When a Skeleton Can-Cans Its Way Out of the Ancestral Cupboard… | The British Newspaper Archive Blog


When a Skeleton Can-Cans Its Way Out of the Ancestral Cupboard…

Catherine Clarke of New Zealand became hooked on genealogy when, following the death of her grandmother, she discovered a book of old newspaper clippings and some old photos. Her curiosity aroused, she’s since discovered that her ancestry includes such luminaries as Charles II and Nell Gwyn (which we’re fair impressed by!), not to mention an elopement, a balloon flight at the Crystal Palace, and many other great tales.

Although she’d previously browsed the newspapers at Colindale, Catherine stumbled upon the BNA when a fellow researcher asked her if she knew the fate of a ‘David Thompson Myers’ in 1812. She found the BNA website via Google, typed in her ancestor’s name and, ‘Eureka!’, made a shocking discovery about her ancestor in a matter of seconds. To find out what Catherine unearthed in the BNA, read the story below.


Using the British Newspaper Archive for Family History Research

After my grandmother died, I discovered a book of newspaper clippings dating from the late 19th century concerning her Myers ancestors. We always knew that my grandfather’s side of the family were descended from Charles II and Nell Gwyn. Grandad loved to bring out the gold watch given (supposedly by Nelson) to Captain Montagu, but there was also a large portrait of the Rev. John Myers and an intriguing peppercorn rental for a place called Dunningwell, framed on the wall. The newspaper clippings, however, were of the moment and seemed to bring them to life. Who were these people that had eloped with a Captain of the Irish Fusiliers, dropped dead at a county ball, ascended in a balloon atCrystalPalace, been Matron of St Bart’s Hospital, or fought in the Afghan campaign of 1842?

Further enquiries produced a family pedigree compiled by the family solicitor in 1873 and a trove of photos from a relative inEngland. It was enough to get me hooked on genealogy. I learned how to create a website, enrolled in a history degree and, in 2004, travelled with a group of fellow enthusiasts fromNew ZealandtoSalt Lake City,LondonandEdinburgh.

At the Colindale Newspaper Library a microfilm confirmed what I had suspected – my great-grandfather’s death in a ‘hunting accident’ was, in fact, suicide. Another find was in the heavy bound volumes of The Era; an obituary and photo of George Edward Sykes supplied by his widow. What it doesn’t mention, is that Sykes also had three daughters with an actress twenty years his junior. Dear, sweet Nana Booth – the illegitimate daughter of an actor, married above her station, widowed at 23 with three children and another on the way – who made a new life for herself inNew Zealand, never talked of her past, but still calledEngland‘home’.

With limited time and without dates and clues on what to look for, I never investigated any further in the newspapers – Aunt Maggie had saved all the relevant Myers clippings anyway, I thought…Until March 2012, when a researcher in Rutland contacted me via my website with an enigmatic question: did I happen to know what happened to David Thompson Myers?

I knew when he was born, a little about his marriage and in the settlement of 1781 his grandfather had bequeathed “to David the son of Rev. David Myers, late of Gretford, Lincs, clerk deceased, the sum of one shilling.” His father, uncle, son and grandson were all Church ofEnglandvicars and easy to trace, and I had assumed he died in relative obscurity.

A quick Google search, however, led me to the new British Newspaper Archive website and a startling discovery – David Thompson Myers was hanged for sodomy in 1812. There are newspaper reports of the trial, the petition for clemency, the execution attended by 6000 spectators, and a confessional letter published after his death.

His wife, Phoebe, left with six children, continued the drapery business, advertising a fashionable assortment of ladies’ dresses, millinery, muffs and tippets until 1831. The case was notorious in Stamford and referred to fourteen years later when John Barker was sued for slander, when he alleged that Joseph Mawby deserved hanging for “what Myers was hanged for”, after some vestry bickering over missing bank notes.

David Thompson Myers’ last words, as he pulled the cap over his eyes, were reported as “Now is my last curtain drawn” before he was “precipitated into eternity,” but they take on an ironical new meaning in this age of the internet, Google and Twitter.

To read more of Cathy’s adventures in the world of family history, visit her website.

Republished with the kind permission of Catherine Clarke.


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