How often do you find a direct line ancestor mentioned in a book? Judging by what I found yesterday – it’s not always a desirable thing.
I was killing time at York Library yesterday after a fun morning at the dentist’s, waiting for my lift home, when I spied this on the Local History shelf, ‘My Dear Son: Letters to America, 1852 – 1901″ by Marjorie J. Harrison. And from the blurb, realised it concerned a family in Appleton Roebuck. Their son emigrated to America in 1852, and the book collects letters from home written to him, detailing village life and his old friends back home.
Some of my ancestors came from Appleton. So… I speed-read it, and found this, about my great-great grandfather, George Varley. Which made me fall off my chair. The genealogist in me loves this kind of thing. Another part of me feels edgy about it. What? Me? Descend from villains?
Saturday, June 11th, 1864
George Varley has turned out a real rogue. I should think that a hundred and fifty pounds would not clear him of debt. He owes money to almost everyone you talk to in Appleton. He owes some to father that he will never get; he is a bad little fellow
There was only one George Varley in Appleton. My great great grandad! The elderly man to whom he owed money, was unable to work due to illness, and had a paltry income from some cottages he rented out. They became valueless and impossible even to rent out and eventually stood empty, generating no income. So conning this aged, sick man does not reflect well on George at all.
Intriguing, even to get that physical hint with ‘little’ – as this is a man we have no photos of, and who was ‘just’ a labourer, probably not even literate, so would have left no trace of his 78 years on earth – except this one, intriguing, unflattering paragraph. The woman who wrote it and her brother, the emigre, were both contemporaries of George’s and will have grown up with him.
The letter to America was written in 1864, when George and Lizzie had been married several years and at least two more children had been born since Annie (whose birthday was exactly one hundred years and one day before my own!)
George was born in Acaster Selby, probably in 1824. He was never baptised, although most of his siblings were.
He came from an old farming family who had farmed successfully in Acaster Selby for a few generations. After the farmland was enclosed, like many small farmers, the Varleys fell on hard times. George’s father was a labourer, with no farm or tenancy of one to inherit.
George married twice, and therein lies a tale, too. His first wife, Hannah Preston, came from Wistow. They moved to Wistow where George was an ‘Ag Lab’ and had five children, and then Hannah probably died in childbirth. Whilst his wife was pregnant with the last baby, George seems to have taken up with local ne’er-do-well Lizzie Roberts back in his home village of Acaster. Lizzie already had given birth an illegitimate child, Mary Elizabeth Roberts, in Barwick-in-Elmet workhouse in 1860.
I have other examples in the tree of the birth father eventually marrying the mother of an illegitimate child, but the child retaining mum’s maiden name, rather than taking dad’s surname. So that seemed common practice (surprising when you think of the stigma attached to illegitimacy then). Which means, although Mary Elizabeth’s surname wasn’t changed to Varley after George and Lizzie married – that does not infer she wasn’t George’s child. If you follow me.
As George’s wife lay dying, Lizzie Roberts was pregnant again. So when Hannah died, George remarried with fairly obscene haste, to Lizzie, and just before baby Annie was born so she wasn’t illegitimate. The shame seems to have been too much though. They moved back to Acaster and then along to the next village – Appleton Roebuck, George always listed as ‘labourer’.
The nearly-illegitimate baby was Annie – my great grandma. Inexplicably, George and Lizzie kept the older illegitimate child but sent baby Annie to Leeds to be brought up by relatives.
I found Annie on the 1871 Census, as ‘visitor’ to her oldest half-brother, John. He was a Railway Clerk. The other branch of my family -descendants of the legitimate branch – tell me that family legend had it that John treated little Annie like a slave. Her life was made a misery. Her parents wouldn’t let her come home, so she lived 30 or so miles away in Leeds whilst George and Lizzie went on to have countless more children – all of which they kept.
When she was of age, Annie returned to Acaster, and met and married my great grandfather, John Henry Thompson. They had a large farm and a comfortable life. Annie is singled out in Bernard Kettlewell’s ‘Memories of Cawood’, when Bernard recalled walking to get a jug full of milk for his mother:
I wonder what kids would say today, if they’d go to like Frankie Green and Ted Ward and such as them, and I’ve gone on a night too, right across to what’s Experimental Farm now; it were John Henry Thompson’s then. Mrs Bussey there in High Street, it was her mother. I’ve fetched it from there many a time… Ted Ward and Frankie Green and them used to have to go right across t’fields. You used to go yon end of the Ramper at that stone bridge, and then you used to take in across a field there. then across two other of Thompson’s fields, and that’s what you had to do… She were a good old sort were Mrs Thompson. When it were cold and you were off across, she always had you in and let you get to t’fire while she got you it [the milk], and then she’d give you a bit of biscuit or summat…
Mrs Bussey was my Auntie Annie, pictured here in the 1950s. From all I’ve been told by the legitimate Varley descendants, Auntie Annie will have never seen her grandparents, George or Lizzie Varley in her life.
On the 1901 Census, George was now 77 and ‘feeble-minded’ is scrawled in the final column of the Census, against his name. No doubt, he had dementia. He died the following year. Lizzie died in 1921.
My great grandma Annie cut off all contact with all the Varleys. Family legend (again from the legitimate side! I’d never heard any of this when I started..) has it that when George died, a brother turned up at Stockbridge Farm to tell Annie her dad was dead. She sent the brother away with a flea in his ear – saying her dad had abandoned her as a baby, so why should she care if he lived or died? Go grandma!
Interesting that the two ancestors who turn up being mentioned in books were a father and daughter – and what a contrast in their characters!