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Thursday, 13 September 2018

My Maternal (and Mysterious) Grandmother: 52 Ancestors

MWith this week's "52 Ancestors" prompt, we are asked to look at an ancestor born closest to our birthday. 

share my birthday of September 23rd with my maternal  (and mysterious) grandmother, Alice Danson, nee English (1884-1945). 


This is one of the few photographs of Alice, with copies held by different members of the family.  As she is wearing a corsage, could this have been taken on her wedding day?  Again a question I should have asked my mother.

 "How far back have you got?" is a standard question for family historians, and I am sorry to admit that the search for the early life of  my maternal grandmother  quickly hit the proverbial brick.

Alice died when I was a baby, and my mother and aunt were surprisingly reticent about her early life.  I failed to ask the right questions at the right time, sensed a reluctance to talk about her and I ended up with vague and conflicting information - a classic family history mistake.  It did occur to me that she might well have been illegitimate, but then  her father's name of Henry was given on her marriage certificate.  Was this a fabrication?

Despite many years of hunting and using a professional researcher, I have been unable to trace a birth certificate for Alice to find out the name of her motherQueries on message boards, Facebook pages,  and on my blog have failed to elicit any positive responses, so  decided  that it was time to review my research. 

  • My starting point for research was the marriage certificate - Alice married my grandfather William Danson in April 1907, at St. Chad's Church, Poulton-le-Fylde, Lancashire,   when Alice was 22.  Her father's name was given as Henry, a painter (deceased).
      Alice and William, c.1916
  •  I was always told Alice and I  shared the same birthday - September 23rd. 
  • The family story was that Alice  had moved to Poulton (from Bolton, or was it Manchester?)   as a nursemaid to the Potts family - prominent Methodists whose photographs featured in books on old Poulton, sitting on committees, opening  fetes etc.
  • Alice was confirmed at St. Chad's Church in 1904 - I have the dated prayer book presented to her on that occasion.
  • Alice  died in 1945 so I never knew her.   Her age of 60  on the  death certificate confirms her year of birth as 1884. 
  • A long ago visit  to the then St. Catherine's House, London  failed to find a birth certificate with these details.

  • Early census returns proved no help - I could  not trace her in 1891. In 1901  there was an Alice A. English, born Bolton aged 17, so born c.1884,  living-in domestic servants at Stockport. This could well be my grandmother, but does not help with any more information on her family.

  • I had to wait patiently for the release of the 1911 census to  find her entry  under her married name of Danson, with  her birthplace given as Bolton. Yet even that did not take me further forward as Bolton Registrar had no record of an Alice English that matched. 
  • The Improved search facility for BMD and parochial records online  came up with a number of possibilities but none that tied in with my limited information. So more frustration!    I also have had no luck in tracing  a record for her father Henry English with very little to go on.  The only Henry and Alice found in the census returns lived in Kent, and I traced this Alice's marriage - so no joy there. 

  • A further wait for the release of the 1939 National Register,  where I was pleased to find that Alice's birthday of 23rd September 1884 was confirmed,  but I had hoped for more details on her birthplace and possibly parents - but these did not feature.

I put a query on CuriousFox, the village by village contact site for anyone researching family history, genealogy and local history in the UK and Ireland.  The immediate response was gratifying in number, but not particularly helpful,  apart from one respondent who took on board my query with great enthusiasm and pointed me in certain directions I had not considered.   
  • Look at  Alice's address on her marriage certificate?:   In 1907 she was at  7 Higher Green, Poulton which  appeared to be  a row of cottage,  with no. 7 in 1901 the home of of William Wigan a 36 year old gas stoker with a wife and 6 children - so a crowded household.  Ten years on in the 1911 census,  there was no entry for no. 7. So this approach gave no clues. 
  • Who were Alice's neighbours in 1911?   One interesting factor was her next door neighbour - a Mrs Elizabeth Alice Ronson, also born in Bolton (37 miles away)  and her husband was a house painter (as supposedy Alice's father).    Intriguing!  But no family connection could be found and there was only an 11 year age difference between Elizabeth and Alice.
  • The birth register for Bolton in late 1884 identified four births with the Christian names  of Alice Ann.  Research discounted three, leaving Alice Anne Walch
  • Who was Alice Ann Walch?  She doesn't turn up under that name on any censuses, marriage or death register.

  • Who was her mother? A likely suspect was identified as a Mary Jane Walch who was 19 years old in the 1881 census, a cotton spinner living in Bolton as a boarder with her 6 months old baby Thomas. They were staying with the Lowe family and interestingly there was a daughter Alice A. Lowe aged 5 years old, so born 1876. But Mary cannot be traced thereafter.

    In 1891 Alice Lowe was 15 years old with a large number of lodgers in the household including a William Walch, born Ireland. The plot thickens! Neither this Alice nor William could be identified in the 1901 census.
Confused?  So am I. 

I was very grateful for the way my Curious Fox respondent  had taken up my query   She suggested that perhaps this Mary Walsh had another baby Alice who at some point changed her name from Walch, corrupted to Welsh -
changed to English?

 It is an interesting theory, but I am sceptical.  What do you think?   
More recently I placed a query on the very helpful Facebook page of Genealogy Addicts UK & Worldwide Research Group - again a good response in terms of the interest shown in the mystery,  but nothing positive emerged.  

I later turned to the background of Alice's employers in Poulton - the Potts family. In 1901 they were living in Wales, but their children were born and baptised at the Wesleyan Methodist Church  in Bolton.   So an interesting connection.


Among the family papers was this receipt  paid by Alice on February 26th 1907 for:
Two yards of bodice lining, hooks, silk sundries and bodice making.

Was this her wedding outfit?  It surely must have had sentimental value for it to be kept, and says something about Alie ?  

Whatever the mystery about her past, the impression I gained from my Danson relatives was  of a loving,  loved wife and mother, and a respected member of the Poulton community.  She became known locally as an official midwife and her doctor wanted her to train professionally, but this was not possible.  

Alice with her family, Edith, Kathleen (my mogther), Harry and baby Billy

, 1916.

So my brick wall seems unsurmountable.  Perhaps my mother and aunt were not forthcoming about their mother's past because they just did not know, or were embarrassed at what they found.  This was an era when secrets were "best kept to ourselves". 

 Perhpas it is time to leave my brick wall to stand. 

Based and updated from a post first published in 2012. 


52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks


  1. What a fascinating mystery! Do you think you'll let the brick wall stand?

    1. I doubt it really, as it will always be a major gap in my ancestry, but I have no idea where to turn to next. I would like to feel there is someone out there who reads my blog, recognizes names and gets in touch with some answers.

  2. I've discovered that sometimes we move forward and then have to wait until the next opportunity to move forward again. I hope your wait for new clues is short.

  3. We may not be relatives, but we're almost birthday buds. Mine is the 24th. My cousin's daughter shares my birthday and we're a lot alike, event though we're about 30 years apart in age.

  4. Thank you all for yiur comments. Part of me thinks I have exhausted all possibilities for finding out about Alice’s early life, but you never know, someone might read my blog and it strikes a chord - cue breakthrough! I live in hope!

  5. I feel your frustration. I wonder whether historical societies in the area may have letters or journals from that era? Letters and journals were quite popular, and maybe someone donated something along the way? My great grandma wrote for 12 years and she talked about her neighbors, too. Best of luck!

  6. So frustrating! I hope some new record or person turns up with some additional information that will take you back another generation.


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