In the beginning…

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.

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.

How it began

Compilation of old photographs

My interest in researching our family history began in the early 2000s with the stories I remembered my grandmother telling me about my her mother, Ellen Wilson Hemingway. My grandmother had told me: “Ellen was a mannequin – who had been disowned by her family. She had a servant and was driven about in a carriage”. My grandmother also said that her family had been wealthy mill owners, but didn’t specify which branch of the family, so I didn’t have much to go on more than 30 years after my grandmother’s death.

What I found, in fact, was that, although Ellen was known as the daughter of John Wilson, she actually began life as Ellen Fozzard. She 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” when she married…maybe her illegitimacy is the origin of the theory that she was disowned, or that her mother was. The 1851 Census shows that Ellen’s parents did have a servant living with them, so maybe they had a small carriage too!

I then tried to find the mill owners of the family. Possible connections with the mill-owning Fozzards of Dewsbury and Batley, which I initially pursued, led nowhere. Ellen’s Fozzard ancestors were stonemasons of Woodkirk (situated between Batley and Wakefield). Ellen’s father/stepfather was named John Wilson. His family were woollen manufacturers (hence the mill owning link?) but no link to multiple mill ownership was found there. At last I found that it was Ellen’s husband, Herbert Hemingway, a textile engineer, who came from a long line of blanket manufacturers and mill owners based in Earlsheaton, the village just outside Dewsbury where I grew up. The Hemingways go back to the 15th Century in the Halifax area and came to Dewsbury in the 16th Century. Their story can be read here.

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 my grandmother’s family was associated with the fishing industry at Fleetwood. My cousin remembered that too, but this lead has not proved fruitful so far.

Like all family stories there were things that I found to be true and other things perhaps exaggerated or attributed to the wrong person or impossible to confirm. 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…fortunately Harry has grand-daughters so I was able to pass the information to them.

Eleven seamen died “from illness” aboard HMS Europa, between 14 Nov and 23 Dec 1918, including Harry MacDonald, who died on 6th December, aged 30. 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.

HMS Europa at Mudros Harbour in WW1

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.

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