Category Archives: Newspapers

Tracing your illegitimate ancestors in the newspapers

King Street, Cambridge

King Street, Cambridge, where Eliza Hull lived with Frederick Charles and their children

Whether you refer to them as illegitimate, natural children, base-born, born out of wedlock, or bastards, everyone has some in their family tree. I’m talking about children born to unmarried mothers.

They can present a seemingly unbreakable brick wall, as their fathers’ names are seldom recorded on birth certificates and rarely in parish registers. If you are lucky you might find some details in workhouse records, but what about in the newspapers? It might seem unlikely but it is possible.

Here is an example published in the Cambridge Independent Press in 1864, found via the British Newspaper Archive website:

“BASTARDY EXTRAORDINARY! Eliza Hull appeared to affiliate four illegitimate children upon Frederick Charles. The woman, who lives in King-street, has had four children, as she states, by the defendant, the eldest being nine years of age, he giving her money for their support. Last week the defendant married another female, and now Eliza Hull brings her case before the Magistrates.

“The man is a gentleman’s coachman, and has £25 a year, and after a good deal of obstinacy on his part, he agreed to compromise the matter by paying 4s. a week; although he protested that he was not the father of the two elder children, and that he could produce evidence against the complainant, showing that her antecedents were of a most unsatisfactory character.”

What a fascinating article! It throws up so many questions. Why did Eliza keep up her… acquaintance with Frederick over such a long period? Why hadn’t they married? If only the last two children were his (according to him), whose were the others?

Clearly they had an informal arrangement for her to receive some money towards the children’s upkeep, but was Frederick’s marriage to someone else the final straw? Being an unmarried mother was frowned upon – to say the least – so Eliza must have felt very strongly about the situation to have brought an affiliation case to make the situation official. She must have feared the loss of Frederick’s payments after he married another woman. (What a bounder!)

While this article is fascinating, it doesn’t really provide any hard proof for any possible descendants of Eliza Hull. But it would give a strong lead to follow if they had taken a DNA test. They might want to look out for any matches who had the surname Charles in their family tree.

My own great-great grandmother, Lucy Howard, gave birth to three children in three different workhouses. I can only assume she must have been very fertile. Lucy had a hard life – born to a poor Norfolk family, she was a workhouse inmate by the age of nine. Two of her children were brought up by her brother. She did eventually settle down and marry, but then died in the flu epidemic of 1918.

I learned from the Northampton Mercury (again, thanks to the British Newspaper Archive) that in 1889 Lucy brought an affiliation case shortly after the birth of her third child, Harry:

“AFFILIATION. Lucy Howard, 4, Althorp-Terrace, v. William Scott Lightfoot, 36, Drapery. – Mr. C.C. Becke appeared for the defendant. – The case was dismissed.”

Again, she must have felt strongly enough about her predicament that she was prepared to stand in court to say “this man is the father of my baby – and he should pay” and have her name (and his) published in the local newspaper for all to read. William Scott Lightfoot was a member of a respectable middle-class Baptist family. With no way for the court to know whether Lucy – a laundress – was telling the truth, perhaps it’s not surprising that the case was thrown out.

Newspapers can help fill so many gaps in our knowledge of our ancestors’ lives. Even if the papers cannot solve the whole puzzle, they might just give you a few more pieces to slot into place.

  • The British Newspaper Archive is a subscription website. A year’s access costs £80. You can also access the same material via FindMyPast if you take out their ‘Pro’ subscription at £44.84 for 3 months, or £156 for a year (at time of publishing). Both sites have special offers and introductory discounts, so it’s worth looking out for those.

Guest post by Katie Fuller, Associate Researcher

Name changes by deed poll

Name change

How can you find evidence of a name change in your family history? Image from Wikiphoto published under Creative Commons Licence.

Family historians looking for proof of a name change will often find it simply does not exist. It was (and is) perfectly legal to change your name and begin using a new one without having to register the change with an official body.

So, in the days when divorce was prohibitively expensive for many, if a married woman began to live with a new partner, she could adopt his name without requiring any legal process.

However, some people preferred to make their name change official. Before the 20th century this was done through royal licence or sometimes through Private Acts of Parliament. Later, deed poll was used.

Deed poll is a legal contract which is made before a solicitor. It provides documentary evidence of the name change.

In most cases, the files are unlikely to have been kept by the solicitor for more than five years. However, for safekeeping, a deed poll can be entered in the Enrolment Books of the Supreme Court of Justice.

