Illegitimacy is almost certainly a part of every family
When I first took an atDNA test with Ancestry, it was partly out of curiosity to see if I could integrate it in any way with my nearly forty years of paper research. Little did I suspect that it would solve a 170-year-old mystery within a matter of a few days of receiving the results. With hindsight, most of the clues were in plain sight, but they were easily misinterpreted, dismissed or did not provide a consistent story, until a strand of my DNA tied them altogether in a cohesive way.
My family history is not short of mysteries, as I have often blogged on my various research pages. More than half a dozen of my direct ancestors (3x great or 4x great grandparents) are recognised as being illegitimate. This probably represents about 10% of my genetics. It is also about the historical average of estimates for illegitimacy in the artisan and working classes of England. In uneducated rural families illegitimate offspring were often raised as part of the family and the elder child sometimes born ahead of their mother’s marriage, raising questions of paternity.
The VENESS mystery
Upon marriage in 1868, my great great grandmother Elizabeth VENESS had no father declared on her marriage certificate, suggesting her illegitimacy. There were no birth record or baptism, both of which supported her status. She remained unknown for more than 30 years of research. On one census she appeared to be the recognised daughter of one John SMITH from Lincolnshire, but that didn’t appear to make any sense. It wasn’t helped, unknown at the time, that John was then living with his 2nd common-law wife, Ann, who was no relation at all to Elizabeth. Who was this mysterious John SMITH? The search was to reveal a complex family history of interchanging family names and common-law relationships, which can only be partially summarised here.
The French Connection
The surname VENESS likely comes from the Norman French, a habitational name from Venoix, near Caen in Calvados, i.e. De Venoix or Devenoix. The focus of the surname is in the SE of England, commensurate with some family tales there of Huguenot immigrants escaping persecution. Nicholas de VENOIX and two brothers left Normandy and reported as arriving in England by rowing boat at Rye in Sussex, in the late 1570’s.
Revisiting a Cold Case
In 2017, I started researching all V*N*S family records in the West Midlands in detail, in the hope that a small clue may result. Not only did they all seem to be related to the same family, but the breakthrough came from an unexpected direction, as many of the protagonists made tracing extremely difficult, through absence in records, illegitimacy, common-law relationships or the flexible use of surnames.
Through my maternal SANDERS family a ROTHERO / PARTRIDGE family connection has always been identified but never clarified. With hindsight, we can thank the precise nature of the records from two census entries in 1901 & 1911 for William Henry ROTHERO (1884), “cousin”. William was the son of William Henry ROTHERO (1860) and Agnes PARTRIDGE. Agnes sadly died, aged 23, giving birth to her son. In 1891, the young William had been living with his PARTRIDGE grandparents, John & Elizabeth PARTRIDGE, who had only married as “widower & widow” in 1881. Agnes had been the couple’s only known child. Elizabeth turned out to be named Elizabeth VENESS.
The Complicated Life of Elizabeth VENESS, the Elder
Elizabeth VENESS (1825) d/o Samuel & Mary of Worcester, apparently lived an independent lifestyle. She had an illegitimate son in 1848, John Bacon VENESS, by John SMITH. She is recorded as the wife of John SMITH of Lincolnshire in 1851 (although the couple never married) and had four children by him, including my 2x great grandmother Elizabeth VENESS (c1852), their third child. Only John was legally registered or baptised.
Her relationship with John SMITH ceased sometime around 1855, when she returned to Worcester from Birmingham to run her late brother’s glove business, leaving her children in the care of her former lover. There she married widower millwright Benjamin RICHARDSON in 1860. However, this relationship had ended by the 1861 census. Benjamin can be found in the Worcester workhouse as a “widowed” pauper (he died there in 1862), whereas Elizabeth had left Benjamin with nothing and was back in Birmingham, this time living with John PARTRIDGE, a previous neighbour in Worcester (who had abandoned his family for Elizabeth).
The Family Circle Completed
Tracing Elizabeth VENESS (1825) brought the story unexpectedly full circle through Agnes PARTRIDGE, i.e. Agnes & my 2x great grandmother Elizabeth VENESS shared the same mother, i.e. one Elizabeth VENESS, the elder. Additionally, on another census, Charles SMITH, a “visitor”, was identified as the youngest child of the four children of John SMITH & Elizabeth VENESS.
Charles’ marriage certificate is interesting. He also married as VENESS, however unlike his sister Elizabeth’s marriage that gave no father, the place for Charles’ father was unusually completed with the name of his mother instead; a most rare occurrence, as I have not come across this previously. One can only assume an enlightened clergyman for the times, officiating. The entry is correct except for the fact she should have been named RICHARDSON. She was the long-term partner of John PARTRIDGE for ten years by this date, and still a decade away from marrying him.
Who was John SMITH?
The man masquerading as John SMITH had changed his name, shortly after the birth of his son, John Bacon VENESS, to possibly the most common name in England. The reason for the change is unknown, but the family otherwise went by the name of SMITH. However, John did not hide his identity too well. On census, he was true about his place of origin in Lincolnshire, and his first name was correct. His eldest child John Bacon VENESS, in his name upon birth and baptism, provided the clue that he was probably John BACON, even though he was not declared as the father on these records (normal practice for times). On paper there is a matching John BACON of the right age and place in Lincolnshire, even though he took the name SMITH from about 1849 to his grave in Birmingham in 1893.
John Bacon VENESS lived his younger life also as John SMITH but reverted to VENESS in Birmingham for his marriage. All Birmingham VENESS families are descended from John, although he never quite forgot his childhood alias, as his family is recorded as SMITH on a later census.
This story is particularly complicated because over 50 years or more the couple of John & Elizabeth change names, partners, did not usually marry or even register/baptise their children. Equally, their children went by their different surnames too. One might reasonably think that such a trail is almost impossible to follow, however, the clues were there if you kept an open mind. Having a paper trail that appears to prove a story is one thing, but was it all true?
DNA results are in
Thanks to the popularity of atDNA testing, there were more than half a dozen matches on Ancestry to support the story of Elizabeth VENESS & John SMITH. Having a match with a direct VENESS descendant of John Bacon SMITH proved that John and my 2x great grandmother Elizabeth VENESS were full siblings. Moreover, it proved that all Birmingham VENESS families are descendants of John and therefore of BACON blood.
All other results came through John’s sister, Jane BACON, and her many descendants in the US (via her LOUGHLAND family), which proved that John SMITH was John BACON, the 1820 son of Martin BACON and Mary ELLIOTT of Osbournby, Lincolnshire. Case closed.
I created the alter-ego “The Geneal Geologist” for my genealogical research. Sometimes, it turns out that family history really does rock.
Mark Grace, Resident Genealogist, Ballynoe House