First Clues Pointing to Our Hedley Roots in Northumberland

For several years I had been happily collecting family genealogical information from relatives in Southwestern Ontario,  never considering the possibility of accessing our family’s history beyond the locality of our known relatives, let alone beyond the shores of Canada. This possibility suddenly presented itself when I received a surprise telephone call from a woman who introduced herself as Anne Storey, a resident of Ottawa and a relative of our family. She ignored my protests  that we had no relatives in Ottawa and insisted that we were certainly descendants, as she was, of John and Frances Hedley, who had come to the Ottawa Valley from Northumberland, England with their family in 1819. I listened with a mixture of wonderment and doubt as she announced the names of the descendants of these early Hedley pioneers. Impressed, but still somewhat doubtful, I suggested that she come to our annual Hedley picnic and share her surprising information with other descendants of John Henry Hedley, grandson of John and Frances Hedley. She eagerly accepted my invitation, and a few weeks later she and her husband Captain John Storey arrived at our home for an overnight visit and a shared automobile trip of 100 miles north to Bruce County and the home of relatives who were hosts that year of the Hedley Picnic.

Dr. Anne Storey gave an impressive after-dinner speech, appearing not to notice, or apparently not displeased  by the skepticism apparent on the faces of her audience. Nevertheless, her outgoing friendliness won her acceptance by many of the picnickers, although her connection to the Hedleys remained suspect in the minds of some of the elder Hedleys. Dr. Anne and Captain John Storey attended several more Hedley picnics through the years, winning increased acceptance with each picnic, until her death in January, 1997, followed by her husband John’s death in December 1999. For my part, Anne’s enthusiasm for genealogy had completely won me over and set me on a family genealogy search that has proven to be both challenging and infinitely rewarding. It has produced seven large binders of Hedley family history as well as a Genealogy Website developed and carefully tended by David, my brother, who has eagerly involved himself in countless internet searches for our extended Hedley Family.

Our search for our Northumberland roots was given a running start by Dr. Anne Storey, who passed on to me a professionally prepared brief summary of research on four generations of the  Hedley family in Northumberland in the 1700s and early 1800s. This document was signed  “A.S. Angus,  4/9/92.” Footnotes referred to four Parish Registers: Chollerton, Birtley, Ovingham and Ryton. The first line of the document consisted of only one couple, William Weatherley and Frances Atkinson, who were married in December 13, 1744 in Chollerton Parish.

The second generation listed five children of the above William and Frances Weatherley. Their third child, Martha Weatherley, baptized March 18, 1750 at Chollerton, married “Thomas Hedley of Birtley,” on August 29, 1773. No birth or baptism date was given for Thomas Hedley of Birtley; however, our desire to learn more than the name and marriage date of our direct ancestor of six generations ago goaded us into many years of research into church and IGI (International Genealogical Index) records. In our search we were assisted by sympathetic fellow researchers who emailed records of many “Thomas Hedleys” born within a few miles of Birtley, Northumberland during the assumed time period within which Thomas was born (as calculated  from his marriage date and the arrival of his first and last children).

On the third level of the family tree document, John Hedley is listed as the eldest of eight children of Thomas Hedley of Birtley and Martha Weatherley of Chollerton. The document indicated that  John Hedley and his eight siblings were born and raised in Birtley Parish, probably the parish in which their father “Thomas Hedley of Birtley” was born. John Hedley married Frances Lawes (born Oct. 12, 1777 in Ryton Parish, Durham) on June 9, 1798 in Chollerton parish. John and Frances (Lawes) Hedley and their family later became the first members of the Hedley family to make Canada their home.

The fourth level of the family tree document listed the names and birth places as well as the location and dates of baptism of the six children of John and Frances (Lawes) Hedley.  The first seven children were born in either “Dinley Hill” or “Rouchester” and baptized in Ovingham Parish. Hannah, their fifth child died at age two in Ovingham Parish. Mary Ann, their eighth child, was born after the family’s move to Canada. She is assumed to have been the first Caucasian child born in March Township, Carleton County.

In May of the year 2000 my husband and I set off to visit Northumberland, the  little traveled county from which our ancestors had originated. Northumberland is the most northerly county in England, bounded  by Scotland to the north, Cumberland to the west, Durham to the south and the North Sea to the west.

After some study of Ordnance Survey Map #87 and never having been to Northumberland, we sixth-generation Canadians assumed that the orange rectangles with enticing names situated at the ends of long lanes must be villages. This assumption was corrected when we arrived in Northumberland. We discovered that these were the names, not of villages, but of single farms consisting of large barns and farm houses and cottages built to shelter several generations at the same time.

