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).