Nicola here. I’ve been enjoying the current series of “Who Do You Think You Are” the BBC’s genealogy programme, very much. It’s been the usual mix of actors, singers and celebrities, each with a fascinating family history story to tell. Whether they find a royal connection, a shocking secret, a family tragedy or a black sheep ancestor, the subject matter has been very varied and interesting but what makes the programme for me is the response of the people involved. They all seem to have found it thought-provoking and have gone away different people as a result of delving into their history. In some cases it has thrown light on their own family relationships and in many it has made them think about how the lives of previous generations have made them what they are.
By the time I came to research my own family history, various family members had already done practically all the work. Whilst there are plenty of stories of individual personal courage, tragedy and struggle, I have found absolutely nothing scandalous or exciting and no apparent truth in the rumour that my mother’s family is related to the Earls of Halifax. No royalty, no criminals, nothing but solid peasant stock working the land as shepherds and labourers until the industrial revolution brought them into the northern cities. My husband’s family is much more interesting with a couple of pirates and some literary connections thrown in! However, those individual stories of personal struggles are so important because they give an insight into the characters of our ancestors, real, complex people leading real lives.
One of the greatest pleasures I get from working at Ashdown House is meeting people whose ancestors lived or worked there. I learn so much from their stories. It brings the history of a place to life to hear about the person who did the laundry or drove the carriage. Quite often I also get emails about Ashdown from people living abroad who have done some family history research, or heard family stories, and think they may be connected to the Craven family. Sometimes I’m able to help make the connection for them. At other times I can’t find any documentary evidence but nothing daunted they continue the search.
A few weeks ago I heard from a lady in Australia who emailed me about a connection to the branch of the Craven family who had emigrated there in the late Victorian era. I had no idea as I started to look into the story that it would be one of the most fascinating pieces of genealogy research I would ever do. Tracing the family history and connections of the Earls of Craven isn’t generally too difficult as the family was a prominent aristocratic one from the 16th century to the present. The main line of descent of the estates and titles is in all the published peerages and there is a wealth of information about it. However things get trickier when you move away from the main branch of the family and start looking for other descendants, particularly as they were a fecund family!
I couldn’t find this branch of the Craven family in any official publications so had to assume they were distant cousins. I started to work backwards from the emigrant Craven and soon discovered his family living in London in the 19th century. They were described in the censuses as sugar refiners and merchants.
I knew nothing about the 18th and 19th sugar refining trade and it proved absolutely fascinating. The London sugar trade had actually started in the mid-16th century and by the late Georgian period it was booming. As an industry it was notoriously labour intensive, hot, exhausting and dangerous, with its fair share of fires and fatalities, and appalling working conditions. Many hundreds of tons of sugar were manufactured weekly from imported sugar cane. The sugar refineries themselves were often considered to be elegant buildings but the work done inside was anything but. And of course they had a background that was darker still; slave-owners such as the then Lord Craven had vast sugar plantations. Possibly this was one of the reasons his relatives entered the trade.
Naturally the risky side of the business did not impinge on the owners, who profited greatly from the trade. Those members of the Craven family who were in the sugar refining business built themselves very nice houses on the new areas of London where the rich city businessmen were buying land. They were places like Camberwell and Stamford Hill and Hackney, in those days beautiful leafy suburbs of the city. Here is the description of Craven Lodge in Hackney:
“Craven Lodge, at the northern edge of Hackney Common, was the most imposing residence in the area. Dating from the 1820s, it stood on the 70-acre estate surrounded by extensive pleasure grounds laid out in the style of Humphrey Repton and Capability Brown, with lakes, bridges and a folly tower. Remarkably the folly tower survived the break-up of the estate in the 1880s and can still be found at the rear of 130 Clapton Common. Now completely covered in creeper, it is a Grade II listed building.”
I was able to find all the brothers and cousins who were involved in the business and trace them back to the mid-eighteenth century when the first Craven moved from Yorkshire to London to set up his business. There were four cousins who invested in the sugar trade, two of whom oversaw the running of it. Another cousin bought a huge estate in Brighton and a fourth stayed in Yorkshire where he built a big house too!
My final challenge, though, was to discover whether any of these people were actually connected to the Craven Earldom. This proved very difficult once I had traced the family back to the mid-eighteenth century because although I could trace the Earl’s line forward from the 1540s I couldn’t find a connection with the 18th century Cravens. I thought there probably was one as they all originated in the same place in Yorkshire but that I might have had to go back several centuries to discover the actual link and there simply weren’t the documents to prove it.
Then I had a breakthrough. Of the three brothers who founded the Craven “dynasty” I had the detailed descent for two but the third, Anthony, was a mystery, apparently without heirs. Then I stumbled across one document from the 16th century that gave information on Anthony’s children. He had married and his line had continued. And yes – from that line the Craven sugar-refining dynasty was descended. It felt like the most wonderful discovery, like a mystery I had solved!
Since then I have had a renewed interest in discovering my own family tree. I may not find anything as exciting as 19th century sugar refiners but I like the idea of learning about one’s roots and knowing where I come from.
Do you enjoy family history programmes? Have you researched your own family tree and discovered any interesting stories or people? What do you think is the appeal of learning about our ancestors?