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

Friday, April 27, 2012


Ever since I started to investigate my paternal Skyvington genealogy, back in 1981, I've been obsessed by an obvious question:
Would I ever know the name and origins of the Norman knight—a companion of William the Conqueror—who might be thought of as the patriarch of our primordial Skeffington family in England?

Such an individual surely existed, and he had received the territory of the Saxon place called Sceaftinga tûn—the tûn (settlement) of Sceaft’s people, to be known later on as the Leicestershire village of Skeffington—as a reward for helping the Duke of Normandy to conqueror England.

But, in the list of names of the Norman knights who accompanied William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, I had no means of figuring out which one of them was our future patriarch. I often said to myself that, if only I knew the identity of "my" Norman knight, and if ever this individual happened to have descendants in France today, then these folk would be my "genetic cousins" (as they say in the domain of DNA-based genealogical research). I realized, however, that these were two big and unlikely if conditions...

The standard version of the story of the Skeffingtons was written in the 18th century by a plump English chap named John Nichols.

Nichols was a prolific professional writer who succeeded in churning out a vast collection of historical tidbits about the county of Leicestershire. In this context, it was natural that he should devote numerous pages of his History and Antiquities of Leicestershire to a presentation of members of the distinguished Skeffington family. At no point, however, was Nichols capable of indicating explicitly the likely identity of our 11th-century patriarch.

Nichols did however mention the existence in 1231 (that's to say, 165 years after the Norman Conquest) of an individual named Odo de Scevington, who owned lands down in Kent. Clutching at straws, I wondered if this individual might have descended from a celebrated personage with the same name: the Conqueror’s half-brother Odo, bishop of Bayeux, represented vividly in the famous tapestry.

It was ridiculous of me to speculate about links based upon no more than a shared given name.  I had been momentarily enticed into imagining an association between the two Odo fellows because of another false reason, even more outlandish. Bishop Odo of Bayeux had a notorious habit, illustrated in the above image, of wielding a baton when he rode into battle. Now, the other Odo's surname, Scevington, evoked a Saxon warrior, Sceaft (meaning shaft, spear or baton). I was mesmerized into imagining that the battle skills of the legendary Sceaft had been inherited magically by the Conqueror’s wild half-brother. Need I point out that my family-history thinking at that time had little in common with rocket science?

Two days ago (on Anzac Day), for the nth time in three decades, I happened to be skimming through the Nichols pages on the Skeffingtons, and my attention was caught by the presence of a reference to a late 13th-century individual, "John lord of Verdun".

The term "Verdun" evokes, of course, the place on the Western Front in France where a horrendous battle took place in 1916, engaging the victorious forces of a certain Philippe Pétain. Maybe those nasty evocations of 20th-century military butchery had dissuaded me previously from bothering to look more closely into the Nichols mention of this unknown "John lord of Verdun". On Anzac Day 2012, however, I made an effort, but the weight of all the World War I stuff meant that Google in English wasn't particularly helpful. So, I switched to French, replacing "John" by "Jean". And almost instantly, the facts concerning our patriarch started to unfold before my astonished eyes.

The name of our likely patriarch is Bertram de Verdun. Today, his domain in the splendid countryside of Normandy has dwindled to a humble signpost on the outskirts of the town of Vessey. That should discourage any squabbles among us concerning rights to the family castle... if ever it existed.

The Verdun domain of our probable patriarch in Normandy is indicated by the red blob in the following Google map:

Chances are that Bertram's ghost got shook up a bit back at the time of the Normandy landings in June 1944, which took place not far away. After all, this was the splendid gateway into the eternal province of Normandy... or the eternal province of Brittany if you happen to be traveling in the opposite direction. The town of Vessey appears to lie alongside one of the rural roads I used to take—between Alençon and Dinan—back in my youthful days when I would ride my bike from Paris to Brittany and back.

The shield of Normandy is composed of a pair of golden lions (passant, as specialists say, meaning that the lions are running) with blue tongues and claws, on a red background.

Now, I can hear my readers saying that this Norman shield looks remarkably like the familiar banner of the kingdom just across on the other side of the Manche (the stretch of sea that folk on the other side persist in calling the English Channel).

