Monday, May 3, 2010

Family-history shock

For the last 24 hours, I've been trying to analyze a surprising item of genealogical information that dropped out of the blue when I was playing around with the web in order to clarify some London data. I noticed that the Central Criminal Court of England has a good online website providing information on old court cases (up to 1913). Almost out of fun, I wondered what might come up if I used my own surname as a search argument. Here's what I got:

Now I definitely hadn't planned on this, because I'd always considered naively that my paternal line consisted of God-fearing law-abiding English citizens. And who was this 26-year-old William Skyvington condemned to six months' hard labor (no doubt in the notorious Newgate Prison) for fraud? I compared the details with my archives. Shit, it was my great-grandfather! Through the few facts I'd obtained about him, I'd always held him in high esteem. How on earth could he have been tempted to turn to crime?

The archaic courtroom of the Old Bailey looked something like this when William Skyvington was tried:

The prison (demolished in 1902) was located alongside the Old Bailey:

It was a place of terror. Up until 1868, public hangings were carried out in front of Newgate Prison, and Londoners paid big sums of money to watch the spectacles from neighborhood windows. Inside the overcrowded prison, once described by Henry Fielding as a "prototype of hell", lack of ventilation and hygiene brought about the death of countless inmates. Charles Dickens was fascinated by this foul place, and wrote of it in Barnaby Rudge, Oliver Twist and Great Expectations.

Here is a photo of William Skyvington with his wife Eliza Mepham and their son Ernest, my future grandfather:

I've found a lot of basic facts concerning this William Skyvington, up until about the time that this photo was taken, around 1892. But he then disappears from the scene, and we know nothing more about him. In particular, I've never succeeded in finding his death certificate. So, when I learned yesterday that he had been thrown into prison in 1898, I immediately imagined that he had probably died a miserable stealthy death at Newgate. That idea started off a chain of reflections in my mind and, by the end of the evening, I had ended up—through a purely cerebral activity of reasoning—with a rich set of plausible speculations… which I shall now outline.

First, if he had indeed died in prison, then it was very strange that the authorities had made no record of that death. In my Australian research concerning convicts and bushrangers, I discovered that individuals in these categories are among the most highly documented folk you could imagine, for obvious reasons. So, I soon concluded that it was unthinkable that William Skyvington might have died during his short stay at Newgate without leaving behind a death certificate.

Next, the aspect of this crime and imprisonment that annoyed me the most was the fact that my grandfather in Australia had never, at any moment, told us that his father had run into trouble of this kind. Why had he decided to keep this sad affair secret? Little by little, I found this idea, not only annoying, but frankly unlikely. If my grandfather had never told us about the imprisonment of his father, the most likely reason was that he himself had never been aware of this event. In other words, when he arrived in Australia as an adolescent in 1908, not only had my future grandfather lost his mother to tuberculosis, but he was no doubt totally unaware of events in the life of his father, including the fact that he had been in prison. At that moment, an important question jumped into my mind. Could William Skyvington have in fact abandoned his son, and established another family, with a new wife?

No sooner had I asked that question than I searched through my archives (collected over a quarter of a century) looking for an individual with a similar name and age, but associated with a new wife and family. Sure enough, I soon came upon such a situation… down in Cornwall, far away from London. Everything started to fall into place rapidly and convincingly. By the end of the evening, I was convinced that I had discovered, for my great-grandfather, a plausible "second life"… which he had probably started to lead straight after his release from prison.

It will take me a while to obtain all the necessary records, to confirm my speculations. But I'm sure I'm on the right path.

In other words, just as I was shocked yesterday to learn that William Skyvington had been a criminal, he too might well have been sufficiently shocked by that experience to abandon his son and start out on an entirely new life. In fact, the word "abandon" must be relativized, in that Ernest Skyvington had been cared for perfectly by his late mother's Mepham family, with whom he remained in contact after he settled in the Antipodes. But he reached Australia as if he were the last of the Skyvingtons. And everybody tended to believe him. As of yesterday, for the first time ever, I'm convinced that this was not the case. Both his father and his Skyvington grandfather were surely still living in southern England.


  1. What fascinating discoveries!
    I would not have believed that it is possible to find such detailed records so far back in time.
    Good luck with your research,

  2. Australian genealogists are accustomed to finding detailed accounts of much earlier English trials (often for petty crimes), during the first half of the 19th century, resulting in the transportation of convicted individuals to the Antipodes. The difference, here, is that the case concerns an ancestral line, the Skyvingtons, that did not arrive in Australia as convicts. Besides, this case belonged to the dying days (pun intended) of the terrible Victorian era of British justice meted out at the Old Bailey and Newgate Prison. But the main point of my explanations is the way in which this unexpected criminal incident served as a catalyst obliging me to rethink the case of my ancestor William Skyvington, and to envisage the possibility that he might have decided to restart a new family life in England.

    There's another tragic dimension to this affair of my English great-grandparents. How should a man behave when his young wife is dying of tuberculosis (a terribly contagious affliction), and their child is being looked after by aunts and a grandmother in a comfortable setting?

    The man in question, my future great-grandfather William Skyvington, had already lost his mother when he was a year-old baby. Then his father had remarried with an older Belgian lady, and the lad left the rural south-west and moved up to London. It's interesting when family history can be seen against a background of down-to-earth human events. I would even say that genealogy is only a worthwhile preoccupation when it can be investigated in such settings. I'm still at a loss, though, to imagine the circumstances in which my ancestor had decided to defraud somebody of the sum of one pound, three shillings and eleven pence. If I were inclined to romantic thinking, I might imagine that he wanted to buy an expensive gift for his Cornish mistress (whose identity I only unearthed yesterday) named Charity Tredidga…

  3. What a fabulous story! It's almost mind-boggling. Thanks for sharing all the details.

  4. The facts you just unearthed about your ggf is why I avoid people who consider genealogy b-o-r-i-n-g. Either such people are shallow and one-dimensional or, like my mother's mother, were aware of family skeletons they hoped no one would rattle.

    No surprise then that that's precisely what I've been doing for the last 30 years and found several men on that side who supposedly "died young", but who actually deserted the first wife and their children (three seems to have been the magic number) and started a new family elsewhere.

    In fact, unless I can locate a grave for such a husband in the same area, I **immediately** begin looking for him elsewhere.

    Therefore, I think your instincts are correct, that your ggf did have a second family in the West Country after leaving Newgate Prison. How sad for your gf that he never knew. Please keep us posted on your progress.