Showing posts with label family history. Show all posts
Showing posts with label family history. Show all posts

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Mongrel genes

Every family has a few black sheep, either in the present or in the past. Most often both. And a family historian, believing that every effect has a logical cause, is inevitably inclined to start looking around for mongrel genes: biological factors that gave rise to the existence of such-and-such a black sheep. Now, in such research, there can be both a bit of good and a lot of bad.

The very notion of a certain black sheep in the family can be frighteningly fuzzy. Relatives might think they’re acting objectively when they stigmatize a particular individual as a black sheep. Or decide rather, for that matter, to praise an exceptionally snow-white sheep. But are the relatives themselves pure merinos with an error-free sense of judgment? As for me, I prefer to believe that the supposed existence of a black sheep in the family must always be taken with a grain of salt. Maybe it’s right… but maybe it’s wrong.

The case of alleged family defects such as alcoholism is worse still. Does such-and-such a past or present member of the family drink because of inherited defects… or simply because he/she happens to have easy access to dangerous beverages? It’s far too easy and too silly to declare that there are, or have been, alcohol problems in the family. If the family historian is not perfectly sure of what is being said, then she/he should simply shut up, because false declarations are worse than no declarations at all. [The current Skyvington family historian is proud to declare—just for the record—that he hasn't tasted a drop of alcohol, or even been vaguely interested in doing so, for well over a year, since falling down the stairs at Gamone and bumping his head.]

To me, one thing is certain. Whenever family members start searching for inherited defects, they should look carefully into the terribly common phenomenon of nasty bumps to the brain. Since falling down the stairs, it has taken me a long time to get back to a state that I myself judge as normal.

At the present moment, I’ve been greatly affected by thoughts about an infamous Skyvington black sheep: my paternal great-grandfather, the crazy fellow who called himself “William Courtenay”. See my blog post here. Over the last few days, I’ve received new information from England revealing the admirable character of this fellow’s father. That renders suspicious the mad fellow’s mother, Mary Ann.

Would that poor girl, who died in Yealmpton [Devon] at the age of 21, have been responsible for the introduction of mongrel genes into the Skyvington line? That idea, though theoretically plausible, is quite unlikely, for Mary Anne Jones belonged to an honorable family of Devon, in which no known cases of insanity have been recorded.

Whichever way I look at things (and I’ve thought a lot about that mad ancestor), only one explanation satisfies me fully. Unknown to archivists in general, and Skyvington family historians in particular, my ancestor William Skyvington [1868-1959] probably ran into the same kind of accident as his future great-grandson, also known as William Skyvington. He fell down the stairs and bumped his head. If that was really what happened (and why not?), then all I can say is that I got off better than my mad ancestor. If only God existed, I would promptly thank him.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Poor-quality fuzzy drawing of a boat

This low-quality drawing is so amateurish that it looks like the fuzzy work of a child. So, I would understand you for thinking it's worthless.

Well, it is indeed an uninteresting work of art... but I was prepared to pardon its weaknesses when I learnt that this was an authentic sketch of the barque Caroline which had reached Rottnest Island near Perth (Australia) in 1829, conveying the Henty brothers James, Stephen and John, accompanied by a few Spanish merino sheep. Four years later, on 6 August 1833, my great-great-grandfather Charles Walker had been employed as a steward aboard that same ship when he arrived in Sydney.

As for Rottnest Island, that was a lovely playground for my son François and me when we used to go sailing on the Zigeuner in 1986. So, at a personal level, this fuzzy drawing is a precious document.

A few years ago, I was surprised to learn that an Australian lady whose maiden name was Sheridan Henty had purchased a house in the neighboring village of Pont-en-Royans. She was a descendant of the Henty pioneers who had reached Western Australia aboard the Caroline. Sheridan showed me a book on her Henty ancestors by Marney Bassett, and that's where I found the fuzzy drawing.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Being offended is a childish game

In France, I've always found that the very British habit of "being offended" is relatively rare. Let's say that taking offence at verbal criticism certainly happens here from time to time, but less so (in my humble opinion) than on the other side of the English Channel. Indeed the following Victorian adage, familiar to all English-speaking children, would not make much sense to French people:

Sticks and stones may break my bones,
but names will never hurt me.

The English intellectual Richard Dawkins is constantly plagued by would-be offended people, particularly when he criticizes religious beliefs. I can understand his reasons for retweeting the following ugly New Year wishes:

At a trivial personal level, I'm bored by nitwits who send me blatant rubbish through the Internet. A few days ago, in the genealogical domain, an Irish fellow tried to tell me that the first Viscount Massereene [1608-1665] had received his lordship because of the assistance he gave to William of Orange [1650-1702] in the Battle of the Boyne [10 July 1690]. I replied politely that Lord Massereene had died a quarter of a century before this battle, whereupon my Irish correspondant apologized curiously for "offending" me. He failed to realize that I wasn't offended at all. I merely found him a boring idiot, incapable of checking dates before sending me rubbish... and this had nothing to do with his strange idea that I might be "offended".

