Three Generations of the Curtis Family of Norfolk

Above, Samuel William "Fiddler" Curtis, born in 1852 at Hassingham, Norfolk, the grandson of William Curtis (senior).

My 5th great grandparents, John Curtis, and Ann Annison, were married at Hassingham, Norfolk in 1801.  I have so far been unable to trace where either of this couple originated, or their parents, but there were already Curtis and Annison families in that part of Norfolk prior, and I currently have no reason to think that they had moved into the area from elsewhere.  I just lack their baptism records.  Maybe one day I'll find them.

Hassingham in it's landscape in 1797.

Over the following eleven years, Ann Curtis (née Annison) had five children baptised at the Hassingham parish church of St Mary's, including a John, Richard, Theodosia, William, and finally in 1812, a Priscilla Curtis.

St Mary's of Hassingham.

William Curtis (I)

Their third son, William Curtis, was born at Hassingham during the winter of 1807/1808, and baptised in February at St Mary's.   His father, John may have rented a tract of land, to farm himself, or he may have relied on selling his labour to other farmers.  He may have done both.  The rural poor had lost all of their ancient rights, with the enclosures, but they were free to sell their labour and skills to whoever.  However, as the Agricultural Revolution gained pace - so the market for their labour was reducing, with the gradual introduction of new machinery and agricultural processes.

In 1827, William Curtis married my 4th great grandmother, Mary Ann Rose, at nearby Strumpshaw.  They were both marked down as of being of that parish, both were single, both were illiterate.  An interesting twist for myself looking at that marriage register, is that their witnesses were Mary Ann's sister, Rebecca Rose, and her fiancé, John Shorten.  I only posted about their life a week ago "From Norfolk Labourer to Yankee Gunner".  That couple were to marry in the next entry of that Strumpshaw Marriage Register, in November.  They ended up as farmers in Illinois, USA, with five of their sons serving in the Unionist Army in the American Civil War.  I keep seeing this theme in my Family History.  My direct ancestors were the ones that usually stayed - often never moving far from their village of birth.  But many of their siblings didn't stay.  I'll come back to this theme later in this post.

Between 1828, and 1850, the couple were to have a total of at least eight children, all baptised at nearby Buckenham church: Anne Amelia Curtis (1828), my 3rd great grandfather, William Curtis (the junior, 1830), Henry Curtis (1833), Alfred Curtis (1836), George Curtis (1838), Priscilla Curtis (1841), Sarah Curtis (1848), and Henry Curtis (1849).  A lot of mouths to feed.  How was William supporting these children?  If I look at the 1841 census, I find the family, as it was then, located at Buckenham (Ferry), Norfolk.  William was a 34 year old agricultural labourer.  These had been hard times for agricultural labourers in Norfolk.  Machinery and new agricultural techniques continued to replace much of the traditional labour.  Workhouses had been constructed - and Poor Laws were halting any provision of parish relief for the poor, outside of the workhouse - where inmates would be segrated from their families, and punished for being poor.  The small farmers, once the brothers of the free labourers, were increasingly associating more with other figures of the rural establishment - the squires, the land owners, and the parsons.  They often sat on the poor law union boards, determined to punish the poor.  The Established Church just watched on - and the rural poor were turning to Methodism, and other Non-conformist chapels.

In 1830, the countryside erupted in violence - as labourers swarmed the countryside, attacking workhouses, farms, and in particular, the new threshing machines that were replacing much of their labour.  They often did this under the name of a mythical Captain Swing, and hence this period of machine breaking and rioting was known as the Swing Riots.  Another of my ancestors, on my father's side, was gaoled for leading a local Swing riot, at Attleborough.  It was a period in which many local establishment figures were seriously concerned - the fear of Revolution was still in the air from France - indeed, French spies were often conjured up as being at the root of the problem - rather than their treatment of the rural poor.

It passed.  But things did not improve for the East Anglian rural working class.

In the 1851 census, William, his wife Mary Ann, and their eldest children, were all recorded iin Buckenham as being agricultural labourers.  Only there was now a ninth child.  Richard Curtis.  But he wasn't born at Buckenham Ferry, nor even in the County of Norfolk.  He was born in 1850 at Firsby, Lincolnshire.  This may infer that the family (if not just Mary Ann), had between 1841, and 1851, moved for a a period, to the Skegness area of East Lincolnshire.  People were on the move.  The rural poor were being squeezed out of East Anglia by the unemployment, poverty, and the workhouse.  Perhaps William found more profitable labour in Lincolnshire for a while.  Perhaps his skills with horses, or perhaps - like others he was attracted by the Fen drainage schemes, working as a digger - maybe like other that I've seen - it was work laying the railways?  Firsby railway station opened for business in 1848.  The railways were a part of a phenomena of migration that occurred across Norfolk during the Mid to Late 19th Century - they brought work, often attracted labourers away - and eventually carried many Norfolk families away to the Industrial North, to London, or to sea ports for migration elsewhere.

But by the 1851 census - they were back in their ancestral lands - back in Buckenham, Norfolk, by the River Yare, as though nothing had happened - except for that place of birth for young Richard.

Move on another ten years - the family are not in Buckenham in 1861.  I cannot find William at all.  However, I do find his wife Mary Ann Curtis, with some of their children, living in the Rows at Great Yarmouth, Norfolk.  Mary Ann records her occupation as charwoman - a woman that worked hard, washing clothes and linen for a living.  Their daughter Priscilla Curtis, is recorded as a silk weaver:

I wonder where was William?  He could be at sea, or working away, sending money home.  Too old for the military.  I can't find anything on him in Criminal Records.  What I do find, in the British Newspaper archives, are some references to a cork cutter by the name of William Curtis, living in Great Yarmouth, dating to 1858 and 1864:

Was this our William Curtis (senior)?  Above he was working on Charlotte Street (since renamed Howard Street), Great Yarmouth.  In 1864, he was addressed to the Church Plain, Great Yarmouth.  If it was our William, perhaps he was living with Mary Ann and the children - but was away on business, or perhaps some other work (fishing?), on the night of the census.

William and Mary Ann Curtis, age 61 and 62 years of age, appear to have settled in the Yarmouth and Gorleston area.  On the 1871, William and Mary Ann Curtis were addressed on "the footpath to Burgh".  William recorded his occupation as a marsh man.  Marshmen were responsible for the livestock kept on the marshes - horses, cattle, and sometimes sheep, fattening on the rich drained marsh grasses.  He would have tended to cattle and other livestock along the southern edge of Breydon Water - an enclosed sea estuary, with the ruins of an old Roman shore-fort called Burgh Castle, on the higher ground immediately above the marshes.  I posted an article of Burgh Castle here.

The view over the marshes from Burgh Castle.

Another ten years later, William Curtis (the senior), and his wife Mary, are now living in Litchfield Place, Southtown, Gorleston.  Age 72, he now lists his occupation, for the very last time, as a Steam Engine Driver.  Now that was a surprise.

William passed away in Gorleston, in March 1888.  He was eighty years old.


William Curtis (II)

I mentioned above, that my 3rd great grandfather, William Curtis (the junior), was born at Buckenham, and baptised at Strumpshaw, Norfolk, in 1830.

William Curtis married Georgianna Larke, at Hassingham Church (photo further above) on the 11th February 1852.  They appear to have lived in the village of Hassingham, Norfolk for several decades.  No evidence this time of flits to Lincolnshire, or down river to Yarmouth.  This generation stayed put.  Georgianna was descended from two parish clerks for nearby Cantley.

