The 2 x great-aunt that wasn’t!

This post is about a woman who turned out not to be the person I thought she was and a massive lesson on why you should never, ever stop seeking verification of your research results.

Sometimes it seems impossible to go any further with research on an individual and in those cases, you either accept what you have and call it a story or call it a dead end and leave it hanging. However with the plethora of records available in many different places and with different methods of searching, it is always worth continuing to dig for evidence.

This story starts with my real 2 x great-aunt, Jessie Culbert who was orphaned at the age of 2 and was subsequently refused help in Paisley poorhouse (at the age of 2, how unimaginable to us now!!). There is more about Jessie and her siblings to come but for now I will just say that she was removed from the poorhouse by someone she knew according to the record I have a copy of. I had found her on the 1871 census of Glasgow living with her Uncle and his family. I became slightly obsessed with trying to find what happened to all of the Culbert siblings after their parents died and searched for them over many weeks. It didn’t help that the name varied between Culbert and Cuthbert depending on who I was looking for!

Having found later records for her two brothers, I needed to know what happened to Jessie after 1871, did she stay with her uncle’s family, get married, die? I began a search of the 1881 census, concentrating on Glasgow to start with but found no trace of Jessie or her Uncle William and his family so I spread my net wider in case they were elsewhere in Scotland or even further afield. Here is where the story of the other Jessie Culbert begins. I found a Jessie Culbert of the right age, 18 year old with the birthplace of Scotland, on the 1881 census as an inmate of Devon House of Mercy in Bovey Tracey, Devon. Run by the Sisters of Mercy of the Community of St John the Baptist, whose mother house was at Clewer, Windsor, this was a home for abused women and women at risk of falling into prostitution .  There is a brief history here . The girls on the 1881 census were between the ages of 17 and 22 and were being trained for domestic service.

I was desperate to know what had happened for Jessie to end up so far from home in such a place so continued my search for Uncle William and family to try and see if I could turn up any reason for them to send her there. Eventually, trying several search criteria on different websites I found them on a passenger list for a ship arriving in New Zealand. They had emigrated in 1872 on an assisted passage and not taken the then 9 year old Jessie with them. I don’t know why they didn’t take her but I wondered what they had done with her when they left, did they leave her alone or with neighbours. Had her brothers arrived in Glasgow by then and taken her in? I couldn’t find anything so decided that the 18 year old Jessie in Devon in 1881 must be her. She had either fallen into prostitution or was considered at risk so taken or sent to Devon.

I found the same Jessie Culbert in 1891, working as a matron of laundry in Alverton House in Truro, Cornwall. Another home for abused and at risk young women being trained for service, this one run by the Convent of the Order of Epithany . Then in 1901, I found her back with the Sisters of Mercy, as head matron of laundry in a children’s home run by them in Newport, Monmouthshire.

At this point, I was convinced I had the right person, even though in the 1891 and 1901 census her birthplace was given as Edinburgh. I figured that so far away from Scotland, the census enumerator possibly had made a mistake with the exact place or that perhaps Jessie herself hadn’t known, she was after all little more than a baby when she left Paisley, she might not have known that was her birthplace. Move on to the 1911 census and I found a Jessie Anderson Culbert, working as a domestic cook for a widowed man in Surrey, her age matched and birthplace of Edinburgh was the same as the two previous census returns but that Anderson bugged me. Usually a surname used as a middle name I have found to have a connection to the family, it is sometimes the mother’s maiden name or even sometimes a grandmother’s maiden name. There are no Andersons that I have found in my tree. So, where could that have come from, was this really the same person. I also found her on the 1939 register and then a possible death record in 1940 both events still in Surrey. Her story was complete was it not?

I couldn’t accept it just like that, there were too many ambiguities and unanswered questions. Where did the Anderson in her name come from? This combined with the erroneous birthplace of Edinburgh was enough to put doubt in my mind and I started searching for Jessie Culbert with Anderson or A as well as without in earlier censuses of Scotland. I soon found a Jessie Culbert, just a year younger than mine, born 1864 in Edinburgh. So it looked very likely that this new find was actually the one I had spent countless hours researching. Here she is with her family in 1871, just at the time when my Jessie was living in Glasgow with Uncle William and his family.

To make completely sure, I conducted a wildcard search on the Scottish records website to try to find my own Jessie. I used the search criteria of Jessie Cu*ert with no other criteria apart from a search range of the years 1872-1900. I have tried searching for the Culberts several times but sometimes, it is tempting to start with too much information when you know dates for a fact. Without the restriction of the extra criteria, I found her! There she was, using the name Cuthbert rather than Culbert as had her two brothers after they left Paisley. I found her marriage certificate, giving both her parents names, proving conclusively that the Jessie who left Scotland for Devon all those years previous was not my 2 x great-aunt.

I’m not disappointed or angry at spending so many hours researching the wrong person because not only was it a great story to unravel, even though I still wonder why and how she came to be in the Devon House of Mercy, but it has also taught me a valuable lesson that we sometimes forget when we’ve been doing this so long. That is to never, ever stop searching for conclusive proof.

What really helped me to find those final records that I needed was a demo video I watched last weekend as part of the Virtual Rootstech conference from This is aimed at searches on Family Search website but the tips regarding starting off with just as little information as possible and filtering down the records is actually invaluable for searching any of the website records. It’s 25 minutes long but if you are a genealogist it will be the most useful 25 minutes you spend to help you unlock precious records. see the YouTube link below.

Getting the most from Family Search.

Watch out for a website update with stories about Jessie’s parents and her and her siblings stories after they were orphaned, including my great-grandfather Samuel Cuthbert.

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