Archive for the ‘Family History’ Category

A slightly modified version of this article appeared in Family Tree magazine in June 2013 (See after the text)

Testing our ties – Genealogical and genetic ancestry – What’s the difference?

Economist and historian Stephen Lewis puts our roots under the microscope to discover a little more about how we inherit some genes and not others.

Identity is a multi-faceted thing. We humans tend to construct our own view of who we are and pick those aspects of ourselves which we regard as most telling. These identities might be any mixture of sex, place of birth, job, friends, philosophical or political beliefs or character traits. Parents and sibling usually get a look in too. Many readers of this magazine will probably be of the opinion that their family tree – their genealogical ancestry – is not only fascinating in itself but can also provide meaningful information about ‘who we are’. Some will want to go further and delve, as far as science and pockets will allow, into their genetic ancestry. But what is the relationship between genealogical and genetic inheritance?

Genealogical identity

As I explained in a recent article in Family Tree, once you are conceived genealogical ancestry is a completely deterministic thing. In genealogical terms you are without any doubt descended from or related to your ancestors in a definite way.  I explained why the number of your direct ancestors (parents, grandparents etc) doesn’t simply double in each generation: it’s because of inbreeding and the resultant ‘Pedigree Collapse’. But if we put this to one side here, you are descended one half from each of your parents and one quarter from each of your grandparents and so on. If you could accurately identify all your ancestors you could calculate the precise mathematical genealogical relationship between you and any one of them. One measure of relationship is called the Coefficient of Relationship. This would be 50 per cent between parents and children, 25 percent between half siblings and only 3.13 per cent between second cousins. However this measure can be unrealistic because it assumes zero relatedness on other lineages, which, as I discussed in my previous article, is not the case.

In terms of identity, if you had four Scottish great grandparents, two Russian great grandparents, one French great grandparent and one Japanese great grandparent, then you could perfectly validly say you were genealogically, and maybe culturally and linguistically too, one half Scottish, one quarter Russian, one eight French and one eighth Japanese. But does the same hold true for your genetic inheritance? The answer is ‘not quite’. To understand why we need to understand a little about human reproduction and how genes are passed from generation to generation.

Genes and reproduction

Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes, making 46 in total. These contain all our genetic information. Two chromosomes determine sex – you get and X or a Y from your father and an X from your mother. That leaves 22 other pairs of non-sex (‘autosomal’) homologous chromosomes. Homologous simply means that while each half of the pair has the same length, basically the same functions and indeed the same genes, the pairs of genes can appear in different versions – called alleles. A well known example of this is found on chromosome 15, where one gene (allele) can either code for the expression of brown or blue eyes. (Note: non-sex chromosomes are simply numbered from 1 to 22: 1 being the longest, 2 the second longest and so on.) Having 46 chromosomes (or 23 pairs of homologous chromosomes if you prefer) is one of the defining characteristics of being human. Chimps have 48 and dogs 78. If by chance you get more or less than 46, severe health problems can arise. An extra number 21 chromosome for example, i.e. a triple rather than a pair, gives 47 chromosomes and results in Down’s syndrome.

I hope it’s clear that if each parent has 46 chromosomes any child must also have 46. Thus during the process of reproduction the combined number must be halved – and indeed it is.

Let us consider any one of the 22 non-sex chromosomes, for example number 15, which as I mentioned codes for eye colour among other things. See the image which represents the pairs of ‘number 15’ homologous chromosomes for one individual and his/her parents and his/her grandparents. I’ve given each part of the chromosome pairs a different colour and just for illustrative purposes assume that they are passed down unchanged (which they aren’t). In this example the individual is red & blue. He/she has inherited the red part of his/her paired chromosome 15 from the father and the blue part from the mother: 50 per cent from each of the parents as we might expect and with the required reduction. The father has, here, the red plus green combination and there was an independent 50/50 chance of the child getting either red or green from him. The same applies to the mother with blue and yellow. Thus the red & blue combination is only one out of four possible combinations which could be inherited from the parents. And so it is with all the other 21 non-sex chromosomes, although graphically we’d want different colours for each to differentiate them all. Thus in total we’d get 50 per cent of our total genetic inheritance from each parent.

genetics dia 2

But consider just the paternal line for a moment. You can see that the father could equally as easily have inherited any one of four different colour combinations from his parents: green & red, green & orange, pink & red and pink & orange. There are also four combinations on the maternal side. This means that given the number 15 chromosome combinations the grandparents had there was only a 1/16th chance of this individual having got the red & blue combination – 1/4×1/4 – and a 15/16ths chance of any other combination. It might also be of interest to note that taking all the chromosomes into account there are over 8 million possible combinations of chromosomes (2 to the power 23) from either your father or your mother!

