By Will Barber Taylor
Family history can be a fascinating but at times a frustrating subject. It can consume hours without you ever learning anything about the person or families that you’re looking for. This is something that often puts people off doing their family tree as they feel that it is impossible to find the ancestors that they want to. However, not all is lost – even the most impossible to find ancestors can be tracked down through a mixture of persistence, DNA and the historical record. Such was the case when researching my paternal great grandfather John Taylor.
Family history has been something that everyone in our family has always been interested in. Yet, John Taylor was something of a mystery. We didn’t know when exactly he was born – sometime around the turn of the century; we didn’t know anything about his father other than that they shared the same name. He had been in the army but for how long was anyone’s guess. He was said to have been born in Gibraltar, but this wasn’t certain. So, as you can imagine the prospect of finding someone with such a common name would prove difficult if not impossible to find. However, I now know a great deal more about my great grandfather. How is this? It’s all down to persistence and knowing how to work through the historical records.
The first and easiest document to come across was John’s marriage to my great grandmother Ethel. As they had married in Blackrod, Lancashire it was easy to order the certificate off Ancestry and find out more information about them. John’s occupation was gunner in the Royal Artillery, which made sense as they got married in 1919. John was listed as living in Suffolk at the time of his marriage which made sense – at the end of his life, John had gone to live in Suffolk with relatives. His father’s name, as expected, was included. Marriage certificates can often prove useful in finding lost ancestors as they provide the occupations not only of the bride and groom but their father’s too. Unfortunately, John Taylor senior had died prior to the 1919 marriage meaning that his occupation was not listed – he was simply stated as “deceased.” This didn’t help at all as it meant we had no idea whether the John Taylor we would find would be our John’s father. According to collective family memory, John senior had been in the army like his son. However, this wasn’t confirmed, and he may not have spent long in the army. As you’d expect, the marriage certificate raised more questions than it did answers. This is where we hit a brick wall.
Years passed, and it seemed as if we wouldn’t find out anything more about John Taylor. There had seemingly been a break – a boy born in Gibraltar about the same time with the same name was living with his grandfather, a retired Police Inspector in London was on the 1911 England and Wales Census. The problem was it turned out not to be our John but another John Taylor who just happened to have been born in the same place at around the same time. This is one of the difficulties that can put people off when researching their family trees; particularly with a name like John Taylor it can be difficult to figure out which one is the right one.
However, a break finally emerged when I decided to scan Ancestry’s family trees and by chance they had a John Taylor who seemed to match my John, whose father was also John and seemed to have siblings that matched the vague references that had been passed down through the family lore. I decided to check further and searched Gibraltar’s National Archives to find out more. This particular John seemed to fit exactly with the outline of my great grandfather’s life that we knew as a fact – born on Gibraltar, his father had served in the military and his mother was Spanish, just like our John. The records from the GNA proved to further support the case that the John found on the Ancestry tree was my John Taylor – they showed John snr’s marriage to a Spanish woman called Rosalia, the 1911 Gibraltar Census where Rosalia and her youngest daughter were living were not far from the British army barracks and it all seemed to fit together.
I contacted the owner of the Ancestry family tree and it soon became clear that my great grandfather did fit exactly into their family story and they were able to tell me details about John’s siblings. The piece of evidence that finally clinched it was finding John Taylor’s Royal Artillery service record. The document made clear that the John Taylor I had been investigating was my great grandfather. To be able to finally pin him down was a fascinating and elating experience and one that only family history can provide. John Taylor and his story had always been a part of me but one that I did not know anything about. I finally knew a great deal more about him.
This wasn’t all though. My cousin who made the family tree were able to provide pictures of Rosalia and her younger children and provide in depth details about the lives of John’s siblings. This all helped build a clearer image of John’s life.
Four years later and through DNA we were able to discover even more about John Taylor and his half siblings. After the death of John Taylor senior in 1906, Rosalia had married again and had several more children with her second husband, William Capon. What exactly had happened to the Capons and whether they knew anything else about our shared ancestress remained unclear. That is until a DNA match with one of the descendants from this line enabled us to contact this other long-lost section of the family. Through the family tree produced by my cousins and the matches to other relatives of John that we had already identified, we were easily able to determine how the new DNA match was related to us. It soon emerged from conversation with these new Capon cousins that Rosalia had not only been Spanish but that she was half French as well! The Capons were able to provide a photograph of Rosalia’s mother, a woman whose name we have yet to discover.
As one door closes another opens – we have discovered a great deal about John Taylor and his life, information that would seem impossible to find based on the scant evidence that we began with. Yet, through perseverance, the use of records and DNA we were able to trace his father’s side back several hundred years and begin to find out about his elusive mother.