Sunday, 12 August 2012

Where was Bill?

Locating a new authoritative data source, such as a Census record, gives you the opportunity to cross-check what you already know (or assert) about your ancestors' approximate age, residence, occupation, religion and education. If you are lucky the new information confirms what you have been claiming.

If you are very lucky, the Census record contains an anomaly that challenges what you believe and opens up a new line of investigation.

That was the case with the 1911 Census of Ireland for the Burton household at 64 St Leonards Street, Victoria in Belfast.

It confirmed that Agnes was then a widow after the death of 2xgreat grandfather, Andrew and that her oldest daughter Sarah had left home. Those of working age were employed in flax-related industries and the five youngest children were in school — Andrew, Isa, Chrissie, baby Daisy (Susan), and … Bill was missing. William BURTON, aged 5, was not at home on census night 1911.

The records of the Belfast General Cemetery reveal that there was an horrific number of infant deaths between 1890 and 1910; but we have photographic evidence that William BURTON was not among them.

A number of suggestions were put forward as to where Bill might have been — in hospital, staying with his older sister, even the very modern possibility of a school camp. The challenge then was to use the census to find him.

Thanks to Agnes' practice of going "home" for each birth, he should be easy to track down. How many 5 year old boys called William born in Scotland and adherents to the Salvation Army could there be in County Down? In fact there were none recorded. Sometimes elegant searching needs to give way to brute force.

How many males aged 5±5 years named Burton were there? Just 15, of whom seven were 3 years old or younger and two were 8 years or older. Of six boys aged 4 to 7, three came from Presbyterian families and two were Church of Ireland.

Which left Willie aged 5 recorded as having been adopted into the Salvationist family of James and Mary Burton of 6 Gawn Street, Victoria.

Why do I think it is plausible that this is William the son of Andrew and Agnes Burton? The match of his name and age are not compelling evidence alone but, when you add the religion and the fact that the two houses are located just a few minutes apart, the case builds. Most significant is the fact that James' occupation "labourer" has been annotated "ship yard". I believe that Andrew was also working in the ship yards at the time of his death.

When Agnes was widowed, she was pregnant and had toddlers of 6, 4 and 2. If the family of her husband's workmate from the same Temple offered to look after one of the young boys, would she have accepted?

The case would be almost complete if I could demonstrate a family connection as well as occupational and religious links. Andrew Burton did have a brother James but he was born in 1870 and so would have been 41 years old in 1911 not 49.

However the damage to my argument is lessened somewhat by the observation that at the previous census (in 1901), James had claimed to be 45 years old. In the same ten year period, his wife Mary aged only 2 years and daughter Lizzie 7 years. The ages of the Irish on official documents need to be interpreted flexibly!

On balance, I am comfortable claiming that in 1911 Bill was living with his Uncle James and family just a few streets away. He was certainly reunited with his siblings in Queensland where they followed the same practice of village-like life — living with walking distance of each other's homes and being very flexible about whose children stayed where at any given time.

And that is where this story will stand, until I am lucky enough to find a piece of evidence that makes me search in a completely new direction.

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