In the beginning…

Compilation of old photographs

Hi, I’m Christine Widdall and the author of these pages. I started researching my family history in about 2005 and my first family history web page was just a list of ancestors. As time went on, more and more information became available on-line and I was able to find out about the lives and times of my ancestors…so I began writing up their stories.

Christine Widdall

Now I have become even more fascinated by the area where I was born and am looking at the wider history of the West Riding of Yorkshire. I hope that the pages will be interesting to a broad range of people and not just my actual Kirklees cousins.

My interest in researching our family history began with the stories I remembered my grandmother telling me about my great-grandmother Ellen Wilson Hemingway, who was known as Ellen, daughter of John Wilson, but actually began life as Ellen Fozzard. My grandmother had told me: “She was a mannequin – disowned by her family of wealthy mill owners – her family had a servant and Ellen was driven about in a carriage”.

What I found, in fact, was that Ellen was a dressmaker before her marriage and therefore probably also could be described as a mannequin, as dressmakers would model their samples in those days. Also, she was illegitimate, known by her mother’s married name of Wilson, but Ellen legally still had the surname “Fozzard”, as shown on her marriage certificate…maybe her illegitimacy is the origin of the theory that she was disowned, or that her mother was.

Possible connections with the mill-owning Fozzards of Dewsbury and Batley, which I initially pursued, were not found and may have been assumed, as the name “Fozzard” is not a common one.

Grandma Sheard, Dewsbury, 1916
Ellen’s daughter, my grandmother, Lilian, with sons Eric and Hector in 1916

I also have some vague recollection of being told that Ellen’s family was associated with the fishing industry at Fleetwood. My cousin remembered that too. The Fozzards (her mother’s family) certainly had no obvious connection with the west coast, having come from a family background of stonemasons in West Ardsley, near Wakefield.

Ellen’s father was named John Wilson. His family were woollen manufacturers (hence the mill owning link?).

Ellen’s husband was a textile engineer, the son of a cloth manufacturer and the family did keep a servant, whom I found enumerated on the Dewsbury census. What I also found was that Ellen’s husband, Herbert Hemingway also came from a long line of mill owners and blanket manufacturers based in Earlsheaton, a village just outside Dewsbury. The Hemingways go back to the 15th Century in the Halifax area and came to Dewsbury in the 16th Century.

Like all family stories there were things that I found to be true and other things perhaps exaggerated or attributed to the wrong person. I spent a long time researching the Fozzard and Hemingway families and, by this time, my appetite had been whetted and I became well and truly hooked. It was the beginning of an amazing journey into the past and I am still travelling.

Inset is a photograph of my grandmother Lilian, taken in 1916 with the children of her first marriage to Harry MacDonald – Hector (standing) and Eric (seated), who were my mother’s half-brothers.

I have a great affinity with Lilian; like me, she was widowed early and re-married. Her first husband, Harry, a sailor, died on board ship from pneumonia and my grandmother believed that he was buried at sea. I recently discovered that he died in December 1918, on board aboard HMS Europa in the Dardanelles, “from illness” and he was buried on land in a British cemetery at East Mudros, Lemnos, in the Aegean Sea. When my Gran received news of his death and burial in the “Aegean”, she must have mistakenly assumed he had no physical grave, but that his body had been placed in the water. How sad that she never knew the whole truth. Eleven seamen died between 14 Nov and 23 Dec 1918 from “illness” aboard HMS Europa. At the top of the page recording the deaths is stated: 

THE SPANISH INFLUENZA: The pandemic lasted from approximately July 1918 to April 1919 with a major peak in the UK between September 1918 and January 1919. It can be assumed that the vast majority of illness deaths (aboard naval ships) in these periods were due to the Spanish flu.

Aboard the Europa, there were over 50 on the sick list during July 1918-April 1919, probably all suffering from the Spanish flu. HMS Europa was the flagship at Mudros July 1915 – 1919 and was decommissioned at Malta in March 1920. Purchased by G F Bletto on 15 September 1920 for conversion to an emigrant carrier, the vessel sank in a gale off Corsica in January 1921.

Similarly, my first husband died from haemorrhagic pneumonia, the result of a virus. Both Lilian and I were left with two young children to rear. Both re-married. Like me, she mostly wore purple and also in common was our love of amethysts.

I’ve spent thousands of hours, since 2005, on researching my family. People often ask “how do you know it’s true?” and “where did you find it all?” Well, the simple answer is that I don’t know it all to be true…some links are accepted on the evidence available from rigorous one-name studies and original parish records (much easier when the names are uncommon)…and many more are shown to be true through copies of marriage certificates, wills and other documentation. In many cases, the “truth” is based on a combination of evidence from parish records, census, birth, marriage and death certificates, property deals and wills. Together, they allowed me to piece together the families and build up a picture of my ancestors and their lives.

However, mistakes can be made. The details that are printed in this web site do not contain my research notes, of which I have thousands of pages. Where links are uncertain, that is noted down in my research notes, but of course, in this web site such “unproven” are not identified…so if you find a link that you think is your family, please check it for yourself. When I discover that a link is definitely not viable, I edit the website accordingly, so some changes have been made over the past years. I try to keep the website up to date but I consider the project always to be a “work in progress”.

At some stage I must publish my findings in a family book for my children, grandchildren and beyond, but I am still agonising about the format and content of that and how to make it “palatable”.

If you find errors, please get in touch and let me know…using the form on the contact page.

Earlsheaton
A potted history of the village of Earlsheaton, my Hemingway ancestors' involvement in woollen blanket manufacture there and my own …
Weighing the World – John Michell 1724-1793
The story of John Michell, Rector of Thornhill Parish Church near Dewsbury, who was a member of the Royal Society, …
The Combs Colliery Disaster 4th July 1893
Blake Hall The historic village of Thornhill, near Dewsbury, is situated on a hill on the south side of the …
© Christine Widdall