One often reads wonderful stories about how DNA has enabled people to identify unknown parentage in their family tree. In most cases, these amazing breakthroughs could never have been made through traditional research alone. Yet for the family historian, there can be other scenarios where DNA has an important role to play. I’d like to share the story of how I discovered the maiden name of my 4th great grandmother, a widow when she married in 1818. This was purely the result of me investigating the family tree of a new DNA match with whom I shared a mere 21CM.

A section of DNA. The bases lie horizontally between the two spiralling strands
By brian0918™ – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=404735

I don’t know about you but periodically, I like to check to see if I have any new Ancestry DNA matches. If they are 20CM or above, I take a look at the shared matches to see if I can figure out what ancestors we might have in common. If they have a family tree too, it can be possible to discover the exact relationship. Recently, I had a new match of 21CM with a lady that I shall call Justine, identified by Ancestry as a 4th to 6th cousin. She had attached a small family tree containing just over 800 people and although the connection would be distant, it was at least something to work on. We shared two matches in common: one of 21CM with no family tree and the other with 20CM and a private family tree of 41 individuals. Looking at her family tree, I noticed that her paternal side was from Eastern Europe and since none of my ancestry comes from this area of the world, I was confident that the connection would be found on her maternal side. Justine had recorded the names of all her eight great great grandparents but there was little information on earlier generations. Certainly none of their names appeared in my family tree. Most of her ancestry seemed to be concentrated in the London area.

After a little investigation, I concluded that the ancestry of Matilda Lucas, Justine’s great great grandmother, might be the most promising to explore. According to her family tree, Matilda had been born in Rotherhithe on July 16 1846, though her parentage was not recorded. I also have family who were living in Rotherhithe in the early part of the 19th century. My great great great grandparents, Henry Thatcher Woodbine and Margaret Ellen Maxwell were both born in Rotherhithe in 1818 and 1821 respectively. Could they be our ancestors in common?

I set out to explore the ancestry of Matilda Lucas. Perhaps her mother’s maiden name would turn out to be Woodbine or Maxwell. According to the family tree, Matilda had married William Gorbold on the 17 Jun 1872 in London so to discover the name and occupation of her father, I searched for a record of this event. I found that the couple had married in the church of St Sepulchre in Holborn:

Marriage of William Gorbold and Matilda Lucas June 1872 St Sepulchre, Holborn, City of London
London Metropolitan Archives; London, England; London Church of England Parish Registers; Reference Number: P69/Sep/A/01/Ms 7222/13 via http://www.ancestry.co.uk

Matilda named her father as Richard Lucas, a sailmaker. Armed with this information, I was able to discover the family in the 1871 census, living at 87 Union Road in Rotherhithe:

1871 Census 87 Union Road, Rotherhithe, Surrey – The National Archives, RG10; 645, 136, 11
via http://www.ancestry.co.uk

Matilda’s mother was Mary Ann and she had an older sister, Emma, and a younger brother, William.

The earliest census in which Matilda would appear was the 1851 census. In 1851, the parish of Rotherhithe was still relatively undeveloped, with the thriving shipbuilding and allied industries concentrated on the waterfront. Most of the workers lived on the small streets close by. At this date she and her family were living on Paradise Row in Rotherhithe:

1851 Census 44 Paradise Row, Rotherhithe, Surrey – The National Archives Class: HO107; 1583, 295, 27
via http://www.ancestry.co.uk

At this point I felt I was getting warm! My ancestor George Gilbert Maxwell, a waterman, and his wife Elizabeth were living at 5 Union Place in Rotherhithe at the time of the 1851 census, just around the corner from Paradise Row:

1851 Census 5 Union Place, Rotherhithe, Surrey – The National Archives Class: HO107; 1583, 283, 2
via http://www.ancestry.co.uk

Elizabeth, the eldest sister of Matilda Lucas, had been born in St John Southwark ca. 1836/7, according to the 1851 census. I therefore expected that their parents had probably married just prior to the advent of General Registration in July 1837. This was indeed the case and I found that Richard and Mary Ann Lucas had married in the parish church of St James, Bermondsey on 23 November 1834:

Marriage of Richard Lucas and Mary Ann Young 23 November 1834, St James Bermondsey, Surrey
London Metropolitan Archives, Saint James, Bermondsey, Register of marriages, P71/JS, Item 017
via http://www.ancestry.co.uk

I now knew that Mary Ann’s maiden name was Young and this name did appear in my family tree. Elizabeth, the wife of George Gilbert Maxwell, was Elizabeth Young when they married. However, she was a widow at the time:

Marriage of George Gilbert Maxwell and Elizabeth Young 22 Jul 1818 St Dunstan and All Saints, Stepney
London Metropolitan Archives, Saint Dunstan And All Saints, Register of marriages, P93/DUN, Item 058
via http://www.ancestry.co.uk

The 1851 census had revealed that Elizabeth had been born in Bermondsey ca. 1794. However, since I did not know her maiden name, I had previously found it impossible to identify her baptism. There would be far too many Elizabeth’s born in the area at the time. Similarly, as I didn’t know the forename of her first husband, Mr Young, how could I trace her first marriage? It had always seemed a genealogical brick wall that I was never going to solve. However, as a result of investigating my new DNA match, it now appeared that Elizabeth was related to Mary Ann Young, the wife of Richard Lucas.

Turning to the 1841 census, the plot thickened as I discovered that at this date, the Lucas and Maxwell families were living in the same building at Cherry Gardens, Rotherhithe:

1841 Census Cherry Gardens, Rotherhithe, Surrey – The National Archives HO107; Piece: 1048; Book: 2; Civil Parish: St Mary Magdalen Bermondsey; County: Surrey;
Enumeration District: 5; Folio: 32; Page: 15; Line: 8 via http://www.ancestry.co.uk

What was the relationship between Mary, the wife of Richard Lucas and Elizabeth, the wife of George Gilbert Maxwell? I realised that they must have been mother and daughter.

Census returns indicated that Mary Ann had been born in Bermondsey ca. 1811. I found that that she had been baptised in the neighbouring parish of St Mary, Rotherhithe, on March 21 1811. She was the daughter of Joseph Young and his wife Elizabeth:

Baptism of Mary Ann Young 21 March 1811 St Mary, Rotherhithe, Surrey
London Metropolitan Archives; London, England; London Church of England Parish Registers; Reference Number: P71/Mry/014 via http://www.ancestry.co.uk

It looked as if Mary Ann’s father, Joseph, must have died when she was a child and her mother, Elizabeth, had married George Gilbert Maxwell in 1818, when she was around 24 years old. It is possible that Joseph Young was some years older than her as I have found the burial on 27 April 1817 of a 55 year old Joseph Young in the parish of St Olave, Bermondsey.

Joseph and Elizabeth Young had married the year before Mary Ann’s birth in 1810, in the parish of St George the Martyr, Southwark:

Marriage of Joseph Young and Elizabeth Brook 27 April 1810, St George the Martyr, Southwark, Surrey
London Metropolitan Archives; London, England; London Church of England Parish Registers; Reference Number: P92/GEO/178 via http://www.ancestry.co.uk

Without the DNA match that linked me to a descendant of Mary Ann Lucas, (née Young), it would have been impossible to discover that Elizabeth maiden name was Brook as her marriage was unidentifiable. If any further confirmation was needed, there were two Brook witnesses at both of Elizabeth’s marriages. These ladies may well have been her sisters: Mary Brook in 1810 and Sarah Brook in 1818.

George Gilbert Maxwell and Elizabeth had seven children born after their marriage in 1818, including my great great grandmother, Margaret Ellen Maxwell in 1821. However, rather puzzlingly, I have found the baptisms of three further children of George Gilbert Maxwell, a waterman, and his wife, Elizabeth, prior to this date. George Gilbert Maxwell (junior) was baptised on November 19th 1826 but his date of birth was given as 13 April 1813 so he was thirteen years old at the time. On the same occasion, his baby sister, Jane Celia was baptised along with another younger sibling, William Henry who was three years old, both of whom had been born after the marriage in 1818. Two further children, Sarah Elizabeth and William Thomas were born and baptised in 1815 and 1817 respectively, both described as the children of George Gilbert Maxwell, a waterman and his wife Elizabeth. The family were living at Upper Queen Street at the time. The fact that George Gilbert Maxwell was a bachelor when he married Elizabeth Young in 1818 suggests that he did not have a first wife who was also named Elizabeth. George Gilbert Maxwell junior was appreniced to his father in 1827, following in his footsteps as a waterman. There are also no other waterman of the same name in the Rotherhithe area at the time. I think it is most likely that Elizabeth’s first marriage to Joseph Young was of a very short duration. Either she married bigamously in 1818 or more plausibly, the couple had to wait until Joseph Young had died before they could get married, although they already had three children together. It is perhaps significant that they did not get married in the Southwark/Bermondsey area but instead travelled across the river to the large parish of St Dunstan and All Saints in Stepney. In the marriage and banns register, the groom is described as being from the Stepney hamlet of Mile End Old Town though clearly George Gilbert Maxwell spent his life in Rotherhithe, plying the River Thames from stairs on the southern bank, carrying passengers from one side to the other in his wherry boat.

Thomas McLean’s The rival watermen (RMG reference: PAF3973) Royal Museums Greenwich https://www.rmg.co.uk/

I am delighted to have now discovered the identity of Elizabeth, the wife of George Gilbert Maxwell. Born as Elizabeth Brook, I have found a likely baptism for her in the registers of St Mary, Newington in Surrey in 1792. She was buried in the parish of St Mary, Rotherhithe, Surrey on April 23 1854 at the age of 61. I have also discovered that she had a daughter, Mary Ann, born in 1811, from her short marriage to Joseph Young. Mary Ann was the half sister of my great great grandmother, Margaret Ellen Maxwell. This makes me a half 4th cousin once removed to my DNA match, Justine. One would never imagine that such as distant DNA connection could reap such rich genealogical rewards.

© Judith Batchelor 2023

15 thoughts on “My Big DNA Breakthrough

  1. Jude this isn’t the first time I have been grateful for your blog- Not so long ago I was able to track down what my Uncle did in the RAF during WW2 using your hints. The way you do your research gives me lots of ideas. This particular blog I plan to re-read carefully on the ferry I will be on tomorrow- might be a rough trip after recent winds, so I hope this distracts me!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Congrats on your big discovery! I have similar tales related to DNA matches with unexpected outcomes and hopefully we will have many more to come. Cheers!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is such a fantastic example of bringing together scientific data with methodical research and a ‘good nose’. It’s amazing how DNA can help solve puzzles we thought could never be unravelled. My 4x great grandmother was a young widow when she married in 1820. Every tree on Ancestry gave her name as the name she had when she married (Siner Beard), and only by looking at the marriage record (after searching for her in vain) did I notice she was a widow. All their children were born before 1837, so no clues from birth certicates. But thanks to her unusual first name I was able to find her earlier marriage and her actual maiden name. However, I don’t know any more about her, and I now feel inspired to see whether DNA can provide some leads!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It sounds like a very scenario to my own. Lucky for you that your ancestor had such a distinctive name. Similarly, there are some trees that have Elizabeth Young as the daughter of Anthony Young. They all ignore the fact that she was a widow when she married. It would be great if you can find some matches that connect to Siner’s family. I find that place names in common provide the most promising leads.

      Like

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