Stitches in time: tracking elusive cousins (part two)

Good evening! Welcome back to my blog about elusive cousins – investigating common themes which complicate the search for relatives. This time I’ll be looking at some examples of relocation and deaths of key family members as well as re-introducing you to a ‘rogue’ in my family tree. 

It’s a common belief that people didn’t move around in the old days. While that’s true for many, I’m constantly surprised by how many people did manage to travel around the globe, even before the peak of the British Empire. My Outerbridges seem to have arrived in Bermuda, possibly from Yorkshire, in 1617 – one of the first English families to settle there. My forebears only returned to the British Isles for good (at least on my direct line) between 1838 and 1841 when they landed once again in Swansea but remained closely tied to the sea through merchant shipping. 

Distance can inevitably complicate family links, particularly if miles were put between people before the advent of modern technologies. When I think how quickly I have lost touch with some university friends, it is easy to understand how the difficulties of communicating across counties, or even continents, could have widened the gap between cousins and other relatives. While to a certain extent the likes of twitter and facebook are bringing distant family members back together, the generations in between ourselves and the original travellers could have been left adrift from each other. 

A couple of examples from my own research now. The infamous (to me) William Coman, who will be featured later, had two sisters who left Wymondham in 1853 to travel to Salt Lake City. One of the sisters is documented in “Covered Wagon Women: 1853-1854”, recently digitised by Google ( as emigrating with her husband and two daughters and giving birth to a son “somewhere along the banks of the Platte” (the river famous for it’s location on the Mormon trail). “Covered Wagon Women Volume 6: Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails” takes up the story and contains the following passage about Harriet Coman Dye:

“Monday 18th felt tolerably – Sister Dye confined last night with a son – these Mormon women – I think I should have been left in my grave in a similar case – but truly God fits the back to the burden – This we realize daily and I think in nothing more than in such cases – She went on with the Train and reported “all right” at night “Going on well” “Beautiful boy” &c &c” (sic)” 

Could the sisters have kept in regular touch with the family members they left in Norfolk? I think probably not, especially as many of those left in East Anglia could not read and write at the time. I can find no evidence of any visits across the ocean by relatives either. Would all of them have even supported such a move to the other side of the world? Perhaps the rest of the family had declined the offer of a new life in Utah. 

Several decades later, in 1913, 49 year old Caroline Raynham (nee Bloomfield) moved from Suffolk with her husband and children to Canada to farm. The family were much better off than the Comans before them and it seems they did keep in touch with brothers and sisters back at home to a certain extent. Caroline was a farmer’s daughter and her husband Arthur originally a grocer and later a farm bailiff. 

The couple’s ship manifest shows that they were stamped as “British Bonus Allowed”. Effectively, this was a marketing tool from the Canadian authorities -the government’s immigration branch paid commission to steamship booking agents to find suitable immigrants, often farmers like the Raynhams, to settle lands in Canada. Upon proof of settlement, the immigrants themselves received a separate monetary bonus. The British Bonus came into effect on 27 September 1890 and lasted over twenty years. 

Finally, a case of a family with European connections that moved around a lot but nevertheless left behind traces of their many travels, causing little difficulty for their descendants’ research. My beautifully named 4x Great Grandmother, Francisca Amelia Augusta du Bois, was born in Belgium to a British mother and Belgian father. Despite missing out on the odd census, some of her letters have made their way to The Bright Collection at the Shropshire Archives (, discussing amongst other things, the competence of Parisian doctors with leeches, Boudoir curtains (at length!) and the bitter cold in Brussels. 

Not only do letters exist, but additionally, a note on the burial register says that Augusta died in Madeira and was brought back to Lydbury North for burial (she lived with her husband, the Reverend, at Totterton Hall nearby). So, in this case, the most affluent of the three examples, relocation has had much less impact on the family, chiefly because of the ability to correspond eloquently by letter and the increased mobility brought by money and elevated class. 

