Sunday, 20 December 2009

Obsessed with an ancestor!

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine offered to investigate and map out my family tree for me. I jumped at her offer - not sure what pleasure exactly I would receive from her doing so, but thought it would be interesting in the least. I had not realised how I would actually become a little obsessed by one member of my family tree: my mother's father's father's mother or one of my great, great grandmothers: Maria Ward.

The first general point of interest for me was that although I had been brought up near Gatwick and had knowledge of most of my family coming from south and east London, I did not realise there was a substantial sprinkling of Norfolk - found in three independent branches of my tree. I came to Norfolk to go to university and stayed, totally unaware of any local family history. When your ancestry is a few miles down the road, it's far easier to investigate, explore and get a bit excited about. It turned out Maria Ward lived about fifteen miles from Norwich and with my friend's help, I have pieced together some key clues to the life she led - which was no bed of roses!

Maria was born in 1851 to Sarah and Samuel Ward in the village of Halvergate, Norfolk. The males in her family were all agricultural laborers (or fishermen), so it was not a wealthy family. The 1861 census lists Maria (aged 10) as a scholar at the Hall school (now a Victorian looking building about 200 metres from the edge of Halvergate that is used like a village hall). I have imagined her skipping down the hill, past the church on the right to school. Other details I have of her childhood include:
*her older brother Christopher left the household to marry Caroline,
* and two of her younger sisters (Sarah and Leah) died while young
When Maria was 13 her mother died and two years later her father also. This left just Thomas, her older brother by two years in her household (in terms of adult males capable of sustaining the family). Sadly he died in 1871 of tuberculosis. His death certificate shows Maria's mark (a cross) and cites that she was present at his death. This would have left a household of Maria (aged 19), John (aged 10), Ester (aged 11) and Sarah (aged 3 - but she also died in 1871). Now comes a degree of mystery between the census of 1871 and 1881. The next census shows Maria working as a housekeeper for a widower (James High) in Reedham (a few miles from Halvergate) with a three year old daughter called Sarah. I searched out the birth certificate for Sarah and found she had been born in Lingwood Workhouse on 20th August 1877. This daughter died shortly after the 1881 census (aged 4) of scarlet fever. Had she died any earlier, I would not have been able to put the workhouse detail into Maria's life. Lingwood Workhouse no longer exists but I have seen it marked on an old map and I will eventually go to Norwich Records Office to search for more detail. Sarah, therefore ended up pregnant and unmarried a few years after her brother's death - whether that was in Halvergate, the workhouse or even in Reedham I am unlikely to discover.

On the 1881 census it states that Maria and James lived in 'Railway Cottages, Low common'. These houses are still there, right next to a level crossing and as James was a railway platelayer, this makes sense.

Maria went on to have several children (some of whom died) while she was housekeeper to James High who was 27 years her senior. One of these children was my great grandfather: Charles Christopher Ward born in 1888 and he has no father's name on his birth certificate. I can only assume James was the father as on 24th December 1890, James and Maria pretended to live in Row 40 (you had to prove you were living in the parish of a church if you were to marry in it back then) so they could marry in St Nicholas' Church in Great Yarmouth. Actually living in Row 40 were a fellow railway platelayer and his wife (Phillip and Harriet Clyne)who were also witnesses to the marriage. Something, probably scandelous, had stopped them getting married in Reedham Church (like having several children out of wedlock?). Their marriage certificate states they have no children.

After this marriage, James and Maria moved to '23 Drury Lane, Reedham - a street that no longer officially exists and I would have to trespass to see the house. They then went on to have one more child legitimately: Leah High. My mother has cine footage of myself aged 4, feeding the ducks from Reedham key next to my grandad (Charles Christopher's son) and 'Aunty Leah'. At the time I was told she wasn't a 'real' aunt. Was being the legitimate and illegitimate children of the same parents enough to prevent you from being really related? Aunty Leah married a 'Snelling' and her grave and that of her son (Sidney) are in the graveyard. She died in 1977.

I recently added more detail to the tree because Reedham Church has made some burial records available. James High died in 1911 (aged about 86) and Maria died at the age of 82 in 1933.

Having this amount of detail is in some ways satisfying but in others just leads on to more questions. I want to know:
*what she was like,
*what happened to her after her brother died,
*who originally got her pregnant,
*whether it was her pregnancy that took her to the workhouse (probably),
*what happened to her younger brother and sister after Thomas' death,
*what her and James' marriage was like (was he kind to her?),
*how much she suffered for having illegitimate children,
*Whether James really was the father to all of Maria's children or not,
*why her and James eventually went on to marry (perhaps his children from his previous marriage prevented it for some time).

So now I am working on a time travel machine.


  1. I also appreciate that no one can be as interested in this as me!

  2. I am dead impressed Molly Potter - What detail you have found out, even if you still have questions - The social history is fascinating, non? With all that stuff about illegitimacy, even tho' they were virtually all at it?!

    And your links to the area are amazing, and how fab that you can see where they lived as the houses still stand today...

    I loved this, thank you! Happy Hollingberries and Merry Chrimbles too! Fhi x

  3. Venn diagram overlap issue here xxx

  4. Your ancestor sounds fascinating...I'm not surprised you want to learn more!!

    I've ended up living in the area that some of my ancestors are from too!! Charlton House, just outside Malmesbury, has been home to the Earl's of Suffolk since the 16th century. One of the Earl's (can't remember which one) disowned his son for marrying, and having a child with, one of the maids in the house. He lived a very difficult life in exile from his father and apparently the father passed away before the two could be reconciled. Our family, on my Dad's side, are direct descendants of the son and maid. I had no idea of any of this till I told my Dad we had moved to Malmesbury and he sent me the documentation!! Weird huh!!

    C x

  5. The man in the hat in the photo is Maria Ward's son: Charles Christopher Ward. My mum tells me he had a very stong Norfolk accent and colloquial phrases!

    That's a great story Carol. I think the personal connection to these people in history makes them that more fascinating. It's the socila stuff that's most interesting to me yep! I think I have been to Charlton House - or near it...Wiltshire yes?

    On other branches I have a Sea Captain a temperence lecturer (!!!!), policeman, butcher..London, Ireland, Canadian allsorts but because Maria was local, she's the one that captured my imagination!

    Thank you Fhi...Happy happiness to you too.

  6. Oh and the little girl in the front row on the left (our left) is my mother.


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