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Is genealogy all about genes?

That's not meant to be a trick question, but it is surely a tricky question. And I'm not at all certain that I can indeed reply correctly and intelligently. Both the ancient term "genealogy" (study of generations of ancestors) and the relatively modern biological word "gene" (one of the many molecular elements of an individual's DNA) are inspired by the same root: γενεά ‎(geneá, "generation, descent"). So, the obvious answer to my question is yes: the study of genealogy is surely concerned by some kind of an examination of an individual's DNA. Having made that point, I'm obliged to say that, for the moment, the concrete associations between conventional family-history preoccupations and modern genetic methods are not at all obvious.

It's well known that many everyday family-history enthusiasts are tempted to pay fees to US laboratories specializing in genetic enhancements to everyday genealogy, usually of a complex nature. I made this decision several years ago, without fully understanding the exact advantages that I might (or might not) acquire. I can now say that I derived few avantages of the kind I was expecting, and nothing proves to my mind that the alleged missions of such companies are as sound as they make themselves out to be. On the other hand, an unexpected family-history event enabled me to discover that this kind of enhancement of ordinary family-history research can give rise to a startling result. I'm talking of the extraordinary Courtenay affair concerning the chance discovery of my paternal great-grandfather.

On page 48 of The Ancestor's Tale by Richard Dawkins, there's a precise and brilliant explanation of "a telling difference between gene trees and people trees". Here, for example, is a "people tree" of my own childhood family in Australia:

That's me on the middle left, then my brother followed by our three sisters. Now, the questions introduced by Dawkins could be put as follows: In the case of a specific gene that's responsible for such-and-such an aspect of the character of a particular child, did that child inherit that gene from our father or from our mother, and was it the same gene that was inherited (from the same parent) by the other four siblings?

The answers to those two questions astonished me greatly when I first encountered them, and I'm sure that many people might be surprised, for they prove beyond any doubt whatsoever that siblings in a sole "people tree" do not necessarily acquire their specific character traits from the same "gene trees". To put it bluntly, brothers and sisters do not necessarily share identical character traits. Let us imagine, for example, my brother's genes that played a role in making him behave character-wise in a particular fashion. It is perfectly thinkable that none of Don's siblings had inherited comparable genes. Don's gene might have come, for example, from the father of Enid Kathleen Walker, whereas my corresponding version of this gene might have come, say, from the mother of King Mepham Skyvington.

This appears to me as a highly significant and fundamental law of inheritance, which should not be ignored.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Paris wall

For centuries, an old-fashioned bank in Paris, the Crédit municipal, has enabled ordinary citizens to deposit valuable stuff such as jewelry and take out low-interest cash loans. Later, if and when clients get back onto their feet financially, they can return to the institution and buy back their deposited goods. After a certain time, if the stuff is not bought back, then the institution, in the time-honored traditions of pawnbrokers, auctions it off and makes a nice profit. So, everybody is happy… except maybe the ghosts of ancestors who see their precious family legacies being dilapidated by cash-strapped descendants.

Click to enlarge

This kind of money-lending institution, referred to in Italian as a Monte de Pietà (Mount of piety), was invented in the 15th century by an Italian monk as a scheme designed to end the monopoly of usurers of the kind that would be stigmatized, a century later, by Shakespeare’s notoriously anti-Semitic portrait of Shylock.

The Italian expression has in fact been misunderstood. Monte de Pietà has nothing to do with mounts. It refers rather to an amount of cash that is offered, allegedly through piety, to people in need.

Since the eve of the French Revolution, the Parisian Mont de pieté has been located in the Marais quarter. Its ancient entrance still exists in the Rue des Blancs-Manteaux.

Meanwhile, the main entrance is located in the Rue des Francs-Bourgeois: the eastern continuation of the Rue Rambuteau, where I lived for many years.

I’ve walked past that door almost daily, for years. Well, I’ve just learnt that this ancient Parisian financial institution is about to be closed down, simply because (like many other old-fashioned social entities) it can’t adjust itself to the digital era. This is weird in a way, because it shouldn’t be too hard to invent an Internet business model for pawnbroking…

I come now to the subject of this blog post: the existence of an ancient wall around Paris. referred to in French as the Enceinte de Philippe Auguste [Wall of Philip II Augustus]. This protective wall around the French capital was erected as a reaction against threats from the nasty English monarch, my ancestor King John, who would be forced at sword-point to sign the Magna Carta on 15 June 1215. Here’s a plan of the wall dating from 1223:

Click to enlarge

Its builder was the king of France, Philip II, commonly referred to in French as Philippe Auguste, primarily because he was born in August, and also because this nickname likened the monarch to a wise ruler of ancient Rome. Be that as it may, the French king appears to have been a nicer sort of a fellow than the abominable English monarch on the other side of the Channel.

