Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Second thoughts on a skeleton

WARNING: Technical genealogical stuff.

Two months ago, in my article entitled Family-history shock [display], I revealed that I had just stumbled upon a skeleton in the family closet: a Skyvington record on the website of the Old Bailey (London's 19th-century criminal court).

I had the immediate impression that the 26-year-old condemned fraudster, referred to as William Skyvington, was surely the father of young Ernest, my future grandfather whom we called Pop. I explained that it was hard to imagine that Pop would have deliberately concealed such information from us. I preferred another explanation. Ernest's father would have been released from the notorious Newgate prison in the spring of 1899, and his wife Eliza Mepham died of tuberculosis just six months later. Maybe, in this tragic context, Pop's father had decided to build himself a new life, elsewhere in England, while leaving his son in the cozy cocoon of the Mepham family in Islington (northern suburb of London). So we might imagine that, if Pop failed to tell us what had happened to his father, this was simply because he himself was totally unaware of these events.

Over the last few days, in the spirit of my recent article entitled Painted myself into a genealogical corner [display], I have started to tidy up my Skyvington genealogical archives. Among other things, I was determined to unravel the elements of the new identity assumed (in my imagination) by Pop's father. Well, as of yesterday afternoon, I was forced to admit that my reasoning was erroneous. I still have no facts whatsoever concerning the destiny of Pop's father, who was mentioned for the last on his wife's death certificate, where he is described as a commercial traveler. But I've now examined sufficiently the archives to know that our William Skyvington cannot possibly be confused with any of the individuals I had in mind when I suggested that he might have taken on a new identity.

I'm now inclined to consider that I made a mistake in thinking that the William Skyvington condemned at the Old Bailey for fraud was indeed Pop's father. First, there's the age discrepancy. At the date of the Old Bailey trial, in October 1898, our William Skyvington was 29, as attested explicitly by a birth certificate established at Plymouth. So, the 26-year-old man at the Old Bailey was almost certainly another individual, because it's hard to imagine that an age discrepancy of that magnitude would slip through. It's easy to make an arithmetic error of a year, in either direction, but an error of three years is unlikely in administrative circles. Besides, I see that Pop's father is designated on his birth certificate as William Jones Skyvington and, on his marriage certificate, as William Henry Jones Skyvington. If he were the individual condemned at the Old Bailey, then why is there no mention of a second given name?

If the fraudster named William Skyvington were not in fact my great-grandfather, then what was his identity? We need to find a Skyvington male born in 1872. Such an individual exists: a certain Albert William Skyvington, about whom I know little for the moment. He was probably one of the 17 offspring of Oliver Skyvington [1847-1925], the Bournemouth milkman, married three times, whose descendants live today in Canada. This Oliver was indeed raised (along with his brothers John and Atwell) in the Dorset context of my ancestors at Iwerne Courtney, but I've never yet set out to determine their exact links to us. I had imagined that this task would surely be taken up by their New World descendants. Motivated by the Old Bailey anecdote, I now intend to examine these questions…

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