If humans reproduced in this way (they don’t) you can see that you would have inherited genes on chromosome 15 from only one of your two paternal grandparents and only one of your two maternal grandparents, and none whatsoever from the others. Perhaps surprisingly you would also have inherited genes on this chromosome, once again, from only two of your eight great grandparents. In fact you would have chromosome 15 genes from only 2 ancestors in any generation. Of course, because there are 22 non-sex chromosomes, the particular pair of ancestors you might have inherited genes from, on each chromosome in each generation, will likely be different. An interesting thought is that if humans reproduced like this we would all have a maximum of 46 distinct genetic ancestors however far you go back (2×23). The vast bulk of your genealogical ancestors wouldn’t be genetic ancestors at all!

Shuffling the pack

Luckily for biological diversity, natural selection and human health, something else happens when we reproduce. Not only are chromosomes independently assorted and their number reduced by half, as in the hypothetical example above, but, in addition, before your mother and father each pass on half of a chromosome pair to their sex-cells – called gametes: eggs in females and sperm in males – some genes on each chromosome are shuffled. Individual genes (alleles) on ‘opposite sides’ of the chromosome cross-over or recombine. This occurs when sex cells are being formed in a complicated multi-stage process. The homologous chromosome pairs first double and then, in a two-step process known as meiosis, chromosomes join, some genes then ‘cross over’ or ‘recombine’, then the chromosomes segregate again. See the second illustration. In males we end up with four separate sperm cells each containing 22 different ‘haploid daughter chromatids’ – this just means one half of a pair – plus the sex chromosome. For females it’s a little different. They end up with just one fertilizable egg, again containing 22 haploid daughter chromatids plus the sex chromosome. Three other potential eggs, called polar bodies, become redundant. One sperm will fertilise one egg to create a new person and we’re back to 46 chromosomes again, but very different ones.

genetics dia 1

How likely two genes are to cross-over is a probabilistic process and depends in large part on how far apart they are on the chromosome; the nearer they are (the more ‘linked’) the lower the probability of crossing over. Actually in humans the amount of gene shuffling is minimal, quite often being as low as one gene cross-over per chromosome; other times only two or three. Even with such genetic shuffling, it still means that any individual will still get exactly 50 per cent of their genes from each of their parents (both on each chromosome and in total), but they need not, and probably will not, inherit 25 per cent of their genes from each of their four grandparents – again on each chromosome or in total. While our best guess will be 25 per cent, 25 per cent, 25 per cent, 25 per cent, like all averages based on probability there is a wide range of possible results. Imagine tossing a coin four times. Before you start the best guess would be that you will get two heads and two tails. But you could also quite conceivably get three or even four heads. If you have a few goes it won’t be too long before you actually witness this. What is more, if after three tosses you have got three heads, while the probability of getting a fourth head is still 50 per cent – because it’s independent of anything that went before – having got three heads first, after the fourth toss the only two possible final results are 3 heads and a tail or four heads! The cumulative outcome is dependent on what went before – as it is in genetics.

What’s the answer?

To put the outcome in a nutshell: while in any large population the average percentage of genes inherited from each and every grandparental generation will likely be very close indeed to 25 per cent (or 12.5 per cent for great grandparents), for any single individual the probability of them having exactly 25 per cent from each of their own four grandparents is far less than them not having 25 per cent – i.e. having any other proportion at all that is more or less than 25 per cent. On any particular chromosome, which might contain genetic ‘codes’ for  particular physical or behavioural traits, I hope you can see that it is quite possible, even quite frequent, that you have inherited very, very little genetic information, maybe even none, from a grandparent or great grandparent. On the other hand it’s highly unlikely, though still remotely possible, that in total you will get almost or exactly no genes from any one of these relatively recent ancestors. But as you go further back in your ancestry the likelihood of having inherited no genes from a remote genealogical ancestor becomes more significant.

