My paternal grandmother Harriett Gillgren used to tell me intriguing stories of her father William Williams (pictured above on the left), who drove logging and gold trains on New Zealand’s Coromandel Peninsula in the 1890s.
Despite many searches, I couldn’t find any details of William’s birth or identity. I had few clues to work from. He married Harriett Martha McKinley in 1900, 14 years after their eldest child was born. The marriage certificate gave his mother’s name as Jemima Smitheram and his father’s name as William Williams, mariner. His children’s birth certificates stated that he was born between 1852 and 1856, in Cornwall or Plymouth. William died in 1928 and, according to his death certificate, had arrived in New Zealand 52 years earlier.
Family members reckoned that he was born on 1 June or 1 July, and that he was an orphan with two sisters in Cornwall. William had been a fireman in the Navy and was shipwrecked off the coast of Australia. I followed up all these leads, but drew a blank.
There were no census or UK birth entries for him with parents Jemima and William Williams, and no marriage for the couple. So who was he?
Jemima Smitheram is not a common name. If she was his mother, there was only one possible candidate in Cornwall or Devon. This was Jemima Smitheram, born in 1810 in Linkinhorne, near Plymouth.
Posting on a message board in 2002, I made contact with Jean Robinson, a UK descendant of Jemima. Jean (née Peters) was the 3x great granddaughter of Jemima and her husband Thomas Gould Peters.
Jemima married Thomas in 1830 and they had eight children. Thomas died in 1850, and Jemima in 1869 under the surname Peters. Despite exhaustive research, we couldn’t find any evidence connecting my William to Jean’s Peters family. However, all that changed in 2017 when Jean and I took DNA tests.
I felt great elation when she emailed to say we had a chromosome match. I invited several paternal cousins to take a DNA test, too, and one matched Jean on three chromosomes.
This inspired her to delve deeper into the lives of the Peters’ sons: William, Thomas and Iddo. Several of her ancestors were in the Royal Navy, so she searched service records at The National Archives (TNA) in Kew. One popped up for a Thomas Peters, born 1 June 1848 in Plymouth, occupation painter.
This fitted with an 1871 census entry for Thomas Peters, his last in the UK. We ordered his birth certificate, and were thrilled to see Thomas Smitheram Peters was born on 1 June 1848 to Jemima and Thomas Gould Peters.
My eureka moment
The eureka moment came when Jean sent me a copy of Thomas Peters’ Royal Navy service records. The last entry showed Thomas, a stoker, arriving in Auckland on HMS Pearl on 2 May 1876, which tallied with the date on the death certificate. A check of the register for HMS Pearl after its departure from Auckland showed a cross against his name. He had deserted.
At that moment, I could say “Yes, it’s him.” He had embarked on HMS Pearl as Thomas Peters, and jumped ship in Auckland as William Williams. Like many others, he’d assumed an alias to avoid jail for desertion.
There were grains of truth in William’s story. Old newspapers provided accounts of ships he’d served on. One was stranded on a coral reef off Fiji for six hours, which may have been the genesis of the shipwreck story. A fireman and stoker are similar occupations, and his parents died young, so he was an orphan.
There were also red herrings in William’s story. On his 1900 marriage certificate, he used his assumed name as that of his father. Why he chose William Williams we’ll never know, but in 1871 he had a neighbour of that name.
I’m not surprised he sought out a better life. His mother was widowed when he was two and life must have been tough, but according to my grandmother he was a kind, caring, family man.
Without the DNA tests, Jean and I would never have proved William’s identity, or our family link. The power of collaboration cannot be overestimated!
Gail Dixon is a writer and regular contributor to Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine