A family tree mystery solved

Those of you who have been following my family tree exploits here on dadams.co.uk (so that’s my brother Steve and perhaps one other person) will know that I’ve experienced two major roadblocks. One is my great-grandmother Alice West, where the lack of any evidence of her marriage to Henry James Clinch (yikes) has so far made it impossible to trace her roots. No marriage certificate, no dad’s name, and there’s loads of Alice Wests to choose from in West London around that time. I have a prime suspect but no evidence.

The other problem was the identity of my great-great-great grandmother, the mother of James Clinch and grandmother of the afore-mentioned Henry Clinch (and wife of Henry Clinch Senior, the butterman / cheesemonger). Would this be easier with a diagram? Vital pieces of evidence were missing… no record of James’ birth, no obvious record of Henry Senior getting married (blimey, bit of a trend emerging here) and no record of Henry Senior’s wife in the 1851 census… just Henry, his son (Henry William), his daughter (Jane), and a mysterious laundry woman named Sarah Thwaites. Triple bad luck.

James wasn’t born until circa 1853, so who was his mother? Where was his mother when the census was being recorded? I guess that’ll never be answered, but she may have been out of the house, plain and simple as that.

However, a couple of months ago I made contact with a very distant cousin who said that Henry William’s mother was named Sarah. At the time I was engrossed with the Alice West conundrum and have only recently put that on the back-burner. Turning my attention to the possibility of a Sarah Clinch there were three things I could follow up. #1 was a marriage record for a Henry Clinch in the St James (Westminster) district in the 4th quarter of 1845 – in those days the marriage index didn’t record who married who (as it does starting early in the 20th century), just that a certain set of people got married. If you’re very lucky you can work out who married who via census records. In that same quarter that this unknown Henry Clinch was married, two Sarahs were also married (Greening and Milnes). So I ordered Henry’s marriage certificate.

#2 was Henry William’s birth certificate. He was my great-great-great uncle so I’m not one of his descendants, but this should tell me the name of his mother and hopefully tie up with…

#3 – a death certificate for a Sarah Clinch, 1855 in Brentford. I know that Henry Clinch Senior married in his later years, long after the children were born, so was this Sarah Clinch his first wife?

When you order these certificates they offer ‘reference checking’ – this allows the General Register Office to check a vital piece of information you give them to ensure that the certificate is the one you want and that you’re spending your £7 wisely. For the wedding in 1845, I asked for a check on the mystery Henry Clinch marrying one of the Sarahs. For Henry William’s birth certificate, I asked for a check that his father was also Henry Clinch. For the death certificate, I asked for a check that the late Sarah’s husband was Henry Clinch.

Today, two certificates turned up. The first one I opened was Sarah Clinch’s death certificate  – and bingo (I shouldn’t really get too excited, this detailed my great-great-great grandmother’s demise), she was the wife of Henry Clinch the butterman. She died aged 33 from “albuminuria, dropsy and diarrhoea”. You know what the last one is, that’s the green apple splats, but you can look up the other two in Wikipedia. Clearly she was most unwell and I hope her passing was peaceful.

The second envelope contained Henry William’s birth certificate. Bingo – son of Henry Clinch the butterman and Sarah Clinch formerly Brown. Two pieces of an ancient jigsaw snapping into place. My conclusion from this would be that Sarah Brown was James’ mother and therefore my great-great-great grandmother (given that James’ birth took place in between these two events).

The third certificate hasn’t turned up – I would guess this is because it failed the reference check and that Henry Clinch married Hannah Chapman or Jane Esther Prothero.

So, this is progress, but look at that name… Sarah Brown. Brown is the 5th most common (I mean frequently occurring, don’t get upset) surname in Britain behind Smith, Jones, Williams and Taylor. The death certificate tells me her age (and therefore a birth year of circa 1822) and pretty much nothing else. The birth certificate of Henry William confirms her maiden name… so we have a Sarah Brown, born around 1822, place of birth unknown, parents unknown. What I need is a record of their marriage, if indeed they did get married. Their first child was Jane, born in 1848, so it’s likely they were married no more than two or three years before that (unless they had children prior to Jane who didn’t survive). The official marriage register started late in 1837, but as Sarah would have been just 15 at the time I think it’s unlikely they married before records began.

The geneologist Anthony Adolph reminds budding ancestry hunters that military records are often overlooked, and a marriage which happened while in service isn’t usually recorded on the general register but in a separate military marriage register. I have no idea if Henry Senior served in the forces, but it could explain why he seems to be missing from the 1841 census (although admittedly that census was very hit and miss compared the later ones). Unfortunately a search of military marriages has drawn a blank.

Another roadblock, but it’s a roadblock one generation further back, and I call that progress.


  1. Woody, I actually envy you because you may be about to embark upon something very exciting and intriguing… and possibly frustrating, but very rewarding. If I know you as I do, I think you’ll love the mystery and discovery of the process of tracing your roots… and when you place an ancestor in the 1700’s you really feel you’ve achieved something.

    The obvious first step is to get as much info as possible from your parents – ideally if they know names of their grandparents and where they lived then they may be traceable in the 1901 census. Dates of birth, marriage and death all help. If your parents, aunts or uncles have any birth, marriage and death certificates passed down they will reveal a lot of info. Hopefully you’ll turn up some unusual surnames, if you’re unlucky you’ll have to pick your way through Smiths and Joneses.

    The 1901 census is the latest available, the 1911 census won’t be available until 2012 cos of some daft law. So if you can place ancestors in 1901 it’s usually fruitful going back to 1891, 1881, and so on.

    I have a subscription to an Ancestry site so I can search and view census documents – let me know if I can help.

  2. I’ve joined Ancestry dot come for the 14 day free trial and been having a look throught the census records with some success, at least one branch I’ve tracked back to the mid 1800s. The family info is a bit scant so this might be a bit more of a detective job than I first imagined. Also luckily the surnames have been pretty rare so no Smiths or Joneses.

  3. Alice Maud West who died in 1953 is my great grandmother. I can confirm that she was never married to Henry Clinch – a fact of which she was apparently bitterly ashamed until the day she died. I believe that most of her children did not know. She told the husband of her youngest daughter (Rosie) I believe in hospital after she broke both hips(?). The story in my family is that she was from good stock and was thrown out when she fell pregnant. I am the granddaughter of one of her daughters Edith (one of the twins – the other was Janet)who married Richard Patten.

    I am only just starting to research the Clinchs having been concentrating on my grandfather, Richard Patten, but is great to have found a distant relative! Do you have any photos of the Clinch clan?!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *