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10 Feb 2018

Favourite name: Cornelius

St Peter's, Ightham, Kent
For the #52ancestors challenge, initiated by Amy Johnson Crow, we genie  bloggers were asked to write about our favourite family name.  This was difficult for me, since all my ancestors seemed to be called George, William, Henry, Mary, Kate, Sarah – such plain names.  And irritatingly, most of them had no middle name, unless it was Ann.  Occasionally I found a Christian (a woman’s name in those days) or a Jessie.  Too sad to think about:  both my Jessie Tucker aunts died young.

Then I remembered Cornelius.  What a strange name, I thought.  I continued to come across the name in the nineteenth century census and vital records, but never in the twentieth century.

Cornelius Palmer was one of my 2xgreat grandfathers on my maternal side.  His granddaughter Kate Elizabeth Palmer was my mother’s birth mother.  The Palmers lived in Ightham, Kent in England and had done so since the late 18th century when Cornelius settled there.

In fact, Cornelius Palmer was born in Town Sutton, Kent in about 1776 according to census records but spent his married life in Ightham, Kent.  His birth village is now known as Sutton Valence and it is nearly a six hour walk to Ightham.  Did he walk?  He may have travelled there in a cart, but it is unlikely he had his own horse.

In fact, Cornelius Palmer’s only claim-to-fame appeared to be his siring of 17 children – not quite as many as my 3xgreat grandfather John Rose in Southampton, but close.

His first marriage was to Eleanor Morris of Ightham in 1798.  Her family had lived in Ightham for at least since 1700.  Eleanor gave birth to 11 children, three of them named Benjamin after her grandfather.  Only the last, born 1821 survived.

In 1839, Eleanor Palmer nee Morris died in Ightham, Kent.  She would have been 61.

Cornelius, an agricultural labourer appeared in the 1841 census in Ightham, living with a farm servant Elizabeth Ashby, aged about 28 and nearly forty years his junior.  I wonder if he was estranged from his older children?  Surely one of them could have given him shelter?  But maybe he preferred his independence.

By April 1842 Elizabeth Ashby, the daughter of farmers Henry and Elizabeth Ashby, had given birth to their first child, George Palmer and by 1859 had given birth to five more children.  There does not appear to be a marriage between Cornelius and Elizabeth, but all the children bar one were baptised with the surname Palmer, but were later known as Ashby.  Their last child, a second son William for Cornelius, was known as William Henry Ashby, maybe to distinguish him from the first William, born to Eleanor and who was still very much alive.

Also a Bewley House and a Bewley Farmhouse
It is unclear how the family survived since Cornelius was a simple agricultural labourer working on Bewley Farm which still exists.  His first family would have been off his hands, but he was getting older, and in 1851 census was 75 years old and on parish relief.  He had four children with Elizabeth and was to have two more.  By January 1861 he was dead, having died a pauper at the Malling Workhouse.  He was buried in Ightham.

My Ightham Palmer family tended to be “messy” for three generations: Cornelius’ daughter Annie Palmer, my great-grandmother, also gave birth to her first child, my grandmother Kate Elizabeth Palmer, outside marriage.  Kate Elizabeth was registered as an Ashby in 1881 but was always known as Palmer in each census between 1891-2011.  Known as Kitty after she arrived in Australia in 1912, she also gave birth outside marriage to my mother who was conceived in Seal, Kent in 1911.

I visited Ightham in 2012, staying with yet another Palmer family, no relation to these Palmers.  Alex Palmer is my second cousin on the OTHER side of my family.  It was simply serendipitous that he lived just outside Ightham.  Here is a post I wrote about that visit, on an earlier blog: Travelling Solo 2012.

It took well over a century for this agricultural labouring family to return to established family norms: to give birth to their first children within marriage.  I find it interesting that within the past 20-30 years, up to 50% of first children are born outside marriage around the world.  In Australia in 2010, 34% of children are born out of wedlock. This, of course, includes births to many committed defacto couples, no longer worried about a certificate of marriage.

Unlike my father’s Tucker and Reed forebears in Southampton, who rose above poverty in the Victorian era by leaving behind their agricultural labouring class and becoming successful small businessmen, many of the Palmers remained in straitened circumstances until at least the early twentieth century.

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