Who Do You Think You Are?

‘A Sunday School Bible Helped To Solve My Mystery’

Agnes Cundell was born in a workhouse. Her father’s name was never mentioned, but her grandson Paul Cooper has teased out his identity. Interview by

- Gail Dixon

Researchin­g the lives of ancestors who were born out of wedlock often requires sensitivit­y. A beloved parent or grandparen­t may not wish to divulge the name of an absent partner, especially if the family was abandoned. This can lead to a lifetime of curiosity, and a large gap in one’s family tree.

Paul Cooper was keen to find out the identity of his maternal great grandfathe­r, whose name had never been mentioned by his relations. Solving the mystery required some expert sleuthing.

My Brick Wall

I grew up in a terraced house by the gasworks in New Park, Harrogate, Yorkshire, in the 1950s. My grandmothe­r Agnes and great grandmothe­r Isabella Cundell lived next door to us. They had each been a lone parent, raising a daughter in tough times.

I spent a lot of time with both of them. Isabella was a lovely woman, and I remember playing cards with her for halfpennie­s. If I won, it was for ‘keeps’, and if I lost, it was for ‘lends’. She always gave me my money back at the end of the game.

Agnes gave birth to my mum Muriel in 1923. She never married and worked as a laundress for many years. Mum once met her father in 1938, and we’ve been able to contact his descendant­s. My great grandfathe­r, however, remained a mystery.

Isabella gave birth to Agnes in Knaresboro­ugh Union Workhouse in 1896. On the birth certificat­e, she was listed as a domestic servant and there was no entry for the father. Agnes never revealed his identity to Mum.

In 1983, after my father Tom died, I asked Mum if she could jot down some family details. Dad was the youngest of 10 children, so there were lots of names listed on his side. I found it very sad that Mum put just one entry for herself – “cousin Joan”.

I didn’t start my family history until 1999, long after Agnes, Isabella and Muriel had passed away. One piece of important evidence was Agnes’ Sunday School Bible which was dated 1880 and came from the Bar Wesleyan Chapel in Harrogate. The Bible had her name in it along with 12 Christian names and dates of birth.

I had already researched the Cundell side of the family, and the group of names didn’t fit. Using the 1881 census, I found a family in Harrogate that matched perfectly, but their surname of Edmondson meant nothing to me. As a result I filed the informatio­n away and resigned myself to the fact that I might never be able to find my great grandfathe­r.

My Eureka Moment

Documents are constantly being digitised and uploaded to genealogic­al websites, so in 2020 I decided to revisit old ground. I was searching on Findmypast ( and chanced upon a baptism entry for Agnes in Knaresboro­ugh Union Workhouse that I’d never seen before.

Importantl­y, the father’s

surname “Edmundsen” was given on this entry together with his occupation: “Plumber”. Despite the spelling, I was sure that this was a member of the elusive Edmondson family who were catalogued in Agnes’ Bible.

There were six males on the list, one of whom died in childhood, so I had five potential great grandfathe­rs. Turning swiftly to the 1891 census, I had my ‘eureka moment’. Samuel Edmondson, born in Harrogate in 1869, worked as a plumber. Finally,

I had found Agnes’ father.

In 1891, Samuel was aged 21 and living just a few streets away from Isabella. We’ll never know the circumstan­ces of the couple’s relationsh­ip, but it was clear that he had no intention of getting married. Samuel died of influenza in 1900 when Agnes was four.

My Breakthrou­gh

All of the names in the Bible were my grandmothe­r’s aunts and uncles, so clearly Agnes knew family living alongside us in the close-knit community of New Park. We would have gone to school with and played alongside children without knowing that they were our cousins.

Despite this, it has been very satisfying to resolve a mystery that has always been hanging over me. I couldn’t wait to tell my brother and sister, Tom and Carol, who live in Australia.

Since beginning my search on Mum’s side, I’ve discovered many direct relatives. I’ve visited family in Canada and attended the 100th birthday of a cousin who left Harrogate in 1917 for Saskatchew­an.

Isabella passed away in 1959, aged 84. We moved to Queensland, Australia, in 1964, and Agnes emigrated five years who her father was. I’ve no idea why she never mentioned it.

It’s poignant to think that we had an extended Edmondson

We would have played with children without knowing they were our cousins

later to join us on the Gold Coast and Mount Isa regions.

I vividly remember my grandmothe­r’s wicked sense of humour in particular. When Australia changed from imperial to metric, Agnes said to Mum, “Muriel, this is one of them metric bags of sugar. Do you still take two spoons in your tea?”

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Isabella Cundell and (right) key details in the family Bible
whodoyouth­inkyouarem­agazine.com Isabella Cundell and (right) key details in the family Bible

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