DNA Detective Work Part 1

For a long time my personal genealogy research has been undertaken pretty traditionally, trawling through records using both online and offline resources. I was aware of DNA testing for genealogy and many years ago when I was attending the first Who Do You Think You Are Genealogy Show in London in 2007 I talked to some people at a stand there and was given two test kits funded by the Sorensen Molecular Genealogy Foundation. Both me and my partner at the time (whose father was adopted and we wanted to potentially find some biological relatives) decided eventually to do the tests and duly used the mouthwash supplied to collect the DNA and sent the samples off to America. Months went by and eventually I got told that for some reason our samples weren’t complete enough to provide proper results. I was a bit deflated about that. Now move forward some 8 years when Ancestry’s DNA kits were being offered in the UK for the first time. I decided to go for it and ordered a test kit – no more mouthwash, this time I had to spit into a tube – mix it with a stabilising solution and then post it off to Dublin.


Ancestry DNA Test Kit

I wrote a blog post about it when I got my results back – looking at the ethnicity regions that came up – I was not particularly surprised at being 100% European. Since then the regions have been further refined, but not to really provide me with much more than I already knew from my own research. I went on to get both my parents to take the test. Ancestry offers an autosomal DNA test which looks at the portions of your DNA from both parents, so it is not specific to just the male line like Y-DNA or the female line – like mDNA (mitochondrial). As individuals we each inherit different proportions of DNA from our parents, so unless we are identical twins, if siblings did tests their results would differ just down to the different proportions they inherited. However, to enable me to be clearer on the sides of my family my DNA matches were with, getting both parents to take tests proved to be very useful. They get matches with people who do not match with me (again down to having inherited different proportions of DNA) and vice versa as well as being able to at least know what lines to concentrate on when looking to confirm potential matches.

When I first did the test, all of my matches were people connected to me with very distant connections – from 4th cousins to further back. Considering that the vast majority of people having submitted DNA tests with Ancestry were from America, I guessed I wouldn’t have too many close matches with people and indeed – that was the case. A huge number of my matches are with people where the link isn’t clear – mainly down to our shared ancestry going back hundreds of years potentially to 1500s or 1600s etc or maybe even further back and we may never know our connection and that is fine.

Gradually more people tested and I got more meaningful matches, many have been great and really useful to back up my traditional research. It is great when a match comes up and your research lines up and there is a clear shared ancestor and we can make contact and share research.

When my mother’s DNA results came back in 2015 I discovered something that made my pulse race, a 2nd cousin match – much closer than the 4th – 6th cousin matches and it was a woman whose first name I was not familiar with. Having researched my mother’s family quite extensively I knew the names of all her second cousins, and this was not one of them – however – we did have a big gap in my Mum’s tree and I had been hoping that DNA might help me to solve it – could this lady be the key to it?

What was the big gap? Well my maternal grandmother was illegitimate – born out of wedlock, but her mother was perhaps not your typical idea of a young girl who finds herself pregnant etc. – my great grandmother’s story was rather more complex than that…


My great grandmother was a lady called Mary Ann Pilley, she was born in Maldon Workhouse, Essex on 5th Feb 1884 the daughter of Jacob Pilley and his wife Jane Cowlin. She was their third child out of an eventual 12 children – although five did not survive into adulthood. Mary Ann was conspicuous in her absence from the 1901 census, I have struggled to find her recorded. In 1905 in Maldon she had a daughter Edna Ivy Pilley – father unknown. At the time of Edna’s birth Mary Ann was living at 4 The Hythe. Three years later Mary Ann gave birth to another illegitimate daughter – Amelia Pilley, by then her address was 15 Mill Lane in Maldon. Sadly Amelia died aged 5 months in 1909 of Tubercular Disease and by that time Mary Ann was living in Halstead at 48 Parsonage Street. Mary Ann then gave birth to a son Frederick in January 1911,  – however when she registered his birth she stated she was married to the father – a Charles Frederick Patmore – however they weren’t married – yet. They were living at 11 Great Yard, Halstead at the time of the 1911 census – as a married couple although at that point they were still not married. Sadly young Frederick died aged 11 weeks old just a week after the census was taken. There was an inquest into his death, it ruled he died of natural causes – Tuberculosis. Quite sadly you can see that they had misunderstood the requirements of the census and had initially included their deceased daughter Amelia as Milley Pilley – showing what they had called her during her short life. I do believe Amelia was Frederick Patmore’s daughter as his mother was also called Amelia. Later in October due to the fact Mary Ann and Charles – known as Frederick – were not married, they had to make a statutory declaration to amend Frederick’s birth certificate to remove the father’s name – all done months after the poor baby had died. To this day I never understand why they had to do that. They eventually married in November 1911, Mary Ann’s occupation is given as Field Worker on Frederick’s death certificate which tallies with later stories from my grandmother about seasonal work picking peas and potatoes.

