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Q I wondered if you could give my husband some advice as to his GUNNELL ancestry. We have hit a proverbial brick wall regarding the paternity of his grandfather, James Robert Holmes GUNNELL. His mother Harriet COUPLAND married Robert WATSON on 11th April 1864, one week before she produced J R H, although Robert was not his father: James’ birth certificate gives no father’s name. However, the landlady where Harriet was staying at the time of the birth registered the child under the name of GRAVES. We have no idea where this name came from. Within three weeks, Harriet asked the registrar to add a comment that she and the child were called GUNNELL, even though she was newly wed as Mrs WATSON. Why should she do this? Would it be possible to trace who his father was? There is a suspicion that in 1863, when Harriet was 20, she may have had an affair with one of her first cousins, who were GUNNELLs, living in Louth. On Harriet COUPLAND’s birth certificate, there is no father mentioned either, and she was born in Louth Workhouse to Sarah COUPLAND. She varied her story as to where she was born when supplying information for the census returns. Why should that be? Perhaps she was sensitive about being born in the workhouse. However, when she married Robert WATSON, the certificate stated that her father was William COUPLAND (deceased). Perhaps her father was a cousin of her mother’s? Perhaps the circumstances of these two births were a case of family history repeating itself!

Vicky Gunnell

A Of course, without much further research, it is impossible to give a definitive explanation for the circumstances you have outlined. But a possible scenario commences with the landlady reporting the wrong surname to the local registrar (GRAVES instead of GUNNELL). The use of the surname ‘Holmes’ as a forename may indicate that a Mr James Robert HOLMES was GUNNELL’s natural father – but possibly this came from some other member of the family. On the attachment you supplied with your letter, you say that ‘... Harriet was the younger of two illegitimate daughters of Sarah COUPLAND, and, together with her sister Charlotte, was brought up initially by her grandparents, Joseph and Mary COUPLAND, at Trusthorpe, Lincolnshire. In 1851, she was living with her sister and mother in Anderby with William ROBINSON; they were recorded as being ‘Robinson’. Her mother had a son called George. In 1852, her mother married William ROBINSON ...’. Therefore it is known that Harriet was the illegitimate daughter of Sarah COUPLAND and would, correctly, have taken the name COUPLAND until her marriage to Robert WATSON. As she may not have known her birth father’s name, she gave her grandfather’s at her marriage, and this is what appears on the certificate. If a GUNNELL was James Robert Holmes’ father, then it is not perhaps surprising that this was the name she preferred to use for her son’s registration in 1864. Whether you will ever actually ever be able to prove this, or some other history, is probably unlikely – at least not from the official records. However, one piece of advice I would give is that you should try to locate the baptism record for James Robert Holmes, as the vicar may have been a little more punctilious in recording the correct information.

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