By Steven J Smith
We all have family legends that weave their way into our genealogies, and many of us feel the urge to “get to the bottom of them”. The problem can be where to begin especially if the persons concerned had a common surname like Smith or Jones or Brown.
Well, three years ago I started researching a story concerning the role of a lady named Mary Smith who was supposedly a relative of mine, and this is how I did it.
Ascertain the details of the story; they are likely to have a core of truth
According to family lore, she triggered the curious lifestyle choice of that celebrated nineteenth century recluse “Old Three Laps”. This gentleman forsook the world and took to his bed for a period of 49 years, speaking to no one throughout the entire period. He died aged 79 in 1856 having generated such regional interest in his story that thousands packed the graveyard of Keighley parish church in West Yorkshire to witness his funeral. The alleged cause of this self-imprisonment was that his betrothed, Mary Smith, jilted him at the altar.
Now the problem with researching any branch of the Smith family tree in Keighley is that it is not so much a tree but rather more of a forest. The point was admirably made in the book “Keighley Past and Present” wherein the author stated that in 1846 seven percent of the parish population were surnamed Smith, equating to 204 households. The problem has not diminished.
By way of compounding the confusion about who belonged to who in the Smith tribe, their choice of Christian names, male and female, showed little imagination, resulting in a plethora of Williams, Roberts, Josephs and Marys. It is quite simple then to get on the wrong track, especially the further back one tries to go, a lesson I learned by bitter experience during my research.
Focus on unusual names or family groups
Fortunately for me, my great-great-grandmother had the presence of mind to name her fourth son Greenwood after her maiden name, and so I was able to start my search for past Smiths from a
firm foundation; my great-grandfather Greenwood Smith, father of Thomas, Ramsden, Robinson, James, Greenwood jnr and Edgar. This was a team easily identified in the censuses and other records.
Greenwood Smith’s parents were not too difficult to trace, because having found him aged nine in the 1851 census I could then trace the whole family in the 1841 census at Goodley Lane Ends, now a part of Oakworth in West Yorkshire. Unfortunately his father’s name was William and the family moved early in Greenwood’s life into the Damside area of Keighley, a place awash with Smiths. The problem then was how to trace the right Bill Smith and thereby find perhaps a death certificate or even a gravestone with an indication of his date of birth? I decided to fill in the gaps around Greenwood Smith’s extended family.
From the certificate of Greenwood’s first marriage in 1862 (he subsequently married twice more having lost two wives in childbirth) I established his occupation as ‘farmer’ at Newsholme Dean, a very small hamlet near Keighley. The census of 1861 recorded him as living there with, and working for, one Joseph Smith who was aged 44 at the time. A quick check in the 1841 census revealed this same Joseph Smith aged 25 residing with his parents, Joseph Snr and Alice at Bottoms Farm in Newsholme Dean. Other documentary evidence established that Old Three Laps was jilted by a Mary Smith of Bottoms Farm, so I was on the right track.
Perseverance makes its own “luck”
At this point fortuity lent a hand in the guise of the parish baptism records. It must have been a profitable year for cloth producers in 1816, or perhaps Alice had run out of patience with her husband, but for whichever reason Joseph Smith Snr took his whole family to be baptised in the parish church on 1st May.
There in the records are the names of all his children and their dates of birth – Robert, William (Greenwood’s father), Michael, Mary and Joseph Jnr. This Mary however was not the Mary that
jilted Old Three Laps; she was too young to be so. There must have been another older Mary, a sister to Joseph Snr perhaps?
Do not ignore the physical evidence
Bottoms Farm still stands today above Newsholme Dean, no longer a working farm but still a beautiful location for the holiday cottages into which it has been meticulously converted. There above the doorway to the old farmhouse is a datestone bearing the initials “R.M.S.” and the date 1781. Knowing the inclination of parents of those times to repeat family names, I decided to search for Mary Smiths married to ‘R Smiths’ in the parish records prior to 1781. After many, many hours of searching and several false trails I found them. Robert and Mary Smith were married in 1779.
From probate records I was able to confirm the existence of their son Joseph Smith Snr and his sister Mary Smith. Here was the girl who jilted Old Three Laps, and the arch-villain of the story, her father Robert who allegedly locked her in her bedroom to prevent the wedding.
Try as I may, I have been unable to find any baptism records for either Joseph or Mary, nor a gravestone or burial record for Robert Smith and his wife, so there are still some unanswered questions but that I suppose is to be expected when sifting through Smiths so if any readers can add to the story please do not hesitate.
Steven J Smith is the author of Old Three Laps a Comprehensive History.