My ancestors moved around the British Isles. But they also travelled overseas for work, especially the men. Although I have not yet found a single direct ancestor who was in the military, several other relatives have served overseas in the armed forces. In her later life, my paternal grandmother relished travel to “the Continent” on bus trips for old age pensioners.
I am a serial migrant across continents — in my 20s I went to Singapore, then came back to England in my 40s, and came to Australia shortly before I was 60. Although I am the first in my direct line who has settled outside the British Isles, many family members did.
There are many ways in which a family historian can know about overseas travel.
Experience and tradition
We might have known from our own experience or been told stories about relatives who travelled. My father’s brother, Hugh Shields, was a mariner, who brought me back exotic gifts from all over the world. Among other trips, he was part of the goodwill tour after the Christmas Island nuclear test of 1958. He brought me a grass skirt but I also remember him showing us the strange rash on his arm.
I always knew that two of my maternal grandmother’s brothers, Ernest Bowyer and Francis Bowyer, went to Australia in the 1920s, intending to work in the foundry for the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and that they stayed there. Ernest’s wife made a single trip to her home town, after his death, and I remember meeting her then.
I heard stories of my maternal grandfather’s brother, Sidney Fraser, who was on the staff of the steelworks in Jamshedpur in India in the 1920s, part of the British rule of India. He brought back a model of the Taj Mahal that we never managed to assemble. I wasn’t told that he also had a go at opal mining in Australia — I discovered that from doing genealogy.
Several relatives served in the forces and spent time abroad, either during wartime, or as part of National Service in the years after WWII. I saw the photograph of my grandmother’s brother, Gordon Bowyer, on military service in Italy in WWI. Both my mother’s brothers had postings overseas, and one of my second cousins, Howard Bowyer, was married in Hong Kong. This was just knowledge I grew up with.
It can be expected that a man who was a mariner will have gone overseas. I have several mariners among my ancestors, on both sides of my family, some of whom would have visited many foreign ports. It’s possible, but not certain, that Ralph Shotton, a mariner of South Shields, restricted himself to the trade between South Shields and Leith — it looks as if he might have had a wife in both ports — but he probably went further too. Occasionally a relative is “at sea” for a census. And sometimes there is hard evidence of a mariner’s experience, such as the sad story of a great-great-grandfather, John White.
John White was born in 1808 in Newcastle upon Tyne, into a family that worked mostly in glass-making. He married Mary Hetherington in 1834 and their only child was born in 1838. Tragically John White died in Rotterdam on 10 July 1840. His premature death was followed by the death of his parents in 1841 and 1842, and the death from TB of Mary in 1843. Their young son (John White Jnr) was raised by his uncle, Benjamin White and also went to sea, though he wasn’t a sea captain, as claimed by his daughter, my paternal grandmother.
Because of the publications of Brent Bowyer on the Bowyers of Stradishall, I knew that in 1905 Marcus Henry Bowyer, a descendant of a Thomas Bowyer (1559-1643) migrated to Canada.
The extent of overseas migration by my relatives only became clear after I tested my DNA. DNA matches with unknown cousins has revealed many more migrations of which I knew nothing. I haven’t worked out all the matches I have overseas, though I usually work out what part of my family they are linked to.
Sometimes the matches have explained where relatives that seemed to have disappeared had gone — they had left UK. This was part of the enormous movement of people from the British Isles to specific British possessions around the world, part of a drive to populate the British possessions of Canada, Australian and New Zealand with white settlers. These white, English-speaking manual workers were also welcome migrants to the USA.
Most of my relatives migrated with a spouse, and often with some children. The background map is Ancestry information showing the places of residence of people with whom I share an ancestor. Those mapped are those who have chosen to reveal their location. I have added details about some of these migrations — the migrations of the brothers, sisters, nephews and nieces of my own stay-at-home ancestors.
The descendants of Frances White, mostly still in Australia, were my first DNA breakthrough, thanks to genealogy being done by one of her descendants, Hillary Lowden. The matches to the descendants are small — not more than 25cM. Often matches this small are to common ancestors so distant that the link cannot be identified. However, Hillary is a skilled genealogist and was ahead of me in her study of DNA. She quickly saw that I was unable to trace John White Jnr, before 1864, and that he corresponded to a nephew living in the house of her ancestor, Benjamin White in 1851. In this way a DNA match with a fourth cousin once removed enabled me to identify my great-grandfather. and led to many more discoveries for both of us.
I had not succeeded in tracing several of my paternal grandmother’s siblings, hampered by the same common surname — White. Robert White was born in 1887 and was easy to document through censuses, marriage, and distinguished service in the Royal Navy in WWI and in the Royal Canadian Navy in WWII. Thanks to several DNA matches with descendants in Canada, I was able to discover that he and his family migrated to Canada in 1929, his move financed by the navy. Many of the descendants of Robert White who have been identified by DNA show a disrupted family life. There were moves to and fro across the Atlantic. And there were many broken relationships and children born out of wedlock to among his descendants, who include a baby taken from her Native American mother as part of the appalling treatment of “mixed race” children in the mid twentieth-century.
Mary Shields was one of the girls unfortunate enough to have my paternal grandfather as her brother. She and her husband, Samuel Harrison, migrated to Canada in 1912, on the Empress of Ireland, with their two young sons, 13 year old Thomas and 9 year old Lawrence. Mary corresponded with her sister Harriet, but somehow Harriet’s son got the impression that the boys were both killed in World War I, which is not the case. However, Samuel died in Montreal just twelve months after they arrived, aged only 34. One of Mary’s granddaughters relates the tough life this premature death gave her father, Lawrence, who set off on his own around North America, eventually rejoining his mother and her second husband in Tioga, Pennsylvania. Lawrence married a schoolteacher, but his behaviour and drinking reflected damage, luckily not transmitted to his high-achieving descendants.
In the lives of the descendants of the migrants, we can sometimes see the heritage of dysfunction that might go back many generations, but we also see the benefits of access to education and self-determination that became possible for working class British people from the later 1900s. I would like to do a study of climbing the the social class ladder in those who migrated and those who stayed — my initial feeling is that it made little difference. These working class migrants from Britain were also evidence of one of the largest mass migrations in history — the movement in the 1800s of people from Britain to British colonies, a migration that dispossessed and disempowered those in the lands that were taken, while probably not noticeably improving the lot of those who left.