Sunday, 24 April 2016

The Mystery of Clarissa

Here I am, feeling like a family history fraud (I'll tell you why later), but posting nonetheless.

There's been a mystery on my paternal grandmother's side for some time. Actually, her side has held quite a few mysteries and in the last week I've made great inroads into a major brick wall (with big thanks to a cousin's wife). And last night a penny dropped and I solved the Mystery of Clarissa (someone has probably got there well before me, but hey, it's a big deal for me).

Mystery magazine, January 1934, cover, public domain
As I said, it's been around for some time - since 1985, to be precise, when my Aunt wrote to the Branch Archivist at Essex County Council in England to confirm her great-grandmother's mother. We take our wonderful internet access for granted too often. Back in 1985, if you wanted to look at records, you had to physically go, or send a letter and request records, or pay someone else to do the sleuthing for you. The letter was a follow up to some research my aunt had done on a holiday in England.

She got this reply:

Letter to Lillian Walton from Jane Bedford, Branch Archivist, Essex County Council, June 1985, estate of Lillian Walton
Ever since, people in the family have been wondering about Clarissa.

A little background first:
William and Rachel were the great grandparents of my paternal grandmother, and Eliza was Nanna's grandmother. Rachel was William's second wife, his first was Susan (or Susanna) Baker, whom he married in Suffolk in 18031. They had between four and six children (I can find hard evidence for four and circumstantial for the other two). Susanna died in 1817. William married Rachel (ni Tyler) in 18202 and they had four children (for all of whom I have hard evidence - yay, internet). I was told Rachel died in 1842 and was buried in Lexden.

William died in 1854, so he doesn't appear in later census returns (funny that)3.

If you have a look at that letter to my aunt, the second paragraph reads:
Eliza's mother is definitely recorded as Rachel and so the Clarissa listed as William's wife in the 1851 Census returns may have been a second wife and stepmother or the Baptist Minister or Census Enumerator may have made a mistaken entry. (my emphasis)

Everyone I have spoken to over the years, and every online tree I have seen, has assumed that Clarissa is another wife for William (some know about Susanna, some don't, so it depends who you talk to or look at as to whether Clarissa is wife two or wife three).

And now I am going to have a bit of a rant because this really ticked me off yesterday, and it still annoys me to think about it. And actually I get annoyed every time I come across this sort of thing, regardless of which line of my tree I am researching.

Ancestry Family Trees.

Chances are, you know what's coming.

They can be great. You come across people who are careful with their evidence, and label all their photos and documents, and everyone matches up, and no one is born before their parents or married after they died, or what have you (I aspire to be like this. I'm working on it. It's taking time).

And they can be bloody awful. Places labelled incorrectly, impossible timelines, improbable birth places, spouses who don't belong, no checking of evidence (if indeed there is evidence), births too close together, births far too far apart. Marriages to three year olds who live on the other side of the planet, and so on. We've all seen this sort of thing and worse. And once a mistake appears, it seems to get copied across without let or hindrance. No one seems to check anything.

Most of the King family trees on Ancestry fall into the “bloody awful” category.

Just because someone has the same name as the person you are looking for does not make them your person. There have be other facts in common. Example: if a couple are born in Suffolk, England and have their children in Suffolk, England, they are not going to be married in Suffolk, Mass, USA. Right names, wrong family. Look again.

If a couple are born and married in Essex and have their second child, a year after their marriage, in Essex, that first child you have listed, who was born in Panama, a month after the marriage, is not the right child. Right name, wrong family. Look again.

Florence King, who married Edward Stokes in 1895 and who was listed in her mother's obituary in 1912 as Mrs. Stokes, did not marry William Beckingham in 1887 and die Florence Beckingham in 1951. Right name, wrong family. Look again.

And so on. I've given up on them. Sometimes you can get useful leads or find a document you missed, or something. Not this time.

You can guess what I was doing – looking for Clarissa. I found her, time and again, and where there was evidence, it was the 1851 census.

I have often looked for Clarissa. She has become my fall back, for when I have no luck with the person I am researching. I break off, usually in a fit of frustration, and I look, yet again, for her. Hours have been spent going through registers page by page in case she's been indexed incorrectly. If there is a Clarissa born to anyone in Whitton between 1798 and 1803 I can't find her. I've checked every Clarissa in Suffolk and Essex on FreeBMD, and every William King, between 1841 and 1851, looking for their marriage. I've gotten to know all the registration districts in the areas where William lived and where Clarissa is likely to have lived. Nothing.

