Tuesday, February 7, 2012


In Aussie slang, a ring-in is a black sheep in the family, the opposite of a fair dinkum offspring. And that reminds me of a joke.
The Reverend McKenzie (meaning "the fair one" in ancient Scottish) was a missionary in a remote settlement in the heart of the jungle. With his pale complexion and thick curly red hair, he stood out among all the black-skinned folk whose souls he was intent upon saving.

Outside the makeshift missionary church, McKenzie was engaged in a serious discussion with a local farmer, Jimmy Bongo, who appeared to be somewhat upset.

JIMMY BONGO: I tell you, Reverend, all our other children are pure black, like me. Then, a few days ago, my wife gave birth to a funny little fellow with a pale face and curly red hair. How can I explain this to neighbors in the village?

REVEREND MCKENZIE: God works in mysterious ways, Jimmy, and you have nothing whatsoever to say to the villagers in the way of explanations. Simply show them your herd of goats. They were all pure white. Then, not so long ago, when I happened to be visiting your farm on missionary duties, I noticed that your latest baby goat was jet black. We must not question God's decision to bring about the birth of a black goat in your white herd. Similarly, we must not question God's decision to provide you and your wife with a fair-skinned red-haired baby.

JIMMY BONGO: OK, Reverend, fair enough. Let's make a deal. I'll keep quiet about our red-haired baby as long as you promise to say nothing about that black goat.
Recently, I sent an email to a distinguished US scientist whose surname is similar to mine, suggesting that he might be prepared to get involved in genetic genealogy. I'm impatient to have opportunities of comparing my Y-chromosomes with those of various males with surnames such as Skyvington, Skivington, Skevington, etc. Well, this fellow explained to me frankly that he wasn't enthusiastic about genealogical research, because he considered that the frequency of cases of "ring-ins" is so high that genuine paternal lines rarely exist for more than a few generations. In other words, he was suggesting that, even though I might imagine that my Y-chromosomes have come down to me through a long and ancient line of males with surnames like mine, there were almost certainly countless points at which this Y-chromosome line was broken, when the latest genitor happened to be an outsider. On such occasions, most family members (except, say, the future mother) might have continued to believe that the most recent procreation was indeed the act of an authentic tribal male. How could they know otherwise?

For genealogical research and Y-chromosome testing to be serious preoccupations, I would need to be to be convinced that each of my male predecessors, for centuries on end, was a noble-minded gentlemen who never dreamed of jumping into bed with any female other than his lawful wedded wife. That's to say, my highly moralistic forefathers, prior to their marriages, would have shuddered at the evil thought of having sex with unmarried village maidens, or the wives of other males in the village. Once they were married, they produced offspring exclusively with their legal wives. And these sensuous ladies, no less moralistic than their husbands, would have resisted scrupulously any temptation whatsoever to welcome the warm caresses of lusty males who didn't happen to be their husbands.

It's because all my Skyvington ancestors were like that (n'est-ce pas ?), since the epoch of the Norman invasion in 1066, that genealogical research remains, for lucky me, a meaningful preoccupation. Indeed, I've often been somewhat ashamed to realize that I myself am no doubt the first Skyvington male since antiquity to have been capable of behaving loosely, at times, from a sexual viewpoint. But don't jump to false conclusions. I've always made a gigantic attempt to respect the Tenth Commandment:
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor's. [Exodus 20:17]
Maybe I don't fully understand what the Good Lord was trying to say through his use of the curious verb "to covet", but I can vouch for the fact that I've never coveted my neighbor's manservants, nor his ox. And I paid cash for the two donkeys I've purchased since residing at Gamone. Back in Paris, it's true that things could waver somewhat, and evolve in unexpected directions, at the level of wives and maidservants (designated, these days, as au pair girls). But I honestly don't recall ever brooding glumly, for any length of time, in a frustrating state of sin that might be designated as coveting. In those days, we were more pragmatic...

Over the last month or so, I've been examining closely my Dorset ancestors towards the middle of the 19th century, at the time that England had developed the procedure of issuing official birth certificates. Well, all I can say is that the phenomenon of ring-ins among my Skyvington ancestors of that epoch was most prolific: almost to the point of turning a naive family-history researcher off genealogy… not for moralistic reasons, of course, but simply because, to make family-history headway, we're obliged to get involved in a constant puzzle of "Who slept with whom?"

I won't go into all the details here. You'll be able to find them soon in the Dorset chapter of They Sought the Last of Lands. Let me simply describe one outstanding case, in which the presence of a particular ring-in was handled in such a subtle way that I had to employ all the brain-power of a Sherlock Holmes (aided by a bit of luck) in order to concoct a plausible theory on who he was, and what might have happened.

Here's the 1851 census data for the 15 occupants of a household in the Dorset village of Iwerne Courtney:

This is a typical specimen of the kind of stuff I need to examine regularly, as a family-history researcher. It's an interesting sample which, incidentally, reveals the origins of various disparate Skyvington families throughout the world today… but I don't intend to discuss those questions here.  This was the household of John Skivington [1780-1858] and his wife Grace Pethen [1788-1861]: my paternal great-great-great-great-grandparents (at the same ancestral level as the vicar of Woodhorn, the subject of my previous blog post).

