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

Saturday, October 22, 2011

What science is saying

These days, the general public is being offered countless presentations of scientific conclusions concerning the origins of human beings. The tone of some of these presentations is so clear, and their contents are so striking, that most people should grasp what is being said, and be impressed by the scope and depth of such explanations. I would imagine that most young people react seriously to such presentations, whereas many adults probably find ways of shielding themselves from the impact of revolutionary facts capable of disturbing them.

Near the start of The Magic of Reality, Richard Dawkins presents readers with a spectacular thought experiment: that's to say, a virtual project carried out, not in a laboratory, but in your imagination. You're asked to stack up portraits of your father, your father's father, your father's father's father, and so on: that's to say, all your paternal male ancestors. The huge stack of images—extending backwards in time—might be laid out on bookshelves, enabling you to browse through them in an orderly fashion to examine the portrait of any specific male ancestor.

If you browsed back to the portrait of your 4,000-greats-grandfather, you would discover a bearded dark-skinned fellow not unlike men you might see today, say, in a Moroccan village. If you browsed back much further, to the portrait of your 50,000-greats-grandfather, you would come upon an individual who looks like the proverbial caveman. Dawkins then asks you to browse all the way back to your 185-million-greats-grandfather. What might he look like? With the help of brilliant illustrations from Dave McKean, Dawkins supplies an answer, which might shock certain readers:

This portrait of a grandpappy is far removed from the typical paintings of distinguished oldtimers in the portrait galleries of aristocratic families. The ancestor who most impressed me was our long-snouted 45-million-greats-grandfather, shown here having a snack:

To appreciate these ancestral illustrations and explanations, you really must get a copy of this splendid Dawkins book, which is packed with all kinds of fascinating tales (including myths) and science stuff.

A few evenings ago, on the Arte TV channel, I watched an interesting documentary on population genetics. Viewers were introduced to the fabulous possibilities of examining DNA specimens to determine the genealogy of various ethnic communities. Personally, I prefer to acquire my knowledge of population genetics and large-scale genealogy through reading books, articles and Internet stuff rather than depending on TV. I would imagine however that this documentary must have been an eye-opener for viewers who were unaware of state-of-the-art findings and thinking in this complex domain.

The subject was tackled in a controversial style (rightly, I believe) by insisting on the fact that the old-fashioned concept of human races is totally rejected by modern research. All human beings who exist today on the planet Earth are the biological descendants of a small group of Africans who were probably similar to the community known today as South African Bushmen. In a sense, therefore, we are all Africans! This poetic declaration charmed 80-year-old Desmond Tutu.

Certain facts are likely to amaze white-skinned Europeans and citizens of the New World, and maybe make us more humble. For example, there is no doubt whatsoever that our prehistoric ancestors were black-skinned, and that our present whiteness is a freakish new-fangled affair brought on by the physiological fact that fairer ex-Africans survived better in cold climates. So, alongside "black is beautiful", we might proclaim that "negro is normal", whereas "white is weird".

These days, research in population genetics is advancing so rapidly that certain major breakthroughs have occurred in the short time since the French TV documentary was completed. For example, there have been amazing revelations concerning the early date at which the ancestors of Australia's Aborigines left Africa. In the 1920s, a lock of hair was taken from an anonymous young Aboriginal male near Kalgoorlie. Well, this DNA specimen was sufficient to enable, recently, an analysis of the subject's genome. And it became obvious that the ancestors of Australia's Aborigines had in fact left Africa at least some 50 millennia ago: that's to say, well before the exodus that gave rise to communities of Homo sapiens in Asia and Europe.

A tribal elder described this DNA-based breakthrough as "just a white-fella story", and said he would continue to believe in the tribe's mythical creation legends.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Tree sawed into firewood

In my recent article about cutting down a dead tree at Gamone [display], I should have pointed out that the tree in question is known in French as a Frêne [Fraxinus excelsior]. In English, it's a European Ash. The latter term has nothing to do with the stuff that remains after a fire. It comes from a Saxon word, æsc, which means spear. Ash wood is indeed hard and dense, and I can well imagine it being used for spears.

Now, this is funny, because my surname, Skyvington, is derived from the Saxon expression Sceaftinga tûn, which can be translated as "the place of Sceaft’s people". Used as a noun, sceaft means a shaft or spear, suggesting that the original settlement (in what we now call Leicestershire) was the home of a Saxon warrior who was a reputed spear-thrower. So, the Saxon words sceaft and æsc are surely related.

This afternoon, I finished the job of cutting up the branches with a chainsaw. And it has provided me with a stock of fine dry firewood.

For the thicker parts of the trunk, I used steel wedges and a sledgehammer to split the wood.

Next winter, when I'm warming my toes in front of a log fire, I'll inevitably think back to the ancient Saxon warrior who was at the origin of my family name. He did this in a rather indirect manner, and grudgingly, because his settlement was simply taken over (maybe after a combat) by the companions of William the Conqueror. One of these Norman invaders was my real ancestor, not the celebrated Saxon spear-thrower. Be that as it may, I'm grateful to the Saxon fellow named Sceaft for participating unwittingly, unwillingly, in my personal genealogy by supplying me with my surname… just as I'll be grateful to the dead ash tree for supplying me with warmth.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Flood today, cyclone tomorrow

Yesterday, there may have been a bushfire. And the day before that, people were suffering from a drought. That's a huge price that residents of Queensland have to pay for the pleasure of being able to stroll around in T-shirts, shorts and thongs all year round, and never having to scrape ice off the car's windshield on a wintry morning.

