I Found Ernest Hemingway in my Family Tree

Delving into family history has proved a rich seam for Margery Hookings. Her DNA experience confirmed what she already thought, but it was a message out of the blue which proved the most exciting.

 

I’ve been indulging myself while home alone by watching Ant and Dec’s DNA Journey on catch-up on ITV.

Not very highbrow, I know, but nonetheless very interesting.

Like the BBC’s hugely successful Who Do You Think You Are, this two-part programme’s premise is the stories found by celebrities when delving into their family histories.

Anthony McPartlin and Declan Donnelly are a broadcasting phenomenon, winning lots of awards and plaudits over the years. They’ve come a long way since meeting as teenagers in Byker Grove, the children’s television series aired between 1989 and 2006. I rather like them.

Their DNA journey—and I haven’t watched the second episode yet but I have an inkling what might happen—takes them on a fascinating journey which includes Ireland. A notable scene had Ant visiting a pub where he met half a village of his previously unknown ‘cousins’ with whom he shares DNA. The bar bill cost more than 600 euros.

My own DNA research, which I wrote about in the Marshwood Vale Magazine last autumn, failed to yield any exotic blood—I was hoping the Grigg side might throw up some Romany ancestry. My DNA calculated that I’m 87 per cent British (and mostly Westcountry), seven per cent Irish and Scottish, five per cent Norwegian and one per cent Swedish.

What it has done is help flesh out the family tree on the Ancestry website, thanks to previously unknown relatives, who have also had their DNA tested, putting their trees online. Backed up by paperwork, I now know I am a south Somerset girl through and through, as far back as 1576 in South Petherton.

And I was thrilled to discover that on my mother’s side, my roots go back to the village where I’ve lived in Dorset for almost the last twenty years. It’s incredible to think my ninth great-grandfather was born here in about 1640 and is probably buried here too. If only I could find his grave.

Through the magic of the internet, I have also found I am linked to one of the 20th century’s greatest writers. The eureka moment came a little while ago by way of a Facebook message out of the blue from a chap in Canada.

We didn’t know each other but I’d written something on my blog about my paternal grandfather, William Percy Withers, a farmer and poet who was born in 1894 at Upper Milton Farm, near Wells. He took up a Somerset County Council farm tenancy in Donyatt, near Ilminster, after the First World War.

A prolific poet, writing about his war experiences with the North Somerset Yeomanry, life on the farm and whimsical things that took his fancy, my grandfather died in 1970. I turned his memoirs into a book, Destination Unknown.

The blog post attracted the interest of a man from Halifax, Nova Scotia, who contacted me to find out if it was the same Percy in his own family tree.

He gave me some details and I was able to confirm that, yes, he and I were distant cousins. He responded immediately, giving me more information about the family. His connection to my grandfather was through Percy’s mother, Harriet Mabel Churchill Oxley.

‘Harriet was the daughter of Joseph Clarke Oxley and Harriet Churchill,’ he told me. ‘Harriet Churchill’s parents were John Stanton Churchill and Harriet Hancock. Harriet Hancock is the sister to my third great-grandfather, Thomas Tyley Hancock.’

And then he mentioned a little aside about one of the greatest American novelists of the 20th century.

Thanks to my mother, I had a pretty good idea of who was sitting up in the branches of my family tree. There had never been anyone famous, although mum discovered we are directly descended from William Crabb, a gentleman of Ashill, who fought against the parliamentary forces in the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685.

If I’d lived in Victorian times, what my new cousin said next would have sent me reaching for the smelling salts.

He told me: ‘I have quite a bit of information on the Churchills and Hancocks. I notice that you are a writer. Harriet Hancock’s brother, Alexander, was the great-grandfather to writer Ernest Hemingway. It must be genetic. LOL…..nice to meet you!’

So my third great-grandmother, Harriet Hancock, and Ernest Hemingway’s great-grandfather, Alexander Hancock, were brother and sister, in a family of 14 children from Wedmore, Somerset.

Alexander was the maternal grandfather of Grace Hall, Ernest Hemingway’s mother.

According to an interview in 2018 with Hemingway’s nephew, the late John Sanford, for the online Hemingway Project, Alexander Hancock, was a sea captain and part-owner of the three-masted barque, Elizabeth of Bristol. Captain Hancock sailed his ship from England in 1853 to Melbourne, Australia with a load of immigrants seeking gold.

‘Also on board were Hancock’s three young children who had lost their mother in a train accident just days before departure. One of those children was Grace’s mother, Caroline Hancock (Hall), who travelled from Australia to Panama with her father, sister and brother, crossed the isthmus on mule-back and took passage to America.’

From the East Coast, the family took trains to Dyersville, Iowa, where they had a relative and where Captain Hancock became the town’s postmaster. He died on 12 Apr 1864, aged 49.

My research tells me that Hancock had married Caroline Sydes in London on 27 March 1841. She was born in Liverpool in 1817 and died on 9 January 1853 in South Wales.

In 1978, John Sanford took his family on a 10,000-mile trip by sailboat.

He told the Hemingway Project: ‘When I drove East to start the voyage, I stopped in Dyersville, Iowa and found the grave of Captain Alexander Hancock in a lonely, windswept cemetery. I had an imaginary conversation with him and felt as if his spirit was also with me at many difficult places during the voyage.’

I can’t quite stretch to visiting Iowa but a visit to Wedmore must surely be on my list of places to go in 2020.

 For information about researching your family history, contact the Somerset & Dorset Family History Society at sdfhs.org