Finding your genetic ancestry

Moving away from theory and towards what we find in the real world. Some companies now offer genetic inheritance tests. There is a whole new industry called ‘Genetic Genealogy’. Most well known are tests using mitochondrial DNA. This is DNA situated outside the nucleus of a woman’s egg and is passed unchanged from mother to daughter except for random mutations. Males also get mitochondrial DNA but can’t pass it on. Another popular test follows the male Y chromosome, passed more or less unchanged, except for mutations, from father to son. The results of such tests are interesting but they only tell us something about two single genetic lines out of our hundreds of such lines: those of our mother’s mother’s mother etc and our father’s father’s father etc. More recently tests of our non-sex genetic inheritance have become available. These are more complicated than with the Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA because these genes are constantly being shuffled. As genetic science progresses such ‘autosomal’ DNA tests are becoming more and more informative. Remember, with the exception of some non-sex inheritance on the X chromosome (like colour blindness), everything else, according to conventional biology and genetics – ignoring ‘epigenetics’ – comes from these non-sex chromosomes: physical, mental and behavioural characteristics for example.

There are various studies of such autosomal genetic tests and, although the numbers differ, they all clearly show that there is a significant range in terms of genetic inheritance. One example being what percentage of our genes we get from each of our grandparents or great grandparents. The highest percentage of genes received by a person from a grandparent that I’ve so far seen reported is 31.5 per cent, which of course means the other grandparent contributed only 18.5 per cent.

Genetic and genealogical ancestries are not the same. You or I will most likely have at least some genes from most of our ancestors, but how much will vary quite a lot, as will which mix of genes and traits we inherited. Returning to the example of Scottish, Russian, French and Japanese ancestry I started with. It is in fact highly unlikely that the genetic ancestry ratios will match the genealogical ones. Some of the proportions or percentages could be significantly higher and some much lower – as long as they add up to 100% of course. You might genealogically be one eighth Japanese but genetically you’ll most probably not be. And, what is more, whether you did or didn’t get any particular genetically carried trait, or even talent, from your Japanese ancestor is basically just pot luck.

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A slightly modified version of this article appeared in Family Tree magazine in June 2013 (See after the text)

Testing our ties – Genealogical and genetic ancestry – What’s the difference?

Economist and historian Stephen Lewis puts our roots under the microscope to discover a little more about how we inherit some genes and not others.

Identity is a multi-faceted thing. We humans tend to construct our own view of who we are and pick those aspects of ourselves which we regard as most telling. These identities might be any mixture of sex, place of birth, job, friends, philosophical or political beliefs or character traits. Parents and sibling usually get a look in too. Many readers of this magazine will probably be of the opinion that their family tree – their genealogical ancestry – is not only fascinating in itself but can also provide meaningful information about ‘who we are’. Some will want to go further and delve, as far as science and pockets will allow, into their genetic ancestry. But what is the relationship between genealogical and genetic inheritance?

Genealogical identity

As I explained in a recent article in Family Tree, once you are conceived genealogical ancestry is a completely deterministic thing. In genealogical terms you are without any doubt descended from or related to your ancestors in a definite way.  I explained why the number of your direct ancestors (parents, grandparents etc) doesn’t simply double in each generation: it’s because of inbreeding and the resultant ‘Pedigree Collapse’. But if we put this to one side here, you are descended one half from each of your parents and one quarter from each of your grandparents and so on. If you could accurately identify all your ancestors you could calculate the precise mathematical genealogical relationship between you and any one of them. One measure of relationship is called the Coefficient of Relationship. This would be 50 per cent between parents and children, 25 percent between half siblings and only 3.13 per cent between second cousins. However this measure can be unrealistic because it assumes zero relatedness on other lineages, which, as I discussed in my previous article, is not the case.

In terms of identity, if you had four Scottish great grandparents, two Russian great grandparents, one French great grandparent and one Japanese great grandparent, then you could perfectly validly say you were genealogically, and maybe culturally and linguistically too, one half Scottish, one quarter Russian, one eight French and one eighth Japanese. But does the same hold true for your genetic inheritance? The answer is ‘not quite’. To understand why we need to understand a little about human reproduction and how genes are passed from generation to generation.

