Friday, 19 February 2010

Who Do I Know I Am?

About eight years ago, I began researching my family tree, using online databases and subscription sites, such as Ancestry. It was time to build on the information I had picked up over the years. An anecdote here and a recollection there.

In a relatively short span of time, I was discovering ancestors, places of origin, dates, families and occupations. All fascinating stuff, particularly as my father’s line has always been a bit sketchy.

I now know that my 3 x great grandfather, Benjamin, was a ship’s baker, born, 1819 in Somerset. He married Sarah Pitman in Holy Rood Parish Church, Southampton, in 1845 and, eventually, three children arrived, Benjamin in 1846, John (my great grandfather) in 1848 and Eliza Marie in 1852.

They all lived in a terraced house on the quayside in Southampton, with an ironmonger on one side and an Italian Jeweller called Galimberti on the other.

Life would have been tough for them in this area. Conditions were pretty insanitary, and in one street, 77 people shared the same toilet. Hardly surprising to learn that an outbreak of Cholera claimed 240 lives in the city in 1849.

Typically of any busy sea port at that time, there was a constant hustle and bustle, and some pretty unsavoury characters going about their business too.

In 1857, Benjamin sailed on the vessel, Atrato, to the island of St Thomas in the West Indies. He never returned.

His death was a mystery to me, until a volunteer at the Caribbean Genealogy Library turned up a document that listed Benjamin among the victims of a yellow fever outbreak. He was 39 years old.

I couldn’t help wondering what later became of Sarah and her children. Four years after the event, she is recorded on the census returns as a ‘Bonnet-maker’, but living in a street where prostitution was rife. Hopefully, she wasn’t driven to such desperation.

Although Sarah’s fate is unknown, I recently made unexpected contact with Jean, a distant family member who revealed an intriguing link between Sarah and Herbert Pitman, 3rd officer on Titantic, survivor in charge of lifeboat no 5.

Jean and I plan to meet and share what information we have. Slowly, a few more pieces of the picture are falling into place. The names on the records are showing me that they once lived and breathed, laughed and cried, loved and lost.

© 2010, copyright Martin T. Hodges


  1. Your dig into ancestry sounds very simliar to mine, Martin. Several years back I plunged into genealogy feet first and was totally addicted. Like you, I made some wonderful discoveries and connections with distant cousins. It's amazing the information to be gleaned from a simple census page. It really does make the names come to life.

    I'm intrigued with your connection to the Titanic. Looking forward to hearing more!

  2. Sarah is another story waiting to be told...

  3. Delving into family history is a fascinating pastime. I am looking forward to the next instalment.

  4. Let's hope "bonnet-making" was not a euphemism for the oldest profession.

    I must get on to this "Ancestry" site.


  5. It's the little details such as 'an Italian jeweller called Galimberti' that make this kind of family history so great to read about.

  6. You are so fortunate to be able to find out so much. It will be good to have another out there working the line. It is all very interesting. We had two boys come over on a boat from what we thought was a family of six, then just found out that the mother died, their father remarried and there are now seven more to that family. All full relatives first wife and all half relatives the last group.

  7. This is truly fascinating. I've been thinking lately about beginning my own genealogy search in this manner, but I'm afraid that for Jews it might be somewhat different, as so many records were wiped out in the Holocaust...but you've inspired me to try!

    Thanks for sharing this, it is great fun to read.

  8. Willow

    I'm hoping to meet up with my long lost relative in the coming week. I'm looking forward to hearing more about the Titanic connection too.


    Sarah is already on my note-pad!


    I will post again, on any interesting developments. You're right about family history being a fascinating pastime. Just when you think you can't go any further, a little clue presents itself, and you're off again.


    Unfortunately, women who were driven to take up the oldest profession, were known to refer to themselves as Bonnet-makers or Dress-makers.

    Do try the Ancestry site sometime. You can probably get a free trial period, so you can decide whether it's for you or not.


    I, too, am intrigued by Mr Galimberti. He may yet turn up in a future tale.


    It has been a long, hard slog. But worth every minute I've spent, hunched over the computer and scanning documents for the tiniest detail.

    It sounds as though you have plenty of work ahead too. Good luck with that.


    I feel so privileged to have had my family largely intact over the years. Having not been touched by the Holocaust, it's hard for me to imagine what it must have been like for Jewish families. To lose so many loved ones in such a manner is horrific, but to have no record of who you are or where you came from, must be hellish too.

    I hope you will be inspired to try and piece your family history together, and I wish you good luck in your efforts.

  9. It's interesting to look into family histories. My partner's family can trace themselves back to Rob Roy MacGregor. My great grandfather Mr Train was a stationmaster, his son (my grandfather) married a Miss Driver. Thank goodness they didn't go for the double barrelled surname..

  10. Juliet

    Rob Roy MacGregor? Now that is an interesting tree!

    Mr Train and Miss Driver proves that the truth is often stranger than fiction!

  11. Fascinating. I keep meaning to break into the geneology records my mother left. One of these days...

  12. Stephanie

    Don't leave it too long. You'll find a whole new world there.


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