Yes, it sure does, and that's not just a coincidence. The myriad of present-day associations of all kinds between Normandy and England were the consequences of the actions of a group of French tourists, in 1066, with names such as Guillaume, Odo, Bertram, etc. (If you're interested in this subject of heraldic emblems, click here to access an excellent Wikipedia article on the origins of various English coats of arms.) Even our respective languages reveal countless common features... which means that it's not really rocket science (I like that expression, don't I) when an English-speaking individual such as me gets around to communicating in French.

All the rumbling of canons on D-Day would not have alarmed unduly the ghost of an oldtimer such as Bertram de Verdun who had lived through the battle of Hastings, on the other side of the Channel.

After the Conquest, when things settled down a little in England, the Domesday Book reveals that our patriarch Bertram de Verdun was officially allocated enough earth to plant a vegetable garden on the conquered land (which happens to correspond exactly to my own activities at the moment of writing).

But what do we really know today about our patriarch Bertram de Verdun? Yesterday, following my discovery of this man, I was delighted to learn that a scholar at the Bangor University in Wales, Mark Hagger, has published a book about the family de Verdun:

For the moment, for me, this whole affair is totally new. So I know little about our Norman patriarch. Click here for an English-language Wikipedia article about the family, and here for the French-language version.

Another fascinating question emerges. Is it thinkable that our patriarch Bertram de Verdun might have descendants today in France and elsewhere? Well, to put it mildly, judging from what I've seen through a rapid visit to the Genea website, it would appear that the community of my so-called "genetic cousins" includes many present-day members of the old nobility of Normandy and France.
Les sanglots longs des violons
de l'automne blessent mon cœur
d'une langueur monotone.
 [Click here to see why I ended this article with those splendid lines of poetry.]

Friday, April 13, 2012

Bad years, good years... for crops and offspring

From time to time, in the context of my family-history research, I've come upon the case of a child receiving the name of a baby sibling who did not survive. One can well understand the attitude of bereaved parents who must imagine in a fuzzy way that giving the name of the deceased child to a new baby attenuates their loss. Although they wouldn't normally say so explicitly, it's a little as if the second child were a replacement for the one that died. There would appear to be some kind of spiritual continuity between the deceased child and his/her new sibling. Put another way, it's as if some kind of mistake had occurred in the case of the first offspring, and it is hoped that this anomaly might be corrected in the case of the new baby. So, why not look upon the second child as a healthy substitute for the child that died? And why not therefore use exactly the same given names?

Personally, although I can understand this way of looking at things, I find it rather cruel to name a child after a deceased sibling, since the second child is likely to grow up seeing himself/herself as a mere replacement, whose basic raison d'être stems from the death of the sibling, and consists of assuming the role of a substitute for the other. It's not a particularly enviable situation for a child whose natural desire is to affirm his/her unique personality and individuality. The worst situation of all is when a baby boy replaces his deceased sister, and is looked upon by his mother as an ersatz female.

I discovered recently, at the level of my paternal great-great-grandparents, the case of two male offspring whose given names were Robert. The first Robert died at the age of two, and a second child, born two years later, was given the same name. The second Robert, born on 1 February 1860, received a weird second name: Tillage.

In old farming terminology, tillage was the end-of-winter operation that prepared land for the sowing of new crops. I hardly need to explain that the baby's parents were indeed agricultural laborers in the Dorset village of Iwerne Courtney.

Happily, 1860 turned out to be a good year for offspring, since Robert Tillage Skivington survived and grew up to be a healthy male, who married and raised a family. Was 1860 an equally good year for crops in Iwerne Courtney?

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Vicar's garden

In French, the expression "jardin de curé" (clergyman's garden) designates an ancient horticultural style and layout inspired by so-called medieval gardens. In the following 15th-century miniature, presenting the engagement ceremony of a noble couple at Dourdan (probably Pierrefonds castle near Compiègne), the walled corner of a medieval garden/orchard appears in the center right.

