Genealogist and Historical Researcher

Author: Nicholas Dixon

The Brick Wall of Washington


The font in Washington parish church, County Durham, where
William Dixon, my 3x great-grandfather, was baptised in 1827.

Until recently, it was a minor source of frustration to me that while I could trace many branches of my family as far back as the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, I could not trace my own name back further than 1827. This was the year that my great-great-great-grandfather William Dixon was baptised at Washington, not in the District of Columbia but in the county palatine of Durham (though George Washington’s ancestors’ home is next to the church). The bishop’s transcript of the Washington baptismal register recorded that William Dixon’s parents were Thomas, a husbandman of Washington, and Sarah.

In the absence of other evidence, I and other members of my family had assumed that the family had been in or near Washington for some time before 1827. Yet the problem with this theory was that there was no plausible marriage of a Thomas Dixon to a woman called Sarah in Washington or neighbouring parishes. There was, however, a baptism of a Thomas Dixon whose parents were a Thomas Dixon (a labourer) and a Sarah in the nearby town of Chester-le-Street in 1825. There was every indication that this was an elder brother of our William Dixon. Thomas and Sarah were residents of Birtley, showing that they were mobile.


The parish church of Bolton-upon-Swale, North Yorkshire, where my
4x great-grandparents Thomas Dixon and Sarah Busby married in 1815.

Two years ago, I started to investigate the life of Thomas Dixon, hoping that it would give me clues about the earlier history of the Dixon family. It transpired that the Thomas Dixon baptised at Chester-le-Street in 1825 had married three times and become a policeman. The interesting thing about the marriages and Thomas’s appearances in census records was that despite being born in Chester-le-Street, he was consistently recorded in Yorkshire. Before joining the police, he had worked as an agricultural labourer, and he was recorded with this occupation in the North Yorkshire village of Bolton-upon-Swale at his first marriage.

Having discovered this probable connection with North Yorkshire, I widened my search for a marriage of a Thomas Dixon to a Sarah in the years before 1825. Then, to my amazement, I found the marriage of a Thomas Dixon to a Sarah Busby in May 1815 at Bolton-upon-Swale. After this, the pieces of the jigsaw began to fall into place. A Thomas Dixon was a labourer and his wife Sarah had had seven children baptised in Bolton-upon-Swale and the adjoining parish of Langton-upon-Swale between 1816 and 1837. But there was a gap between the baptism of their daughter Sarah in 1822 and their daughter Anne's baptism in 1833.


Kiplin Hall, North Yorkshire, seat of Lady Tyrconnell in the nineteenth century.

The place of residence of the Dixons was fairly consistently recorded as Kiplin, a hamlet adjacent to Kiplin Hall, then the seat of Lady Tyrconnell. I then found a death notice in the York Herald from 1860, recording the death in the Royal Artillery Library, Woolwich, of John Dixon, ‘the youngest son of Mr. Thomas Dixon, of Kiplin, near Catterick’. This referred to the youngest son of the Thomas and Sarah Dixon, a soldier in the Royal Artillery. As I already knew that my ancestor William Dixon was also in the Royal Artillery and was stationed at Woolwich, this seemed too much of a coincidence. The truth was beginning to emerge.

With additional evidence, I was able to state with certainty that Thomas Dixon and Sarah Busby of Bolton-upon-Swale were the parents of my William Dixon, and that they moved for several years to County Durham before returning to Kiplin. Astonishingly, it transpired that the family’s link to Kiplin was mentioned in notes made by a descendant of Thomas Dixon. Matters were complicated again because Thomas, my 4x great-grandfather, is consistently recorded as being born about 1794 in West Auckland, County Durham, in census returns. However, there is no plausible baptism of Thomas Dixon in that or neighbouring places.

So, as ever, one ‘brick wall’ replaces another. But that is what makes genealogical research an exciting exercise!


The parish church of Auckland St Helen (West Auckland), County Durham.

Reflections on the Coronation

Having written something about the role of the Church of England in my family history, this month seems an appropriate time to write something about the role of the British monarchy.

