‘I discovered a criminal dynasty on my family tree’
Robert Ward has found forgers, killers and fraudsters in his colourful family history. He also made an astonishing discovery closer to home, says Matt Ford
he unexpected is only to be expected in genealogy. But one WDYTYA? Magazinee reader was absolutely bowled over when he discovered evidence that he was descended from a remarkable criminal dynasty, as well as finding some other incredible revelations closer to home.
“I have been researching my ancestors for more than 35 years,” says Robert Ward. “I’ve always liked history. As a child I was fascinated that whenever you saw books about royalty you would see a family tree and yet I knew nothing about my own ancestors. I can remember wondering if it was possible for an ordinary person to do their own tree.
“I also wondered if we were related to the Baron Wards of Birmingham. We’re not, of course! But it was a desire to find out whether we were that got me started.
“This was before the onset of the internet, when the most advanced finding aid was the International Genealogical Index run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – then in its infancy, and accessible only through microfiche readers.
“Although imperfect, I thought that it was terrific, and it led me to discover my Midlands kin in parish registers throughout Warwickshire and Staffordshire.” notes that her father, Charles Castle, had been born in Bristol in 1872. He married Harriet Sewell in St Asaph’s Church, Birmingham in 1894. His father was listed as Charles Castle, a French polisher.
“The family lived in Bow Street in an area of Birmingham, which was recently made famous by the Peaky Blinders TV drama series,” says Robert. “I’m convinced that they lived on the periphery of that world, because that’s the sort of family they were, as I was to find out.
“My Grandmother had 10 brothers. In 1934 two of them, Frank and Walter, had a fight, and Frank stabbed and killed Walter. I don’t think he planned to kill him – Frank always denied that he had meant to.
“I found the story in the national press. But my father knew nothing about it until I told him. He was born in 1937, and it seems it was one of those dark family secrets that no one ever talked about.
“My dad did meet his ‘Uncle Frank’ soon after he was released from prison in the 1950s. But he says he never knew about the killing, and Frank died shortly afterwards.”
Frank wasn’t the only Castle with ‘ form’. According to Robert, there are at least a dozen names on his family tree who spent time in prison, as he found out when the criminal registers were placed on Ancestry and Findmypast. “I think they were driven to it by poverty,” he says. “When you’ve got 10 children to feed, you’ve got a job on your hands.”
“It was shocking, but also intriguing. I’ve been doing this for so long that nothing genuinely surprises me and I just wanted to find out more.
“In particular, my great great grandfather, Charles Castle, had an extraordinary criminal career.”