Showing posts with label Dorset. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Dorset. Show all posts

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Genetic cousins in England today

A couple of months ago, in my blog post titled Ring-ins [display], I evoked the existence of a significant number of out-of-wedlock births among my Dorset ancestors. It goes without saying that my observations were totally devoid of any kind of moralistic dimension. I wasn't scolding posthumously my naughty ancestors for cuddling furtively in the haystacks of Iwerne Courtney and rearing single-parent offspring who carried a surname, Skyvington, which was not in fact that of their biological father.

Cricket ground at Iwerne Courtney (photo David Squire).

My interest in such questions is inspired by two more subtle reasons.

— First, other individuals named Skyvington, living today, are interested in their origins. These people are likely to appreciate my Dorset research into recent Skyvington branches beyond my own direct ancestral line.

— Second, there's the question of our Y chromosomes. Up until now, this subject remains purely theoretical, because I seem to be the only person with a name like Skeffington who has put his Y-chromosome results in the database [access].

Well, a few days ago (on the same day, amazingly, that I heard about the family de Verdun), I was happy to discover that present-day Skyvington individuals in the vicinity of Worcester (named Stephen, Richard, Gary, Robert and Shaun) and Durham (named Robert, John and Graeme) would appear to be authentic genetic cousins, with exactly the same Y chromosome data as me. (For the moment, I don't have the addresses or phone numbers of any of these individuals.) It would be nice if some of these people were to obtain their Y chromosome specifications through, say, the Family Tree DNA company [access]. Incidentally, I believe that the best approach, costwise, is to order a test through the Skeffington group, whose page exists on the Family Tree DNA website.

For readers interested in the precise links between the English Skyvingtons in Worcester/Durham and myself, let me display a couple of genealogical charts. Their ancestor John Skyvington [1857-1901] worked as an agricultural laborer, at the age of 14, in Iwerne Courtney, before becoming a stonemason. But his principal vocation was the army, and he entered the ranks of a distinguished corps: the Royal Horse Artillery. It was no doubt in his role as a dashing mounted trooper that John met up with a young Scottish lady, Jessie Coulie (also spelt as Collie), who became his wife. Later, John was on active service in the Boer War.

Ambush at Sannas Post (Blomenfontein, 1900) by Terence Cuneo.

John is the person mentioned down in the lower left corner of the following chart (where I have retained the baptismal spelling of his surname):

The following chart, of an earlier epoch, mentions John's father George and his elder brother Charles, who was my 3-great-grandfather:

In other words, the couple at the top of this chart, John and Grace, were the most recent common ancestors of the English Skyvingtons in Worcester/Durham and myself.

Getting back to the man who served in the Boer War, there's a family legend concerning the identity of his wife Jessie Coulie. It was said that she was the daughter of a noble family associated with Guthrie Castle near Dundee, and that she was normally destined to wed an equally noble chap from India. To escape this fate, she eloped with John Skivington!

If John's wife never made it to India, his nephew Edwin Skivington (son of the Edwin mentioned in the first chart) ended up there in 1916, as a soldier with the 7th Hampshire Regiment.

A final detail concerning John Skyvington has caused me to meditate upon the quirks of fate. To enter the ranks of the Royal Horse Artillery, John must have been an experienced horseman. And I would imagine that he acquired his skills in that domain as a youth, working as an agricultural laborer in his Dorset village. It appears that John lost his life prematurely through being kicked in the head by a horse. Since it has been said that John was killed in the Boer War, we might imagine that this fatal accident took place in South Africa. But I would suspect that it occurred closer to his home in Somerset, for he was buried in the St Aldhelm's churchyard in Doulting.

Many years later, when I asked my grandfather Ernest Skyvington [1891-1985] why he had been tempted to emigrate to Australia, he told me: "I grew up with romantic ideas of a life connected with horses, cattle and sheep." Living in London, my grandfather looked upon horse-riding as a privilege of the wealthy upper classes, to which he did not belong. Evoking my grandfather's adolescent dream, I have used a splendid photo of horses in Australia on the cover of my paternal genealogical monograph:

If only young Ernest had been brought in contact with his few remaining rural relatives in the West Country, he might have discovered in one way or another, and almost on his doorstep, his mythical universe of horses, cattle and sheep. Instead of that, he sought that world in the Antipodes, in the legendary "last of lands".
They call her a young country, but they lie:

She is the last of lands, the emptiest,

A woman beyond her change of life, a breast

Still tender but within the womb is dry.
Without songs, architecture, history:

The emotions and superstitions of younger lands,

Her rivers of water drown among inland sands,

The river of her immense stupidity
Floods her monotonous tribes from Cairns to Perth.

In them at last the ultimate men arrive

Whose boast is not: ‘we live’ but ‘we survive’,

A type who will inhabit the dying earth.

                                     — A D Hope, Australia

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Good place to get pissed

I must be careful with blog titles like that, containing slang. I shouldn't take it for granted that Russian and American readers of Antipodes, for example, are aware that, in my native Australia, "getting pissed" means drinking an excessive quantity of beer... where the sense of the adjective "excessive" is rather relative.

One of my ancestral relatives in Dorset, living at Blandford St Mary, was described in the 1841 census as a brewer... but I have no idea yet of the nature of the beverage he brewed, or the place where he worked.

Incidentally, other records have enabled me to verify that, in the second quarter of the 19th century, in a tiny rural village in south-west England (Winterborne Stickland), a 40-year-old woman, Jane Woolridge, the wife of her younger husband James Skivington, could indeed give birth to a healthy son. As you can see in the census data, the name of this son was William Skivington. He became a cabinet maker, and married a local girl named Martha Coffin. (It takes all kinds of cabinets to make a world.) Later on, William became a piano tuner. Then he set up a prosperous business in Salisbury Street, Blandford Forum, with a shop on Market Place that sold pianos, organs, harmoniums, etc.

A few years ago, I visited the local museum in Blandford Forum. This excursion was described already in a blog post titled Dorset ancestral anecdotes [display].

Inside, I was thrilled to find myself face to face with a pump organ from  the Skivington music shop.

The museum curator knew all about this family, and he gave me photocopies of notes about my relatives. He even seemed to appreciate the musical qualities (or was he merely being polite?) of an ancient Anglican hymn, When I survey the wondrous cross, that I succeeded—more or less—in playing on the instrument. And I wouldn't be surprised if the Christian sounds I produced woke up all the Skivington ghosts in the neighborhood, who were surely charmed by the idea that an Antipodean member of their family might attempt, crudely, to breathe some audio life back into the old organ.

Incidentally, for readers who have been following closely all the trivial stuff I'm relating, here's a correct version, played by a competent unnamed organist, of the simple but catchy tune (from my childhood) that I was attempting to reproduce—with strenuous non-stop treadle pumping—on the archaic instrument in Blandford Forum.

Let's get back to beer. In the Blandford region, a tiny river, the Piddle, looks more like a piddling man-made canal than a real river.

Various local place names incorporate either "piddle" (Piddlehinton, Piddletrenthide) or "puddle" (Puddletown, Tolpuddle, Affpuddle, Briantspuddle, Turnerspuddle). Philosophical question: When does a piddle become a puddle? And can puddling be thought of as the same activity as piddling? The case of the Thomas Hardy village near Dorchester is amusing, in that it has been known officially both as Piddletown and Puddletown.

If you'll just bear with me for a second, I promise that I'll talk at last about beer. I still don't know what kind of stuff James Skivington might have been brewing in Dorset in 1841. But, a few years ago, two Piddlehinton lads got involved in a thriving business—more lucrative than selling organs—by creating the Dorset Piddle Brewery.

Click here to visit their website, enabling you to appreciate some of their inevitable play on words inviting you to this good place to get pissed in Dorset. I must drop in there, the next time I'm visiting my ancestral region, when I feel like a Piddle.

ADDENDUM: Well, it certainly wasn't difficult to find facts concerning the context in which my ancestral relative James Skivington was employed as a brewer, in 1841, in Blandford St Mary. In the middle of the village, there's a big and ancient red-brick brewery:

It's the home of Hall & Woodhouse, known today as Badger Brewery, whose foundation dates from 1777. Click here to visit their excellent website.

I'm embarrassed. There was an elephant in the sitting room, and I didn't even see it. This simply means, in fact, that I've never had an opportunity of strolling around Blandford St Mary (just alongside Blandford Forum). So, on second thoughts, when I'm next in Dorset, and thinking maybe about getting pissed, I won't even bother going to Piddlehinton. I'll simply look around for a pub in the ancestral Blandford context.

Unfortunately, all the old Hall & Woodhouse archives were lost in 1900 when a fire destroyed the original brewery buildings.

Talking about ancestral Blandford pubs, look at this nice place:

Known today as the The Dolphin, this ancient establishment was formerly the White Hart Inn, in West Street, Blandford Forum, operated by three successive generations of 18th and 19th century gentlemen named William Skivington.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Who's calling?

Thanks to Google Maps (which is an extraordinary device for a virtual globetrotter), I can wander leisurely through the narrow streets of the Dorset village of Shroton where my ancestors lived. Each morning, when they left their humble abode (in fact, the old village workhouse) to work in the fields as agricultural laborers, they would have walked past this elegant 18th-century farmhouse, on the other side of Main Street:

Maybe they even worked for the farmer Tom Crouch, who employed half-a-dozen laborers on his 120-acre property out behind the old white house with a thatched roof.