gatehouse yard

Gatehouse Yard – Halstead

Mary Ann and Frederick Patmore went on to have another son George Sidney in 1913 but he too sadly died in infancy the following year of Bronchitis. This was not the end of the tragedy for Mary Ann as in 1915 she lost her younger sister Emily Jane Pilley who had been living with them aged just 17, but also her husband Frederick the following year – both to Tuberculosis. Poor Mary Ann, in the space of 11 years she had given birth to 4 children, only one of which survived and lost her sister and her husband, not to mention that her father had also died in 1913 – her mother having died some 10 years before her father. I believe Mary Ann then went to go and live near her younger sister Sarah for a period of time. While Sarah was born in 1888 she became a sort of matriarch to the family, she had married an Alfred Clark and they ran two pubs in Heybridge Basin over the years, The Old Ship and The Jolly Sailor.

In July 1918 Mary Ann had a daughter – Alice Doreen – my grandmother. She was born under her mother’s widowed surname of Patmore, but most definitely was not a Patmore. The space for father’s name on her birth certificate was blank. She was born at Hall Road, Heybridge.

A year later Mary Ann married again – to Arthur James Pratt, a Threshing Machine Labourer. They lived in Maldon at 45 Market Hill and together they had several children; Arthur James b. 1919 and sadly died 1920 of Bronchitis and Gastroenteritis, Joyce Edith b. 1921, Peggy Olga b. & d. 1923 – another infant death from Bronchitis, and apparently Mary Ann had twins in 1924. I have only ever found one birth record – it may be that the other twin was stillborn – and would not have a birth or a death record and the stillbirth register did not come into being until 1927. Mary Ann did not fare well following this birth and unfortunately 20 days later she died of acute septic cellulitis leaving a tiny baby without a mother. This baby was named after her mother and was then adopted out of the family. This left Edna aged 19, Alice aged 5 and Joyce aged 3 – motherless. Arthur James Pratt was apparently not a nice man, described by Alice herself as being a man who drank a lot, he often did not pay the rent and they had to move around a bit. According to Edna’s son, Arthur was abusive and was a threat to the young girls. A story he tells is that one day Edna came home from her work at a nearby sawmill and found him trying to abuse her little sisters and she broke a chair across his back and took her sisters away from him, this may have been when Alice was about 12. They moved around a bit together, but Edna looked out for them as best she could.

My grandmother wrote a collection of notes about her childhood, and one poignant thing that stuck out for me was a statement about how she didn’t know where she fit in – three sisters all with different surnames – Pilley, Patmore and Pratt.

On the whole though I guess I was happy until one day it struck me very forcibly that I was ‘alone’, I didn’t really belong to anyone. I don’t remember how it came about but I was made to realise that my name was not the same as my sisters – either of them. People can be cruel but once it had registered I decided that I was me and that no one was going to say I was like ‘so and so’ or my sisters or my mother, or anyone else.

I love how she didn’t let that define her.

She once wrote to her sister Edna to ask her what she knew about her father. Edna’s reply told her that their mother had been engaged to a Scottish soldier but he had been killed in WWI. She said the information had come from their cousin Elsie – daughter to Mary Ann’s sister Lilian. I had always taken that information with a pinch of salt, was it true or had the story been told he had died to soften the blow of a father who might have abandoned her or perhaps had no clue she even existed?

edna letter

Portion of the letter from Edna to Alice about her father – date unknown

It seemed like a dead end, with so little to go on, not even a first name or last name – which is why I had hoped that perhaps DNA might be able to help figure out who this mystery man was.

And did it? Read my next post to find out more!

9 thoughts on “DNA Detective Work Part 1

  1. Oh, goodie—a cliffhanger! What a terrible life your great-grandmother had—losing so many children and her “husband” and other relatives. I don’t know how people coped with all those losses. TB ravaged so many families.

    Looking forward to Part II!

    • Thanks Amy.

      It is so hard to fathom in today’s world where we have access to medical care, medicines etc. that would prevent all those illnesses. In fact my mother had TB when she was 8 – but by that time the National Health Service was in place over here and access to antibiotics etc. She had to have an operation and missed a year of school – but just 15 or 20 years earlier and she may not have survived.

      • One thing I have learned to appreciate after doing all this research is the miracle of modern medicine. Antibiotics are something we grew up with—we take it for granted that we can cure most bacterial infections with a few pills or a shot. We didn’t have to worry about polio or smallpox. And now kids don’t even worry about measles, mumps, and chicken pox.

      • Yep, antibiotics and vaccines have changed the world. Although sadly you still get some people who do not vaccinate their children due to invalid fake research purporting to link vaccines to autism. Over here a couple of years ago we had a measles outbreak and children who hadn’t been vaccinated sadly died. Such an unnecessary tragedy.

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