My Shady Ancestors

My Shady Ancestors

I’m preparing two talks about my shady ancestors for the forthcoming Secret Lives conference. Here are some juicy snippets:

My first brush with crime was at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre. I was browsing through the shelves, not quite knowing what I was supposed to looking for, when I came across a file called, ‘Black Sheep’. Intrigued, I searched the index for my family name and with a frisson of excitement, I located my 3x great-grandfather, Thomas Willoughby and his son, Cornelius. I had found ‘criminals’ in my family tree!

A short while later, I was holding the actual transcript of a trial from 1844, in which Cornelius Willoughby (I know, totally Dickensian name) was convicted of the theft of potatoes from a local publican. I could almost hear the accusatory voices of his ‘wicked stepmother’ and the village policeman, as they gave evidence. Poor ‘Nell’ was sentenced to 6 months, all because he stole food for his breakfast. This pivotal moment launched me into a career in crime and Cornelius’ story was the very first article I published.


There is no such thing as a ‘respectable’ family, and this photo hides a shocking secret. These are my grandparents on their wedding day in 1940. The gentleman on the far left, at the back is my great-grandfather, William Dawson. My research into his grandfather’s life led to an unexpected discovery.

John Dawson was a Victorian wheeler and dealer. He lived in the heart of Manchester’s slums, where he worked as a mill foreman, an insurance agent and a furniture broker. On the 1861 census, he was listed as a beer and coal seller but above the entry, the enumerator had scribbled in tiny spidery writing: ‘Keeps a house of infamous notoriety’. Following John, his wife and 8 children, were 5 young women whose trade was listed as ‘prostitute.’ I have to admit that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed finding out more about John’s crimes and have dined out on his story many times!



Your Family History, 2012



Although like my 3x great-grandfather, I come from Manchester, I soon realised that most of my roots lie in the countryside. One of my main branches, the Nottages, are from the small village of Barkway, in Hertfordshire. When I explored their past I found plenty of criminals. Members of this extensive family were convicted for theft, drunkenness, trespass, neglect, swearing on the highway, and assault – they were a rowdy lot! The neglect case was particularly interesting, as it led to the discovery of another crime, which had never come to light before.


Alfred Nottage was a disappointing husband. In addition to convictions for drunkenness and disorderly behaviour, he was guilty of neglecting his wife and child by leaving them in the care of the local parish. I felt so sorry for his wife, Louisa, that I had to know what happened to her. I eventually located her in London, where she had married again, but when I re-checked the records, I discovered that Alfred was still alive and in the workhouse at the time of her second marriage. It was much easier for her to move away and start again than it would have been to divorce him, so that’s what she did, and she got away with it!






However, my ‘favourite’ family criminals have to be the Willoughbys from Wiltshire. They were the poorest of my ancestors and were constantly in and out of the workhouse. Further research into my 2 x great uncle Cornelius revealed that, as well as stealing potatoes, he was also convicted of threatening behaviour, ‘injuring’ a hayrick and breaking windows. The most distressing crime that I’ve encountered in my family’s past is that of Cornelius’s father, Thomas Willoughby. After suffering the loss of his first wife and several of his children, he tried to take his own life by throwing himself into a pond, for which he was tried and thankfully acquitted. I had always believed that his desperate act was because of his poverty-stricken existence, but when I finally found a newspaper report of the incident, it turned out that he’d had a row with his second wife, the infamous ‘stepmother’.



Since I began researching my family history, I’ve spent many happy hours in the dark streets of the Victorian underworld (from the safety of my 21st century study!) and I continue to be fascinated by the lives of those who lived there. I will be sharing many stories and real-life crime cases from the 19th century, as well as showing how you can track down your own nefarious ancestors, at the Secret Lives conference on 31 Aug-2 Sept 2018 – I hope you’ll join us!

Find out about the Secret Lives conference here.






  1. Fabulous blog Angela, who knows what you’ll find next … keep on digging and DO let us know!

    • Thanks, Lally – I’m glad you enjoyed meeting my family!

  2. Great stories, Angela! There’s always something weirdly fascinating about discovering more about the “baddies” in our family history, isn’t there? Feels a bit unfair on the well behaved ancestors! But there’s no getting around it. The naughty ones make the best stories. My 3x great grandfather wasn’t a man to be proud of, appearing in front of magistrates for assault and cruelty to his wife. To compound the situation, he had a partner in crime – the so-called housekeeper, with whom he was having an affair. My poor 3x great grandmother! Sadly the court case didn’t end matters for her and although they moved away from the area, it seems life continued pretty much as before.

    • Good to hear that I’m not the only one with shady ancestors, Wendy! It’s so tragic how it usually seems to be the women who suffered.


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