29 April 2013

A not necessarily comprehensive guide to English family history research in the 1700s

The further you go back in history, the harder it is to find much information that might be useful to your family history research. Parish records can be incredibly useful for researching more recent generations, but as far back as the 1700s the parish records don't contain much. With a baptism record you're likely to get the parents names of the baptised child, but that's about it - if you're really lucky you might get a date of birth as well. Places of abode and occupation of the father were not recorded. Burial records will only give you the date the person was buried, and if you're lucky, they might list the age of the deceased.

So in the 1700s you have to look to other sources for further information. These include historical newspapers and wills. Of course, if your relatives were in the lower classes, you're unlikely to have much success at all - they didn't tend to publicise their hatches, matches and dispatches in the daily rag, and neither did they usually have much to will away. Sorry! However, if you had some rellies in the middle and upper classes, you may be in luck.

Over the past few days I have spent some time working on Henry James Davison (who happens to be the grandson of the wife of my 6x great uncle). All I knew from his baptism record was that he was baptised at St Marylebone Church, Marylebone, London on August 10, 1780. It also recorded his parents' names - James and Charlotte, and that he was born on 16 July 1780 (bonus!). I also had found baptism records for two of his siblings, James Tully Davison (1776) and John Davison (1777) in the same parish, which suggested that the family might have lived locally for at least 5 years.

To find out a little more, my next step was to see if I could find wills for either of Henry's parents. Of course there would only be one for his mother if his father died first - my understanding is that otherwise, in those days pretty much everything a woman owned was actually owned by her husband. Looking on the National Archives (UK) website, I found a will of Charlotte Davison, Widow of Saint Marylebone, Middlesex, dated 6 April 1833. It was the only one there that could possibly be her, so I took a punt and ordered it. And luckily it was her. And it happened to mention "Ann" (maiden name unknown), the widow of her late son Henry James Davison. So this meant he was dead by 1833. I couldn't find a reasonable likely option for a will of Henry's father James Davison, so I tried a different tack.

I searched some historical newspapers for Henry James Davison to see whether he made the papers at all. In June 1804 he was admitted to a Bachelor of Laws through Trinity Hall, Cambridge (from The Bury and Norwich Post, 20 June 1804). I also found his death notice (The Morning Post, 18 April 1822):

DIED - On Sunday last, at his mother's house, In Chandos Street, Cavendish Square, Henry James Davison, Esq. of Little Berkhampstead, Herts. aged 41.
It would seem that there can be a lot of variation in the spelling of "Berkhampstead". Interestingly, in his mother's will she had made reference to all her "printed books and prints whatever either at Berkhampsted or in London".

So now I had two places to google in relation to the surname Davison - Chandos Street, Cavendish Square, and Little Berkhampstead, Hertfordshire. The first combination on Google brought up a will at the National Archives (UK) - the will of a Henry Davison, of Chandos Street Cavendish Square, Middlesex. Being dated 1822, I realised that this was my Henry James Davison! In his will Henry left pretty much everything to his wife Anne, but also left 50 guineas apiece to each of his godchildren. Which suggests to me that he and Ann never had children, or at least if they did, they hadn't survived.

Then I googled "Davison" with "Little Berkhampstead" and a reference to "Ann Davison, wid." caught my eye. It appeared that in 1826, four years after the death of her first husband, Henry James Davison, Ann married William Horne, later Sir William Horne, a British barrister and politician. The fact that they named one of their sons Henry James Davison Horne clinched it for me that this was definitely the widow of Henry James Davison.

The Hertfordshire Archives has an online database, a search of which revealed a death notice for Henry James Davison published in the County Chronicle on 7 May 1822. Unfortunately I haven't been able to find access to this newspaper, so I don't know what hidden secrets the notice might reveal.

So that's about all I can find on him. But rather than just knowing when he was born, and to whom, I can build up a little picture of him. He was born to James and Charlotte Davison in 1780 and baptised in the family parish of St Marylebone about a month later. He studied law at Cambridge, receiving his bachelors degree when he was 24. His family had a connection to Little Berkhampstead in Hertfordshire, and he lived there, at least for a time, with his wife. Apparently they had no children - was there a medical reason for the lack of children? Henry died, aged 41, at his mother's house in Marylebone. That he died so relatively young, and at his mother's house instead of in his own home at Little Berkhampstead suggests to me that perhaps he was convalescing there and that it wasn't necessarily a sudden death. The extended family was not poor, having residences in both Marylebone and Little Berkhampstead (there is evidence that Henry wasn't the only Davison who spent time there - his parents appeared to have links there as well), which they apparently moved between from time to time, and 50 guineas for each of his godchildren wouldn't have been small either.

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