I have lived with the coronation, maybe more than most, for the past decade. In 2013, I began researching coronations in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries while I was a history student at Oxford and needed to write a dissertation. This experience was highly formative, and laid the foundation for all my subsequent historical research as an MPhil then as a PhD student. Recently, I have had two analyses of coronations published (see my publications). My work on this subject was for a very brief time highly topical when it was publicised in the run-up to the coronation of 2023 (including in the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and a House of Commons Library research briefing). In the week of the coronation, I gave an online talk for the Society of Genealogists about how to trace members of the Royal Household and other links to the monarchy.

The prospect that there would be a coronation before long has also been a part of my life, though I dreaded the death of the late Queen while she was still alive. Last year I stood in the crowd in the Mall to witness her solemn cortege passing by before the lying-in-state at Westminster Hall, aware that I was witnessing a unique moment in history I would never forget. And when the coronation came earlier this month, I was transfixed by its numinous quality. It is one thing to write about coronations, another to witness them. When the historical novelist Walter Scott attended the coronation of King George IV in 1821, he was seen ‘in great ecstasies and half beside himself with delight and admiration at the show’.


The coronation of King George IV in 1821.
Source: New York Public Library

Such feelings are very distant from my detached historical approach, which has sought to discuss the religious dimension of monarchy in an analytical fashion. However, genealogy has helped me to understand a longer chain of events, long predating my personal historical interest in the monarchy, which have affected the way that I view the monarchy and the effect that it has on me. I am acutely aware that I have London ancestors, some of whom have lived in and around the metropolis since at least the time of George III’s coronation. And I have inherited and acquired many objects that relate to previous royal occasions. So I see the latest coronation as a continuation of something with deep and unfathomable roots.

My 6x great-grandfather, Alexander Wood, was baptised at St Mary, Whitechapel on 18 September 1761, four days before the coronation of King George III and Queen Charlotte. His family lived in Goodman’s Yard, very close to the Tower of London. They would no doubt have heard the guns fired from the Tower and the ships anchored in the Thames at the moment of the King’s crowning. Boisterous behaviour followed this moment in the streets of London.


An engraving of London from the topographical collection of King George III.

Alexander Wood did not live to witness a coronation as an adult. He was buried on 4 July 1820, a few months after the death of George III but a year before King George IV’s coronation. On 4 July 1821, in the month of the coronation, my 4x great-grandfather Henry Thomas Bridge was born in Marylebone. The Bridge family were living in Hertford Street (now Whitfield Street), by the time of his baptism. Another ancestor of mine, my 5x great-grandfather William Henry Timms, was picture framer to Sir Thomas Lawrence, who painted the coronation portrait of George IV. Timms was an erstwhile resident of Marylebone.

My 4x great-aunt Elizabeth Flowerday was born in the year of George IV’s death and baptised at St Mary, Whitechapel, in the year of King William IV and Queen Adelaide’s coronation. Elizabeth lived until 1919, long enough to bequeath in her will some money from her Post Office bank book to her nephew James Thomas Flowerday (my 3x great-grandfather), giving his address as the house in which my paternal grandmother was born five years later. Elizabeth died in Alfred Place West, Kensington, where she had long been a servant in the household of one of Queen Victoria’s physicians. In 1838, the year of Victoria’s coronation, my 3x great-grandmother Christiana Catton had also been a servant in Kensington, at Pelham Crescent. It was at Kensington Palace that Queen Victoria had spent her childhood.

Elizabeth’s brother James Flowerday, my 4x great-grandfather, was a colour sergeant in the 3rd City of London Rifle Volunteer Corps, and is recorded in a newspaper parading before the future King Edward VII at Wimbledon Common in 1868. It is probably from his side of my family that we have a mug commemorating Edward VII’s coronation in 1902. These were distributed at large dinners for 500,000 people given in London by the King on 24 June, in advance of his coronation. It is a precious reminder that my ancestors were in London that day.

Mug distributed in London to commemorate the coronation of 1902.

In advance of the next coronation, that of King George V and Queen Mary in June 1911, there was a massive ‘Coronation Exhibition’ at Shepherd’s Bush in West London. My great-grandfather, Charles William Dixon (a resident of Glenroy Street, Shepherd's Bush, at the time), was recorded in the census of April as an electrician with the pencil annotation ‘Exhibition’, doubtless referring to his work for the upcoming Coronation Exhibition, which opened in May. It seems that he had also worked on the Olympic Games held at nearby White City in 1908, which was opened by Edward VII.