From time to time, when I get carried away by my genealogical research, my imagination soars into crazy realms. I find myself thinking that, if only I knew the number associated with that red telephone box, maybe I could put through a call, using my iPhone, on the off-chance that my great-great-great-great-grandfather John Skivington, or one of his lusty offspring, might be strolling by…

"Who's calling?" What, indeed, would I reply?

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.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

DNA test

To celebrate the birthday of Charles Darwin, I finally decided to order a DNA test. As everybody knows, the results will reveal the particular species of monkey from which I descend, and the jungle in which my ancestors lived, maybe even the kind of trees in which they built their homes. Besides that, this DNA test will no doubt confirm that I have an exceptionally high level of extremely healthy and active intelligence genes, and that I was genetically endowed to be a really superior guy from every point of view. Based upon hard facts, the test will no doubt also explain scientifically (for those who were not already aware of this particular aspect of my being) why I've always had a terrific sensual effect upon beautiful women, a little like Julio Iglesias (but without the singing) or George Clooney (without the Nescafé ads). And I'll be getting all this great information sent to my doorstep, direct from Arizona, for no more than 120 euros.

Well, the results of the test might not be quite like that. So maybe I should set aside my wishful thinking and describe the DNA test in a more modest down-to-earth way.

[Click the logo to visit the Family Tree DNA website.]

I lost no time in choosing a company to carry out my test because, in the genealogical domain, there aren't really very many companies around. The laboratories that you hear of in the news—when scientists talk, say, about cracking the genome of Neanderthals or the possibility of cloning furry mammoths—are not concerned with the DNA of ordinary mortals such as you and me. Most of the high-profile companies that advertise their high-priced services in DNA analysis are medically-oriented, which means that they're capable of obtaining personal data about your genetic makeup that might just prevent your descendants, one of these days, from purchasing life insurance, finding a partner and procreating, or even getting certain jobs. Apart from that, though, it's great to know yourself better from a health viewpoint. As far as genealogy is concerned, most people seem to agree that the Arizona-based company called Family Tree DNA is the ideal door to knock on, because they propose an infrastructure enabling you to meet up with other individuals with comparable DNA profiles.

One of the first sobering things you learn, when you step into the domain of genealogical DNA tests, is that specialists refer to the precious molecular fragments used in their analyses as junk DNA. Now, this doesn't mean that they think your ancestors are trash. Even if a living prince were to use DNA testing to confirm that he descended from a long-dead king, this would be done by means of junk DNA. The adjective "junk" simply draws attention to the curious fact (well, it's curious for newcomers) that the fragments of the DNA double helix yielding the most information as far as family links are concerned lie outside the all-important sequences of genetic coding that determine what kind of hereditary makeup we have. Between the genes, in our lengthy strand of DNA, there's a vast quantity of chemical "noise" (to borrow the term used by communications engineers), which doesn't play any role in determining our inherited nature. Well, this junk part of our DNA reveals certain patterns that remain constant from a father to his sons. These patterns get copied in the Y-chromosome, found only in males. Consequently, if the DNA of two males happens to contain identical patterns of this kind, that means that their paternal ancestral lines reach back to a unique male individual.

What does this mean at a practical level? Let me give you an example. In an article written in August 2007 entitled Dorset ancestral anecdotes [display], I mentioned an old pump organ that I discovered (and actually played) in the village of Blandford.

The label on the instrument mentioned a William Skivington, proprietor of a local music shop.

The UK census of 1861 mentions this fellow and his family, and refers to him as a piano tuner. I'm surely a relative of this individual, who lived from 1827 to 1912, but I've not yet been able to determine our exact links. Now, let's imagine an unlikely discovery. Let's suppose that, inside the organ in the Blandford folk museum, we happened to find a trace of blood that had been left there long ago when William Skivington hit his thumb with a hammer while repairing the instrument. Normally, if this fellow were indeed a distant cousin of mine, we should find that junk DNA recovered from the spot of blood in the organ has the same markers as in my own DNA test.

OK? Well, that fictitious scenario does not in fact describe the usual way in which genealogical researchers go about using the results of DNA tests. Although this approach would be theoretically sound, we don't generally go around searching in pump organs or cemeteries for specimens of the blood of our supposed ancestors. I would be more interested in coming upon a fellow who's living today, let's say a certain Fred Skivington settled over in Canada, who is convinced—through sound documentary evidence—that he is a descendant of the Dorset piano-tuner William Skivington. In such a situation, if Fred's DNA markers coincided with mine, then this would reveal that I, too, am related to the William of Blandford.

I'm obliged to admit, though, that it would be very tempting to have an opportunity of fossicking around in some of the ancient tombs over in the village of Skeffington in Leicestershire. You never know what kind of junk you might dig up there...