A change of surname

My first ancestor to be registered under the surname Shields, was my paternal grandfather, James William Shields.

I knew the story from an early age. Hugh Devine killed someone and changed his surname to Shields in order to avoid the law. I got the impression that this had happened in Ireland, and that the murderer had been my great-grandfather. But once it became possible to compare the 1851 census with the 1861 census, it was revealed that the surname was changed in Newcastle upon Tyne by my great-great-grandfather — for the whole family.

You can read about Hugh Devine’s mysterious origins. But I am also intrigued about why he chose the name “Shields” for his new name.

Hugh Devine married Hannah Edwards in St John’s Church, Newcastle upon Tyne, on 28 December 1843. They then registered the births of four children under the old surname: James Devine, Mary Divine, John Divine, and, last of all, Hugh Divine, born on 15 August 1853. Their next child, Thomas Shield, was born in 28 December 1855, followed by Margaret Shields and Martha Shields.

I have found the baptism record of only one of their children, John, baptised in St Mary’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, under the same Christian names as the priest who performed the baptism. And one of his sponsors is Isabella Shields.

An image of a baptismal register entry. Born, 1850 June 11. Baptized, 1850 Sep. 28. Person Baptised, John William. Parents, Hugh Devine, Hannah Edwards, Conj.. Sponsors, Adam Carson, Isabella Shields.Minister, J W Bewick.
St Mary's Roman Catholic Cathedral, Clayton Street, Newcastle upon Tyne baptism register, 15 July 1765-31, December 1855. Newcastle Archives MF1792, p143.
Baptism of John Devine, 1850

We see Isabella Shields and John Carson (or Casson, or Corson…) again in the 1851 census. The Devines, Adam, and Isabella, were neighbours, living side by side in tenements in the same court. Hugh and Hannah were with their children, James, Mary and John, and a 10 year old servant-girl. Hugh was working as a brickmaker. Adam, a blacksmith, was in the next household, with his wife and daughter, and 17 year-old Isabella was with her widowed mother in the same court. Isabella worked as a servant, and her mother as a fishmonger.

Image of selected entries from a census. Described in text.
1851 Census of England and Wales

So Hugh Devine was a neighbour and friend of Isabella Shields. Is that why he adopted their name? Like Devine, Shields is a name that could be Irish or Scottish, and believable for a man who probably came from the Border Tinker community. When people change surname they often choose a family name. Was Hugh related to Mary and Isabella, perhaps distantly, through an Irish connection?

Isabella went on to have a difficult life, and died soon after giving birth to her last child, aged only 40. She had three partners, who all died young, though the last of them survived her. When he died, their surviving daughters entered the brutal Middlesbrough Workhouse.