Born in Sarnia, Ontario, Katherine Ryan says her English daughter, Violet, has a habit of pulling rank.


“She’ll say, ‘I’m so sorry about my mummy, she’s Canadian.’ I just naturally defer to her. It’s the accent.”

This, Katherine jokes, makes her family research personal.

Katherine needs to find something in her background that Violet will respect, preferably English ancestry.

While her father’s background is so “super-Irish” that it’s, “Once upon a time, Tipperary, the end,” Katherine knows less about her maternal family.

She visits her mother in Toronto to learn more.

She’s particularly interested in tracing the ancestry of her late grandmother, Dorothy, someone Katherine loved dearly but who was often in the shadow of a domineering husband, Ted.

Katherine’s 3x great grandfather, James Arminius Richey, a poet (“sort of like an early rapper”), is the first figure Katherine encounters.

At the University of Toronto’s Rare Book Library, Katherine meets with librarian PJ Carefoote and sees one of James’s poems, as well as a peevish begging letter written when James wanted his father to fund an army commission.

The Reverend Matthew Richey, Katherine’s 4x great grandfather, was an important figure, prominent in the Canadian Methodist church and the first principal of Victoria College, University of Toronto.

Katherine sees portraits of Matthew and his wife, Louisa.

“That is the kind of high-class ancestry that I’m going for,” she says.

The couple spent most of their lives in Nova Scotia on the Atlantic coast, where Matthew was a “saddlebag preacher”, who rode around different communities.

Like Katherine’s comedy, his work meant being a good performer.

“I have a horse,” Katherine says, “useless to me, I don’t ride it to gigs, but I might start.”

In archives in Nova Scotia, Katherine sees Louisa’s ‘cardiphonia’, a kind of scrapbook, which suggests she wanted a passionate letter she had written to Matthew destroyed.

Katherine finds it difficult to believe that women in the 19th century knew about sex but, says historian Renee Rafferty Solani, they discussed intimacy with female relatives, it’s just that few records of these conversations survive.

Louis was from New York and Matthew from Ireland, so Katherine is still no closer to an English connection.

This she finds by tracing the lives of her 5x great grandparents through a different branch, Giles Hosier and Grace Newell, who lived on the Canadian Atlantic island of Newfoundland in the late 1700s.

They owned a “fishing room” in the port of Bonavista, where cod were landed and processed.

They did well, but then their son, William, sailed to the town of St Johns to fetch goods to trade.

On the return voyage, the ship was lost with all hands.

The family was ruined.

Giles, it’s said, died of a broken heart only weeks later, soon followed by a second son.

Giles was from Dorset.

Back in England, Katherine learns he was descended from her 8x great grandfather, Nicholas Cobb, a well-to-do publican in the village of Corfe Castle, who turns up in records as once speaking “fraudulous and scurrilous words” about two local magistrates.

Now Katherine can tell Violet she’s English and from a castle.

“She won’t know it’s a village. We won’t tell her.”


More seriously, Katherine is delighted to have traced her grandmother Dorothy’s family history.