For the last 24 hours, I've been trying to analyze a surprising item of genealogical information that dropped out of the blue when I was playing around with the web in order to clarify some London data. I noticed that the Central Criminal Court of England has a good online website providing information on old court cases (up to 1913). Almost out of fun, I wondered what might come up if I used my own surname as a search argument. Here's what I got:
Now I definitely hadn't planned on this, because I'd always considered naively that my paternal line consisted of God-fearing law-abiding English citizens. And who was this 26-year-old William Skyvington condemned to six months' hard labor (no doubt in the notorious Newgate Prison) for fraud? I compared the details with my archives. Shit, it was my great-grandfather! Through the few facts I'd obtained about him, I'd always held him in high esteem. How on earth could he have been tempted to turn to crime?
The archaic courtroom of the Old Bailey looked something like this when William Skyvington was tried:
The prison (demolished in 1902) was located alongside the Old Bailey:
It was a place of terror. Up until 1868, public hangings were carried out in front of Newgate Prison, and Londoners paid big sums of money to watch the spectacles from neighborhood windows. Inside the overcrowded prison, once described by Henry Fielding as a "prototype of hell", lack of ventilation and hygiene brought about the death of countless inmates. Charles Dickens was fascinated by this foul place, and wrote of it in Barnaby Rudge, Oliver Twist and Great Expectations.
Here is a photo of William Skyvington with his wife Eliza Mepham and their son Ernest, my future grandfather:
I've found a lot of basic facts concerning this William Skyvington, up until about the time that this photo was taken, around 1892. But he then disappears from the scene, and we know nothing more about him. In particular, I've never succeeded in finding his death certificate. So, when I learned yesterday that he had been thrown into prison in 1898, I immediately imagined that he had probably died a miserable stealthy death at Newgate. That idea started off a chain of reflections in my mind and, by the end of the evening, I had ended up—through a purely cerebral activity of reasoning—with a rich set of plausible speculations… which I shall now outline.
First, if he had indeed died in prison, then it was very strange that the authorities had made no record of that death. In my Australian research concerning convicts and bushrangers, I discovered that individuals in these categories are among the most highly documented folk you could imagine, for obvious reasons. So, I soon concluded that it was unthinkable that William Skyvington might have died during his short stay at Newgate without leaving behind a death certificate.
Next, the aspect of this crime and imprisonment that annoyed me the most was the fact that my grandfather in Australia had never, at any moment, told us that his father had run into trouble of this kind. Why had he decided to keep this sad affair secret? Little by little, I found this idea, not only annoying, but frankly unlikely. If my grandfather had never told us about the imprisonment of his father, the most likely reason was that he himself had never been aware of this event. In other words, when he arrived in Australia as an adolescent in 1908, not only had my future grandfather lost his mother to tuberculosis, but he was no doubt totally unaware of events in the life of his father, including the fact that he had been in prison. At that moment, an important question jumped into my mind. Could William Skyvington have in fact abandoned his son, and established another family, with a new wife?
No sooner had I asked that question than I searched through my archives (collected over a quarter of a century) looking for an individual with a similar name and age, but associated with a new wife and family. Sure enough, I soon came upon such a situation… down in Cornwall, far away from London. Everything started to fall into place rapidly and convincingly. By the end of the evening, I was convinced that I had discovered, for my great-grandfather, a plausible "second life"… which he had probably started to lead straight after his release from prison.
It will take me a while to obtain all the necessary records, to confirm my speculations. But I'm sure I'm on the right path.
In other words, just as I was shocked yesterday to learn that William Skyvington had been a criminal, he too might well have been sufficiently shocked by that experience to abandon his son and start out on an entirely new life. In fact, the word "abandon" must be relativized, in that Ernest Skyvington had been cared for perfectly by his late mother's Mepham family, with whom he remained in contact after he settled in the Antipodes. But he reached Australia as if he were the last of the Skyvingtons. And everybody tended to believe him. As of yesterday, for the first time ever, I'm convinced that this was not the case. Both his father and his Skyvington grandfather were surely still living in southern England.