Home > The mysterious Elvira Holyer
This is the story of some long and complicated research into an individual first known to me as Elvira Holyer. Over a number of years, the identity and ancestry of this individual was solved. In hindsight, it might have been solved much earlier, but I've left the tale below just as it was researched, complete with mistakes and 'brickwalls' which had to be knocked down.
On the 19th September 1974, a request was made to the General Register Office to issue a copy birth certificate for Frederick Philip William Holyer, born in 1895. The Gerada family were trying to trace their English roots. It was the normal custom for the copy certificate to show a facsimile of the original copy certificate held by the GRO (the original being held at the issuing Register Office, in this case Tenterden, Kent). But the issuing clerk had difficulty in reading this original copy and it wouldn't be an acceptable record to issue in facsimile. So he wrote out the certificate in manuscript and this is what he wrote:-
It seems likely that the original certificate used the name Hollyer, instead of Holyer. As noted elsewhere, there was quite a bit of migration from the Holyer spelling to Hollyer, though it was often caused by Registrars deciding what the spelling should be.
However, it seems likely, in retrospect, that the clerk had a lot of trouble deciphering the mother's name. It looked a bit like Eliza, but surely nobody called Eliza would have the middle name Lizzie? So he decided the name must be Elvira and this started a long search for 'Elvira Lizzie Jane Holyer'.
During my One Name Study of the names Hollyer, Holyer and Hollier, I have had contact with two of Frederick Holyer's descendants, one from each of his two marriages: Joy Porteous, a granddaughter, and Anthony Gerada, a grandson, who lives in South Africa but is from the Maltese branch of the family, where Frederick emigrated in the 1920s.
Both were stumped trying to trace Elvira: there is no Elvira Holyer or Hollyer in the birth indexes.
When the 1881 census was issued on CD-ROM, I felt sure that I would be able to find Elvira. Anyone having a child in 1895 would almost certainly be alive in 1881. But there was no Elvira Holyer. I checked all the Elviras in Kent and none fitted.
My next thought was that although Frederick's birth certificate showed no father, could Elvira be a Holyer by marriage? So I went about checking all Holyer males who married between 1881 and 1895 where I didn't already know their wife's name. This too drew a blank.
However, I did note that in the 1881 census, there was an Eliza Holyer, aged 10, born Woodchurch, an inmate in Tenterden Workhouse. This is where Elvira had given birth to Frederick. Could there be a connection? Tracking back in the birth records, I found that this Eliza must be the girl registered in Tenterden District in the third quarter of 1871 as Eliza Elizabeth J Holyer. This seemed suspiciously similar to Elvira Lizzie Jane. Did this Eliza adopt the name Elvira in later life?
This is where the mystery stayed for some time. I felt more proof was needed. Could Elvira/Eliza be found in the 1891 census? I searched for many hours through the census records for the Tenterden area, but could not find her. Again, I dropped the search.
New impetus was given when the 1901 census was made available on the Internet in 2002. On 1st January 2002, I discovered that the on-line census had been made available a day earlier than advertised. In great anticipation, I entered the name “Elvira Holyer”. Result nothing. I tried “Eliza Holyer” and got three results, but the three ladies were all over 50 and not even in the Tenterden area. As is now well known, the day after, on the official release of the census, the web site was grossly overloaded and was taken off-line. So the search for Elvira had to wait. It wasn't until September 2002 that the census became available again. This time I tried more complex searches, but still nothing emerged. This was becoming very frustrating!
In my searching, I decided that I should try looking for an Eliza, accompanied by a 6 year old son called Frederick, both born in Kent. So I tried looking at all 6 year old Fredericks born in Kent, hoping to find a surname that might have got mistranscribed. But such a search was rejected by the system as taking too long - often indicating that over 300 matches had been found. Frederick is far too common a name for such a wide search. Once again, a promising line of research had hit the rocks.
I made contact with Anthony Gerada again and new information was now revealed that hadn't been known to me until then. This was that Elvira had several children, as well as Frederick. Anthony's mother said that she thought there were 5 children, including a pair of twins. Frederick's elder sister was Elsie, while another daughter was called Dorothy. This was promising. There were two possible Elsie Holyers in the birth indexes, one born in 1891 and the other in 1892. One showed up straightaway in the 1901 census, but she was living in Woodchurch, shown as the step-daughter of Henry and Esther Pearson. I decided to buy the birth certificate of the Elsie Holyer born 1891, which I hoped would be the other one, but it turned out to be an illegitimate daughter of Esther Holyer, who later married Henry Pearson.
My next approach was to try to find the other Elsie Holyer in the 1901 census. As Elsie is perhaps less common than Frederick, perhaps a search for all Elsies born and living in Kent aged about 9 would be successful. It was, but only one had a surname starting with an H and born in the right area and this was an Elsie Heath, which didn't look very promising. What's more, no civil parish was shown, which I later realised meant that the location was in an institution. But I was curious. I tried a search for all female Heaths, born and living in Kent. Two turned up with a blank in the civil parish column: Elsie Heath aged 9 and an Eliza Heath aged 30 born Woodchurch. This was the right age for Elvira! But why Heath? Not easy to mistake the name Holyer and read it as Heath. Then I tried male Heaths and found, against the same search criteria, a Frederick Heath aged 9 and an Alfred Heath aged 2, both born in Tenterden.