Georgianna gave birth to at least nine children at Hassingham: my 2nd great grandfather (pictured at the top of this post) Samuel William Curtis (1852), Theodosia Curtis (1854), Priscilla Curtis (1856), Alfred George Curtis (1858), Sarah Ann Curtis (1861), Mary Curtis (1863), Walter Curtis (1865), Eliza Curtis (1867), and finally, Henry Curtis (1870).

Nothing unusual in their 1861 census record - Will was a 30 year old agricultural labourer with his family living in the parish of Hassingham:

Ten years later in 1871 - living at Hospital Cottages in Hassingham, still all as would be expected:

Another ten years later, William, Georgianna, and their sons and daughters Walter, Eliza, and Henry Curtis, are living on Church Road.  No change, William is an agricultural labourer.  Nothing on record happens to this family.  They are the stereotype of the Norfolk rural working class family.  William's 72 year old father was by now a steam engine driver living at Gorleston.

Move on to 1891.  Not a lot of change.  Except that they are living on Hassingham Road (High) and only their daughter Mary remains with them in the household.  Mary is recorded as an assistant teacher.

1893.  I have a record from the British Newspaper Records that looks like our William Curtis (II).  A farmer named John Draper at Burlingham St Edmund, accuses him in court of cheating him of a toll fee.  He had accused William - described as a teamman (a person that has skills at working a team of horses), of fraud.  Draper suggested that he paid Curtis to take two wagons and several horses to Yarmouth via the new toll road - but that he in reality took them via the old roads and pocketed the toll fee that he had been given.  The only witness backed up Will's account - and the case was dismissed:

However, I suspect that William's reputation was tarnished by this case - and there were few employer farmers in the area.  He survived this.  Maybe his personality and reputation was strong enough for other farmers to trust him.  In 1901, he was living at Broad Farm, Hassingham.  Yes, he was now a 70 year old agricultural worker.

He still had labour to sell.  His beloved wife Georgianna died at Hassingham on the 1st April 1911 age 79.  A few months later, the 1911 census record's Williams status.  Age 80, he is still recorded as a working, employed, agricultural labourer.  Now a widower, he had two of his daughters living with him.  Mary who was single and age 45 (a teacher?), and Sarah, now under a married name - Sarah Stephenson.  She had moved many miles away - but as we will see in the next generation with her sister Theodosia, not everything had gone well.  In the wake of her mother's death, she was back home with her elderly father William.

William continued on.  The Curtis's keep doing this - they had longetivity for a number of generations.  He died at nearby Lingwood, age 96 in 1926.  A grandson, J.P. Curtis, registered his death.  Cause, senility and haematemesis. 


Theodosia and Sarah Ann Curtis - sisters.

As I noted above, two of William (II) and Georgianna's daughters, were named Theodosia Curtis (born 1854), and Sarah Ann Curtis (born 1861) at Hassingham, Norfolk.  They had an elder brother named Samuel William Curtis - pictured right at the beginning of this post.  He was my 2nd great grandfather.  This makes Theodosia and Sarah Ann - my 3rd great aunts.

Theodosia met a fisherman at Yarmouth.  Maybe she was visiting on a market day.  The boys working in the fishing fleet must have been exciting - they risked their life's out at sea, they didn't just work the land - they would sail out.  His name was John Mitchell.  In 1874, Theodosia married John.

They had a son:

He was baptised at Yarmouth in November 1877.  It appears that like many Yarmouth fisherman wifes, Theodosia lived in the Yarmouth Rows.  Her grandmother Mary Curtis, had lived there no more than ten years earlier - and with her grandfather, now lived nearby in Gorleston.

Something happened.  You get that sometimes in genealogy.  a family appears smashed up, removed from records.  I'm going to make a guess.  A lot of fishermen were relocating from East Coast harbours like Great Yarmouth, to Kingston Upon Hull, Yorkshire.  My guess is that they moved there as a family between Nov 1877 and 1889.  I don't know what happened to their child.  He disappears.  But so does his father, John Mitchell.  He dies.  I can't find them on either the 1871 or 1881 censuses.  In future, Theodosia, now living in Hull, Yorkshire, declares herself as a widow.  Pushed to guess, I'm going to say that John was lost at sea.  It was a hazardous living then.

On the 1st March 1890 at Hull, Yorkshire, the widow Theodosia Mitchell, married a James Petersen, son of a Christiansen Petersen, an officer.  I'm going to guess that these Scandinavian names may be Norwegian.  James Petersen, like her late husband, is recorded as a fisherman.  I have one record of him - that marriage to Theodosia - then he also disappears.

But .. before I continue on Theodosia, let me move back in time to Hassingham in Norfolk, and to her little sister Sarah Ann Curtis.  

In 1881, 20 year old Sarah, was working as a servant in a Yarmouth household.  Was she still in contact with Theodosia - I think so.  

Like her sister, she moved up to Kingston Upon Hull, in the East Riding of Yorkshire.


The Great Unwritten Migration from Norfolk to Sculcoates, Hull, Yorkshire.

Okay, maybe a slight exaggeration - but I keep seeing Hull in the East Riding of Yorkshire - particularly it's district of Sculcoates, in my Family Tree - as a place that a number of siblings of my direct Norfolk ancestors, moved to.  Both on my mother's, and my father's side.  I feel that this is a history that someone needs to write.  It seems that the establishing of the railways, with stations both in Norfolk, and in Kingston Upon Hull in Yorkshire, facilitated a migration event that is unwritten.  The squeeze was being put onto the Norfolk poor.  Hull offered higher wages, expanding fishing and ship building industries, and a higher living standard.  The word spread through the Norfolk countryside.  It can't just be my family!


Back to Sarah.  In late 1890, Sarah Ann Curtis married Albert Edward Stephenson at Sculcoates, East Riding of Yorkshire.  Somehow she had also ended up in Hull - and my best guess is her closeness to her sister Theodosia.  Her groom was, again, a Hull fisherman.  Perhaps he knew Theodosia?

During the 1891 England & Wales national census, I find this:

The two sisters from Hassingham, Norfolk were living next door to each other in Hull.  That brings them together.  Things didn't go well though for Sarah.  Her husband had some severe financial problems.  Perhaps gambling?  He ends up in Wakefield Prison in Yorkshire, guilty of debt, no less than three times between 1896 and 1907:

No wonder perhaps, that Sarah was keen to be with her father in 1911.

Back to Theodosia.  Her second husband, the fisherman, James Petersen, also just vanishes from record.  Abandonment, lost at sea, I don't know, but for the second time, she starts declaring that she is a widow.

In 1896, the widow Theodosia Petersen (née Mitchell, née Curtis), married a George Theakston at Sculcoates, Yorkshire.  George wasn't a fisherman.  He was a carter and van driver.  Perhaps that saved his life - for he was Theodosia's third and final spouse.  In the 1901 Census, they were living at 60 frances Street, West Sculcoates, Hull, Yorkshire.  They had a daughter called Evelyn:

Theodosia Theakston survived long enough to be recorded onto the 1939 Register at the oset of WW II:

She finally passed away at Hull in 1942, age 87.

The Baxter-Hudson Enigma

My great great grandfather, William Bennett Baxter.  Born 8th January 1846 at Gressenhall Union Workhouse, Norfolk.

I'm creating this post in order to try to make sense of a family history that has a confusing, sometimes conflicting series of evidences.  I'll start with the order of discovery.

I learned nearly 30 years ago, that my paternal grandfather's maternal grandfather was named William Bennett Baxter.  He was named as such on my great grandparent's marriage certificate.  I met aunts that remembered a few accounts of him.  My grandmother had the above photo of him.  My late grandfather, Reginald Brooker, had been raised by his grandparent's, the Baxters, in the wake of his parent's marital breakdown.

