Thursday, January 31, 2019

Connecting with Our Great Grandparents in England

If you've been following along here, you know Minnie Wood Leatherman was from Buffalo, New York and moved with her parents, William S. and Elizabeth (Bessie) Wood to Lansing around 1905. We also believe William was born "at sea" (U.S. Census records) and that Bessie was born in England.


For a long while, that's where the chain ended. But going through city directories, we learned her maiden name, Grainger, and ultimately, through census and city directory data, her parents (Stephen and Elizabeth) and siblings (twin Stephen, brother James and possibly sister Mary).

Census data indicated Stephen and Elizabeth came from England with Bessie and young Stephen and James as children. And the hunt was on.

I'm not sure how I stumbled on their Stephen and Elizabeth's marriage data or Bessie and young Stephen's christening info but the spot it revealed was in London -- St. James Church, Piccadilly. So, when Rick and I visited in October (2018), St James was on my "must" list.


And here's how it looked in the 1800s.


(It turned out to be on Rick's list, too, as he learned they have wonderful afternoon recitals there and enjoyed more than one!)


I contacted the secretary of the church who said they didn't have the records on site, but of course the church is there as it has been since the 1600s. It's a Christopher Wren building, quite unlike his more massive domed structures such as St. Paul's.


While Rick was enjoying a piano recital, I took a look around. One of the first things I noticed was the Grinling Gibbons baptismal font which dates back to the early days of the church and certainly before the twins' christening in 1852 or their parents' marriage at St. James two years earlier.


Gibbons was a Dutch/English sculptor and wood carver and was known for his work in England, including St. Paul's, Windsor Castle and many others. Regarded as the finest wood carver in England and the only one whose name is well known to non-students, he tended to work in lime wood and stone.


At St. James, he carved both the baptismal font, depicting Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and a wooden altarpiece or reredo, as well as the pulpit. His wood work here was in his favorite lime wood.


St. James had quite a reputation in its early days as the church of the very wealthy and indeed, it was said that buying a seat for a service in the 1700s cost more than a ticket to the theatre. But by the 1800s they had built benches for the poor. It is likely that shoemaker Stephen and his wife were more likely to be in these more humble seats than the pews.


The church itself is filled with light. It's high ceiling is accented in gold. After severe devastation during World War II, the church was restored and more than four thousand books of gold leaf were used on the ceiling and pillars.


It was interesting and somewhat emotional for me to stand at the back of the church's center aisle, looking at the magnificent Grinling carving at the altar and imagining Elizabeth walking down that aisle to meet Stephen. Of course, it may not have happened that way at all. They may well have come in by the side or married in the parish house. We don't know. What we do know is that they had witnesses (whose names we would later discover). Whether Elizabeth's father, Hugh Davies, was present or Stephen's father, Michael Grainger, we don't know. Both would have traveled far distances to come and it was 1850s. Travel was not easy for the common man.


Equally moving was to walk to the font, which is located near the left wall at the rear of the church. And again, imagination comes into play -- and this time, probably quite close. The parish priest or one of his associates would have baptised the twins with water from the Gibbons font, with Stephen and Elizabeth holding them, one each.


The church was once the parish to the wealthy and has many plaques honoring its members. One of particular interest is in memory of Richard Croft. He was the person overseeing the care of Princess Charlotte, George IV's daughter, during her pregnancy. His methods were highly unorthodox and the baby died, and Charlotte shortly thereafter. The death of Charlotte had some repercussions. After another of his patients died in similar circumstances, Croft committed suicide. He wasn't allowed to be buried on holy ground but some years later after the controversy had subsided, this plaque was installed in his memory.


The other consequence? Charlotte's death left England without a direct heir and his niece, Victoria, came to the throne upon his death.

While the church gives us a sense of place, it didn't provide the records. For these we had to go to the Westminster Archives. Here we unearthed that Elizabeth was a spinster and Stephen a bachelor and we can see their handwriting.


And we also learned the names and occupations of both Stephen and Elizabeth's parents -- these would be our third great grandfathers. Michael Grainger was a farmer. Hugh Davies was a mechanic. (We will never be likely to know what brought Stephen or Elizabeth to London). John and Ellen McCarthy were their witnesses. Who were they? Siblings to either Stephen or Elizabeth? Neighbors? Another mystery.


 Here's a better look.


 Our research at the archives also indicated that the couple resided at 71 Wells Street. This is Bessie and Stephen's christening record.


So, we were off on another quest. This is the site they lived in when Minnie's parents were born and from where they emigrated.


As you can see, the lower floor facade has been entirely modernized. But the upper floors seem consistent with the Jacobean and Elizabethan architecture style popular in the 19th century. (Thank you, Jenny Woolf, for that and information on the Wells Street neighborhood.) The neighborhood was active at this time (and had been since the 1700s), just off Oxford Street and a short walk from the site where Stephen went to work as a shoemaker. Rick and I disagree on this but I find it highly likely this is the original building or if not, was built shortly after as part of St. Andrew's school. (Update: this building was built for the school on the site of Elizabeth and Stephen's home several years after they emigrated to America.)


There will always be unanswered questions. And I'm pretty curious about Elizabeth Davies Grainger's Welsh family. Perhaps another search. Until then, some questions answered, some local color. A sense of time and place. And many more to ponder.

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