As difficult as it seemed to be to believe that the family's name was incorrectly transcribed as Heath, there was now evidence of Eliza, Frederick and Elsie all in the same place, with the right ages and the right birth places. It was time to buy the download image of the census and see exactly what was on the page. Actually, the family straddled two pages. The first exciting revelation was the location of the institution in which they were recorded was none other than Tenterden Workhouse: the coincidences were piling up! This is what the entries showed:-
This shows Eliza as being 'married' to the 51 year old George Heath. Note, the erased text showing George as 'Head' and Eliza as 'Wife'. Study of the Tenterden Workhouse census returns show that George Heath was living there in 1881 (married with possibly two children) and again in 1891. I double checked to see if Eliza was in the Workhouse in 1891, but she wasn't. Since Ancestry.com has had the Kent 1891 census on the web, I've done a much wider search in all the adjacent and nearby parishes for Eliza, but still drawn a blank.
I decided it was high time that I bought the birth certificate of Eliza Elizabeth J Holyer to see who she was. She too turned out to be illegitimate and born in Tenterden Workhouse on 5th July 1871, the daughter of Jane Holyer. Who might this Jane be? It seemed most likely that Jane Holyer was the same person as died in the Workhouse in May 1872 and was buried in Woodchurch. This would explain why Eliza aged 10 was an inmate on her own in the Workhouse. But the Workhouse death record, the Woodchurch burial record and the GRO death index all show Jane as being 20 years old. There is no Jane Holyer born around 1852, but there is a Jane Holyer born in 1845 in Warehorne (baptised 23rd Feb 1845, but birth not registered), daughter of William Holyer and Mary Ann Parsons. I feel sure these are Jane's parents.
Despite all the data building up, it was still hard to persuade anyone that a person called Elvira Holyer was in the 1901 census as Eliza Heath. I decided to visit the Centre for Kentish Studies in Maidstone to see what the parish records for Tenterden and Woodchurch might reveal, and to see what records existed for the Tenterden Workhouse. Unfortunately, the admissions register for the Workhouse do not survive from that time, but the birth and death records do and this proved to be a mine of information.
|Tenterden Workhouse births|
|Date||Child's name||Mother's name||Mother's residence|
|5th July 1871||Eliza Elizabeth Jane||Jane Holyer||Woodchurch|
|11th Sep 1892||Elsie||Eliza Holyer||Woodchurch|
|7th May 1895||Male child||Eliza Holyer||Tenterden|
|19th June 1897||Male child||Eliza Holyer||Tenterden|
|25th Aug 1901||Female||Eliza Heath||Tenterden|
|Tenterden Workhouse deaths|
|20th May 1872||Jane Holyer||20||of Woodchurch, buried Woodchurch|
|14th June 1887||Eliza Jane (adult)||Stephen & Jane Holyer||Tenterden||Labourer|
|11th Oct 1892||Elsie||Eliza Holyer||Tenterden||Single Woman|
|26th Jan 1896||Frederick Philip William||Eliza Holyer||Tenterden||Single Woman|
|23rd Nov 1898||Albert Edward||Eliza Holyer||Tenterden||Single Woman|
Tenterden Workhouse main block from the south-east, 2001.
Click here for more information.
© Peter Higginbotham.
So what does all this tell us? All the primary evidence suggests that 'Elvira' never existed. She was Eliza Elizabeth Jane at birth, was baptised Eliza Jane at 16 years of age (inventing a father Stephen) and was always Eliza Holyer on the records at Tenterden. We must conclude that Elvira was a transcription mistake by that GRO clerk in 1974. Whatever happened to Eliza? There is no record of a marriage or a death. I can only presume that she adopted the 'married' name Heath, so her death may have been registered as such. Another mystery to follow up?
Postscript: I have now found Eliza in the 1891 census. Surprisingly, she was working as a servant in Islington. Perhaps she returned home when she fell pregnant with Elsie?
Another postscript: Somehow, when transcribing the Holyer marriages I missed an entry. In fact there is an entry for the marriage of Eliza Jane Holyer to George Valentine Heath in Q4 1900. Had I not made this slip, a lot of time would have been saved.
Yet another postscript: Having studied a lot of the census entries that have now become available, I have discovered that Eliza's mother Jane was not the Jane of William Holyer and Mary Ann Parsons. In 1861, the latter was with her parents, aged 16, while this Jane was shown aged 8, grandaughter of Martha Hook, a widow, living at the Turnpike House at Woodchurch. This Jane also says in both 1861 and 1871 that she was born in Woodchurch, whereas the other Jane was born in Warehorne. The fate of the Warehorne Jane is not clear, as no marriage or death is known for her. She might be the Jane E Wood born Warehorne, wife of William Wood at Old Romney in 1871, but even here there's a mystery, as William Wood married Harriet Spicer in 1869 and is shown with her in the 1881 census, so why is his wife shown as Jane E in 1871? But at this stage, the more important issue is who Jane Holyer born in Woodchurch c1852 might be.
Further update: The most likely identity for Jane would be the eldest daughter of John Holyer and Jane Godden, namely Sarah Jane Holyer born 5th Jan 1853. Unlike her siblings, she is not with her parents in the 1861 census, who are living in Bench Hill, but 'Jane Holyer' is living close by in the Bench Hill Turnpike House, with Martha Hook. So Jane is probably Sarah Jane. Martha Hook describes Jane as her grandaughter, but I'm increasingly sure that she was actually her Great Grandaughter. It turns out that Martha's maiden name was Godden (born Benenden 1773) and in the 1851 census, Stephen and Martha Hook are living next to Thomas & Ann Godden and their daughter Jane who married Johh Holyer in 1852. I suspect that Thomas was the illegitimate daughter of Martha before her marriage to Stephen Hook at Tenterden on 7th April 1803.
Final update: My hunch was correct. Martha Godden had her illegitimate son Thomas baptised at Sandhurst on 12th March 1794. The father was quoted as John Witherden. This finally proves that Jane Holyer, mother of Eliza Elizabeth Jane Holyer, was the daughter of John Holyer and Jane Godden and that Martha Hook (née Godden) was her Great Grandmother
Full details of Eliza Elizabeth Jane Holyer can be found here.Back to top