‘Detective work led to minstrels and Methodists’
Nicola Cooper’s research into her brother-in-law’s family uncovered seaside performers, petty criminals, juvenile delinquency and teetotallers. Matt Ford finds out more
any of us, if we’re honest, probably harbour a secret desire to be featured on Who Do You Think You Are?? and have someone surprise us with amazing stories of our ancestors’ lives.
One WDYTYA? Magazine reader decided to make that wish happen for someone and actually arranged a similar genealogical surprise for a relative who was fascinated by family history. “I’d been working on my family tree, and that of my husband, for about 10 years,” says Nicola Cooper.
“Throughout that period, my brother-inlaw Gary had always shown an interest in what I was doing, and I’d often thought that it would be nice to do a family tree for him. I’d recently retired and found that I had a little more time available for research – it’s my rainy-day treat – so I decided to construct a five-generation tree for him. He had a 60th birthday coming up and I thought it would make a nice present.”
In order to keep it a surprise, Nicola did not even question Gary’s parents about their memories in case they spilled the beans. “I didn’t really intend to flesh it out, but then found myself with more time than I expected to work on it and lo and behold discovered some amazing stories of family desertion, emigration, juvenile delinquency, petty crime, and evidence of seaside entertainers,” says Nicola. “I couldn’t leave it at just names and dates! It was so good that I actually ended up giving it to Gary before his birthday when we were all together on a family holiday. We did a kind of version of the WDYTYA? show one rainy day and treated him like a celebrity – even if I did look somewhat eccentric as I arrived for the holiday complete with a large poster tube! It was great. Gary is usually very much in the background, so it was lovely to put him in the foreground and make a fuss of him.”
With a bit of detective work, Nicola managed to find Gary’s parents’ marriage certificate, which she then cross-referenced against other sources. Luckily, it turned out that his father’s side contained quite an unusual name, Mulvana.
“This may have originally been Irish, although I haven’t been able to track down a link with Ireland yet,” says Nicola. “What I did find, however, was that Gary’s Mulvana ancestors were part of a group of seaside performers called the Mulvana Minstrels. His great great grandfather, Henry Mulvana, was the leader of the group.
“For most of the year, the family were labourers. But in the summer they had this group that used to play on the piers in Yorkshire. Nicola’s local paper, the Hull Daily Mail, had quite a few articles about the group and it turns out that they were quite a lively family – and not just musically. In particular, Gary’s great aunt Emma was a very colourful character.
“I managed to get a photo from an article online and she has this wonderfully cheeky face, which is hardly surprising considering everything I would go on to find out about her,” says Nicola.
Great aunt Emma was very poor and constantly in trouble with the police. She was repeatedly charged with petty theft and eventually sent to prison for nine months. For reasons unknown, it seems she abandoned her husband fairly soon after they were married, and had a child, Minnie, who appears to have been fathered by another member of the Minstrels, Arthur Butler (his name also appears as Albert and Alfred), who had also left his wife.
The family moved together to Grimsby to start a new life with the Minstrels. “You could tell they were poor by the crimes Emma was convicted of,” says Nicola. “She was caught stealing handkerchiefs from a tailor who was drunk in a pub, and things like that.” Eventually, Emma got married to Arthur. But this looks like it was a bigamous marriage on her husband’s side, as his wife lived on until the 1930s; Emma’s husband had already died by this time.
Nicola then turned her attention to the other side of the family, the Pextons – who could not have been more different from the roguish Mulvanas.
“Again, in our area, they seemed to be quite a well-known family, but for totally different reasons.
“They were important in the local Methodist community and it’s hard to imagine a more sober and law-abiding family. There were some photographs of them in the local paper.”
One of these revealed that Gary’s 3x great uncle William was the absolute spitting image of him. “He has the same mouth, the same teeth, the same ears and everything,” says Nicola. “My brother-in-law’s family do like a drink, so it was quite funny to
Gary’s ancestors were part of a group of seaside performers called the Mulvana Minstrels. His grandfather was the leader
find the link to these very enthusiastic advocates of temperance.”
Of particular interest to Nicola was Gary’s great great grandfather, Charles Hilton, who served in the Royal Field Artillery. “I managed to get his service records from Findmypast,” she says. “He had served in India and had all sorts of diseases. I was a medical microbiologist before I retired, so I found this aspect fascinating. He’d suffered from malaria and had several bouts of gonorrhoea, which was quite exciting. “It also said on his records that he was a ‘temperant’ soldier. But when I got round to finding out what he had done in later life, I discovered he had died quite young and the cause of death listed on his death certificate was alcoholism! So, I feel the standards of temperance in the Indian Army were not quite the same as the standards of his Methodist relatives!
A disappearing act
“It was lovely to see his records, though. He obviously did quite well as a gunnery instructor. I have a lovely photograph of him where he is showing all of his badges on his sleeve. He retired to Yorkshire, which is where he met the Mulvanas.”
Gary’s great grandfather, Alfred Pexton, was also a military man, although his life was a bit of a mystery at first, and it required some sleuthing to find out what had happened to him.
“Alfred just completely disappeared from the records,” says Nicola. “All I knew was that he had served in the forces in Egypt during the First World War. Again, I did a newspaper search and found an article that described how his wife was suing him for deserting the family, and I thought: ‘What a heel! What kind of a man does that? How terrible!’”
But that wasn’t the whole story at all. “It turns out that, while he was in Egypt for four years, although he got leave, he wasn’t able to come home as he couldn’t afford the transport,” says Nicola. “Yet, when he did get home, it turned out that his wife had had another baby. She had obviously had an affair and he used this to contest her claims.
“Through the WDYTYA? Magazine
online forum I found out that he went on to emigrate to the United States.
“It’s wonderful when you find these little stories that make the names on the tree just that bit more human.”
The third surname in Gary’s family that Nicola set out to explore was Trofer. Again, the unusual name made it likely that Nicola would turn up something in the newspaper search – and she certainly did.
It seems William Trofer was another relative who had a difficult relationship with the law. As a young man he was in a lot of trouble, repeatedly facing charges of vagrancy and assault. One charge – described as “disgusting” although the specifics are not explained – led to an additional charge against his brother, John, for intimidating a witness at the trial.
“They were obviously in a lot of trouble,” says Nicola. “William was only 14. I’d love to know what he actually did. Although everyone was saying that it was a ‘ disgusting charge’ no one was actually saying what it was. It must have been bad.”
In the end, William was sentenced to go to reform school until he was 19. In court, his previous character was summarised as “dishonest and very untruthful, but intelligent”. It seems his mother was living apart from her husband, although she wouldn’t say why, and was taking in washing and ironing to support her four children. “They were obviously a very poor family and the two boys were running wild,” says Nicola.
But the story has a happy ending. Whether it was maturity or the shock of reform school discipline, the boys came good in the end. They both joined the army in the First World War and Nicola found another local newspaper article in which one of them is quoted as saying: “I am not afraid of the Kaiser and will give him some physic if I have the chance.” “I love that quote,” says Nicola. “There is also a photograph of the two boys and William still has a very young face. It seems the war turned them both around and they did quite well with a bit of army discipline. In many ways the Trofers were the most difficult to track down. Although their name was unusual, it was actually very hard to link them to the other families.”
But for Nicola, it’s the detective work that makes family history so fascinating and she won’t give up trying to find out the truth about her brother-in-law’s family. “I used a lot of detective work in my professional life,” she says. “I like the cross-referencing across different sources to make sure that I have found the right person and it’s wonderful to have all these beautiful names to work with, and to uncover all these amazing stories.
“Usually, with someone who marries into the family I just put their parents on the tree and leave it at that. It was only because Gary was so interested in what I was doing that I actually went further, and I’m so glad I did. If anything, I’m disappointed because my own family is nowhere near as exciting as Gary’s is! ”
Nicola created Gary’s family tree as a 60th birthday present
A report about John Robert Trofer and William Trofer in the Hull Daily Mail in 1914