Francis and Fanny Eliza Burleton – the role of fiction in family history research

Gateway to Eastwood Manor where Francis lived with his wealthier relatives

Once upon a time I completed a course in genealogy which included some units in writing fictional accounts of our ancestors’ lives.

This was very hard for me to do, after years of diligently verifying each fact a minimum of three different ways before including it in my tree.  My very first piece of flash fiction felt wrong, as if I were disrespecting my ancestors’ memories. It was like gossiping about a neighbour, spreading false ideas about their motives and personality traits. 

Since then I’ve discovered that hypothesis is a useful tool. The trick is to ensure that anything fictional is clearly labelled as such. Of course, the canny genealogist considers every piece of information as fictional until proven otherwise, but to be complicit in creating fiction – well, that’s a whole new uncomfortable ball game.

In the past few years, though, I’ve seen it used quite effectively. One example is in the late Nigel Triffitt’s wonderful blog about the Triffitts of Tasmania.  He mixes facts with speculation and uses his prodigious writing talent to bring that early settler family to well rounded life.  I’ve also found that some respected researchers create suppositional trees while trying to sort family groups from a specific record set – such as all the baptisms of a particular church. Again, the trick is to ensure that nobody with access to that tree thinks it’s the final result.  And as already stated, the seasoned family researcher doesn’t believe other people’s trees ever.  We all do the research over again ourselves to see if we come to the same conclusions.

So that’s the preamble.  Most of this post is flash fiction about my 3x great grandparents Francis and Fanny Eliza Burleton.  The question I set out to answer in my fiction was how they could leave their first born (only) infant son in his lonely grave and move all the way to the southern hemisphere. How did they feel about that?  

While it’s not ‘true’, I incorporated as many facts as I could.  The family relations are correct. The cemetery is the correct cemetery.  The personalities of Francis and Fanny Eliza are as correct as I can make them using their own voice via family papers and wills.

I like this couple so much that I wanted to share my vision of them with the rest of the world.  Their story makes an epic tale of success in Australia tied up neatly with the success of Bowna and the beginnings of the iconic Hume Highway. 

Two courageous young adults of good intellect.  Both were poor relations amidst the solid wealth of their cousins in the Somerset village of East Harptree.  Both had the capacity to be so much more.  It must have been tough. 

Eastwood Manor – home of the Burletons in the mid 18th Century

I’ve covered some ancestral background of this couple in previous blogs.  William Burleton and Thomas Wookey are the fathers of Francis and Fanny Eliza respectively.  I’ve written a little about Fanny Eliza and I’ve also touched on William’s father John Burleton.   After marrying in East Harptree, Francis and Fanny lived in nearby Coley where their daughter Mary Anne and son Albert Edward were born. Albert lived for eight months.  This fictional piece is set at his burial in East Harptree. 

Fictional Piece – A Burial at East Harptree

On a balmy morning in spring when new leaves budded on the trees and robins fossicked for twigs to make their nests, Francis Burleton followed slowly behind a tiny coffin destined for the East Harptree churchyard.

Fanny Eliza, black clad and very contained, walked at his side carrying their daughter. His wife’s haunted poise wrenched the breath from his chest. Mary was settled deep into her mother’s arms, very aware that catastrophe of some sort had struck the family.  She was good as gold this day, quiet as an old woman with her little toddler fingers wrapped in black mittens against the cold.

At the churchyard he waited with his wife and his brother Will, lost in thought.  Would the sunny girl he had married emerge again? Or was she now a different creature? Could any of them be the same again?

Here was the grave of John Burleton, his grandfather.  He remembered a solid man of stoic demeanor and poker face, the last of the old style of yeoman farmers.  Church warden, local magistrate and of impeccable reputation. John Burleton had even entertained aristocracy at Eastwood Farm. His excellent husbandry added wealth to local importance. It meant something here in Somerset to be a Burleton.

But Francis remembered that time when he was just a boy where he had no place to be, overhearing a tirade of abuse hurled at his Papa by this great man. John Burleton with florid cheeks and booming voice in the parlour at Eastwood Farm.  And his own Papa, six inches taller but cowed and silent, accepting the abuse.

“A bankrupt! A Burleton in the bankruptcy courts?  How DARE you show your face on this property now! I might have known you’d throw it all away, boy,  but I’ll be damned if I’ll permit you to take us with you.”

Even then, afraid to move for fear of being spotted, Francis had marvelled at the difference between the two men. His grandpapa so black and stiff. His father so ethereal, tall and thin with light wispy hair.  His grandpapa with rigid routines and his papa with a new grand scheme every day.  But Francis did not, back then, know what bankruptcy was.

That was just before the move to Wales escaping whispers and recriminations. Mamma  staunchly supported Papa, as always. The Burletons never had approved of her and she was happier in Wales. Until the dreadful day that Papa was transported to the colonies as a common criminal. That day shattered all the family’s hopes, silenced their dreams and forced them to reassess their whole world.

It really was not Papa’s fault. He had set the Welsh town against him with his criticism and grand schemes, had upset the natural order of things as he always did. He wasn’t a criminal, but he had disrespected the property of others.  They’d taken action, got him shipped off.  It was a stitch up.

Francis and Will were brought back to Somerset, placed at Eastwood Farm with their Uncle Robert to learn good management. They were servants on the property that might have been their own had their father not been who he was. It was a heavy enough trial to endure.  But how could they blame Papa for being himself?  Papa was born that way, with some odd twist in his brain that denied him the gift of foresight.  Papa’s dreams were more real to him than reality.   And the fact was that Uncle Robert had taught them a great deal. They could now do what their father could not – keep a farm and family together, make it work for them.

As a bitterly cold drizzle settled over the churchyard, Francis caught the eye of his brother.  Now Will was heeding the call for emigrants and leaving them.  Heading off to the wild lands of New South Wales in search of gold and pastoral land. The thought pulled him back to the present and Francis looked round at the rest of the mourners waiting with him. 

Uncle Robert stood alone, solid and poker faced just like a Burleton of old. He wasn’t happy with the funeral arrangements.  Little Albert should have been buried in the Burleton plot, but Fanny Eliza had put her foot down and she was a Wollen.  

Wollen. An old name, true aristocracy.  They’d daughtered out now and Fanny’s mother had been one of the last. Francis had married her for herself, not her family name.  Yet, she had a power over the Burletons that he could never have imagined and she was not in awe of them at all. 

He watched her move quietly to her mother’s grave and place a finger lightly on the headstone as she always did.  Just a quiet ‘hello Mamma’ to the woman who had died before her babies could come to know her. It was Fanny Eliza’s decree that her first born son would be buried here, with his grandmother to watch over him for all eternity.  

St Laurence at East Harptree Rodw [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

The tiny coffin was lowered.  Francis and Fanny Eliza cast the first sod. They watched their cherished son vanish from view forever.  Francis had the distinct impression that Fan was burying her innocence in that little grave with her boy.  When it was done she looked at him. Silver droplets of rain shimmered on her smooth dark hair. Serene. Peaceful. Determined. Changed.

“Will has the right idea.” She said.  “We have nothing here. Mamma will care for Albert now.”

Francis looked at her in puzzlement.  

Fanny Eliza looked across the churchyard.  “I want to move to the colonies. This place is not good for children.”

Move to the colonies. Will had suggested it weeks ago and he now felt a stirring of curiosity. What might it be like?

But if Fanny Eliza had decided there was no question.

“Yes.” He looked solemnly at her.  “Let’s do that.”

They walked across the churchyard to rejoin the mourners.

Thomas Wookey 1789-1846 : A man in search of belonging?

Christian Ladies Magazine 1851

Image of motherhood from Christian Ladies Magazine 1851. Unsigned, no attribution. Publication by the Religious Tract Society, London.

From the perspective of research, Thomas Wookey has been one of the most troublesome ancestors ever.  Coming from a nice, orderly section of the tree where everyone lived quietly and methodically in the same village for centuries, he issued a challenge to my assumptions.  Which is most welcome of course, family research would be boring if the ancestors all did the same thing. But I do like to find the answers after a reasonable search. I think I have the truth this time.

Thomas was the father of Fanny Eliza Wookey, my four times great grandmother.  I’ve written about her here and I have more of her story to write in future posts.  

Originally, I thought he was the Thomas Wookey born 1800 who married Ann Bowles.  That one lined up perfectly to be the second wife of a grieving young widower with two babies, as my Thomas became.  But no, I later conclusively found my Thomas in the 1841 census born in the 1780s.  So he wasn’t the man who married Ann Bowles.  I next decided he had to be the son of George and Martha Wookey born 1780 in East Harptree. Very logical, made heaps of sense.  There was no other Thomas Wookey born in that twenty year period.

Then I gained access to his digitized marriage record with Fanny Eliza’s mother stating he was a widower – a detail missing from the previously available transcription.   That missing first wife was the biggest puzzle yet. Then I found two death records for Thomas Wookeys of the same age in East Harptree.  We had one baptism and two burials.  One of them had come from elsewhere.  Only one lived long enough for the 1851 census, and that one said he was born in East Harptree and he was unmarried, not widowed.  So I looked out of the Harptrees altogether and found my man.

His story begins in Congresbury in Somerset. 

Congresbury in Somerset – Thomas Wookey’s actual birthplace

Sometime in very late 1788 or early 1789, 19 year old Ann Wookey gave birth to an illegitimate son who she named Thomas.  He was baptised in Congresbury on the 18th January 1789.

