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The Thomas Hardy Family Mystery

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The Foster Family in BarbyImage Copyright Tony Payne


The first time that I heard about any family connection to Thomas Hardy the famous author, was after my Mother passed away in 1997, and I had travelled back to England from Indiana, where I had moved to 3 years before.

It was in my Aunt’s house in Rugby where a group of close relatives were gathered together that the topic came up. I forget why now, but it seemed really odd that a family from a small village in the Midlands of England would have a tie with an author well knowing for living and writing about the county of Dorset on the south coast. Not only did this seem rather bizarre, nobody could really remember what the connection was.

The story remained untouched for around 5 years, until we moved south from Indiana to Florida. Due to the poor economy and lack of jobs in Information Technology at that time, combined with a continuing need for my services at the company I was working with, I ended up staying in Indiana for 6 months after the move to help the company out.  With a lot of spare time on my hands in the evenings and weekends, I finally found the time to begin researching my family tree.

It was hard to know where to begin, since my Father’s side had a more interesting history in some ways, certainly I had many more photographs from that side of the family, who were fairly wealthy going back to the 1950’s and beyond. Having scanned a good way through the collection of old photographs and documents that I had brought back with me from England, and recording dates and other information in the family tree, the story of the connection with Thomas Hardy resurfaced.

One of my cousin’s on my Mother’s side had meantime also been researching the family history, and she had found some information online on a genealogy forum, which was really useful, but I never found any conclusive trail that I could follow, and only now another 5 years later an I picking up on this again, and hopefully this time finding the truth and laying this to rest.

Who Was Thomas Hardy?

Thomas Hardy was an author from Dorset in the south of England, and is best known for his novels about life in Dorset in the 1800’s, and I am sure you must have heard of a few of them: Under The Greenwood Tree, Far From The Madding Crowd, The Mayor Of Casterbridge, Tess Of The D’Urbervilles and Jude The Obscure, to name just a few.

He was born in the hamlet of Higher Bockhampton in Dorset on 2nd June 1840, and died at his home in nearby Dorchester on 11th January 1928 following a severe bout of pleurisy.

His father was a stonemason, a good local profession, with stone from Dorset being used in many of the fine buildings in London, including St. Paul’s Cathedral. Thomas trained as an architect in Dorchester, and then went to Kings College in London in 1862. He was a gifted architect, winning awards from the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Architectural Association, which led to him being placed in charge of the excavation of the churchyard at St. Pancras (prior to it’s destruction) when the railway station was being built there.

Despite his talents as an architect, he was never really at home in London, with it’s divide between the social classes, and he became deeply interested in social reform. Due in part to this as well as to failing health, it was not long before he returned to his native Dorset and turned his life to writing.

However, this page is not so much about Thomas Hardy as to my family link to him, so I will leave it you, dear reader to learn more about Thomas Hardy (the link will open in a new tab) or to continue learning about my search for the missing link.

So What Is Our Connection To Thomas Hardy And Why The Mystery?

This much is true, my Great Grandfather married the widow of a George Hardy, who came from the same local area as Thomas Hardy. The mystery is that nobody has quite solved the exact connection of George Hardy to Thomas Hardy, because the Hardy family tree is rather complicated.

Although this is not a blood-line connection, for me it’s an interesting story, and a puzzle that is begging to be solved.

The Beginning Of The Trail

The beginning of the trail, or at least the starting point as we work our way backwards in time and try to find the connection.

The link to Thomas Hardy begins with my Great Grandfather, John Foster, who in 1897 married Jane Dodd, who was previously married to a George Hardy.  The pair are actually the old couple in the photograph at the top of this article, this is the only picture that I have of them unfortunately.

The previous marriage of Jane Dodd to George Hardy was registered in Beaminster in Dorset in September 1873, and they had 3 children, Florence, Ann and Mary, who were all born in Dorset, Florence and Ann going to live with their mother (and my Great Grandfather). Mary, the youngest, died when only a few months old, according to records.

Now my Great Grandfather and Jane Dodd both continued to live in the small village of Barby, which is near to Rugby on the border of Warwickshire and Northamptonshire, and where many of my family still live today. I have found some details of the daughters living in the village, but just wish my Mum and Gran were alive, because there is so much that they would know which is now likely forever lost.

Remembering that we are going back in time to the middle of the 19th century and beyond, when people generally remained living in the same town or village as their ancestors, you do find in a small village like Barby that the history of some of these families is a lot easier to trace, both through Parish Records and Census Returns.

