Vicar of Gedney: Genealogical reconstruction to kinship collation

Genealogical reconstruction is recognised as an addictive and enthralling activity, as the number and quality of records available the reliability of the online efforts of dozens of captivated armchair genealogists are coming together in rapidly expanding huge networks of individuals, families, households and kin groups. This has been impacting the world of professional genealogy more and more over the last decade, has drawn the interest of academic archivists, has been supported by data management engineers and has been little noticed by the history academy.

The lack of notice from official historians is unfortunate as what is rapidly being undertaken is a complete refashioning of governmental and other large organisational bureaucratic data, that when grouped around their original subjects, past people, past families and past households create huge webs of inter-connectivity that produces snapshots of past societies. This has intrigued a few amongst the genealogical community like the American Elizabeth Shown Mills, who pointed to the potential of genealogical reconstruction as a powerful research tool about the past if it was put to work through skilful analysis, writing up of findings, development of theories and offering of conclusions (Mills, 2003). Mills called this generational history whereas I have opted for kinship collation as a descriptive.

So what does all of that look like in practice and application?

Thomas Sweet Escott, b.1801 was Vicar of Gedney, Lincolnshire from 1835 – 1856 when he died who became involved in a number of national level historical trends and provides us with a solid example. A number of people have worked up a genealogical reconstruction that includes this Anglican priest, I folded him in from a start point of the widow of his first cousin once removed, Ann Gully, Mrs Rev George Sweet who was likely my great-grandfathers employer in 1911 as I sought to explore a family story about a rebellious working-class west Londoner who refused to curtsey to her husband’s posh employer.

The blood and marriage relatives of Rev Thomas Sweet Escott are relatively easy to track as they had an abundance of rare names and were either involved in the church or state. Amongst his extended network of cousins, in-laws and relatives of relatives are half a dozen bishops, a series of baronets, a handful of peers, a range of mid-ranking Anglican officials and a near dozen members of parliament. Amongst his younger relatives who flourish long after his death are upper middle class women involved with the later Victorian cultural developments and men who prosper as colonial administrators. This large group of individuals are thus brought together in long lists of privileged social elites but the challenge is to then do something with that list of inter-linked egos. As the list of individuals that encompasses Thomas Sweet-Escott 1801-1856 is mostly full of social and political elites there are an abundance of small anecdotes, notes and records available about them available on the internet, especially through the digitized newspapers (which are pay-walled) but also in old books (which are free to view) and as a heavily church based set of families their antecedents can be tracked in Clergy of the Church of England database.

These sources reveal that Thomas Sweet Escott embroiled himself in a local confrontation in Gedney when he refused to have a Wesleyan baptised baby buried in the parish churchyard in late 1839. These events were picked up by newspapers across East Anglia, Yorkshire and London, they made it into national papers and magazines and culminated in a legal case that Sweet Escott lost leading to his suspension as a priest for three months.

The events at Gedney could be used to expose theological or church history, as an isolated local event or as part of a broader cultural history around pluralism and identity, it could be used to examine the history of journalism and newspapers as it was picked up in various parts of the country or it could be used to consider the changing confidence of non-conformists faith communities between the Electoral Reform Act and the opening up of the Universities to dissenters. Most of these are potential examples of history from below and the understanding of local events as national and vice versa which is an important part of modern historical practice. An awareness of social networks through kinship raises an altogether different set of queries, which is exactly what Mills was calling for in 2003 and Moody, a Scottish local history expert called for in 1984.

Kinship collation provides a means to explore the Gedney protagonist Sweet-Escott by establishing and analysing his social networks and therefore make an assessment of his general public influence and more specifically his place within the Church establishment and Anglican factions; the placing centrally of social networks also highlights the potential inter-connectivity of people , like Sweet-Escott, who temporally gain the spotlight to individuals of more standard socio-political significance like politicians and bishops. Thus the popular press and the legal proceedings focused upon Thomas Sweet-Escott as the Vicar of Gedney, which was the capacity in which the case was called, yet this is misleading as to his overall placement in society.

Thomas’s eldest brother Bickham Sweet-Escott was a continual Tory candidate across the south-west of England, eventual gaining the Winchester seat in 1841 a success attributed to his cousin Rev Robert Barter’s local influence (‘Winchester Conservative Association’, John Bull, (London, England), May 26, 1839, p.252). Their -in-law, Edmund Herbert MP, close relative of the Earl of Carnarvon, and their cousins Langston of Sarsden, Oxford and Kekewich of Peamore, Devon served intermittently in the Commons. The Escott-Sweet father and his brother-in-law Barter were also a ranking churchmen in the south-west of England with strong University of Oxford connections as did numerous cousins from Thomas’s generation. Parts of the press linked Sweet Escott to the controversial Bishop Phillpott’s of Exeter who took contrary stances on a variety of issues to the government and other members of the Anglican episcopacy and had a substantial following amongst leading Anglicans both amongst the clergy and the wealthy laity.

So the contentious historical question arises; was Sweet-Escott a lone wolf of an activist taking a determined principled stand or was he what we would described today as the poster boy or fall-guy for a wider network who wanted to make a point in a broader culture war? This is a difficult question to answer but it has to be acknowledged that Sweet-Escott had access to both the financial resources and social capital to see through his burial refusal all the way to the courts. The cumulative socio-political power of the kin group of which Sweet Escott was part can be regarded as meaning it was unlikely he would be easily susceptible to financial, social or political pressure exercised by his own bishop who essentially washed his hands of the Gedney affair.

Kinship collation provides a means to explore the Gedney protagonist Sweet-Escott by establishing and analysing his social networks and therefore make an assessment of his general public influence and more specifically his place within the Church establishment and Anglican factions. The same process could also be attempted with the Wesleyan minister Bond and the Cliff family whose faith decisions put them at odds with the vicar, it could be applied to the local press ‘squirearchy’ who took up the controversy in their publications to understand what the events meant to them and their readers from the perspective of their social networks. Changing the central ego of exploration would create a different societal angle, making a more complete picture and becomes a means of bringing together different genealogical reconstructions to examine the same historical question, which is why I have opted to describe Mills’s challenge as kinship collation rather than generational history.