Monday, 8 August 2016

Desperately seeking Cornelia

The NFHM Blogging Challenge for the first week asked "What extraordinary things have you discovered about your family history in census records?"; but, as is so often the case, what we discover are more mysteries and challenges.

Mine seemed such a simple question: Where was Cornelia Wilkins (born Cornelia Medwell on 23 February 1877 in Glinton, Northants) on 2 April 1911? And the answer apparently flowing from the Census data was "Nowhere!"

In her 2014 book Vanishing for the Vote, Jill Liddington describes the campaign of civil disobedience advocated by some suffragettes who argued that if they were not permitted the vote, why should they submit to being counted. But the evidence that is revealed by the Census documents that I have located suggests that the reasons behind Cornelia's absence were more complex and more disturbing than political activism.

Cornelia Medwell had married Thomas Edward Wilkins in the second quarter of 1899 and they appear (as expected) in the 1901 Census1 as a new household residing at 12 Russell Street Peterborough. On that return, neither of them list an occupation although we know (from 1891) that Thomas was a woodworker and Cornelia had been a dressmaker before her marriage.

Russell Street c.1905
Looking towards the distant junction with Lincoln Road with cabinet makers “Whittle” operating from premises on the mid-left.

From collection Peterborough Images.

Believed to be copyright expired.

The couple had two sons John Haydn Wilkins (born 21 October 1905) and Leslie Medwell Wilkins (born 6 December 1907). So the little family should not prove difficult to locate in the 1911 census.

  • Thomas Wilkins was recorded as living with his mother and brother at 69 Russell Street2.
  • John Wilkins was living in the Farm Cottage of Thorpe Hall3 with his grandparents (Aurelius and Ann Medwell) and a female relative named Cornelia, not his mother but a cousin.
  • Leslie Wilkins is recorded as a "nurse child" in the household of Wallace and Margaret Cattell at nearby Northborough4 where Cornelia Medwell was a boarder. This is not the boys' mother but a grand-aunt (the sister of Aurelius).

Of 34-year-old Cornelia born in Gilston, there is simply no trace. She is apparently not living in another town (or county) nor confined in an institution, unless it is under a totally different persona. And, of course, no record of her death.

What makes this puzzle so infuriating (and intriguing) is that we know Cornelia Wilkins died here in Queensland in 1952 while living in the home of her son John.

In 1924, when John applied to migrate to Queensland as a "farm lad" to boost our agricultural workforce, he was living at Fig Tree Cottage at Dogsthorpe. Approval for him to travel (since he was not yet 21) was given by his mother of the same address (once again). A little more than a year later, John remitted the £20 fare to bring his mother to join him in Australia. She was still living at Fig Tree Cottage, listed her occupation as "housekeeper to parents, recently deceased" and her marital status as "married (widowed)".

While it was certainly true that Aurelius and Ann had passed away, Cornelia was a little premature with respect to her husband Thomas. His death in Peterborough was not recorded until the first quarter of 1948. In fact, the 1939 Register shows he was resident at 69 Russell Street; the same address as recorded in the 1911 Census.

The 1939 Register also shows his son Leslie resident in Peterborough in the same household as Wallace Cattell, but by that time he is listed as Leslie M W Cattell. It was the Cattell surname that Leslie used when he married in the next year and until his death in 1972.

One can only conclude that something happened between 1907 and 1911 that shattered the family of Thomas and Cornelia Wilkins with long-lasting consequences. The documents preserved in the 1911 Census provide tantalising glimpses but no definitive answers as to what happened.

Our grandmother (a daughter of John) lived in the same house as her grandmother throughout her teenage years. Audrey and her siblings knew their Nan well. But whatever had happened all those years ago was not something to be discussed in front of the children.

So we must look for more documents that may cast light on new questions concerning the whereabouts of Cornelia. When did she return to Peterborough? Where was she on 19 June 1921? How many sleeps till I can access that next Census ?

Census references

  1. (1901) RG13 Piece 1464 Folio 18 Page 27
  2. (1911) RG14PN8686 RG78PN450 RD170 SD2 ED20 SN122
  3. (1911) RG14PN8699 RG78PN450 RD170 SD2 ED33 SN9
  4. (1911) RG14PN8710 RG78PN451 RD170 SD3 ED4 SN45


  1. A fascinating post Bob and yes, all I ever seem to find is more questions to ask....such is the nature of family history. Thanks for joining in the challenge.

  2. Bob, I remember waiting for the 1911 census to find missing ancestors. However I now am willing to be more patient as I think if the reasearch that can be done in the meantime. Still the 1921 might not help clarify what happened 1907-1911. Fran

    1. Fran, I fear you are right about 1921 not answering the questions, but at least the wait gives me a ready-made excuse for not finding out.

  3. Well done in finding all the various family members in their different locations. I have a family member who was listed in every census as married although I eventually found out that her husband divorced her while still living in America after she left him with her only child. Whats even more odd she moved to the same town where his parents lived. Good luck with finding out more. Great story telling

    1. Sandra, I think that ignorance may be bliss when it comes to our more difficult ancestors. Finding a snippet of information that you can never explain may be worse than a complete blank.


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