Such gardens, often associated with monasteries, evoked allegorically the Garden of Eden. In France, they were generally laid out in a geometrical pattern... as opposed to what the French refer to as "English gardens", with no rigorous layout. More recently, they have become down-to-earth vegetable plantations, or maybe botanic treasure houses for the cultivation of aromatic and medicinal plants.

In a recent post [display], I spoke of my great-great-great-great-grandfather Henry Latton [1737-1798],  the vicar of Woodhorn in Northumberland.

We've known for a long time that the clergyman, besides his adoration of the Lord, loved horse racing, and was a keen punter. A quaintly irreverent biography states: "Mr Latton was not destitute of amiable qualities, but was unhappily attached to the pleasures of the turf, and finished his course at Newbiggin races." Indeed, it's said that he was killed (by a horse? by bandits?) while attending the races at Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, just a mile southeast of the coastal township of Woodhorn. Personally, I like to imagine that my pious ancestor had been blown out of his mind by the exhilarating spirit of Pascal's Wager [look this up if you're not familiar with it] and that, after betting fervently on the existence of God, he turned quite naturally to the turf.

Well, besides God and horses, Henry Latton appeared to have been keen on gardening, too. Thanks to my South African relative Richard Frost, I have copies of two simple but wonderful handwritten documents, dated March 1780 and April 1785, that appear to be specimens of the good parson's gardening records. [Click to enlarge.]

The first paper reveals that his garden contained a host of different kinds of plants, including vegetables and flowers: melons, beans, peas, spinach, radishes, parsley, nasturtiums, watercress, cabbages, onions, cauliflowers, broccoli, turnips, rhubarb, tulips, jonquils, lettuces, cucumbers, etc. The second paper mentions payments of 7, 5 and 6 shillings. It's interesting to notice that both papers, separated by a period of five years, mention individuals referred to as G Pattison and Mrs Muckells. The latter seems to have been the vicar's seed supplier, whereas the former was probably his gardener.

The medieval church of St Mary the Virgin, in which Henry Latton was the vicar for over a quarter of a century, still stands today... although its external features were largely restored in 1842. Today, it's a museum, and it still houses a medieval church bell inscribed Ave Maria which is said to be one of the most ancient bells in the world. So, maybe one day I might have an opportunity of wandering across to Woodhorn and hearing a precious ringing sound that surely entered the ears, daily, of my ancestor.

We might imagine that the vicar's garden was not far away from his church. A photo of a Woodhorn park, today, suggests that the natural environment is fertile.

But other images indicate that the earth of this Northumberland village has been worked primarily for riches of a different kind: coal.

Meanwhile, I like to think that Henry Latton the gardener would have appreciated the tone of the blog post I wrote this morning, on the theme of the awakening vegetal year. Admittedly, glancing through the Antipodes blog, the vicar of Woodhorn would surely disapprove (to say the least) of his great-great-great-great-grandson's confessed atheism. Inversely, I disapprove of the vicar's gambling, because I don't believe that our earthly existence is a matter of trying to win anything whatsoever (even eternal bliss) through senseless bets. So, we're quits.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

King save the God

They're colorful creatures. Kept in a domestic cage, fed periodically on spiritual tidbits (cereal wafers and cheap wine, with holy water when the weather's hot), they're most often trouble-free, and their upkeep can even be fun when you show them off in front of friends on Special Occasions. But, believers are faced with an alarming question: Might these splendid specimens be an endangered species in modern Britain?

[I make an effort to refrain from all superficial ironical remarks concerning the mating habits of the red variety, and the dangers of allowing children to play with them. As for the violet variety, thankfully, it has always been sexually vigorous.]

Strident Richard Dawkins has just thrown a spanner in the works by his organization of a most serious survey on British religiosity [access]. You can be sure that, in the future, we'll be hearing a lot about these marvelous findings.

I've never met up with Dawkins, but he has become my unchallenged scientific and literary hero of all times. What would I need to do in order to persuade him to organize similar simple (?) surveys in lands that I love such as Australia and France?

In the case of Australia, I'm aware that Dawkins might need some time to get over this fabulous face-to-face encounter with a local elected lad, Steve Fielding, a "Strine craishonist": laughing-stock of the wide world beyond Down Under, and a symbol of self-sufficient idiocy in the face of intelligence.

Do fellow-Australians still in fact support today, by their votes, this embarrassingly empty-headed nincompoop named Fielding?

I'm impressed by this fabulous photo of dark clouds over Southwark Cathedral on Australia Day 2012 (Reuters/Finbarr O'Reilly):

Nothing suggests that any of my ancestors might have ever been lost in spiritual bewilderment before the image of this southern London religious edifice. The Pickering people were all from thereabouts, originally, and particularly pious in various ways. But I'm not convinced that any of their long-departed souls might be disturbed today by Dawkins. On the contrary, I often tend to rediscover the fabulous reality of our genealogical and biological ancestors through Richard's instigation to marvel in the apparent mysteries of our fleeting window on the Magic of Reality [access].

Tuesday, February 7, 2012


In Aussie slang, a ring-in is a black sheep in the family, the opposite of a fair dinkum offspring. And that reminds me of a joke.
The Reverend McKenzie (meaning "the fair one" in ancient Scottish) was a missionary in a remote settlement in the heart of the jungle. With his pale complexion and thick curly red hair, he stood out among all the black-skinned folk whose souls he was intent upon saving.

Outside the makeshift missionary church, McKenzie was engaged in a serious discussion with a local farmer, Jimmy Bongo, who appeared to be somewhat upset.

JIMMY BONGO: I tell you, Reverend, all our other children are pure black, like me. Then, a few days ago, my wife gave birth to a funny little fellow with a pale face and curly red hair. How can I explain this to neighbors in the village?

REVEREND MCKENZIE: God works in mysterious ways, Jimmy, and you have nothing whatsoever to say to the villagers in the way of explanations. Simply show them your herd of goats. They were all pure white. Then, not so long ago, when I happened to be visiting your farm on missionary duties, I noticed that your latest baby goat was jet black. We must not question God's decision to bring about the birth of a black goat in your white herd. Similarly, we must not question God's decision to provide you and your wife with a fair-skinned red-haired baby.

JIMMY BONGO: OK, Reverend, fair enough. Let's make a deal. I'll keep quiet about our red-haired baby as long as you promise to say nothing about that black goat.
Recently, I sent an email to a distinguished US scientist whose surname is similar to mine, suggesting that he might be prepared to get involved in genetic genealogy. I'm impatient to have opportunities of comparing my Y-chromosomes with those of various males with surnames such as Skyvington, Skivington, Skevington, etc. Well, this fellow explained to me frankly that he wasn't enthusiastic about genealogical research, because he considered that the frequency of cases of "ring-ins" is so high that genuine paternal lines rarely exist for more than a few generations. In other words, he was suggesting that, even though I might imagine that my Y-chromosomes have come down to me through a long and ancient line of males with surnames like mine, there were almost certainly countless points at which this Y-chromosome line was broken, when the latest genitor happened to be an outsider. On such occasions, most family members (except, say, the future mother) might have continued to believe that the most recent procreation was indeed the act of an authentic tribal male. How could they know otherwise?

For genealogical research and Y-chromosome testing to be serious preoccupations, I would need to be to be convinced that each of my male predecessors, for centuries on end, was a noble-minded gentlemen who never dreamed of jumping into bed with any female other than his lawful wedded wife. That's to say, my highly moralistic forefathers, prior to their marriages, would have shuddered at the evil thought of having sex with unmarried village maidens, or the wives of other males in the village. Once they were married, they produced offspring exclusively with their legal wives. And these sensuous ladies, no less moralistic than their husbands, would have resisted scrupulously any temptation whatsoever to welcome the warm caresses of lusty males who didn't happen to be their husbands.

