Missing Mary & Secretive Sarah

It’s interesting how undertaking new projects forces you to look at your tree and your research in new ways, and show up those pesky holes.

You know – those people who seem to evaporate like mist or (possibly even worse) apparate fully formed in front of you with kids and all but no sense of before.

I have two ladies on my father’s side who are very much of the disappear into nothingness variety. And, I’m not going to lie, it’s frustrating me!

The first is the mother of my great-grandmother, Emily Alice Collins previously Murray formerly Bowley nee Palmer. Emily is a one of the highest order but I can at least hatch, match and – if you’ll excuse the crude expression – despatch her in records. Her mother on the other hand ….

Mary Jane Fisher was born in Collingbourne Kingston on 21 September 1854, the daughter of Jacob and Priscilla (nee Brine) Fisher. The 11th of 12 children, Mary grew up in the village and married Frederick Palmer on 9 October 1875. (Frederick is listed as a minor on the certificate as he didn’t turn 21 until three months after the wedding.)

Frederick, Mary and various children all appear on cue in the decennial census returns up until 1911. Frederick dies on 15 August 1923 in Brunton, a collection of houses on the edge of Collingbourne Kingston, after having “hemiplegia” for 10 years. This meant that he had severe weakness or perhaps even complete paralysis down one side of his body. This could have been caused by a number of things – an accident, a stroke, a tumour or even a brain infection of some kind. Whatever the underlying cause, it would have resulted in damage or malformation in one half of the brain. It can affect an arm more than a leg, but as the death certificate lists gangrene of foot as a secondary cause of death then perhaps we can infer that his hemiplegia affected his leg more than his arm.

I would expect his wife to be the informant and present at the death, but in this instance, it is one of their sons, E. J. Palmer (Ernest John) who was the informant. Now, the fact that Mary isn’t named doesn’t necessarily mean anything – it certainly isn’t unusual for a child to be an informant – but does this mean Mary was already dead by the time Frederick died? Unfortunately, Frederick didn’t leave a Will, and neither of them pop up on FindAGrave (St Mary’s in Collingbourne Kingston has a small cemetery and the plots were often ‘recycled’ and old tombstones removed.)

She doesn’t appear in the 1939 Register, and there are no matches in the Collingbourne burial records, nor to be found leaping out of the GRO death indices. A great many people online have one of two dates of death for Mary: 1923 or 1925.

The 1925 one comes from a probate entry:

However, it is evident that this is not the correct Mary – different place, different county, different husband. The associated death index gives her age as 63, giving an approximate birth year of 1862, 8 years too young for my Mary.

The 1923 option, from Q3, appears to be a better match. It happens in Wiltshire, in Salisbury where there has long been a hospital that would have been easily accessible from Collingbourne. However, upon purchasing this certificate, it was again a case of wrong husband, wrong age …

Where, oh where, did Missing Mary go?! Will she be in the 1921 census? I will most certainly be adding her to the list, if only to narrow the time of her ‘disappearance’.

Which then leads us to the 2nd subject of this post: Sarah Palmer, nee Gale. Sarah was Frederick Palmer’s grandmother. She married William Palmer in October 1821, in Collingbourne Kingston, and their eleven children followed in quick succession – all baptised in the local church. Sarah can be found in 3 census returns: 1841, 1851 and 1861. William died in September 1858 of “lupus exedens and inanition”. Lupus exedens is a progressive form of tuberculosis that causes destructive skin lesions. It normally affects the face – perhaps this is why his secondary cause of death was inanition, that is, exhaustion brought on by lack of nourishment. Much like with his grandson, it wasn’t William’s wife who was the informant or present at the death. This was one Mary Goddard – seemingly a neighbour.

In 1861 the widowed Sarah is living with four of her sons, and gives her place of birth as “Lye Hill, Wiltshire”. Ten years earlier, her recorded place of birth was Collingbourne. She does not appear in the baptismal records for Collingbourne. Nor does she seemingly appear in the 1871 census or the Collingbourne burial records! Although it has to be said that Ancestry only has these up until 1863; FindMyPast goes up to 1880 but the only Sarah Palmer burial there is from 1773 – I will have to have a trip to the archives to have a look at the originals/full transcriptions.

I have previously reconstructed “Lye Hill” to be “Leigh Hill” which appears in the neighbouring parish of Savernake and survives today as the name of a series of cottages on the edge of the forest. Although there are many Gales baptised in the other neighbouring parish of Burbage, the registers of St Katherine, Savernake only survive from 1851. But the origin of her family is an entire other challenge for another day!

Leigh Hill and Leigh Hill Copse to the north of the Kennet & Avon Canal, Ordnance Survey Map 1885-1900 from National Library of Scotland

When I do these kinds of posts – where I re-examine a mystery that stumped me earlier in my research journey – I manage to surprise myself and find an answer. Whether this is down to expanded records being available or expanded research abilities (I mean, dare I even presume …?!) I wouldn’t be able to say, but in this instance … nothing. Perhaps looking at the burial records in person will help (I am yet to take a day off and book a slot at my local archive – and with new Covid restrictions coming into force on Monday here then I doubt that it’ll be this side of Christmas), and perhaps the 1921 census will show something of note. But until such time, in the immortal words of Toyah “The Voice” Willcox, it’s a mystery.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s