With the coronation of 1937, the amount of memorabilia surviving becomes larger, as I have a commemorative plate and programme from the event. This was the first coronation to be filmed, allowing people beyond London to experience it for the first time. It seems likely that my ancestors saw footage of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth being crowned on cinema newsreels. The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 was the first to be televised. My great-grandmother, Edith Dickinson, bought a television specially to watch the event.

Edith came from a mining family in County Durham and had married a coal miner, William Herbert Jefferson. She was clearly determined to watch the event in her terraced house near Sunderland. I have a mug belonging to my maternal grandmother that marks the occasion. Her husband was my grandfather, the Rev. William Herbert Jefferson (son of Edith), who was appointed to the vicarage of Belmont by the Queen in May 1972, a few days after Edith’s death. My grandfather had arranged for his church at Lamesley to be floodlit for the 1953 coronation.

Edith Dickinson

Edith Jefferson, née Dickinson (1892-1972).

And so I come to this month’s coronation, for which I now also have memorabilia to add to my collection. Like my great-grandmother in 1953, I watched it on television. But I was also fortunate enough to visit Westminster Abbey on the following Monday, having recalled from my research that in 1838 the public was allowed to see it as was set out for the ceremony and wondered whether this opportunity might also occur in 2023. It was amazing to see the coronation chair in place and the ornate screen made for the King's anointing. And last week, at Lambeth Palace Library, I saw the bible with which the King was presented.

When I contemplate the varied and subtle ways in which my family’s experiences have been intertwined with those of the Royal Family, I am filled with fascination. There is something wondrous about such continuity, like the coronation itself. It is a valuable inheritance.

Clerical Roots

Although I specialised in the history of the Church of England when I was a PhD student, I never thought very much about the ecclesiastical history that was at the heart of my own family history. Being a scholar demands perhaps a certain detachment from one’s subject matter, and the attitudes of historians towards genealogy are not always positive. So while writing about the Church of England in the nineteenth century, I mostly overlooked the seemingly irrelevant fact that I was descended on my mother’s side from a clergyman, and that the Church of England was an integral part of my family’s story. Since turning towards genealogy, I have recovered my consciousness of this part of my past, which does not need to be in conflict with scholarship. In fact, having studied the Church of England in detail enables me to understand my family much better!


Tablet of incumbents at Christ Church, New Seaham.

My clerical ancestor is not a distant parson of the Georgian period or the Victorian age, but rather my own grandfather, who was born in 1916 (while his father was fighting in the First World War) and died before my birth. When I have time, I will study him like I have studied so many other Anglican clergy who are not (to the best of my knowledge) related to me. We have retained numerous papers and photographs that belonged to him, and I have come across many references to him in local newspapers that are digitised online. There are also documents relating to him in county and diocesan archives, and he will be in Crockford’s directory of the Anglican clergy. A long time ago, I managed to locate his obituary in a parish magazine. Additionally, there are the memories of people who are alive and knew him. The clerical profession is a well-documented one.

St Nicholas Dunston

Me outside St Nicholas, Dunston, Gateshead.

For now, I feel closest to this aspect of my heritage when I visit the churches where my grandfather ministered. I am named after one of them, St Nicholas in Dunston, Gateshead. When I have been inside two other churches where he was vicar, at Lamesley and New Seaham, I have seen his name (W. H. Jefferson) on the list of incumbents. While visiting one such church, a lady who could remember my grandfather told me that she could see my resemblance to him. I cannot help thinking about that when I see a picture of him as a young curate of the 1930s, a graduate of the University of Durham despite having been raised in trying circumstances in a village near Sunderland by a coal miner and a woman who was a domestic servant before her marriage in 1914. His life was very different to mine, but his story is a part of my story. Genealogy has allowed me to appreciate and to celebrate that.

William Herbert Jefferson

The Rev. William Herbert Jefferson (1916-1975).

A Bethnal Green Marriage

One of the most striking family papers I have is the marriage certificate of my 4x great-grandparents Robert William Edward Bellnap and Milbro Sarah Dunnett. The document dates from 6th August 1838, shortly after the introduction of civil registration in England, but it is not a civil certificate. Instead, it is an extract from the St Matthew's, Bethnal Green, parish register that was made on the day of the marriage by the curate, James Mayne, and presumably given to the couple. Unlike a civil certificate, it includes two biblical verses: 'Marriage is honourable in all' and 'What therefore God hath joined together let no man put asunder'. This was the first of four marriages for Robert. He signed his name, while Robert's father (a witness) and Milbro made marks. The tattered record was later affixed to a matchbox, giving it a distinctive appearance.


Marriage certificate of Robert Bellnap and Milbro Dunnett, 1838.

The church of St Matthew's was damaged in 1859 and 1940, but its exterior still looks much as it did on the day of the marriage. It had been built in the 1740s, when Bethnal Green split from the Middlesex parish of Stepney. Strangely, both parties seem to have been living outside the parish of Bethnal Green. Robert Bellnap, a paper stainer, was baptised at St Leonard's, Shoreditch, and was living in King John's Court, Shoreditch, according to the certificate. Milbro Dunnett had been baptised at St Botolph without Aldersgate in the City of London, and was living in Coleman Street, also in the City. In theory, one or both of them should have been in Bethnal Green for a certain time since they were married there by banns. Unfortunately, the banns register for St Matthew's, which would shed light on this, does not seem to survive for this period.

St Matthew Bethnal Green

Engraving of St Matthew's, Bethnal Green, in 1825.

Following their marriage, Robert and Milbro Bellnap lived in King John's Court in Shoreditch. I visited this address in 2006, finding it dominated by later Victorian railway arches. The place has since changed beyond recognition again. But the marriage certificate still evokes the day of Robert and Milbro's wedding, and I think that it is a remarkable survival.


King John's Court, Shoreditch, in 2006.

The Slender Chain of Memory

Who is the oldest person you have ever met? I once had the extraordinary experience of meeting someone who was about a century older than me. My mother, born in the 1950s, can remember meeting a man who was a soldier in the Boer War. These rare encounters instantly connect us to distant times. Genealogy helps us to chart and understand such connections.

I have been fascinated by genealogy for as long as I can remember being interested in the past. From an early age, I spoke with elderly relatives about their memories of their early lives and heard first-hand accounts of life in the 1920s and 1930s as well as the Second World War. My paternal grandmother told me about her great-grandfather, Thomas Entwistle, who had been born in Holywell Lane, Shoreditch, in 1853, and died in 1936. His mother, Sarah Tuck, was baptised at St Mary and All Saints’ Church, Kidderminster, in 1810. Therefore only a slender chain of memory links me with the reign of George III and the period of the Napoleonic wars.

St Mary and All Saints' Church, Kidderminster, in 1890.

When I consider the relations that my parents talked to, the chain of memory takes me back even further. My maternal grandfather, a clergyman who died long before I was born, would have known his great-grandfather, Isaac Moon Welford, who is shown living very close to him in the 1921 census in Whitburn, County Durham. Isaac was baptised in 1834 at Lythe in North Riding of Yorkshire, while his parents had both been born in nearby Hinderwell in the 1790s. My paternal grandfather’s father is recorded in 1913 attending the funeral of his wife's maternal grandmother Mary Ann Bolton, whose father was a mariner born in 1791 at North Shields in County Durham.

Yet it is not only people but also places that can link us to the past. My paternal grandmother lived in Peabody Buildings in Shadwell when she was a child, the very same place that her great-grandfather, an engineer named Henry Thomas Bridge, was living at the time of his death in 1880. She was born in Whitechapel, where her 4x great-grandfather Alexander Wood had been baptised in 1761. She knew her maternal grandfather, James Thomas Flowerday, who in 1881 had been living at the same address in Devonshire Street, Mile End, that his great-grandmother Charlotte Elizabeth Wood, daughter of Alexander, had died at in 1875. I was born in the same hospital in London where James Flowerday’s widow had died in 1950.

Devonshire Street, Mile End, on the Booth poverty map, 1899.

Such links may seem inconsequential, but I cannot help feeling that they help me to engage with the past more immersively than many books on historical subjects. As a genealogist and house historian, I am always seeking to find and describe the intricate and complex connections that help us to make sense of previous eras. I hope that what I will write in this new blog will help you to contemplate your own links to the past.

© 2024 Dr Nicholas Dixon

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