Genes and reproduction

Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes, making 46 in total. These contain all our genetic information. Two chromosomes determine sex – you get and X or a Y from your father and an X from your mother. That leaves 22 other pairs of non-sex (‘autosomal’) homologous chromosomes. Homologous simply means that while each half of the pair has the same length, basically the same functions and indeed the same genes, the pairs of genes can appear in different versions – called alleles. A well known example of this is found on chromosome 15, where one gene (allele) can either code for the expression of brown or blue eyes. (Note: non-sex chromosomes are simply numbered from 1 to 22: 1 being the longest, 2 the second longest and so on.) Having 46 chromosomes (or 23 pairs of homologous chromosomes if you prefer) is one of the defining characteristics of being human. Chimps have 48 and dogs 78. If by chance you get more or less than 46, severe health problems can arise. An extra number 21 chromosome for example, i.e. a triple rather than a pair, gives 47 chromosomes and results in Down’s syndrome.

I hope it’s clear that if each parent has 46 chromosomes any child must also have 46. Thus during the process of reproduction the combined number must be halved – and indeed it is.

Let us consider any one of the 22 non-sex chromosomes, for example number 15, which as I mentioned codes for eye colour among other things. See the image which represents the pairs of ‘number 15’ homologous chromosomes for one individual and his/her parents and his/her grandparents. I’ve given each part of the chromosome pairs a different colour and just for illustrative purposes assume that they are passed down unchanged (which they aren’t). In this example the individual is red & blue. He/she has inherited the red part of his/her paired chromosome 15 from the father and the blue part from the mother: 50 per cent from each of the parents as we might expect and with the required reduction. The father has, here, the red plus green combination and there was an independent 50/50 chance of the child getting either red or green from him. The same applies to the mother with blue and yellow. Thus the red & blue combination is only one out of four possible combinations which could be inherited from the parents. And so it is with all the other 21 non-sex chromosomes, although graphically we’d want different colours for each to differentiate them all. Thus in total we’d get 50 per cent of our total genetic inheritance from each parent.

genetics dia 2

But consider just the paternal line for a moment. You can see that the father could equally as easily have inherited any one of four different colour combinations from his parents: green & red, green & orange, pink & red and pink & orange. There are also four combinations on the maternal side. This means that given the number 15 chromosome combinations the grandparents had there was only a 1/16th chance of this individual having got the red & blue combination – 1/4×1/4 – and a 15/16ths chance of any other combination. It might also be of interest to note that taking all the chromosomes into account there are over 8 million possible combinations of chromosomes (2 to the power 23) from either your father or your mother!

If humans reproduced in this way (they don’t) you can see that you would have inherited genes on chromosome 15 from only one of your two paternal grandparents and only one of your two maternal grandparents, and none whatsoever from the others. Perhaps surprisingly you would also have inherited genes on this chromosome, once again, from only two of your eight great grandparents. In fact you would have chromosome 15 genes from only 2 ancestors in any generation. Of course, because there are 22 non-sex chromosomes, the particular pair of ancestors you might have inherited genes from, on each chromosome in each generation, will likely be different. An interesting thought is that if humans reproduced like this we would all have a maximum of 46 distinct genetic ancestors however far you go back (2×23). The vast bulk of your genealogical ancestors wouldn’t be genetic ancestors at all!

Shuffling the pack

Luckily for biological diversity, natural selection and human health, something else happens when we reproduce. Not only are chromosomes independently assorted and their number reduced by half, as in the hypothetical example above, but, in addition, before your mother and father each pass on half of a chromosome pair to their sex-cells – called gametes: eggs in females and sperm in males – some genes on each chromosome are shuffled. Individual genes (alleles) on ‘opposite sides’ of the chromosome cross-over or recombine. This occurs when sex cells are being formed in a complicated multi-stage process. The homologous chromosome pairs first double and then, in a two-step process known as meiosis, chromosomes join, some genes then ‘cross over’ or ‘recombine’, then the chromosomes segregate again. See the second illustration. In males we end up with four separate sperm cells each containing 22 different ‘haploid daughter chromatids’ – this just means one half of a pair – plus the sex chromosome. For females it’s a little different. They end up with just one fertilizable egg, again containing 22 haploid daughter chromatids plus the sex chromosome. Three other potential eggs, called polar bodies, become redundant. One sperm will fertilise one egg to create a new person and we’re back to 46 chromosomes again, but very different ones.

