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. 

Cousin Albert Septimus: Queen Victoria's Consul in Cairo

To celebrate a few days of uninterrupted research, this week I hope to make up for a couple of weeks' blog absence with a series of posts about a few of my more intriguing ancestors. While I am fascinated by people of all places, occupations, walks of life and circumstances there are some that for whatever reason pique my interest more than others. So, tonight, I introduce you to Cousin Albert.

Even when I was little I was aware of having an ancestor who travelled further than most Walnes before or since. It made my lessons about the Egyptians from Mrs Ingate at Primary School even more enthralling, because I knew that somewhere I had an ancestor that had really been there. 

It is only more recently that I have begun to find out more about Alfred Septimus Walne. My first cousin, six times removed, he was born in Market Weston in Suffolk on 22 February 1806, the youngest child of Thomas Walne and Elizabeth Cole.

‘Ordinary’ records (by which I mean the census and parish baptisms, marriages and burials) give little away about his life abroad but give tantalising hints into his existence. The census for 1861 shows him staying at the White Lion Hotel, High Street, Bath, occupation “HM Consul Cairo”. Among the other guests are ‘gentlemen’ and a captain in the Bengal Artillary. Ten years later, he can be found at the United Hotel (19-25 inclusive Charles Street, St James Square) a similarly grand hotel, this time occupation “Landowner late HMC”. 

His lack of an appearance in earlier census’ is probably due to his being in Cairo at the time. In this post I can only scrape the surface of his life as Consul, but I hope to touch on a few of the things I have so far discovered about Cousin Alfred. 

It would appear that Alfred first ventured to Egypt not as Consul, but as a doctor, and specifically, an eye doctor. A book, online here, first published in 1837, entitled “Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia Petraea and the Holy Land” by John Lloyd Stevens (1805 – 1852) who travelled to Egypt in 1835, includes the following passage: 

“Nearly all the time I was at Cairo, Paul and myself were ill, and for a few days we were in a rather pitiable condition. Fortunately, a young English army surgeon [Dr Forbes] was there, on his way to India, and hearing there was a sick traveler in the house, he with great kindness called upon me and prescribed for our ailments….At that time there was no English physician in Cairo, and I believe none at all, except some vile Italian or French apothecaries, who held themselves fully qualified to practice, and were certainly very successful in relieving the sick from all their sufferings. On my return I found Dr. Walne, and though for his own sake I could wish him a better lot, I hope, for the benefit of sick travellers, that he is there still.

A post-script to the page adds:

“I have seen with great pleasure, in a late English paper, that Dr Walne has been appointed English vice-consul at Cairo. In the close relation now growing up between England and Egypt by means of the Red Sea passage to India, it is a matter of no small consequence to England to have at Cairo as her representative a man of character and talents; and I am sure I but express the opinion of all who know Dr. Walne when I say that a more proper appointment could not have been made.”

A year after his meeting with John Stephens, Alfred appears in the Gentleman’s Magazine, volume 5, online here, in June 1836:


At the time, Alfred must have been relatively new in post. As a little girl, the thought that a cousin of mine had been involved in investigating such things long before Howard Carter would have been astonishing. Today, I find it a little more difficult to be as excited, as I’m not so sure that at the time the excavations were handled as modern day ethics might require. Still, it is fascinating nonetheless to find an ancestor mentioned as such - ancient Egypt still hold me in some kind of enchantment which adds a magic of sorts to the connection. 

The Literary Gazette, Volume 20, also of 1836, contains the following article: 

“Egyptian Society – The Augsburg Gazette states, that a scientific society under this name has been formed at Cairo, by a British physician, Mr Alfred Walne, long resident in Egypt, and a zealous student of hieroglyphic and Coptic literature. The Society has hired a house for he reception of travellers, and are collecting a library of books likely to be useful to such as explore the Egyptian provinces in Africa and Asia. One Turk has subscribed, but the members are chiefly English, with some French and German.” 

One of my favourite discoveries to date has been a portrait, sold at Sotherby’s, which can be viewed here. The painting, by David Roberts, depicts an ‘Interview with the Viceroy of Egypt at his Palace in Alexandria’ and the inscription on the reverse states that one of the men is Alfred. The meeting took place on 12 May 1839. Alfred is the only Englishman ancestor I have yet found a portrait of (even indirectly!), my Bermudan and Belgian ancestors usually being those with the money and tendencies to indulge in such things. 

Another book, “State and Society in Mid-Nineteenth Century Egypt” by Ehud R. Toledano, first published in 1990, also has references to Alfred. At a meeting with other acquaintances on 1 February 1856 at his ‘country house near Cairo’ he was quoted as saying: 

'Abbas’ refers to Abbas I of Egypt, who had died a year and a half earlier, murdered by two of his slaves. Alfred was certainly involved in important circles, and must have been embroiled in all aspects of Egyptian, Indian and English politics for the whole of his time abroad, including outbreaks of violence as well as historical discoveries. It boggles my mind to try and imagine what his life must have been like in an era where so many things were so markedly different from today (and so many tensions are still unresolved?). 

A couple of years later, The London Gazette made a couple of puzzling announcements about Alfred’s career. On 9 February 1859, the Foreign Office, in Issue 22229 published that: 

“The Queen has also been pleased to appoint Alfred Septimus Walne Esq. now Her Majesty’s Consul at Cairo, to be Her Majesty’s Consul at Alexandria” 

This was swiftly followed by another on 2 May 1859, in issue 22229: 

“The appointment of Alfred Septimus Walne Esq. to be Her Majesty’s Consul at Alexandria, which was notified in the Gazette…is cancelled; and Mr Walne retains his appointment as H.M. Consul at Cairo”. 

This is just one of things I intend to investigate when I get my hands on the “Letterbooks of Walne, agent at Cairo, 1838-59” in IOR/G/17 at the British Library. The dates I believe are probably significant as I know he was awarded a parting gift in 1861 on his resignation of office. Amongst the dedication (painstakingly copied out by me as a little girl) are mentions of his involvement in the construction of the railway between Alexandria and Cairo in 1851, increased public security, the first regular conveyance of Indian Mail between Alexandria and Suez in 1853 and his appointment as Her Majesty’s Commissioner for the affairs of Guddah after June 1858 (nb I think possibly this refers to the Jidda Massacre?). He was certainly a busy man. 

On resignation from his post in 1861, Alfred returned to England and seems to have spent much of the remainder of his life in gentleman’s clubs, grand hotels, and on his country estate. He died twenty years later, his probate calendar entry stating: 

“Walne Alfred Septimus Esquire Personal Estate £70,486 7s 10d 20 August. The Will with three Codicils of Alfred Septimus Walne formerly of the Union Club Trafalgar Square but late of 72 Guilford Street Russell Square both in the County of Middlesex Esquire who died 17 June 1881 at 72 Guilford Street was proved at the Principal Registry by John Henry Hill of 39 Old Broad Street in the city of London solicitor Amelia Elizabeth Gimingham of Broomfield Villa Weston-Super-Mare in the County of Somerset spinster and Thomas Walne of Pulham St Mary in the County of Norfolk Esquire the Executors” 

Although Alfred died in London, he was laid to rest in Brockdish in a handsome red tomb, not far from the family vault containing several more of my ancestors.

The Grove estate in Brockdish, one of several owned by the family at the time, was passedfrom Alfred to Thomas Alfred Walne (known as Alfred), his cousin’s grandson and his own adopted son (the latter according to a stone in Brockdish churchyard). 

When I come to write my first book, I think Alfred would be a wonderful candidate for research. I would welcome comments from anybody that can provide more leads, or help fill in my knowledge of Egypt in the 19th Century which I am very willing to admit is somewhat limited to date. 

I can’t imagine many places more different than Brockdish, a leafly little village of just 434 souls in 1881, and the rapidly growing city of Cairo upstream of the Nile delta. Alfred must have seen incredible things, both good and terrible. I am sure there is an enormous amount waiting to be discovered on a spectrum from the deep to the more mundane – why did he go to Egypt in the first place? What were his political views? Why didn’t he marry? How did he cope with the heat?! What drove him to take on his career? What was he like as a man? 

I hope over time, these, and other questions, will begin to reveal their answers.