Not all people chose this option, as it came with a fee and, after 1914, required a public notice in The Gazette.  The cost and publicity put many people off. Therefore, absence of an enrolled deed poll does not mean the name change was informal. A deed poll may have been obtained, but not enrolled. The National Archives estimates that only 1% of names changed by deed poll were enrolled.

From 1914, all enrolled deed polls had to be advertised in either the London, Edinburgh or Belfast Gazette, and these papers are searchable for free online.

The London Gazette, 2 July 1929.
Reproduced under Open Government Licence.

These two examples are from the London Gazette on 2 July 1929. Wolfe Zukovsky of Leeds was seemingly very fond of his forename!

Further information can sometimes be found in the wider press. For example, this was reported in the Shields Daily News on 19 August 1925:

“Robinson Case Echo

Newton Changes His Name by Deed Poll

Mr Montague Noel Newton has changed his name by deed poll to Montague Norman Norreys. The fact is announced in the ‘London Gazette’. He is described as of Down Street, Piccadilly.

Mr Newton gave evidence for the Midland Bank when Mr Vharles [sic] Ernest Robinson unsuccessfully sued the bank for £125,000 – part of the £150,000 paid by Raja Sir Hari Singh (“Mr A”) to avoid being cited as co-respondent in a divorce petition.

Most of the money had fallen into the hands of William Cooper Hobbs, who was subsequently convicted of conspiracy and sent to prison.”

Shields Daily News, 19 August 1925. Accessed through the British Newspaper Archive on FindMyPast.

If you want to see the original enrollment, the Enrollment Books are held at The National Archives, Kew. Years 1903-2003 are held in series J18.

During the Second World War all name changes had to be declared and published in The Gazette so that the National Registration details could be altered and an identity card and ration book could be issued in the new name.


I sincerely hope to see them all in court!

Court records can provide a level of detail not found elsewhere.

The website for the proceedings of the Old Bailey offers full transcriptions of all cases held at the Central Criminal Court from 1674-1913. Statements are recorded verbatim, so it allows us to see the words spoken by witnesses, prosecutors and defendants alike.

Take the case of Joseph Catling Gibbons, aged 52, who was tried for bigamy on 20th October 1890. He was being prosecuted by the wife of his bigamous marriage, who said:

I became acquainted with the prisoner two years ago, and went out with him for five Sundays—some information then came to me, and I wrote him a letter breaking off the acquaintance, and ceased to keep company with him about Christmas, 1888 about September, 1889, I met him and asked him if he knew me—he said, “What! after the letter you wrote to me?”—I said, “I wrote that in a temper; are you a married man?”—he said, “I have no time to speak to you now”—I said I would see him the next night—I met him the next evening, and he said, “I hope I may be struck dead if I am not a single man”—I then walked out with him till we were married on 8th July in the registry at Whitechapel—I lived with him six weeks at my mother’s house up to a fortnight ago; I was then told something, and went and saw his wife—that is her (pointing) I gave him in charge the same evening.

One of the witnesses was Rose S Hales, Joseph’s daughter. She told the court:

…the prisoner is my father, and the lady who has been produced is his wife—they have been parted for sixteen year—he allowed her 2s. a week up to Christmas last—she lives in the same house with me—my father called there about four months ago, and saw my mother and me; I cannot give the date accurately—he came to see his son’s baby, which was three days old—it was born four months ago—my mother was in good health at the time.

She later said:

you allowed her 2s. a week for ten weeks in the year, when you were at the Drury Lane pantomime—you were pantaloon there.

This kind of detail is rarely found in family papers, and cannot be deduced from census entries alone. It gives a clear insight into the dramas of this family (no pun intended).

Joseph Catling Gibbon’s defence was:

I left my wife eighteen years ago owing to her misconduct; she has lived with three different men, and has had several children, and I thought she was dead.

Rose Hales further stated that:

her mother had two children by another man, one of which was seven and the other two years old.

Joseph Catling Gibbons was an actor throughout his life. He used the stage name Tully Louis. There is a newspaper report in the Pall Mall Gazette on the 28 October 1890, found using the British Newspaper Archive at findmypast, which refers to his court case for bigamy under his stage name, confirming that they are one and the same. Tully Louis was a well-known pantomimist and comic actor of his time.

He perhaps wasn’t as much the injured party as he suggested at the Old Bailey. He married his first wife in 1860. By the 1871 census she was living with their two daughters and described herself as a ‘widow’. Joseph appears to have been missed off (or mistranscribed) in this census. In 1881, however, he records himself under his stage name, Tully Louis, and was living with Charlotte Louis and their 3 children, Eugene, Nellie and Josephine. There is no evidence of him having married Charlotte.