genetics dia 1

How likely two genes are to cross-over is a probabilistic process and depends in large part on how far apart they are on the chromosome; the nearer they are (the more ‘linked’) the lower the probability of crossing over. Actually in humans the amount of gene shuffling is minimal, quite often being as low as one gene cross-over per chromosome; other times only two or three. Even with such genetic shuffling, it still means that any individual will still get exactly 50 per cent of their genes from each of their parents (both on each chromosome and in total), but they need not, and probably will not, inherit 25 per cent of their genes from each of their four grandparents – again on each chromosome or in total. While our best guess will be 25 per cent, 25 per cent, 25 per cent, 25 per cent, like all averages based on probability there is a wide range of possible results. Imagine tossing a coin four times. Before you start the best guess would be that you will get two heads and two tails. But you could also quite conceivably get three or even four heads. If you have a few goes it won’t be too long before you actually witness this. What is more, if after three tosses you have got three heads, while the probability of getting a fourth head is still 50 per cent – because it’s independent of anything that went before – having got three heads first, after the fourth toss the only two possible final results are 3 heads and a tail or four heads! The cumulative outcome is dependent on what went before – as it is in genetics.

What’s the answer?

To put the outcome in a nutshell: while in any large population the average percentage of genes inherited from each and every grandparental generation will likely be very close indeed to 25 per cent (or 12.5 per cent for great grandparents), for any single individual the probability of them having exactly 25 per cent from each of their own four grandparents is far less than them not having 25 per cent – i.e. having any other proportion at all that is more or less than 25 per cent. On any particular chromosome, which might contain genetic ‘codes’ for  particular physical or behavioural traits, I hope you can see that it is quite possible, even quite frequent, that you have inherited very, very little genetic information, maybe even none, from a grandparent or great grandparent. On the other hand it’s highly unlikely, though still remotely possible, that in total you will get almost or exactly no genes from any one of these relatively recent ancestors. But as you go further back in your ancestry the likelihood of having inherited no genes from a remote genealogical ancestor becomes more significant.

Finding your genetic ancestry

Moving away from theory and towards what we find in the real world. Some companies now offer genetic inheritance tests. There is a whole new industry called ‘Genetic Genealogy’. Most well known are tests using mitochondrial DNA. This is DNA situated outside the nucleus of a woman’s egg and is passed unchanged from mother to daughter except for random mutations. Males also get mitochondrial DNA but can’t pass it on. Another popular test follows the male Y chromosome, passed more or less unchanged, except for mutations, from father to son. The results of such tests are interesting but they only tell us something about two single genetic lines out of our hundreds of such lines: those of our mother’s mother’s mother etc and our father’s father’s father etc. More recently tests of our non-sex genetic inheritance have become available. These are more complicated than with the Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA because these genes are constantly being shuffled. As genetic science progresses such ‘autosomal’ DNA tests are becoming more and more informative. Remember, with the exception of some non-sex inheritance on the X chromosome (like colour blindness), everything else, according to conventional biology and genetics – ignoring ‘epigenetics’ – comes from these non-sex chromosomes: physical, mental and behavioural characteristics for example.

There are various studies of such autosomal genetic tests and, although the numbers differ, they all clearly show that there is a significant range in terms of genetic inheritance. One example being what percentage of our genes we get from each of our grandparents or great grandparents. The highest percentage of genes received by a person from a grandparent that I’ve so far seen reported is 31.5 per cent, which of course means the other grandparent contributed only 18.5 per cent.

Genetic and genealogical ancestries are not the same. You or I will most likely have at least some genes from most of our ancestors, but how much will vary quite a lot, as will which mix of genes and traits we inherited. Returning to the example of Scottish, Russian, French and Japanese ancestry I started with. It is in fact highly unlikely that the genetic ancestry ratios will match the genealogical ones. Some of the proportions or percentages could be significantly higher and some much lower – as long as they add up to 100% of course. You might genealogically be one eighth Japanese but genetically you’ll most probably not be. And, what is more, whether you did or didn’t get any particular genetically carried trait, or even talent, from your Japanese ancestor is basically just pot luck.