It's because all my Skyvington ancestors were like that (n'est-ce pas ?), since the epoch of the Norman invasion in 1066, that genealogical research remains, for lucky me, a meaningful preoccupation. Indeed, I've often been somewhat ashamed to realize that I myself am no doubt the first Skyvington male since antiquity to have been capable of behaving loosely, at times, from a sexual viewpoint. But don't jump to false conclusions. I've always made a gigantic attempt to respect the Tenth Commandment:
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor's. [Exodus 20:17]
Maybe I don't fully understand what the Good Lord was trying to say through his use of the curious verb "to covet", but I can vouch for the fact that I've never coveted my neighbor's manservants, nor his ox. And I paid cash for the two donkeys I've purchased since residing at Gamone. Back in Paris, it's true that things could waver somewhat, and evolve in unexpected directions, at the level of wives and maidservants (designated, these days, as au pair girls). But I honestly don't recall ever brooding glumly, for any length of time, in a frustrating state of sin that might be designated as coveting. In those days, we were more pragmatic...

Over the last month or so, I've been examining closely my Dorset ancestors towards the middle of the 19th century, at the time that England had developed the procedure of issuing official birth certificates. Well, all I can say is that the phenomenon of ring-ins among my Skyvington ancestors of that epoch was most prolific: almost to the point of turning a naive family-history researcher off genealogy… not for moralistic reasons, of course, but simply because, to make family-history headway, we're obliged to get involved in a constant puzzle of "Who slept with whom?"

I won't go into all the details here. You'll be able to find them soon in the Dorset chapter of They Sought the Last of Lands. Let me simply describe one outstanding case, in which the presence of a particular ring-in was handled in such a subtle way that I had to employ all the brain-power of a Sherlock Holmes (aided by a bit of luck) in order to concoct a plausible theory on who he was, and what might have happened.

Here's the 1851 census data for the 15 occupants of a household in the Dorset village of Iwerne Courtney:

This is a typical specimen of the kind of stuff I need to examine regularly, as a family-history researcher. It's an interesting sample which, incidentally, reveals the origins of various disparate Skyvington families throughout the world today… but I don't intend to discuss those questions here.  This was the household of John Skivington [1780-1858] and his wife Grace Pethen [1788-1861]: my paternal great-great-great-great-grandparents (at the same ancestral level as the vicar of Woodhorn, the subject of my previous blog post).

Observe line #9 of the census data, which indicates the presence of a 3-months-old baby boy named Atwill Isaac, designated as a grandson (of John Skivington and Grace). For a long time, I wondered who were the parents of this child, and why he had been given such a weird name. Normally, since that census had been carried out on 30 March 1851, we might suppose that this baby was born around Christmas 1850. I had the impression that the child's given name should be spelt as Atwell (which exists as a surname), but I could find neither a parish christening record nor a UK birth certificate for an Atwell Isaac Skivington, born at Iwerne Courtney in 1850.

A decade later, in 1851, the male head of the household had died, and only three occupants remained, as indicated by the census data:

The aging Grace, whose married name was now spelt Skyvington (with a "y"), had been left to look after two grandsons, no doubt ring-ins whose parents (known or unknown) were now residing elsewhere… if indeed they were still alive. And the younger boy's name was now spelt as Etwell.

Much later, in 1875, a marriage certificate reveals that Atwell Skivington (with an "i") married Mary Anne Langford in the seaside town of Christchurch in Dorset. Then, in the 1881 UK census, we find the small family of Atwell Skivington, a bricklayer, residing in the nearby village of Holdenhurst.

Notice that Atwell's birthplace is indicated as Shroton, which is the nickname for Iwerne Courtney used by local folk.

I remained curious concerning the identity of Atwell's parents. A fortnight ago, on the off-chance that I might find something interesting, I ordered a copy of a birth certificate for an unidentified William Skivington born in the small village of Iwerne Courtney in the final quarter of 1850. I was surprised to discover that it was an out-of-wedlock baby whose mother was Elizabeth Skivington, the 21-year-old daughter of my ancestors John Skivington and Grace Pethen, whose name appears in line #5 of the census data for 1851, shown earlier on in this blog post.

So, here are three dates in the existence of this child:

— 4 December 1850: Elizabeth Skivington gave birth to an out-of-wedlock baby in Iwerne Courtney.

— 17 December 1850: Elizabeth registered the birth of this son under the name of William Skivington.