Parenthetical comments: From a pragmatic viewpoint, the fact that King John was my 22-times-great-grandfather means little, if anything at all. His genetic contribution is diluted homeopathically today in a chromosomal soup stewed up from the gametes (reproductive cells) of countless other male and female ancestors. He was no more than a single member of the vast cohort of my medieval ancestors, whose number cannot even be vaguely estimated. Realizing that he’s one of my ancestors, I’ve nevertheless made an effort to know more about the man. Sadly, it’s almost impossible to find anything whatsoever of a noble nature in his profile. Consequently, it’s not surprising that no other English king has decided to call himself John.

Let’s get back to the Paris wall. Inside the domain of the Paris pawnbroking institution that is about to become extinct, there’s a fine fragment of the wall of Philippe Auguste.

Observing this tower, I was always impressed by the lovely pink-brick structure at the top… but what counts, in fact, is the relatively dull stone structure at the base, which is a perfectly intact fragment of the wall of Philippe Auguste.

Further to the west, we enconter the address of 16 rue Rambuteau, where Christine and I lived with our children Emmanuelle and François for many years. At the time, we didn’t think much about the fact that our apartment was situated upon the wall of Philippe Auguste. People had told us that this was the case, but this didn’t mean much in the context of our daily existence. In my personal photographic archives, I have countless images of our children on the balcony overlooking the nearby Hôtel de Saint Aignan, seen here:

Today, the elegantly-restored edifice has become (thanks to Jacques Chirac) the Museum of Jewish Art and History.

The balcony of our apartment was located in the upper left-hand corner of the above photo, where there seems to be a video camera. In the middle of the courtyard, there’s a huge statue of the extraordinary man who symbolized French anti-Semitism: Alfred Dreyfus. On the left of the courtyard, directly below our apartment, a stone façade with fake windows has been erected, solely for esthetic reasons, against the ancient wall of Philippe Auguste.

I often wonder what the ghost of the Colonel Dreyfus might think to be depicted here at a spot that I know so well, in the heart of Paris, where he looks out upon a panoramic façade of which the left-hand third, built against the wall of Philippe Auguste, is both archaic and totally false.

In any case, and above all, I'm overcome by a strange and wonderful feeling of warmth and pride every time I reflect upon the fact that our tiny Skyvington-Mafart family came into being here in the ancient inner heart of the fabulous City of Light. At the time, I didn't think that this might be any kind of achievement (maybe Christine did). But today, I realize that Emmanuelle and François grew up on the top of a legendary wall, in a fabulous Old World place that might even be thought of (by people like me, in any case) as the cultural centre of western civilization.

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

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?

Monday, March 22, 2010

First rural residence

Not long after our return from Sydney in 1968, Christine and I decided to rent a small house out in the country, in a commune named Houdan, 43 km west of Versailles. This morning, I was thrilled to discover that the neighborhood in which we lived, named Mocsouris, can be seen through Google Maps. Here's the setting as you leave Houdan on the road towards Gambais:

[Click to enlarge.]

This is a view from the street of the actual house that we rented:

I remember above all that it was a terribly chilly house. The water in our radiators was heated by a coal-fueled stove, which I had to stoke up every evening, and the thermal efficiency of this archaic system was not far above zero.

I traveled daily to my work in Paris by train. After six months or so of this rural existence, we decided to get back to civilization. So, we bought an old flat right in the middle of Paris, in the rue Rambuteau. But I retain fond memories of that brief stay out in the country, near the main highway between Paris and Brittany.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

My DNA data

I guess I could say that this is the first official certificate I've ever received from an American institution. And I didn't even have to do any hard work to obtain it. Now, this is terribly personal information, like the image of my skull in one of my early blog articles [display], which greatly disturbed my longtime friend Odile. But there's no personal copyright attached to my DNA certificate, and I wouldn't mind at all if this data were to get stolen by all kinds of hackers and scientists with secret plans to clone me.

The Texan folk who tested me have also supplied a nice little map showing how my ancestors moved away from the territory of our African patriarch known as Adam, and finally ended up here in France... where members of the family were called Cro-Magnon long before they got around to adopting a nicer surname, Skyvington. Without wishing to appear snobbish, I'm happy they made that name change, because Cro-Magnons were as common, back at that time, as today's Smiths and Duponts.