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In the early nineteenth-century Hartsop Hall in Patterdale was owned by the Earl of Lonsdale but farmed by yeoman Robert Grisdale, whose family had made the short trip from Dockray in Matterdale to the Patterdale area about a hundred years before. The hall ‘is a very old building’ and ‘was once the seat of a distinguished family, whose arms at one time were to be seen above the doorway’. In 1903, the Rev W. P. Morris, the Rector of Patterdale, wrote: ‘The Lancasters of Sockbridge, one of whom was Provost of Queen’s College, Oxford, held the lands round about Hartsop in the early part of the seventeenth-century. Sir John Lowther acquired the property by marriage, and his descendant, the present Earl of Lonsdale, is now lord of the manor of Hartsop.’ Morris continues:

There is a right of way through the house. It was into this house that the notorious gang of burglars attempted to enter with the intention of murdering the whole family. These desperadoes were the terror not only of the neighbourhood of Patterdale, but also in and about Penrith.

Hartsop Hall, Patterdale

Hartsop Hall, Patterdale

No more information is given regarding the gang’s ‘intention of murdering the whole family’, but Morris adds: ‘Robert Grisdale, the then farmer, was one night riding home on horseback from Cockermouth when he was accosted by two of them when coming through Dockray. He at once perceived what their intentions were, but he showed them his pistol and galloped home in safety. It was not considered safe for any person to be out when darkness had set in. The gang consisted of four men, who went about wearing masks and carrying rifles and pistols.’

Morris briefly tells of how the gang was caught, but there is a much fuller and more colourful account given in 1894 by William Furness in his History of Penrith from the Earliest Record to the Present Time. I will quote it in full:

‘A notorious gang of highwaymen and burglars infested the neighbourhood in the early years of the century, and were the terror of the country people, especially those of the villages west and south of Penrith. The names were John Woof, (Woof was taught to thieve by his mother, who put him through a staircase window, at Melkinthorpe, to rob a poor old woman of a few shilling she had saved.) Melkinthorpe; William Armstrong, Eamont Bridge; John Little alias Sowerby, Clifton Dykes; and William Tweddle, Penrith. Woof was a small farmer, Armstrong a labourer, Sowerby a swill maker, and Tweedle a labourer. For eighteen months prior to their arrest scarcely a Tuesday passed but some person, returning from Penrith market, was robbed, and in some instances left bleeding and senseless on the highway, for these scoundrels were not deterred from employing any ruffianly violence to secure their object. They went so far, in one case at least, as to dig a grave beforehand for their intended victim. This was done in Bessy Ghyll Wood, near Thrimby, for a farmer, who was attending Shap fair, and was expected to have a good sum of money with him, as a result of his sales. They had stretched a wire across the road just high enough to drag a rider from his horse, and lay waiting for their victim. Not appearing about the time that they had calculated he should, they went off in search of him. In the meantime, the farmer had providentially remembered that he had a call to make at Little Strickland, and therefore turned off the main road at Shap Beck Gate, to gain his home and make his call on the way. He had barely made his call when he found the attentions of several men were being paid him. Guessing who these individuals were, he put spurs to his steed to widen the distance between himself and his pursuers, that he might have time to open the gates that lay between him and Sheriff Park farm house. The fold gate was gained, but his pursuers were almost upon him, when a lucky idea entered his head and was instantly acted upon. He called for help, which was at one replied to, and his pursuers stopped short; he opened the gate, roused the household, and was safe. Little did these desperadoes think that the farmer both called for help and replied to the call – but in a changed voice.

Burglaries also were of common occurrence, and were carried out by masked men armed with swords and pistols.

