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The Search for Evidence of a Direct Ancestor. Or do we need a bit of luck in our research?

Very recently I have been able to locate a vital baptism record for an ancestor that for over 20 years remained particularly elusive and that I thought would never be found. Perhaps it was perseverance that made me continue to search, but there is a story behind why the record was missing in the first place. I had found most details in the Northallerton Archives for North Yorkshire and East Witton in particular, where my ancestors had lived and worked as tenant farmers, on the Jervaulx Estates in Lower Wensleydale. In the nearby village of Ellingstring several generations had lived at Moorcote, Tranmire and Angram Cote Farms between 1800 and 1960.This had meant that many of the Births, Banns, Deaths and Marriages for early Vayro ancestors were found in the East Witton Parish Registers for the Church of St John the Evangelist from 1808 onwards.

A search of other local villages proved that even earlier generations were living in Middleham, Healey, and Coverham to the west, as well as Masham, and Clifton to the east.
I had already built up family networks for seven generations of my ancestors going back to circa 1750, with hard evidence of their existence in the form of dates and details extracted from various Registers, Microfilms or Transcripts.  But no matter how hard I looked, or how hard I tried I was never able to find the Baptism record entry for another James Vayro / Varo / Varah (one of about a dozen with the same Christian name) until June of 2009.

There were many hurdles to jump, in order to put this particular jigsaw piece into the larger picture, and prove beyond doubt that James was indeed my ancestor.

As a personal favour, in 1983, the church warden of St John's had allowed me full access to actual Parish Registers, from which I had extracted numerous entries. There was a certain William Varo / Varah (G5) and Esther Lye who were married at East Witton in August 1795, and were known to have a son James (G4) born 1795, that had later married Mary Walker in 1816 and had been mentioned in his father's will, and had died at Angram Cote in 1863 aged 68.  

However the Baptism register for 1770 to 1810 was not available in the church and apparently it had gone missing in the mid 1960's and had never been deposited at the North Yorkshire County Records Office at Northallerton ( NYCRO ).

In conversations with several "dales folk" I heard rumours that "there may have been a fire in East Witton in 1796; that the vicarage had been burned down; and that there was the possibility that the register may have also been destroyed". Fortunately this was not the case, but what complicated things was that this was the same period when the original Church of St Martin's fell into disrepair, had to be demolished and later a new church built on a site nearby between 1808 and 1812.

Investigating the possibility of a fire led me to the Gale Newspaper Website where I looked at the 17th-18th Century BURNEY COLLECTION of Newspaper cuttings. I found a small item that had been reported in the SUN newspaper Weds 28th September 1796 issue 1251 and also in TRUE BRITON newspaper Friday 30 th September 1796 issue 1175.


""On Friday 16th inst, a dreadful fire happened at a small village called EAST WITTON, on the Estate of the Earl of Aylesbury, in the North Riding of the County of York. The flames broke out in the workhouse in the middle of the day, when most of the inhabitants were in the fields reaping. The buildings being chiefly covered with thatch, and the wind strong at South West the fire burnt with such irresistible fury, as in the course of a few hours to totally ruin near a dozen families, burning sixteen dwelling houses and out-buildings, with a large quantity of grain and farm utensils, all of which were uninsured.""

There is no mention of damage to the old St Martin's church itself, or the vicarage, but this was an obvious incentive for the Earl of Aylesbury to rebuild the village, and then reposition the church itself between I think 1808 and 1812.

However returning to my search, a visit to Leeds Sheepscar archives allowed me to examine the Bishop's Transcripts for East Witton 1737 to 1799, and 1800 to 1810 in an attempt to trace James's Baptism. Even then a page or two were missing and there was a "Gap -Year" from 19 th June 1795 to 29 th June 1796, which coincidentally covered the period when James just could have been baptised. But at least it proved that a register had actually existed, and from it I found the records for the Baptisms of Mary 1797, William 1799, Thomas 1801, John 1805, and Richard 1808, his younger siblings.

I had completely given up on ever finding a baptism record for James until I received a message though the Upper Dales Family History Group's Email Forum from a colleague who had spotted a small article in the Northern Echo in the second week of June 2008 with the headline "Mystery parcel is final piece in parish records jigsaw".

"An anonymous donor had sent a volume of East Witton parish records dated 1771-1813 to the Record Office in Northallerton. They were believed to have been lost, when the Vicar handed over the records 30 years ago, this particular volume was missing.  Staff at the Records Office were amazed when it turned up on Monday morning."

Needless to say I was excited, no ecstatic by this piece of news and the following day paid a visit to NYCRO to see whether or not pages were missing, or to determine if the scribe who prepared the Bishops Transcripts had simply skipped a page, and hopefully find James.

Unfortunately I was not allowed access to the actual register, but the assistant archivist was kind enough to examine the entries in the period in question and assures me that there is indeed an entry for a James son of William and Esther Varah baptised 8 th November 1795.  The Register is to be transferred to microfilm and will be available shortly, which is good news for anyone else who has ancestors who were baptised at East Witton.

So with this particular piece of evidence I can now trace back through three further generations of ancestors to circa 1700. The spelling variation does not concern me, because other entries fit the pattern of change from Vayro to Varo to Varah and earlier derivatives. Perseverance paid off, but whereas originally I thought that James may have been born out of wedlock, and therefore may not have been baptised at all, I find that as their first child he was baptised only three months after his parents were married.

But at least I found him, with a little help from an eagle-eyed fellow researcher.

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