or 'The ancestor who refuses to be found'
Brick walls – we all have them, even experienced genealogists who have been researching their families for decades are likely to have come up against an immoveable obstacle that resolutely refuses to budge. Although research will naturally reach a point where the records run out, those that hover around the statutory registration and census periods are particularly annoying, as one way or another a solution, or at least a theory, should be possible to find.
Not so with a 2 times great grandmother of my own, Ann Ross, who adamantly refuses to give up her ancestral history and is frankly making the family tree look somewhat lopsided. Every now and then I go back to her and do a bit more digging in the hope that inspiration will strike but invariably come away disappointed. It may seem odd to be writing about what is essentially a failure, but I thought others in the same position may be interested in a few of the methods and thought processes I use to successfully resolve cases like these, even though in this instance it has yet to produce a result. On many occasions the devil is most definitely in the detail!
Reliability of Sources
One of the first things to consider when dealing with a ‘problematic’ ancestor is to assess the facts known about the person and the reliability of the respective sources. It is also worth remembering that whilst records of life events and the census remain the foundation stones on which to build an ancestor’s story, there are many other potential places where reliable information can be found. Some of these may even be among your family’s personal possessions, or in the possession of others researching the same ancestral lines. They often say far more about a person and their character than an official record can too.
In the case of Ann Ross, most of what I knew before I started digging came from my grandmother’s personal knowledge. Although Ann and her husband John Davison, a printer in Alnwick, had both died before she was born, Granny would often talk about her paternal spinster aunts, Sarah Ann and Mary Ogilvie Davison, whom she knew extremely well. Following the death of their father John in 1895, the aunts, together with their widowed mother moved from the printing works at St Michael’s Pant to a little house at No 2 Croft Place, Alnwick. Of Ann herself, if my memory serves me correctly, granny spoke very little, other than imparting the fact she was Scottish, not a total surprise given her surname and the middle Christian name of one of her known daughters!
In terms of reliability of the source, everything Gran told me about her family history has to date proved to be ‘spot on’ – but did she know everything, and even so was some information perhaps held back?
One piece of information that came to light relatively recently was evidence that there had been another child, a son, who had died as a youngster. He was distinctively named William Tulloch Davison and had been born in second quarter of 1852 and died aged 3 on 27th January 1856. Further evidence perhaps of Ann’s Scottish heritage? It is always worth double checking for other children born to a couple, even if they died young, as their names may hold some vital clues, or indicate naming patterns. In this case William may well have been named for John’s father, but what about Tulloch? Every marriage combination of Ross, Davison, Ogilvie and Tulloch has thus far drawn a blank in terms of a viable potential connection for Ann. However, it is important to think beyond the immediately preceding generation – surnames used as Christian names often refer to grandparents or even further back still.
The Marriage Certificate
John Davison and Ann Ross had married at the Register Office in Alnwick on the 1st July 1851. She was described as 24 years old, a spinster, of no occupation, the daughter of John Ross a Shoemaker and a resident of Alnwick at the time of her marriage. Witnesses to the marriage were Mary Gilroy, John Davison’s married sister, and a David Geggie, possibly a cabinet maker in the town, whose wife’s maiden name was Amory. There does not appear to have been a representative of Ann’s immediate family present. Neither father is noted as deceased, although William, John’s father is thought to have had died before 1841.
Eking out every last drop of information and potential clues in official documentation is essential in difficult cases or where there is a conflict of evidence. Sometimes taking a close look at the witnesses to the marriage can provide hints too, as can they place they were married. In this case the Register Office may point to one or more of the parties following a non-conformist faith. If Ann Ross was of Scottish descent she may well have been Presbyterian and would not have wanted to marry in an Anglican Church.
In terms of reliability, the marriage certificate is often the least reliable of the three. Folk tell ‘fibs’ about their ages, and be prepared for invented names and occupations of fathers! There are many reasons why this may be the case not just illegitimacy; it can indicate the child had little or no knowledge of the father; perhaps he had died young and the child had grown up in a second family, was a smoke screen for a clandestine affair or used to invent a more suitable background – I have encountered them all and more! Is Ann’s marriage certificate truthful? When taken collectively with other information, her age would certainly seem to be correct, but there is a lingering question mark about her father’s name and occupation, despite her second son being called John.
Post Marriage Census Records
In the census records following her marriage Ann states her age and place of birth as:
Although her place of birth varies, her age is relatively consistent and suggests a birth year of 1827/28. In terms of the reliability of census information it is worth bearing in mind that the person completing the return may not have had the specific knowledge of the birthplace of a spouse, visitor or even children if the family often moved. Therefore at times the information in a census may be a ‘best guess’.
As to the reliability of post marriage census records for Ann Ross: – her place of birth is mostly given as London and her age remains consistent so on balance it would seem reasonably reliable.
Ann has not been identified living in Alnwick or the surrounding countryside in either the 1841 or 1851 census nor is there any sign of a John Ross, shoemaker! For sure there are several Ross families resident in the area but none fit any known criteria beyond a common surname. The only John Ross that has been identified living in Middlesex during this time was a dentist born circa 1816 in Scotland. Ironically he is living at 9 Kings Terrace, Clerkenwell with what appears to be his brother James, in the same building as a William Ross, a bookbinder, and his family also born in Scotland circa 1811. They appear to be the only Ross family living in Middlesex in the 1841 census. William and family are still living in Clerkenwell in 1851 at 11 North Avenue and William’s place of birth is given as Kelso, Roxburghshire. From this information his parentage was traced to a George Ross, a Printer in Kelso and his wife Isabel Scott. Whilst this couple are most certainly not Ann’s parents and the location and occupation may be purely circumstantial, there may yet prove to be a connection, and then again it may just prove to be another wild goose chase!
