Sunday, 9 October 2011

An Elusive Ancestor : Richard Humphries

Every now and then an ancestor comes along, destined to elude you. We all have at least one in our family tree, right? I have several but none has proved as elusive (or as frustrating) as Richard Humphries.

Born in Hammersmith in 1829, to John Humphries and Ann Rogers, Richard was the eldest of seven children. They lived on The Mall, which fascinates me because when I was a teenager I lived in a block of units by the river, not unlike the scene here (left).

John and Ann were both employed as Mattress Makers, and when Richard went out to work he got his trade as an Upholsterer.

Around 1849 the Humphries family were dealt a cruel blow when the house they moved to in Putney was infested with the deadly cholera disease. Within days of moving in, one son was dead and the father, John, quickly followed. Suddenly Ann was left alone to raise the remaining children, two of which were mere infants. She sent the youngest four to the North Surrey Industrial School in Penge. The eldest two, including Richard, were old enough to fend for themselves. Richard took work in Lambeth and later that same year, married Mary Ann Smith.

Richard and Mary Ann had four children, the first child (an only daughter) died of Scarlatina. Their remaining three sons were born and raised in Putney and they lived in relative comfort until 1871. Then the real confusion began. The census of that year was very revealing in that Richard was no longer married to Mary Ann. His new wife was listed as Sarah Ann. In addition, there was a new child listed. I automatically assumed that Mary Ann had died and Richard married again. Searches for Mary Ann's death and Richard's second marriage almost caused temporary insanity, as both turned up nothing. Eventually I located Mary Ann as having died at the Wandsworth & Clapham Union Workhouse (oddly, 10 years older than she actually was), being listed in their records as a "Widow". Long story number one...

Richard and Sarah Ann were not married, but they had three children together nonetheless, the last of whom was born in 1871, three months after the census of that year. Then the search goes cold for Richard. He is not in the 1881 census, and interestingly, Sarah Ann is married to someone else and they are living in Battersea. She married in 1876 and used her maiden name of Spencer. Her three children are all listed on the 1881 census as Spencer children, not Humphries!

Which begs the question? What happened to Richard Humphries? All manic searches have proved dead end after dead end. The paper trail has, time and again, gone completely cold, having been thwarted at every turn. For example, there are three possible death registrations for a Richard Humphries, however, all three have been investigated and I can attest with every fibre of my being, that they are not my ancestor. I have several cousins who believe they know when he died (1890 is one theory, 1915 another) but I have gone back through the records with a fine tooth comb and can assuredly disprove their theories. It is maddening to not know the truth. Hence, long story number two...

When I poured over the Putney parish registers seven years ago, I came across a burial for an unknown man, around the age of 40 years, drowned in the Thames at Putney. The year was 1875. He was given a burial at St Mary's Church and a coroner's report found that the unknown man had drowned as a result of his leg being caught in a barge. I know I am an ardent lover of Charles Dickens (see previous post) but could it be? Could it possibly be Richard Humphries? Tell me I am grasping at straws, clutching to a romantic fictional notion but it is the best theory I have to go on. Richard disappeared, without a trace, sometime between 1871 and 1876. His "second wife" who he was not legally married to, but had three children with, marries another man in 1876 and carries on with her life, as though Richard Humphries did not exist.

Where did you go Richard? What on earth happened to you? Why has your trail gone cold? Why don't you want me to find you?

Image from Genea-Musings


  1. Terrific post .... I'm hooked. Thanks for the great read and I look forward to more of the same.


  2. are good! You should turn this into a novel. I've always thought the 1915 death was a bit dodgy too, but it was the only one that 'fitted' I shall have to re-think.
    Can we get an exhumation and a DNA test???????????


  3. Many thanks Cindy for your very kind comments, I hope I can keep you hooked!
    David, my exhumation would be morally questionable, surely ;-) xx

  4. Great story Debra.I know what it's like to have elusive ancestors!