Dr Michael Barnish counts Charles Darwin among his distant family, but the tangled lives of his closer relations have also proved fascinating. Gail Dixon discovers more
Dr Michael Barnish discovers the tangled love lives of his ancestors
ichael Barnish, trainee GP from Blackpool, became hooked on genealogy when he was 11 years old. “A cousin in Canada sent us a book of our family tree and I found it intriguing,” he explains. “I decided to carry on researching the Barnish family and had overtaken my cousin by my early teens. He was older than me and remembered family stories about grandparents and great grandparents who we didn’t know. The book was a goldmine of information about forgotten generations.”
It reveals that both Michael’s 3x great grandparents Charles and Sarah had the birth surname Barnish. “It’s an unusual name but there are a few of them around the Staffordshire pottery towns where they lived. It’s possible that Charles and Sarah were second or third cousins but I’ve yet to prove it.”
Sarah Barnish was born in 1834 in Burslem, Staffordshire. A direct ancestor on her female line is Mary Wedgwood, and Michael’s 7x great grandmother.
Mary’s father was Aaron, who was cousin to Thomas Wedgwood, father of the famous Josiah, who founded the Wedgwood pottery company. Josiah was the father of Susannah Wedgwood, the mother of Charles Darwin, a distant link that has particularly delighted Michael.
Despite such illustrious connections, Sarah Barnish’s family were poor. Her father William worked as a potter and died in 1851 after being admitted to Stafford Lunatic Asylum. “I discovered this when Ancestry uploaded asylum records last year. According to the admission register, William died after less than a year as an inmate, so I wonder what they did to him? I’m keen to explore his casebook, if it’s held at the local research centre.”
Sarah married Charles Barnish at Wolstanton Register Office, Staffordshire, in 1854. Charles was a potter, as was his father before him. They had two children, Henry – Michael’s great great grandfather – and Sarah Ann. “This is where the story gets really intriguing,” says Michael. “On Christmas Eve 1857, Charles joined the Army in Liverpool and was recruited to the 44th Essex Regiment of Foot. He was only 23 at the time and was leaving behind him a wife and two children.”
This wasn’t a temporary measure. Charles spent the following 20 years in the Army, serving mostly in Madras, India, and China during the Second Opium War from 1856- 60. Charles also saw action in Africa during the Abyssinian Expedition of 1868.
Why did he leave?
Michael has been baffled by this curious turn in his family history. “Why would Charles leave a young family behind him and go to the far corners of the world? It’s like a life sentence! All I can do is speculate, but perhaps Sarah and Charles weren’t happy and they made a decision that he should join up and move away. They could also have had money problems.
“Charles became the ancestor I was most fascinated with. He was elusive, however, and I struggled for years to trace him. I think he was a nonconformist and there’s very little historical detail about them in Staffordshire.”
Two years ago, Michael subscribed to Findmypast.co.uk and this gave him a big breakthrough. “I found Charles’s military service record and it was a treasure trove of information. I love all the detail it provides. Charles was 5ft 6in tall with a 34in chest. He had dark brown hair, hazel eyes and no smallpox marks. The record even gives his pulse rate and a respiratory rate of 20.
“Being a doctor, it’s fascinating to read such facts. Charles was a foot soldier and I’ve seen illustrations of the uniform that he would have worn with the red coat.
“Army life clearly suited him because seven years after he leaves England, he volunteers to join the 45th Foot. His service record also reveals that he contracted syphilis while in India, so we know that he was sexually active there. He developed fibrosis, which is scarring of organs or tissue, and was hospitalised with contusion from a chair leg in a brawl. Otherwise his Army conduct was good and he was awarded three medals: the China Medal for duties in Hong Kong, the Abyssinian Medal and another for general service. I’d love to see these, but I don’t know if they’re still in the family.”
Charles spent most of his military career in India, where it was very cheap to live. “I’ve read that most of the soldiers who were stationed there long term took local women as wives. There’s a rumour in the family that one of our forebears fathered children in India, which fits with Charles’s story. I’m keen to discover more about this possible family in India, although it will
Why would Charles leave a young family and go to the far corners of the world? It’s like a life sentence!
I wonder how the family reacted when Charles returned after 20 years
be difficult because it’s unlikely that they would adopt the name Barnish.”
Meanwhile, what had happened to Sarah who had been left at home in Staffordshire, bringing up two children on her own? Her life was not without drama or intrigue, as Michael was to discover.
A surprise popped up in 1860, three years after Charles had left, when Sarah gave birth to a son, Samuel. “What was going on – Charles was living on the other side of the world?” Digging deeper, Michael ordered the birth certificate, which listed Frederick Littleton as Samuel’s father and Sarah Littleton, “formerly Barnish”, as his mother. Initially, Michael thought that because Barnish was Sarah’s maiden and married name it might be easy to get away with. However, in 1864 she married Frederick in the same register office in Wolstanton that she married Charles in, stating that she was a widow.
“This was after Sarah and Frederick Littleton had had two further children, Prudence and Mary Elizabeth. They went on to have three more, Hannah, Jane and Fred, all born before 1875. What had happened to Charles? Was Sarah really widowed at this point?”
In 1876, Charles and Sarah’s son Henry Barnish married and on the certificate he gave his father’s correct name and profession as soldier. Charles is not listed as being deceased on this certificate, so even though Sarah stated that she was a widow when she married Frederick, clearly the family knew that Charles was alive. “That was the moment I realised that she had married bigamously,” says Michael. “Divorce was almost unheard of in the 1860s and Sarah had been left on her own with children to raise, so I’m certainly not going to judge her. Life must have been hard for a woman of limited means in the Victorian pottery towns.”
The drama doesn’t end there because in 1877 Charles Barnish returns to England and is discharged from the Army a year later. “According to the military record, Charles had chronic rheumatism after the voyage home and worsening visual impairment. He had a sallow complexion and his symptoms
were aggravated by “intemperance”, or heavy drinking. I’ve read that it was safer to drink gin than water in India, which is why so many people drank alcohol in the tropics.
“Charles returned to his family in Burslem after a 20-year absence overseas. I wonder how the family coped with his arrival. Did they feel bitter about his absence? Was it a bittersweet return? Did Charles know that Sarah had moved on with her life, married Frederick and had six more children?”
The entry on the 1881 census revealed the astonishing answer. “I couldn’t believe my eyes. Sarah and Charles were living together once more and she had become a Barnish again, as had all of the children from the Littleton marriage!”
“What on earth had happened? Did they have an agreement that Charles could leave the family and return later when his Army career was over? Did Sarah always love Charles and prefer him to Fred? Or did she feel obliged to take her first husband back because she had broken the law?
“Unlike many bigamists, Sarah didn’t move out of the area, so her neighbours would have got a shock when Charles returned. Did they know the story about him dying overseas or did they just turn a blind eye? Frustratingly, I’ll never know the answers to these questions and can only speculate.
“Poor Fred Littleton either left or was chucked out. He remarried a few years later and described himself as a widower, so he committed bigamy as well.”
Charles and Sarah lived together in Burslem until they died, Charles in 1905 from bronchitis and Sarah in 1919 from senility. “I’d love to discover more about the Barnish family, however, the records online are limited and there is no birth record for Charles. I’d also like to know whether tracing an Indian mistress and family is possible and whether there were ever any records for this behaviour in India.
“Charles and Sarah’s is an epic story in my family’s history. It has been a wonderful experience getting more of a feel for their lives.”
Plates produced by Michael’s ancestor, Josiah Wedgwood, were decorated at Gladstone Pottery
Michael with Charles and Sarah Barnish’s marriage certificate from 1854