Extended family

Uncle Robbie
Uncle Robbie

There’s a character in one of Michael Innes’s detective stories who claims his grandfather was born in 1720, the year of the South Sea Bubble. The book is set in the late 1960s. Martyn Ashmore is an octogenarian and considers he might just about be reaching the age when he should think about having children himself. Too bad he gets murdered before he has a chance.

But if both his father and grandfather had (as he said they had) put off marriage until they were in their 80s, the existence of an octogenarian alive in the 1960s whose grandfather was born little more than a hundred years after Shakespeare died is just about conceivable.

In fact there are some well documented cases of generations being stretched beyond normal limits. The Daily Mail published an article a year ago about the grandsons of John Tyler, the tenth president of the US, who are still alive. Tyler was born in 1790. He was about 63 when his son Lyon was born, and Lyon was about 75 when his younger son was born in 1928. That’s an average gap of 69 years between generations.

In the light of that example I suppose my claim that the poet Robert Burns, who died in 1796, was a friend of my great great grandfather Archibald Richardson pales into insignificance. Archibald was born in 1767. His son (also Archibald) was born in 1836. His grandson (Maul) was born in 1888. His great granddaughter (Monica) was born in 1924. And his great great grandson (me) was born in 1964. (In fact his youngest great great grandchild was born about six or seven years later still, but never mind that.) The average gap between generations from Archibald to me is therefore a mere 49.25 years. Continue reading Extended family

Family trees

I’ve avoided trying to present family trees here until now because I didn’t have a clue how to go about it in a way that would be easily viewed on a normal-sized computer screen. In fact, I don’t think there is a satisfactory way. However, I’ve decided to take the plunge anyway. I’ve started uploading the data I have on my relatives, ancestors and connections into a Webtrees server.

Webtrees is a sophisticated piece of software that uses PHP (whatever that is) to display genealogical data in a variety of ways.  Family tree data is stored in a database, so you can track down the details of a specific individual in a database browser. You can also view a tree-type diagram showing the ancestors and descendants of any individual in the database. And Webtrees will also do useful things like working out the relationship between two different people in the database. It can produce reports of various kinds and display things such as fan charts that I don’t understand at all but which might be useful to someone I suppose. Continue reading Family trees

Useful things, newspapers

Quite a bit of the information I’ve collected about my relatives – and a lot of the more interesting facts – has come from old newspapers. There was a time when you would have to go and sit in some building in north London and wait for them to be brought to you on microfilm, before endlessly reeling (sometimes literally) through miles of film to find something relevant to your research.

How much easier things are now that the internet is filling out a bit. There are several very easy-to-use, searchable resources for looking up old newspaper archives, where a keyword search can take you to the appropriate story in seconds, rather than hours as in the olden days.

For me, the National Library of Australia’s resource at http://newspapers.nla.gov.au has proved invaluable in tracking down information about my Australian relatives: I could fill a small book with details of my great grandfather Archibald‘s comings and goings on the coasting passenger boats that plied between Continue reading Useful things, newspapers

Molasses, molasses

Classically literate people will recognize the title of this post as a reference to Xenophon’s Anabasis, and the cry of the Greek army as they finally sighted the sea: “thalassa, thalassa”.

Similar emotions were stirred in the heart of my great aunt, the noted Australian poet Lala Fisher, when she spotted some molasses. To her, they were a miracle cure for just about every ailment – in farmyard animals, at least. Here is a letter she wrote to the Sydney Morning Herald which was published on 9 November 1907:
Continue reading Molasses, molasses

No imagination

I sometimes moan about the tendency in my family to overuse names. It afflicts both sides of my family. On my father’s side I have a cousin called Robert Kemp, the same as me. His father was christened John Kemp – so was mine; they were half-brothers. My brother was christened John Kemp too.

On my mother’s side, I have two cousins called Helen Richardson. I have two nieces called Anna, and a sister and another niece called Lucy. It can get very confusing.

But using the same names over and over again has a long and distinguished history in the family. As far as
my great great grandfather, Archibald Richardson, was concerned, wives should, if possible, be called Margaret. Daughters should also be called Margaret, although occasionally Mary was acceptable. Sons should always be called Archibald. Grierson was an acceptable surname for both wives and daughters. Prospective wives’ surnames should always end in -son. Continue reading No imagination

Hubris, humour, Hugh

It was suggested to me the other day by my uncle Hugh that certain comments I have written on this site about my failure to inherit a fortune from a certain relative might sound like sour grapes.

I have much respect for my uncle Hugh (notwithstanding the odd vagary in our relationship over the years). He has a point.

I have also described my relatives in rather scathing terms in another post here. Not really in the spirit of de mortuis nil nisi bonum. However, it’s not my intention on this site to honour the dead. The dead can take care of themselves. What’s that you say? Well, no, I suppose they can’t. But I should be very surprised if they cared what I wrote about them anyway.

On the other hand, living descendants of W. K. D’Arcy, the geezer who built a fortune but neglected to put any of it my way, might be discomfited by me niggling about this point. Continue reading Hubris, humour, Hugh


Coincidences occur all the time and in most cases they probably mean nothing at all. They can be entertaining, though, and it’s always tempting to speculate whether some guiding influence is shaping our ends, possibly for his or her own amusement.

Anyway, they amuse me, and there are some mildly interesting ones – and one fairly staggering one – in my family background. I might write about them all sometime, but for now, here’s one that cropped up recently.

While researching the ancestry of my first-cousin-twice-removed Ida Coffin Duncan I found out that her grandfather, Kenneth Douglas Coffin, had had a son, also called Kenneth Douglas. (That’s not the coincidence. Duplicate family names are occasionally coincidental but as a rule they’re just annoying evidence of lack of imagination, or a transparent attempt to confuse the perpetrators’ unfortunate descendants as they try to piece together their ancestry. When I used to work in a bookshop, I always thought it would have been a much nicer job without the customers. Similarly doing genealogical research would be so much more enjoyable if it wasn’t for all the ancestors. However.)

Kenneth Douglas Coffin junior (b. 1862) moved to Australia and settled in Mackay, Queensland. Continue reading Coincidences

Family history research notes

I’m setting up this site to post occasional pieces of information I uncover about my relatives in the course of sporadic and unsystematic research.

These posts will be divided into categories relating to each of the family names in my family tree that I know about or have any information about. There will definitely be sections for Richardson, Duncan, D’Arcy, Fisher, Kemp, Joslin, and Sarl. In due course there may be sections on Couper, Riley, Wood, Clark, Osborn and others.

Mostly my ancestors and (historical) relatives have been pretty stolid and respectable. Yeah, right. In fact most of them were a bunch of ne’er-do-wells, shysters, chancers, idlers, actors, peapickers, vagabonds and lunatics. Much more interesting. I hope they’re not reading this though.