‘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

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - READER STORY -

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.

End-of-the-pier shows

“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

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