel did wait until after he was born before traveling back to New Zealand with her new-born, and it’s no wonder we couldn’t find his birth in England or New Zealand.

It seems rather fitting that this chain of Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness should find this man, who died serving his country in WWI on the eve of ANZAC day.

Ancestors who lived in 1900s

Prompted by this post by Janet Few, which challenged you to realise how many of your ancestors were actually alive in the 1900s, I decided to count.

Ancesters 1900s

My ancesters who lived in the 1900s

I have 29 ancestors who were alive in the 1900s, including two Great Great Great Grand-parents.

I also have photographs of all my Great Grand-parents, and three of my Great Great Grand-parents.

However, I do agree with the sentiment of Janet’s post; I think I spend much more of my research time in the 1800s than the 1900s!

How about you?

Always check the real records

Transcribed records, provided by the various online genealogy websites are all very well, but part of your research should include checking the actual record image as well. For English records you may well be lucky enough to do this at the same time, and on the same website as the transcribed version, but for Scottish records you have to get them separately from Scotland’s People.

I had a recent person I was looking into that illustrated, again, to me, that it’s always important to look at the real records.

This lady was recorded as living in a house called Garden, in both the 1901 and 1911 census, and the transcription of the 1901 census said she was born in “North Unst”. That was in itself slightly unusual because most people recorded in Unst census returns have their place of birth recorded simply as “Unst”, without it being broken down any further. This is in contrast to the neighbouring island of Yell where birth places are broken down into “North Yell”, “Mid Yell” and “South Yell” because the island itself is not a single parish, and thus not a single registration area, unlike Unst which is.

When I found this lady’s birth record, it showed she was born in Garden, Unst. Not a surprise since this is where her parents, and later she, also lived.

Now there are two houses called Garden in Unst, one in Colvadale, and one in Snarravoe, neither of which I would consider to be in North Unst! See map for the two locations.

So, I brought up the actual 1901 census record, and it doesn’t say North Unst at all! It just says Unst. It would seem that the transcriber’s eye has been pulled offline to the record below her which records someone born in “North Yell”.

1901 Census

ROAD, STREET, &c.,
and No. or NAME of
HOUSE.
NAME and Surname of each
Person.
RELATION
to Head of
Family
CONDITION
as to
Marriage
AGE
(last Birthday)
WHERE BORN
Males Females
Garden Thomas Irvine Head Mar 34 Shetland, Whalsay
Janet Irvine Wife Mar 41 Do North Yell
Williamina Irvine Daur 10 Shetland, Unst
Thomasina Do Daur 5 Do Do
Andrina Williamsom Sister in law S 53 Do North Yell
Cathrine Do Do S 45 Do Do

So, remember it’s always worth checking!

Second Genealogy Group Presentation

Captain John Gray

Captain John Gray of the SS Great Britain

Last week at my local monthly genealogy group, I gave another presentation (the first one was a few months ago). This time my presentation was about John Gray, Captain of the SS Great Britain.

I’ve written a little about Captain John Gray before, and that post formed the basis of my presentation.

I added some of the quotes from the Bristol Museum webpage from various travellers who went on the SS Great Britain to Australia under the captain’s command. These quotes paint a picture of the man that you don’t normally have as a genealogist.

“Mr Gray is a very fine fellow with the most athletic proportions, a voice that can be heard above the storm and the most untiring energy”.

“the only fault I have to find with him is that he has such a strong hand with which he squeezes peoples fingers like a pair of pincers if that can be called a vice”

I also found that the first all-England cricket team to tour Australia travelled on the SS Great Britain in 1861 under John Gray’s command. Wikipedia even has a picture of them before they set off.

English Cricket Team 1861

English cricket team of 1861 just prior to departure for Australia.

It was a fun presentation to do, and the group seemed to really enjoy the various quotes.

Naming in remembrance

It is common to see children named after their grandparents in Scotland, and no doubt elsewhere in the world. I’ve seen many examples of it, but I came across one today that made me go, “Awww, how sweet.”

Jane Williamson was born to John Williamson and Susannah Spence, but Susannah died not long after she was born, and her dad remarried an Ursula Fraser, so Jane was brought up by her.

Jane marries Hosea Spence, and their first child is a daughter who they name Susanna Ursula Spence, which has to be named after her mother and her step-mother who brought her up.

Susanna Ursula Spence Tree

The Family Tree for Susanna Ursula Spence

Their second child, a son, was named after Hosea’s father, Thomas; their third after Jane’s father, John; and their fourth named James William was likely a nod to Hosea’s mother Williamina, as well as being named after his eldest brother.