The next step in discovery, was when I bought copies of his marriage and birth certificates from the GRO in London.  They told me that he was the illegitimate son of an Eliza Baxter, born in 1846 in the workhouse at Gressenhall, Norfolk.  I've made many visits to Gressenhall Rural-Life Museum since then - set in the old buildings of that workhouse.  Eliza would have been punished for being a single mother in need of relief.  She would have been marked out, made to wear a yellow jacket of shame.  His marriage register record at Swanton Morley, Norfolk, also suggested that his father was a labourer, named William Bennett.  I know that on marriages, illegitimate born people often claimed an imagined or faked father, to avoid what was then, a shameful thing.  But his full name would support that his biological father was indeed, named William Bennett.  It might be a coincidence, but there was a young miller in the area at the time named William Bennett.  It's just difficult to prove - although perhaps one day, another DNA match?

I couldn't find any references to 3rd great grandmother Eliza Baxter - for many years.  I eventually lost interest in genealogy.  When I returned to it, three years ago, Internet Online Genealogy, and even Genetic Genealogy had emerged.  Indeed, I'm looking into this now, because I have a DNA Match in South Africa, that I suspect, relates to myself with shared ancestry somewhere around the Baxter Line.  I'm writing this partly for her.

Online Genealogy has allowed me to greatly extend my family tree, and often, to fill it with actual stories - which as some of my recent posts suggest - I love to do.

More Recent Discoveries - the Censuses 1861/1851

I found his mother, I believe that I found Eliza Baxter.  I thought maybe she died soon after 1846 - the poverty, or perhaps married someone, took a new name - left her son behind.  I was wrong.  At least I think that I was.  How did I miss her?  In 1861, she was still in Swanton Morley:

Eliza Baxter, an unmarried servant in a household headed by a Robert Hudson.  Wait a minute, below her are a William Baxter age 15 years of age (born circa 1846 - that HAS TO BE our William Bennett Baxter), and he has a little sister, a Faith Baxter age 12 years.  My great grandmother - William's daughter, was born later in 1885 as Faith Eliza Baxter.  She was named after her aunt here, and her grandmother.  Although Eliza is an unmarried servant, quite clearly, they are her children.  Surprised that Robert Hudson is okay with that.  wait a minute, William and Faith are recorded in the census as grandchildren of the householder, Robert Hudson.  Ah, so they are family.  Eliza isn't just a servant there.  William - as I explained above, might have had a biological father named William Bennett.  But here, William is recorded as a grandson of Robert Hudson.  Which son of Robert, is claiming to be the father of William and Faith Baxter?  The only contender in the household there in 1861 is Robert's son, John Hudson.  A 42  year old labourer.  Even if he wasn't the biological father of William - it looks as though he may have had a relationship with Eliza, he may even have been the biological father of Faith, but the record in the census keeps it all respectable.  It says Eliza is an unmarried servant.

But turn the page of that 1861 census - and there are more grandchildren of Robert Hudson in that household:

Two granddaughters born at Swanton Morley of John Hudson called Faith in the same house?  One Faith Baxter born circa 1849, the other Faith Hudson born circa 1855?  Confusion.

You'll see these people appear to keep changing surname, age, and place of birth.  In genealogy, that normally suggests that you are tracing more than one individual - making genealogical mistakes.  But you'll see, there is a common thread uniting these people, suggesting contradictory evidence.

In that 1861 census, Eliza is recorded as being born at Runhall around 1823.  However, who was talking to the census enumerator?  Our Eliza was born in 1820 at East Dereham.  Not an awful distance from Runhall - but the first contradiction.  As for William - he is perfect, and the name of his sister fits the family history perfectly.

Let's go back in the census.  I appear to find the family 10 years earlier, but with contradictions.  Let's go to the 1851 census.

This HAS to be them ten years earlier.  A John & Elizabeth Hudson, with children William and Faith Hudson.  The entry is actually outside of Norfolk, over in the Fens at Ramsey, Cambridgeshire.  John is recorded as working as an excavator, without much doubt - working on a Fen drainage system.  Hang on - here he claims Leicester as being his place of birth!  Is this the same John Hudson as in 1861 - because he recorded Swanton Morley as his place of birth, where he then lived with his father.  Elizabeth (Eliza?) claims Hardington, Norfolk as her place of birth, and that she was born circa 1822.  I don't believe that there is a Hardington in Norfolk.  You might think that this is the wrong family.  But, William "Hudson" was born around 1846 at Swanton Morley, Norfolk.  Perfect for our William Bennett Baxter - Faith fits perfect as well born circa 1849 for Faith Baxter rather than the six year old Faith Hudson in the 1861 census. I have no idea where her claimed birthplace of Grassland, Norfolk is.  How could there be another family with so many correlations in 1851 that matches in our family in 1861?

I at this point, should state a doppelganger couple.  There was a contemporary John & Eliza Hudson at Necton in Norfolk.  But the bride was named Eliza Ollett, and no children called William or certainly Faith.  I'm aware of their existence.

When I think it over, I'm reasonably happy that this 1851 family residing at Ramsey, are the same as the family residing with Robert Hudson at Swanton Morley, in 1861.  But I can't explain the contradictions.  If I accept them - then William Bennett Baxter, my 2nd great grandfather, was the same person as William Hudson, born Swanton Morley (neighbouring Gressenhall Workhouse), in 1846.  He had a younger sister born circa 1849, named Faith Baxter or Faith Hudson.  John Hudson was perhaps her biological father.

Do you see the contradicting evidences?  They continue.

Faith Hudson-Baxter

Faith was baptised as Faith Hudson at Swanton Morley church, in Norfolk, on Christmas Eve, 1848.  That suits Faith Baxter better than the six year old Faith Hudson in 1861.  Her parents are recorded as John & Eliza Hudson.

I can't find their marriage records.  John Hudson is stated as a labourer:

I don't find a baptism or a birth certificate for a brother in 1846 called William Hudson, but I have a copy of a birth certificate for William Bennett Baxter.  Let's face it - they are the same person, born 8th January 1846 at Gressenhall Union workhouse, near to Swanton Morley in Norfolk.  I don't believe that John and Faith were married.  Not an uncommon situation in the 19th century working classes - nor for this area of Norfolk I suspect.  I've seen local rectors complaining about the situation (what they referred to the sad state of concubinism in the district) of their lack of parental marriage, or didn't care.  He baptised Faith.

There's more - more contradictions.

I believe that my 3rd great aunt Faith Hudson-Baxter married a William Codling at Litcham, Norfolk in 1866.  If it was her, she recorded a John Baxter as her father.  But that could have been the normal cover up to explain the surname that she was now using.  After all, in 1861, she was called Faith Baxter, granddaughter of Robert Hudson.

I haven't yet found her in the 1871 Census.

But in the 1881 Census?  Would you believe it:

Is this really her?  In Sculcoates, Yorkshire (where I know a lot of Norfolk people moved to) not as Faith Codling, but as Faith BAXTER, widow, born circa 1849 in Swanton Morley?  Not many Faiths born in that village then.  She is a widow but she has reverted to the surname Baxter?

The Marriage - that never happened.

Months before that critical 1861 census that this puzzle began with, on the 29th December 1860, the marriage banns of John Hudson and Eliza Baxter were finally read out for the third and final time:

But they didn't appear to marry.

No ensuing marriage record at Swanton Morley church.

Instead, four months later, on the 7th April 1861, we get that record where Eliza Baxter is a servant in the household of Robert Hudson in Swanton Morley.  John is there as well.  The marriage doesn't appear to have taken place.

Instead...

