On Monday, I’m flying to London. I’ll be meeting Allison and Owen in Frankfurt a week later, and we’ll spend three weeks visiting some of our former wwoofers.
I plan to visit the Globe Theatre, Hampton Court and some galleries, but mostly I’ll be locked away in the UK National Archives at Kew.
When I was 13, we had a school assignment to research our family history. My ancestor who came to Australia was Dr Godfrey Howitt, born in the Derbyshire village of Heanor in a lovely old house that I have visited. (This house has never been sold in 300+ years, and the present owners are very distant cousins… and when they go, it will be knocked down and turned into Council flats.)
Dr Godfrey was a quaker and an important figure in early Melbourne, and helped to found many of the institutions like the Royal Melbourne Hospital and the Botanical Gardens.
I dug around and found a family history written down in the late 1700s, which said that my family were descended from the Hewetts of Killamarsh (Derbyshire) and in turn from Sir William Hewet of the village of Wales in Yorkshire who was Lord Mayor of London. Killamarsh is a 28 mile drive from Heanor. Wales is at the very southern point of Yorkshire, and just 3 miles from Killamarsh.
Even as a 13 year old, I was a pretty thorough sort of fellow and tracked down some other people researching the family. One fellow wrote back to say that the traditional family history was a bit dodgy. For instance, Sir William Hewet the Lord Mayor had only had one surviving child, a girl. He found a chain of wills, which I now have, showing conclusively that the family goes back to William Howet, a millwright in the Nottinghamshire village of Eastwood, about 2 miles from Heanor. This William died in 1664, and shows up in records from about 1620 when he had children in Eastwood — and that’s where the church records peter out.
Lots of people have tried to go back further than that. For more than 30 years, I have done vast amounts of research on every William Hewet/Howet/Huet/Hawet/Hywet/etc in the English midlands, but still can’t make a compelling case to show where the millwright fits. Alas most of the men in the family were called William, or otherwise Robert/Richard/John/Thomas, a pattern that continued for 500 years. There are a lot of surviving documents, but the placenames change and spelling is wildly variable, or they get aggregated to the parish or the nearest big town. It’s a mess.
So now I’m going back through ancient taxation records, village by village, to get a better picture on who was where when. We have to keep our tax records for 7 years, but it’s sobering to think that the tax records from 700 years ago, and longer, are still available. These will be in Latin on parchment, in the bizarre handwriting of the 15th century, but I expect to get some good information.
I love sorting through all this stuff. It’s a bit like a murder mystery, with no guarantee of a tidy answer. It’s fabulous handling ancient deeds and maps from 500+ years ago, and being able to make sense of them.
I have found a few interesting things already. It turns out that the Lord Mayor had a nephew who himself became Sir William Hewet of Wales, and had four sons, so maybe the old family history is partly right. Some of them seemed to have lived in Killamarsh, and spread further south towards Eastwood. This was a literate Norman middle-class family. Another confusing factor is that many of them were merchants in London with several country estates, so they pop up everywhere.
So my success factor for this trip is conclusively finding William of Eastwood’s dad. I’ll let you know how I go.