Dockray - where Robert's family came from and where he met the robbers

Dockray – where Robert’s family came from and where he met the robbers

Under these circumstances it was considered unsafe for any man, known to have money upon him, to be out after nightfall. The occupants of houses in lonely and secluded places feared to retire to rest, unless they had a good staff of servants and plenty of defensive weapons. Least the burglars should surprise them in the night. No wonder then that the whole district was terror stricken, and that the country people hurried home form market before darkness and robbers overtook them. A relative of the writer, living at Gowbarrow Hall, had been to the Market, at Penrith, and was returning, on horseback, in the evening, when he was accosted by four men, near to Tynefield, who demanded his “money or his life”. Finding one man at this horses bridle, one on each side of him, and one on the look-out, he quietly handed up his pocket book, and was allowed to proceed, after being asked if he knew them, and made a promise that he would not follow them nor prosecute them at the imminent peril of being shot. Thinking they might be disappointed with the contents of the book, as he had only part of his cash in it, and that they might pursue and murder him in the road home, he turned in at the Bee Hive Inn, Eamont Bridge, and ordered stabling for his horse for the night, and a bed for himself, and comfortably placed himself in a cosy seat in the chimney corner. He had not been long there when amongst those who dropped in he recognised one of his assailants, who not recognising the person in the corner seat, forthwith began to tell of the latest robbery by the brutal gang of masked robbers. This ruse was adopted by the whole four, at their various resorts, to throw off suspicion from themselves, and to get to know what the public opinion of the robbers was. A price was put upon the robbers, and advertisements proclaimed the reward for their apprehension, but to no effect.

The alarm in Penrith was so great that the inhabitants voluntarily revived the “Watch and Ward” to guard the town, as in the days of border warfare. A list of names was published of householders who were willing to act, and everyone on the list served in turn, except a few gentlemen and few women householders, who obtained substitutes at 2s.6d. per night. The watchers were four each night and their rendezvous was the Ship marketing room. Each watchman, while on duty, was supplied with a rattle, and armed with a bludgeon.

Old Penrith

Old Penrith

The detection and apprehension of the gang was due Mt T Robinson, of Kings Meaburn, who had been robbed by them and beaten on the highway, but recognised one of the gang as William Tweddle, who was immediately arrested, at Penrith, and lodged in the House of Correction. This member of the gang, fearing the consequences to his own neck, turned King’s evidence and disclosed the whole proceedings of the gang. This led to the immediate arrest of Woof and Armstrong, (As Armstrong was being taken to the House of Correction, he was seen by an acquaintance named Mary Bowerbank, who accosted him thus: “I’se sorry to see thee theer, Will.” He replied: “I’ll sune clear mesel, Mary, me lass.” This incident shows how little he was suspected by neighbours and acquaintances.) But Sowerby, hearing of Tweddle’s apprehension and confession, escaped to Newcastle, where he was subsequently arrested, passing himself off as John Smith. Sowerby, Woof, and Armstrong were committed to the Assizes at Carlisle held in August 1820.

The charges against these men were numerous, but the only one they were tried upon for “burglarously breaking and entering the house of John Wilson, of Soulby, in the parish of Dacre, about ten o’clock on the night of 22ndDecember, 1819, and taking therefrom five notes of the value of £1. Or one guinea each, and four webs of cloth, the property of the said John Wilson.” Mr Rain, who acted for the prosecution, having briefly stated the case to the jury, proceeded to call witnesses. The first was Margaret Wilson, who stated that she was “wife of John Wilson; lived at Soulby, a lone house about a quarter of the mile from all others. A man came to the house on the night of 22ndDecember, and asked his way to Mark’s; others came after, and made a noise’ this was about ten o’clock. She asked what they wanted, and they said the £100 which her husband had got form the bank at Penrith, the day before. She said it was not there; they said it was, and would have it, and if she did not immediately open the door they would blow her brains out. She begged of them not to be so rough; said her daughter would give them what money they had out of the window; they replied they would not have it that way, and if they did not open the door it would be worse for them, as they knew how to get in. Witness’s husband went down, thinking it would be better, as they could make no resistance. She then opened the door. When four men rushed in; three had on smock-frocks, the fourth had on a coloured overcoat; two had pistols, two swords, and they all wore masks, but could not say what kind they were. They then asked for money, and her daughter gave them her husband’s pocket book, which contained five notes. They asked for the £100; she said her husband had left it at Penrith. They asked for the keys, and got them, and her daughter Mary went upstairs with two of them, and the other drove the family up. Her daughter did not see any of them, as she was ill in bed, but the servant saw them. Two of them searched the drawers and took 20s. in silver; they then went into another room where a chest was standing locked. They ordered her to open it, or they would break it open. They then took out three webs of linen cloth, three of tow, and one of line; then they proceeded to the servant’s room, searched her box, and took out what silver there was – 7s, or 8s. They asked her what she had been doing thirty years, to have no more than that. They took her umbrella, and went downstairs, and asked for four bottles of rum. She said she had none, and then asked if she had no liquor; she said, perhaps a little gin, and went into the parlour to get it, when two men followed her. When she took out the gin, the two reached over and took two bottles of wine and another took the gin. They then went in to the kitchen and asked for ale; she went to bring a bottle, when one of them followed her, and took another. They then demanded bread and cheese, and got it. Previous to their departure, one of them presented a sword to her breast, and drew it across her neck, as an obligation of an oath that they had got all there was in the house, and said if she would give them more money they would give back the webs; but she again said they had got all that came from Penrith. One of them asked her daughter if she knew them; to which she replied, she did not know whether she had seen them before; and he added, ‘No! and I hope you never will again.’ One of them said, on going away: ‘Go night, Mrs Wilson; we know you well enough.’ They ordered the family no to leave the house till morning. She found that two of the doors were fastened also. They made endeavours to get out, but could not, and it was eight o’clock in the morning when they were let out by a servant man.”