John Hudson appears to die sometime between November 1861 and January 1862.  Eliza disappears from record.  William Bennett Baxter - he goes on to marry my 2nd great grandmother Harriet Barber who had also been born in Gressenhall workhouse - as were their first two daughters.  Their last child was my great grandmother, Faith Eliza Baxter, born at East Dereham in 1885:

She had an older brother named Robert Baxter, born at Swanton Morley in 1873:

He served in the Norfolk Regiment in the Boer War in South Africa, as well as later, British India.  He might have nothing to do with it - but he may be our link to that South African match?

From Norfolk Labourer to Yankee Gunner

Irstead Church, Norfolk.  The last recorded parish of the Shorten family in England

Union artillery.  American Civil War.

I could call this post "What My Norfolk-English Family did in the American Civil War".

Thomas Shorten marries Rebecca Rose

3rd January, 1838, Thomas Shorten, a local 20 year old, poor agricultural labourer, married 19 year old Rebecca Rose in her home parish of Strumpshaw in Norfolk, England.  Thomas himself was born nearby in the small parish of Southwood, where incidentally, my mother was born some 140 years later.  We don't move far in our family line.

Rebecca was the 4th great aunt of my mother.  Through my mother, I myself am descended not only from Rebecca's parents, John and Martha Rose (nee Rowland), but also from her uncle and aunt Henry and Margaret Rose (nee Ling).  I am descended from Rebecca's grandparents, Henry and Mary Rose (nee Gorll) of Loddon, Norfolk - twice over.

These were incredibly tough times for the agricultural working classes in East Anglia.  Enclosure had disenfranchised them from their ancestral land.  The land had become privatised.  The threshing machine and other new technologies then made even their labour surplus to requirement.  Poverty was made a crime through the Poor Laws.  My family line were the ones that stayed here - but as I research my family history, so I come across time after time, how many of their siblings and cousins were forced to leave East Anglia, to seek a new life in London, the North of England, or abroad in places such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada, or the USA.

This is the story of one of those families.

Looking for work - Barton Turf

The couple moved from Strumpshaw some fourteen miles north, to a similar Broadland water side landscape at Barton Turf - a small and old  parish adjacent to Barton Broad and to the River Ant in Norfolk.  Maybe Thomas had found precious employment there at a labour fair, or at a market.  There at Barton, it appears that Rebecca gave birth to at least four children between 1843 and 1849 - Rebecca, Thomas, George, and Sarah Ann.  Thomas supported his young family as best as he could - selling his labours and skills to local farmers.  Their children were baptised, not always immediately, at the local Anglican church, the medieval church of St Michael & all Angels.

Irstead Staithe

The growing family appear to have made a small move to the next parish of Irstead - south of Barton Broad.  They lived on the Low Road which I believe was near to the rectory and church at Irstead Staithe, alongside the small River Ant.  The photo of Irstead Church at the top of this post was taken late into the 19th Century from across that river.  A lovely medieval thatched roofed Norfolk church dedicated to St Michael.  Perhaps the family moved along that river on the sailing vessels that passed along, mastered by watermen or a little later, by the wherrymen of Norfolk fame.

At Irstead, Rebecca gave birth to at least four more sons between 1849 and 1854: Henry, Alfred, Robert, and John Shorten.  By the end of that period, they had to feed and to support a total of eight children.  The pressure must have been immense.  They most likely lived in a squalid tied cottage, with no running water.  The children would have been expected to contribute to income or house work as soon as they were old enough.  Boys were expected to earn money in simple agricultural work from around the age of six.

Emigration to New York and the USA

Around 1855 the entire family sailed from England to New York.  I have most of them on passenger lists arriving at New York.  Most of them on one voyage, paid with bonded labour.

New York Passenger List (for some reason the children here were being accompanied by a Mary - although this may have been their mother Rebecca Shorten?).

The family appear then to move westwards across New York State, to the township of Ridgeway in Niagara County.  They were now an East Anglian-American family.

In the 1860 US Census, Thomas and Rebecca, age 51 and 52, are living in the town of Hartland, Niagara, New York.  They have with them George, age 21, Sarah Ann, age 18, Henry, age 16, Frederick (Alfred), age 12, and John, age 7 - all recorded as born in England.  There is also a baby in the household - Priscilla, born in New York.

The American Civil War 1861-1865

Five years after the family arrived in the USA, the election of Abraham Lincoln, and threats to the slave economy of the Southern States, lead to the secession of a new Confederacy from the USA.  The Lincoln government reacted with force.

The Shorten family in Niagara County were not slow to come to the aid of the Unionist Government.  They were now "Yankees".  Their eldest son Thomas, age 24, enrolled in the Union army first - as soon as news reached Niagara - he joined the 28th Infantry Regiment of the New York Volunteers on the 11th May 1861.

His younger brothers followed in 1862.  George Shorten, age 23, Henry Shorten, age 18, and William Shorten, age 17 - all joined the same 25th independent battery, New York Volunteers Light Artillery in the August of that year.  Four sons of Thomas and Rebecca were now fighting on the Union side in the American Civil War - four Norfolk sons.  They grew up in sleepy quiet Irstead, Norfolk, next to the little River Ant.  Now here they were, engaged in a terrible modern war thousands of miles away.  Their Norfolk accents must have still been noticeable.  But their patriotism to their new country undeniable.

All four brothers would have seen substantial action throughout the following years of the Civil War.  In the 28th Infantry of the New York Volunteers, Thomas Shorten (Junior) would have witnessed a number of conflicts with the Confederates during his four years of active service in the Unionist infantry:

His three younger brothers, George, Henry, and William Shorten spent the War together in the same battery of the New York Volunteers Light Artillery:

The death toll of the American Civil War is estimated at 620,000.  The Shorten family were incredibly lucky.  All four brothers came back alive and apparently with no serious physical injuries.  With the victory, they were discharged from their army duties in July 1865.  They could all go home.  Thomas (Junior) after more than four years service, was mustered in South Dakota.  His three brothers all still together in the Light Artillery were discharged in New York State:

Their parents Thomas (senior) and Rebecca were living in Hartland, Niagara County, New York State at the end of the Civil War.  The brothers returned there.  However, five years later, the US 1870 Census records that Thomas (senior) and Rebecca Shorten, now in their early sixties, had moved far to the west, to their own farm in Clinton County, Illinois.  Their youngest sons, Alfred and John still with them.  The poor labourer from Southwood parish had moved a long way.

As for their older sons, I lose track of George after he appears at Hartland, County Niagara in 1865 - but Henry, and William all marry, and go on to father children in New York State.  Thomas (junior) appears in the 1890 Civil War Veterans census in South Dakota, where he had been mustered.

That's what my family did in the American Civil war.

Attleborough Ancestors

St Mary's, parish church of Attleborough, Norfolk.

Whites Directory of Norfolk, 1854, reported that:

"ATTLEBOROUGH, or Attleburgh, is an ancient market town, pleasantly situated on the Norwich and Thetford turnpike, 15 miles S.W. of the former place, and 14 N.E. by E. of the latter, and on the north side of the Norfolk Railway, which has a neat station here. In the Saxon era it was the seat of Offa and Edmund, successively Kings of the East Angles, who fortified it against the predatory incursions of the Danes. These fortifications may still be traced in the ridge called Burn Bank. It was afterwards the seat of the Mortimers, whose ancient hall, (now a farm house,) is encompassed by a deep moat. The parish contains 501 houses, 2,324 inhabitants, and 5,247 acres of land. The Rev. Sir Wm. B. Smyth, Bart., is lord of the manor of Attleborough Mortimer, and its members, (fines arbitrary ;) and Mr. C. Cochell is the steward. S. T. Dawson, Esq., is lord of Chanticlere manor, (fines arbitrary,) and the rectory has two small manors, subject to a fine of 2s. per acre on land, and to arbitrary fines on the buildings. The town is comprised chiefly of one long street, with several good inns and shops ; and the market on Thursdays is well attended. The old market cross was taken down many years ago. Fairs are held on the Thursday before Easter, Whit-Sunday, and on Aug. 15th, for cattle, pedlery, &c. A pleasure fair is also held on the day before the March assizes. A stone pillar on the Wymondham road commemorates the gift of £200, by Sir E. Rich,Knt., in 1675,for the reparation of the road, which is said to be the first turnpike made in England, being formed under an Act passed in the 7th and 8th of William and Mary..."