As it stands Ann has yet to be found in either census predating her marriage. There are too may variant factors to consider; she may have working in a household away from her family, one or both her parents were deceased, or she was visiting friends or relatives, which when combined with a not uncommon name make it impossible to draw an adequate conclusion. To date it is thought that she came to Alnwick from London shortly before her marriage. It is known that her husband John prior to opening his own print works in Fenkle Street in 1855 had worked for a Mr Pike in printing houses both ‘North and the South’ – is this when he had met Ann?
George Pike, Printer and Bookbinder operated at that time from 37 Market Street, the premises to which John Davison and his family would relocate in the 1860s and where they would remain until circa 1937.
Death & Burial
Ann Ross died on 21st April 1902 and her age recorded at death was 75. She is buried with her husband John and their two daughters in the family plot No. A353, in a block for non-conformists in Alnwick South Road Cemetery. (Many thanks to Ian Hopper at the Cemetery Lodge for pointing out on the location on a map and where it lies as there is no headstone marking the grave.) This confirms that the family were indeed non-conformist and whilst I do not have the baptisms of John and Ann’s children to confirm their religion, it is interesting to note those of John’s sister Mary Gilroy took place at the Alnwick Unitarian Chapel (or Ebenezer Unitarian Meeting House) in the Parish of Alnwick.
Much of the information contained in Alnwick’s various non-conformist Church records is not yet digitised or available online – certainly not post 1838, but many of the records are available to consult at the Northumberland Record Office at Woodhorn.
Birth or Baptism Record
As Ann was born circa 1827/28 some ten years before the introduction of statutory registration introduced in 1837, (and even then registering a birth did not become law until 1874), the best record of her birth that could possibly be found is her baptism. On the basis of her age at marriage, given in census returns, and at death, the best estimate for her birth would be the second quarter of 1828. Needless to say no baptism record has yet been identified. As she is thought to have been non-conformist, her baptism is also unlikely to be found in Parish records. I say unlikely, as some parishes did record the vital events of ‘dissenters’ in their registers, but in the main the only place where non-conformist registers can be found is in the National Archives Series Code RG. Many of these records have been digitised and are available through The Genealogist.
I can hear you asking ‘surely DNA has provided some answers’? Well, actually as yet it hasn’t! The biggest issue faced with trying to find clues within the DNA matches of myself and my brother is that we are the only living descendants of Ann Ross. Furthermore, we do not know if Ann had any siblings – if she had then we are looking at mutual common ancestors in her parents, who would be our 3rd great grandparents. This would mean that realistically the closest living relatives we could have in Ann’s line would be 4th cousins. If Ann was an only child, or the only child of her parents to have children then we are looking a generation further back again and to 5th cousin matches and a generation about which we have virtually no knowledge. As a result any matches that are lurking out there are potentially going to be quite small. Whilst we both have a few known Davison matches they are no use in this particular quest as they all descend from John’s sister Mary Gilroy and therefore will not carry any Ross DNA. In summary there is just not enough information out there at present from which to draw any sort of conclusion!
Ann Ross left no will herself and the wills of her two daughters Sarah Ann and Mary Ogilvie Davison which were both proved in London hold no clues whatsoever. The only will that I do not have as yet is that of Ann’s son John. Primarily this was because until a few days ago I had no idea when and where he had actually died, only that he passed away before my father was born. As his wife died in Northumberland ten years later I was unaware they had left the area. Once it had been found courtesy of the British Newspaper Archive it certainly came as a bit of surprise!
The motto here is always to expect the unexpected!
Mary Ogilvie Davison
Is it possible that Mary hold the key to this mystery? Just where was she on the night of 3rd April 1881 when the census was recorded? – she certainly wasn’t at home! My efforts to trace her have not borne fruit as yet – but then there are quite a few Mary Davisons listed in the 1881 census! The images used in this blog have been taken from Mary’s personal sketch book which is now in my care and features many paintings and illustrations not just by herself but also other people. It appears the album was begun in 1880/81 and the last entry is dated 1899. Whilst many of the pictures are just initialled, including one by her brother John, an H.R, a P.R. and a J.G.R also feature – could the ‘R’ possibly be for Ross? Other contributors have signed their names such as G Wilson, R Dodds, but there is one that stands out, Tom Paish in 1886 – just who was he?
 William Davison was a witness at the baptism of his grandsons William Gilroy in 1829, and James Gilroy in 1830 but was not present in 1841 census. The Gilroy family were Unitarians.
 The Genealogist.co.uk Non Parochial BMD Database RG4: Non-parochial Registers 1567-1858,RG5: Protestant Dissenters' Registry,RG6: Quaker Registers 1578-1841,RG7: Fleet Marriages 1667-1777,RG8: Non-Parochial & Miscellaneous Registers,RG32: Registers Abroad and on British & Foreign Ships 1831-1969,RG33: Foreign Registers & Returns 1627-1960,RG34: Worldwide Foreign Marriage Returns 1826-1921,RG35: General Register Office: Miscellaneous Foreign Death Returns - 1791-1921,RG36: Registers & Returns in the Protectorates etc of Africa & Asia,BT158: Registers compiled from Ships' Official logs of passengers at sea 1854-1908,BT159: Registers of Deaths at sea of British and other nationalities 1875-1888,BT160: Registers of Births at sea of British Nationals 1875-1891
Other useful Links for Alnwick
Durham Records Online database contains the burials for St Michaels Parish Church in Alnwick.
Family Search Wiki Page contains a comprehensive list of resources for researching ancestors from Alnwick
Non Conformist records from The National Archive Code RG series are available through The Genealogist