All The Fun Of The Fair

Sometimes when we are researching our family history we stumble across a story that is so intriguing and interesting that it’s just too good not to share. In this instance I would like to share with you a story that has been written and researched by Alan Mercer. I am sure that like me, you will find the story thoroughly absorbing.

For many people, the DNA tests offered by the big commercial family history sites are a fun exercise in finding out where your DNA origins might lie. Everyone likes to imagine they have Viking blood coursing through their veins, and it’s useful to be able to draw on an Irish connection when St. Patrick’s Day comes around. For the serious family historian though, DNA testing can be an invaluable tool in breaking down brick walls, providing corroborative evidence where there are gaps in the paper trail, or simply as a way of quickly adding cousin lines to your tree. 


There’s a potential downside of course. Apart from uncovering long forgotten skeletons, there is the possibility that a great deal of what you thought you knew about yourself is wrong. However, if you love puzzles, then working through your DNA matches and discovering how they link into your tree can be a very satisfying part of your family discovery. There’s always something to challenge your curiosity. Possibly the most fascinating, and potentially tree changing, are the cohort of mystery 4th to 6th cousins that make no sense on first inspection. If it’s an odd match with no cross matches and a blank or relatively small tree, then you’re excused for moving on. Choose your battles wisely. If however, there’s a number that form a significant shared match group then you have no choice but to take them on. It is such a cluster of matches that has kept me awake many nights over the last few years, and had me wondering where whole weekends have disappeared to. 

A bit of background: 

Apart from my own handy spoonful of Irish, I am as much North West England as you can get. My father’s side consists of long lines of agricultural labourers and tenant farmers marrying cotton weavers and spinners. Generations worked the fields then filled the graveyards of the villages to the north of Preston, until my great grandparents flirted with the town boundaries, and my grandfather took a job in a mill and married my grandmother. Her family had been cottage weavers in and around Preston, then factory mill workers in the town. 

My mother’s side is only slightly more exotic. Her paternal line sees a few generations making a living in minor trades and general labouring in and around Kendal, until one of them decides to try his luck in Preston, joining the familiar pattern of weavers, factory workers, and the introduction of Irish migrant labourers. Her maternal line draws from the iron mines and bobbin mills around Barrow and Ulverston, flax weavers, and sailmakers from the Fylde, and a group of traveller families who generally inhabited an area between Carlisle, Whitehaven, Ulverston, and Dent, and who rarely married outside of four our five core families. My particular branch of this complex clan were mostly hawkers and dealers in earthenware and pottery. 

So, back to the mystery DNA cluster. 

Because pretty much all of the members in the last six generations in my tree are geographically bound to this region, birth locations in target trees are usually my starting point when trying to find the link. A quick flick through of the candidates at the expected “generational distance” usually gets to me the right line fairly quickly. I am lucky to have obtained samples from my two maternal aunts, and it was while quickly reviewing some of their matches in this way that I spotted a repetition of an unusual place name. Many of the matches had ancestors born in Little Munden (and Great Munden) in Hertfordshire. When I checked where these are on a map, I also spotted that Standon and Dane End had also cropped up in trees I had reviewed. I performed a location search on all of my and my two aunts’ matches, and found that these locations appeared for many more distant matches in all three of our lists. Checking cross matches to my known matches didn’t reveal anything further back than great grandparent level. In particular, I found out I could definitely rule out any link to the huge endogamous traveller cluster, which had been my first suspicion. 


So, where was the link? Looking at the available trees, their Hertfordshire ancestors had all been agricultural labourers. There was no indication that anyone had ever moved or had reason to move to, or travel to, Lancashire, and I was pretty sure that I had never come across any of my families moving to Hertfordshire. There was only one thing to do, create a tree for as many of these matches as I could and see where they met. 