[Click the image to display a set of awesome Australian cyclone photos.]

Human nature is such, I believe, that people happen to congregate in such-and-such a place when everything's wonderful, and that initial joyful contact instills in their minds an exclusively positive attitude towards the place in question, to such an extent that nothing—not even the presence of snakes, spiders, crocodiles, sharks, etc—could ever change their convictions. Personally, that's what happened to me, long ago, when I met up with the great city of Paris. More recently, my first encounter with the mountain ranges where I'm now settled was similarly positive, indeed breathtaking. Those initial moments warped my mind, and prevented me (maybe for the rest of my life) from ever thinking calmly and objectively about my adoptive mountain ranges (the Chartreuse and the Vercors).

On a glorious summer's day, as I gazed at the magnificent landscape and monastic buildings of the Grande Chartreuse, I remember exclaiming to another visitor: "Those monks are likely to be disappointed when they finally get to heaven, because it can't possibly be as beautiful as it is here." Later on, I would discover those same landscapes in the terribly harsh conditions of a Carthusian winter.

Getting back to Australia (which has concerned me primarily, for ages, in a family-history perspective), I'm convinced that the accumulation of meteorological disasters in my native land has no doubt accounted for the destruction of vast volumes of family archives. When I was a teenager, my most precious possession was a big scrapbook containing all the press cuttings describing the cycling achievements of my uncle Johnnie "Cyclone" Walker.

One day, I lent the scrapbook to a friend who was also interested in cycling… then a flood came, and the precious document was destroyed. When people are struggling to survive, they are preoccupied by the immediate future. In such situations, the first things that threatened folk sacrifice—inevitably but sadly—are their traces, if not their memories, of the past.

Monday, January 31, 2011

False family-history hopes

I find Australian friends on a few family-history blogs getting excited about DNA testing. Meanwhile, the great American science scholar and writer Carl Zimmer has just tweeted:

If I ever get a DNA ancestry test, I want @razibkhan to help me figure out what it all means:

If you take a look at Razib Khan's lengthy and complex analysis of his personal DNA results from 23andMe, you'll realize immediately that Carl Zimmer was being ironic in a friendly fashion. Often, naive newcomers to genealogical testing are awestruck by what the testing firms offer them. Certain testing firms lure their customers on by letting them believe that they're likely to come upon all kinds of cousins in the published databases. It goes without saying (as a little serious in-depth study of the subject, not to mention some basic arithmetic, would rapidly reveal) that these claims are surely exaggerated, to say the least.

All the inherited characteristics that make an individual what he or she is, today, come from a set of ancestors who were present on the planet Earth at various times over, say, the last couple of thousand years. That's already a lengthy time frame, and few of us have serious chances of finding out anything whatsoever concerning individual ancestors who lived, say, at the time of the Roman Empire. Not even kings and queens can obtain that kind of data! Moreover, you've been influenced genetically, during these two millennia, by a staggeringly vast horde of direct individual ancestors. (Do the arithmetic: 2 to the power of G, where G is the generation that interests you. Admittedly, there are countless repeated individuals in this crowd.) Consequently, the genetic input of any particular individual in this horde is like a drop of water in a wide and deep river.

In the domain of Y-chromosome or mtDNA haplogroups, the frame of reference extends back in an awesome exponential fashion over tens of thousands of years, giving rise to an ocean of population demography in which the very notion of your particular ancestors ceases to have any meaning whatsoever. And the particular individuals who provided you with the molecules that you might send off to get analyzed today were like a tiny line of bubbles rising to the surface of this vast ocean.

At a down-to-earth level, I've often said that DNA testing can possibly provide genuine assistance in the domain of genealogical research. In my personal case, for example, if ever I came across published Y-chromosome markers whose values matched mine, and if the individual in question happened to have an appreciable amount of traditional genealogical data about his background, then I might be able to learn more about my male ancestors named Skivington, Skevington or Skeffington. But those are two big "ifs". My results include values for 67 markers. Here's what I'm offered, today, when I look for matches:

Restricting my matching search to a maximum of little more than a third of my 67 tested markers, I find four individuals whose values are vaguely close to mine, with a difference (a so-called "genetic distance") of 3. Insofar as the values of a typical marker mutate extremely slowly (let's say, once every few centuries or so), it's most unlikely that any of those tested individuals named Walsh, Gifford, Davis and McGrath shared an even remote paternal ancestor with me since the end of prehistoric times. Consequently, it would be a pointless waste of time for me to attempt to contact such individuals in the hope of our sharing common family-history information.

So, you might say that my investment in Y-chromosome testing with FamilyTreeDNA was a little like buying a lottery ticket. And I haven't got anywhere near winning a prize yet.

