A Family in Cambridgeshire in the late 1700s


This is the story of a family named Brown.

There’s a struggle most family historians will know. You spend years poring over records, identifying the ancestor, working on that jump back to the previous generation. Hoping that the unknown parents will turn out to be Winterfink or Albercoyle, something searchable that will stand out in lists and newspaper articles and interment records. Names like Brown or Smith can doom an ancestor to permanent obscurity.

My ancestors were John and Mary Brown, married 1760 in Fordham, Cambridgeshire.

As it happens they were more visible than expected, partly due to their grandson Robert born 1818. He was transported to Australia as a convict so we know a lot about him. Not only that, he lived a very long life among family equally blessed with longevity so the oral history is good. Robert Brown died in 1911, his son died in the 1950s.


Tracing the family back from Robert to his father Benjamin was simple. Benjamin (born 1785) married Susan (Susannah) Sargent, the names are unique enough, we have them in every British census and could build their family with ease. They spent their entire lives in the same region, which helped a lot. They were labourers, farmers, ploughmen. Agricultural pursuits right through. Our Robert seems to have been the only black sheep, the others appear fleetingly through births, marriages, death and census. A quiet and excessively numerous family.

The complication was Suffolk. Fordham is right there by the border and while Cambridgeshire records are available online, Suffolk is a great challenge for anyone not on the ground. Benjamin came from Fordham, his wife Susan from Exning. Susan was a brick wall for many years because of this.

Focusing on Fordham, Benjamin was the son of John and Mary Brown nee Boon.

Here is the whole family:

This may be incomplete. Eleven children seems like quite enough but there is a suspicious gap between Sarah No. 2 and John. There’s room for two more children there.

It’s complicated from here on in. For clarity, John Brown’s parents are referred to as ‘Granddad John’ and ‘Grandma Sarah’. John and Mary’s same name children are John Jr and Mary Jr.

We can only guess at the size of their house. Granddad John lived for some years in Landwade but was buried 1772 in Fordham, so he might have lived with them too.

A few generations earlier the Browns owned land and had wills, so our John Brown might have lived on his own land too. But his children clearly lived in rental places and there’s no indication land was passed on to any of them.

It was probably lucky that the eldest children in the family were girls. By the time their mother reached her less energetic middle years when pregnancy is harder and childbirth even more risky, she had a group of capable youngsters able to take the load on their own shoulders.

The first Sarah died at the age of six and was buried on 1st December 1767 in Fordham. She was the only child they lost.

John Junior was baptised on 27 November 1774, not long after the death of Granddad John. There was probably some rejoicing or at least relief that the head of this household would finally have someone to help with heavy work and take over the household if need be. Maybe they held their breath until he survived that dangerous first year. But the baby was hale and hearty, it seems, and grew up just fine.

Baby John had a bevy of personal carers in Mary (12), Elizabeth (10), Ann (8) and Sarah (6). That’s if Mary was still around; girls in this region were commonly out at work by the age of 11.

John was the only son for some time. His birth was followed by Hannah and Martha, and by now the eldest daughters were young adults, probably doing farm work or in service around the district.

Child number nine was Jane, baptised on 30th June 1782. She was six months old when her eldest sister was married.

The marriage was straightforward like everything else in the life of this family. Mary Jr was about to turn twenty. No doubt a capable home manager, experienced in childcare, she knew how to cook and sew and milk cows and nurse children through fevers and all those things required of a farmer’s wife in 1782. So when local man John Munns looked for a wife she was going to be a strong contender.

The Munns family, like the Browns and the Sargents, jumped across the county border between Fordham, Landwade and Exning. I’m not sure which side of the border they began on. I actually think we’ll find an earlier Munns link, maybe they were connected to Mary Boon. There’s a good chance young Mary Brown and John Munns knew each other their entire lives.

I imagine they announced their engagement and made plans. The marriage took place on the 18th November 1782. Everything respectable and straightforward.


I learned about Mary’s marriage through DNA matches with three of her descendants.

Two years later, Ann Brown formalised her union with farmer John Burling of Swaffham Prior, a village six miles from Fordham, three miles from Exning. It wasn’t a big move, but a good one socially and economically. John was a landowner in a modest way and his farm was quite successful.

I discovered Ann through another DNA match.

From this point on, the generations are slightly muddled. John and Mary Brown’s tenth child – their second son Benjamin – was baptised in the same week as Mary Jr’s apparent first child Henry Munns, and also John and Ann Burling’s first child Susannah.

At a calculated guess based on ages and proximity through the decades, I would say Benjamin Brown grew up playing with his nephew Henry Munns and his cousin William Brown. And the Sergeants/Sargents were there too, not yet married into the family but at all the social events. As were the Burlings.

This is the time to introduce William and Mary Sergeant of Exning.

William Sergeant and Mary Levett were married in 1778 and their eldest son John was born the same year. George, Susannah, William and Mary were born over the next few years, followed finally by Elizabeth, James and Eleanor. They lived in Exning and mostly stayed there, but they attended Brown weddings and the families knew each other well.


This, as far as I can see, is what English village life really was. Not individual families as we do it today, the whole population personally connected again and again. I’ve kept it simple so far.

In 1787, Susan Brown’s birth completed the family of John and Mary Brown. In this same year, little Susannah Burling was buried and a new Burling daughter was given the same name.

By 1788, Elizabeth Brown must have felt like an old maid. There she was aged 24, nieces and nephew popping up everywhere (Mary Munns and Isaac Burling came into the world this year). But finally it was time for her own wedding. She married John Frost in Isleham, Cambridgeshire.

I have DNA matches with Elizabeth’s descendants too.

Sarah may have married in Isleham too, there is a plausible marriage with John Peachey on 24th October, 1787. But I cannot be sure of it.

So having introduced all the characters now, we can pull the whole thing together. Mary Munns, Elizabeth Frost, Ann Burling and Sarah Peachey(?) are settled. There’s a gap now, which matches that six year child gap between Sarah and John. The four married daughters increased their families significantly. The Sergeant children are likewise growing up

On 27th September 1798, John Brown Junior was married to Ann Shinn in Fordham. He may have felt some pressure to do so, his father was sixty years old and probably starting to ail.


It was another time of rapid change. Hannah married Thomas Bishop in 1799 (DNA matches brought this to light), then came the death of John Brown, father and grandfather to this giant family. He was buried in the Fordham cemetery on 10th April 1801.

A year later was the first union with the Sergeant family through the marriage of Martha Brown and John, the eldest Sergeant boy. They spent a couple of years in Suffolk before moving to Fordham.

I discovered Martha through DNA matches too.

To conclude this part of their history, Benjamin Brown married Susan(nah) Sergeant in 1810, while Jane married William Durrant four years later. I have not located a marriage for Susan.


There’s just one more marriage to add.

The fifth Sergeant child was Mary, born a year later than my Benjamin, baptised 09th October 1786 in Exning.

Mary Sargent married Henry Munns, the eldest son of John Munns and Mary Brown.

It is confusing. John Sergeant married Martha Brown. Susan Sergeant married Benjamin Brown. Mary Sergeant married Henry Munns. You can see how I might have strong matches with other descendants of this family. But I also have matches with descendants of Eleanor Sergeant who married an Andrews, and with Burlings and Frosts and Bishops so it’s not just endogamy from that particular grouping.

In conclusion, this is the family of John and Mary Brown as I now know it, a long way ahead from my first post about the family. I wrote this first to help others researching this family, and second to show what DNA matching can achieve.

Now I’ll get on with more research.

Image captions:

1 Image by Bob Jones : Track near Fordham, from Wikimedia CC BY-SA 2.0 .No changes made.

2 Robert Brown born 1818 with grandchildren Lucy, Amy and Mary in Australia.

3 George Stubbs: Haymakers 1785 (public domain)

4 John Constable’s Wivenhoe Park, Essex showing rural features. There are very few paintings featuring Cambridgeshire.

5 Old man Family Hour Magazine 1854

6. I chose this image for the mud. Very much a part of British farming.

The Ocean of Descendants

Families were large and take a lot of researching.

