Jumping to conclusions

One of the reasons researching family history is both satisfying and frustrating in equal measures is that it does not run predictably and this post is a story about how this happened to me during my own research. One of my lines is the surname Brown, not exactly an unusual surname and I was fully aware that pitfalls might await me as I aimed to shake out mine from the many others. We are in 19th Century Liverpool and I have proven via various pieces of evidence that my ancestor William Brown was born about 1794. He was a cabinet maker married to Elizabeth and they had a brood of children, the sons being William, George and (my ancestor) Alfred. 

Now neither William nor his wife had been found on the 1851 census, meaning that an accurate birthplace was not known. In 1841, he was living in King Street, Toxteth Park, his surname having been helpfully indexed as Brames. Street directories of the time confirmed that spelling to be an error. Anyway, there he was with his wife and all his children except his eldest, aged 47, born same county. Unusually, his age was not rounded down to the nearest five years as the enumerators were supposed to have done, something which was quite helpful at a later point in the research, but that's another story. His eldest son, also called William has not been found in 1841 but his baptism and the 1851 census confirm he was still around. His story was to be significant in the rabbit hole which I dived down at a later stage. 


Image: View of Liverpool in more recent times. Source: https://pixabay.com/users/dieterth-6708635/

In the 1851 census, we find the siblings living together with their eldest brother William at 9 Lansdowne Street, Toxteth Park, and no sign of the parents. William (junior) is now head of the household and an unmarried watchfinisher aged 31, born Liverpool. In 1857, he married Isabella McPherson, the daughter of a brass finisher called William at St James, Toxteth. William was listed as a watchfinisher of Melville Street, the son of William Brown Cabinet Maker. So far so good. They had one child, a son, yet another William baptised at the same church and described as son of William Brown and Isabella of Brighton St, watchmaker, baptised 6 March 1858.

The daughters of William the cabinet maker never seem to have married, and two of them, Ann and Mary followed William about from address to address. As they moved as a group, this was quite helpful for tracing them. Both Ann and Mary were with William in at Lansdowne St in 1851 census. They were with him at 25 Smithdown Lane in 1861. They were with him at 4 Conway St Everton in 1871. And Mary was with him at the same place in 1881, Ann having possibly died by then.

It is 4 Conway St which is where things start to go awry.  Here is the census entry:

1871 census: [RG10 3814 f36 p15] 4 Conway St, Everton

William Brown Head Mar 51 Porter born Liverpool
Ann " Sister Unm 49 Dressmaker "
Mary " Sister Unm 46 Housekeeper "
William " Son 13 Scholar

He lived there until his death in 1886, as evidenced by the electoral rolls. His burial at Everton Cemetery reads: William Brown of 4 Conway St, Everton aged 67 years.

To recap, at this stage we had seen neither William the cabinet maker, nor Elizabeth his wife since 1841 and had found no death records we could easily identify as theirs. So in the interests of working from the known to the unknown, I decided to see who was living at 4 Conway Street in the 1861 census. This is what I found:

1861 census:

4 Conway St, Everton

William Brown Head Mar 61 Labourer Cumberland, Darlton
Mary " Wife Mar 48 Lancashire, Catten
John " son Mar 22 weelwright " Liverpool
Isabella E. " Dau-in-law Mar 25 " Leek ?(or Lech?)?
Thomas " son 15 Blacksmith ?(app)? " Liverpool
Richard " son 10 Scholar " "
Ann J. " Dau 8 " " "
William " Grand son 2


Bingo! This was surely my William the cabinet maker. From the above, I deduced the following. William had married a second wife Mary, his first, Elizabeth having presumably died. There were some other post-1841 born children whom we had now found. William (watchmaker) was currently living elsewhere. In fact, his census entry is:

1861 census: [RG9 2732 f96 p4]

25 Smithdown Lane, West Derby

William Brown Head Marr 41 Watch finisher Lancashire, Liverpool
Ann " sister Un 39 Dressmaker " "
Mary " sister Un 36 Housekeeper " "

His wife was not listed for reasons unknown. Presumably their son William was the one aged 2 now living with his grandfather William in 4 Conway Street.

The change of William senior's occupation from cabinet maker to labourer troubled me little as trades ebbed and flowed as they do today and presumably he'd fallen on harder times and had to make a living as such. The birthplace of Cumberland instead of Lancashire was of some concern, but if you've stared at 1841 census entries for long enough, the listings of y or n (usually written in lower case) for "whether born same county" can easily be mis-read and census enumerators were not above making mistakes so perhaps it was simply a clerical error or assumption. 

It did seem a little odd that his family from his first marriage was living separately in the 1851 census (Landsdowne St, Toxteth) where William was at 4 Conway St even at that date. However, I was fairly certain that my Browns had Cumbrian roots. Or may be not. A few years later I found William Brown's death certificate:

Death: 17th April 1844 5:45 am, 22 King St, William Brown aged 50, Cabinet Maker. Cause: Consumption. Informant: William Brown Present at the death 22 King St, Registered 18th April 1844.

His widow died the following year:

Death: 25th Jul 1845 2:15am Elizabeth Brown of 11 Combermere St aged 51. Widow of William Brown (Cabinet Maker). Cause: Consumption. Informant: Ann Brown, present at the death 11 Combermere St. Registered 26th July 1845.

All fairly cut and dried really. Correct area for the deaths. William junior present at his father's death. The daughter Ann at her mother's. All living together as orphaned siblings in 1851. But what are the chances in a city the size of Liverpool that two completely different William Brown families lived in a single house on a single street over a forty year period?

Recent research carried out this year has actually shown that my William Brown (the cabinet maker) was the son of a William Brown who hailed from the lowlands of Scotland. You can never be too careful in this game.


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