It used to be the practice for families to maintain a large bible that was handed down through generations and contained growing lists of family births, baptisms, confirmations, marriages and deaths. These bibles became valuable repositories for a family’s genealogical information long before nation states started to keep and consolidate such records.
I do have a bible from when I was confirmed at the age of eleven. It was presented to me by the Bishop of Bath & Wells at my parish, St Gregory’s Church in Horfield, Bristol. It described itself as a High C of E Church and was where I was a choirboy (earning two shillings for each wedding). I was a server at the altar, occasional bell-ringer and for a short while a Sunday school teacher. My bible has a label inside the cover showing my name as Robert Denton, the bishop’s signature and the date, Sunday 31st May 1959. Within four or five years of that presentation I urged all my friends and family to call me Bob and I had concluded I had no belief in a supreme being. But I have retained that bible – and my swimming certificates – for no particular reason that I can explain.
So this document will be my ‘family bible’, the one we never maintained. It collects together all I knew and an awful lot more that I have been able to find by research. It tells the story of the Dentons across 1,000 years. I leave to my grandchildren, and theirs, the task of taking this forward into the future. Sorry to sound maudlin, but into a future that I shall not share.
I have added at the end the results of a DNA analysis that I purchased. It takes our lineage all the way back to East Africa and humankind’s Y-chromosome Adam who lived over 200,000 years ago and the Mitochondrial Eve who lived there 180,000 years ago; they clearly never met!
One thing this exercise has taught me is that humankind is all one family. My paternal and maternal migration routes took in many countries as shown below, and my family history shows connections right across the British Isles and beyond.
I am just one insignificant part of the demographic phenomenon referred to as the ‘baby boomers’, the post-WWII surge in babies created by the survivors, returned and recovered from the depression of the 1930s and the war of the early 1940s. We arrived in a period of rationing and austerity but grew through a period of peace thanks to NATO, with good healthcare thanks to the NHS, and we were economically able to achieve greater individual freedom, expression and mobility than our parents.
One of the first casualties of our freedom was the beliefs of our parents. We argued with the establishment by marching for almost everything – civil rights, students’ rights, women’s liberation, against nuclear arms, anti-Vietnam, anti-apartheid, anti-hunting…
The soundtrack to our youth was provided by rock ‘n roll, the Mersey Beat, Tamla Motown… We wore our hair longer and developed our own style with pop art and op art. We rebelled against elitist fashions, instead purchasing our ‘self-expression’ in boutiques. We became mods and rockers, hippies, punks… We took overseas holidays and no longer sought a job-for-life. We achieved massive strides financially through the greater use of credit, expanding car and home ownership. We smoked, drank more alcohol, encompassed foreign cuisine and experimented with mind-changing drugs. Whether historians see this as all good or all bad or more likely somewhere in between, it cannot be denied that as a generation we really made our mark.
Now our bulge in the demographic data is entering old age. By the middle of year 2018 I will have completed the three score years and ten promised by the Bible’s Psalm 90. The psalm also cautions that it is soon cut off, and we fly away. So, before I do fly away, I thought I should understand more about my roots.
I can see that much of those seventy years were spent thoughtlessly, doing rather than thinking. As John Lennon (1940-80), poet songwriter and singer, elegantly put it Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans. I just got on with those plans rather than becoming overly concerned about what life might actually mean.
Living today we are victim to all manner of intrusions, impacted by all those 24-hour news channels, constant sport, PPI texts, social networks, cold callers, unsolicited flyers, chuggers… They combine to batter us, leaving little time to sit and think. There is always so much to do that any deep thinking is regularly parked, for later – well one part of my procrastination stops here.
Steve Jobs (1955-2011) the PC pioneer/entrepreneur (Apple Computer, NeXT and Pixar) cautions:
‘Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.
Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important[ly], have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.’
Of course few of us can be said to have truly grabbed life by the throat, or been sufficiently clear about our objectives and pursued them quite as single-mindedly (and successfully) as Jobs did.
Plato’s account of Socrates trial and conviction reported that the great philosopher failed to defend himself against his death sentence. He merely repeated his belief that the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being. So now seems to be a good moment to examine what led to my life. Yes, I am aware of the irony of my quoting someone who did not write down his own spectacular thought processes. Socrates believed that writing served to imprison knowledge, yet thankfully his immortality was assured by Plato and others who recorded his thoughts after his death. ‘Imprisoning’ them does have value. Without John Denton of Cardew’s Accompt this would not be possible.
So this enquiry is as much a search for meaning. Douglas Adams (1952-2001), English writer and dramatist, was certainly succinct on this subject. His answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything was ‘forty-two’… Of course he intended this to be amusing, but just maybe he was on to something –the 1450s Gutenberg Bible was the world’s first moveable-type printed book and it used 42 lines per page, the Bible’s New Testament Book of Revelation (81-96 CE) says the beast will hold dominion over the earth for 42 months, Elvis Aaron Presley (1935-1977) died at the age of 42…
But then Adams, did sound a cautionary note for those pursuing the ‘ultimate question’:
There is a theory which states that if ever anybody discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.
I have always assumed my family to be agreeably unremarkable, recording no heroes, captains of industry or Nobel winners, no vagabonds or murderers. As a family we appeared to have bobbed along without becoming particularly rich or poor, but this research confounds those assumptions.
I soon came to realise that my family does have one distinct feature – we are remarkably nomadic. My grandfather was born in Bishop Auckland, Durham. He married in Chorlton, Manchester someone (Nan of course) from Willenhall in the West Midlands’ Black Country. They had two children in Manchester, one being my Dad. They all moved to Bristol where my Dad married Eileen, a Bristolian, and this was where my generation was born and bred. All three of us (Lorraine, John and I) married locals. I married Jane and we first moved to Devon where we had Sarah our first child in Plymouth. In just four generations Dentons had moved the length of Britain from Bishop Auckland in Durham to Saltash in Cornwall.
It doesn’t end there. Sarah met and married Laurent from the Ile de France, so two of our grandchildren (Chloé and Artie) are Franglais, living to the south of Paris. Our second child Matt was born in Thornbury Gloucestershire and married Ruth from Bedford. She and two more grandchildren Dan and Laura (born in south London) live in Oxfordshire. They divorced (amicably) and Matt met his second wife Majella who is from Galway, Ireland. They live in Dubai. Our fifth grandchild Mylo is thus Anglo-Irish, living where he was born in the UAE, though he spent a quarter of his first two years in Dallas, Texas. Not to forget that Jane and I have lived in some twenty different places including five years full-time in Javea, Alicante, Spain.
Is it all a matter of chance? The astronomer Fred Hoyle (1915-2001) saw some guiding hand when he concluded that:
‘random events and chance occurrences are insufficient to account for the complexity of living organisms.’
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), physician and writer, in the Sherlock Holmes novel The Adventure of the Cardboard Box provided Holmes with this observation.
‘What is the meaning of it, Watson? […] What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable.’
Philosophers and scientists do not believe in blind chance, physicist Albert Einstein (1879-1955) commenting that God does not play dice. But to a large extent where we begin our life’s journey does feel very much something of an accident.
We do not choose our parents or their inception of our birth. Their act of procreation passes on genetic information. Our gender in some cultures will completely shape the child, the most extreme example being the Chinese one-child policy which The Peoples’ Republic enacted upon their massive population from 1978 to 2015. When restricted to one child the people preferred the child to be male and many female children were sacrificed at birth. The normal ratios male to female in China had ranged between 103-to-100 and 107-to-100, the policy tilted this to 117-to-100. There will be 30million more men than women in China by 2020.
JUST one percent
It is sobering to think that even minor changes of 1% in space or time would have significantly impacted upon who I am.
If I had been born fifty miles west then I might have been Welsh. Two hundred miles west I could have been Irish, 200 miles south and I might have been French, a little over 200 miles east and I would perhaps have been Dutch. Two hundred miles is a pretty insignificant shift of just under 1% around the earth’s circumference!
If I had been born fifty years earlier I would have been sixteen when World War I broke out and therefore become prime cannon fodder. Born a hundred years earlier I would have emerged into one of my home town’s worst cholera outbreaks. Two hundred years earlier and I would have been born into what was then Britain’s busiest slave-trading port. A hundred years represents only four generations and a little over 1% of human recorded history.
Our year of birth, postcode and family circumstances are completely outside our control and yet they decide the access we have to good nutrition, the parental education we receive, how our limbic system evolves our emotions and drives, our cultural environment, the values and religious framework within which we are raised. We can influence very little of this – we must accept that it is what it is, and give our best shot at making the most of what we happened to be dealt.
My mother was from Bristol and my father from Manchester. The chance of any two specified individuals ever meeting is quite unlikely. Place them 175 miles apart and factor in a time of less social mobility and the odds get longer. They met after both survived World War II, a war that killed 450,000, around 1% of the UK’s 47million population. My father’s aircraft carrier was heading towards Singapore as the Japanese took it, my mother’s home in the centre of Bristol was bombed and gutted while the family sheltered beneath it. Thus, their eventual meeting must be given a high level of improbability. Add to this the fact that my grandmother was from Willenhall in the Black Country and my grandfather from Bishops Auckland in Durham – yet they met and married in Manchester.
The lottery of life continues in the womb. Just ten years after my birth mothers were prescribed thalidomide during pregnancy. Worldwide some 10,000 babies were adversely affected, half of these survived with severe defects; a girl ten doors away from my home in Bristol was born with her hands emerging from her shoulders. The lottery continues postnatally. In the 1990s there was a scandal at the local teaching hospital, the Bristol Royal Infirmary, when the paediatric cardiac surgery team had unusually high death rates; a subsequent report concluded that treatment had not been up to the task at hand.
Back in 1948 around 39 in every 1,000 new-born babies were stillborn or died within a week (today it’s just 8), and 36 in every 1,000 births did not survive the first year – that’s a 1-in-14 chance of mortality. Intriguingly only 5.4% of births in 1948 were outside marriage, by 2013 the figure was 47.4%.
We 1948-ers were born into a society bothered by diphtheria, measles, polio, rickets and whooping cough. We had food rationing and a post-war depression which meant good nutrition was by no means guaranteed. We were immunised for smallpox and diphtheria and occasionally anti-tetanus was used if necessary. Today some fourteen diseases have formal immunisation programmes.
Two months after I was born the National Health Service was launched and this has cared for me ever since (apart from our five years in Spain where their system proved good if you could communicate). In 1948 a man could expect an average life of 65.9 years. Fifty years on in 2008 this had improved to 77.6 years. Female average lifespan was 70.3 in 1948 and 81.7 years by 2008 (Office for National Statistics).
Back in 1948 some 65% of men smoked, as did 41% of women. Dad did, Mum did not, so while I have never smoked I must have passively smoked for the first ten years of my life before he gave up. Certainly during my early years of work it was not acceptable to complain of those who smoked in workplaces and meetings, thus passive smoking continued. Thankfully the UK banned smoking in enclosed public spaces in 2007. This was precisely when I moved to Spain for five years where the Spanish and other Europeans continued administering my passive dosage.
I grew up through the ‘50s and early ‘60s when we played on the streets and on bombsites and routinely cycled to school and some distance from our homes for leisure. In 1963 there were 7,000 road accident fatalities, 349,000 non-fatal casualties (among our 53.6million population). As a child I was hit by a motorcycle while returning from the ABC Cabot cinema’s Saturday-morning ‘pictures’, probably my fault. At sixteen I had a motorbike or scooter of my own and had several accidents, none of them my fault! It was just good fortune that I sustained no lasting injuries.
Cherchez la femme
Genealogy follows the surname and thus the male line. It is startling below to note how frequently the spouse’s name went unrecorded. One of the first things my Open University history course taught was to study ‘against the grain’ of historical records. It also identified that women tend to be unjustly sidelined in history. Shockingly across twenty-nine generations, from me to Sims of Yetherham the elder, almost a third (nine) of the wives have eluded my research!
Just as history is the record of the victorious, ignoring those who came second, it is as often silent about the female of the species. Daughters only occasionally carry forward the surname and therefore females tend to drop away from the accounts, becoming marginalised from particular families, including the Dentons. Let’s set out to remedy this straight away.
In the family tree you will find two women, Sigreda Beuth and an unnamed ‘Heiress of Vaux’ who were necessary to jink us around two lacks of a male heir to get back to my 25th GGF. This was Sims the elder of Yetherham from Roxburgh in Scotland just across the border. He married Ada of Northumberland. The Sims were alive pre-Conquest, the elder born in 935 and the son in 970, but that’s as far as I can get with my tree. In the other direction one genealogical site shows Sims of Yetherham as connected to President George Washington, Winston Churchill and Prince Charles, but do see the ‘Cautionary Tales…’ section below.
I needed to track back to the Sims to give proper context to the origins of the Dentons. We might instead have followed more strictly the Denton name from Thomas (19th GGF) to his father John, and on to his grandfather Robert de Denton, who was also called Anketin. Robert’s father was Anketin and the first to style himself as ‘de Denton’, and therefore was our progenitor – but he was only a 22nd GGF and post-Conquest. Much more on these characters later.
I discovered if I looked against the grain and considered the maternal track there proved to be a host of powerful women in our gene bank. Let’s ensure they don’t remain marginalised. Here are our two mums:
We start with something of a mystery with my grandmother and grandfather. Betsy Walton was born in Willenhall in the Black Country and it is clear from family lore that she went into service.
She did not marry until she was thirty-one years old. This was on 27 Sep 1919, post WWI, so perhaps four years or so of her life can be accounted for due to war but this was quite old for a first marriage in that era. Somehow she had moved from Willenhall to live in Chorlton-upon-Medlock, today an inner city part of Manchester. She lived just a few doors away from the man who became my grandfather, the first Robert Soulsby Denton. He married her when he was a thirty-seven year old journeyman locksmith. He had also moved, from Bishop Auckland in Durham where he was born and raised. For both of them this was a late marriage by the norms of their time and I can find nothing to explain how these two thirty-somethings managed to find each other in Manchester.
By the way, her mother Betsey Walton (née Hill) my 1st GGM must have been illiterate (as many were) as she placed her mark, the ubiquitous X, on my grandmother’s birth certificate.
One of my 8th GGMs was Agnes Farrar; the attached picture is said to be her sitting by the fireside.
She married William Denton in 1572 and had three children with him. We don’t know his death date, but she remarried a notable Quaker, William Scarborough, in 1680 and had nine further children, the last when she was 62! No wonder she needed to relax beside the fireside.
Records show the Scarboroughs were resident in Hosier Lane, London and attended Quaker meetings at Peel Court, London. One Scarborough descendant, John born in 1649, responded to William Penn’s invitation to go to America. He arrived in 1682 to live on 250 acres of land he purchased along Neshaminy Creek, near Langhorne in Bucks County, just north of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania. However, in 1684 he and his wife returned to England, leaving his son John behind. They planned to return to America having collected the rest of their family but Anne had other ideas. Disliking the sea journey she convinced him not to return. Son John spent ten years in the wilds of Bucks County living with the Indians. He married Mary Pierson, half Indian, and had eight children. See also Denton’s who emigrated.
One 10th GGM was Margaret Mordaunt (1509-1576). She was daughter of the first Baron Mordaunt of Turvey and Elizabeth de Vere. At sixteen years old she married Sir Edmund Fettiplace of Bessels Leigh and had eleven children. When Edmund died in 1540 Margaret left this brass memorial to him in All Saints Church, Marcham, Oxfordshire.