It was also home to many of our family ancestors - with a recorded family line going back to at least 1577 in this small Norfolk market town.

Here they are, first our Attleborough Ancestors on my late father's side, starting with that line going back to 1577:

My father descended from Attleborough ancestors via his mother, Doris Brooker nee Smith.  When my grandmother Doris was alive, I interviewed her several times.  She was born in 1904 in Norwich, but she remembered her father taking her on a horse and cart to Attleborough, where he visited a pub with a grapevine outside.  I realised that this was his parent's old Attleborough beerhouse, the Grapes, but my grandmother herself didn't pick up on this family history.  Since then, I've revealed a very old family history in Attleborough.  It starts as I said, with an uninterrupted line from Robert Freeman, who had three children baptised in Attlebough between 1577 and 1581.  The family may well have - most likely did have, much earlier connections to the market town - but on record, they start here, not long after parish registers were first introduced by Thomas Cromwell, following the church split with Rome.

The baptism of Ann Freeman in Attleborough, 1577, daughter of Robert Freeman.  Robert fathered at least three children at Attleborough.  He was my 11th great grandfather.

William Freeman, my 10th great grandfather, was the son of Robert Freeman, baptised at St Mary's Attleborough, in 1581.  He was to go on and father a son:

My 9th great grandfather, Robert Freeman was baptised at St Mary's, Attleborough, in 1610, the son of William Freeman.  He married an Elizabeth.

My 8th great grandfather John Freeman, the son of Robert and Elizabeth, was baptised at Attleborough in 1639.  He married Agatha, and they had two sons in Attleborough between 1674 and 1675.

My 7th great grandfather, Thomas Freeman was baptised in Attleborough in 1675.  He married Elizabeth, and they had five children between 1695 and 1707.

My 6th great grandfather, John Freeman, was baptised at Attleborough in 1699.  He married Elizabeth.

My 5th great grandfather, named after his father, John Freeman, was baptised at Attleborough in 1734.  He married Anne.

My 4th great grandmother ends the Freeman dynasty for our tree.  Elizabeth Freeman was baptised at Attleborough in 1779. In 1803 at St Mary's, she married Robert Hewitt, a farmer - but most likely, not a prosperous one.  Agriculture was changing, and many small farmers were losing their land, being squeezed into the ranks of labourers and paupers.  They had five children at Attleborough, between 1805 and 1814.  Elizabeth died age 52, leaving Robert a widower.

My 3rd great grandmother, Lydia Hewitt, was baptised at Attleborough in 1807.  She married Robert Smith at St Mary's, Attleborough, in 1827.  Robert Smith was also born in Attleborough.  He had also farmed land, but the times were changing, and the family fell on hardships.  They had six children born in Attleborough, before Lydia died age 37.

Their son, my 2nd great grandfather, Robert (Hewitt) Smith, was born in the town in 1832.  Although he started out life in poor circumstances, he for many years, ran a beerhouse (the Grapes), and builders yard in the town, along with his wife, Ann (nee Peach) whom he married at St Mary's in 1857.  In 1879, the couple made the local new headlines, when they were burgled by an armed robber:

They had six children born at Attleborough, including:

My great grandfather, Frederick Smith, born in the market-town in 1860.  Fred served an apprenticeship as a wheelwright, and moved to Norwich - ending this part of the Attleborough Ancestors story.


Other Attleborough Ancestors of my Father

My paternal grandmother had other ancestors in Attleborough:

William Hewitt, my 5th great grandfather, was born near to Attleborough, at Great Hockham, about 1742.  However, with his wife, Elizabeth, they moved into the parish of Attleborough itself.  There, they had at least seven children, born at Attleborough between 1772 and 1783.

Their son, my 4th great grandfather, Robert Hewitt, married Elizabeth Freeman, as noted above.  Ten years after Elizabeth passed away, he married again, to Ann Batterby, in Attleborough.

We have a lot of Smith ancestors from Attleborough.  John Smith a 6th great grandfather, was born circa 1700, married Maria, and was buried in Attleborough in 1776.


Their son, my 5th great grandfather also John Smith, was baptised in Attleborough in 1731.  He married Judith Dennis at Attleborough in 1771.  They had four children there between 1771 and 1778.

Their son Raphael Smith, my 4th great grandfather, was baptised at St Mary's in 1775.  He married Mary Smith (yes, also a Smith before marriage) at Attleborough in 1798.  They had seven children born in the town between 1798 and 1813.


Their son Robert Smith, my 3rd great grandfather, was baptised in Attleborough in 1807.  He was an interesting character. He married Lydia Hewitt.  I believe that they had some land to farm, that they lost.  Robert joined the ranks of the labourers, and lead them in a riot during the "Swing Riots".  His mob attacked threshing machines, the local workhouse, then the parson at St Mary's, for refusing to drop tithe taxes.  Robert threatened the parson with a mattock.  The court quoted him as saying:


Somehow, he received a lenient prison sentence in Norwich Castle Gaol, and successfully appealed for early release.  Robert and Lydia raised six children at Attleborough, before she passed away.  He then married again, to a Frances Husk.  In his fifties, they moved to Sculcoates, Yorkshire, and founded more Smith lineages there.


Another Attleborough Smith ancestor - Richard Smith, 5th great grandfather.


and his daughter, my 4th great grandmother, Mary Smith, whom married Raphael Smith.  That wraps up my father's Attleborough Ancestry.  However... I also have some on my Mother's side!


Attleborough Ancestors of my Mother

John Page, my 10th great grandfather, fathered Robert Page at Attleborough about 1630.

My 9th great grandfather Robert Page, married Agnes.  Their son:


Thomas Page, my 8th great grandfather, was baptised at St Mary's in 1664.  He had a son:


Also named Thomas Page - my 7th great grandfather, baptised in Attleborough in 1690.  He married Maria Hynds.  They moved out of the town, to Besthorpe.  The family later moved to Wymondham.

There ends my Attleborough Ancestry - at least, that on record.

23 direct ancestors between 1577 and 1860.  The association still goes on.  We are still in Norfolk not far away.  I had a sister marry in Attleborough.  I work only a few miles from the town today.

The Man with the Mattock II

Continuing on from this post about my 3rd great grandfather Robert Smith, who was imprisoned at Norwich Castle Gaol for his part in a swing riot at Attleborough in 1831.

I'd uncovered a Robert Smith who took part in the riot in Attleborough, but a question always arises when researching an ancestor with a common name - was he / she my Smith, Brown, or Jones?.  So I need to look closer.  And I do see a problem:

His son, my 2nd great grandfather, Robert Smith (the junior), was born 15th December 1832.  Yet Robert Smith (the swing rioter), was sentenced to two and a half years imprisonment in January 1831.  How did he do that?  Was Robert Smith the Swing Rioter NOT my 3rd great grandfather, Robert Smith of Attleborough, born there in 1807?