Families were large and take a lot of researching. On the far left is Robert Brown, the husband of Mary Morgan my first brick wall and subject of an earlier post.  On the far right is his eldest son Robert.  The seated lady is Robert Jr’s wife Emily, and the children are theirs.

When I began researching my family tree, the plan was to learn about those relations which my family knew but I didn’t.  The net was wide.  I spoke to everyone, listened and took notes.  I learned about Sister Muriel who found the smallest things fascinating, about my grandfather’s grandmother who sat on the firestep smoking a black smoke and was consulted about every small decision each family member had to make, and about my grandfather’s mother who everyone said had a wicked sense of humour but her daughter in law (my grandmother) said was ‘a little bit strange’.  Personal relationships spoken and unspoken came through.  I could see who had got along with whom, and where the conflicts were.

Stage One of my family research was sorting all these people into their proper places.  Eventually, I achieved this.

Stage Two was researching the families back to their point of immigration to Australia.  As I looked further back, the families were all large with many siblings in every family.  I found several who had between 15-20 children, obviously men who were married more than once.  I located all the siblings since they were part of the direct ancestor’s main story but continued back looking for the emigration.

In order to answer the question ‘why’ they emigrated, I needed to ‘cross the pond’ and learn about their family situation in wherever they came from.  This proved fascinating and never straightforward.  Many of them were already displaced, having left their home county to chase the work.  In order to work out their true origin I had to research their parents too.

If everyone had a thoroughly researched tree, direct ancestors are all that would be required for DNA matching.  You’d just search for the ancestor name and bingo you’d have your match.

Stage 3 of my family research is getting each line back to 1700 to do my bit towards the simple DNA Match effort.  I’m a long way from it – so far that I don’t even know how far.  I’ll tally it all up sometime soon. I think I have about eight couples at that time period across mine and my spouse’s trees.

The elderly surviving members of one Dillon family of ten children.  These are the children of John Dillon and Bridget Bain (second brick wall and subject of an earlier post)

The elderly surviving members of one Dillon family of twelve children. These are the children of John Dillon and Bridget Bain (second brick wall and subject of an earlier post)

All of this has involved pushing on back and finding parents. Once I have a baptism register, of course, I’ll record all the relevant births I can find – other children and nieces and nephews.  If I don’t have that much information I’ll just take what I get and push on back.

Subscription sites are really bad for this kind of research.  Obviously they are in a competitive business so they give as little as they can – single record by single record.  Those who pay per view will be more profitable to them this way.  But those of us who just want the fun of a page of records to pore through and sort into the various family groups don’t have the opportunity.

What I have now recognised is that not everyone can get back to where I am so I need to meet them halfway.  I have also recognised that most of my confirmed matches – the Burleton match, the Lockley match and the Brown match for instance – have been through a daughter of the family on their side, a daughter whose surname changed.  Sometimes it is easier to come down from above than to go up from below.  I need to trace all those descendants and meet my matches maybe much more than halfway.

So – I need to take my ancestors all the way back to 1700 and then come back down filling in all descendants.  This is where the sea of descendants turns into an ocean.  I gather that many have begun this task but given up.

Consider an ancestor couple who married in 1700.  Assume they had ten children who all lived to grow up and marry.  Assume they all had ten children between 1725-1745.  The original couple now have one hundred grandchildren. If all those grandchildren marry and have ten children, we are looking at a thousand great grandchildren by 1800.  We then want to follow those thousand descendants for another 200 years.  No wonder people give up.

In reality we shouldn’t have to do the final 100 years.  Most DNA testers barring adoptees, orphans and refugees will have their tree back to their grandparents and great grandparents.   But if each prolific person can have 1000 descendants after 100 years, by 1900 we have 1000 times 1000 – that’s 1,000,000 .  Yes, giving up was the sensible move.  I also feel a little better about not identifying 388 matches on FtDNA (and the number keeps growing).  It’s a miracle I have confirmed as many as I have.

Of course, it won’t be like that.  It could, theoretically, but it won’t.  Not so many families of ten had them all growing up, not all adult children married, not all of those who married then had children.  Of course, this might be countered by the Casanovas of the family who fathered children they never even knew about, but we’ll see.

Also, population numbers dropped off in later years and in times of trouble.  The worse case scenario won’t really hold.  But – I’d better get on with it.

Children from an orphanage school from Sunday At Home 1876

Children from an orphanage school from Sunday At Home 1866

The Descendants of John Brown and Mary Boon of Fordham

Farm image from Sunday At Home 1881

Farm image from a 19th Century Lady’s Magazine

John Brown was born in the year 1739 in Fordham, a small but thriving town in Cambridgeshire, England.

Fordham is a small village but its population has fluctuated over the years.  It has a history of habitation going right back to the Bronze Age.  The Romans built one of their famous roads through it, from the market towns of Newmarket to Ely.  A Gilbertine Abbey was built here in the 13th century and various manors popped up over the next few centuries.  Always a farming place, the villagers worked on the various properties and kept their own stock on the commons.

If ever one is looking for an iconic English village, Fordham is worth examining.

Even by 1739, when our John was born to unknown parents, every foot of ground had been walked on in his locality, over and over again.  Digging channels and paths often led to the discovery of ancient wells now covered over, or stone blades from a distant past they could not really conceive of.  The occasional references in old newspapers are very intriguing.

The authors of the day thought the place was boring.  A dull old country community full of farming yokels and squires with a passion for cattle.  The kind of squire, I would imagine, who had a portrait made of a prize bull to hang over the fireplace. Those people existed.

We don’t know much about John, but he was probably a home loving type like his descendants.  The Browns of Fordham were comfortably off and appear to have lived on the same property for several generations.  He was a farmer, no doubt he started on the farm at a young age and knew just what he had to offer when he went looking for a wife.  The (hopefully) lucky lady was Mary Boon.  I have not located her birthplace but according to her age at death she was born in 1745, so just six years younger than her husband.

Fordham is annoyingly close to the Suffolk border and it is necessary to search both counties for records.  I have not obtained the correct records for Suffolk yet, so I’m hoping Mary was born there.  She might have been raised in Fordham.  Being on the road from Ely to Newmarket, there were people going through and there was a toll gate at Fordham.  She probably came from somewhere nearby.

John Brown and Mary Boon were married in 1760 in Fordham.  Due to the transcription method chosen by my subscription package, it is not possible to search for children by parent names.  I have only located children by guessing at a likely name and searching for it.  Then it will show me who that child’s parents were.  A lengthy process.

Until quite recently I had only three children for John and Mary – sons John born 1771, Benjamin born 1785 and William born 1786.  There were clearly going to be more.  I’d bet on a Mary in there somewhere.  Perhaps half the children died young and siblings were given the same name.

Researching John and Mary Brown in the 1760s is not a task for the faint-hearted.  I can’t take the credit for the initial research, it was a man named Ian Woolley (his real name) who first located these records.  He was a man who achieved wonders for Tasmanian genealogists and I suspect has now passed on since he was an old man twenty years ago.

I have, however, built on his work a little, since the internet popped into existence.

I have spent six months working on a DNA match with a lady, and we thought our connection might be in northern Ireland.  I have ancestors from Fermanagh, she had ancestors from Tyrone.  She’s working hard on those ancestors.  It seemed logical to me, but when we couldn’t find it I looked further, and found one Ann Brown way back in her tree, born in 1768 based on age at death.  Ann Brown appeared in many trees, married to John Burling in 1784, but never with any parents.  However, she was married at Bottisham, nine miles away from Fordham.

After investigating, a baptism turned up for Ann Brown child of my John and Mary, in 1766 in Fordham.  John and Ann Burling used the family names and one of my other Browns show up in Bottisham not long after their wedding.  It fitted together well.

This was a case where DNA testing has really helped my family tree.  I’d never have found Ann, and Ann’s descendants would never have looked in Fordham for her.  There are too many little villages and parishes to scour them all for Browns.

I am a descendant of Benjamin who was born in 1785.  Benjamin’s son Robert was a convict who was transported to Australia.  He married my first brick wall Mary Morgan (see earlier post).   Robert Brown and Mary Morgan’s third son was another John Brown and my great great grandfather.

Benjamin had another son, Benjamin, his eldest.  One of Benjamin Jr’s sons emigrated to Australia as a free settler.  I don’t suppose my Robert ever knew he was there.  My newly added link, Ann Burling nee Brown, also had a descendant who emigrated to Australia.  I wonder how many more I will find?

Brown home territory near Bothwell in Tasmania

Brown home territory near Bothwell in Tasmania

My Three Brick Walls – No. 1 Mary Morgan

On 20th October 1856 a baby boy was born in the small colonial town of Hamilton in Tasmania, Australia.

This was their first year with the name ‘Tasmania’.  Until now the town had existed within the British colony of Van Diemen’s Land, but the colony gained the right to self-legislate in 1854 and in 1856 had made some large changes – including the name, in an attempt to shake off the convict stigma.  A whole lot of things were altered, including the details which went onto the birth, marriage and death registrations.  What England wanted to know about people was not what Tasmania wanted to know. Tasmania was still under British rule, but not under direct British administration.

That baby boy was the first child for his parents, as far as we know. He was named Robert after his father, who was Robert Brown, a carter, free by Conditional Pardon, born in Cambridgeshire and now settled in the Tasmanian midlands.  The baby’s mother was Mary Brown formerly Morgan, and this is the first definite mention of her in the official records.

By 1856, records in Tasmania were pretty good.  In a colony of convicts and a vibrant shipping industry, the authoritative bodies wanted to know who went where.   There were still thieves on the run, escapees and persons banned from the urban districts.  So how someone could reach the age of adulthood and not find herself on a public record is a bit of a mystery.  She is by no means the only one, but as more records are digitized and made available, and as the internet enables family records to be accessed by others, the mysteries are unraveling.  Generally, it comes down to an unexpected change in name.  A child who took on a stepfather’s surname, for instance.  Or someone who came to Tasmania not from overseas but from a neighbouring state like Victoria.

There’s a good chance that Mary has records, but her very name is against us.  She began life as Mary Morgan and ended it as Mary Brown.  Both are very common names.

It’s miraculous that we could trace Robert Brown, but he left his information everywhere – his name, his accurate age, the ship he arrived on, his home town.  He provided consistent details and thus we found him even before records went online.  He was transported for life and at first behaved rebelliously, but by 1850 he had received a ticket of leave and by 1853 received his conditional pardon.

A conditional pardon, generally, gave him freedom to live his life under certain conditions – usually that he not return to his native country, or that he not leave his new country.

An early winter's morning in the region where Robert and Mary Brown lived.

Early winter’s morning in the region where Robert and Mary Brown lived.

No record has been found of a marriage between Robert Brown and Mary Morgan, and since marriages were easy to procure back then, it is more likely that they did not formalize their union.  However, this in itself is odd in a cultural environment where such things were frowned upon.  Of course, if they arrived in a town as an already married couple, no one would know any different.

In 1856, the proud new father was aged 37.  We don’t know Mary’s age but she continued bearing children for many years.  Following the usual pattern on all paternal sides of my family, she was probably in her mid teens, giving her a birth year of somewhere about 1840. I think between 1835 and 1841 is pretty safe.

Robert and Mary seem to have been healthy and maybe happy too.  A second son, William, was born in 1858, still in Hamilton district but I’m not sure if it was in the township.  After this the young family moved to Black Brush, later renamed Mangalore, where Robert was employed as a carter.  Their third son was John and he was my great great grandfather.

Birth registration of my great great grandfather John Brown.

Birth registration of my great great grandfather John Brown.

Amelia was born in 1862, and two years later we have a glimpse into their everyday life when Robert, father and breadwinner, was in an accident and broke both his legs. After some searching, I have located a brief description of the accident in a local paper:

"THE MERCURY." The Mercury (Hobart, Tas. : 1860 - 1954) 18 Jul 1864: 2. Web. 13 Oct 2014 .