ADDENDUM: Often, I imagine scenarios involving a near-perfect match between my 67 markers and those of another male, somewhere on the planet. The ideal scenario would involve an auburn-haired Frenchman named, say, Jacques Beaumont, living today in Normandy, who would go on to tell me, once we got into contact, that his family had a distant ancestor who went to England at the time of William the Conqueror. I would then be in a position to assume that the ancestor in question was no doubt the fellow who settled down in the Saxon village of Sceaftinga-tûn in the county that became known as Leicestershire. But there are countless other less perfect scenarios (where my use of the adjective "perfect" is deliberately tongue-in-cheekish). For example, once we move back to the 17th century, I no longer have any reasons to believe naively that all my direct male ancestors were indeed bona fide Skivington husbands. When I was an adolescent, the Aussie slang expression "ring-in" designated a substitute, somebody brought into a family context, often on false pretences. (I don't know the origins of this expression.) If, in a family, one of the offspring behaved quite differently to the other siblings, the child might be labeled a ring-in, indicating that the true identity of his/her father was not entirely guaranteed. So, it's quite possible that one of my ancestors was a non-Skivington ring-in who had succeeded in jumping into bed with the current Mrs Skivington and procreating the ancestral line that finally produced me. And we might imagine that this ring-in had a brother who was a seaman working on an old sailing-ship that once ventured out, say, to Batavia (modern Jakarta). While the vessel was picking up spices, the seaman might have picked up a young local lady and got her pregnant. If that were the case, then we could well expect that an Indonesian gentleman, today, has exactly the same Y-chromosome markers as I do. Moreover, there are 16th-century males in Turvey (Bedfordshire) referred to as Robert husbandman Skevington and George husband Skevington. Funnily enough, the term "husbandman" doesn't necessarily designate the chap who was legally married to Mrs Skevington. Etymologically, a husband was a fellow who tilled the soil. So the above-mentioned Robert and George might have been plowmen who worked as agricultural laborers on the Skevington estates in Turvey. In that case, genealogically, they would be ring-ins. So, anything's possible… even with perfectly matching Y-chromosome marker values. To borrow the title of a funny French movie, it would have been nice if the existence of our ancestors had always been like a long and tranquil river.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Acquiring land and a brand

I have a short family-history article appearing in the forthcoming newsletter of the Clarence River Historical Society [website], located in Grafton (New South Wales), my birthplace in Australia. In this article, I mention my father's branding iron (which I now have with me here in France). As a former employee at the Ford dealership in Grafton, my father chose V8 as his registered stock brand.

Click the photo to download a copy of my article.

Free settlers in the Antipodes

Australia Day is an appropriate moment to commemorate my ancestral relative Thomas Rose [1749-1833] from Dorset. Aboard the Bellona, Thomas and his wife Jane Topp [1757-1827] were the first free settlers to arrive in New South Wales, on 15 January 1793. While not a direct ancestor of mine, Thomas was a close cousin of my ancestor Elizabeth Rose [1728-1774]. The Rose family came from the village of Sturminster Newton in Dorset. The following map indicates the location of this village with respect to Blandford Forum, the main town in this part of Dorset:

The following chart presents the family context of Thomas Rose:

Thomas's parents were married at Sturminster Newton. The four offspring were born and/or christened there, and Thomas and Jane were also married there. Here is the church of St Mary's at Sturminster Newton:

Let me turn now to my direct Skivington and Rose ancestors:

Elizabeth Rose, my 6-times-great-grandmother, was the eldest child in the Rose family.

Her father William Rose was christened in Sturminster Newton. Later, he moved to the nearby village of Okeford Fitzpaine where he married Repentance Ridout [1708-1774], and where their four offspring were christened. In the map near the top of this article, other neighboring villages associated with my Skivington ancestors are highlighted: Belchalwell, Shillingstone and Iwerne Courtney.

Comparing the two Rose charts, I would imagine that the respective grandfathers of the Antipodean settler Thomas Rose and my ancestor Elizabeth Rose—that's to say, the elder Christopher Rose and James Rose—were brothers in Sturminster Newton. In one branch of the family, an audacious grandson, Thomas, decided to leave for Australia in 1793. In the other branch, a granddaughter, Elizabeth, stayed in Dorset and married a local fellow named Charles Skivington [1728-1778].

Over a century later, one of their descendants—my grandfather Ernest Skyvington [1891-1985]—would venture out to Australia. After becoming interested in genealogy, I discovered (through the Internet) that we Skyvingtons had an 18th-century ancestor named Elizabeth Rose. More recently, I heard about Elizabeth's second cousin Thomas during an excursion to Blandford Forum in August 2007, described in my article entitled Dorset ancestral anecdotes [display].

The name Sturminster means "monastic church (minster) on the River Stour", while Newton means "new town". There's a beautiful old stone bridge over the Stour at this place.

An ancient sign on the bridge warns that vandals found "injuring" the bridge might be transported.

So, out in New South Wales, Thomas Rose could have run into former adolescent friends from Sturminster Newton who had traveled there in rather different circumstances to those of the free settlers.

Today, I'm tempted to compare the quiet and beautiful environment of England's West Country with the somewhat dramatic lifestyle in Australia… expressed famously by Dorothea Mackellar [1885-1968].

She was a romantically-minded lass… but I haven't always shared her enthusiasm for the Down Under landscapes, climate and meteorology.

I often wonder which of the Rose cousins got "the better deal": those who left for the exotic Antipodes, like Thomas, or those who stayed in the traditional Old World, like Elizabeth. My personal reaction to that interesting question is betrayed by my current address…

There's another intriguing anecdote, in a quite different context, concerning my discovery of ancestors named Rose. In Israel, in 1989, I visited the splendid Billy Rose Sculpture Garden in the Holy City, near the Knesset, funded by a US philanthropist.

After this memorable visit, I had imagined that Rose was surely a Jewish surname. I discovered much later that the full name of the famous showman Billy Rose [1899-1966] was in fact William Rosenberg. Meanwhile, I had started to write my Israeli novel, which would finally become All the Earth is Mine (published as an iBook).