— 30 March 1851: Somebody in the house of Elizabeth's parents informed the census officer that the baby's name was Atwill Isaac.

Then, as an adult, he became known as Atwell Isaac Skivington. Still intrigued by this unusual given name, I continued to wonder why Elizabeth would have registered rapidly her out-of-wedlock baby under the name of William Skivington, and then allowed him to be referred to as Atwell Isaac Skivington. Funnily enough, I was reminded of an affair that took place here, not far from where I live, many years ago. There's a fellow who has a quite ordinary name, which gives the impression that he belongs to one of the ancient rural families in this corner of the Dauphiné region. Well, I've often been intrigued to discover that certain local folk, when they're referring to this fellow, use an unexpected nickname, something in the style of "Gascon". (I'm refraining from indicating his true identity.) If I understand correctly, these neighbors are aware of the fact that the fellow in question was a ring-in,  and they prefer to refer to him through the geographical origin of his father, from a remote region of France, rather than through the ordinary name that was given to him, in an official manner, by the local girl who was the unwed mother of "Gascon".

With the help of my recently-acquired collection of Dorset census CDs, I started looking around for the existence, in the vicinity of Iwerne Courtney in 1850, of a young gentleman whose surname was Atwell, who might have become Elizabeth Skivington's lover, and the genitor of her baby boy. Lo and behold, I had no trouble finding him, because there was only one plausible candidate in Elizabeth's geographical zone.

John Atwell, in his early twenties (25 according to the census data, 22 according to his baptismal record), was an unmarried agricultural laborer from nearby Langton Long, just south-east of Blandford Forum. He was residing in the town of Blandford Forum with a widowed 70-year-old agricultural worker, John Painter, in narrow East Street Lane… which looks like a fine place for a bit of discreet warm cuddling with a village maiden on a wintry March afternoon in 1850, when it was impossible to work out in the snow-covered fields.

John Samuel Atwell was christened on 9 March 1829 at the All Saints church in Langton Long, which still stands today:

Here is his baptismal record, delivered by the Reverend J H Ridout:

In the village of Langton Long, judging from the number of christenings, there appear to have been quite a few folk named Atwell.

POST SCRIPTUM: It goes without saying that I would be thrilled if living descendants of Atwell Skivington were to come upon the present blog post. If so, I hope they'll contact me.

BREAKING NEWS: I was mistaken in believing that there was no parish baptismal record for Atwell Skivington. No sooner had I published this blog post than I discovered the following entry in the new version of the Mormons' excellent FamilySearch website [access]:

Up until now, I had been obtaining data from the Iwerne Courtney website [access], which apparently hasn't yet put all its parish records online.

Notice that the spelling of Atwell's name is still screwed up there, in the church record. In such a context, it's not surprising that the time-honored Skivington spelling (with an "i") was transformed into Skyvington (with a ridiculous "y"). Ah, I still weep inwardly with remorse whenever I recall that my dear father had to go through life with a name such as King Mepham Skyvington.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Marvelous family-history encounter

A few days ago, a South African gentleman named Richard Frost from Tarkastad (Eastern Cape) contacted me spontaneously concerning one of my English ancestors: Henry Latton [1737-1798], the Anglican vicar of Woodhorn (Northumberland). This chart indicates how I descend from this clergyman:

The next day, Richard Frost sent me a portrait of my great-great-great-great-grandfather:

Richard Frost told me that his own great-grandfather, Sir John Frost [1828-1918], had represented South Africa at the opening of Australia's first parliament on 9 May 1901 in Melbourne, and was the minister of Agriculture in the government of Cecil Rhodes.

My unexpected contact with Richard Frost was the kind of amazing event that family-historians dream about. Today, we discovered that there's even an additional dimension to our encounter. You see, Richard was aware that this portrait had entered his family household through a female ancestor whose married name was Hannah Friend (the surname of Richard's mother). Besides, he was certain that this woman was a granddaughter of the vicar of Woodhorn. Well, it soon emerged that this woman's maiden name was Hannah Pickering. She was an elder sister of my great-great-grandfather John Pickering. So, Richard and I are in fact relatively-close genetic cousins of a kind.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Dorset censuses

Since much of my 19th-century Skivington genealogy was located in Dorset, I finally decided to purchase a set of CDs with the contents of the UK censuses for 1841, 1851, 1861 and 1871.

