Showing posts with label genealogy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label genealogy. Show all posts

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Might I have Viking blood?

It's hard to imagine that a quiet and well-behaved old-timer like me might evoke the possibility of his Viking ancestry. Besides, I can’t really vouch for the authenticity of this nice old family portrait—of an ancient ancestor named Sven, on a beach outing with his mates—that was handed down to me by relatives in the Old Country.


Vikings were intrepid adventurers, who were afraid of nothing and nobody… which is not exactly my personal case. Some of them were seafarers who finally settled on the continental shores of the English Channel (like my son François, who is considerably more Viking than I am). On the other hand, the idea of a Viking living in a place like Choranche would be a bit like Nicolas Sarkozy moving into a monastery, and Carla entering a nunnery. (The ex-president has screwed up his return to politics in such a way that my image is maybe not as crazy as it might appear.)

Genealogical research is often similar to science in that we imagine such-and-such a scenario, and then persevere in believing that our speculations might be valid. That’s to say, we only abandon our scenario when we discover that something in our speculations simply doesn’t add up… whereupon we drop it all immediately, like a proverbial load of shit. And there aren’t even any sentimental thanks for the memories. Scientific research is a harsh business. No matter how much poetry was conveyed by the lovely old concept of an omnipresent ubiquitous ether permeating all the infinitesimal interstices of the universe, this theory was trashed instantly and forever as soon as the Michelson-Morley experiment of 1887, designed to record the existence of ether-drift, returned negative results. In genealogy, of course, we’re light years away from experimental physics, but family-history research and scientific research both necessitate the invention of imaginative yet plausible speculations. And such speculations are “born to die” in the sense that they must be discarded as soon as they no longer correspond to known facts. So, we advance through generations of better and better speculations, while burning all our poorly-built bridges behind us.

For the moment, therefore, I persist in speculating that our Skeffington patriarch in Leicestershire had come across the English Channel from Normandy in the wake of Duke William’s invasion.

Click the YouTube icon to watch a better presentation

I’ve investigated several theories in an attempt to ascertain the surname of this fellow’s family back in Normandy, but I’ve never been able to obtain any firm facts. Let me invent a plausible name for this Norman ancestor: Sven de Cotentin. I would imagine that Sven lived with his wife and children in the vicinity, say, of the modern town of Coutances. They probably led a simple but quite comfortable rural existence in Normandy, enabling Sven and his family to become candidates for settlement in the captured land on the other side of the English Channel.

I’ve always been intrigued by two obvious questions:

1 — When Sven left for England, did he leave any relatives back in Normandy?

2 — Back in Normandy, what was Sven’s family-history background?

As far as the first question is concerned, we might imagine that Sven had brothers or cousins (on his paternal side) who had not wished to move across to England, because they were happy with their life in Normandy. Going one step further, we might find that descendants of these folk exist today in France, maybe still in Normandy. If this were the case, then we can imagine that these people might decide to carry out DNA tests, in which case our Y-chromosomes would match. Alas, in the online Y-chromosome database, I've never yet come upon a living Frenchman whose data looks anything like mine. For this and other reasons, I tend to believe that the probable answer to that first question is negative. If Sven were sufficiently motivated to move across to England, then his male relatives would have surely been equally enthusiastic about this project… unless, of course, they owned valuable properties in Normandy.

Concerning the second question, it’s perfectly possible that Sven’s ancestors were Vikings (like the ancestors of Duke William himself) who had arrived in the Cotentin region during the 9th century, and decided to settle down there. As for their wives, they may well have been local Gallic girls. This speculation leads us to imagine that Sven’s Viking ancestor might have left male relatives back in Scandinavia, and that descendants of these folk might exist today in a land such as Sweden, Norway or Denmark.

Two days ago, I performed one of my regular searches in the Y-chromosome database. As of a couple of months ago, I’ve had a single match, with the Englishman Hugh Courtenay, an oddly-named grandson of my rogue great-grandfather William Skyvington [1868-1959], described here. Well, the name of a new match has just appeared in this Y-chromosome database. Here’s my current summary:

Click to enlarge

The Swedish lady who recently submitted this data—on behalf of her husband’s maternal uncle named Sven-Erik Johansson—has promised to send me the complete set of 67 marker values as soon as they’re available. Incidentally, the earliest known ancestor of Sven-Erik Johansson was a certain Sven Nilsson Durmin [1709-1780]. I'm awaiting explanations from the lady concerning the apparent change in surname.