Another barrier to your search for cousins is the death of a ‘key ancestor’. Perhaps this person took a secret with them. Perhaps they never meant to keep a secret but circumstances meant that they never shared information about part of the family because they were never asked. There is also the possibility that somebody died young and their family moved away or started a new life, intentionally or not. A new husband for example could mean moving in new circles and losing touch with old acquaintences. 

For example, until last week I was not aware that a relative of mine survived WWII (just) but died shortly after when he was hit by a car in a Suffolk village. It is easy to jump to conclusions when men died during key military events but until you have that all important proof, try to keep your options open. This incident was covered in the press and I now have a whole new trail to persue. A close ancestor of mine would have known this and been able to tell me all about it, but sadly he is no longer with us. 

If you have a missing ‘key ancestor’ like this, don’t despair. There are still ways of finding out more, it might just be a little more difficult. After all, even where people do give you leads, rumours need to be corroborated. People have a tendency to remember things differently as time goes on, and things like dates in particular are not often remembered correctly – more likely, the person will be able to tell you roughly when something happened in relation to something else e.g. ‘so and so was still alive at Auntie Hilda’s wedding but wasn’t at the baptism of Cousin Reginald’. 

Parish registers can be an absolute goldmine in helping fill in the blanks caused by a missing ancestor. This is the case not only when simply trying to ‘kill ancestors off’ but when looking to find additional details e.g. information about the circumstances of their death and details of the family they left behind. Gravestones and other monuments can also flesh out details. I’ve found stones giving clues to adopted children, unknown relationships and even occupations (perhaps I am at an advantage here as I have stone masons in the family – this occupation is often pointed out by the mason working on the memorial!). 

If you are lucky enough to have ancestors from Wells-next-the-Sea for example, the helpful clergy wrote down cause of death next to many of the entries. Not only can this reveal information about an individual ‘shot in the leg with a gun’ (perhaps try the local press if this gentleman belongs to you) but can also give you some context – perhaps a child died along with several others during an epidemic of a childhood disease. Other entries at Wells include the exact location of graves (in one case a former reverend is buried ‘in the brick vault’) and further entries include details of parents and/or children. Scans of the burial registers are available here: 

And finally, I turn to the ‘black sheep’ who seems to disappear off the face of the Earth, effectively sealing off access to his relatives living or dead. Way back when I started writing a blog I appealed for information about my 4x Great Grandfather William Coman. His wife Lucy called herself married in two successive census records but William was nowhere to be seen. I couldn’t kill him off, nor find him on any census records elsewhere. Quarter Session records mentioned a William Coman but alone could not be definitively proved as relating to the right William Coman. 

A few months later I had some amazing emails from a distant cousin in Australia with an incredible story. She thinks that William Coman was indeed a convict. He could have been sentenced to imprisonment at Norwich Castle for desertion of Lucy and his children, and also for drunken disorderly behaviour on more than one ocassion. She thinks that after a couple of stints incarcerated in the Castle, William chose to join the army to avoid further imprisonment and ended up in India. Why does she think this? Because a William Coman turns up in a Courts Martial for drunkenly trying to punch a bombardier which seems to match his previous character. Whilst this story seems to make sense, so far the information is consequential and I need further records to find out whether it’s correct. I’m currently planning a trip to London in order to consult Courts Martial records at the British Library and need to find reports of the Norwich Quarter Sessions to see what else I can find out. 

William Coman’s example includes a family separation, a relocation (whether William ended up in India or only moved a few miles and changed his name), and even the death of relatives that might have known the answers – his estranged wife died when my Great Grandmother was very young. While these themes can complicate family research, they nevertheless make the trail more interesting. If all our ancestors were good citizens, lived in the same parish for hundreds of years, got on with everybody in their family and passed up opportunities to travel, would our adventures in family history be so interesting? I think not. 

It’s our job to logically seek out records and piece together rumours, keepsakes and the contributions of distant relatives in order to fill in the missing stitches – making up for the one lost in time which cast branches of the family adrift in the first place. 

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