Tracing the parentage of a person born illegitimately is one of the biggest challenges for a family historian. The name of the father is often a mystery, both then and now. A child may be unaware of the identity of their father if they were not in their life and perhaps even the mother was uncertain. Deliberate deception, complex relationships and changes in name may also conspire to obscure the true facts of parentage.
The Marriage of Thomas Dicks and Caroline Bower
With the establishment of the General Register Office, from July 1837, the name and occupation of the fathers of both parties were to be recorded on marriage certificates in England and Wales, to the great benefit of family historians. However, it is often the case that these columns were left blank, or a solitary line was drawn through them, when an illegitimate person married. I therefore had a wonderful surprise when I found the marriage record of my 3 x great grandparents, Thomas Dicks and Caroline Bower, who married in Allington, Wiltshire on November 23rd 1843.
Caroline had been born illegitimately but the register contained a lot more information about her parentage than would be expected. Here is the original entry, taken from the Allington parish registers:
William Perkins, a labourer, was named as the father of Caroline Bower but the big surprise was that the name of Caroline’s mother was given, Maria Bower. It was a most extraordinary to find the names of both of the bride’s parents recorded.
The groom, a cordwainer who had been widowed, and the bride, a household servant, were stated to be residents of Newton Tony though the marriage had taken place in the neighbouring parish of Allington. Helpfully, the reason for this was noted in the “Residence at the Time of Marriage” column: “The parish church of Newton Tony was being rebuilt at the time”. This was also why the marriage had taken place by licence, rather than banns.
Newton Tony (also spelt Newton Toney), where Thomas Dicks and Caroline Bower were living at the time of their marriage, is a small parish, remote from the beaten track and situated on the Wiltshire/Hampshire border about nine miles north-east of Salisbury. No main road goes through the village so it is hidden in a hollow, surrounded by trees, amongst the hills of the beautiful Bourne Valley. Indeed, the River Bourne runs through the centre of the village so a number of small bridges cross from one side of the village to the other, essential when the river is in flood. Most of the villagers live in cottages that border the river on either side.
The Rector – Reverend Hugh Price
The church was in the centre of the village and on the hill behind it, reached by a long drive, was the rectory. It was here that the rector of Newton Tony, the Reverend Hugh Price, lived.
The Reverend Price had become the rector of Newton Tony in 1809 and remained in this position until his death in 1853, so he was well-established in his role when he presided over the wedding of Thomas Dicks and Caroline Bower in 1843, assisted by his curate, William Grey, who also signed the register. The extra information in the register had surely been added with the Reverend Price’s blessing. Indeed, was it him who had written out the extra details? Intriguingly, if you look closely at the note concerning the rebuilding of the church in Newton Tony, particularly at the style of the capital “N”, in Newton Tony, it can be seen that a different hand added this detail.
The Marriage Registers of Newton Tony
With the establishment of the General Register Office, a new marriage register, in its preprinted form, was started in July 1837 in Newton Tony. There were strict rules regarding the information that had to be recorded but unlike births and deaths, which were always civil records collected by the local registrar, the procedure for registering marriages was a little different. In the Church of England, copies of entries, taken directly from the parish register, were sent every quarter to the superintendent registrar. This meant that clergymen, such as the Reverend Price, acted as the local registrar.
Since Newton Tony was a small parish, only a few marriages took place each year. An analysis of the registers reveals that between July 1837 and December 1845, there were nineteen weddings in Newton Tony. All of the couples, bar one, were married by Reverend Price and on every single occasion, none other than Thomas Dicks was recorded as a witness. The person who entered the details into the register used the same thick, black pen every time, and looking at the style of the handwriting and the Reverend Price’s signature, it was clear that it was the Reverend Price who had written up the register. Under “Rank or Profession”, Reverend Price sometimes added descriptions such as “Carrier’s daughter”, “Carpenter’s daughter”, or “Farmer’s Widow” if the bride had no specific occupation at the time. He obviously disliked blank spaces!
