Wot No German DNA?

Last week I got my DNA results back from Ancestry.com. I’ve been doing document-based genealogy for 30+ years but I’m unfashionably late to the party with DNA testing. Unlike most of my American friends, whose DNA would be a colourful and exciting melting pot, I was fully expecting mine to be primarily English and quite boring.  However, I was hoping to see some evidence of my German ancestry. 

My paternal grandmother Delia Munday Raby was born ‘out of wedlock’ between the two wars, and all she knew of her father – Walter Emmanuel Raby – was that he lived in Ontario, Canada and was German. A decade ago, we were able to trace his family. We found that Walter and his parents were actually born in Ontario, and his father Charles Raby’s parents were born in England. However, Walter’s mother Mary Ann Bonn was born to German immigrants Herman & Julian Bonn. The English Rabys shared a house with the Bonns, so Walter’s parents grew up together(!) in a German household in one of the most German areas of Ontario. No doubt Walter, a 2nd generation Canadian, still had a strong German identity. 

Herman had come to Ontario in the 1850s as a child with his parents Herman and Anna Bonn, who had a whopping 17 children! Thanks to other descendants’ research I have the details of many lines in several German regions going back to the 1600s. I’ve been able to connect with a historian from one village in Hesse, called Obergleen, where my 5x great grandfather signed an important document in support of an imprisoned hero of the German revolution. Obergleeners are nicknamed ‘dumpling bags’, which my husband says ‘explains a lot’.

Although my granny never knew her father (and never wanted to), I’m proud of my links to Ontario and Germany, and thought that my Germanic roots would show up in my ethnicity results. But in fact, I have ZERO connection to Germanic regions! Instead, I have 95% England, Wales & Northern Europe, and 5% Norway & Iceland. So why is there no German DNA?

Could it be that Walter wasn’t actually my granny’s father? No – I have two strong cousin matches with Walter’s family that make it highly likely he was.

But interestingly, one of those cousins (Walter’s 1st cousin and a grandchild of Mary Ann Bonn) doesn’t have any German DNA in her ethnicity report either! So could it be that Mary Ann Bonn wasn’t in fact a biological child of Hermann & Mary Ann? It’s possible, but another explanation is simply that not enough distinctly German DNA has been passed down to her descendants.

Firstly, German DNA is not that different from English DNA! What we think of as national identities are really quite recent inventions; Germany has only been a unified country since 1848. In fact, the populations of modern England and Germany are very much an ‘ad-mixture’ of numerous tribes, some of whom were ‘Germanic’, some Scandinavian, Celtic, and so on. MyHeritage has a blog post on this topic. Nevertheless, since my German ancestors came from all over today’s Germany, it surprises me that none of them passed on any DNA to me that Ancestry has categorised as being from ‘Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium & Luxembourg’.

Secondly, the absence of German DNA could be explained by the random reality of inheritance. Mary Ann Bonn, my 2x great grandmother is my closest full ‘German’ ancestor (born in Ontario to two German-born parents). She is one of my 16 2x great grandparents, so if we received the same sized portion of DNA from each direct ancestor in one generation, I would have about 6.25% from Mary Ann. However, DNA inheritance does not actually work this way, and it’s actually possible to inherit more or less than the average from each ancestor. Ancestry explains this in ‘Unexpected Ethnicity Results‘ (they also point out that ‘DNA of neighboring regions often looks very similar’ and acknowledge that ‘ethnicity estimation is still a work in progress.’ It’s not unusual to not see ethnicity from 4 generations ago. Still, it’s odd that Mary Ann’s granddaughter didn’t have any German ethnicity either.

Does the lack of German ethnicity in my DNA results mean I didn’t inherit any DNA at all from Mary Ann or her forebears? According to one geneticist, the likelihood that we inherit some DNA from even a 3x great grandparent is ‘close to 100%’, so I probably do have some of Mary Ann’s DNA. Maybe with more markers tested (or my whole genome!) some German DNA would be revealed, though it may simply be too fragmented.

So, probably some DNA from Mary Ann Bonn has come to me. However, I simply can’t prove that Mary Ann was the biological daughter of Herman and Julian Bonn and that she had German ancestors.

So, should I relinquish my (already quite over-stated) claim to be ‘a bit German’?! No, I think I’ll hang on to that interesting story for now! At the very least, I feel I am an honorary Dumpling Bag!

Featured Image: My Ethnicity Estimate – other regions tested – from ancestry.co.uk

Christmas Cheer in the Workhouse

Workhouses have a reputation for cruelty and despair. After watching the BBC’s edgy new production of a Christmas Carol yesterday, and the (not at all edgy) Muppet version today, I’ve been reminded of Scrooge’s famous commentary on the workhouses; his appalling lack of empathy for the poor still resonates in 2019:

“At this festive season of the year, Mr Scrooge, … it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”
“Are there no prisons?”
“Plenty of prisons…”
“And the Union workhouses.” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”
“Both very busy, sir…”
“Those who are badly off must go there.”
“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”
“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

So I was surprised to come across this newspaper article from about a Victorian Christmas dinner at Knaresborough Workhouse:

‘Christmas Day was celebrated at the Union Workhouses, Knaresbro’, in the usual manner; the inmates being entertained to a Christmas dinner consisting of roast beef, plum pudding &c. After dinner each person was presented to a small sum of money subscribed for by the ex-officio and elected members of the Board of Guardians. On Christmas Eve the inmates had a “Christmas tea;” after which the children were congregated in the dining hall and gifts, consisting of toys, dolls, bags of marbles, small Santa Slaus stockings, mufflers, mittens and other useful articles … were much appreciated by the delightful children. … The recipients showed their appreciation of these gifts by their hearty cheering.’
Knaresborough Post, 29 December 1888

Was this a one-off? A search for ‘workhouse Christmas’ in the British Newspaper Archives revealed other similar stories, such as ‘Workhouse Christmas Cheer’ at Ashton-Under-Lyne Workhouse – when a local grocer donated ‘a quantity of figs to the children’  on Christmas Day, and ‘also presented 12lbs. of nuts, 13lbs. of apples, 138 oranges, and a Christmas Tree stocked with a variety of things for the amusement of the little ones.’ (The Ashton Weekly Reporter, 26 December 1868). ​In London, inmates of the workhouses at St Luke’s, Chelsea, St George Hanover Square, and Kensington all enjoyed a Christmas dinner in 1859, including roast beef, plum pudding, tea and porter. At St George they were also given two days of holiday. At Kensington, a Greek merchant donated a large gift of currants. (West Middlesex Advertiser and Family Journal, 31 December 1859). 

The huge amounts of food donated to the poor were news-worthy, so that on 1 Jan 1876, readers of the Norfolk News could have been wowed by the 1540lb. of beef distributed in St Pancras, where ‘the male inmates must be terrible smokers, and the women snuff-takers, for tobacco figures at 48lb. and snuff at 20lb, and gob-smacked by the ingredients of Marylebone’s plum pudding: 400 lb. flour, 300 lb. suet, 400 lb. currants and raisins, 150lb. sugar, 700 eggs, 10 gallons of ale, 10 lb. ginger and other spices, and 40 lb. candied peel! 

​​No doubt, giving to the poor was a good PR exercise, and often done as publically as possible. One anonymous letter-writer to the Shields Daily News on 23 December 1890 had this to say:

‘Sir.- Much has been discussed at various times respecting the “appendages” at the Workhouse Christmas Dinner. There are some “appendages,” however, which I think could well be dispensed with. I refer to those which are usually described in the newspapers as the “Guardians and their friends,” who assemble at the dining hour, to watch the inmates do away with what has been provided for them. Now, it does not follow, because a person wears a pauper’s uniform he is devoid of feeling, and I have no doubt that many of the poor people would feel more comfortable, and enjoy themselves better if “the friends” were only “present in the spirit.” … It seems to be quite the rage now, at all charity dinners, teas, etc., for a large portion of the public to assemble, in order to see (as the menagerie man would put it) the “lions feed.”‘

Whatever the motivation for the charity, it has made me smile to know that for some workhouse inmates at least, Christmas brought a little bit of comfort and joy.

