I have mentioned in former blogs that I have been able to trace one of my ancestral family lines back to the Middle Ages. This is one of my Maternal Lines by the very common surname of ‘Bell’. This was done long before computers and the Internet. It has taken many years, to locate and review many records. Along the way, I have had the pleasure of finding many cousins of varying degrees, all of whom have helped me in some way sort out and put together the incredible history of a family, who resided in a small area of Kent for over six hundred years. In the 19th Century due to the Industrial Revolution, harsh weather conditions, and other economic reasons many were forced to emigrate, literally for their own survival, to all points of the globe.
One set of records in England we find very useful for family history research are the 19th Century Census Returns. Although the first Census was taken in 1801, the information collected was, in reality, a head count and not very useful to help with information on families. 1811, 1821 and 1831 Census Returns were very similar. However, the 1841 Returns had information on individuals which made it much more useful for putting together family groups. 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891, 1901 and 1911 Census Returns give much information on individuals and are a great record for putting together and tracking family groups.
Although many of our Bell families emigrated to the United States of America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa before the 1841 Census was taken, it was important for us to find and document all our family branches, who had not emigrated, but remained in Kent or had moved to other places in the British Isles. The Census Returns could help with this project.
The birthplace of my 4X Great-grandfather Thomas Bell, (b 1782), the son of Thomas and Ann Bell (nee Lawrence), was Mereworth, Kent. This is a rural village near Maidstone.
Mereworth Village-Copyright, Nola Mackey, 1980
I made a collection of all individuals with the Surname of Bell who stated their place of birth as Mereworth, in 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891, 1901 and 1911 Census Returns. From these Census Returns, I was able to calculate the approximate year of birth for each individual. Using the English Birth, Death and Marriage Indexes I was able to find the Registration numbers and send to the Registrar of Births, Deaths, and Marriage for certificates, which helped to clarify and sort out family groups. I also utilized copies of the parish registers of baptism, marriage, and burials I have for Mereworth. Using these documents I was able to reconstruct many branches of the Bell family.
However, one family recorded in the 1851 Census at Kent Street, Mereworth, just did not seem to fit, although they claimed to have all been born at Mereworth.
This was the family of John Bell, aged 52 years, an agricultural labourer; his wife, Sarah, aged 38 years and children; Thomas, aged 14 years; Alexander aged 11 years; Josiah, aged 6 years; Henry, aged 3 years and Frances aged 1 month.
1851 Census Returns for John Bell and family, retrieved from Findmypast, 31 January 2018
However, I could not find this family group in the 1841 nor the 1861 Census.
After listing the names and calculating the year of birth I was ready to search the Mereworth Parish Registers. To my great disappointment, I only found one baptism, Josiah, the son of John and Sarah Bell, baptized 19 February 1845. Were these children actually born and baptized elsewhere but had lived at Mereworth most of their lives? What was I missing?
I was not able at the time to locate the appropriate Mereworth Marriage Register, but I was able to get some names and dates from the surviving Marriage Banns Book. I was able to purchase various Bell marriage certificates for Mereworth, which included those of; John Bell to Ellen Sales; Thomas Bell to Mary Ann Watson; Harry Bell to Dorcas Emery and Eliza Bell to William Sudds. On each certificate, the father’s name was given as ‘John Bell, a labourer.
The only Bell marriage I was able to extract from a surviving church Marriage Register at Aylesford, Kent, was that of Fanny Bell to Edgar Wilson in 1871. She gave her father’s name as ‘John Billinghurst’ not ‘John Bell’. I then tried for a baptism entry at Mereworth for Fanny or Frances as the daughter of John Billinghurst. There it was. ‘Frances, daughter of John and Sarah Billinghurst, baptized 9 March 1851. As the 1851 Census was taken in early April- she was most likely the ‘Frances Bell’ aged 1 month’ in the Census.
I continued searching the registers for ‘Billinghurst’ and ‘Bell’ and found the following:-
⦁ James, son of John and Sarah Billinghurst, baptized 10 Sept 1843, buried 29 Sept 1843.
⦁ Josiah, son of John and Sarah Bell, baptized 19 Feb 1845.
⦁ Henry William, son of John and Sarah Billinghurst, baptized 30 Apr 1847
⦁ Frances, daughter of John and Sarah Billinghurst, baptized 9 Mar 1851.
⦁ Alfred, son of John and Sarah Billinghurst, baptized 19 February 1854, buried 7 February 1864.
I could not find baptism entries for Thomas and Alexander Billinghurst or Bell as sons of John and Sarah.
I then searched for a marriage of a John Bell or Billinghurst who married Sarah ‘Unknown’ before the 1843 baptism, of the first known child, of this couple.
I found a marriage of a John Billinghurst (a widower) to Sarah Marshall on 13 November 1842 at Holy Trinity, Maidstone.
I then found a John Billinghurst married Eliza Miller on 17 August 1823 at All Saints, Maidstone.
A search of the Mereworth Parish Registers for children of this couple found the following:-.
⦁ Elizabeth Bell born 1824
⦁ John Billinghurst, born 1826
⦁ George Josiah Billinghurst, born 1828
⦁ Sarah Ann Billinghurst, born 1830
⦁ Eliza Billinghurst, born 1833
⦁ Thomas Billinghurst, born 1835
⦁ Alexander Billinghurst, born 1839.
I was then able to find John and Eliza ‘Bell’ and their children in the 1841 Census at Mereworth.
Living next door was the Marshall family with a daughter named Sarah, who is most likely to be the Sarah Marshall who married John Billinghurst in 1842, after Eliza Billinghurst died and was buried at Mereworth on 14 November 1841.
Sarah Billinghurst died at Aylesford and was buried at Mereworth on 17 October 1856 aged 43 years. John Billinghurst died and was buried at Mereworth on 1 July 1860.
This explains why I was not able to locate the family of John and Sarah Billinghurst or Bell in the 1861 Census.
As often happens in family history research, we answer one question but bring to light more puzzles and questions. Why were the names ‘Bell’ and ‘Billinghurst’ so interchangeable in this family?