Monday, 17 February 2014

Medal Quest : Out of Their Trees Special - John Curry


One of the athletes who first got me interested in the Olympics was the British figure skater John Curry. The year John would have celebrated his 65th birthday, and as he died 20 years ago I though he was a suitable candidate for an Olympic “Out of Their Trees” article. Fortunately, I did quite a bit of research a couple of years ago when I did a lot of Olympians’ ancestries so have found out a lot about his family tree. It illustrates just how much genealogy can bring up unexpected surprises, and the were several with John Curry.
Before I start I should like to offer my congratulations to John’s mother Mrs. Rita Curry (pictured left) who celebrated her 100th birthday on 28th December. Her ancestry gave me the biggest surprise of all.

All of John’s immediate ancestors came from the English Midlands. All 8 of his great-grandparents were born in either Warwickshire, Shropshire or Worcestershire. It is not, however, where the Curry family originated. They came from Drumraney in County Westmeath in Ireland.

The first to settle in England was Joseph Curry, He arrived sometime before 1830 for it was in that year that he married fellow Irish immigrant Frances Chambers in Birmingham. Their eldest son, also called Joseph, became a plasterer like his father, but a young son called John entered the jewellery industry that made Birmingham world famous (making him an earlier John Curry who has a connection with precious metals!).

My first surprise when researching the Olympic champion’s ancestry came when I identified the wife of Joseph Curry junior. In 1863 he married the widowed Mrs. Elizabeth Smith. And the surprise came with the name of her father Benjamin Wigley. Wigley is a name I was familiar with because just before beginning this research I had researched the ancestry of my then partner. He has Wigley ancestors as well. It’s not a common surname, so could it be that they were related?
I can’t find Benjamin Wigley’s birth record so can’t say where he was born, but I do know that he wasn’t born in Staffordshire where he was living with his family at the 1841 census. My partner’s ancestors came from neighbouring Derbyshire, and there are dozens of Benjamin Wigleys in the parish records there. Unfortunately there’s not enough evidence to prove that John Curry’s ancestor is one of them. The common use of the name Benjamin in the Wigley family makes it almost certain that John’s ancestor is indeed a member of the Derbyshire family, yet in spite of searching records for the past 2 years I can’t find any actual proof. That’s one of the risks we genealogist have to take sometimes – to put our knowledge and experience on the line to make a probable link. However, I firmly believe he is one of the Derbyshire Wigleys.

From my research into my partner’s ancestry we find that Benjamin Wigley could actually give John Curry an ancestry going back as far as you can go. That’s because the Wigleys are “gateway ancestors” – the term given to families who link to many aristocratic and royal lineages and have an already established long family tree. Even though I can’t confirm Benjamin’s place in the Wigley family it’s almost certain that he descends from Ralph Wigley (d.1628), who gives John Curry a royal descent from King Henry II, and also a line of descent from Piers Gaveston, the lover of King Edward II.

But the link to my partner wasn’t the biggest surprise. That came when I traced Mrs. Rita Curry’s lineage.

Mrs. Curry’s grandmother was Maria Anne, the daughter of a wealthy coal merchant who lived in Worcester called Joseph Hodgetts. When Maria was about 10 a Mormon missionary called Thomas Smith, the brother of the Mormon founder, came from Salt Lake City in Utah to preach in England in 1849. In Worcester he succeeded in converting many to Mormonism, including most of the Hodgetts family. The exception was Joseph Hodgetts, who remained staunchly Anglican, though he supported his family’s decision to convert. He even hosted several visiting missionaries in his home.

The eldest Hodgett son went to Utah and became a missionary. On a return trip home he persuaded the rest of the family (except his father) to go back with him. Joseph persuaded his wife and youngest children to stay behind after he had chased them across the Midlands to Liverpool and onto a steam ship to intercept their sailing vessel to the USA. It really did surprise me to discover that John Curry’s great-grandmother Maria Hodgetts was one of the pioneer British Mormon settlers in Utah.

Maria had only been in Utah for a short time before news of her mother’s illness arrived and she returned to Worcester. Her mother died a few months later. Widowed Joseph lived with Maria, and later with Maria and her husband John Richards, and died in 1881. Maria’s youngest son, Harvey Richards, was Mrs. Rita Curry’s father.

The whole story of the Hodgetts’ conversion to Mormonism and their emigration to the USA can be found all over the internet. It would have made a great episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?”

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