As anyone who has traced their family tree will probably know, a great deal of success in genealogy comes as a reward for being methodical – trawling through archives and indexes, noting down carefully every resource, area and date range covered, searching online for every possible permutation of the spelling of a name, painstakingly decrypting old handwriting, scouring historic maps, and looking into the history of places, ways of life and occupations. Every scrap of relevant information becomes a potentially valuable lead, a piece in the jigsaw, a clue in a never-ending detective novel of enormous complexity.
Often, though, this data alone can be quite dry, and in many cases it’s down to more unexpected or unassuming places to provide those things that turn out to be of the greatest personal value. An oddment found in the attic, at the back of a drawer, a photo or letter between the pages of a book, a newspaper cutting that reveals more than the census about someone’s everyday life.
This morning on Facebook I read a lovely story told by a long-standing genealogy contact of mine, John Everson. We’ve been in touch on and off for years as we both had Everson ancestors in Machen (old county of Monmouthshire, South Wales). One day not so very long ago – he says he was bored at the time – John had typed “Everson” and “Machen” into Google to see what hits it would come up with. Normally, he says, such a search yields mainly his own old postings on various genealogy sites, but lo and behold, one of the hits this time was an eBay listing which turned out to be this old brass snuffbox (dated 1917) which – from the name “Sydney Everson” and the address “Westley Buildings, Machen” engraved on it – quite clearly belonged to John’s great grandfather (further genealogical details – for anyone who might be interested – can be found at the end of this post).
Initial delight, however, quite quickly gave way to a rather distraught feeling as it transpired that the item had already been sold. Not giving in to despondency, though, John decided to contact the seller in any case to see if he could find out who had bought it – possibly a long-lost cousin, he thought. In fact, the snuffbox had been sold to someone who restores and re-sells them, and the original seller kindly set up contact. In the end, John was offered his great grandfather’s snuffbox at what he thought was a reasonable price, and he says it is now one of his most treasured possessions.
This reminded me of a chance discovery relating to my own paternal-line great grandfather, Cadwaladr Davies, made by my father some years ago. On one of his occasional visits to a not-so-far-away town, Newtown in Mid Wales, Dad decided to pay a visit to the small museum located above the WHSmith shop in the town and dedicated to the history of the well known chain. His father’s father (the aforementioned Cadwaladr) had managed the Smith’s branch in Ross on Wye (Herefordshire) for much of his working life and so there was a long-standing family connection with the company.
Even so, Dad was pretty surprised when one of the exhibits turned out to be a beautifully illuminated document that bore his grandfather’s name emblazoned in gilt-decorated letters. It documents his transfer, in 1898, from North Wales to Ross and reminds one along the way that the high street store that now sells magazines, stationery and the odd book came to the fore with the development of the railways in the nineteenth century by setting up bookstalls at railway stations.
No doubt in his inimitable understated way, Dad approached the museum staff to say that he found this exhibit rather interesting and explained why. As a result of the communication following on from this, several high-quality colour facsimiles were made of the original and distributed among close family members, and a fascinating article came to light from the archives of the company magazine, documenting the personal story behind this presentation document and giving a further glimpse into Cadwaladr’s later life in Ross.
Regardless of the fact that it is “only” a facsimile of the original, my framed copy of the document is definitely one of my most treasured possessions and has pride of place hanging in the living room.
I wonder what accidental and exciting family discoveries any of my readers have made – maybe some of you will be inspired to leave a comment or write your own blog entry on the subject… 😉
Acknowledgements and further genealogical details…
Thank you to John Everson both for inspiring this post and for being so willing for me to share the snuffbox picture and details of his great grandfather. As he put it, “the Everson name needs lots of publicity”, and who knows who might stumble upon this blog entry while doing a Google search of their own…
Sydney (or Sidney) Everson was born in Machen in 1859, the seventh of ten children of William Everson (1822-1898) and Mary Green (1823-1889). He married Mary Mattock (1863-1923) in 1880 and according to the 1911 census they had a total of sixteen children, twelve of whom were still alive in 1911. As a young man Sydney worked in the tinplate industry and was later employed in a colliery. He died in Machen in 1930.
Cadwaladr Davies was born in Penmachno, Caernarvonshire in 1868, the youngest of five children of Thomas Davies (1823-?) and Jane Williams (1826-1894). Most of the men in his family were slate miners, but he went to school and became a clerk before getting into the book trade. Following his move to Ross in 1898, he married Lizzie Newitt (1882-1947) there in 1903 and they had three children. He died in Ross in 1960.