This exercise brought me to Mary Wallis (b. 1797) and her two husbands John Godfrey (b. 1797) and Charles Phillips (b. 1795), plus a couple more remote matches that led to her brother, Daniel Wallis. Given there were links via both her marriages, Mary Wallis seemed to be the key, and bearing in mind that one of my aunties has a 2nd-3rd (130cM) match, the link could not be further back than her. Therefore, I needed to look at her children. The only one who appeared to have had the opportunity for mobility was William Phillips (b.1820). He went to London and enlisted in the army in 1839. The rest of his siblings appear to have remained local. In terms of my family, I had eliminated all but the Dewhurst line. 

My aunts are granddaughters of Jane Dewhurst (b. 1889) and Thomas Dixon (b. 1884). I could eliminate the Dixon line due to there being no cross matches to Hertfordshire earlier than Thomas, and I had confirmed DNA links with both his parents. Jane was the youngest of six children (who survived childhood) of Richard Dewhurst and Mary Miller. Richard married Mary in 1865. She sounds a colourful and formidable character. She came from a traveller family who made, bought and sold earthenware, licensed hawkers, but as mentioned previously, I could confidently disregard these families’ lines. 

So what about Richard Dewhurst? 

Richard was the middle of three children born in Preston in 1844 to James Dewhurst and Mary Biggins.

Richard Dewhurst birth

They lived in dreadful conditions in the poorest of circumstances. His mother died aged just 30 in 1848. By excluding other lines, I had to accept the possibility that Richard was in fact William Phillips’ son. Could William have been stationed in Preston in 1843/4? There was certainly plenty of military activity in the town due to the mill strikes and the continuing Chartist protests, and a large garrison was under construction. Unfortunately, after weeks of investigation, all the military sources pointed to William being stationed in Ireland throughout that period, so the trail went cold. I looked again at the case a few months later when I was checking something else, and I discovered something really odd. Now I know Richard was definitely born in Preston. I have a copy of his birth certificate. He was the middle child, and his parents could barely have afforded food, let alone travel across the country. In the census returns of 1851, 61, 71, and 81 he gives his place of birth as Preston. I doubt he ever set foot outside of Preston until after his marriage. 

Then, in 1891, this happens: 

1891 census

Richard Dewhurst born in Ware (annotated Hertfordshire). Even more odd, in 1901 his birth place reverted to being recorded as Preston! So what happened? There was just no logical explanation. Adoption? Kidnap? Sold? Obviously there were no births recorded in Ware under his name. Who would have told him or how would he have found out aged 40 that his origins were not as he thought? Why would he then quietly ignore the new facts ten years later? It didn’t make sense, but there was obviously some link to to my mystery cluster problem. Unfortunately, there were no other lines that could isolate or prove Richard’s origins. His brother died aged 10. His sister Isabella married twice. The first time was the day before her father died. She lost her first husband after just seven years of marriage, shortly after the death of their two children. She married again and had two daughters, one who died as a teenager, and the other who never married. Isabella’s tragic life ended when she was just 36. 

Richard’s father James probably fathered another child with his landlady in 1856, but that line looks to have died out too. Richard’s only confirmed uncle, John, never married, so I don’t know of any children he may have fathered. Richard had other potential uncles and aunts, but I’ve not managed to definitively prove them, or trace any descendents of theirs. Another dead end, so I parked the problem again. 

Despite his very poor origins, together with Mary, Richard developed a very successful fairground business. Sometime around 1859/60, he had joined with his uncle in running a travelling shooting gallery that they had constructed. Shortly after his marriage, Richard appears to have taken this over completely, and also invested in a rudimentary roundabout ride. By the 1890s, as well as a larger, much improved shooting gallery, they had bigger rides and had acquired a brand new showmans engine. It seems that Mary was the driving force of the business, and it was her name that appeared on the livery. 

Mary Dewhurst is third from the right in the picture below 

Dewhurst engine

I had made no further progress with the Hertfordshire connection for around a year until I came across this local newspaper report from August 1887 concerning a minor altercation involving Mary: 

Daniel Phillips! Could this be it? 

