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Tales from beyond the grave: fascinating family history snippets with Dear Tom


We family historians love colourful stories from past lives and in Family Tree we enjoy sharing our readers’ tales of family history conundrums and fascinating finds in the archives and online. You'll find lots of wonderful genealogy snippets collected from all over the world by stalwart family historian Tom Wood in his hugely popular Dear Tom column every other month within the pages of Family Tree.


Amazing newspaper obituaries

Some astonishing obituaries unearthed in newspaper archives are one of the fascinating topics that appear in Dear Tom in the February 2019 issue of Family Tree. Reader Teresa Williams, from Middlesex, has made some priceless family history discoveries while searching for accounts of famous (and sometimes not-so famous) ancestors who led extraordinary lives. Indeed, says Tom, where else might you find a man with 27 children from three wives, a lady whose age at death was thought to be 108 but was actually 111 years old, or an aged gentleman who in later life slept in a dog kennel?!


The minstrel related to Prince Charles

Here is a taste of these remarkable obituaries, which are a gold mine for any family history researchers who find an ancestral connection! The first contribution was published in London paper The Examiner on Sunday 20 April 1844, under the heading of ‘The Last Survivor of the Stuarts’, and reads: ‘The remains of this extraordinary man were on Sunday consigned to the tomb in Tweedmouth Churchyard, Berwick upon Tweed. James Stuart was born in 1728 in South Carolina. His father was a near relative of the Pretender, Prince Charles. About 60 years ago he settled at Tweedmouth and during that period he has travelled the Borders as a minstrel, scraping upon a wretched violin. He had five wives, and twenty-seven children. Ten of his sons were killed in battles – five in the East Indies, two at Trafalgar, one at Waterloo and two at Algiers. His death was occasioned by a slight accident which he received on his hip joint for a fall on the Thursday preceding his death.’


'The Irish Centenarian'

The second contribution appeared in the Lincoln, Boston and Spalding Free Press, dated Tuesday 6 August 1875, under a heading of ‘The Irish Centenarian’. It begins thus: ‘The death of a centenarian has been registered in my district during this quarter. She was a woman known in Emly by her maiden name of Nance Lee. She has been registered with the age of death of 108 years but I have reason to know from a family tradition concerning her, that her age was actually 111 years. During her youth she was gifted with wonderful bodily strength and activity and as a girl used to follow across country, a pack of black and tan beagles kept by a neighbouring gentleman. For 40 years she acted as carrier of bread between Tipperary and Emly. She used to carry all her goods in a bag on her back and thus laden she traversed sixteen miles daily. Up to the last she was strong and in perfect use of her senses and she walked to and from the parish chapel on the Sunday she died, quietly, with all her grandchildren around her.’


The frog hunter for French prisoners of war

The third death notice spotted by Teresa was published in the Lllangollen Advertiser, dated Friday 2 May 1902, and reads: ‘Lawrence Murphy aged 101 years has died in Dumfries Workhouse from senile decay. He had enjoyed an adventurous career over the world. As a boy he hunted masses of frogs and other such like “dainties”, with which he served the French prisoners of war, imprisoned at Dumfries. When over sixty years of age, he at different times saved four persons from drowning but without reward. He was a fierce fighter and even when over eighty years of age he would support his tottering legs with his back against a wall and beat off an assailant. About that time he had no home and slept in a dog kennel in a  bye-way, where, during the severity of winter, he was found with his hair frozen to the ground. He was 90 years old and admitted to the Poor-house and he took part in the last New Year’s festivities there. Up to the time of his death he took a keen interest in current events.’


Have you found any more fascinating obituaries while searching in newspaper archives, perhaps relating to your own ancestors? We'd love to hear them, so do send them in to Dear Tom via editorial@family-tree.co.uk 


You can find the full Dear Tom column in the February 2019 issue of Family Tree.


Illustration © Ellie Keeble for Family Tree.



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