Jill Wright had heard family tales of Scottish roots and a lost inheritance. Court cases and old records linked her to her rightful ancestors, says Gail Dixon
Jill Wright solved a family riddle of lost inheritance with a crucial find
How long have you been doing your family history?
I began in the 1980s and my father intrigued me with a couple of snippets of family folklore: that his grandfather brought the family from Scotland and married a French refugee; and his great grandfather had quarrelled with someone else in the family and lost a fortune – possibly with a whisky distillery involved.
What had you uncovered before hitting your brick wall?
My maiden name is Somerville and my paternal grandfather died long before I was born. I was able to trace him and his father easilyy throughg census returns and certificates. This confirmed that my father’s grandfather, George McAlpin Garrow Somerville, was indeed born in Edinburgh.
When tracing his siblings, I learned that the family must have moved to London in about 1852. George married Eliza Buteux in Clerkenwell in 1874. She was of Huguenot descent, so there was a grain of truth in my father’s ‘French refugee’ tale.
What was stopping you from progressing your research?
George’s father – my great great grandfather, George Archibald Somerville – married Marion McAlpin in Edinburgh in 1842. However, the Scottish census entries for 1841 and 1851 gave his birthplace as England, and in 1861 as Westminster, Middlesex.
So was the family really Scottish? If George Snr gave his correct age he was born around 1820. It was at this point that my search for Somervilles came to a frustrating full stop.
How had you tried to solve it previously?
I had a breakthrough when the Westminster records went online at Ancestry. I found George Snr’s birth and baptism in 1820 in St John’s, Smith Square, which is now a BBC concert venue. He was the son of John Somerville, a baker, and Mary Ann Frase. Soon I’d found their marriage record in 1808 in Soho and the baptisms of six children.
Checking online burial registers, I had a hunch (confirmed by his death certificate) that John died in St Giles Workhouse in 1849, a baker, aged 68. I checked the 1841 census and there he was – a baker born in Scotland!
So back I went to the Scottish records, where the most likely match was a John Somerville, born in Edinburgh in 1782, son of Samuel Somerville, baker, and Isabell Forrester, the daughter of a Church of Scotland minister. How could I prove that I had the right man, and would a minister have allowed his daughter to marry a baker?
In April 2015, I attended Who Do You Think You Are? Live at the NEC and made straight for the Association of Scottish Genealogists and Researchers (ASGRA). They gave me invaluable advice about checking apprenticeship records. Yes, Samuel and son John were listed among the bakers.
If Isabell Forrester was my 4x great grandmother, more about her family might be found in the Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae, a record of more than 2,000 Scottish ministers dating from the Reformation. I was able to trace the Forrester line back
several generations, but frustratingly there was little about daughters and wives. I still couldn’t confirm that Isabell had married baker Samuel Somerville.
I decided to enlist the help of a professional genealogist. Even before we’d agreed a contract, Kirsty sent me a lot more information for free, including an extract from a court case that showed that Samuel, despite being an illiterate baker, was a considerable landowner at Ampherlaw in the parish of Carnwath, near Carstairs, where his father-in-law was a minister. Pieces of the puzzle were starting to fall into place.
An inheritance was in dispute between Samuel’s younger son, William, and a half-sister from an earlier marriage. More importantly, his elder son, John, possibly my ancestor, had been cut out of the will because he’d been declared bankrupt! I pounced on this. Could there be echoes of the lost fortune that my father had spoken of?
A whole new line of research was opening up. Perhaps John had escaped his creditors by coming to London? I found from London
Gazette entries that he became bankrupt, possibly several times. But I still did not have the final proof that the failed baker in London, who died in the workhouse, was the son of a very successful landowner and baker in Edinburgh.
What was your eureka moment?
Kirsty unearthed Edinburgh baker, burgess and court documents with settlements (wills), and transcripts of monumental inscriptions that added more information and raised further questions, until the big breakthrough came.
William Somerville died in 1819 and his settlement confirmed that he was the son of Samuel Somerville. He was married to Marion and had two children, Samuel and Mary. However, should all these “heirs of his own body” fail, then his estate was to go to “John Somerville Baker in London my Brother German” and to his children. ‘Brother German’ meant full brother, sharing both parents. This was the proof I’d been looking for all along.
How did it solve the problem?
I could now be confident of the link back through the Somerville line, from my great great grandfather George Archibald Somerville, to his father John Somerville, who died in St Giles Workhouse, London, in 1849.
How did you feel when you discovered the solution?
It was a very exciting moment and satisfying to know more of the intriguing story of my Somerville ancestors. So John was the ‘black sheep’ of the family who lost an inheritance, but he wasn’t a criminal. He probably just didn’t have a head for business.
Maybe George Archibald Somerville, my great great grandfather, went back to Scotland to seek something from the family fortune. If so, he returned with a wife and children to a London slum.
Did you discover anything else interesting along the way?
Whole new lines of enquiry opened with more family members to investigate. The estate at Ampherlaw has a rich history. The farmhouse there is now a B& B and I can’t wait to visit.
What would your advice be to other family historians who hit an obstacle on their family tree?
Ask lots of questions of family members: the theories my dad had heard were based on grains of truth. Don’t be afraid to ask – and pay for – professional help. Experts can find an amazing amount of documentary evidence in a very few hours because they know the archives.
The will proved that the black sheep of my family had lost an inheritance
Edinburgh Incorporation of Bakers minutes
One of John Somervilles’ bankruptcy records
William Somerville’s 1816 will, which confirmed he was the son of Samuel and brother of John