Mary Dewhurst court article

A quick check back to my Hertfordshire matches tree showed a Daniel Phillips born in Little Munden in 1851, grandson of aforesaid Mary Wallis. Could this be the same one? His mother died in 1859. In 1861 he, his father, and his brother were lodging in Ware, and in 1871 he was lodging alone in Ware and described his occupation as “fishmonger”. He dropped off the radar after this. There are no obvious deaths that would seem to match, nor does he appear to be on the 1881 census. The 1891 census also failed to reveal his whereabouts. Seemingly another dead end, but a few months later I was searching the indexes of Lancashire Archives when I came across an entry for an inquest into the sudden December 1901 death of a Daniel Phillips in Preesall (which is just outside Preston). There was no detail, and I couldn’t find a newspaper report, so I found and ordered the death certificate. This showed that he died suddenly of natural causes, but the important information is that his occupation was “Roundabout Engine Driver”. His age (54), wasn’t quite right for the Hertfordshire birth, but was close. He should have appeared on the 1901 census, but didn’t, so his place of birth can’t be verified. No equivalent births can be found in the Preston or wider Lancashire area.

Daniel Phillips death

I then looked back to that mystery 1891 census and I realised there was another clue. 

The 1891 census only lists the three youngest children with Richard and Mary in their caravan, camped on Chorley Market Place for the Easter Week fair. There were three missing children eldest son James (20), son Richard (10), and Mary Ann (14) who by this time may have been running the shooting gallery amusement (apparently she used to dress in Wild West costume). I couldn’t find census entries for them elsewhere, and then, the lightbulb moment. 

What if the Richard on the census, born in Ware, but only for the purposes of this particular census, was not Richard, but Roundabout Engine Driver Daniel Phillips! “Real” Richard could have been on the road in another van with the three eldest children. The 1891 census was taken on Sunday April 5th. The previous week was Easter Week. The fairground would be moving on to the next location over Sunday and Monday. Why would Daniel not give his real name? Well if it is Daniel from Little Munden, then he avoided the previous census too, so perhaps he had reasons to disappear. His recorded age is a couple of years out for “real” Richard, correct for Preesall Daniel, and therefore a little off the Hertfordshire birth. In order to avoid revealing who he was and what his domestic circumstances were, it was probably convenient for him to just use Richard’s name. Mary was never particularly accurate when it came to the census. Her age fluctuated wildly. Even on her marriage, her age was recorded as 16 when in fact she was 14. She does not seem to be the type to detain the enumerator with information regarding anyone who had departed the site. So, was the information on the census an innocent convenience, or was I a generation out, and Daniel was the father of my great grandmother Jane Dewhurst? 

Back to the DNA. 


I already knew that my one close Dixon match that links to Jane’s marriage to Thomas Dixon DOES cross match with some in the Little Munden cluster, and that a couple of Dixon matches from earlier in the line DON’T cross match. I only have one other match from below the Richard and Mary Dewhurst marriage. She is a descendant of youngest son Richard. She DOESN’T cross match, but there is a slight worry in that she is a couple more generations down the line so a cross match is far less likely to show up. 

I’m not finished yet. My next steps are to try and trace other descendents of Richard and Mary in order to test more people. It does appear though that I’m not as grim and northern as I like to make out. 

Some valuable lessons I’ve learned: 

Always make notes and make a diary note to review things from time to time. 

Review all your sources carefully. It’s easy to miss something you’re not looking for. 

Don’t trust your ancestors with paperwork. They lied about stuff and couldn’t be bothered with officials. 

Finally, if something doesn’t look right, it probably isn’t. The reason is usually the most obvious option, but make a note and look for more evidence. When used together, DNA research and conventional genealogy research can help you solve even the most difficult of brick wall problems.

Remember of course that DNA never lies, however our ancestors on the other hand, very often did!

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9 thoughts on “All The Fun Of The Fair

  1. Excellent detective work. Quite interesting methodology, which I always appreciate. Will watch this blog for updates! And you’re correct, ancestors lied about all kinds of things for all kinds of reasons…can’t trust ’em.

    Liked by 1 person

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