Vivienne Luke, of Hobart, Tasmania, could find no details of her great grandfather John Kempthorne prior to 1881. It was a signature that was the key to his true identity, she tells Claire Vaughan
Vivienne Luke broke down a brick wall when she discovered that an ancestor’s signature was the key to his true identity
How long have you been doing your family history?
I began my family history in my late 20s after asking my parents about their ancestors in Cornwall and Devon, and being surprised by how little they knew. We moved to Australia when I was a child, so I had little contact with extended family and wanted to find out more.
What had you uncovered before hitting your brick wall?
My research on my great grandfather, John Kempthorne, began after obtaining his marriage certificate. He married Annie Bickle (née Ellacott) at St Stephens by Saltash, Cornwall, in 1884. There were no details of his parents on the certificate, but his residence was given as ‘Newland Heath’. Uncovering the details of his life prior to 1881 became a 20-year quest.
At first, it seemed simple. I found him in the 1881 census, aged 38, and living and working at Stoketon Farm quite close to where his future bride was living at Notter Bridge. His birthplace was given as Camborne. Many years of research, false trails and mistaken lineages followed. On later censuses he named Newlyn East as his birthplace – could Newland Heath have been a mishearing of this? He was Thomas John Kempthorne on his son’s 1917 marriage certificate. He died in 1925 in Torpoint, Cornwall, as John Thomas Kempthorne on the death certificate.
What was stopping you from progressing your research?
I simply could not find John, John Thomas or Thomas John in any previous censuses, birth records or parish records. No one seemed to even come close.
How had you tried to solve it previously?
I had searched what records I could from Australia, engaged a researcher in Cornwall, sent queries to the Cornwall Records Office, Cornwall Family History Society and Online Parish Clerks. All tried to help but without success. RootsChat and the WDYTYA? Magazinee forum were helpful, too. I even sent the problem to the magazine’s Q& A pages and readers made some useful suggestions. My cousin Joyce Salak in the United States had also been searching unsuccessfully.
I decided to check Newlyn East for Kempthornes. I found that there was only one Kempthorne family in the area that could possibly be his: that of Mark and Elizabeth (née Tippett). However, though they had five sons, none was called John. One was named Thomas and was close to the right age. After much searching, I discovered he had emigrated to New Zealand and died there.
I checked out Thomas’s other male siblings – Charles, William Henry, James and Mark. Charles died in 1880 as the result of an accident. William Henry emigrated to New Zealand and died there in 1917. James emigrated to Queensland, dying there in 1914. The only one who was unaccounted for was Mark, for whom I could find no marriage or death. In the 1861 census, he was at Phillack as a general servant. By 1871, he had joined the Royal Marines and was on the Resistance, off Birkenhead. Then the trail goes cold. I had a hunch this was my great grandfather, but I could find no evidence to prove it.
Searching online for Mark Kempthorne, I came across a link to The National Archives that named him in its Royal Marine collection – his full record was available. With both excitement and trepidation, I ordered it and waited. Some weeks later, it arrived. He had a less-thansalubrious record with the Marines and during his 12 years had not advanced beyond Private. He’d lost good conduct medals because of drinking bouts while on shore leave, fighting and being absent without permission. He left the Marines in Plymouth in 1879 and disappeared. As Plymouth is so close to Stoketon Farm, St Germans, Cornwall, where John appeared in 1881, I
John had a less-thansalubrious record with the Marines over 12 years
bbecame more suspiciousii thath theyh were one and the same person.
What’s your ‘eureka moment’?
Luckily for me, his Royal Marines service record contained his Enlistment Papers and Attestation Papers, which included his signature. In addition, the parish record for John and Annie’s marriage also contained John’s signature. Comparing his signatures from his enlistment with the marriage signature, I was amazed by the similarity. How could I prove that they were the same person though?
HowHow diddid it solve the problem?
Joyce in America contacted Katherine Koppenhaver of Joppa, Maryland, a certified forensic document examiner and handwriting expert and submitted the signatures to her. Her analysis was quite clear: “There are sufficient similarities between the signatures to make an identification. There are no significant differences.” So, the signatures were by the same person – as she said directly in an email – proof that John Kempthorne was born Mark Kempthorne.
How did you feel when you discovered the solution?
Elated! I was annoyed with him for changing his name, but very happy to have found the truth. I rang Joyce to share the good news and we celebrated together across the miles.
Did you discover anything else interesting along the way?
We found that Mark had two minor criminal convictions. The first in 1863, with his brother Thomas, was for assaulting a policeman in Truro. The second, in 1876 at Southampton, was for smuggling one-and-ahalf pounds of tobacco. Neither case involved a custodial sentence.
Many of Mark’s family emigrated, and, by the time he left the Marines, both his parents were dead and there was little to draw him bbackk to NNewlynl EEast. AAs to whyh hhe changedh d his name – we’ll never know the real reason. Maybe he wanted to hide his past and start a new life.
Mark’s paternal grandfather was William Dennis, illegitimately born, we believe, to Ann Dennis in St Breward in 1774. When he married Charity Nicholls in 1796 he used the name William Kempthorne Dennis and my great great grandfather, also Mark, was baptised Mark Dennis, alias Kempthorne. He and his descendants began to use the name Kempthorne. So there are some more riddles to solve there, I think.
What would your advice be to other family historians who hit an obstacle on their family tree?
Never give up! I nearly did so many times, but I’m very glad now that I didn’t. Think laterally and consult those resources, both written and human, that are available. There are many people in chat rooms who are very knowledgeable and helpful. If your county has Online Parish Clerks, do use them, they know their subject back to front.
A comparison of the signatures of Mark Kempthorne (top) and John Kempthorne suggest that it is the same man
John Kempthorne was originally born Mark Kempthorne but changed his name