Featured Image: plum pudding Christmas card from https://olddesignshop.com/2016/12/victorian-boy-plum-pudding-postcard/

Queen Alexandra, a Progressive Police Orphanage & a Royal Affair

Last year my daughter found an algae-covered claypipe bowl head in the Letcombe Brook in Wantage. We cleaned it up and I realised it was the lovely face of Queen Alexandra (Alexandra of Denmark), who had visited Wantage in 1877 when she was Princess of Wales (a title she held for 38 years until the death of Queen Victoria). With her husband, King Edward VII, she reigned from 1901-1910. 

My family has two connections to King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra – via a nephew and niece of my husband’s 2x great grandfather – Alfred George Read and Harriet Knights.

In 1874, Alfred Read Sr., a Constable with the Metropolitan Police, died of TB at just 32 leaving behind his widow Thirsa and little Alfred George, aged about 4. From 1883, when an officer died or was severely disabled, his wife would receive a compassionate allowance to assist in supporting their children. Unfortunately, Constable Read died several years before this fund was available. However, in 1870 the Metropolitan & City Police Orphanage had been established with Queen Victoria as its Patron, and 5-year-old Alfred George entered the orphanage in 1875 fifteen months after his father had died.

A few years ago I was thrilled to receive copies of the orphanage’s annual reports and school reports from the orphanage archives. They make for fascinating reading and really help illustrate what life was like for Alfred in this pioneering institution.

Annual Report from the Metropolitan & City Police Orphanage 1881, with thanks to the Metropolitan & City Police Orphans Fund
Could one of these boys be Alfred George Read?

In fact, as the records show, Alfred was not an orphan when he entered the orphanage; his mother was still alive, and this was the case for the majority of ‘orphans’ in the orphanage, many of whom returned home during holidays. I don’t know why Thirsa was unable to continue caring for her son, but it must have been a painful decision for her. I also don’t know if they continued to be in contact with each other; in fact, I have no idea what became of Thirsa (bonus points for anyone who can track her down!). However, I know from the orphanage records that Alfred was raised in a kind and caring and enriching environment.

Far from the awful Victorian orphanages conjured up by Oliver Twist, the Police Orphanage was acknowledged to be one of the best in the country, even in the world. Education started in the infant school and continued in the boys’ and girls’ schools. Both boys and girls were educated in reading, writing, arithmatic, and bible history. Boys’ subjects also included history and geography, while girls also learned needlework, knitting and other aspects of domestic economy. All children had physical education, including military drills and swimming for the boys (a swimming pool was built in the basement in 1878!). During Alfred’s time there, more subjects became available, including the addition of geography and grammar for girls, and drawing and science for boys. Music was also a very strong feature of their education; all children sang regularly and the boys also played instruments. The school band even gave public performances at Alexander Palace!

Older boys took part in the Fire Brigade (training exercises rather than actual firefighting) and received garden plots to work on, while older girls had to take turns with housework or laundry. The division of labour and activities grates on my 2020 sensibilities; however, girls had far greater opportunities here than almost anywhere else in the period, and these activities helped prepare children for realistic work opportunities when they had to leave the orphanage at age 14. The orphanage actively helped procure positions for its young people.

The children also received health and dental care. Infectious diseases sometimes struck, as they did everywhere. However, the spread of infection was low due to ‘isolation and care’. Notably, deaths were rare; in 1880, 182 children received medical treatment but only one died. Nevertheless, many children at the orphanage suffered from chronic health problems, especially respiratory conditions – it was stated that ‘many of the children inherit the weakness of their deceased parents.’ In 1881, the orphanage’s medical officer Dr. Leeson expressed his hope that a new system of warming and proposed schoolroom would produce ‘better statistics’.