Six months after the hearing at the Old Bailey, the 1891 census was taken. Joseph was recorded under the name ‘Joseph Catling’ and lived with 6 children all with the Catling surname (including Eugene, Nellie and Josephine). His youngest son was 3 years old, so he must have been born shortly before Joseph began courting the unsuspecting Caroline Wooton in 1888. It seems that Caroline was ignorant of his first wife, so it seems likely she was also unaware of his 6 children and relationship with Charlotte.

Here’s proof of the tantalising glimpses court records can give into the lives of your ancestors. A criminal in your past can be of great use in providing new insights into your family history.

The miserly butcher!

Mr John Taylor of Great Dunmow, Essex, butcher, recently deceased, by his industry and economy had accumulated a considerable property, the knowledge of which he was desirous of keeping from the world; and, to gratify such a propensity, he secured his money in various parts of his apparel, where some of it has lain in a state of idleness for 80 years and upwards. A few days only previous to his death, Mr Taylor, at the earnest solicitation of his friends, made a will, but even then he did not disclose the whole of his property, which already proves to amount to several thousand pounds.

Bury and Ipswich Post, Wednesday 13 April 1825

Telling tales

I read an article in the New York Times this week about how important it is to children to hear their family stories.

Psychological studies have shown that children are more confident if they know about their family’s background and have heard stories of hardship and success from their older relatives.

Once you start to learn about your family history, it can become very addictive. In fact, even if it’s not your own family, the stories of people of the past are a fascination to us all.

The article suggests that from a psychological point of view, the stories are an important element of feeling part of a community and allow the continutation of traditions. These allow us to feel secure in our current situation, whether that be a positive or negative state.

Certainly, if Who Do You Think You Are? is anything to go by, by learning about your own family story, you can improve your understanding of yourself. At the very least by knowing about your family’s past, you will understand certain behaviours or traditions that have been formed in your own family’s culture.

The stories that bind us was published by the New York Times on 15 March 2013.


I read this interesting snippet this week.

SIR, — In this town there is an innkeeper who rejoices in the baptismal name of “Mahershalalhashbaz” (see Isaiah 8,i). I should think this is unique. He is commonly called “Maher,” but in the parochial and other lists the full name appears.

Report says (but I will not vouch for its truth) that his father wished him to be named “Uz,” but on the clergyman remonstrating he immediately said “Then we will have the other,” and produced from his pocket a slip of paper with the longer name.

I am, Sir, your obedient servant,
W. E.
Dereham, Norfolk, April 8.

The Standard
(London), April 11, 1892

Snippet from British Baby Names

The man in question was Maher Tuck, who I located in the 1871 census in Dereham. He died the year after this letter was written, aged 54.

In fact the letterwriter was incorrect in his assumption that Maher Tuck’s first name was unique, as although it was a rare name, there were other Mahershalalhashbazes living at that time. The name originates in the book of Isaiah in the Old Testament and is said to be the longest name in the bible.

More than most, it’s a name that required shortening, and other nicknames included Marc, Marshall and Baz.

The Brazilian acrobat

I’ve been helping a friend find out more about his circus ancestor this week. Manoel Antonio Dutocq we knew was an acrobat and a slack wire walker from Brazil. He married a woman from Cardiff and they had their children in London.

Finding his stage name was the key to the research. He performed as Don Jose Manoel and was known as the ‘Celebrated Brazilian Equilibrist’. The Victorian newspapers are full of reports of where he performed with Hengler’s Grand Circus. It seems they toured the UK and Paris in the 1860s and into the 1870s.

The Liverpool Mercury describes his act:

‘The skill displayed by Don Jose Manoel “the Brazilian Equilibrist”, is both surprising and gratifying. Two of his feats – the whole of which are performed whilst he stands upon a slack wire suspended between two poles – are especially worthy of notice. First, he places a glass of porter on a hoop and twirls it around his head and in all sorts of positions without spilling a drop of the liquid. Next he balances a sword upon the edge of a drinking glass, the latter resting upon a pipe inserted in his mouth. At the top of the revolving sword whirls a large-sized bowl filled with fireworks, which explode after the vessel has made two or three resolutions, enveloping the artiste in a shower of fire.’

Liverpool Mercury, 26 December 1864

He died in 1881, aged just 45, at the London Chest Hospital, probably of tuberculosis. Despite performing until he was in his mid-thirties, there are no reports of his death in the newspapers.