William Tweddle was then called, and corroborated Mrs Wilson’s evidence as to the robbery, He further said he “had known Armstrong since they were boys, Little about two years, and Woof since a boy, but the last two or three years in particular. Remembered going to Wilson’s. Armstrong proposed it, as it was likely house to get money. Woof had no mask, but the rest had black ones. Woof had nothing to disguise his face with his coat. After leaving the Wilson’s they went to Little’s house, at Clifton Dykes, where, with the assistance of Little’s wife, the booty was equally divided. He gave the information after being apprehended for stopping Thomas Robinson, of King’s Meaburn.”

James Anderson, constable, Penrith, stated that “in consequence of the information he got from Tweedle, he went to the house where Woof got his meat, and in a box, which the mistress of the house said was his, he found some pieces of cloth, one of which was marked with the words ‘John Wilson: 47 yards.’”

Several other witnesses gave corroborative evidence, after which the judge summed up, and the jury returned a verdict of guilty. The judge, in sentencing them to death, held out no hope of mercy.

Carlisle English Gate and Old Gaol

Carlisle English Gate and Old Gaol

They occupied one cell, between the condemnation and execution, and their behaviour during these days was of a shocking character. The execution – the last at the old gaol – took place on Saturday September 2nd, 1820, at the south angle of the gaol. Even at the gallows they behaved unseemly, and one of them spat in the face of the executioner. (The librarian at the Free Library, Mr John Stuart, witnesses their execution, and distinctly remembers it, though he was but a lad at the time, and witnessed the scene from his father’s shoulder.)

Tweedle was transported to Van Diemen’s Land, and eventually joined a gang of desperados, and is said to have come to a violent end. (The story of Tweedle runs thus: Having got clear away into the bush he joined a gang of freebooters. Some time afterwards, in their leisure time, the gang were recounting their deeds which expatriated them from the old country, and Tweedle was called upon for his story. After recounting his exploits which his comrades, he told of their capture and the execution of three of this gang, whilst he escaped hanging, and was transported, because he turned King’s evidence. “Traitor,” cried the whole gang, and the captain said “since he had escaped his just deserts at home, and they could not tolerate a traitor amongst them, he must suffer the traitor’s doom.” Then the gang seized him and hanged him on the nearest tree.)

Bound For Van Diemen's Land

Bound For Van Diemen’s Land

Armstrong’s sister witnessed the execution, and afterwards begged the body of her brother, which she placed in a cart she had provided for the purpose, and brought it to Barton to bury. The malefactor’s body was exhibited, by the sister, at the public houses between Carlisle and Penrith, to anyone who would pay a penny for the sight, which hundreds did. It is said that when the body was buried in Barton Churchyard, a gap was made in the wall to let the procession into the churchyard, as it could not be permitted to enter by the gate. This act speaks of the superstition of the age.’

In an earlier article entitled ‘ Old Soldiers don’t always fade away’, I wrote about one of my own ancestors: Levi Grisdale.

This was picked up by Who do you think you are? magazine. They interviewed me and wrote about Levi in the latest edition: