Skip to content

How a simple search for an ancestor can unlock way more than you expect

Guest author for Findmypast
Guest Author
5 September 2019

Genealogist, Jen Baldwin, shares one of her favourite family discoveries, packed with mystery and crime.

It seems my family history is worth its weight in...silver. My third great-grandfather, John Horatio Lawrence, had always sparked my interest. I had read about him in written family histories that claimed he was born in Birmingham, England, the son of a middle-class silversmith. When I became interested in genealogy, I had a deep urge to discover more about this fabled character.

While the idea of tracing someone based solely on a location and an occupation seemed daunting, I knew that with the help of digitised newspapers and city directories, much could be accomplished.

Search family records

The first task was to determine if the family story was actually true. So, I set out to find a man with the surname of Lawrence working as a silversmith in Birmingham during the relevant time period. Success! I found a gentleman, also called John, who had placed many ads in regional newspapers for his business. He can also be found as early as 1815 in regional directories.

Findmypast - London office

John Lawrence, a silversmith based in Mount Street, Birmingham, from Britain, Directories & Almanacs in 1830.

From here, the next logical step was to construct a timeline and life story for John Lawrence, the silversmith, using parish records, census entries, and additional resources. Instead, this tale took an interesting turn. 

As I scoured the newspapers, I noticed an interesting article in Aris’s Birmingham Gazette from 19 October 1828. It would appear John Lawrence’s shop was burgled during church services and several items were taken.

Findmypast - London office

It would seem that someone, an accomplice perhaps, reached out directly to John Lawrence within a matter of days. On 3 November, he placed the following notice in the paper:

Findmypast - London office

This interview must have been granted, as just two days later, John Fletcher was arrested and held in the county jail. Unfortunately, none of the property was found, but the witness statement must have been compelling enough to secure a conviction.

John Fletcher was a jeweller and lived near the scene of the crime. He can also be identified in city directories. An 1829 listing notes him as a chaser, or engraver. I was able to follow the course of Fletcher’s tumultuous experience through the next two years, using historical newspapers and court records from Findmypast’s exclusive Crime, Prison and Punishment, 1770-1935 collection.  He was ultimately sentenced to death but this was later reduced to transportation for 7 years. He was sent to Australia aboard the Argyle in 1831.

Findmypast - London office

As I continued to investigate my original family story, I found additional evidence that indicates that John Lawrence, silversmith of Birmingham, is likely my fourth great-grandfather. Either way, the fascinating stories I discovered along the way makes his world all the more real and proves that not one of our ancestors truly stands alone. We must explore more than just their lives but their communities too.

About the author

Jen Baldwin has been pursuing her family history since she was 10 years old. Currently Data Acquisition Manager, North America for Findmypast, Jen also regularly lectures and writes on a variety of genealogy topics. She has been part of the research team for Genealogy Roadshow on PBS and has written course materials for the National Institute of Genealogical Studies. Jen is also a proud volunteer for the Federation of Genealogical Societies and served as a board member for their 2019 Family History Conference.