Thursday, September 3, 2020

When You Want to Cut to the Chase,
But This is Not the Time to Hurry


All I wanted was to chase those Sullivan ancestors back to London, zoom in to look up one simple record, glean the details and, like tracing a map to secret treasure, speed onward to my goal.

With these Sullivans, it didn't work that way. It wasn't that my race to the nexus of this Sullivan family with the Kellys back in Ireland—our side of this extended family, incidentally—had already gone smoothly. But having found the immigrant ancestor in Toledo, Ohio, I was now ready to cross the pond, hop through a few document hoops, and spring over to County Kerry.

How green I was. Instead of my vision of snatching a few key records while unfurling the Sullivan timeline effortlessly back to the 1850s, the scene was now more like a dead standstill. The action had reduced to the quandary of examining that brick wall as if it were a barrier of masonry which, in one spot, held a camouflaged touchstone which, handled just right, could release the door to a secret passageway.

Somehow, attempting to crash into the genealogy world in 1890s London suddenly catapulted me into a strange mash up between Indiana Jones and Tiny Tim. An adventure, yes, but I needed to tiptoe through those tulips very carefully.

In other words: not so fast. Stop to smell those genealogical roses. There was a lot to observe on the road ahead.

While I have researched ancestors in Canada and Ireland and tried my hand at my own Polish roots (without even knowing the language), attempting my first search in England pushed me into a world I had never before experienced.

Thankfully, I could locate the family of Alice Sullivan and her siblings, complete with those newly-discovered parents' names, Michael Sullivan and Mary Cummings, in England. The problem was, every time I found what appeared to be a correct census record for the family, it presented me with a different name for their whereabouts.

Since Alice Sullivan's older brother Edward first showed up at their aunt's home in Toledo, Ohio, in time for the 1920 census there, the previous census for him would have been England's 1911 census, but I couldn't locate the family in one residence then. I could find some of them separately, but keeping in mind that five-fingered fit in the genealogical glove, I shied away from trying to fit the wrong square Sullivan into any round slots in my family group sheet.

I could find the family of Michael and Mary Sullivan in the 1901 census, though. Figuring out where they actually lived was, for me, like reading a foreign language. The heading on the enumeration page told me that the Sullivans lived in the civil parish of Saint Mary Stratford of Bow. As if to add an afterthought, in parentheses, the enumerator added "part of." Was that the thoroughly British way of saying, "sort of"?

Not just that: the jurisdiction litany went on to specify that the Sullivans were part of the borough of Poplar, the urban district of South Hard, and the division of Bow + Bromley, and, oh yeah, the parliamentary borough of Tower Hamlets. Is that enough? Apparently not: all that is to say the place is  part of the County of London. 

Clearly, I needed a tour guide.

I sensed the difficulty ahead when I had pulled up the draft record for Michael and Mary's son Edward, back in the States. His World War I record stated his place of birth simply as London. Yet, his entry in the 1901 census gave that place of birth more specifically: Bow Middlesex. So where was that?

My tour guide turned out to be a mixed bag of Google, Wikipedia, and FamilySearch wiki results. Checking simply for "Bow," I learned it was part of the county of Middlesex. But only until 1888. Then, it became part of the county of London. But that's not all: Bow was really short for Stratford-at-Bow, a name the place claimed from as far back as the medieval era, referring to a bridge built there in the twelfth century. Talk about history.

Focusing specifically on the genealogical angle, the FamilySearch Wiki for Bow, Middlesex provided a series of links to specific record sets at several online resources. One of those links was to the FreeBMD website, where I tried my hand at finding Edward Sullivan. As one might suspect, there were plenty of results with that name to choose from. And many details to absorb about how to construct a proper search. And, for crying out loud, even more about those registration districts, which never seemed to match up with the locations I already thought I had sufficiently pinned down. Apparently, the geography of England has far more details than I could ever hope to glean upon a cursory glance.

But wait! What if I had picked the wrong place name for the specific date range I was seeking? To pile on that complication over and above my current woes of ascertaining whether I had actually found the right Sullivan seemed more than I could bear. My warp speed was slowing to molasses. And it isn't even January yet.

From another record, I had gleaned an alternate name for Bow as Stratford-le-Bow (Saint Mary), and found yet another FamilySearch Wiki entry—with more links to record sets. In this wiki entry, the litany of place names seemed to match more closely the ones I had found in the 1901 census.

Reading the wiki entries, following the links to other resources, and studying the narratives found there certainly put the skids on my research speed, but in case I'll be spending more time researching digitally in Merry Olde England, it would be best to, indeed, slow down and smell those genealogical roses. Or tiptoe through those telltale documentation tulips. This is no time to speed past valuable input. Better now to tap, tap tentatively on that brick wall until we find the touchstone which will let us proceed to more useful information.

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