Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Regency Relatives or Early Eastenders

For many years I’ve had a passing interest in researching my family history, but generally hadn’t pursued this further than the last couple of generations of folk who were within someone’s living memory, not least because with a bunch of very commonly named folk, many of whom were manual (particularly farm) labourers, I didn’t think there’d be much recorded about them.

But, of course, it’s so much easier to research now that so many records are available online and, since communicating with other family members (some for the first time) who are researching their parts of the story, since my mother died in 2011, I’ve been unearthing all sorts of records I didn’t think I’d ever encounter and the further I go back, the more fascinating and magical it becomes.

I’m particularly interested in my mother’s father, because now two of us, separately, believe him to have been Jewish (from his mother’s line), but while the circumstantial evidence is pretty great for having at least some Jewish blood, I’ve yet to prove it conclusively. When the 1911 Census records were first made available online, I’d acquired copies of the records relevant to both my maternal grandparents, who were children at the time, but got no further with my grandfather as searches had come up fruitless.

Throughout her life, my mother had been most pedantic that her maiden name was spelled Sweeney “with three Es.” Of course it should have occurred to me earlier to ignore that and, lo and behold, I find that most of the records from 1901 backwards are listed with the spelling of Sweney, sometimes Sweeny and even Swaney.

Hence, by trying various spellings – but always double checking other details, such as dates, ages and other family members listed together, via the various census records, I’ve now got as far back as one John Swaney (as he’s listed in the 1841 Census) born 1809, who by the time he died, in Poplar, in 1892, was John Sweeney, even though his son and grandson were often listed with alternative spellings.

St Leonard's, Shoreditch
On 11 Jun 1832, in Shoreditch at the church of St Leonard (often known simply as Shoreditch Church - this is the church mentioned in the line "When I grow rich, say the bells of Shoreditch" from the nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons), this John Sweeney married Anne Elizabeth Gabbeday (sometimes Ann Gabbedy, later Ann Sweeny by the time she died, in Whitechapel, in 1855), who was baptised at St Anne, Limehouse on 14 Apr 1811. She was the daughter of John & Isabella Gabbeday (nee Cleghorn).

John & Isabella sound like names you’d find in a Jane Austen novel of the period (indeed, Emma’s sister and brother-in-law are John & Isabella), while the surname of Gabbeday wouldn’t be at all out of place in a Dickensian novel, me thinks.

1811 dance dress
Going back to John and Ann Sweeney … they had a son, also John Sweeney. His son was named Job and he, Job Sweeney also had a son, Job Thomas Sweeney, who was my grandfather. Thus, by my calculations, Anne Elizabeth Gabbeday was therefore my Great-Great-Great-Grandmother. And the origin of the surname Gabbeday, I'm told, is Jewish.

To put these ancestors into their historical context:
See: Timeline of the formal Regency

Limehouse terrace
In 1841 John and Ann Sweeney were living in Stepney, by 1851, they had moved to Mile End and in 1861 the family, minus Anne who had died in 1855, had moved back to her native Limehouse, but they never stray outside of the area of Tower Hamlets, the main area of the East End of London; an area famous for very poor people and successive influxes of foreign immigrants - in particular Irish weavers and Ashkenazi Jews.
(Left) Early Georgian terrace and Grapes pub in Narrow Street, Limehouse, Tower Hamlets. These would have been familiar surroundings to John and Ann Sweeney, (minus the cars, of course.) Whatever would they make of it now, I wonder?

It’s difficult to gauge what my ancestors must have been like, although I doubt they were of Austen-like gentility. One imagines scenes more in common with William Hogarth's depiction of London vice, Gin Lane (1751).
By the 19th Century … “The 'Society for the Suppression of Vice' estimated that between the Houndsditch, Whitechapel and Ratcliffe area there were 1803 prostitutes; and between Mile End, Shadwell and Blackwall 963 women in the trade. They were often victims of circumstance, there being no welfare state [1] and a high mortality rate amongst the inhabitants that left wives and daughters destitute, with no other means of income.”
[1] (Much like things are becoming once again then!)

Knowing that much of my family came from the East End, I’d previously assumed that they were ‘umble, working class oiks. John Sweeney, however, had his occupation listed as a carpenter and his neighbour was a cabinet maker. So these were people with skills and a trade for which they had, presumably, served an apprenticeship and would therefore have been a smidgen further up the class ladder and, hopefully, not have been starving.