Who Do I Think I Am?

I enjoy visiting old relatives. Really old relatives. Really, really old relatives. Over the last couple of days I’ve been visiting Peter Righton Atkinson, 1829 – 1888. He’s actually only a relative by marriage – he married my 2nd cousin 4 times removed in 1857 – but still fascinating.

I started delving into my family tree more than 15 years ago – my cousin had sent me a link to http://www.ancestry.co.uk, and I decided to take a look while I was drinking my morning coffee. I mean, how long can it take to do a family tree?? Lunchtime came and went, and I didn’t even notice…

I was hooked.

I have more than 11,000 individuals in my tree, I’ve traced some branches back to the 1600s, and I’ve found a few skeletons!!

Anyway, my son and I were in Winchester and I suddenly remembered that one of my relatives (Blanche Eliza) was married to a man who went on to become something high up at Winchester Cathedral. So we popped in to have a look. And me being me, I got talking to one of the guides.

Before we knew what was happening we were in the Virgers’ Vestry, and they were looking things up for us!!! It turned out that the guide we’d happened to talk to had a particular interest in the Latin inscriptions around the church, and had spent some time translating them all – including the one under a bust of my relative’s husband Peter!! So, we found the bust, and we took photos, and it was mightily exciting.

Now, most of my relatives were either fishermen, or agricultural labourers, or blacksmiths. Out of 11,249 individuals, Peter Righton Atkinson is the only one with a bust and a Latin inscription! And a Wikipedia entry!! He was a Canon at Winchester Cathedral, and Archdeacon of Surrey.

But there is a mystery surrounding this man.

He married my relative Blanche Eliza in 1857 in Manchester. Which doesn’t sound too mysterious, until you discover that at the time of the marriage he was a clergyman in Rochester in Kent (for anyone not familiar with the UK, that’s a hell of a long way from Manchester), and she was from Tasmania!! So – how the heck did they manage to meet in the first place, and why did they get married in Manchester?

The mystery deepens – they had a child (Blanche Isabella) in 1862. But by 1871 Peter appears to be married to another woman and Blanche Eliza has disappeared from the record completely. Blanche Isabella is still living with her father and his new wife. I can’t find a death record for Blanche Eliza, nor can I find any record of her returning to Tasmania. And divorce would not have been an option. What happened to her??

This is why we do family history research!! It’s for the skeletons, the mystery, the problem-solving…

We went back the next day, to do more research. We discovered that during his time at Winchester he lived at 9 Cathedral Close – which is now offices, so we were able to go in!! Sadly we could only go into the reception area, but it was still fascinating to see the building he’d lived in.

In the meantime, I’ve been emailing with the first guide we spoke to. He’s writing a book about the wall memorials in the cathedral and has asked me to supply the information I have about Peter so he can include it!!

If you’ve ever contemplated researching your family history, be warned – it’s highly addictive. And you can’t do it over a coffee.

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19 Comments Add yours

  1. Joan Mudd says:

    I am intrigued. What did the inscription say?


    1. ‘In pious memory of Peter Atkinson, MA, Archdeacon of Surrey and Canon of this Cathedral, who, after a life dedicated to the Lord, fell asleep in Christ on the 5th day of March AD 1888. Freed from the substance of our humility he awaits the substance of eternal glory.’


  2. anglosvizzera says:

    My husband and I are also hooked!

    My family is, like (most) of yours, pretty ‘boring’ (coal miners in county Durham, blacksmiths, ag labs etc) but my husband’s is full of, what you might call, ‘mystery’ in that his great grandfather was a music hall artist who changed his name and even invented a new one when he got married. Consequently we have no records for him from before the 1901 census and no idea who his parents were, when he was born etc. He gave 2 different ages and places of birth in the 1901 and 1911 censuses along with his ‘fake’ names (one being a stage name he used) and invented a ‘father’ that also didn’t exist by that name on his marriage certificate.

    One of his sons, my husband’s grandfather, had no birth certificate, only a baptismal record from when he and his 3 brothers were baptised, giving an ‘alleged date of birth’. There are also family rumours that the Gordon-Lennox family (Dukes of Richmond) were involved in some way as his great grandfather was said to have ‘grown up at Goodwood House’.

    Unfortunately the grandfather is now deceased – not that he would ever discuss ‘the family’, saying, “You wouldn’t be proud if you knew the truth”. So all we have is family rumours and anecdotes to go on.

    We both did DNA tests, mainly for my husband to see if he could track down anyone that might lead to that branch of his family. So far we have some matches with no ‘shared matches’ which are intriguing because most matches have ‘known’ ancestors. I’ve tried contacting a couple of these matches but they haven’t replied!

    My husband has spent hours scouring the newspaper archives online to see if he can work out other ‘stage names’ his great grandfather might have used, but his imagination gets the better of him and so far there must be about 50 different names he’s come up with. I have to try and ground him and use logic – like looking up some of these people in records, which he is now doing, and finding that many of them did use their real names after all.

