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03 May 2007 @ 07:47 pm
The Hunt for Aunt Jinny  
My mother inherited a diary from her mother which had been written by an "Aunt Jinny".

At first it seemed that discovering Aunt Jinny's identity would be easy, after all we had her diary!! However it became frustratingly obvious on reading the diary that Aunt Jinny didn't really feel the need to give her own name or that of her parents. We knew she lived in York and it seemed possible from a few of the diary entries that she might have had a brother called Fred. We knew her date of birth and the date of her father's death and burial. From my grandmother's note clipped to the front of the diary we knew that Aunt Jinny was a cousin of her father's mother.

I had just become interested in family history in general. Using Internet sources it is fairly easy, with a modicum of luck, to trace your family back to the early 19th Century. By this means I knew that my grandmother's father's mother was Jane Purrington, born in Derbyshire in 1853. Jane's parents were Ann Mosley (b. 1830, Derbyshire) and John Purrington (b. 1825, Devon) and so I was looking for a niece of either Ann or John.

If you start hunting for your ancestors on the Internet you also quite rapidly start running into more or less distant cousins who are interested in the same people and who have usually done a lot more hard work than you have. In this case I was particularly lucky, the Lady of Shallot was interested in the Mosley family and had traced them back to an Ann Mosley born about 1747 in a village called Heath in Derbyshire. She had found most (all? - its hard to ever been completely sure of these things) of Ann's siblings. In many cases she had also discovered their spouses and children. This pretty quickly ruled out Ann's side of the family as a likely candidates. Her siblings were either born at the wrong time or spent their lives nowhere near York. This left me with John Purrington. I then met another cousin, who I shall refer to as Sue Ellen, in this case Sue Ellen was quite a close relative, a second cousin making Aunt Jinny her "Aunt" as well. Sue had looked into John Purrington's family but had hit was seems to be known in genealogical circles as a "brick wall". John's father is referred to as William Purrington on his marriage certificate, but she had never been able to locate the family earlier than 1851 when John was already married to Ann.

Both of us then spent more time searching various databases to try and find out more. We tried search for William Purrington in the censuses for 1841 and 1851. We tried searching for Purrington's in York, we tried searching for people called Purrington getting married in York. I even created a list of all the girls called Jane born in the last two quarters of 1855 and cross-referenced their surnames to men who died in York in the last quarter of 1877 (it should be noted that the online databases index by quarter births, marriages and death - if you want more information you then normally have to purchase a certificate from the General Register Office). A problem quickly encountered was multiple spellings of Purrington: Porrington, Perrington, Punnington, Puddington. This made searching databases fairly time-consuming especially since the one I mainly used, Ancestry, has a rather limited conception of regular expressions. Although I suppose I ought to be grateful that it has any concept of regular expression (a mostly Computer Sciencey obsession) at all.

Eventually I resorted to appealing for help to more experienced researchers, specifically the ENG-YKS-YORK mailing list which specialises in genealogy in the city of York. I was kind of embarrased about doing this because it is the sort of behaviour one wants to discourage in students. I consoled myself by thinking I had done a fair bit of leg-work already and had genuinely reached the point where I needed advice from wiser heads. I was hoping there would be someone on the list with either ready access to some resources not available on the Internet, or who had a more intimate knowledge of York based resources who would be able to find something we hadn't, or possibly pick some clue out of the diary of which I was unaware.

The York list was pretty galvanised by the Aunt Jinny question. Nimue "lay awake" thinking about her and spent some time paging through the 1871 and 1881 census' for York looking for 15/20 year old girls. I'd actually had a go at this myself, starting in Goodramgate which is mentioned several times in the diary but had rapidly got bored of a process which, particularly over an Internet connection, is quite laborious. So I was a little embarrassed by that (see above point about students not doing the basic legwork). Finally the Lord of the Lake who, I think, had access to the York Cemetery records came up with Simeon Harris, who died and was buried on the right dates. Going back to marriage indexes he found that Simeon appeared on the same page as Harriet Puddington in the April-May-June index for 1854. In the 1871 census he then found the family and noted that Simeon and Harriet not only had a daughter Eliza JANE Harris and a son Frederick, but also that Harriet was born, like John Purrington, in Barnstaple. So the case was finally closed. Well not quite closed. I still need to send off for the relevant birth and marriage certificates and I've been advised to contact Charon who manages the York Cemetery web pages not only in terms of purchasing the burial details for Simeon and Harriet but also because he, apparently, knows something about Simeon's involvement with "Musical Theatre"...