Robert Bolam 1952 - 30 March 2019
It was with much sadness I learnt of the passing of Robert Bolam on Saturday 30th March 2019, the very day the story of his Bolam ancestors was published online. The following blog is therefore dedicated to his memory, with sincere condolences to his son Malcolm and the rest of the Bolam family.
A brief look into an extraordinary farming family from Northumberland
Professional family historians are no strangers to being regaled with accounts from folks stating they can trace their ancestry back to Charlemagne. It is at this point most of glaze us over and immediately lose interest. Whilst it is true that some undoubtedly do, for the majority, even if a connection does exist proving it is another question entirely! As many of my regular readers will know one of my ongoing personal projects is the mammoth task of mapping the farming families of Northumberland. This month’s blog is about one such family that sits on the periphery of my own – the Bolams. I have been promising our local butcher Malcolm Bolam that I would sketch out a tree showing his connection to this family in an organised and digestible manner, as the prolific ‘bilge’ in online trees is causing complete confusion. Once again not a single tree is correct!
The final prompt came whilst looking for something else which turned up the following letter written to George Aynsley-Smith (GAS) from a William James Bolam, a Land Agent living in Ravensdowne, Berwick in 1911.
The correspondence formed part of a communication between GAS and historian John Hodgson regarding the ever problematical Grey lineage. Attached to the letter was a Bolam pedigree claiming descent from the aforementioned Charlemagne of which he states. ‘I know very little about it [the tree] but if I can assist you then let me know. My father and Uncle took a great deal of pains about the pedigree and I don’t think it can be far wrong’. Oh dear – cue eyes skyward! The outline tree that was attached to the letter doesn’t actually give much information about the Bolam family per se.
Rather, it relies on the accuracy of connections within the pedigree of the Grey family of Longhorsley and later of Milfield. It is highly possible that the Bolam tree was based on the genealogical study into the Grey family published by Edmund Hepple in 1856, taken from the ‘Milfield Manuscripts’. (Claire Grey has published a copy along with a transcription on her website ‘The Milfield Greys’). However, as stated by Claire herself ‘The Hepple tree … has Charlemagne 800 at the top of it, and for that reason alone should be treated with a great deal of scepticism … Attempts at verifying the connection between the Milfield Tree and Hepple's tree have so far proved inconclusive’. Once again the pursuit of ‘gateway’ ancestors has obliterated a family with its own very interesting history, with links to places that will be very familiar with my local readership.
The brother of letter writer, Mr William James Bolam was George Bolam – ‘A highly regarded naturalist of the region who published books on the birds of Northumberland and co-founded the Northern Naturalist’s Union’. His extensive archive, which includes a family tree, (which I have not yet had sight of) is lodged at the Hancock Museum in Newcastle. This branch of the family can be found in various census returns living in Ravensdowne, Berwick, which was the focus of a study under taken by Berwick Archives and can be freely accessed online. Their parents were Robert George Bolam and Mary Bolam who were first cousins, both being the grandchildren of John Bolam of Tritlington and Mary Bolam of Throphill, Mitford near Morpeth. They too may very well have been related but the exact connection, if it does exist, has yet to be established – I suspect the answer lies in the Northumbrian hills around Rothbury, Alwinton and Elsdon.
For the purpose of this particular blog, John and Mary Bolam have been taken as the foundation parents. Mary was the daughter of Christopher Bolam of Throphill, Mitford, and his wife Jane. Mary had three known siblings, Elizabeth b. 1758, Christopher b. 1765 d. Feb 1794 (5 months after his father) and Isaac b.1769. Malcolm Bolam descends from Mary’s brother Isaac and his wife Jane Jobson who remained at Throphill Farm until circa 1824. By the time their own son Isaac died in 1830 and daughter Eleanor in 1831, although still living in the Morpeth area they had vacated the farm. It is the Will of Isaac and Mary’s Bolam’s brother, Christopher, proved in 1796 that holds the key to unravelling the rest of the family.
Christopher’s sister Mary had married John Bolam at Mitford on 20th May 1788. The couple’s four eldest children were born whilst the couple farmed at Tritlington (Hebron). John’s lease expired in 1795 when it would appear that the family moved to Brinkheugh [Brenkheugh] near Brinkburn where two further sons were born.
In 1806 John and Mary along with their ‘five sons and a daughter’ moved to the farm of Low Hedgeley near Powburn where they stayed for 24 years and where Mary died in May 1824. She was interred at Mitford on 1 June 1824. In 1830 John and the remaining family moved west to the nearby farms of Fawdon and Clinch which the Bolam family occupied until 1894. John appears in the 1841 census at Fawdon with two of his unmarried children William Isaac and daughter Ann and where he died on 15th January 1848 aged 88.
Of their five children, two, Anne and Isaac William did not marry. Whilst Thomas married Mary Ann Young of Shiel Dykes at Edinburgh in 1853 they had no children, so the main body of Bolam descendants of John Bolam of Tritlington and his wife Mary, including the Bolam family of Alnwick stem from the couple’s remaining three sons, George, John and Christopher. Christopher Bolam married Isabel Gibson in the mid 1820’s and together they had a large family, many of whom died in infancy as the family’s monumental inscription at Ingram bears witness.
Christopher is known to have occupied several different farms, including Way to Wooler, Low Trewitt and Ratcheugh, where he can be found in the 1861 census. (His cousin Isaac Milburn was living at that time in the adjacent Ratcheugh House, but the story of this extraordinary gentleman cannot be given the justice it deserves here.) There is an interesting reference to a Bolam family at High Trewitt in the 1816 survey of Households possessing Bibles in Rothbury.
