My colourful great aunt in Cardiff passed on many tales about my Welsh family, and I quickly concluded, even as a child, that they were mostly fairy tales. Her stories did not begin with “Once upon a time,” and end with “They all lived happily ever after.” They were more hints, a word or sentences dropped, with a knowing look, raising all sorts of questions which she then declined to answer, because “curiosity killed the cat.”
One that she particularly enjoyed involved a suggestion of scandal, although she would never say what the scandal was. One of my great-grandfathers was called Samuel Perry, but she claimed that the name had originally been Parry and the family had been obliged to change it. Why? She wouldn’t say but she let it be understand that it had been necessary in order to avoid some unspecified notoriety.
Years later, when I got sucked into researching my family history, I dismissed the story as obvious fabrication, and worked on the assumption that the Perry family had probably come to Cardiff from Somerset or the Welsh marches. Then the 1881 census and his marriage certificate showed that my Samuel had been born in Liverpool, and his father, another Samuel Perry, had been a rigger (shipyard-worker) there. That settled it. The name really was Perry. But for years I could not find any record of my Samuel in Liverpool – no birth in 1862, when it should have been, no Perry family with Dad Samuel and Samuel junior in the census returns.
It was years before I tracked him down, through one of those convoluted sideways leaps you learn to make when doing family research. I discounted the date of his birth (often recorded incorrectly) and discovered a Samuel Perry, stepson of Thomas Winn, with a sister called Ann Jane Esther. And Ann J E is a lot less common than Samuel so finally… yes, finally, there he was, baptised in 1854, seven years older than he claimed to be on his marriage certificate (to a very young bride), son of Ann and Samuel… wait for it… PARRY. And the 1851 census showed his father’s occupation as Rigger. But no sign of Samuel Parry senior in the 1861 census or any time thereafter.
So my great aunt was right, the name had been changed from Parry to Perry, and since she knew about it, it could hardly have been a case of an accidental misprint, never corrected and eventually forgotten. Something induced my Samuel and his sister Ann Jane Esther to change their surname. Had Samuel senior been guilty of murder? Rape? Robbery with violence? Treason? Was he hanged? Transported to Botany Bay? Was he cornered with his bag of loot and shot down like a dog? The only hint I have found, so far, is a list of cases heard at the quarterly assizes in 1858. Thirty cases to a page, and 18 of them, including a Samuel Parry, were convictions for keeping a house of ill repute. It would appear that most of Liverpool at the time was a brothel. Samuel was given a 9 month sentence. Was that really it? Since everyone was doing it, it doesn’t seem quite scandalous enough to justify a change of family name. And it doesn’t explain what Samuel did or where he went when he was released. Because HE WAS NEVER SEEN AGAIN! Or at least I haven’t found him yet.
My great aunt did intersperse hints of infamy in the family with boasts of almost aristocratic connections. Almost. If not rising from the ranks of the aristocracy, then at least belonging to the purple of commerce. She liked to claim that a cousin had become Lord Mayor of Cape Town. Yeah, yeah, if you say so, Aunty.
Then it turned out that he was. Not a cousin, exactly but related, a couple of generations back: Sir William Thorne, draper extraordinaire. He left Pembrokeshire for London at the age of 18, worked as a draper’s assistant, and briefly joined Harvey Nicholls before emigrating to South Africa in 1860 where, in partnership, he set up a major department store in Cape Colony. As a result of this and other trading ventures, he was elected mayor of Cape Town in 1901 and was knighted in 1904. So there.
What intrigues me most about this is that my great aunt, offspring of an illegitimate branch of the family that had separated from its Pembrokeshire roots decades before, into the melting pot of Cardiff, still knew about the connection. If I had fully appreciated how well informed she was of all the intricate details of our family history, I would have grilled her more thoroughly about them, and allowed myself to believe that at least half of what she said was true. Far too late now, of course.