When the pieces don’t fit


Tracing family history is sometimes like completing a jigsaw puzzle without the box. To make things more difficult one sometimes encounters the equivalent of a patch of sky where there should be part of a bowling green or a circle of standing stones resting on a cloud. No matter how hard you try it just won’t make sense. It also casts doubt on things that seemed to be undeniable truths. Peeling back the layers of my Onion pedigree has not yet brought me to tears, but I am unable to let the incongruities go unreconciled.

Take, for example, John and James Onion, brothers born at or near to Black Ladies Farm in the Bishops Wood area of southern Staffordshire, respectively in about 1812 and 1817. What evidence is there for this?

In April 1848 John, of Brewood, aged 35, was imprisoned for larceny (another post to come). At first sight that would suggest birth in 1813, but further thought indicates a roughly two thirds chance that it was 1812. I have so far been unable find John in the 1841 or 1851 censuses, but In 1861 he lived at Church Street, Tipton, occupation sinker [of wells and pit shafts], with wife Jane, some 15 years his junior, and he is the pit and well sinker recorded at Sedgley in 1881. John’s age is recorded as 42 and 68 and his birthplace as Bishops Wood and Brewood. There was, as far as I can discover, no other John Onion born at about the right time and place.

So it would be reasonable to expect him to be in the Sedgley or Tipton area of the Black Country in 1871. His wife, Jane, was born at Wednesbury in about 1834 and just such a Jane Onion is to be found at Sedgley in the 1871 census, but she was wife of James Onion, 54, labourer, born Bishops Wood.

This is confusing! Brother James Onion was born about 1817, so would have been 54 in 1871.

Now for the floating stones. On Ancestry are several trees that say James died in 1844. If that is true, he could not have been in Sedgley 27 years on. But wait! The details are 23 Mar 1844 at Vol, Khabarovsk, Russia. No source is cited on public trees.

What on Earth was a farm boy from Bishops Wood doing in Russia? And where was Vol? Consulting the Times Atlas of the World, I discovered that Khabarovsk is a city close to the north east extremity of China, where the Trans-Siberian Railway (TSB) turns south for Vladivostok. According to Wikipedia the land on which the city stands, initially a military outpost, was ceded to Russia in 1858, but was under Chinese rule in 1844. Until 1916, when the Amur was bridged, the TSB used ferries to cross the river. In 1844 the TSB was not even a pipe dream, so what was he doing there?

My instinct was to look closer to home. The General Register Office index included the death of James Onion, 1844, registered Penkridge (which was the official place). I obtained a copy of the entry of death. It records that he died on 23 Mar 1844 (spot the coincidence!) at Bishops Wood, aged 24 years, of consumption (tuberculosis). The informant was Sarah Upton also of Bishops Wood. His age suggests birth in 1819 or 1820.

Apparently, this records that James Onion died at 5 a.m. on 23 March 1844 at Khabarovsk, Russia!

The informant is significant. In 1841 and 1851 Thomas Onion and family lived at Bishops Wood with Thomas’s aunt Sarah Upton. I believe Thomas was James’s brother, so Sarah was also James’s aunt, who it seems safe to assume, nursed him through his illness. As for the age quoted, would aunt Sarah have been sure of his age? I have not discovered another James Onion that could fit.

And, as James was deceased, I conclude that the 1871 census entry was mistaken and refers to John and his Wednesbury-born wife.

I am not sure whether this is a shaggy dog story or a wild goose chase, but it seems, just like Perry Mason or John Rebus, that in the end, I got my man!  It was not a stone circle that I saw in the sky, it was a pie!

One thought on “When the pieces don’t fit

  1. On Ancestry a slip of a finger on the keyboard or mouse can cause an incorrect country to be listed – a location that you know is wrong. I’ve seen what should have been the English county of Kent end up as Kent County, Delaware. That’s not quite as extreme as Penkridge ending up as Vol! Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone checked the data they’ve entered – and provided source details?


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