During this same period there were three marriages where one of the party was recorded as being illegitimate. Joseph Elton and Eliza Olden married on February 6th 1842. In the “Father’s Name and Surname” column for the bride, Reverend Price wrote, “She illegitimate her mother’s name was Kezia Olden now is Kezia Chant”. Two days later, William Bullen and Caroline Zillwood were married. Caroline described as being of “Humble Rank”. There was no information about her father but in the “Rank or Profession of Father” column, Reverend Price wrote “She illegitimate, her Mother’s name was Jane Zillwood is now Jane Lawes“:
Interestingly, when William Newman and Lucy Paine married on December 20 1845, it was the groom who was illegitimate. No information is recorded on either parent but rather than leave both columns blank concerning the father and his occupation, Reverend Price just wrote “Wm Newman is illegitimate”.
By examining the Newton Tony marriage register, it is evident that it was the Reverend Price who had added the supplementary information and indeed, written the marriage entry for Thomas Dicks and Caroline Bower in the Allington register. Further analysis of the registers of both Newton Tony and Allington reveals that it was the curate, William Grey, who had added the detail concerning the rebuilding of the church of Newton Tony.
The Parish Clerk – Thomas Dicks
As noted previously, Thomas Dicks signed his name as a witness to many of the marriages that had taken place in the parish. At the time of his own marriage in 1843, he said he was a cordwainer by profession, a shoemaker. However, he also had another job apart from making shoes: he was the parish clerk of Newton Tony and this is how he is described when Sarah Ann Dicks, my direct ancestor, was baptised in Newton Tony on October 6th 1844, the year after her parents’ marriage.
The note at the top of the register page, written by the Reverend Price, states that “For the Baptisms & Marriages of persons of this parish between the 13th of September 1843, & the 3rd of October 1844, look to the Registers kept in the adjoining parish of Allington, Wilts“.
Indeed, Thomas Dicks was described as a parish clerk on all the subsequent baptisms of his children and his position explains why he was a witness at every marriage performed by the Reverend Price. One of his duties, as parish clerk, was to be present at all baptisms, marriages and burials.
Thomas was obviously a literate man, (otherwise he would never have got the job), and a well-respected member of the community who had a close partnership with the rector. In fact, he was following in the footsteps of his father, Richard Dicks, who had also held the position of parish clerk of Newton Tony until his death in 1812, a few years after the Reverend Price began his tenure in the parish. Typically, a parish clerk would be expected to perform such duties as reading the lessons, leading the singing in church and generally assisting the clergyman in the rituals of the Sunday church service. It was also his responsibility to look after the registers. Some parish clerks even kept a draft register, which was written up afterwards, so perhaps the additional information on the parentage of brides who were born illegitimate was added at Thomas’ instigation. However, the exact duties and the payment a parish clerk would receive for performing them would vary from parish to parish.
Every once in a while, you find a record that contains information that you were not expecting, one that can help to demolish a brick wall. By incredible good fortune, the rector of Newton Tony decided to add extra information in the marriage register when he married my 3 x great grandparents, Thomas Dicks and his new bride Caroline Bower, who had been born illegitimately. Caroline knew the identity of her father but the Reverend Price also thought it was worth adding the name of her mother too, despite this being against the rules and the limitations of the form. This act would have had the full blessing of Caroline’s new husband, Thomas Dicks, the parish clerk, who duly got out his pen and signed his name with a flourish. What an extraordinary record!
I came across a wonderful history of the village written by William Henry Swift, who recalled his boyhood living in the parish in the 1870s, his mother being the housekeeper to the then rector. In his recollections, he remembers the parish clerk, Mr Barnes, who succeeded Thomas Dicks after the latter’s death. Mr Barnes was a tailor, who lived in a large cottage opposite the gate to the rectory. William Swift recalled this humorous anecdote about him:
A Wiltshire Village in the 1870s by William Henry Swift
In church Mr Barnes’ most important duty was to say “Amen” at the end of prayers, and he did this very effectively, in a loud voice, with remarkable emphasis. The result was a real “parson and clerk duet”. He sat just behind me, and so I got the full benefit of his efforts. Towards the close of his life he became rather deaf, and frequently said “Amen” in the wrong place. This rather distressed the rector, because it was apt to cause a fall from reverence on the part of the junior members of the congregation. To have a loud “Amen” suddenly fired at us like a broadside in the middle of the General Confession was a serious distraction”.
No doubt Mr Barnes was following in the tradition of his predecessor, Thomas Dicks!
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© Judith Batchelor 2020