    As for great grandad, we have one photograph of him. There don’t seem to be many photographs of these music hall artists from the early 1900s so we have nobody to compare it with. In his later years he became a ‘photographer’ although not very talented, it seems. There are a few postcards around with his acting name and I recently discovered a couple more with another name similar to his ‘married’ name in Woburn Sands via their Facebook historical page. One of his children was born there, so I thought it worth making contact with them.

    One thing I did discover was that one of my husband’s great uncles, known as “Uncle George” but officially (since that baptism, when he was 10) named Francis Esme Lennox-Gordon, a name he used as an adult. Nobody could find his birth certificate either, until I thought about it more logically. Why would he be called “Uncle George”? If he was named ‘Francis’ at age 10, presumably he grew up being called George. He was also born 2 years before his ‘parents’ married. So I looked for George Simpson, born at the right time in the right part of London, found a suitable candidate, sent for the pdf of the birth certificate and, sure enough, he was born to the right mother, registered as “George Simpson” and born at the home address where his mother lived at the time of her marriage. But the father was named as “George Simpson, Railway Clerk” and so is still pretty much a mystery. I felt quite proud to have made such a discovery that the family had never found out – my husband’s father, one uncle and a couple of cousins have spent years looking into the family history!

    On my side, my father was Swiss, which makes research more difficult although happily he was from a part of Switzerland that does have church records online. The only problem was trying to read the Germanic script! But my late Swiss uncle, his brother, did do quite a bit of research which he’s passed on to my cousin. Also, on my mum’s side a lot of the Durham church records are available online which is helpful.

    I must have spent a fortune on various genealogy websites, newspaper archives etc, because quite often some records aren’t available on others. Even last night I forked out yet again for a subscription to Findmypast because I noticed that they had church records from Wales.

    I’ve made several small private trees on Ancestry to follow up DNA matches and other possibilities. One was based on my husband’s grandfather’s name, the one without the birth certificate – as there were some potential clues. It transpired that the man I picked as the ‘home person’ married into a large musical family and had several sisters-in-law, many of whom became actors/actresses or music hall artists, some know to be associated with my husband’s great grandfather. I had reached a dead end with one of these women but in the Welsh church records of the marriage, I found that she and her husband were also ‘actors’. Trouble is, they ‘disappeared’ after that, presumably using their acting names.

    Other benefits of the DNA tests have been finding distant cousins – we now have a 4th cousin twice removed of my husband who we’ve met several times now and she’s particularly pleased as she doesn’t have any other family, other than an estranged daughter. I’ve also met up with a 4th cousin who lives reasonably close to us and made contact with another 4th cousin with the same common ancestors who has been able to pass on information from her own research gleaned from visiting various part of the ‘North’. It’s such fun!!

    Btw, I lived in Winchester for several years and sang in the cathedral in the local choral societies. A couple of my children still live there – one is a chef at the Open House Deli, if you’re ever there again – very tasty food!!


  3. anglosvizzera says:

    PS – I meant to also say how exciting it must have been for you to be able to find out about your own ‘family’ connections and have been able to see important places in person!!

    As for Blanche Eliza, might she have remarried?

    I find I have to use a combination of sites to be able to get more information: Ancestry, FamilySearch (free for my purposes), Findmypast, the GRO birth/death search facility (free – and good for finding the mother’s maiden name), the free BMD site (good for searching by first name only or for potential marriages using only surnames), British newspaper archive, Australian newpaper archives (free), the Welsh newspaper archives (free), MyHeritage (which I don’t particularly like – too ‘clunky’ and offers matches that aren’t good quality). I’m constantly flitting from one to another as often things pop up on one that don’t on Ancestry – but then I can make a more precise search on Ancestry to find the record (although occasionally it appears to be missing.)

    I also have to confess to using Facebook, Instagram, 192.com etc to try and find clues of our DNA matches in order to construct or add them to a family tree. It’s amazing what you can find out about people if they leave their photos etc public…feel like stalker sometimes!


    1. It really is totally addictive, isn’t it!! I might do some future posts about some of my ‘skeletons’…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Lateron says:

    How did Peter Atkinson and Blanche Pitcairn meet? Probably because of the family connections that appear to have existed well before they got married. Perhaps also because of old fashioned match-making? Consider the following connections and associations between the various parties mentioned.

    1. It would seem that Peter Righton Atkinson had been a student at Christs College, Bishopsbourne, southwest of Launceston – which initially operated 1846-1856. [‘Examiner’ 8 Feb 1904, “Church of England in Tasmania”]. Peter’s time here would have been brief -he entered Cambridge University at the end of 1851.

    2. Launceston was Blanche Pitcairn’s home town, until she, her rmother Sarah and brothers Thomas and Robert moved to Melbourne after her father’s early death in 1835.

    3. Older brother Thomas also died tragically young, in 1850, and is buried in the Dumaresq family plot at Illawarra, near Longford, south of Launceston. Edward Dumaresq was married to Frances, sister of Sarah Pitcairn and aunt to Blanche.

