Tag Archives: Essex

The Fingringhoe skeleton

The skeleton from the 1857 Waterloo Bridge Mystery

The skeleton from the 1857 Waterloo Bridge Mystery

Have you heard “The Reclusive Skeleton of Fingringhoe” episode of Punt PI? In this Radio 4 series, comedian Steve Punt puzzles his way around cases of high strangeness, such as the Mull Air Mystery and The Crying Boy Paintings. It’s like Fortean Times on the radio. You’ll hear my dulcet tones chiming in, to talk about some of the research I did into the mystery of the skeleton. When a skeleton turns up, as they sometimes do – the image at the top of the page is from the 1857 Waterloo Bridge Mystery1)It wasn’t strictly a skeleton as there was some flesh accompanying the bones – although not very much. – they exert fascination. How can we identify a person just from bones? Without the flesh, can we find out how they died?

The skeleton in the Fingringhoe case was found in 1949, in the apparently abandoned cottage of an actress called Ada Constance Kent, who hadn’t been seen since March 1939. She was reclusive and rather eccentric, so was the skeleton hers? But what about the children who had got inside her house and played there? I’ll leave you to listen to the programme, and if you’re interested in reading about what happened in the 1940s, then see the chapter in Patrick Denney’s Foul Deeds & Suspicious Deaths in Colchester (Patrick pops up on the radio programme too!).

I looked into Ada’s family background, tracing her in the censuses. I went off-piste a little and traced her mother, aunt and grandmother. These bits weren’t used on the programme, but it helped me to see Ada in context, as an ordinary girl from a riverside village in north-east Essex, who apparently came to an extraordinary end.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. It wasn’t strictly a skeleton as there was some flesh accompanying the bones – although not very much.

At sea & in the air: Wivenhoe’s Green boys


I’ve mentioned Grandma’s photo album before, when it turned out that the unnamed WW1 soldier posing in a Brighton studio was in fact her Uncle Bill. The photo above, of Grandma on a family seaside outing, interested me as it showed two of her cousins, and aunts of hers who I knew nothing about. She had written on the back identifying the people in the photo as:

  • back row: left to right – Aunt Rose, Aunt Elsie, Mum
  • front row: left to right – Eileen, Amy (my grandma), Jack, Les, Ron

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Mistley and the Witchfinder


I knew I would come across the burial of Matthew Hopkins, “witchfinder general”, when I came to transcribe Mistley‘s earliest parish register. It was still a strange feeling, to add his name to the database along with all the other residents. But along with Matthew, there was one other Hopkins in the register, and his burial seems to explain just what Hopkins was doing in Mistley in the first place, and perhaps how his campaign took hold.

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Georgian “Cluedo” in Manningtree’s parish register


Image courtesy of the Essex Record Office

Well this is a very odd thing… a plan for the ground floor of a house, from Manningtree‘s register covering 1695-1775. It looks bizarrely like a board from the game “Cluedo”, not least because it even includes a billiard room. From the top, there’s the drawing room, something-or-other room, Ante? room, breakfast room and dining room. Some hastily added stairs, and bay windows.

But who sketched this? A vicar dreaming of his perfect house? Is there a house somewhere in Manningtree which was built to this plan?

Double women in Weeley

Source: Pinterest

Source: Pinterest

Along with the notes in Weeley’s register showing that people having civil marriages during the Commonwealth were sometimes backing it up with a church wedding afterwards, there’s something else intriguing about the register at that period.

We’re used to seeing marital statuses for women such as single woman, spinster, widow or maiden (How sure they were of that…? Ahem), but Weeley’s earliest register throws a new one into the mix: the double woman.

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Black History Month – Harwich and Boreham


Portrait of a late 18th century sailor (from Wikipedia Commons)

It’s time for some parish register finds which show black people living in Essex hundreds of years ago. Last year, it was coincidentally in October that I spotted William Essex, “a black native of Madagascar” in Wivenhoe’s baptism register – so these are the people I’ve found since, in Harwich and Boreham.

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Free Findmypast weekend Friday 18th to Monday 21st September


Hurrah for free stuff! If you’ve ever been curious as to what you might discover about your ancestors on Findmypast, then now’s your chance, with the Findmypast free weekend.

Even though the parish registers for Essex and Suffolk aren’t transcribed in their entirety on any commercial sites yet, you’ll still find lots of records which are relevant. Here’s a run-down:

  • Suffolk Family History Society have many parish register transcriptions on Findmypast for you to search, although the accompanying images aren’t available (you’ll need to send off for the microfiche to see the original)
  • National Burials Index: covers some parishes from Essex and Suffolk
  • Wills: Essex and Suffolk are covered by the England & Wales Published Wills and Probate Indexes – find out how to use this collection for Essex and Suffolk.
  • Wills: Essex Wills Beneficiaries Index. Brilliant resource from the Essex Society for Family History, this index can be searched for people who appear in a will with a surname other than the testator’s. So for instance, very handy for tracing a married daughter.
  • Boyd’s Marriage Index: Quite good coverage for Essex and Suffolk. I find it useful to look someone up on Boyd’s and then go to ERO’s digitised registers to find the original, just to check it’s “my” person. Also see Findmypast’s London records as quite often Essex couples would marry in London (to avoid parental approbation or for the opportunity to go on a jolly?)
  • British Newspaper Archive: although this exists as a discreet website, you can access it via Findmypast too. It’s full of local newspapers from across Britain and fuelled my book, Poison Panic, and it’s amazing what comes up just by throwing in an ancestor’s name (yes, including murders…). Give it a whirl!
  • Merchant Navy Seaman Records: Being coastal counties, if you’ve got Essex and Suffolk ancestors then there might be some sailors somewhere among them. From about 1920, the records include photographs, but some earlier ones will include date and place of birth, level of education and even physical description of eye and hair colour and height.
  • Criminal registers: these are handy used alongside the newspapers. Includes petitions against transportations and executions. Again, came in handy writing about my poisoners!
  • Apprenticeships: this might help you trace an ancestor back to their place of birth if they moved on becoming an apprentice. Sometimes the apprentice’s father’s name is mentioned.
  • Essex Memorial Inscriptions: compiled by the Essex Society for Family History. Look up the name and it’ll tell you which cemetery they are buried in. For the full transcription, however, you’ll need to send off for the CD from ESfFH’s shop.
  • Censuses: I find the 1851 census for some parishes in the Tendring Hundred (particularly Wix) so faded that the Ancestry transcriptions are mostly inaccurate. Findmypast have boosted the scan of it so it’s been easier to read and therefore transcribe correctly. If you can’t find someone in censuses at one site, it’s always worth trying on another.

This barely breaks the surface but should hopefully give you some pointers for searching for your Essex and Suffolk ancestors on Findmypast this weekend.

Note: if you don’t want to subscribe to Findmypast, make sure you cancel your account, as you’ll need to set one up in order to participate in the free weekend.

Talk: Wivenhoe’s epidemics


Just a quick note – I’m giving a talk for the Wivenhoe History Group at the William Loveless Hall in Wivenhoe on Wednesday 8th July at 7.30pm.

All are welcome and it’s free.

I’ll be taking you through Wivenhoe’s burial registers, which show that the village was visited by plague, small pox and possibly cholera, from 1603 to 1849.