I believe that purchasing these CDs—expertly produced by a small private company—is a less expensive and far more user-friendly solution than subscribing to one of the companies that provides you with access to censuses through the Internet. But I've reached this conclusion primarily because my 19th-century preoccupations are focussed essentially upon the single county of Dorset.

The researcher still has to spend a lot of time and effort in locating relevant individuals. In the case of my ancestral relatives named Legg, I've more or less given up researching, because there were hordes of them in Dorset at that time. Maybe, if I were courageous, I would decide to get further involved in research concerning these Legg folk, with the help of big family-history websites that we used to refer to as "message boards"... which I tend to avoid these days. But I've discovered that my great-great-great-grandmother Eliza Legg, when she married Charles Skivington, had two out-of-wedlock sons of which Charles wasn't the father. And I'm wary of the inevitable rock 'n' roll that would accompany an incursion into Eliza's family background. So I'm inclined to let sleeping Dorset rockers lie.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

New family-history folk

We computer-oriented genealogical researchers tend to imagine that the main action started and stopped with the Mormons, when these devoted investigators decided to record scrupulously for posterity (more precisely, in the perspective of posthumous baptisms) all the BDM details (births, deaths and marriages) concerning our forebears.

Recently, I was pleasantly astonished to receive an email from a representative member of a new organization named Mocavo, informing me that they were stepping into the genealogical business. For the moment, I'm greatly impressed by the way in which these professionals have targeted rapidly and effectively my personal stuff.


Mocavo is particularly active on Twitter. You might follow their UK community director Casey Hopkins at @caseyhopkins

I'll append information to my blog as I learn more about the approach and methods of this new organization.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Ancestors are daggy

I learned that excellent adjective quite recently, from a young cousin in Australia. Something is said to be daggy when it exhibits an indigestible mixture of several negative or frankly nasty features. It's generally scruffy, dirty, broken, something that would best be discarded as rubbish. Although I like the fresh Down Under twang of this word (like bogan, an equally pejorative epithet), it goes without saying that the title of this blog post is not intended to cast aspersions of any kind upon the fine folk who were my forebears. No, I've decided to invent (facetiously) a totally new meaning of the adjective "daggy"...

Let me explain. The only serious way of understanding the phenomenon of ancestors is to represent them by means of illustrations of the kind that mathematicians refer to as DAGs: directed acyclic graphs. Unless you do this, you're liable to remain forever confused by the sheer quantitative proportions of the vast hordes of procreators who have been responsible, ever since life has existed on the planet Earth, for copulating, conscientiously and copiously, in ways that have led to your present existence.

Genealogists have often used tree diagrams to represent ancestors, and half the community feel that the roots should be down at the bottom and the leaves at the top, whereas the other half find that it would be preferable if such diagrams could reveal their content in a chronological top-to-bottom direction. Obviously, the best way of ending this dispute is to lay your family-history charts out in a horizontal fashion, because nobody would ever dream of putting old folk to the right and living individuals to the left.

In fact, the ancestral scene has always been a jungle, rather than a tidy forest. And the only aspect of the situation of which we can be relatively certain is that there are far more human beings on the planet today than when all the diligent copulating got off to a start, long ago.

Some folk have the pleasure of emerging from ancestral contexts in which so much irregular screwing of all kinds was taking place constantly that it can become quite a difficult task to distinguish between the various roots and leaves, and to determine where certain rooting leaves off, while elsewhere certain leaves take root… if you see what I mean. [If I weren't sure that you've heard it already, I would throw in here the joke about the rare Tasmanian marsupial that eats, roots, shoots and leaves.] I warned you that the situation is daggy.