From our hospitable B&B (Bed and Breakfast) in Juniper, Northumberland, we set forth with rented car, camera and notebook to explore the surrounding green countryside copiously populated with sheep and beautiful with spring’s early blossoms.  On our first morning, rambling through the cemetery beside St. Giles Church in Birtley Parish, we were astonished to come upon a  headstone engraved with the words, “Here lies the body of Thomas Hedley, died at Dinley Hill August 1785, Aged 65 years. Also of Mary his wife who died March 24, 1805 Age eighty years. Also John son of Dorothy Daughter who died Dec. 17, 1799.” Genealogy research, we reasoned, cannot be this easy, and so, after photographing the object of this unanticipated “coincidence,” we continued our search for our “Thomas Hedley of Birtley,” father of John Hedley, our first Canadian ancestor.

After a hurried genealogy search in the County Records Building in Morpeth, Northumberland at which a generous client volunteered his own time reservation to accommodate our search, and after  several more adventures in Northumberland cemeteries and churches, we turned homeward with copious notes and happy memories of both the land and the people of the birthplace of our ancestors.

Upon our return home we spent countless hours searching the records of dozens of  “Thomas Hedleys” born in Northumberland and Durham during the mid-1700s. Eventually it occurred to me that perhaps we were making our search more complicated than necessary – what if the answer was right in front of us – perhaps our “Thomas of Birtley,” husband of Martha Weatherley, was actually the son of Thomas and Mary Hedley of Dinley Hill, whose headstone we had photographed on our first day, at the cemetery of St. Giles Church, Birtley.  A check of the names of the  mid-1700s  residents of Dinley Hill (a farm situated about a kilometer from Birtley) supported my guess that our own “Thomas Hedley of Birtley” had also been a resident of Dinley Hill Farm – after all, five of his children were born at Dinley Hill Farm, three at neighbouring Rouchester Farm.

The headstone at St. Giles Birtley stated that “Thomas Hedley died at Dinley Hill August 1785, aged 65 years.”  Three months before the death of Thomas Hedley (of the headstone), Mary, the fifth child of Thomas and Martha Hedley, was born at Dinley Hill on April 17, 1785. The fact that Thomas, husband of Mary, died at Dinley Hill, where Thomas and Martha and their young family were living, suggested a familial relationship. (Of course the possibility still existed that the relationship was one of a more distant kinship rather than that of father and son.)

We were provided additional insight into relationships among residents of Dinley Hill Farm in the 1700s when, in 2008, Lynne Coulson of New Zealand emailed us statements from The Parish Register of St Giles Birtley confirming the death at Dinley Hill of Mary, wife of Thomas (although the Register gives Mary’s death as two years earlier than the date on the headstone).  The Parish Register also stated that Thomas, third child of Thomas and Martha, died at Dinley Hill at age 47, twenty-two years after Mary’s death and that Martha (Weatherley) Hedley died two years later at Dinley Hill. Most important of all, for us, was the statement on the Parish Register that our Thomas of Birtley died at Dinley Hill in 1838 at age 88, ten years after his wife Martha. Thomas was apparently born in 1750, the same year as his wife Martha. These death records from the Parish Register of St. Giles indicated long-term residence at Dinley Hill of both parents and offspring: “Mary Hedley of Dinley Hill, widow of the late Thomas Hedley, farmer, died 14 March, buried 26 March 1803, 82 years.”
 (Minor discrepancies between dates on this Birtley Parish Register and the dates on the Birtley headstone may have resulted from a misreading of the centuries-old  headstone or the misdirection of the headstone carver; however, discrepancies of two years seem to be commonplace in Birtley Parish information spanning the year 1752, when the Julian Calendar was replaced with the Gregorian Calendar, even though only 11 days were eliminated from the calendar.)

“Thomas Hedley died at Dinley Hill, buried Oct. 8, 1825, age 47.”

“Martha (Weatherley) Hedley died at Dinley Hill at age 77, buried April 30, 1827.”

“Thomas Hedley of Dinley Hill, buried 2 July 1838, aged 88 years.”
(The above four dates of death from the Parish Register of St. Giles Birtley courtesy of  researcher Lynne Coulson, NZ.)

We were further persuaded that “Thomas Hedley of Birtley” was probably a son of Thomas and Mary of Dinley Hill by the compatibility of their birth dates: “Thomas Hedley of Birtley” buried in 1838, age 88  was apparently born about 1750, coinciding with the birth year of his wife Martha Weatherley. Their marriage took place August 29, 1773, when they were both 23. If Thomas and Mary (of the headstone) were the parents of  “Thomas of Birtley,” Thomas would have been 30 and Mary age 25 at the time of their son’s birth. At the time of the marriage of Thomas Hedley of Birtley and Martha Weatherley, Thomas of Dinley Hill would have been 53 and Mary his wife 48.

page updated Jan. 12, 2009