Sunday, August 3, 2014

Chromosomes reveal the truth

Initially, Old Bailey was the name of a London street...

Four years ago, in a blog post entitled Family-history shock [display], I described my chance discovery of this record of a trial at London’s Central Criminal Court, better known as the Old Bailey.

Click to enlarge

The trial had taken place on 24 October 1898. A man named William Skyvington, said to be 26 years old, had been charged with
feloniously forging and uttering an endorsement on an order for the payment of one pound, three shillings and eleven pence, with intent to defraud.
The accused man had pleaded guilty, and he was sent to jail for six months’ hard labour.

Here’s an old photo of one of the courts at the Old Bailey where criminal trials for London and Middlesex were held.

The accused individual was placed in the dock on the left. The jury was seated in the box on the far side, below a pair of large windows. On a throne beneath the wooden canopy on the right, alongside a sword of justice, an alderman (sometimes the lord mayor himself) represented the city of London, whereas the judge, sheriff and trial recorder were seated at plain desks in the far corner.

I wondered immediately if the criminal might have been my great-grandfather William Jones Skyvington [born in 1868, and therefore almost 30 years old at the time of the trial].

Four months ago, in a blog post entitled White lies of men in love [display], I explained that an English lady named Nicola Courtenay had sent me an e-mail indicating that her grandfather William Courtenay [who had died in 1959] often used “Skyvington” as if it were one of his given names. Since this “Skyvington” name is rather uncommon (resulting from a 19th-century spelling mistake that replaced a letter “i” by “y”), I was greatly intrigued by Nicola’s news of somebody having, as it were, “borrowed” our surname and used it as an aditional given name. The story simply didn’t add up. Above all, several clues in Nicola’s tale evoked authentic details associated with my great-grandfather. So, I was automatically tempted to speculate that Nicola’s grandfather and my great-grandfather might have been one and the same individual.

Well, to cut a long story short, a Y-chromosome test carried out on a DNA saliva specimen from a living male member of the Courtenay family has just proved scientifically (with no room whatsoever for doubt) that this was indeed the case. In other words, after vanishing from the northern-London context in which his son—my future grandfather Ernest Skyvington [1891-1985]—was born, William apparently decided to adopt the “Courtenay” surname, invent a fictitious identity (in which he claimed to be a member of the ancient and noble family of the Earl of Devon from Powderham Castle) and raise a large family.

Insofar as this Courtenay Affair provides us with specimens of William Skyvington’s apparent tendency towards mythomania, I am now convinced that the individual convicted at the Old Bailey in 1898 was indeed my great-grandfather. Besides, I had reached that conclusion prior to meeting up with the Courtenay Affair purely through the perusal of genealogical archives.

This morning, I retrieved a document from the National Archives designated as a calendar of prisoners, which mentioned the trial and imprisonment of William Skyvington. Here is the cover page:

An index includes the name of William Skyvington followed by the letters NL, meaning North London:

For the moment, I’ve been unable to determine (while awaiting clarifications from the National Archives) whether this means that William came from North London, or that he was now detained in a jail in North London. Further on in the document, we find the actual reecord of the trial.

It contains several interesting elements of information that did not appear in the Old Bailey record that I found 4 years ago. William was a “traveller”: that’s to say, a commercial traveler or salesman who moved around to contact customers. The term “well” means (as explained on the cover page) that William could read and write well. Above all, I learnt that he was jailed in Pentonville Prison in Islington (North London).

That’s to say, William Skyvington was placed in a prison just to the south of the family home in Evershot Road, not to mention Finsbury Park, his son’s vast playground. Star-shaped Pentonville was thought of as a “modern” jail, because it had been designed in the early 1840s by skilled carceral engineers.

But it was surely a nasty place.

Besides, William had been condemned to so-called hard labor, which meant that he had to toil daily at heavy manual tasks. Amazingly, we have here a photo of such inmates at Pentonville:

Then there’s a ballad sung by Pete Waters, with a catching refrain:
I was sent off for trial at the Bailey
And remanded to Pentonville Jail

The situation is funny (weird). For ages, I had concluded that, if I wanted to enhance my family-history writing with melancholy ballads about the hardships of a convict's existence, it was in New South Wales that I would find such stuff, in the context of my maternal ancestors from Ireland... and certainly not in the refined English context of the Skyvingtons.

Today, I must admit that the tables of my genealogical temple have been upturned. And I can't even blame Jesus...

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