Here's a typical example of a graph of the directed acyclic kind:

Clearly, it's a graph, since the diagram is composed of labeled vertices (nodes) linked by lines. It's a directed graph because all the lines carry arrow heads to indicate their respective directions. And it's acyclic, above all, in the sense that, no matter where you start, you'll never find yourself going around in circles. To put it bluntly, there's no way in the world that a young lady might give birth to a child who turns out to be the girl's father. Not even in the Holy Bible, where supernatural birth is a common phenomenon, would you find such a far-fetched tale as that (unless it has escaped me). Now, this kind of DAG provides an elegant way of indicating how humans might procreate. Admittedly, at times, the relationships are not particularly Christian. But who cares?

— Fred and Kate gave birth to a son, John.

— Kate appealed to a different father, Ken, to produce a daughter, Alice.

— These naughty kids, John and Alice, promptly got together to give birth to Bill… who probably ran into various terrible health problems later on.

— Meanwhile, Alice was seduced by John's dad, Fred, who bore her a son, Tom.

— Alice, a spirited young woman, also had a daughter, Mary, whose father is unknown.

As I said, the overall situation is mathematically "daggy" in the sense that no unthinkable acts have ever taken place. There are no vicious circles. No closed loops. No offspring has ever ended up becoming the genitor of his or her own father or mother. So, the overall situation is perfectly human, all too human.

Many observers who see how genealogical researchers behave are inclined to cry out in disbelief that their activities are crazy. For example, I'm proud of the fact that I can document—more or less clearly and plausibly—the 29 generations that take me back to William the Conqueror. [My "pride", of course, is perfectly irrational and superficial, on a par with saying that I'm proud to be Australian, say, simply because my ancestors happened to be led to that land, for various random reasons.] Certain observers are shocked by my evocation of the Conqueror, and they hit out with bad arithmetic: "William, your alleged royal ancestor is merely one of N individuals who played a role in your procreation, and the value of N is approximately 2 to the power 29, that's to say 536 870 912." The problem, here, is that this number no doubt exceeds the total number of inhabitants who were looking around for a bit of procreative Franco-British rock 'n' roll back at the time of the Conqueror. So, there's something basically wrong with the use of binary trees when calculating the volume of your ancestors. What's wrong, as I've been saying, is that you have to use DAGs, not binary trees, to represent your ancestral jungle.

Other observers throw up their hands in despair and say: "It's impossible to explain the situation. Back at that time, clearly, everybody was related to everybody else." In France, for example, people like to claim that every living French citizen is a descendant of Charlemagne… which is ridiculous. For all we know (and we shall never know such things, of course), my global circle of forebears at the time of the Conqueror may have been limited to little more than a handful of rural villages in Normandy. I hasten to add that, in making such a suggestion, I'm forgetting, of course, that ancestors in all kinds of remote places no doubt got into the act of procreating me, further down the line. There were lots of Irish copulators, for example, and I have no reason to believe that they were necessarily hanging around in Normandy at the time of the Conqueror. But, if we were to know the numbers, the entire team, maybe scattered throughout several regions of the planet, might have been relatively modest. In any case, it's absurd to imagine that a host of medieval folk—more than the current population of the USA—were copulating furiously, day and night, in a sense that would ultimately lead to my peephole opening on a September day in 1940. My crowd of ancestors must not be likened to the armies of Joshua at Jericho, or the host of angels on Judgment Day.

Let me finish with an anecdote. I was pleased, a few weeks ago, to have made contact with a prominent American scientist named Skevington, and I immediately tried to persuade him to obtain his Y-chromosome data, to see whether we might be related. I was amused by his immediate reaction. He evoked the notorious but very real phenomenon of so-called non-paternity events: that's to say, cases where a child's genuine father is not the guy whose name appears in the records. Often, we hear amazing figures concerning the proportion of male babies who grow up (and maybe spend their lives) without ever becoming aware of the true identity of their biological father. Now, while it's probably high, the figure is not as high as it's often made out to be. For example, it's silly to suggest that 10% of English-speaking males have a mistaken idea of the identity of their fathers.

Click the banner to access a scientific article on this question entitled Founders, Drift and Infidelity: The Relationship between Y Chromosome Diversity and Patrilineal Surnames by Turi King and Mark Jobling.

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.