My great grandfather “like a rolling stone ….”

My DNA results were a bit of a puzzle. Despite showing the bulk of my ancestry originating in the southeast as well as the southwest of England, from census and birth records I appeared to have NONE from the southeast. My mother’s line, going back 400, years were all from Cornwall and my father’s line were all from Devon. You can’t get more southwestern than that! But then I got stuck tracing my maternal grandmother’s line back three generations, some of who seemed to have migrated to Wisconsin, USA, as tin miners. Nothing seemed to fit, partial families migrating, several disappearing, wives in one direction husbands in another, what the hell?? In utter frustration I contacted the Cornwall Family History Society and paid one of their researchers to check back on my grandmothers line for 3 generations and ….. bingo, what a HUGE mistake I had made.

DNA test results ethnic profile

My grandmother, Emily Sarah May Waters, was not a Waters before she was married, despite what the family bible told me. Her maiden name was May, not a middle name as had been assumed by many which is a simple but grievous error, because there were plenty of Emily Waters who married a William Waters from Cornwall around the same time. So the professional genealogist had a new start point revealing Emily Sarah May to have been born in …… Fulham, London, with her father and three generations behind him all having been born in Kent. Thus the mystery of my southeastern DNA is solved.

This has now taken me on a different journey, not tin mining which is still to come, but a journey all around England from Kent to Warwickshire, to Durham, to Lancashire, to Yorkshire and to Cumbria, before finally to ……….. Somerset on the outskirts of Bristol. Here’s a simple map of England and Wales showing these places:

What on earth is Richard Thomas May doing in all of these places, why is his family with him, why are children being born along the way? The answer is summed up and revealed in a single word ….. “Navvy”, Richard my great grandfather was a Navvy or itinerant labourer who “followed” the big engineering projects in Victorian times building railroads, canals and dockyards. Take a look at the map again and its now easy to work out with docks at Hull, Tilbury, Westoe/Jarrow, Ramsden Docks/Barrow, canals in Warwickshire, and railways all over the place. The 1901 Census shows Richard and his family living in No.2 Hut, Ramsden Docks, Barrow in Furness, the same year that his daughter, Emily Sarah May married my Grandfather William just 12 miles away over the border into Cumberland.

Typical Navvy Family Hut

Typical Navvies

Our work is hard and dangers are always near

And lucky are we if safely through life we steer;

But still the life of a navvy with its many changes of scene,

With a dear old wife, is just the life,

That suits old Nobby Green.

from History of the Ship Canal Vol 2 by Sir Bosdin Leech (1907)Our work is hard and dangers are always near

“The Navvies were the manual labourers working on civil engineering projects that propelled the Victorian industrial revolution. The term ‘Navvies’ came from a shortening of ‘Navigator’, a job title for those that dug out the numerous canal systems of the 18th & 19th Century. The term was subsequently adopted for manual labourers working on railways, tunnels, drainage and sewage systems, bridges and dams all over Britain and the world.”

“Most Navvies were single men, but some had families who often travelled from job to job with them, living in temporary accommodation. These wooden shacks were lacking even the most basic of amenities or comfort.”

“A Navvy’s working day was long, hard and dangerous. Work-related fatalities were common, as was injury and infection. Their employers would often find ways to limit or decrease their agreed wage (which was paid daily) if they were drunk, lazy or belligerent to a foreman. If a worker was sick or injured, pay was also deducted but meal tokens for use in company meal caravans were issued.”

But to end this tale of my misplaced great grandfather, he did NOT end his days as a Navvy, far from it. By 1911 he was in a different part of England altogether, in fact he was in the southwest of England in Somerset, bordering the county of Devon the land of my fathers ancestors! So what was he doing as the 1911 Census record shows him with his two youngest children Ellen and Lily, plus a grandson living at ………….. the Star Inn ……… as the Licensed Victualler running a very large pub! You couldn’t make this up!

Categories: 1800s, Family History, Kent, May

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22 replies

  1. Really interesting! I’d never heard of navvies. (Thanks for including the map.) Glad you discovered your SE connection!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post! Happy to hear you’re now onto your correct branch (and not barking up the wrong tree, as they say). :o)


  3. What a wonderful find to explain your DNA results! Great story. I had never heard of Navvies before and now, thanks to you, I know a bit, anyway.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Fascinating! I’m starting to take more interest in your family tree than my own! I really like the way you present the information. It brings your ancestors to life in a far better way than pedigree charts and boring, software generated, text.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. What a great find, I’m sure navvies would have been looked down upon, but how many could have done their hard work? What great things they built and how tough were their wives!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Definitely as intriguing as a good ‘whodunnit’. Loved reading about your misplaced ancestor… Makes me want to investigate mine too, but as those originate from Belgium, I am not sure where a DNA check would place me…

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Now, this is very interesting! What a find. Funny how one thing leads to another.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. You have dug up a good story here Brian. Amazing how people moved around so easily all of that time ago!


  9. How fascinating!

    Liked by 1 person

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