Then a few days ago, on the England & Wales, Prisons &Punishment, 1770-1935 collection at FindmyPast.co.uk, under correspondence, I find this Norfolk Court record, dated 30th November 1831:

I had problems reading even this copy that I had optimised with an image editor, so I had to get help on a Facebook genealogy group.  Apparently it is an appeal by James Stacey, one of the three imprisoned ring leaders, for sentence remission.  It also gives notice that the other two, Robert Smith, and Samuel Smith would also be appealing as soon as they had served one year in prison.  Did they receive remission?

I also found this under the same collection, dated to "1832" under Home Office Registers Of Criminal Petitions:

James Stacey, Robert Smith, and Samuel Smith are all still serving time.  I don't know how early in 1832 they are being recorded there - but, their sentence types are all recorded as "Rem" (remission), so it does look to me as though their original sentences were reduced.  If they were released on remission by late March 1832, then Robert Smith the Swing Rioter had just enough time to return to my 3rd great grandmother Lydia Smith (nee Hewitt), and to father Robert "Hewitt" Smith, the junior.  If so, do you see who the rector was at their son's baptism?  The Rev. Franklin himself.  The guy that Robert Smith held a mattock over, that with the thresher burning, attacks on the workhouse, and general rioting, landed him in Norwich Castle Gaol in the first place!  Two years later he's baptising Robert's son.

Also at FindmyPast.co.uk, I've found more newspaper reports of the case.  In my previous article, I reported:

Times were incredibly difficult for the poor.  I wonder if he was behind the voice that was reported during the Attleborough Riot by a witness:

Above the confusion of the voices one rang out, more stridant and confident than the rest 'We are the strongest party' the man cried. 'We always have been and we always will be.  This is only the beginning.  We have begun at the foot, and we will go up to the head.'.

Well.  One newspaper report stated that it was indeed our ancestor Robert Smith that said this:

Why did he do it?  What was Robert's status?  Around that time, he was recorded as a labourer.  Later, a hawker, and an umbrella maker.  Even later in life, after our 3rd great grandmother Lydia, died, he married Frances Saunders (nee Husk), and they moved up North on the railways, to work in the cotton spinning town of Sulcoates.

But I may have discovered another element to his story?  Why he was angry, and why he was accepted or identified as a ring leader of the riot?

Had Robert himself recently experienced a loss in status?  Did this finally drive him against the local Establishment?  In 1841, he was living with his wife Lydia, and six of their children, at his father-in-law's farm on the edge of Attleborough at Hill Common:

Maybe we can now understand him, just a little more.  Also on that 1841 census report - you can see his son Robert (Hewitt) Smith the junior, there aged eight years.  He's the guy that became the Attleborough bricklayer, and the victualler of The Grapes Inn, that was held up at gun point in 1879.  My 2nd great grandfather, and another story.

Burglary at the Grapes Inn, Attleborough

A vicious and armed attack on two of my ancestors in 1879.

The Grapes Inn, Attleborough, Norfolk.  I wonder if that is my great great grandmother Ann Smith (nee Peach), standing in front of the beerhouse in this old photograph?

I first heard of The Grapes from my late grandmother Doris Brooker.  She recalled in her childhood, her father, Frederick Smith, once taking her by horse and cart to a pub in Attleborough, that had a grapevine growing in the doorway.  If you look at the above photograph, I think you can see growth on the front of the building.  Was that the same vine?  I had just seen a census that recorded her grandfather, as the victualler of the Grapes Beerhouse in Attleborough. It connected.  She didn't know, but that beerhouse was where his parents had lived.

Here's how they relate to my late paternal grandmother:

My 2nd great grandfather Robert Smith, had been born in Attleborough in 1833, to a local family.  His father, Robert the senior, at one point, lead a local riot against the background of the Swing Riots.  After a sentence imprisoned in Norwich Castle Gaol, Robert the senior made a living as a hawker, umbrella maker, and as a labourer.  In his fifties, he finally escaped the Agricultural Depression by taking a second wife, on the new railways to Sculcoates, a cotton spinning town in Yorkshire.  Robert the junior and other siblings though, remained in Attleborough.  

Robert the junior's wife, my 2nd great grandmother, Ann (nee Peach), had been born at Etton, Northants, in 1835, although her mother, Sarah Peach (nee Riches) was from a local Norfolk family.  When Ann was an infant, her father David Peach was convicted of stealing two steers, and transported to Tasmania.  Sarah and Ann returned to Norfolk.  Ann subsequently must have grown up in a very poor single parent family in the town.  Her mother Sarah, unable to remarry, made a living as a charwoman.

So both Robert and Ann were born into more poverty rather than riches.  They married at Attleborough in 1857.  Robert had become a bricklayer.  

Between then and 1876, Ann gave birth to at least six children - Harry, Frederick (my grandmother's father), Alice, Emma, Samuel, and Nellie Smith.  They must have worked hard to get what they had.  By 1879, they were running the Grapes Inn on Levell Street in Attleborough.  From there, they ran a beerhouse, a bricklayer's yard, a builder's merchant yard, and possibly a pork butchers.  Here they are at the Grapes in 1881:

That's the background.  That 1881 Census shows the family two years after the event that I am now going to retell.

The Attleborough Burglary

It was about one o'clock in the morning on the first of March, 1879.  The beerhouse was closed.  My great great grandmother Ann Smith, was suddenly awakened by a noise and a light on the landing.  As she reached out to the bedroom door in order to investigate, a masked man carrying a revolver pushed into the bedroom, exclaiming "hoi-a-hoi!".  Her husband Robert now awake, the intruder pointed the pistol at his face.  The threat made, the burglar backed out to the landing.  Just then, their eldest son Harry, awoke by the commotion opened the door of another bedroom.  The intruder turned his revolver onto Harry, pointing it at a distance of six inches into his face.  Harry slammed the bedroom door shut, and the gun was fired into it, splintering the door.  The burglar then bolted from the Grapes, running out of the front door.  Robert, Ann, and Harry surveyed the house.  The intruder had kicked over a lamp, which needed to be extinguished.  The house had been ransacked.  Robert's silver pocket watch and chain had been stolen, some money, a carving knife, and some silver from a dresser.

The thief was a 20 year old John Clarke, originally from Shields in the North of England, but who had spent some time himself as a bricklayer, on the West India Docks in London.  He was on a rampage in Norfolk.  Armed, he committed a spate of burgalries at Attleborough, Spooner Row, Shipdham, and Foulsham.

The following Tuesday, he was at Little Walsingham.  It was becoming to risky for him to continue his crime spate in Norfolk, and he was heading for the railway station, to escape back to London.  He was tracked by the Police to a Little Walsingham pub, where they preceded to question him.  He made a dash for it.  As the police officers pursued him through the village, three times he raised his revolver and fired the gun at them - missing every time.

He reached the village of Great Walsingham.  The Police officers had by now commodeared a horse and cart to pursue him.  Locals joined in, including a game keeper's son called Codman.  More shots were fired - one through Codman's apron!  They chased him across the fields.  Another bullet struck a horse in the neck.  The rider of that horse, PC Goll, diismounted and forced Clarke to the ground - the gun fired again during the struggle.  Goll managed to part him from the revolver, and to handcuff him.

Clarke was found with a number of stolen items including my great great grandfather's watch.  He also had a piece of glass, painted with a death skull, that he would use with a lamp to frighten his victims.  The next morning, he gave a full confession.

He was taken later that day to Norwich Shirehall.  Angry crowds beseiged the building and a force of police had to keep order.  There he was charged, and Robert, Ann, and Harry gave their accounts, and identified their stolen properties.

At the May Assizes, John Clarke was sentenced to twenty years penal servitude.

Norfolk News 10th May 1879

Eastern Daily Press 8th March 1879

Norwich Mercury 8th March 1879

My great grandfather Frederick Smith with his son Lenny.

East Anglian Ancestry for far-away genealogists

User:Ras52, OpenStreetMap, Amitchell125 [CC BY-SA 1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

This guide is really aimed at distant cousins with ancestry from the English counties of Norfolk and Suffolk. It's the perspective of a present day East Anglian from the ground.  My ancestors were the ones that usually stayed in East Anglia.

First - definitions of what constitutes East Anglia.  One modern governmental definition: "the counties of Norfolk, Suffolk, and Cambridgeshire".  Estate Agents, trying to sell properties in idyllic East Anglia, often go even further, also including Huntingdonshire, Rutland, parts of Lincolnshire, and Essex.  The ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdom of East Anglia (see above image), didn't really include these add-ons.  I go with that, but include parts of northern-most Essex.  Why?  Because on the ground, those areas still feel (and sound) East Anglian.  Norfolk, Suffolk, eastern Cambridgeshire, and northern most Essex.  That feels East Anglian.  But it's heart remains the English counties of Norfolk and Suffolk.

East Anglia is situated on the North Sea coast of South-East England.  It is lowland.  A chalk bed lazily slopes down from west to east, with a layer of  boulder clay on top running through mid Norfolk and high Suffolk.  I say high, nowhere in East Anglia is high.  This is Low Country.  Our hills are in the main, very gradual, slight affairs.  To the west of the chalk bed, lays even lower country - the ultra-flat landscape of the East Anglian Fens.  Wetlands that have been drained for agriculture in rich peat and silt soils.

East Anglia is rural.  It is agricultural.  Largely arable, with favoured crops of wheat, barley, sugar beet, and oil seed rape.  Medium size agri-business fields of crops across a very gently rolling lowland landscape, with parish church towers around every corner, and a buzzard in every copse of trees.  Ancient narrow roads with bordering hedgerows, twist around long forgotten open fields and farmsteads.  Mixed farming enters the river valleys, where cattle are fattened on rich grasses.  Intensive pig and poultry broiler units also dot the landscape.

What about the East Anglians?  That is one of the subjects of this post.

East Anglia isn't on the road to anywhere, but East Anglia.  You don't pass through East Anglia on the way to the Industrial North, Scotland, Cardiff, Manchester, Birmingham, or London.  It's far out on the periphery of Hub.co.uk.  It's main urban centres are the small City of Norwich, and the towns of Ipswich, Kings Lynn and Bury St Edmunds.  They are all, 'small'. Norwich comes in at a lowly 48th in English town by population size.  You see, small.  Far more medieval towers than modern high rise towers.

After the urban centres, most modern East Anglians probably live in or near the market-towns.  These are really tiny "towns" some little more than villages.  Some are lovely, ancient, with unspoiled centres and market places.  Places such as Wymondham, Holt, Diss, Woodbridge, Swaffham, Beccles, Pulham Market, Laxfield, Long Melford, etc.  There must be dozens scattered across East Anglia.

Wymondham market-town centre.

The rest of the East Anglians live in the countryside, outside of the market-towns.  Trying to explain this to American genealogists where the old Roman ideal of planned city prevails, is difficult.  We have villages.  We have lots of them.  Most are early Medieval in origin.  They are set in ancient divisions known as parishes.  Many East Anglians now live in suburbs on the edges of towns - but until a century or two ago, most of them lived further out in the countryside, in these villages.

How many villages have we got in East Anglia?  Would you believe, somewhere around 1,300, with over 700 in the county of Norfolk alone.  They absolutely dot the East Anglian countryside.  Living in the countryside, in farmsteads and villages - that really is the Anglo-Saxon way of Life.  Look at the below snip of a part of south Norfolk.  See all of those red circles.  Villages.  The Blue circle is a market town on the old Roman road (A140).

© OpenStreetMap contributors

Until a few centuries ago, most East Anglians lived in the countryside.  Most of these villages will have a medieval church.  There are more than 600 of them in Norfolk.  They'll also often have a later non-conformist chapel as well.  Over 600 medieval religious buildings in Norfolk!  Possibly the highest density of medieval churches anywhere in the World.  This is because Medieval Norfolk was central.  It wasn't so peripheral before the Industrial Revolution.  The medieval City of Norwich was the second or third largest city in England after London.  All of those empty medieval churches.  Where did the populace go?  Some of them may have been your ancestors.

How about the origins of the East Anglians themselves?  Who are they?

There are very few "Celtic" place-names in East Anglia, other than the Ouse river system.  Most of the villages and place-names in East Anglia are of Anglo-Saxon origin, dating to between the 6th and 10th centuries AD, around 1,200 years ago.  In addition there are a number of place-names that are Anglo-Danish in origin, dating to the 9th - 11th centuries AD, with a cluster of them in eastern Norfolk.  See the map below, of the area called Flegg, an Anglo-Danish place-name in itself.  All of those -by place-names - they were most likely settled by "Viking" Danish immigrants during the 9th to 11th centuries.

© OpenStreetMap contributors

Previous to the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons during the 5th century AD, the region that we know call East Anglia had for centuries,  been a part of the Western Roman Empire.  Even further back than that, at the turn of prehistory to written history, the northern parts of the region were the home of the Iceni tribal federation, and the southern part to the Trinovante.  These Late Iron Age peoples were descended from an immigration event from the Continent into the British Isles that took place some 2,000 years earlier.  Call their ancestors Bell Beaker, Celt, British Celt, or Ancient Briton - their DNA is still the most dominant aspect of the modern British, and even English gene pool.  The Roman occupation appears to have had little impact on their genetic make up.

Then the Anglo-Saxons arrived.  They came from what is now Northern Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands.  Early Anglo-Saxon artifacts found in East Anglia, have their closest correlation on the Continent with artifacts in Northern Germany, south of the Danish border.  This was the origin of the Angles - which the early kings of East Anglia clearly identified with.  Saxo-Frisians in what is now the Netherlands were well placed to migrate to the region, and contributed to this migrant community.

The most recent genetic studies suggest that rather than displace the Britons in the lowlands, that the Anglo-Saxons admixed with them in marriage.  Indeed, as I said, genetically, the DNA of the earlier Britons is still the majority component, even in England.  There was no genocide.  However, an Anglo Saxon identity, culture, and language was adopted by all during following centuries.

West Stow reconstructed Anglo-Saxon village in Suffolk.  The birth of the East Anglian village.

Not all of the Continental DNA in East Anglia arrived here during the 5th or 6th centuries AD.  Some may have already been here from the Empire, or earlier.  Some arrived during the 9th to 11th century settlement of Danes in the region.  Then the Normans.  The Medieval saw Angevins from Aquitaine, and other French arrive.  Then during the 16th century, there was a significant settlement of Elizabethan Strangers (protestant refugees) from what is now the Netherlands.  Huguenots followed.  Asides from these noteable immigration events, there would have been a drip-drip feed of foreigners into the region.  Dutch herring fishermen and engineers, Lithuanian timber and fur traders.  Drovers from the Midlands.  Indeed surname studies suggest that during the late medieval and following Tudor periods, there were a number of people moving into the Norfolk countryside - from the Continent, but also from other parts of England such as for example, Yorkshire.  East Anglia isn't on the way to any where, but neither is it totally isolated from ingress of new settlers.

The consequence of the location of East Anglia in the North Sea World, is that Genetic Genealogists looking at their DNA "Ethnicity Estimates" or "Ancestry Composition" results might see high levels of DNA matching the panels for the Continent, rather than for the British Isles.

How did the East Anglians live?