Portion of baptism record: Somerset Heritage Service; Taunton, Somerset, record D\P\con/2/1/4

Ann was the fourth daughter of George and Mary Wookey of Hinton Blewitt.  She may have been staying with relatives for the birth for the sake of propriety,  that sort of thing did happen.  Or maybe she was working in Congresbury, perhaps as a domestic servant, and chose not to go home until after the birth.

I have no idea what happened next to Ann Wookey.  I don’t believe she is the one who married Thomas Athay. There is an Ann Wookey from East Harptree who was buried in Stanton Drew in 1836 and she’s a good fit. If that’s ours, she possibly did not marry.

Thomas grew to adulthood out of the records and I found him next in Malmesbury, Wiltshire, as an adult involved with a religious group called the Moravians.  It’s this occurrence that leads me to wonder if he was seeking a place in the world to belong to.

The Moravians were a European version of Christianity who believed in open air services.  There were only a few groups of them in England.  They called each other brethren and Thomas was probably very happy in their midst. 

A couple of surnames dominate the Malmesbury Moravian Parish Register.  One of those names is Robertson. It may have been his meeting with Elizabeth Robertson that brought Thomas into the fold. Or maybe he came in and then met Elizabeth?  The pair were married in the Malmesbury Anglican church in 1821.

Marriage record of Thomas Wookey and Elizabeth Robertson 6th August 1821 via 
Wiltshire History Centre

I haven’t located Elizabeth’s birthplace or parents but one of the witnesses to this marriage was Matthew Robertson.

Thomas and Elizabeth had only the one child that I can discover.  A daughter, Fanny Elizabeth baptised in Calne in 1823.  Fanny Elizabeth was buried a year later. 

Portion of baptism of Fanny Elizabeth Wookey in Calne. 
Wiltshire History Centre record 2176/1

Fanny Elizabeth was buried on 12 Mar 1824 and her record has been out there for years in transcription form.  I’ve looked at it in the past, mistakenly thinking it referred to my Fanny Eliza.  I once added the baptism record then realized that it came too far before the marriage to be right.  But somehow, because it was in Wiltshire not Somerset and because I’d fixed on the wrong Thomas in the first place, it never even occurred that this could have been the sister of my own Fanny Eliza.  It must have been a terrible time for Thomas.  I may be wrong again, but I get the impression that he didn’t deal well with death.  He certainly saw more of it than many families did.  

He had two more months with his wife before she, too, lost her struggle with life and passed away.

Portion of burial of Elizabeth Wookey Non-parochial Register RG 4; Piece Number: 3061

It was after this that Thomas found his way to East Harptree. He was a Wookey of Rowberrow not of Harptree, so what took him there?  My guess is that he met young Hannah Wollen somewhere else while she was visiting relatives.

Thomas’ mother Ann Wookey was the younger sister of Walter Clarke Wookey who by this time had married Mary Wollen.  It’s likely that Mary Wollen was a relative of Hannah’s, though I haven’t found the exact connection.   Hannah lived with her mother and stepfather, her own father having died when she was a baby.  The Wollens were of good name and her father was listed as ‘Esquire’ in her baptism record. She had a moderate amount of money from her father’s will to help keep them.  

On 9th June 1825, Thomas Wookey and Hannah Wollen were married at the church of St Laurence in East Harptree.  Thomas was 37 years old, Hannah was 18.  They settled in West Harptree and a year after their marriage a daughter was born to the couple.  The little girl was baptised Fanny Eliza on 15 Oct 1825 and she was my four times great grandmother.  Two years later in 1828, a son named Alfred Wollen Wookey joined the little family.

Then in August 1830 Hannah died, apparently of pregnancy complications.  She was buried in West Harptree.

St Marys Cemetery West Harptree

Thomas never tried again to have a family of his own.  His two children were sent to private boarding schools from a rather young age.  In the 1841 census he can be found living with his mother-in-law’s widowed second husband (Hannah’s stepfather) and he is shown as an invalid labourer. 

He lived long enough to attend (presumably) the wedding of his daughter Fanny Eliza with Francis Burleton in 1844, but not long enough to meet any of his known grandchildren. After their marriage, Francis and Fanny moved to Bristol and it looks as though Thomas went with them, so his final few years were possibly in just the sort of family group that I think he always wanted.

On 29 Oct 1845 Thomas Wookey died probably in Bristol and was buried in the cemetery at West Harptree with his second wife Hannah.  His two surviving children each married and raised families of their own, but for some strange reason neither gave any son his name.  

There are still a lot of holes in my research regarding Thomas Wookey, but everything I have now fits together very well.  So hopefully this sets the story straight.  

Burial of Thomas Wookey at West Harptree, showing his residence as Bristol