Who Do You Think You Are?

My brother has been trying to piece together our family history for some time now. He started long before it became fashionable. Unfortunately, the trail back through time peters out fairly quickly – the curse of having common family names, I suppose. We would like to know more about our mother’s side of the family in particular, because we have Indian ancestry via our great-great grandmother.

The story goes that our great-great-great grandfather was serving in the British Army in India in the 1820s-1830s. We’re not even sure of his name and rank – family folklore calls him Colonel Murray Holmes, but we’ve drawn a blank on that name in the army records so far. Apparently he married an Indian, but after the birth of a daughter in 1833(?) (our great-great-grandmother) she died. The child was brought back to England by a Major Penrice, who became her guardian. What happened to Colonel Holmes, we don’t know. Did he go mad with grief over the death of his wife? Did he get killed? Did he go AWOL? We are unlikely to find out. In any event, the child grew up and in due course married into a farming family – the Johnsons – in Cumbria. The only photograph we have of her was taken in about 1900, we think. Our mother remembered her visiting the family in about 1910 – as an imposing old lady who arrived in a pony and trap. Our mother would have been about six years old at the time. This is the photograph.

g-g-Grandmother Johnson, 1900

The photographs that we have of our great-aunts (Corra, Annie, Ethel and Emily) and our great-uncle George are even more striking, as they clearly show our Indian roots. These were taken in 1915.

G-Aunts Cora, Annie, Ethel, Emily, G Uncle George Johnson circa 1915
G Aunts Cora & Annie, G uncle George Johnson circa 1915

Of course, by the time you get to our generation, mongrelisation has well and truly taken over, and I suppose that all that’s left is my Lamarckian fondness for curry… My Desi roots are all but lost.

Update 16 December 2007: Well thanks to Shelly, we’ve now gleaned a little more of the family history. It turns out that we didn’t have the correct name for our great-great-great grandfather. He turns out to have been Lieutenant Colonel George Home Murray in the 16th Lancers. He died in Cawnpore, India on the 15th December 1833 after a few days illness. It was possibly cholera, since in August of that year there was a cholera epidemic in the Regiment. 364 men out of a total strength of 580 were admitted to hospital during the period of 22nd August to 24th September, and 60 men died of the disease. Colonel Murray was buried in the Cawnpore cemetary, where a monument was erected to his memory by the officers of the Regiment. I wonder whether it still stands?

My brother has also been busy. He’s engaged a genealogist, who, amongst other things, has turned up the last will and testament of Colonel Murray. It turns out that while he acknowledges our great-great grandmother as an heir, she is named in the will as “the daughter of an Asian woman”. Whether she was his flesh and blood or not (and the probability seems high that she was), she took the name of Corra Home. Another piece of the jigsaw fell into place when we saw that the executor of Colonel Murray’s will was a Thomas Penrice. Could this be the “Major Penrice” who became Corra’s guardian? In any case, we now know that Corra was apparently born in 1827 (not 1833) in Calcutta, and she married John Johnson, a soldier in the 2nd Life Guards. He was born in about 1821 in Macclesfield. Further digging is afoot…

Update 17 December 2007: Shelly turned up trumps again – she’s found a photo of the monument to Colonel Murray. The internet is amazing…

About Geoff Coupe

I'm a British citizen, although I have lived and worked in the Netherlands since 1983. I came here on a three year assignment, but fell in love with the country, and one Dutchman in particular, and so have stayed here ever since. On the 13th December 2006 I also became a Dutch citizen.
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11 Responses to Who Do You Think You Are?

  1. Brian says:

    Dashed handsome family, old boy.  Fancy a phal?

  2. Geoff says:

    Thanks, Coboró; my uncle looked very like great-uncle George, and my mother turned a few heads in the 1920s… Dunno about the phal, though – it’s a British invention that has about as much to do with Indian cuisine as curry powder has to do with curries…

  3. Shelly says:

    Geoff:
     
          I am related to you.  I have the same photograph of our Great-Great-Great Grandmother that I got from my grandmother; and I have quite a bit of information about the family.  I have a special fondness for the family and have been researching them for quite a few years.   I even met some of the other descendants in London.  I saw your brother’s Rootsweb post also.  I am very excited to speak to you.
     
    Shelly

  4. Geoff says:

    Shelly, that’s exciting news. I’m sure that my brother will want to get in touch with you. Cheers, Geoff

  5. JL says:

    Geoff, I had no idea you were almost a closet-genealogist. Great story; really enjoyed reading it.

  6. Geoff Coupe says:

    Thanks, JL. My brother and my cousin are far more active than I with the family tree. But what has been amazing is that as a result of this blog entry, we’ve had about half a dozen long lost branches of the tree get in touch – and they all have heard the story of how our g-g-grandmother was “an Indian Princess”…

    • JL says:

      That’s what happens. It’s a social network all its own. And the great part (unless you’re a hermit) is that you can share a great-great grandmother with several hundred other living souls.

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  8. Jenny says:

    My grandmother was Elsie Johnson Heilig. My great grandmother was Georgina Johnson. Her mother
    was Corra Johnson. My mothers’ name was Georgina
    Heilig. Please, please tell me who Corra’s mother was.
    Thank you. I would greatly appreciate it.

    • Geoff Coupe says:

      Hallo Jenny. If we are talking about the same Corra Johnson (b1826-d1909), then we don’t know her mother’s name, only that she was Indian. We suspect that her father (George Home Murray) had an illicit relationship with an Indian woman when he was posted in India. We’ve not found any trace of a marriage certificate, and Corra was only named in his will as his heir.

      However, if I look at our family tree, then the only Georgina Johnson I can see was Corra’s great granddaughter, not her daughter. In our tree, Corra had 3 sons and 2 daughters. One of the sons was Edward Thomas Johnson (b1856-d1938) with 3 sons and 4 daughters. One of his sons was George James Johnson (b1887-d1946) – my great-uncle George, shown in the photos above. And Georgina Johnson (b1930-d2004) was one of his daughters.

      Following the original Corra, the name Corra has been bestowed on six further descendants in the female line that I can see. And perhaps it is one of these that is your great-great grandmother. There’s one that could fit – Corra Emily Johnson, born in 1879 (we think). She was the daughter of Isaac Birch Johnson (b1854-d1931) and Emily Johnson (née Stockbridge. b1860-d1900). We have no further information on this Corra Johnson, but perhaps she is the person you refer to as your great-great grandmother. Strange though that, if she is the right Corra, that she would hold onto her maiden name and pass it on to her daughter.

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