On the trail of my Uncle Percy…

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THE first article in this series identified that the principal sources of information for those seeking to trace their family history in Jersey are the official censuses from 1841 to 1901, the centralised records of births, marriages and deaths (BMD) from 1841 to today, and the church records of baptisms, marriages and burials before that date.

The census records can most easily be accessed on the internet. The BMDs require a visit to the office of the Superintendent Registrar, and indexes of the church records are held there, at the Museum library and the Jersey Archive.

Sadly, Jersey lags far behind many other administrations in Britain, Europe and the Commonwealth in making records of interest to family historians available on the internet.

Elsewhere, these crucial family records have either been made available by national, regional or local governments, at public expense, or by enthusiastic researchers who have banded together to transcribe records for websites, or by commercial companies who then charge for access.

With the exception of a limited number of St Helier birth records which have been posted to the Jersey Archive site, none of the Island’s BMD or church records has been made public in this way, nor does there seem to be any move to do so.

However, genealogists can still find a wealth of information about Jersey families on the Internet, but it is all at best second-hand, not based on official primary rec-ords, and must be treated with varying degrees of scepticism. Even primary records can be misleading: it is by no means unknown for lies to be told about the parentage of children.

But secondary records can be even less reliable. Mistranscriptions, wishful thinking and plain deception all add up to genealogical records littered with errors.

And it’s not all intern-et-based. Professional researchers in the 19th century were well paid by Americans to produce their family trees, and handsomely paid if they could link them to European nobility and royalty. It doesn’t take much imagination to guess the outcome, and genealogical archives are littered with seemingly accurate but actually fabricated family trees.

But although mistakes have certainly been identified in some of the important historical research into Jersey families, there is no evidence of fabrication on a grand scale. One of the most important works, ‘An Armorial of Jersey’, produ-ced by James Bertrand Payne in the mid-19th century, was financed by the families it chronicles, but although errors of detail have since been discovered, it remains one of the keystones for today’s researchers.

The Museum library contains a much used bound volume of photocopies of original annotated pages. Also to be found hidden away in drawers in this library, among hundreds of Jersey family trees researched in rec-ent years, are some originals created by the Rev J A Messervy and his wife in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including my own Le Gros Bisson tree dating back to the 15th century.

No less an authority than the late Frank Le Maistre, whose own research material is now held by the Jersey Archive, described Messervy as Jersey’s greatest family historian.

Messervy produced articles for the bulletins of La Société Jersiaise and a number of publications on important Jersey families, most of which are held in the Museum library, and together with the Armorial they represent the most important published works in their field.

More recently, books have been produced with the most comprehensive histories imaginable of the Le Quesne and de Gruchy families.

To all this research can be added the work of hundreds of individuals which has been published in one form or another on the internet.

And this is the key to simplifying research into one’s family tree. The odds are that a distant relative you knew nothing about has already researched the same ancestral lines.

There are numerous sites on the internet where researchers post their family trees for the benefit of others. As already mentioned, they can be inaccurate and misleading, but they are a start, and it is usually much quicker to double-check some-one else’s research.

One of the best sources of information is a Channel Islands researchers group hosted by the comprehensive and free internet resource www.rootsweb.com, which is itself financed by the commercial organisation www.ancestry.com which has already been identified as the principal repository for British Isles census records, among a wealth of other genealogical data. Joining the Rootsweb Channel Islands group instantly puts family historians in touch with countless others in all parts of the world who are trying to trace their ancestors in the islands.

Through my membership of this group I have been able to fill in many gaps in my tree, and a large slice of my family’s history was provided in one go through a contact made with someone in New Zealand researching the same families. This sort of progress can be a two-edged sword, because the initial surge can be followed by the realisation that there is little more to be discovered about a particular family line.

Might it not have been better to do the research oneself, piece by piece? However, although the primary records are readily available in the Island to most JEP readers, those like me with Island family connections, but living in France or further afield, must often rely on others for assistance.

Although the aim of most family historians is to take branches of their family as far back as possible, others prefer to fill in more detail about more recent ancestors and build up a detailed picture of their family in the past 100 years or so.

This can involve a fair amount of painstaking detective work and unearth surprising results. In my last article I revealed the truth behind a great-grandmother who ‘invented’ a father for her marriage certificate, having been found as a newborn baby on a St Helier doorstep. The story of my grand-uncle Percy is equally fascinating.

Percy Bisson was my father’s father’s elder brother, born in St Helier in 1883. As a child I was told that he lived in Canada, having been ‘banished’ from Jersey as a teenager by his parents for some untold misdemeanour. Although I knew that Percy had lived for most of his life in Vancouver and had been survived by his wife, Meg, I had precious few further details about him.

But the fact that if he had any grandchildren, they would be my second cousins, prompted me to make some effort to establish what had happened to him. Unearthing death certificates for Percy and Meg proved relatively easy with the assistance of a fellow family historian in Vancouver, and they revealed that the couple had had a son, James A Bisson. Percy was listed with his parents and younger brother in the 1891 Jersey census, but there was no sign of him by 1901. Had he really left the Island in his teens?

However, more searches through the 1901 census eventually located Percy, his surname mistranscribed, living and working as a steward at the United Club in Beresford Street. This fits well with the information that for most of his working life he was employed by the prestigious Vancouver Club in the city of the same name.

I then found details on another website of Percy’s voyage from Liverpool to Halifax in 1905 at the age of 22, but no trace of his wife, or bride-to-be, whom I now knew to be Margaret Whetton, from Burton-on-Trent. Another check of their death certificates revealed that Margaret was several years younger than Percy. There the trail ran cold.

A year or so later some family photographs supplied by a first cousin included a postcard from Percy and Margaret to their family back home, showing them in 1915 in Hamilton, Ontario, with their one-year-old baby James. The assistance of two other researchers in Ontario quickly revealed the fascinating story behind their marriage in Hamilton just a month earlier.

Margaret was a widow, having first married in 1913 a James Art-hur Bottomley, who was killed in a tragic accident, crushed between two railcars in April 1914. The accident was well reported in the Ham-ilton newspapers.

All this, of course, suggests that James A Bisson was not Percy’s son, and that any of his descendants would not be my cousins, so this time I have had to allow the trail to go cold forever.

What my experience in tracing Percy’s history shows is how much information can be obtained from census records, transatlantic passenger lists, death certificates and online newspaper archives.

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