Friday, October 30, 2015


I've been doing some research into the family of my maternal grandmother, whose surname was Cox. Having never really come across the name much I was somewhat taken aback by just how common it was in the part of Gloucestershire they come from (near Stroud, should you be interested!). If that wasn't enough it appears that just about every family in the village had a daughter who was either born Ann Cox or became Ann Cox through marriage, which made tracing my Great x3 Granny even more complicated!

The menfolk have somewhat less common names; Laban, Benjamin, Ira & Reuben. So that should've be easier right? Yeah right... how can people simply disappear for a couple of decades? Or appear in a census as very much alive thank you but not appear in any Death records? Well not that we could find at first, leaving a conundrum - Laban must've died somewhere otherwise he'd be 190yrs old by now, and much as the idea appeals I didn't think we had Time Lords or Immortals in the family.

So in an attempt to make sense of some of what was going on I started looking at the bigger picture; how come so many people from Bisley, Gloucestershire ended up in Halifax, West Riding of Yorkshire around the mid 1800s, and who were they?

After trawling through the census records from 1841 (the first one done) to 1891 for the district I started tracking various families and individuals over the years. I've no idea (yet...) how many of the Cox families listed are related to me, but I found myself getting quite emotionally involved in their histories. Having studied this period for my Social & Economic History A Level, plus having read a fair amount of historical fiction set in this era, I know a reasonable amount about it. However it was one thing learning about it in an abstract fashion, and quite another following the lives and deaths of real people, especially when they might be related to me. It was sobering to see how many children simply didn't make it from one census to the next, ten years later. The oldest person I recorded was 75, and few got to more than 60. Children as young as 7 and 8 had occupations listed next to their names in the 1841 census, and the designation 'pauper' was next to several names. One was living in the workhouse and another the local orphanage, several were servants in later decades and the earlier ones were full of weavers and spinners of both wool and silk, workers at various stages of the walking stick manufacturing industry (stick cutters, varnishers, polishers and bone carvers). Watermen (whatever that may mean!), railway labourers and agricultural labourers made regular appearances but the trade that cropped up again and again was stonemasonry, and that is what took sometimes just the menfolk, but sometimes entire families, up to Halifax.

According to a local history website, the district had had a lot of textile small scale industry, both wool and silk. The industrial revolution hit the area hard in the mid 1830s and many were left out of work. I've not yet figured out what the stonemasons were all working on until the 1850s that kept them in the area, but in the 1851 and 1861 census returns there are several families where the 'head' of the household is absent and the wife listed as 'wife of a stonemason'. Family tradition has it that Halifax Town Hall was built by members of our family (plus a few hundred others no doubt...) and that seems to be born out by the number of stonemasons from Bisley, including a few Coxs, who appear in the Halifax census returns in 1861.

Eventually the mystery was solved, it turned out that there weren't two Labans in the Bisley area about 10yrs apart in age, but just the older one, and someone had stuffed up (made up?) his age on a subsequent census entry. It turns out that his son Benjamin, my G.G.Grandad was from his second marriage, and the other Coxs they are later listed as living with in Halifax are from the first marriage. The reason it was all confusing is in the earliest census returns Laban is listed as living with his first family, and in the later one in Bisley he's just with his younger family, the older children being at a different address.

So it appeared that alas, no Time Lords in the family after all. Well that was until we started trying to research Benjamin's wife Janet who appears in the marriage register, several census records and the death register, but is conspicuous by her absence from any birth registers or census returns from the part of Scotland where she was supposedly born and spent her childhood! I'm reasonably certain she didn't die from having her head lopped off with a sword though as that would've caused quite a stir in Halifax in 1917, so that at least rules out her being an Immortal! Seems we're stuck with invisible for the time being instead.

A bizarre twist to the tale has been in relating some of these research challenges to long standing friends I've found that two of them also have Cox ancestry in the family from that part of Gloucestershire! I know it has long been said that Quakers makes the world a smaller place, but I wasn't expecting to end up potentially related to people I've known over half my life who also happen to have made their home in Aotearoa NZ!


Melinda Wenner Bradley said...

Hi Anna, I don't know if you will remember me, but we were both on the Quaker Youth Pilgrimage in 1987. I'm preparing to attend the FWCC World Plenary in Peru next month, and the experience of QYP is often on my mind. In trying to find any history online about QYP 87, I came across your lovely blog post from 2005 reflecting on the experience. (And rather randomly, Anne Grundy, another QYP participant, and I met at a Friends meeting recently and later realized our connection!) I send greetings from New York, and hope this finds you well.
Peace and love to you,
Melinda Wenner Bradley

Anna Dunford said...

Melinda! So lovely to hear from you! I've thought a lot about QYP '87 what with WGYF 2005 and the World Conference in Kenya 2012. I'd been hoping to catch up with more of you that way, but there kept just being me Rosie and Ute, and lovely as it always is to see them they are probably the two I've seen the most of over the years since in other places.

Did you see this post about Annie? So sad to lose her, even though we'd not seen each other in years there's something comforting in just knowing someone is there...

The more folk I hear about going to Peru the more I'm wishing I'd applied for an Open Place, but I keep reminding myself that these things are about more than just catching up with old f/Friends and it really is someone else's turn. Look out for the Kiwis who are going, we all know each other and most of them I know well.

Melinda Wenner Bradley said...

Thanks for your reply, Anna. And sad news about Annie, who is such a bring light (and so much fun) in my memory.
I'm excited and nervous about the travel to Peru (leaving three kids at home), but feel called to be with our world family at this moment in my life and work. I'm heartened to know that some of us from QYP '87 have supported Quaker youth and children as part of our work in the world. I'll keep an eye out for Kiwis in Peru, and remember you to them!