A family mystery finally solved!

So, today’s post does double duty in highlighting an issue of ethics in my own family history, but also how I managed to solve a family mystery by using newspapers.

It all starts with my great-grandfather, Walter Frederick Cole and the fact that he was illegitimate. From talking to my mum and to my grandmother, Walter always knew that he was illegitimate. It seems that it was a fact that particularly weighed on him, as apparently he told his future wife that he understood if she didn’t want to marry him because he was illegitimate. The story goes that she then told him not to be so ridiculous- it’s a good thing she did, or I wouldn’t be here today!

Shersca Genealogy_Walter Frederick Cole
Walter Frederick Cole as a young man

As Walter was born in 1895, his worry was understandable, as illegitimacy still carried a social stigma. The other fact to note is that his mother and half-siblings wouldn’t talk about it to anyone, so that left Walter with no idea who his father was- both his birth certificate and baptism entry record no father’s name at all, only the name of his mother, Sarah. Both my grandmother and her sister had various ideas of who Walter’s father was, whether it be a man with the surname ‘Lowe,’ or the surname ‘Montacute,’ or even that perhaps it was a man that lived in Montacute. Walter was born in Odcombe, Somerset (England), which is just over a mile from Montacute, so could well have been a possibility.

This still left my family with a partial blank when it came to Walter’s family tree and one which we never thought that we would fill. Then one day, after watching an episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, I had a ‘Eureka’ moment. The particular celebrity of the episode had a similar problem to mine and searching through newspapers had helped to solve the problem. I could have kicked myself- why hadn’t I thought of that before!

So I duly searched Somerset newspapers (on the British Newspaper Archive and FindMyPast) for around 1895 and afterwards and I found not one but two articles that gave details of a court case brought by Sarah Cole against a Herbert Blake in March of 1896. This Sarah Cole was a widow from Odcombe and was essentially attempting to get some kind of child support from Frederick Blake. The details given for Sarah matched what I had found already, so I felt an incredible sense of achievement that I finally had a candidate for Walter Cole’s father.

But the discovery didn’t stop there. After reading both articles in detail, I had a better understanding of why Walter’s illegitimacy was never talked about. It was not just because he was illegitimate, but because Herbert Blake was not only his father, but his uncle too (by marriage though)! Again, the newspaper articles agreed with what I had already found, which was that a Frederick Herbert Blake (a stonemason from Montacute) had married Sarah Cole’s sister Eves and Herbert and Eves already had at least seven children by the time Walter was born and then another child after Walter. At the time of Walter’s birth, Sarah had already had four children by her husband Alfred John Cole (he died in 1894) and to make matters worse both the newspaper articles and the Odcombe baptism records show that Sarah had had another illegitimate child before her marriage to Alfred Cole. Additionally, the newspaper articles imply that the ‘improper relations’ that went on between Sarah Cole and Herbert Blake may or may not have been entirely consensual. Herbert Blake also apparently tried to get Sarah to end the pregnancy by sending her some ‘medicine.’

Shersca Genealogy_Sarah Cole
Sarah Cole in her later years

Now, no-one can ever know what really happened between Sarah Cole and Herbert Blake apart from them, but the resulting story would certainly have been scandalous and the fact that it appeared in the newspapers for all to see would have amplified the level of social stigma attached to the whole affair. It does tell us something about Sarah Cole, that she must have been quite a strong woman to even consider taking Herbert Blake to court over this- her circumstances and resulting arguments must have been strong enough (even though her previous illegitimate child came out) as the court did order Herbert Blake to pay 2 shillings per week until the child in question had reached the age of 13. This could amount to about £42.85 per week today. Taking into account the date of the article (March 1896) and Walter’s date of birth (Dec 1895), he is most likely the child being referred to.

As well as the ethical issues at the time of the event, there are potentially more for me and my relatives today. Unfortunately, my grandmother had passed away by the time this discovery was made, but I would have had to take her feelings into account and ask her whether she wanted to know. Both me and my mum think that she would have liked to have known and she would rather have enjoyed being able to gossip about it. This ‘scandal’ doesn’t bother us (things happen how they happen), but others might think differently. This is partly why I have not yet made contact with any descendants of Herbert and Eves, as they may not know that Herbert had an illegitimate child with another woman and they may prefer not to know. For now, it is enough for me and my mum to know.

That said, newspapers can be another valuable source for tracing your ancestors. I got very lucky with mine and although you may not find out something as scandalous as that, your ancestors may have posted birth, marriage or death announcements or have been involved with local sporting activities even. There are various ways which an ancestor may have appeared, so they are always worth a look. Don’t forget though, that newspapers are only reporting an event, so always try to find the original record relating to the event if you can. I have been trying to find the original court records relating to Sarah and Herbert’s case- no luck so far. It turns out that my grandmother and her sister were partly right though- Herbert Blake did come from Montacute!

The two articles I have referenced in this post came from the Western Gazette and the Western Chronicle, both published on 06 March 1896. They can be accessed via: https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/ (for a fee), or if you already have a subscription to FindMyPast (www.findmypast.co.uk) they have a section for British newspapers (in conjunction with the British Newspaper Archive).

Don’t forget that your local archives will also hold copies of local newspapers- the coverage of the above websites is not 100% yet, so your local archive is definitely worth a look.

A good website for converting the value of past currency to modern amounts is https://www.measuringworth.com/calculators/ukcompare/ (that is the one I used in this post).

Happy hunting!

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