Finding out where your ancestors were born and lived on documents such as census records, birth / marriage / death certificates can be a wonderful way to get a sense of the life that they lived. But you can’t beat going to the places that you see in these documents and walk the streets that they walked.
I had traced by Paternal Great Great Grandmother Mary Jane Williams to Padstow, Cornwall about 2 years ago but it wasn’t until 2 weeks ago that I got the opportunity to visit the town in which she lived. I always loved Cornwall even though I never visited it before….. maybe there was some hereditary pull that was drawing me there.
Before my trip I gathered all my bits and pieces of information on Mary Jane. I had her birth certificate; born in New Street, Padstow on the 14th September 1846 to a John Williams and his wife Emma Williams (nee Williams). I have the 1851 English census records where she is listed as aged 4, a scholar but she is living with her grandparents Richard, a stone mason and Mary Williams, both of which were also born in Padstow. In 1861, the census shows that she is living in New Street, Padstow but with her Uncle John Massey Williams and his wife Mary and thankfully still a scholar, aged 14. Where her parents John and Emma are, at this point, I don’t know. It’s currently work in progress.
It is very confusing when doing family research when you have similar names being used in families – there are far too many Mary’s in my Padstow documents and both sides of the family are Williams. You have to be very careful not to make assumptions and you have to double/triple check everything. Thankfully nowadays, in Ireland anyway, the practice of passing names down from father to son is more of less unheard of.
Armed with the information I had gathered to date, my family and I spent an afternoon in Padstow. Unfortunately the rest of my family don’t share my passion for genealogy so I wandered off on my own and searched for the local library and local museum both of which were closed at the time. However, I did find New Street and took lots of photos hoping further research at home might help me find which house it was. I find when I am ‘on the ground’ doing research you get nowhere by not asking local people questions. I have never found anyone who didn’t love the idea of helping someone trace their family history. Once on a field trip to Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, a local lady I asked questions of insisted on ringing her friend on her mobile so I could talk to the friend who had some information to help me find what I was looking for. Anyhow, I asked an old couple if they knew anything about New Street and unfortunately they weren’t from Padstow but from a neighbouring town. So I explained what I was about and they noted that the name Williams was not a local name. They felt that Williams was definitely not a Cornish name – more Welsh even than English. After talking for a few minutes we both went our separate ways. I know Mary Jane Williams married a John Parkes in Newport, Wales in 1865 so maybe they were right in that there was a Welsh connection to the name?
As I walked the streets near New Street and the beautiful harbour, I imagined I was Mary Jane Williams, sitting at the harbour looking out to the sea. Is brilliant to be able to walk in her footsteps, see what she saw… in particular near the harbour as it looks as if the 21st century forgot about it and lots of the old inns and harbour buildings are still there.
I loved Padstow. If you are ever lucky to visit Cornwall it’s a must. Nowadays famous for Rick Stein’s restaurants, it’s an old fishing port with a rich heritage in shipbuilding. When I do research trips for clients or for my own family history research it invariably throws up even more questions for you to resolve. For me, my trip to Padstow has given me lots more homework to do but I’m in touch with the museum I mentioned above so hoping they can help me fill in the gaps. One of the other benefits of a research trip is that rather than just filling your Family Tree Book with census records and birth / marriage / death certificates, go to places and take photos of the places your ancestors lived in as it makes your book and their history more colourful (see my photos above)
If it is not possible for you visit your ancestors towns and village, I can do this on your behalf. If you would like to get in touch, please email me at; firstname.lastname@example.org
If you happen to bump into English ancestors during your research, the English Census records are free at; https://www.freecen.org.uk/cgi/search.pl