“THE MERCURY.” The Mercury (Hobart, Tas. : 1860 – 1954) 18 Jul 1864: 2. Web. 13 Oct 2014 <http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article8827402>.

I had wondered about the three year gap between baby Amelia, born in 1862, and the next child in 1865.  The accident explains everything.

Mary found herself with four young children and no way to earn a living.  As people do in that situation, she turned to the minister of her local church who referred her case to the Queen’s Orphan School in Hobart – the state orphanage.

I first saw a brief transcription of this event a few years ago, but it is only recently that I had a chance to view the original – which gives far more detail.

The closest we have ever come to Mary Morgan.

The closest we have ever come to Mary Morgan

The Orphan School application includes five glorious pages giving us a brief confirmation of this woman’s existence.  The greatest detail here – of which we were never sure – is that Mary was native born.  This means that she was born within the colony.  It is not a reference to aboriginality.  Her parents might have come from anywhere else.  But it does mean that Mary, to the best of her knowledge at least, was born in Van Diemen’s Land.  She didn’t remember any other home.  So we need to look at someone surnamed Morgan who was around in circa 1835 who could be her parent.  This is still not easy, but nice to know.

Mary’s tale was a sad one, to we who live in a world where children stay children till their teens.

A glimpse into the family's life in 1864

A glimpse into the family’s life in 1864

I have four children namely Robert 8 years old – supports himself – a cowherd, the two mentioned in this application (William and John) and Amelia 2 years old – my husband is a patient in the Colonial Hospital Hobart. His legs were broken on the 12th July ultimo and I am informed that he is likely to continue in hospital for several months – I have no means whereby to support my children. My husband’s wages were 1 shilling a week.  Application supported by the Rev M Ball whose letter is annexed.

It’s a useful document.  The Reverend’s letter certified “That the bearer Mary Brown is the wife of Robert Brown a labourer in this district who was recently received into the Colonial Hospital with both legs broken from an unfortunate accident.”  He also confirmed “That she has applied to him to have her three sons Robert, William and John recommended for admission to the Orphan School”

The application was rejected for Robert aged 8 who was deemed able to support himself as a cowherd, and was accepted for 6 year old William and 4 year old John.  They were only in there for a few months – until Robert Brown was released from the hospital at the end of October.  One wonders if he was able to resume his work as a carter quite that soon, and bring in a wage.  I also wonder if the Reverend certified that Mary was married to Robert because he assumed it or if he really knew it.

In 1865, Elizabeth was born, followed by James in 1868, Mary Anne in 1872, Henry in 1875, Frederick in 1878 and Benjamin in 1879.  Frederick died young but this was the only child they lost.

The rest lived to adulthood and were married but I have been unable to trace all descendants.

If Mary was still bearing children in 1879, I don’t think she can have been born earlier than 1835.  I still think 1840 is more likely.

That birth record for Benjamin is the last mention of Mary Morgan.

Birth of Robert and Mary's youngest child, and the final reference to Mary.

Birth of Robert and Mary’s youngest child, and the final reference to Mary.

For every one of the births, Robert was the informant.  It is only the Orphan School application which was undertaken by Mary herself.

Mary Brown died.  We can deduce that since she was born in the early 1800s and won’t be alive today.  There are 27 deaths for women named Mary Brown between 1879 and 1899.  Records are harder to obtain after 1900 for Tasmania.

Of those 27 records, one in New Norfolk in 1899 seems plausible, but it comes with absolutely no details.  A private patient at the New Norfolk Hospital and the informant was the superintendent.  The hospital reported deaths at the end of each month and they knew little about the patients and only wrote the necessary.  This Mary Brown was buried at North Circle cemetery and the burial record is word for word what they received from the hospital – exactly the same as the death record.  No headstone remains, the cemetery was badly vandalized through the 1970s and 1980s.

If that is her, it’s a sad and obscure ending for a woman who successfully raised a large family in difficult circumstances.