    4. In 1851, (Peter) Righton Atkinson wrote to Edward Dumaresq – two letters now held in the Tasmanian Library archives. I don’t know the content of the two letters – but the the Atkinson-Dumaresq connection is clear.- and by extension so too is the connection to the Pitcairns.

    5. Perhaps “marrying off” Blanche to someone “back home” was a good option for Sarah Pitcairn, a widow having to support her two remaining children. Not that she was destitute, but she and her children were taken in by her sister and brother in law – Alicia and Henry Jennings.

    My interest is in New Zealand colonial/military history. I’m researching Blanche’s younger brother Robert, who died in March 1869, a victim of the New Zealand wars and buried 45 km from where I live.
    Robert had a daughter – Phoebe, who in 1873 moved to Melbourne to live with her grandmother Sarah. Phoebe’s existence is fairly clear to prove up to 1906, even 1919. After that, just like her aunt Blanche Eliza Atkinson before her, she seemingly vanishes without a trace.

    Here’s to solving problems and clearing mysteries!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That is absolutely bloomin’ amazing. Thank you so much! I thought Peter had perhaps spent time in Tasmania, but couldn’t find any proof. My other theory was that following her husband’s early death, Sarah and the children had come back to the UK (evidenced purely by Sarah being in the UK in 1861 and 1871, and Blanche Eliza’s brother Robert being a witness at her wedding to Peter in 1857). But the ‘Peter goes to Tasmania’ theory has been proved right!! Yay!!
      My next question of course is why did they marry in Manchester? As far as I can see, neither of them had any links to the place, and Peter was based in Rochester in Kent which is a LONG way away, even today (by UK standards anyway).
      Thanks again!!


  5. Lateron says:

    One more thing. According to David Nash Ford’s “Royal Berkshire History”, Peter Atkinson married Geraldine Marion de Gaja in 1868.
    Her father, Gen. Chevalier Victor Marion de Gaja of Pau, southern France, later lived with Peter and Geraldine, until his death in January 1875 at East Hendred.
    Refer to: http://www.berkshirehistory.com/bios//vmdegaja.html.
    Would love to know where the marriage date comes from…some other commentaries say 1870.


  6. Thanks for the link! I visited East Hendred on my way home from my road trip, as it wasn’t far out of my way. A lovely little English village, with thatched cottages – the church was open so I went in and found Peter’s name on the roll of clergy.

    I still haven’t been able to find out when ‘my’ Blanche Eliza died – but I’m enjoying finding out everything else!!


  7. Lateron says:

    Quick question for you: why is there no reference to Blanche Isabella Atkinson in the England & Wales Civil Registration Birth Index 1837-1915??? I certainly can”t find any.
    Which begs the question: was she even born in England – despite whats recorded in the census records? And if her birth is not in this index…could that be a reason why her mother’s supposed death is also not in English records? Could the answers lie in Ireland…where Sarah Pitcairn nee Legge came from?
    Following up earlier posts:
    1. Re the re-marriage of Peter to Geraldine, the date of 1868 has been tracked down to a book published in 1914 (only 46 years after the event): Prisoners of War in Britain 1756 to 1815…written by Francis Abell, published by Oxford University Press. Victor De Marion Gaja had been a POW in Wantage…Berkshire.One might imagine the marriage took place in de Gaja’s home town of Pau?
    2. Pitcairn’s move to Melbourne, Victoria would have been in late 1849 along with the Jennings family. I would guess Thomas (Jr) stayed behind to work in Tasmania. Certainly no coincidence that the Jennings home at Entally was on the road to Bishopsbourne…


    1. There are so many questions with this lot!! I also can’t find her in 1901 or 1911 despite her being on the electoral register regularly over that period. I wondered if she might have been married for a while – but I can’t find a marriage record either!!!


  8. Lateron says:

    Think we’re getting warm! If you’re not signed up to the British Newspaper Archive, it may pay to do so!

    From the BNA: Bicester Herald (Bicester, Oxfordshire); 25 January 1867, page 2, Births is this entry. “January 9, at Pau, Basses Pyrenees, the wife of the Rev Peter Righton Atkinson B.A. rector of Pusey, Berks, of a daughter.”
    Did not see this one coming! Blanche Isabella must have had a baby sister! Need to confirm that mother and child probably died in France. Somewhere In the middle of all this, Peter met Geraldine de Gaja in her own home town…and the rest was history.
    Looks like some more browsing in the BNA is required!


  9. Amazing!!! Yes, this is all starting to make sense now!! Thank you so much!! *heads off to BNA…*


    1. Lateron says:

      I will let you have the pleasure of finding the answers you have been looking for!
      They are there to be found in the BN Archives. Two hints: 1868, Oxford Journal. Cheers! Now I hope to prove the theory I have for Blanche’s niece Phoebe!


      1. Haha!! Thanks!! I’m on the case.


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