For the moment, as you can see, my match with Sven-Erik Johansson is based upon a subset of 30 markers, and the so-called “genetic distance” (the difference between our respective values) is 2, which is the same as my distance from the Courtenay values (for 37 markers). Obviously, my excitement is premature, since the Johansson/Skyvington genetic distance might explode beyond acceptable bounds when we obtain the remaining 37 values. But I take advantage of this delay in order to revel in the idea (maybe only momentarily) that I might at last be sailing in the wake of our Viking…

Monday, August 25, 2014

My second family-history book

This morning, the postwoman brought me a first copy (from the printer in the UK) of They Sought the Last of Lands, which can be thought of as a companion volume to A Little Bit of Irish.

Click to enlarge

I’m more than satisfied with the result.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Farewell to family history

It’s 2 o’clock in the morning, and I’ve just finished uploading the files of They Sought the Last of Lands to the IngramSpark platform in England. Here’s the cover, which I created this evening:

Click to enlarge

There don’t seem to be any technical errors in my files (which are automatically verified by the IngramSpark robot as soon as they’ve been uploaded), so the book should be published very soon. Finally, with the index, it’s 384 pages long, whereas A Little Bit of Irish was only 266 pages long.

As of tomorrow, I’ll be packing up all my family-history archives and storing them away. It’s a funny feeling to think that this lengthy adventure is now terminated… except, of course, for my Skeffington One-Name Study, which will be not be a personal family-history document in the same sense as the first two books, but rather a kind of historical monograph.

In fact this Skeffington book is no longer the exciting challenge that it appeared to be when I first started looking into genealogy, many years ago. To be perfectly honest, I’m not particularly motivated by this Skeffington project, because I know already that this future book is unlikely to satisfy lots of people throughout the world who received the Skeffington surname in circumstances that I’m not capable of explaining. The only reason why I intend to continue this one-name study is that I now possess such a complete collection of documents on ancient Skeffington history that it would be a pity not to take advantage of them.

Above all, I continue to hope that a certain number of male individuals with our surname will end up providing Y-chromosome data, which remains the only sound method for discovering who’s who… as we’ve just seen in the context of the Courtenay Affair.

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...

Friday, March 28, 2014

Genealogical pilgrimages

My highfalutin title simply designates touristic travel excursions motivated by family-history interests. So, a good example of a genea-pilgrimage (as I shall call them) was the recent visit of my niece Indiya to places in northern London, described in my blog post entitled Looking back on a London century [display]. And I hope I’m not being pretentious in imagining that the publication of my two family-history books, A Little Bit of Irish and They Sought the Last of Lands, might end up increasing the popularity of genea-pilgrimages in the context of my family and relatives.

Obviously, since neither of my books has been written in the spirit of a tourist guide, the steps involved in moving from the books to down-to-earth excursion plans would necessitate some work. Well, I’ve been thinking that maybe I have the personal responsibility of facilitating this work in one way or another. After all, I’ve had a minimum of experience in the domain of tourist guidebooks, through my Great Britain Today [Jeune Afrique, Paris, 1978].


Let’s refer to such an excursion plan as a Genea-Pilgrimage Guide (GPG). Maybe I’ll place such GPGs in the webspaces that have housed, up until now, the PDF files of the chapters of my family-history books.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Looking back on a London century

A century separates these two photos taken at exactly the same spot in a northern neighborhood of London.



The older lady was Martha Watson [1837-1915], while the young woman is Martha’s great-great-great-granddaughter Indiya Taylor, born in Australia. The following chart indicates that Martha’s married name was Mepham (which was loaded onto my unfortunate father as a second given name):


The second child, Eliza Jane Mepham, married a certain William Skyvington, as indicated in the following chart:


Their only child, Ernest Skyvington [1891-1985], went out to Australia in 1908 on a steamship named the Marathon.


Ernest, who was Indiya’s great-grandfather, became a prosperous businessman in Grafton (NSW), where he started up the Ford automobile dealership.


He once revisited the Old World and his native London in the company of his daughter Yvonne. In Paris, my wife Christine asked Pop (as we called him) to name the place that had most impressed him during his world tour. His reply: “Burleigh Heads.” That was the town on Queensland’s Gold Coast where he had been living in retirement for a decade or so. Pop had a great sense of humor, and that was his way of telling us that there’s no place like home. But the address that Indiya tracked down a few days ago was indeed Pop’s true home throughout his adolescence in London.


With technical assistance that I had obtained from historical authorities in London, Indiya was able to discover the quiet dead-end section of Mount Pleasant Crescent (called Mount Pleasant Road in Pop’s time) where the old Mepham house is currently numbered 72.


I’m amused by the symbolic aspects of the following photo, in which my lovely niece appears to be narrowing down her search for origins, while looking back upon a London century.


Incidentally, I should have normally published by now my genealogical book that talks about our London origins (amongst many other aspects of our family history). Its cover will look like this:


Publication is delayed, however, by fascinating last-minute news that I mentioned briefly in my recent post entitled White lies of men in love [display]. The potential “white liar” in question is the man whose name appears in the upper left-hand corner of the second chart: my great-grandfather William Skyvington. I’m hoping that the friends who have kindly revealed this curious affair—the Courtenay family in the UK—will be convinced that the only way of elucidating this enigma is to call upon modern science: namely, a Y-chromosome genealogical test.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

White lies of men in love

In the context of my genealogical research, I was intrigued, if not amused, by the behavior of my ancestor Charles Walker [1807-1860], probably a Scottish Protestant, who maintained that he was an Irish Catholic, ostensibly in order to be able to wed a 17-year-old Tipperary nymph, 15 years his junior. Religion can't compete with sexual passion!

Recently, on the side of my paternal grandmother, I heard of the astonishing case of John Pickering [1851-1926] who decided to call himself "John Latton", enabling him to wed a new wife (while holding on to the original one) and to create an entire parallel family.

Yet another case of this kind was brought to my attention, unexpectedly, a couple of days ago. Here’s the only photo I have of Devon-born William Skyvington [born in 1868], my paternal great-grandfather.


And here’s a photo of William’s son, my future grandfather Ernest Skyvington [1891-1985], in his general store in the Queensland outback.


Whenever I quizzed my grandfather about what might have happened to his father, he had no clear answers… apart from suggesting that William Skyvington may have died in World War I. Needless to say, I found that answer unsatisfactory, because my great-grandfather would have normally been too old to get enlisted as a soldier. So, I concluded that we would probably never know what had happened to him.

Yesterday afternoon, I received an astonishing e-mail from a lady whose maiden name was Nicola Courtenay. She told me that the second given name of her grandfather was somewhat strange. He called himself “William Skyvington Courtenay”. After examining the bits of data that Nicola had included in her e-mail, I realized beyond any doubt whatsoever that her alleged Courtenay ancestor was in fact my great-grandfather. In other words, after the premature death of his wife (my great-grandmother) in London, William Skyvington had succeeded in convincing a young woman—his future bride—that he was a descendant of the celebrated Courtenay family: the Earls of Devon. Clearly, William had fallen in love, and he took the liberty of inventing this white lie to make sure that he would capture his beloved female. Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it…


For a family historian, the annoying aspect of such identity changes is that there’s no obvious way of searching for them or even detecting their existence. There's no other method of discovering such an identity change than to receive an unexpected message from a total stranger. And shortly after such a contact, the “total stranger” has suddenly become one of your closest relatives, and an excellent friend. What a silly idea to imagine that genealogy is a matter of fossicking around among tombstones!

Sunday, January 19, 2014

My mother's birthday

I must admit that I tend to talk and think as if everybody in the universe has been enthralled by Kurt Vonnegut [1922-2007] in general and his eye-opening novel Deadeye Dick (1983) in particular. Maybe they have, and I simply haven’t noticed…


Employing Vonnegut talk, I celebrate today the fact that the peephole of my dear mother Enid Kathleen Walker [1918-2003] opened exactly 96 years ago, on January 19, 1918. Here’s a lovely studio portrait of Kath when she was two years old:


If ever it could be said that one’s date of birth is “chosen” (how, and by whom?), then the least I can say is that the occult forces of the universe chose a crazy date for the opening of my mother’s peephole, in the year of the end of the Great War. I find it fascinating to be able to throw a simple argument at Google, such as the date of my mother’s birth [display], and to discover everything that was happening at that moment in the past.

In the posthumous celebration of my mother’s birthday, the best man at the party is surely Wikipedia. And all I can hope is that he’ll be constantly in attendance at my own future birthday celebrations…

Monday, January 13, 2014

Cover for my book on maternal genealogy

Up until now, I’ve been using the following cover for the typescript of my book on maternal genealogy, soon to be published by Gamone Press.


I’ve always been aware that this dull cover (based upon a Xmas card sent to me, 33 years ago, by an Australian uncle) was a temporary thing, and that it would need to be replaced, sooner or later, by a more attractive design. This morning, I created a couple of possible models for the cover, making use of Australian images that I can purchase (for some 50 euros) in high-resolution format (300 dots per inch).

Click to enlarge

In both cases, I’ve used the metaphor of a rural road, symbolizing, as it were, the paths of my pioneering ancestors in Braidwood and the Clarence River region. An observer can no doubt guess that "my mother's people" came from Ireland, but we cannot know, of course, what lies ahead, beyond the crest of the hill. A little bit of greenness by the roadside reinforces the title (without seeking to “explain” it, since there are several subtle reasons for my choice of this title).

You might say that the left-hand maquette is classical, whereas the right-hand maquette is more “modern”. I would appreciate any reactions to these models.

FIRST REACTION: Each new blog post that I publish gives rise automatically to a Twitter message from my @Skyvington account. And that's how I received my first reaction, from a friendly Canadian woman, Diane Rogers, whom I thank greatly.


SECOND REACTION: And here's another Twitter vote in favor of the right-hand model, from a Skeffington lady in Scotland. I thank her very much.


VARIATIONS: It's not all that easy to submit variations that might respect the suggestions of critics. Here, for example, is a version of the right-hand cover with a totally different typography:


The title—A Little Bit of Irish—is certainly highlighted here, and the readability of the cover text is surely maximal, but I have the impression that the heavy typography is being shoved down our throats. I prefer the lightweight style of the initial version with its intriguing font. To be honest, though, I simply don't know how artistically-gifted critics (that's not my case) end up evaluating questions of this kind. So, please, help !

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Photos of World War I

As soon as the Great War broke out, the French psychiatrist Frantz Adam [1886-1986] was enlisted as a medical officer in a French infantry regiment. Throughout the years that followed, he was present at major events on the Western Front: Vosges (1915), Somme and Verdun (1916), Chemin des Dames (1917)...


Besides his professional activities, Frantz Adam got into the habit of taking photos of all kinds of situations, both grim and pleasant, in the context of the Western Front. A few years ago, his descendant Arnaud Bouteloup inherited 600 photos taken by his great-uncle, and many of these images have been cleaned up and recently published in a French-language book entitled Ce que j'ai vu de la Grande Guerre (What I Saw of the Great War).


Click here to visit an AFP webpage on Frantz Adam with a few specimens of his photos. An image that caught my attention shows a group of eight Australian soldiers relaxing on a Belgian river bank in May 1918.

Click to enlarge

Anecdote: At the time the above photo was taken, my ancestral relative Francis Pickering [1897-1945] from the Quirindi district (NSW) was surely not too far away. His greatest military deeds were performed in the autumn of 1918 at Joncourt, to the east of Amiens, midway between Cambrai (to the north) and Saint-Quentin (to the south).


Nicknamed "the King" (because of his athletic prowess), Francis Pickering was awarded the Military Medal in 1919 "for bravery in the field". When my grandmother Kathleen Pickering gave birth to a son in October 1917, she chose the nickname of her young brother as the given name of her baby... and my poor father carried the burden of this embarrassing given name throughout his entire life. Worse still, his second given name was an ancestral surname, Mepham. So, my father's full name—King Mepham Skyvington—sounded as if he were the monarch of an ancient Anglo-Saxon province.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

My English story is finally finished

A week ago, I announced [display] that my maternal family-history document was completed. Today, I'm happy to announce that the complementary dimension of my genealogical challenge has been completed. That's to say, I've finally finished a full version of my paternal family-history story, entitled They Sought the Last of Lands. It's 276 pages long, and can be downloaded from this address:


In my title, the expression "last of lands" (with might be thought of as an exaggeration) has been borrowed from a great Australian poet.
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

My paternal ancestors sailed from the Old World to the Antipodes because they had romantic dreams of a young continent where they would be able to lead a happy, healthy and prosperous rural existence... including, among other things (for my grandfather Ernest Skyvington), the possibility of riding horses: an upper-class privilege in England. In modern terms, it might be said literally that my ancestors were thinking of a fabulous sea change. And so they were.


Created in a similar style to my maternal genealogy, A Little Bit of Irish, this second document reflects a new kind of family-history research and presentation, based largely upon the resources made available through the Internet.

To my mind, it's sad that too many people imagine that the genealogy/Internet tandem must necessarily give rise to antiseptic documents that look more like pages out of a phone directory than something you might wish to read, like a novel. The key to producing a readable family-history document consists, I believe, in unearthing and then transcribing poignant anecdotes that place the story in a human-all-too-human context. So, one of the heroes of the tale of my father's forebears was the Bournemouth milkman who sired so many Skyvingtons (from several mothers, but all perfectly legitimate) that he placed our surname indelibly in Northern America. And another hero was the Pickering brother who stayed at home in London (leaving the discovery of the New World up to his two elder brothers) and then created an amazing double-life inspired by his passion for ancient ancestors.

A family historian is so intimately linked to his stories that he cannot evaluate objectively the quality of his writing. For me, as far as They Sought the Last of Lands is concerned, I like to imagine myself drinking Billy Tea and talking to a kangaroo.


Our Aussie beast would surely understand everything.

Friday, October 11, 2013

My Irish story is finally finished

I've finally completed a full version of my maternal family-history story, entitled A Little Bit of Irish. It's 242 pages long, and can be downloaded from the following address:


I've borrowed my title from an embarrassingly sentimental old song (containing the expression "God made Ireland") that was used as a theme by the Irish tenor Patrick O'Hagan (father of Australian-born Johnny Logan, of Eurovision fame). Please don't feel obliged to listen to this recent version right through to the end:


My document presents 4 or 5 generations of ancestors who were all—to a greater or lesser extent—rural pioneers in New South Wales, first in Braidwood then up on the Clarence River (where I was born in 1940).


An interesting outcome of my family-history research (in chapter 3) is my "discovery" and identification of a hitherto little-known Braidwood bushranger: Billy Hickey [1818-1901], the big brother of my great-great-grandmother Ann Hickey [1822-1898]. Billy had been a mate and short-term accomplice of the notorious Clarke brothers.


John Clarke (with gunshot wounds in his right shoulder) and Tommy Clarke were the last Australian bushrangers to be hanged, on 25 June 1867. Fortunately, Billy Hickey gave up crime before the age of 30, for reasons that remain a mystery. Then he married, settled down as a farmer and raised a family of 7 kids. Billy's farm was located in the Irish Corner settlement on the outskirts of Braidwood, in the vicinity of the Farmers' Home tavern run by my great-great-grandfather Charles Walker [1807-1860].

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

French village of family-history relevance

A couple of days ago, I made an intriguing discovery in the domain of my ancient family history. It's a little complicated to describe, but I'll try to summarize the situation. My paternal grandparents—referred to, by the offspring of my generation, as Pop and Ma—were Ernest Skyvington [1891-1985] and Kathleen Pickering [1889-1964], seen here in Sydney.


I've practically completed a genealogical document on my paternal grandparents entitled They Sought the Last of Lands, whose chapters can be downloaded here. Concerning the origins of my surname, I'm working on a document entitled Skeffington One-Name Study whose chapters will finally be downloadable here. (For the moment, I've only released the opening chapter of the latter document.)

Normally, when we work backwards in time from a couple such as my grandparents, who came together by chance out in the Antipodes, we would expect that their ancestral lines soon diverge, and that they remain divergent for as far as we move into the past. You only have to perform a little elementary arithmetic, though, to realize that this divergence is generally a temporary illusion. Sooner or later, as you work back in time, the distant ancestors of your grandfather are likely to merge into those of your grandmother (unless, of course, one of your grandparents happened to descend, say, from Australian Aborigines, and the other from Arctic Eskimos). Although this situation is logical, I was amazed when I happened to find that remote forebears of both my paternal grandparents actually lived in the same Old World village, indeed in the same household!

Here is the village in question, known today as Ambrières-les-Vallées and located in the French department of Mayenne:


The village is located on a secondary road between Alençon and Fougères that I used to ride along when I was cycling between Paris and Brittany.

Click to enlarge

I've probably ridden my bike through this intersection, alongside the church of Ambrières-les-Vallées.


At a genealogical level, please don't interpret too literally what I have to say. The historical context to which I'm referring is so far back in time, in the 10th century (before Guillaume, Duke of Normandy, became William the Conqueror), that we have to accept a certain degree of fuzziness in our findings. Don't expect me to show you a photo of a log cabin on the edge of the woods (or even an old stone house) and to explain: "That's the big room where my grandfather's ancestors used to sleep, and here's the corner of the house where their lovely female cousins used to stay whenever they dropped in." The kind of genealogical research results that I'm evoking in the present blog post are generally obtained after lengthy efforts, often stretching over decades (as has been the case for me) and necessitating countless guesses, some which are very bad, whereas others turn out to be quite fruitful, if not perfectly correct. The style of investigations is much like in scientific research, although I hasten to add that genealogy is by no means an exact "science".

Let me outline (without going into details) my genealogical links with this village in Mayenne. In the first half of the 11th century, before the Conquest, Guillaume built a fortress in this village, and he appointed as governor a certain Robert de Verdun, who was so named because his grandfather Godfrey had been the Count of Verdun in Lorraine. This Robert had a son, also named Robert, who was born in the Norman town of Estouteville, and therefore known as Robert d'Estouteville. After the Conquest, these two "surnames" would become famous, both in England and in their native Normandy. People of the Verdun family were among the first settlers in the Leicestershire village of Skeffington, which was the cradle of future families with names spelt Skeffington, Skevington, Skivington, etc. As for the Estouteville family in England, they gave rise to a lineage known as Latton, and my grandmother Kathleen Pickering was a descendant of the Lattons. So, between the father Robert de Verdun and his son Robert d'Estouteville, the village of Ambrières included primordial elements of the two English families from which my grandparents were issued.

Having identified this interesting place and its history, I'm obliged to say that there are still countless loose ends and fuzzy zones in my family history.

POST SCRIPTUM: In the current version of chapter 1 of my ongoing Skeffington One-Name Study, I wrote (somewhat recklessly):
Contrary to what their family name suggests, the de Verduns had nothing to do with the place in Lorraine where a terrible battle was fought during the First World War on the Western Front.
This statement needs to be reexamined and rewritten (maybe enlarged considerably) in the light of what I've just related in the present blog post. As in scientific research, I have to correct constantly my current family-history presentations and "theories" as soon as I happen to realize that they don't seem to fit in with the latest set of alleged facts.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Genealogy fiction

GeneaNet is a genealogy service that was created in France.

Click here to access the GeneaNet website.

A major characteristic of this free service is that you can communicate with other researchers who are examining surnames that interest you. This feature can sometimes put you in contact with a researcher who has already carried out work that concerns you. In most cases, though, you come upon research results that simply don't ring a bell in any useful way.

As a registered user of GeneaNet, I made a request to be informed of all ongoing research concerning individuals named Skeffington. As soon as I receive an email from GeneaNet stating that one of their members has just uploaded Skeffington data into his family tree, I try to understand the circumstances in which this operation has been carried out. That's to say: Who are these researchers who appear to be interested in the Skeffington family? What is the exact nature of their uploaded data? Etc. Let me simply say that, in spite of countless emails indicating that dozens of GeneaNet member have inserted Skeffington data into their family trees, I have never yet found an iota of pertinent Skeffington information through this service. On the other hand, GeneaNet has helped me considerably concerning the history of former owners of my house at Gamone. So, I continue half-heartedly with the service.

The community of GeneaNet users appears to include researchers who are happy to get involved in what I would refer to as genealogy fiction. That's to say, their research starts out with serious facts, of the kind that we expect in a genealogical context, but they soon link their family tree to massive blocks of existing data whose authenticity is often nebulous, to say the least. Within these blocks of data, many of the individuals appear to be members of the nobility, but their credentials are open to doubt. Meanwhile, other individuals whose names appear in these blocks of remote "cousins" are personages from history and even from legends. A few days ago, for example, I was told that a French researcher had inserted the names of several 17th-century Skeffington individuals into his family tree. When I examined his tree, I was amazed to discover that it contained a gigantic horde of people stretching over more than a hundred generations. One of his alleged cousins was Attila the Hun.


King Arthur was also present.


Jesus and his mother were also distant cousins of this well-connected Frenchman.



Concerning the mother of Jesus, it's frankly weird to find her designated as "the Virgin Mary of Arimathea". The inspired GeneaNet member who contributed this description was surely an adept of an obscure medieval English legend suggesting that Joseph of Arimathea was the paternal uncle of the Virgin Mary, and that he once visited the town of Glastonbury (Somerset) with his young nephew Jesus.

A little earlier on, our well-connected Frenchman had also announced that he was related to Cleopatra and the pharaoh Ramses.



To my mind, this sort of nonsense has no place in serious genealogical research. In fact, I suspect that certain members of the GeneaNet community derive pleasure from uploading tons of fake data of this kind, and the service then encourages other members to establish alleged links to such personages.