A Skeleton in the Closet by Ellen Maki, Ph.D.

Years ago, I took an introductory course in tracing family history that was offered by the Toronto branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society. The instructor advised that we should be prepared for the black sheep that would be unearthed during the researching of our family tree. It took some time, but I did eventually find a rather naughty relative in my family tree.

One of my great-great-granduncles was a man named George Howes. He was born about 1816 in West Winch, Norfolk, England. According to the 1841 and 1851 census enumerations, he was an agricultural labourer. Other than that, I knew nothing about George. Trawling through old newspapers online, I came across an article about George.

The Norfolk Chronicle and Norwich Gazette of September 20, 1856 contained a summary of petty sessions that had been held a few days earlier on the 15th of September. The article began:

Ann Allison was charged by George Howes, of West Winch, labourer, with robbing him of 10s.

I was curious to learn about the circumstances of the robbery, so I read on.

The complainant stated that he went into a house of ill-fame kept by the prisoner, on Saturday night, at half-past eleven, and remained there till five o’clock the following morning. Having fallen asleep on a chair, he was awakened by some one at his pocket, and he seized the prisoner, and accused her of stealing 18s.6d., which he missed from his pocket. She thereupon returned him 8s.6d., and was given into custody on the charge of stealing the remaining ten shillings. The complainant’s evidence being entirely uncorroborated, and, of course, denied by the prisoner, the case was dismissed.

What a scoundrel George was! I was glad to have found this newspaper article as it brought George to life. This was a useful reminder that in addition to birth, marriage, and death announcements, newspapers can provide interesting and sometimes unexpected information about our ancestors.


  1. Home Office (Great Britain). Census Returns. 6 June 1841. West Winch, Norfolk. HO107/769/14. Folio 7, Page 10, Line 3. Enumeration District 5. Collection: 1841 Census. http://home.ancestry.ca/ : accessed 28 March 2016.
  2. Home Office (Great Britain). Census Returns. 30 March 1851. West Winch, Norfolk. HO107/1828/450. Page 7. Enumeration District 5. Household Schedule 22. Collection: 1851 Census. http://home.ancestry.ca/ : accessed 28 March 2016.
  3. Norfolk Chronicle and Norwich Gazette. (1856) Lynn. Petty Sessions. 20 September. p. 3b. Collection: British Newspapers 1710-1953. http://www.findmypast.com/ : accessed 28 March 2016


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