It always bothered me that Clarissa was born in the same year as Rachel Tyler. It has always bothered me that the damned 1841 census doesn't state where someone is born, just whether or not they were born in the county they were in on census night. What possessed them to make that dumb decision? I always felt there was something wrong about Clarissa, but I couldn't see the wood for the trees and I kept making the mistake of accepting what I had been told.

Sometimes you have to walk away from the problem in order to solve it.

I spent most of yesterday pursuing William's children through the census returns4, the ones who stayed in England, that is (quite a few left, but that's a story for another time). And I had a great time looking up where they each were on Google Earth, to check if it were likely that I had found the right couples. The birthplace is a bit of a give-away, but it never hurts to be sure. It was lots of fun. I located William's farm, I found where one of his grandsons had set up as a shipwright. It made sense that one of his granddaughters married someone from that village. And so on.

About midnight it occurred to me to look for Clarissa in the census returns. Why had I not done that before? William died in 1854 but there has never been any evidence that she died (there's never been any evidence that she lived, for that matter, beyond that 1851 return). So I pulled up Ancestry5, UK Census, and put in “Clarissa King, born 1800, Whitton, Suffolk.

Top of the list – 1851 census, Kirby le Soken. Check.
Second on the list – 1861 census, Kirby le Soken – RACHEL King.

That record got pulled up quick smart. And there she was. Rachel King, widow, aged 61 (which means born around 1800), Thorpe Road (between Kirby Hall and Sneating Hall), born Whitton, Suffolk.

A third entry, for the 1881 census, confirmed it. Okay, Rachel had moved to Mistley by then (not far from Kirby le Soken), but it was still the same Rachel. I can't find her in 1871. She is no longer on the farm and not yet in Mistley, but god knows how she's indexed, because she's not showing up.

Nothing for 1891 or 1901. I'm not searching 1911. She'd be 111, and while Bilbo Baggins may have made it to eleventy-one, I don't think Rachel did.

To be doubly sure I had really found Rachel I looked up Lexden on Google Earth, where I had been told she was buried. It is MILES from anywhere relevant to the family, waaaayyyy over the other side of Essex. There is no way my Rachel is buried there. There is a Rachel King on FreeBMD who died in 1883, but again, the district is “out of shot”, so to speak, and the age is wrong.

So there's the mystery solved.

Really, there was no mystery. Ms Bedford hit the nail on the head back in 1985 – another wife or just an error, check other records to be sure which it is. Where the enumerator got Clarissa from, who knows. It's easy to forget that the Census records are transcripts of transcripts of forms filled out by who knows whom.

It shouldn't have taken so long for the penny to drop, but it did. And Aunty Lillian would have loved to have known the solution to Rachel/Clarissa, but she's not with us anymore.

I still have to find Rachel's birth records (I know they are on FindmyPast – I don't have free access. Trip into Wyong FHG for that one), and I still have to find where and when she died. But I have time to do that now because I can stop looking for Clarissa.

1Suffolk Family History Society, "Suffolk Marriage Index Transcription," database, FindmyPast ( : accessed 24 Jan 2016), Marriage of William King and Susanna Baker in 1803.
2FamilySearch, "England Marriages 1538-1973," database, Intellectual Reserve Inc, FamilySearch ( : accessed 24 Jan 2016), Marriage of William King and Rachel Tyler in 1820; citing Stutton,Suffolk,England, reference; FHL microfilm 918,505.
3The Trustees of FreeBMD, "Free BMD," database and images, FreeBMD ( : accessed 24 Apr 2016); Death of William King in 1854; citing Death, Tendring, Essex, England, General Register Office, Southport, England.
4I was sick. Give me a break.
5(I have free access at the moment while I am doing a course – handy)


  1. Frederick francis cameron lincoln was my g/father on my mothers side ,her name was violet ,it is wonderful what you have written about the lincoln bros as I knew nothing about david and this year I will celebrate 100 years since hid death ,it must have broken his mothers heart to get the tragic news :::carole twist

  2. Thanks for your comment, Brian, I'm so glad this blog has been of some use. I don't know why your comment has fetched up on this post and not on the one about the Lincolns. I will try to move it if I can.