Observe line #9 of the census data, which indicates the presence of a 3-months-old baby boy named Atwill Isaac, designated as a grandson (of John Skivington and Grace). For a long time, I wondered who were the parents of this child, and why he had been given such a weird name. Normally, since that census had been carried out on 30 March 1851, we might suppose that this baby was born around Christmas 1850. I had the impression that the child's given name should be spelt as Atwell (which exists as a surname), but I could find neither a parish christening record nor a UK birth certificate for an Atwell Isaac Skivington, born at Iwerne Courtney in 1850.

A decade later, in 1851, the male head of the household had died, and only three occupants remained, as indicated by the census data:

The aging Grace, whose married name was now spelt Skyvington (with a "y"), had been left to look after two grandsons, no doubt ring-ins whose parents (known or unknown) were now residing elsewhere… if indeed they were still alive. And the younger boy's name was now spelt as Etwell.

Much later, in 1875, a marriage certificate reveals that Atwell Skivington (with an "i") married Mary Anne Langford in the seaside town of Christchurch in Dorset. Then, in the 1881 UK census, we find the small family of Atwell Skivington, a bricklayer, residing in the nearby village of Holdenhurst.

Notice that Atwell's birthplace is indicated as Shroton, which is the nickname for Iwerne Courtney used by local folk.

I remained curious concerning the identity of Atwell's parents. A fortnight ago, on the off-chance that I might find something interesting, I ordered a copy of a birth certificate for an unidentified William Skivington born in the small village of Iwerne Courtney in the final quarter of 1850. I was surprised to discover that it was an out-of-wedlock baby whose mother was Elizabeth Skivington, the 21-year-old daughter of my ancestors John Skivington and Grace Pethen, whose name appears in line #5 of the census data for 1851, shown earlier on in this blog post.

So, here are three dates in the existence of this child:

— 4 December 1850: Elizabeth Skivington gave birth to an out-of-wedlock baby in Iwerne Courtney.

— 17 December 1850: Elizabeth registered the birth of this son under the name of William Skivington.

— 30 March 1851: Somebody in the house of Elizabeth's parents informed the census officer that the baby's name was Atwill Isaac.

Then, as an adult, he became known as Atwell Isaac Skivington. Still intrigued by this unusual given name, I continued to wonder why Elizabeth would have registered rapidly her out-of-wedlock baby under the name of William Skivington, and then allowed him to be referred to as Atwell Isaac Skivington. Funnily enough, I was reminded of an affair that took place here, not far from where I live, many years ago. There's a fellow who has a quite ordinary name, which gives the impression that he belongs to one of the ancient rural families in this corner of the Dauphiné region. Well, I've often been intrigued to discover that certain local folk, when they're referring to this fellow, use an unexpected nickname, something in the style of "Gascon". (I'm refraining from indicating his true identity.) If I understand correctly, these neighbors are aware of the fact that the fellow in question was a ring-in,  and they prefer to refer to him through the geographical origin of his father, from a remote region of France, rather than through the ordinary name that was given to him, in an official manner, by the local girl who was the unwed mother of "Gascon".

With the help of my recently-acquired collection of Dorset census CDs, I started looking around for the existence, in the vicinity of Iwerne Courtney in 1850, of a young gentleman whose surname was Atwell, who might have become Elizabeth Skivington's lover, and the genitor of her baby boy. Lo and behold, I had no trouble finding him, because there was only one plausible candidate in Elizabeth's geographical zone.

John Atwell, in his early twenties (25 according to the census data, 22 according to his baptismal record), was an unmarried agricultural laborer from nearby Langton Long, just south-east of Blandford Forum. He was residing in the town of Blandford Forum with a widowed 70-year-old agricultural worker, John Painter, in narrow East Street Lane… which looks like a fine place for a bit of discreet warm cuddling with a village maiden on a wintry March afternoon in 1850, when it was impossible to work out in the snow-covered fields.

John Samuel Atwell was christened on 9 March 1829 at the All Saints church in Langton Long, which still stands today:

Here is his baptismal record, delivered by the Reverend J H Ridout:

In the village of Langton Long, judging from the number of christenings, there appear to have been quite a few folk named Atwell.

POST SCRIPTUM: It goes without saying that I would be thrilled if living descendants of Atwell Skivington were to come upon the present blog post. If so, I hope they'll contact me.

BREAKING NEWS: I was mistaken in believing that there was no parish baptismal record for Atwell Skivington. No sooner had I published this blog post than I discovered the following entry in the new version of the Mormons' excellent FamilySearch website [access]:

Up until now, I had been obtaining data from the Iwerne Courtney website [access], which apparently hasn't yet put all its parish records online.

Notice that the spelling of Atwell's name is still screwed up there, in the church record. In such a context, it's not surprising that the time-honored Skivington spelling (with an "i") was transformed into Skyvington (with a ridiculous "y"). Ah, I still weep inwardly with remorse whenever I recall that my dear father had to go through life with a name such as King Mepham Skyvington.

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