The Fettiplaces obviously enjoyed a good memorial. This one is in St Mary’s Swinbrook, near Burford Oxfordshire and shows Sir Edmund, his father and his uncle
Margaret is mentioned here because in 1542 she married Thomas Denton, a lawyer of Hillesden, and had two children with him. She outlived him and he left her a lifetime interest in Hillesden where she produced a memorial to him in the adjoining All Saints Church.
A 13th great-grandmother was Lady Alison Dauncy or Dauntsey (1429-1453) who was born and died at Baddesley Clinton in Warwickshire. This moated manor house was home to the Bromes, Dentons and Ferrers for many years. Today it is a National Trust property.
Another GGM who caught my eye was Agnes Danvers, perhaps because of this rather stern portrait?
Agnes was a GGM14 who lived until she was eighty. She most likely died in Thame, Oxfordshire, three miles up the road from where I live now, or perhaps at Adderbury, a little north of Bicester. Of course Danvers derives from d’Anvers, meaning of Antwerp. She married five times. Her first marriage was in 1420 to Sir Thomas Denton (1401-1427). She remarried at 30, 38, 69 and 76 years of age, and each time it was to a knight of the realm.
Johanna de la Launde (1378-1401) was mother-in-law to Agnes and thus my 15th GGM. Her family was associated with a village called Ashby de la Launde, a little north of Sleaford, Lincolnshire. The Ashby Manor which was in the Domesday Book became a preceptory in 1150, a headquarters for the Knights Templar. Called Temple Bruer it was funded from the wool business, becoming the second wealthiest preceptor in England to fund crusades. The family also had connections to Laceby Manor in NE Lincolnshire towards Grimsby.
My last identifiable GGM was my 24th, Ada of Northumberland (975-1050). In 990 she married Sims of Yetherham from across the border in Roxburgh, Scotland. Sims and their son Bueth are both described as chieftains. Surprisingly for fighting men they both lived to an old age, Sims was eighty and Beuth sixty at death.
Sims’s father was also called Sims of Yetherham. He was born in 935 and married to someone born in 940 and only ever referred to as the wife of Sims. She was a 25th GGM and demonstrates how women drop off the edges of history.
Cautionary Tales regarding family history research exercises
As I started this research and delved through layers of grandparents I realised that I was most likely compensating for a deficiency; I never had a living grandfather. In common with other baby boomers my arrival followed two world wars that had decimated our menfolk. However, I had lost both of mine through ‘natural causes’ before I was born. My first assumption was that I was trying to fill that void with grandfathers.
The second conclusion was a realisation that family history research has a remarkable statistical quirk at its heart. The most significant of my 13th great-grandfathers (or GGFs) turns out to be Sir Thomas Denton of Baddesley Clinton in Oxfordshire (1427-1453); he is thus sixteen generations back.
Like everyone I had two parents, four grandparents and if you carry this on back to the sixteenth generation there would have been some 65,536 individuals who were my 13th great grandparents. That is more than 3% of the year 1450’s English population; one person in every thirty-three would have been related to me.
Carry this back more generations and we reach my direct 17th great grandfather, one Thomas Denton. But the number of 17th great grandparents (twenty generations back) swells to 1,048,576. After the demographic destruction of the Black Death, by 1377 England’s population is estimated to have been under 2.5million. This means 40+% of people back then would have been my grandparents. Forget ‘six degrees of separation’! Provided you can find the records, then you should be able to connect yourself back to almost anyone.
I found I was able to travel back so many generations to my GGF26 (ie twenty-nine generations) which if the mathematics holds true means there would have been 536million GGF29s of mine – that’s nine times today’s population of the UK! Clearly there must have been a degree of in-breeding – see my GGF13 tale of keeping it in the family.
Fortunately this disturbing set of statistics didn’t interfere with my enjoyment in finding us connected to intriguing antecedents and notable relatives. But perhaps it isn’t that impressive?