My folk are indicated by the arrow marked R1b, which means that they followed a long trail through central Asia before getting here. In fact, it's a mere 25 millennia since they moved away from the territory marked R, located in the vicinity of modern Kazakhstan, and set off westwards towards Europe.

For the moment, I haven't found any genetic cousins (individuals with exactly the same marker values) with a surname like mine, but I'm trying to persuade various Skivington and Skeffington men throughout the world to get tested. This genetic genealogy adventure will be followed up in my specialized Skeffington Genealogy blog [display] whose banner appears in the right-hand column of the present blog. At an anecdotal level, I've mentioned there that I was proud to learn that Richard Dawkins happens to be one of my genetic cousins.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

November 11

The initial November 11 was in 1918, when the Armistice was signed on a cold wet day [like today at Gamone] in a railway carriage at Rethondes in the forest of Compiègne, to the north-east of Paris. Towards the end of that afternoon, in the Chamber of Deputies, French prime minister Georges Clemenceau read out the terms of Germany's surrender. The citizens of Paris started to dance in the streets, while watching a parade of captured cannons.

During more than four years of warfare, 1.4 million French soldiers had died, and 600 thousand had been wounded.

At the start of 1916, troops from the other side of the planet had moved to France to take part in the combats.

Referred to globally as the Anzac [Australian and New Zealand Army Corps], they were immediately hurled into the hell of the Somme. By the time the Armistice had been signed, 60 thousand Anzac troops had died on the combined fronts of the so-called Great War. Today, an Australian memorial is located at Villers-Bretonneux, up in Picardy, just to the east of Amiens.

While driving around in my Citroën this morning [looking in vain for a pharmacy, to obtain medicine for a severe cold], I discovered that commemoration services were taking place around the cenotaph of every town and village on my route.

I wish to conclude this evocation of the terrible events of 1914-1918 with this photo of a young Anzac soldier named Francis Pickering who succeeded in returning home safely to the family cattle station at Breeza in New South Wales:

As I've already explained on several occasions, this Pickering lad was the family hero whose nickname "King" (reflecting his prowess in various domains, including sport) was given as an official Christian name, in a spurt of zeal, to my father, born in 1917... who was embarrassed throughout his entire life by this silly regal name. Fortunately, the nurses in the maternity clinic at Rockhampton (Queensland) had a sense of humor, and they associated the new baby with a local Aboriginal celebrity known as King Billy. So, my father ended up being referred to by this nickname, soon shortened to Bill.

Thursday, November 8, 2007


In memoriam: Christian L

For the last couple of years, I've been participating as a guinea pig in a project conducted by the French medical-research organization named Inserm [Institut national de la santé et de la recherche médicale] aimed at determining whether a regular supplement of folates and omega-3 might have a positive effect upon the incidence of vascular accidents. In concrete terms, this means that I consume a couple of big tablets every morning... without knowing whether they might contain folates, omega-3 or simply placebo junk. Then, once a year, at the hospital in nearby Romans, I meet up with a Parisian nurse who tests me in one way or another for half an hour. Besides taking a blood specimen, she has a nice little test for seeing whether or not I might be developing advanced signs of something terrible like Alzheimer's disease. The test consists of asking me to name, say, every kind of animal (or country or color, etc) that springs into my mind in the space of thirty or so seconds. Now, to be quite honest, this kind of test scares shit out me... for the simple reason that it never fails to evoke the most nightmarish situation that I can possibly imagine. I'm referring to the idea that I might wake up one day and find that, for one reason or another, I no longer possess the most fabulous but fragile baggage that I've been acquiring over the last half a century: my mastery of French. I would like to imagine that my acquaintance with the language of Molière has infiltrated my brain to such an extent that my neurons now reek of it, as if they were eggs left to rot in a charming old French hen house, alongside a pig pen.

I imagine my brain, when I'm optimistic, as an aging Camembert cheese abandoned in one of those primitive fly-proof containers that we used to call safes back in Waterview, South Grafton, NSW, Australia. In the best of cases, if I wished to appear modern, in a technological spirit, my cerebral apparatus might be likened to the motor of an aging automobile, which seems to be branded Citroën, but which might well have been assembled imperfectly out in Australia. My soul is surely impregnated with the image of Notre-Dame de Paris, in the same way that the Shroud of Turin seems to convey a shadow of Christ... but I fear that my spiritual photo might simply be that of the humble redbrick church—referred to pompously as a "cathedral"—in my birthplace, Grafton.

In any case, I'm in no way opposed to the idea of exercising my brain.

"You are old, father William," the young man said,
"And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head —
Do you think, at your age, it is right?"

"In my youth," father William replied to his son,
"I feared it might injure the brain;
But, now that I'm perfectly sure I have none,
Why, I do it again and again."