Many genealogists proudly brag of documented descent from early medieval kings and emperors (usually Charlemagne).  The lines that they trace in order to claim this must be those of the minority of the medieval European population - the titled and landed nobles, with their heraldic records.  This elite weren't really representative of the entire population.

East Anglians were mainly rural, untitled, and really didn't have a lot of wealth.  During the feudal Medieval, most East Anglians would have been within the ranks of the common peasantry, owing a range of fealties to their lords, in return for protection.  Not all were particularly free, although there were high percentages of freemen peasants in eastern Norfolk.  Others were tied in levels of servitude to their manors.  They tilled their strips in the communal open field systems.  They grazed their meagre livestock on the commons.  They also worked the lord's land, supplied him with sheep fencing, ale, fuel, and grains.  When called on, the men would have served the lord in wars against the Scottish, French or other houses.  Life was hard, brutal, and often too short.  However, the abundance of medieval churches across the region testify to the wealth that their labour actually created.  It testifies to the success of their medieval economy here in East Anglia.

Two men threshing sheaf - Luttrell Psalter c1325-1335 f74v - BL Add MS 42130

Two men threshing sheaf - Luttrell Psalter (c.1325-1335), f.74v  See page for author [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.  Originally published/produced in England [East Anglia].

Most peasant families didn't even adopt hereditary surnames until around the 13th to 15th centuries AD.  Except for brief mentions in manorial records, tithes, and polls, most don't even enter the records until 1538, when parish registers were introduced with the English Reformation.  So unless you tie into an aristocratic line - you are not going to trace your East Anglian ancestry much further back than 1550.  Indeed, many parish registers are damaged, lost, or destroyed.  Many records are illegible.  There is no guarantee of making it back that far.  I find it difficult to trace back rural East Anglian roots with a high degree of certainty much earlier than 1720, for the lack of correlative evidence from censuses, transcripts, etc.
Hoard of 12th century (Henry III) hammered silver coins recovered in Norfolk, and recorded by my late father.

Not all East Anglians worked the soil.  There were skilled crafts people such as the cordwainers, potters, smiths, and weavers.  Some based in villages, others in the towns.  Protestant beliefs and practices spread across Eastern England following the Reformation, particularly in urban areas.  This was re-enforced during the late 16th century AD, when protestant refugees from the Roman-Catholic crown, in the Netherlands, were invited to settle in Norwich, Ipswich, and elsewhere across East Anglia and south east England.  One poll of Norwich at this time suggested that as much as one third of the City population consisted of these Dutch and French protestants.  They were invited not only as allies against Roman Catholic Europe, but to bring their valuable crafts and skills to East Anglia.

Their protestant vigour was infectious.  East Anglia became a hot bed of Protestantism.  As the Crown and Establishment turned down the Reformation, opting for keeping Conservative values in their Anglican Church, so the Protestants ... protested.  Some hopped back over the North Sea to the Netherlands, which had for the time being, repelled the Catholic powers.  However, some of these most puritan protestants then asked the English king for permission to set up their own colonies in New England.  Permission was readily granted.  The Puritans left Eastern England en mass.  The point though is that this particular chapter of East Anglians migrating away, was centred in main, on urban classes, skilled workers, and  those that could actually afford the voyage.

Norfolk saw little bloodshed during the 17th century English Civil War, as it was safely Parliamentarian. Except for a riot and explosion in Norwich when the Puritans tried banning Christmas. 

Back to the countryside...

Between the 16th and 19th centuries AD, the descendants of the old East Anglian peasantry had to adapt to a number of economic changes that were not in their interest.  The great land owning families were enclosing and renting out their lands to free tenant farmers, breaking up the old manorial estates.  Some fields were enclosed, and the peasants found themselves replaced by more profitable sheep.  Even the commons were enclosed and privatised.  While the more entrepreneurial freemen rented out land to farm themselves, as tenant farmers, many others found themselves surplus to requirement, and alienated from the soils that had fed their ancestors for generations.  They became farm hands, the great army of "ag labs" (agricultural labourers) of the 19th century censuses.  Not all  labourers were equal.  The more fortunate, loyal, and skilled might find themselves almost in full employment, with a regular wage and a tied cottage.  The less fortunate were the paupers.  Seasonal workers that had to constantly look for work, or beg for parish relief.  The rural poor didn't always accept these changes without resistance.  In 1381, Norfolk and Suffolk peasants joined in a rebellion that threatened London.  In 1549, Norfolk peasants rose into an army that captured the City of Norwich.  In 1830, East Anglia was a centre of the Swing Riots.

Many agricultural labourers and their families still married and baptised as Anglican at the Church of England, but although much of the puritanical fervour had by now swept away from East Anglia, many were increasingly turning to non-conformist chapels of the Baptists, Congregationalists, and Methodists.  The Primitive Methodists were particularly successful in East Anglia during the 19th Century.

If you had rural working class East Anglian ancestors during the 16th to 19th centuries, imagine them very poor.  Following the Agricultural Revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries, new machines and technologies replaced much seasonal and manual labour on the fields.  The commons, where the poor had grazed their animals had been taken away.  Poor relief was ceased, and the desperate were forced to enter prison-like workhouses, in order to be fed - families split into separate dormitories, the poor harshly penalised, and discouraged from asking for relief.

How the land owners, farmers, and parsons saw it - the East Anglian countryside simply had a large surplus of unwanted labour.  They were encouraged to leave.  Some to far away colonies - Australia and Canada.  Others to feed the factories and mills of the Industrial Revolution in places like Newcastle, Yorkshire, or London.  For many - the railways arrived just in time to escort them away.

Example of East Anglian Accent.

Researching rural East Anglian ancestry

Understand that:

  1. Most East Anglians were not titled, nor recorded in heraldic records.
  2. Parish registers online are incomplete.  Not all parishes or registers have even been digitally photographed.
  3. Some parish registers have been lost, destroyed, or are badly damaged.
  4. The transcriptions of the registers on some online genealogical services are sometimes incorrect.  Always if you can, try to see scans of the original registers online.  Because of these frequent errors, the databases often fail on searches.
  5. If your ancestor was rural, use OpenStreetMap.org and magnify down to get to really know the area that they lived in.  Appreciate distances by foot.  People did sometimes move more than several miles - but very often in East Anglia, didn't!  It's not unusual to see one family in the same small parish for several generations.  Sometimes marrying cousins.  It was the arrival of the railways, that sometimes allowed families to finally escape the rural poverty.
  6. You find Harry X marries Mary Z in a village.  You search the online databases for his baptism (and parentage).  You find a baptism of a Harry X in the same county.  You add him and his parents to your tree.  Problem is ... the baptism was 23 miles away, and you don't realise it, but there were a number of Harry X at the same time, several closer to the place of marriage - you have made an error.  You just saw the one on the database.  More research might have uncovered a more likely candidate, with siblings named like his children, in the village next to that in which he married Mary Z.  Getting to know the area really well may have made you search harder.
  7. Illegitimacy is a surprise to some.  You will see plenty of it in 18th and 19th century East Anglia.  It was generated by poverty, poor housing, poor education, and desperation.
  8. Most of your rural working class ancestors will be illiterate, and sign with an X.  Education of the labourers was discouraged.  However, now and then, you will find one that served as the parish clerk.  Some could read.
  9. Widows and widowers, with children in tow, would frequently remarry quickly.  Support for the children was vital to keep them out of the workhouse.
  10. Infant mortality can be very depressing or sobering.  Expect some high rates.
  11. Don't be surprised to find ancestors listed as paupers, or as inmates in workhouses, gaols, or even the asylum.
  12. Check non-conformist church records, as well as the Anglican.  The Methodists operated by "circuits".