Joseph Elkington extract

Joseph Elkington extract

A lucky find when Googling gave me this document on the Elkington Family Of Barby which I found via the Barby Local History Group. On page 20 I found the following entry for Joseph Elkington (1865-1933):

In 1901, Joseph was no longer an agricultural labourer, but a joiner machinist. His wife was FLORENCE, aged 26, and his two sons were GEORGE WILLIAM ELKINGTON, aged 2, and JOSEPH HARDY ELKINGTON, aged 3 months.

Florence was born FLORENCE HARDY in Bradpole, Dorset, in 1874. Her sister Ann was born two years later. Their father was George Hardy, a gardener.

Florence’s son George believed his mother to be related to the novelist Thomas Hardy; both girls were born within a 25-mile radius of his birthplace, Upper Bockhampton.

In 1881 the two Hardy girls were living in Barby at the home of John and Jane Foster. They were described as daughters-in-law, because John Foster was Jane’s second husband. Jane was the daughter of Richard George Dodd, a baker in the nearby village of Braunston, who moved to Barby, lived at Ashleigh Farm and built Dodd’s Cottages.

In 1891 Florence’s sister Ann was working as a domestic servant for the Malin family at the Braunston post office; Florence has not been traced in that year; she married Joseph in Barby in 1897; he was a bricklayer’s labourer at that time.

Now I had come across a record of the daughters during my original searches a few years ago, but this recent discovery definitely confirms that they were not only born in Dorset, their father was George Hardy, they lived with their mother and my Great Grandfather, but also this confirms the existence of the story connecting us to Thomas Hardy.

Finding George Hardy

George Hardy Births In Dorset 1838

George Hardy Births In Dorset 1838

According to several other researchers online, George was born in 1838 in Bradpole in Dorset, however this information could have been obtained by taking his age at the time of the 1841-1861 censuses that he appeared in, and since these were not strictly accurate, we cannot just assume that our George Hardy is the most likely out of those who were born in the area at that time.

The transcription of the marriage of Joseph Elkington to Florence Hardy in Barby in 1897 lists her father George Hardy as being a Gamekeeper, so this may prove an additional clue, especially when looking at census records for him.

Searching the Free BMD (Births, Marriages, Deaths) site returns 5 results for George Hardy born in Dorset between 1838 and 1840. (see photo)

Considering that (a) George’s recorded age on the censuses where he appears might be inaccurate, (b) the transcriptions of the censuses might be wrong, and (c) not all the births in the area might have been digitized yet, we have to be aware that our George Hardy could in fact be any of these, unless we know his parents, and his marriage certificate should confirm who they are.

If we do not take care to prove the information that we are using, or take for gospel everything that we receive from other people, we could just be on a wild goose chase and going down the wrong path.

George Hardy Jane Dodd Marriage 1873

George Hardy Jane Dodd Marriage 1873

So the next step was to obtain a certificate to confirm the marriage of George Hardy to Jane Dodd (see image), and a birth certificate for George Hardy, in order to have details of his parents names, birth dates, place of residence and their occupations.

Having done this, we proved which of the George Hardy’s ours was, and could then proceed with our research into his parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins etc.

At this point in time we have a potential link to Thomas Hardy, but no proof that we have the right person, so we can’t just go ahead and claim a link as this could be wrong. We tried using the reverse root, looking at Thomas Hardy’s family tree, since a few people have done research on this, and with George not being a common name in the family, you would think that we would find something.

So far no George Hardy’s in Thomas Hardy’s direct tree, so assuming that the family branched off in the past, our best hope is to go back another generation, and to try and find a common link.  This is where the parish records become harder to find, and also harder to read, and more often than not they cannot be found online. The only answer then is to visit the local area and to look at the old parish registers to see if you can find what you are looking for.

This is the stage that we are at right now, and over the next few months I hope to put together all the family information that I can find, from both George’s and Thomas’s sides, because when you visit the local records office you need to know exactly what you are looking for, otherwise you will be wasting your time.

Using census returns, which are available online through Ancestry.com, we have found that George Hardy and his family have connections in a number of villages and hamlets in Dorset, all within a few miles of each other.  As well as researching the parish records, I hope to spend a day exploring the area (which is only 60 miles from us), and to take some photographs of the places where they used to live, and to maybe find the graves as well.

And so for now at least, our exact connection to the famous author Thomas Hardy remains a mystery, but I hope to solve this eventually and turn a family story into fact.

Useful Links

Barby Village History
Really Old References To Barby

Genealogy Tools

Legacy Family Tree
Rootschat
Ancestry.com
Free Parish Record Transcriptions

Thomas Hardy Books

From Amazon.com
From Amazon.co.uk

Unless stated otherwise, all images used in this article are the property of Tony Payne and may not be used without permission.



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