The hero of my novel is an Australian-born engineer, resembling myself in certain ways. Since he was Jewish (which is not my case), and since his professional and human destiny would coincide with that of the modern state of Israel, I thought of the above-mentioned Jerusalem benefactor and decided to name my hero Jacob Rose. He would arrive in the Holy Land and perform various engineering miracles there. So, I liked the expression "Jacob Rose in Israel", which evoked the Biblical-sounding declaration: "Jacob arose in Israel". Later, having completed my tale of Jacob Rose, I was surprised to learn that I actually had ancestors named Rose. But all this is purely anecdotal and coincidental, and I'm not suggesting that my fictional character has anything in common with my English Rose ancestors.

Today, I'm thrilled and proud, of course, to realize that a member of my ancestral Dorset family named Rose was the first free settler in the land that would become Australia. I was equally enthusiastic about having my fictional Australian alter-ego named Jacob Rose settle in Israel. Between genealogical facts and imaginative fiction, the differences are of little significance. Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose (Gertude Stein). And by any other name would smell as sweet (William Shakespeare). That's how I see this celebration of our past and present: Australia Day.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Wiped-out generation

In my recent post entitled Latest deductions from Skyvington research [display], I explained that I've been grouping together all the Mormon references concerning surnames such as Skeffington, Skevington, Skivington, etc, and painstakingly sorting them by year. The immediate goal of all this work is to home in on individuals who might have been the immediate ancestors of my earliest clearly-identified patriarch: George Skivington, born in Belchalwell (Dorset) in 1670. I've often imagined that there might have been some kind of rupture not long before the birth of this "Belchalwell George" (as I call him). On the one hand, George's parents had no doubt moved to Dorset from a neighboring region. And, in so doing, they had probably replaced the old Skevington spelling by Skivington. Since George was a relatively uncommon given name in 17th-century England, I would imagine that my "Belchalwell George" probably descended from a family context in which that name existed already. Now, that set of likely constraints helps to narrow down the domain in which I'm searching.

In my article of 15 August 2007 entitled Midland ancestors [display], I spoke of my excursion to a charming little town called Turvey in Bedfordshire, which was the home of a big family named Skevington in the second half of the 16th century. I've always been persuaded that these folk were the ancestors of my "Belchalwell George", and this is my main line of research at present. Besides, there were Turvey individuals named George Skevington. Finally, at the end of my recent processing, when I was able to sort all the Skevington records by date, I was surprised to discover a big packet of Skevington burial records in Turvey for the year 1608. It's a finding that would have never struck me previously, when I was dealing with records in a casual manner. It was only when I had grouped together all existing records, and sorted them, that this observation suddenly hit me in the face.

Clearly, for almost an entire generation of a family to be wiped out in the space of a single year, there was only one possible explanation: the Black Death, or bubonic plague. I spoke already, in my article entitled Dressing up [display], of the beak outfit worn by plague physicians in the 17th and 18th centuries.

I have reasons to believe that this plague calamity played a role in causing a handful of young Skevington survivors to move away from Turvey, maybe down towards Dorset. And, in so doing, their links with the past were no doubt weakened. In the turmoil of this upheaval, it would not have been unusual that the spelling of our ancestral name should change, in certain cases, from Skevington to Skivington.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Latest deductions from Skyvington research

As every genealogical adept knows, the quality of the Mormon IGI database [International Genealogical Index] is truly amazing… particularly when we realize that the faith-based research efforts of the members of the so-called Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints are motivated by beliefs that most of us look upon as totally ridiculous. Insofar as I see things in this way, should I therefore consider myself as a perfidiously dishonest double-dealer when using the Mormons' data to pursue my own kind of research?

No, not at all. If each citizen, in his daily preoccupations and activities, were to make a point of refraining from exploiting resources that had been created or obtained in ways that didn't necessarily conform to his personal convictions, then he would be condemned to sitting passively on his backside and waiting for events in the world to metamorphose magically into his ideal vision of reality.

There has always, however, been a curious weakness in the style of presentation of IGI entries. [I haven't checked whether this weakness has been corrected in the latest version of their search tool.]

The problem—unless I'm dumb—is that it doesn't seem to be possible to obtain a list of all entries sorted by date. This was annoying in that I wanted to know at what dates we start to find church records for individuals named Skeffington, Skevington, Skivington, etc. So, I decided to play around manually with the various Mormon IGI entries, using the excellent BBEdit text editor, with the intention of processing and examining all the available data... which has taken much time. My findings are summarized in the following chart:

After primitive Latin-inspired versions of the name—such as Sciftitone (Domesday Book of 1086) and Sceftinton (Leicestershire Survey of 1125 and Leicestershire Pipe Rolls of 1165 and 1192)—the earliest "modern" spelling was undoubtedly Skeffington, which appears in a Mormon IGI record dated 1315. The spelling with "ev" instead of "eff" appears a century and a half later, in 1478, and the "e" vowel is replaced by an "i" for the first time in 1563. The respective volumes of the various spellings present in the Mormon IGI are no doubt significant in a rough way. As you can see, there's a large package of Skevington entries, particularly for the 17th and 18th centuries, whereas the volume of Skivington spellings remains relatively low.

At a concrete level, what these deductions mean is that I might expect to find a Y-chromosome match, one of these days, with a fellow whose surname is Skevington. As for a match with a Skeffington, I've already more-or-less ruled out that likelihood, because I'm convinced that all the ancient male lines of that name ran aground (if I can be allowed to express myself in that fuzzy manner). In any case, for the moment, I would appear to be the only male individual with a Skeffington-based surname who has had his DNA tested.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

People and places named Berkeley

When I visited London for the first time, in 1962, I had an account with an Australian bank whose offices were located on Berkeley Square, an elegant tree-shaded corner of Westminster.

At that time, I had no reason to be interested in the fact—if I had known it—that this square used to be the London address of an ancient family named Berkeley whose castle was located over in Gloucestershire, to the north of Bristol.

This was not the first time I had encountered the name Berkeley. As a philosophy student in Australia, I had been greatly intrigued by the weirdly imaginative ideas of the Anglo-Irish bishop George Berkeley [1685-1753].

He suggested that material objects might not really exist such as we commonly envisage them. When we perceive the presence of such an object, our perceptions of it are indeed quite real, but they don't necessarily prove that there exists, behind these perceptions, a material object that is constantly present, even when it's not being perceived. This way of looking at things raises a problem. If an object only exists when it is being perceived, then what becomes of it as soon as it is no longer being perceived? Imagine a tree in the forest. Does it cease to exist when it's no longer perceived, and then come back into existence as soon as there's somebody to perceive it once again? That doesn't sound like a very reassuring explanation of existence, to say the least. Berkeley appealed to magic to extricate himself from this puzzling situation. He suggested that the tree never really ceases to exist at any instant, no matter whether or not a human viewer is looking at it, since God is on hand permanently to perceive it. Funnily enough, in spite of the weird nature of Berkeley's theory, it receives an echo in modern physics, where commonsense notions of matter have been replaced by abstract constructs. As Bertrand Russell once said about matter: "I should define it as what satisfies the equations of physics."

George Berkeley (who wasn't yet a bishop) spent a few years in America, and he happens to be the author of a celebrated line of poetry: Westward the course of empire takes its way. These words inspired the famous mural painting by Emanuel Leutze representing the arrival of European Americans on the shores of the Pacific.

These words were also the reason why the name of the poet George Berkeley was given to the future university city in California.

It is said that George Berkeley was in fact a descendant of the above-mentioned ancient family from Gloucestershire. This idea amuses me greatly, for I too am a descendant of those folk. The patriarch of that family, Maurice Berkeley [1218-1281], married Isabel de Douvres, daughter of the Fitzroy chap—designated in the following chart as Richard Chilham, a bastard son of King John—after whom I have named my young Border Collie dog.

My findings in this ancient family-history domain are relatively recent (dating from the second half of 2009), and there are still many loose ends that I haven't got around to exploring. Among these loose ends, there have been these two men named Berkeley. I now realize that I shall only have to "plug myself into" the rich and well-documented history of the Berkeley family, and I shall surely be able to enhance rapidly and considerably my existing research results.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Fine ancestors

On the Skyvington side, one of my direct ancestors in Dorset—my 5-times-great-grandmother—was Amelia Sevior [1756-1837]. Now this unusual surname is subjected to all kinds of spelling variations: Seviour, Sevier, Sevyer, Seeviour, Siveyer, Sivier, Sivyer, etc. I was intrigued by the fact that, in changing a single vowel, you end up with Savior or Saviour. Maybe I'd hit the genealogical jackpot: an ancestral line running back up to the distinguished family from Nazareth.

In fact, the Sevior surname is derived from the Old English word for a sieve. So, I surely had ancestors in the Middle Ages who worked as sieve-makers. That might explain why I'm fond of sieves: in the kitchen, of course, but also around the house, where a plasterer's sieve is an ideal tool for removing excess stones from typical Gamone soil.

Talking of sieves, look at these two portraits of the virgin queen of England, Elizabeth I.

The painting on the left [1579] is by George Gower, while that on the right [1583] is by Quentin Massys the Younger. In both portraits, the queen is holding a sieve in her left hand. Apparently this is a literary allusion to Tuccia, a vestal virgin in a story by Petrarch [1304-1374]. Tuccia succeeded in carrying water from the Tiber in a sieve, and this was thought of as proof of her purity and chastity.

In my native land, prospectors use sieves in their search for precious stones such as sapphires.

Now, you're surely wondering whether I've inherited any wonderful old medieval sieves from my Dorset ancestors. Well, no, I haven't. Neither sieves nor gems of any kind.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

British tribes

I've just been reading these two books, which tackle a fascinating subject: the genetic origins of the peoples of the British Isles.

Written by English authors—Stephen Oppenheimer and Bryan Sykes—both books were published in 2006. Curiously, each of the two authors gives the impression that he ignores the work of the other… even though they are both associated with the University of Oxford. They use both maternal (mitochondrial DNA) and paternal (Y-chromosome) data to reach their conclusions, which are rather similar. Basically, the people of Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) and Ireland are the descendants of settlers from the Iberian Peninsula (today's Spain and Portugal) who migrated up to the British Isles at the end of the Ice Age, some 15 millennia ago. In other words, our most ancient ancestors were the indigenous Cro-Magnons, rather than relatively recent colonists from the east. Among other things, this means that our indigenous European ancestors evolved spontaneously from being hunters and food-gatherers into the state of graziers and farmers. They were not simply replaced by eastern invaders who brought this know-how with them. As for legendary cultural phenomena such as the Celticism of the Gaelic-speaking lands, and the alleged Anglo-Saxon roots of the English, these must be thought of, genetically, as relatively-recent minor modifications, imported into the British Isles from the European continent, and limited largely to language.

I regret that both authors have resorted to nicknames for the various mtDNA and Y-chromosome haplogroups at the base of their vast research. For example, my personal DNA testing has placed me in a precise paternal haplogroup designated as R1b1b2a1b5. For Oppenheimer, on the other hand, I'm a member of the Ruisko tribe, which Sykes prefers to label the Oisin tribe. For serious adepts of DNA testing, the official haplogroup terminology is both necessary and sufficient, and the silly nicknames introduced by Oppenheimer and Sykes serve no useful purpose.

The existence of interesting in-depth studies such as those of Oppenheimer and Sykes evokes a common criticism that is often raised by people who are wary of the validity of all kinds of genealogical research, be it strictly personal (as when I explain with pride that my Skyvington patriarch in England came over with William the Conqueror, or that I've established another ancestral line running back up to this same Norman invader) or applied to the peoples of vast regions such as the British Isles. To get the gist of this criticism, look at the following pedigree chart (so-called because all the T-shaped signs can be imagined as goose tracks), in which my paternal ancestors are designated by blue dots, and my maternal ancestors by pink dots:

Now, it's all very well to determine the paternal tribe of the most ancient blue dot in our pedigree, and the maternal tribe of the earliest pink dot. But what about the respective tribes of the "infinite" (well, almost) horde of ancestors who aren't even apparent in my pedigree, let alone designated by any kind of dot? Surely, it's a grotesque over-simplification to allege that I belong to the Ruisko/Oisin tribe merely because of the blue dots in my pedigree. For example, let's imagine that one of my female ancestors happened to be a daughter of Boadicea, or that another had married Attila the Hun. Wouldn't perfectly-plausible family-history events such as these put a few gigantic flies in the ointment associated with the tidy little system of blue and pink dots? To put things in a more recent context, if I were suddenly to discover that one of my ancestors was a hitherto-unidentified offspring of Jack the Ripper, then my personal genetic package would owe no less to Jack and his clan than to any other distinguished tribe of Prehistory or Antiquity, and my inherited characteristics would certainly be more closely linked to those of the Ripper than to those of the Conqueror. Now, every serious researcher in genealogy should be perfectly aware of this common-sense situation. We describe the rare ancestral lines that we've been able to unearth, whereas we have nothing whatsoever to say (at least for the moment) about the vast network of untraced lines up into the mysterious past.

Getting back to the kind of research conducted by Oppenheimer and Sykes, isn't it a huge weakness to draw conclusions based merely upon the Y-chromosome and mtDNA profiles of present-day residents of the British Isles? If they had tested, say, a (fictive) London chap named George Skyvington and found that he (like me) was a descendant of the Ruisko/Oisin tribe, wouldn't they be drawing hasty and unsound conclusions by ignoring, as it were, that George might have had lots of other ancestors from quite remote tribes: Eskimos, American Red Indians, Chinese, Pacific Islanders, Tasmanian Aborigines, etc? Doesn't the absence of such perfectly-real ancestors cast a dark cloud of incompleteness or imperfection upon the global outcome of the research carried out by Oppenheimer and Sykes?

No, not at all. Don't forget that these researchers have been performing DNA tests upon large groups of people living in the British Isles. Consequently, if indeed our George Skyvington had ancestors belonging to "tribes" such as Eskimos, American Red Indians, etc, then it's possible that the existence of these ancestors will show up in the Y-chromosome and mtDNA data obtained from some of George's "genetic cousins"… about whom he probably knows nothing (and never will). Statistically, if the tested population is large enough (a criterion that can be determined mathematically), everything should come out in the wash, as it were. George's Eskimo and Red Indian ancestors won't be totally forgotten. They'll merely be associated with other tested individuals. And George won't even be tempted to complain about "his" ancestors being associated with total strangers, because he simply won't know that this has happened. Maybe George might even look at research results and say to himself: "My God, to think that, here in my native England, I'm living alongside descendants of Eskimos, American Red Indians, Chinese, Pacific Islanders, Tasmanian Aborigines, etc!"

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Second thoughts on a skeleton

WARNING: Technical genealogical stuff.

Two months ago, in my article entitled Family-history shock [display], I revealed that I had just stumbled upon a skeleton in the family closet: a Skyvington record on the website of the Old Bailey (London's 19th-century criminal court).

I had the immediate impression that the 26-year-old condemned fraudster, referred to as William Skyvington, was surely the father of young Ernest, my future grandfather whom we called Pop. I explained that it was hard to imagine that Pop would have deliberately concealed such information from us. I preferred another explanation. Ernest's father would have been released from the notorious Newgate prison in the spring of 1899, and his wife Eliza Mepham died of tuberculosis just six months later. Maybe, in this tragic context, Pop's father had decided to build himself a new life, elsewhere in England, while leaving his son in the cozy cocoon of the Mepham family in Islington (northern suburb of London). So we might imagine that, if Pop failed to tell us what had happened to his father, this was simply because he himself was totally unaware of these events.

Over the last few days, in the spirit of my recent article entitled Painted myself into a genealogical corner [display], I have started to tidy up my Skyvington genealogical archives. Among other things, I was determined to unravel the elements of the new identity assumed (in my imagination) by Pop's father. Well, as of yesterday afternoon, I was forced to admit that my reasoning was erroneous. I still have no facts whatsoever concerning the destiny of Pop's father, who was mentioned for the last on his wife's death certificate, where he is described as a commercial traveler. But I've now examined sufficiently the archives to know that our William Skyvington cannot possibly be confused with any of the individuals I had in mind when I suggested that he might have taken on a new identity.

I'm now inclined to consider that I made a mistake in thinking that the William Skyvington condemned at the Old Bailey for fraud was indeed Pop's father. First, there's the age discrepancy. At the date of the Old Bailey trial, in October 1898, our William Skyvington was 29, as attested explicitly by a birth certificate established at Plymouth. So, the 26-year-old man at the Old Bailey was almost certainly another individual, because it's hard to imagine that an age discrepancy of that magnitude would slip through. It's easy to make an arithmetic error of a year, in either direction, but an error of three years is unlikely in administrative circles. Besides, I see that Pop's father is designated on his birth certificate as William Jones Skyvington and, on his marriage certificate, as William Henry Jones Skyvington. If he were the individual condemned at the Old Bailey, then why is there no mention of a second given name?

If the fraudster named William Skyvington were not in fact my great-grandfather, then what was his identity? We need to find a Skyvington male born in 1872. Such an individual exists: a certain Albert William Skyvington, about whom I know little for the moment. He was probably one of the 17 offspring of Oliver Skyvington [1847-1925], the Bournemouth milkman, married three times, whose descendants live today in Canada. This Oliver was indeed raised (along with his brothers John and Atwell) in the Dorset context of my ancestors at Iwerne Courtney, but I've never yet set out to determine their exact links to us. I had imagined that this task would surely be taken up by their New World descendants. Motivated by the Old Bailey anecdote, I now intend to examine these questions…

Friday, July 2, 2010


I've come to like the low-key atheist slogan that was featured on London buses:

It got many complaints, but nothing like those provoked by the defiant Christian counter-slogan, which sounds like an injunction:

Sadly, the gutless transport authorities in New Zealand have prohibited a similar atheist campaign. So, NZ atheists will have to resort to conventional billboards.

Once upon a time, a Sydney newspaper mastered the poetic art of slogans:

That issue of 8 August 1833 mentioned a vessel, Caroline, carrying 120 female convicts, which had reached Sydney two days earlier, on Tuesday, 6 August 1833.

That's the ship on which my great-great-grandfather Charles Walker [1807-1860] was working as a steward. It's amazing to realize that, not only did such a ship bring people, but it also brought the latest news from Ireland:

Talking about Ireland, I'm still not convinced that my ancestor was really an Irish Catholic. As I've explained elsewhere, at length, I'm still wondering whether he might not have been rather a Scottish Protestant. In this context, I'm awaiting a family tree from a woman in Scotland who's a descendant of Johnnie Walker [1805-1857], the whisky man. But we'll probably never know the whole truth concerning our mysterious Braidwood patriarch.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Painted myself into a genealogical corner

WARNING: This lengthy and rather austere article is intended for a limited readership of fellow genealogical researchers.

When I first started to explore my paternal genealogy, three decades ago, I envisaged my research according to the following schema:

At the top of the schema, the red arrow corresponds to the history of an ancient English family that came into existence, in the wake of the Norman Conquest, in a village of present-day Leicestershire. Around 1800, the celebrated English historian John Nichols spoke of this village and family in the following elogious terms:

This village gave name to the Skevingtons, an ancient and noble family, who have continued owners thereof for several centuries; and they have produced many men of note and abilities, who have repeatedly by their lives adorned the historic page. Few families in the kingdom can boast of more ancient and honourable descent, or have more eminently distinguished themselves on all occasions.

For the moment, we have no idea of the identity of the Conqueror's companion who became the progenitor of the people to be known in England, later on, as Skeffington (or a spelling variant on that term). It's quite likely that this Norman patriarch actually left older brothers on the family estates in Normandy… and it's thinkable that descendants of these older brothers exist today, maybe even in Normandy. As a longtime Francophile, I've always imagined that it would be a fabulous thrill to meet up, today, with genetic cousins in modern France… and DNA testing means that this possibility is becoming plausible.

Back in 1981, when I started my genealogical research into Skyvington ancestors, it was a rather bare-bones affair. My grandfather had even assured me that no records concerning his ancestors could possibly exist on the surface of the planet, and that the last traces of his background had been wiped out by the Blitz! This, of course, was sheer nonsense… but I now realize that he may have been intent upon avoiding embarrassing questions concerning his father, mentioned in my article of 3 May 2010 entitled Family-history shock [display]. In any case, my research soon led me back over half-a-dozen generations, ending up with a George Skivington [1670-1711] of Dorset. Throughout this research, I've been constantly on the lookout for events that might enable my backward-pointing green arrow to meet up with the mainstream red arrow. In other words, I've been trying to determine the exact point at which my Skivington/Skyvington branch might have broken away from the mainstream Skeffington line.

Let me summarize rapidly some of the major mileposts on that red arrow… which are presented in detail in my Skeffington monograph, whose chapters can be downloaded from this website. The earliest-known members of the English family were referred to as John de Skefynton [1188], Simon de Scheftinton [1193] and Odo de Scevington [1231].

In the first quarter of the 16th century, during the reigns of the Tudor kings Henry VII and Henry VIII, two knights appeared on the British historical scene: Sir William Skeffington [1460-1535] and his young brother Sir John Skeffington [1470-1525]. Artillery skills had launched William's career, and his nickname was the Gunner. His son Thomas, too, was a soldier.