Mr. Isaac BOLAM is living for the present on Mr. ATKINSON's farm with his two sisters, their brother, John BOLAM ----------- the farm, having run away to escape justice after many frauds and forgeries his effects were seized and sold but the ruin thereby brought upon the rest of the family seems to be rather affirmed by themselves than believed by their neighbours. One female servant lives with them who is Presbyterian They have four Bibles and three Prayer books.
A search in the press of the day finds a John Bolam listed amongst other bankrupts in 1815, followed by a dispersal sale of farmstock and household goods. (Note the term fieri facias confirming the sale was to settle unpaid debts)
Exactly where this family of High Trewitt sits in the family equation is undetermined, as it is deemed that the children of John and Mary would have been marginally too young at the time, and the entry mentions two sisters, not one. However, it has not been totally ruled out and the names would certainly suggest a familial connection. When combined with the interests at other farms mentioned in the area, this small piece of evidence may prove invaluable in tracing the family back in time.
To date the only confirmed descendant of Christopher Bolam and his wife Isabella Gibson to marry and propagate this branch of the tree was their grandchild Ellen or Eleanor, daughter of their son John Christopher. Christopher died at Ratcheugh and was buried at Ingram in March 1863.
Christopher’s eldest brother George married Ann Liddell at Rothbury on 16th June 1825. The couple had 5 known children, 4 of whom survived until adulthood. Sons John and George and daughters Mary and Ann.
The two brothers would make quite a mark on the agricultural landscape of Northumberland. The country was in the grip of the Post Napoleonic depression and the Corn Laws introduced in 1815 were having a crippling effect of agriculture. Farms were frequently changing hands as many farmers unable to make it pay left the industry. The Diaries of William Brewis of Mitford 1833 – 1850 includes frequent references to farms coming up for rent, and the general plight of the agricultural markets. However, there are always those who manage to prosper despite adverse conditions, and in Northumberland John and George Bolam were amongst their number.
It appears that John focused his attention on farms in and around the Shawdon, Rothbury and Alwinton areas. In 1861 he can be found visiting his brother George at Low Hedgeley, the second time the family had taken the tenancy. On 20th January 1865 he married Ellen Thompson, daughter of William Thompson of Little Ryle at Rothbury and in July the following year their daughter Ann was born. Just weeks later tragedy struck and John was killed in a riding accident.
(Please note Bolam researchers that this John Bolam was NOT the head of the farming family with interests in Alnwick!)
In 1866, his brother George was farming at Horton Grange, but as a result of John’s untimely death relinquished the tenancy to concentrate on the family’s interests nearer home. George, aged 45 married a Catherine Hall in Edinburgh on 1st August 1873. Together the couple would have three children, George b. 1879, Catherine Annie b. 1882 and Johnina Jane b. 1885. In 1881 George was living and farming at Alwinton but by 1891 had taken up residence at the family farm of Fawdon. In 1893 George too met with an accident that would ultimately cause his death.
However, the full extent of this family’s farming interest becomes even clearer in an obituary that appeared in the press preceding the dispersal sale of his various interests and makes impressive reading, particularly in light of the prevailing economic climate in which it was achieved.
The obituary also provides significant proof of George's lineage, which on its own should prompt the re-evaluation of the majority of online family trees. It also highlights that at the time of his death the only member of the family still to be farming was John Bolam at Bilton. This is NOT his brother, but his cousin, the son of his uncle John Bolam and his wife Mary Proctor who was born at Wooler in 1825. It is he who was the renowned farmer, seedsman and miller of Alnwick, and whose family established the shop on the cobbles in Alnwick, which many local readers will remember.
As for the writer of the letter in 1911 William James Bolam - he was the nephew of John Bolam of Bilton. He was the son of Robert George Bolam who married his first cousin Mary Bolam. Mary was the daughter of George Bolam and Ann Liddell, and one of the sisters of the eminent farming brothers featured in the press cuttings above, thus also connecting this branch of the Bolam family to the Greys.
Whilst this family may not be the easiest to accurately follow through the records, it is certainly not the most challenging. The skeleton facts behind this blog were pulled together in less that 48 hours. It is just a combination of applying the correct research techniques, knowing where to look and the application of a modicum of common sense. If you find yourself struggling or bogged down by what appears to be conflicting evidence or facts, I would urge you to seek professional advice, rather than place information that has been ‘made to fit’ in the public domain where it can be copied all too easily.
Although the extent of farming activities of the Bolam family was undoubtedly exceptional, they do provide a fascinating indication of the mobility of farming families of Northumberland in the early 19th century. They also illustrate how these successful families adapted to challenging economic conditions and changed their farming practice to meet demand and command higher market prices. The Bolam family has many more familial connections not covered here, but the door has been opened to establish their earlier origins. For now at least, I hope I have managed to steer researchers of this family in the right direction and provide a solid foundation on which to build. Malcolm Bolam and his family will now be able to indulge in a spot of #AncestralTourism and enjoy a day out visiting the numerous places associated with his extended family, both those featured in this brief outline and others who have even more fascinating stories to tell!
 Obituary of George Bolam 1893; Freereg
 Rothbury Bible census https://www.genuki.org.uk/big/eng/NBL/Rothbury/Rothbury1816
 Bishops Transcripts for Ingram