Efforts were also made to accommodate individual needs. For example, all children attended church services on Sunday, and in 1880, the 17 Catholic children in the orphanage were able to attend Catholic Mass in Richmond. The orphanage was looking into using an omnibus to make the journey easier for them.

Most heart-warming of all to read, the children enjoyed a play-room, playground, library, and a wide array of sports and entertaining activities throughout the year. In October & November 1882, 12-year-old Alfred could have enjoyed watching or singing in several concerts, free admission to Sanger’s circus (pitched in a field near the Orphanage), Magic Lantern entertainment, attendance at the marriage of the Chairman, a trip to the zoo, and a lecture on bees. Then, in December, a ‘Christmas Tree, ‘presented by Sir John Lubbock, Bart., M.P., to the children remaining at the Orphanage during the holidays, was lighted and hung with toys’.

Excerpt from the 1882 Annual Report of the Metropolitan & City Police Orphanage, with thanks to the Metropolitan & City Police Orphans Fund

In September 1882, the Prince & Princess of Wales, Edward and Alexandra, came to open a new wing, at first named the ‘Prince of Wales Wing.’ The visit was widely reported in newspapers. When the royal carriage arrived at the orphanage, it was greeted by a ‘handsome marquee’ seating 1,200 people. The very front seats were occupied by the orphans – 246 boys and girls wearing blue rosettes and ribbons with silver ornaments and Prince of Wales’s feathers ‘who looked the very picture of health and happiness’. The Royal Party visited an exhibition in the new wing – of crafts and art made by policemen, including watercolours of scenes of notorious crimes (!), as well as woodwork, penmanship, and even knitting! The children sang ‘God bless the Prince of Wales’, and after a speech by the Prince, Princess Alexandra handed out prizes to the children, depicted in the picture below.

The Princess of Wales gifting prizes at the Metropolitan and City Police Orphanage, Twickenham
Illustrated London News, 15 July 1882 

Alfred George Read left the orphanage in about 1883-4. In his final school report he was placed 10 in the school in order of merit, and ranked ‘excellent’ in both conduct and industry. He was then apprenticed as a coppersmith in Southampton. Between 1901 and 1910 he settled on Ireland Island, Bermuda! He continued to work as a coppersmith and was a member of the Freemasons. I haven’t yet traced him after that date (I might need to take a trip to Bermuda …)

The orphanage closed in 1930 but the Metropolitan & City Police Orphans Fund has continued its work to the present day, supporting hundreds of children annually. Its current patron is Prince William, Duke of Cambridge. This year marks its 150th year.

Like Diana, Princess of Wales, Princess Alexandra was very popular with the public and was known for acts of kindness towards society’s outsiders. For example, she visited John Merrick AKA The Elephant Man and sent him Christmas cards for many years. Her husband, however, was a notorious womaniser. Which leads to our second connection …

Harriet Knights supposedly worked as a nurse for Sir Frederick Treves, another ally of the Elephant Man. Treves was the royal family’s doctor, and Harriet became, according to family lore, nurse to King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, and attended to Edward during his famed appendectomy in 1902. Much more juicily, Harriet also reputedly fell pregnant by the King or another royal, who then financed her move to America, where their child became a silent movie actress! Tracing Harriet’s story has been truly tantalising. I do know that she had two illegitimate daughters between about 1895 and 1900 and that they did go to America, where the daughters became a dance teacher and dancer. Harriet returned to England before WW2, in time to watch George V’s coronation parade from her apartment rooftop in central London. She died in 1945 and her ashes were interred in Kensington. 

Find out more about Harriet’s intriguing story.

Photograph of Princess Alexandra by Alexander Bassano, 1881, Source: Wikipedia

I’m a British Library reader! And you can be one too!

This week I became a reader at the British Library, and I want to tell you the steps I went through (spoilers: it was easy!)

A friend suggested meeting at the British Library to see the Buddhism exhibition. Great, said I (since I had heard really good things about it) but would you mind if I also tried to view a document while I’m there? Being a very nice friend, he said that would be quite alright with him. 

The British Library is the national library of the UK and has over 170 million artefacts in its London and Yorkshire archives. They add 3M more items every year! It houses millions of books, of course, and other printed media, but also sound recordings, maps, digital pubs, stamps, music manuscripts and much more. Useful resources for family historians include records from British families in India, published genealogies, letters and diaries.

The document I hoped to see is a 1904 letter from President Roosevelt, which had been donated to the British Museum in memory of my ancestor in the 1930s. The story behind this is really intriguing, but I’ll save that for another post. Because this post is all about ACCESS. (And because I want to entice you back to my blog soon …)

We arrived at the library at around 11.15 am on a Monday and went straight to the main library visitor reception desk to find out how I, a commoner, could view a document in the collection. To start, I needed to register as a reader. And all I would need to register were a couple of forms of ID – which could include my driver’s license and a credit card. “Shall we do this?” I asked my friend. He claimed to be genuinely interested to go behind the scenes, and I was happy to take his word for it, so we headed upstairs to register. There were a few people ahead of me in the queue to the registration front desk. The man on the front desk checked I had ID, asked about the nature of my enquiry, and then pointed me to a computer where I could start my registration. After filling in a few fields I received a number and was advised to take a seat. About 10 mins later my number was called. I showed my ID, briefly explained my area of research, and had a photo taken. Within a couple of minutes I had my reader card! Next, she told me, I should go to the Rare Books & Music room. My quest had begun!  

The security person in the entrance of the Rare Books room gave me rather dour instructions to rid myself of my coat and bag – and my friend – before entering. I was grateful to my friend for immediately leaving with my stuff, allowing me to enter the inner sanctum. Thankfully, every other staff member I encountered couldn’t have been more helpful and unstuffy. A librarian in the Rare Books room walked me through creating an online account and submitting a request for my document. I had been told earlier that the document could take anything from 1-48 hours to be delivered, depending on its location. But I was in luck! It would be ready for me in the Manuscripts Reading Room in about 70 minutes. 

This was a perfect time to go to the exhibition – which was excellent. And then we grabbed some lunch (amazing Earl Grey cake surrounded by shelves of books = heaven!).  

Finally, I was ready to go to the Manuscripts Room. My letter was waiting for me, within a large book of assorted letters from different eras. I wasn’t permitted to photograph it, and I didn’t have a notepad, but I did have a pencil and my exhibition programme – good enough for a quick transcription. It was pretty thrilling to touch a letter hand-signed by President Roosevelt. But what I was really hoping for was any documentation that came with it. Sadly, the letter had no provenance materials, but I spoke to a librarian and he said I should email the archivist. So that’s what I have done (to be continued …)

It was really inspiring to discover that this incredible and hallowed institution is so welcoming and that the items it holds aren’t kept hidden away, but are made available quickly and easily to regular people like me. And you!

Image credit: https://www.bl.uk/press-releases/2015/july/british-library-receives-highest-listed-building-status?inViewer=imgIDbb06fe43-6a16-4aa7-8e0d-b292a3794b9e

Welcome to my blog!

Hi! I’m Clare and I love genealogy, social history, and writing.

Born in England, I moved to California in 2001 and stayed there for 16 years. I loved life in California but I always missed old buildings and graveyards! Since I returned to the UK in 2017 I’ve been spending as much time as possible ‘digging up’ long-dead ancestors! I can also be found occasionally on the Thames foreshore doing a bit of mudlarking – looking for everyday treasures in the layers of centuries past.

My blog name is definitely a bit irreverent, but it comes from my passion about bringing back the stories of ‘ordinary’ people whose lives have not been recorded and remembered. I find as I dig into the past that everyone has a story, and I really believe that EVERY life is EXTRAORDINARY.

I hope you will enjoy the stories and tips I share. Please do follow on Twitter and Instagram @digupyourancestors.