Over two centuries later, another major Skeffington milestone was the London marriage in 1654 of Sir John Skeffington of Fisherwick [1629-1695] to Mary Clotworthy, which enabled him to obtain the Irish Massereene viscountcy. From that point on, alongside the identified offspring of the Massereene lords, various unidentified branches of folk named Skeffington started to appear, first in Ireland, and later in the New World. Personally, I've never succeeded in determining their exact time-place origins.

In a letter to me in 1980, the 13th Viscount Massereene referred flippantly to this proliferation of Irish Skeffingtons as "quite a varied bag", while admitting the possibility of cases of illegitimate children. In any case, to identify the patriarchs of such branches, their living descendants would need to work backwards… in the same routine manner that I've adopted for my Skyvington research. That would be their only hope of discovering possible links with the mainstream Skeffington line. For example, I've often heard of a certain Peter Skeffington, born in Ireland around 1785, whose sons emigrated to the New World. I see half-a-dozen Skeffington males who might have been the natural father of this Peter, at that troubled moment in the history of the Skeffingtons (when the lunatic 2nd Earl of Massereene was still lingering in a Paris prison for debtors). Maybe a Canadian or American descendant of this Peter should spend time searching for traces of their ancestor in the PRONI [Public Record Office of Northern Ireland] in Belfast, which apparently houses all the extant Skeffington/Massereene family archives.

Today, the tip of the red arrow is John Skeffington, the 14th Viscount Massereene. Concerning this 70-year-old gentleman (who doesn't give me the impression that he's particularly interested in family history), an important point must be made. There would be no point whatsoever in looking for Y-chromosome matches between the viscount and Normans who might be our genetic cousins. Why not? Well, the Skeffington male genetic line was broken through the marriage of Harriet Skeffington with Thomas Foster in 1810. Since then, the male progeny is indeed called Skeffington, but their Y-chromosomes are those of Thomas Foster. On the other hand, illegitimate Skeffington offspring who existed before the time of that marriage could well convey the original Y-chromosomes of the Norman patriarchs. Regardless, I advise all Skeffington males concerned by genealogy to get their DNA tested!

Now, what has been happening concerning my green arrow, and the likelihood of its running into the red arrow? Well, the discovery of the above-mentioned George Skivington in Dorset means that the tip of my green arrow has moved backwards to such an extent that my Ski(y)vington family history could not have been linked to the Massereene lords or Irish Skeffingtons. That's to say, the Massereene dynasty and the Irish Skeffingtons are simply not a part of my personal family history. So, I don't intend to carry on researching in this arena.

The separation between the green and red arrows extends still further back in time. Recently, I've encountered references to rural families and individuals whose name is written as Skevington, who are anterior to the Tudor lords. In other words, the time slot in which my little green arrow might join up with the mainstream red arrow can only be somewhere during the four centuries between 1066 and the Tudor lords. In other words, much of what I have written in my Skeffington monograph turns out to be totally irrelevant as far as my personal family history is concerned. And it's in that sense that I say, jokingly, that I've painted myself into a genealogical corner!

To put it bluntly, I now have every right to wonder who in fact, in this whole affair, is legitimately "mainstream": the noble dynasty that emanated from the Tudor lords, or my humble line of Ski(y)vingtons? On their side, the advantages are significant, primarily in numbers (all those folk named Skeffington), historical celebrity (but let us not exaggerate) and the quality of archives. An advantage on our side, however, is the regularity of generations of modest rural folk, devoid of the crimes, notoriety, legacy quarrels and sheer madness that have often characterized the noble Skeffingtons. And above all, on the Ski(y)vington side, there is still the very real possibility of our direct Y-chromosome descent from the anonymous Norman patriarch who reached England with the Conqueror.

Since I've been able to acquire a certain amount of experience in Skeffington history, I would like to tidy up my monograph so that it might be of use to researchers. That is, I don't intend to throw out the baby with the bath water. But, while continuing to advocate the potential of DNA testing, I'll have to make it clear to readers that it is beyond me (no longer within my personal domain of interest) to attempt to construct any kind of genealogical chart concerning the possible origins of Irish and New World Skeffingtons. Even the genealogy of such a major historical figure as Francis Sheehy-Skeffington remains, for me, a mystery. As I've been saying for years, I would hope that concerned researchers end up tackling the question of the history of Irish Skeffington families.

Meanwhile, I shall transfer the strictly Ski(y)vington fragments of my research to another monograph: in fact, to the document I recently started entitled They Sought the Last of Lands.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Ebook version of a genealogical document

Yesterday, I decided to carry out a hands-on test concerning the idea of distributing genealogical stuff in ebook format. So, instead of wasting my time witnessing the fact that "there's nothing like the Socceroos", I spent my evening building an ebook version of chapter 7 of my monograph entitled They Sought the Last of Lands. Click the following image to download it:

I believe that you should be able to transfer the downloaded file to an iPad, but I haven't tested this possibility (because I don't yet own an iPad). Otherwise, you can click the following banner to obtain a free copy of the Adobe Digital Editions software tool, which will enable you to read my file comfortably:

Unfortunately my test was not exactly conclusive. Indeed it was disappointing in the sense that the challenge of creating such an ebook turns out to be quite messy and time-consuming from a layout point of view. I had to readjust the sizes of many of the images and genealogical charts, and attempt to implement all kinds of vertical spacing tricks, but I'm still not satisfied with the aesthetic results. Worse still, after all these messy operations, I'm left with an ugly set of complicated code files, which would not be easy to update.

My conclusion? For the time being, I think it's preferable for me to stick to the conventional method of distributing my genealogical chapters in the form of .pdf files.