To my surprise (and hers) I found that my mum’s family came from the Whitehaven area. The chap who moved out was Jacob Pickering, a stonemason, who went south to help build Barrow-in-Furness. His father William and brother William were also stonemasons, and I first located his father on the 1871 census, living with another of Jacob's brothers, John, then a weigh clerk at the iron mine. John’s wife was Eliza Ann, and her birthplace is shown on the census as Sable Island, Nova Scotia. Never having heard of the place, I imagined an island in some major river where fur trapping took place. I then checked the atlas, and found a small speck in the Atlantic Ocean.
Encyclopaedias say the place is made of sand and uninhabited, except for a life-saving station and two lighthouses built 50 years after my relative’s birth.
Sable Island, (sable being French for sand) is a sand bar over 100 miles from the nearest part of “mainland” Nova Scotia, and has long been a major hazard to shipping. The names of over 350 vessels wrecked there are known. Visitors have been restricted to those with official permission (and stranded mariners) since 1801.
Could my relative’s mother have been shipwrecked there, or was she part of the crew of the lifesaving station?
Eliza Ann was obviously proud of her origin, mentioning it on a census form 50 years later and over 2000 miles away. Could she have been the only child born there?
I’m hooked. Websites describe Sable Island and the wildlife there. It’s the foggiest place in North America. A herd of wild horses has survived since the 18th century. There are no trees.
I even draft an email to the BBC’s radio programme “Making History”, which aims to answer listeners’ queries on historical subjects, asking for any info about the place.
Husband John Pickering was born in about 1820 at Hensingham (now part of Whitehaven), and became a mariner. Having married Eliza Ann, their first two children were born in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Their next four children were born in Liverpool, where they settled for a while before returning to John’s birthplace.
On a whim, I looked at the website of the Nova Scotia records office. By chance, there’s a database of Marriage Bonds. Search for Pickering. Up pop just two records. One is for a John Pickerings, Mariner, marrying Eliza Fenton in Halifax at the end of 1845. Could this be them? It seems a likely bet.
So I hunt around. The 1851 census reveals the family freshly arrived in Liverpool. John’s occupation is hard to read, but I can make out “2nd Officer”.
I check the Liverpool trade directories on Historical Directories and look up where to get a ship to Nova Scotia. The route is operated by the “British and North American Royal Mail Steamship Co”. The census return now clearly says “2nd Officer, B & NA GS Co”. The internet reveals that the company later changed its name – to Cunard. Samuel Cunard came from Nova Scotia too.
Other censuses in the Whitehaven area allow me to work out John & Eliza’s extended family. One of their grandchildren is named Edward Fenton Pickering. Such a middle name does not appear by accident. Case proven! I know Eliza’s maiden name.
I’m still hooked, and don’t know why Eliza’s parents were on the island in 1819-20. Time to dig further. I browse various genealogy websites, looking to see if anyone has found other Fentons in Nova Scotia. One name shouts out. William Fenton, born 1815 Sable Island, son of Benjamin Fenton and Mary Ann Hodgson.
Eliza Ann Fenton’s brother.
The researcher, in California, is descended from Eliza’s uncle Joseph. The common ancestor is a chap called Jacob Fenton, who fought in the American War of Independence – on the British side. A whole military history is given, along with the story that over 300 soldiers sailed from Florida to Country Harbour, Nova Scotia at the end of the war, and were granted land there. Country Harbour is about the closest place on the mainland to Sable Island. It is now a sparsely inhabited area, stretching about 10 miles along an inlet from Country Harbour Crossroads to Isaac’s Harbour, the next inlet.
The fact that at least two children were born on the island indicates that the parents were not shipwrecked, but were part of the lifesaving crew. The Sable Island Preservation Trust website is selling a transcription of the journals of James Morris, first Superintendent of the Sable Island Lifesaving Establishment. A few days later, the book arrives by air mail. The book is riveting, describing the hardships endured, the jobs they undertook and even the weather. “A fair morn, and a pleasant gale from the south west” reads one entry. When their ship arrived at Sable at the end of October 1801, it was three days before the weather was good enough to get a boat ashore. The first job for James, his wife, three other men and a boy was to build a shelter for the stores they had brought. Then they had to build shelter for themselves while cutting hay to feed their animals through the winter. There is no mention of a Fenton in the book though - James doesn't even mention his wife's name - but it only covers the years 1801-1804.
With a lot more internet digging, I discover the names of Mary Ann Hodgson’s parents – Edward (born about 1764) and Mary (née Kidder). I still don’t know what jobs they did.
But this has been a big week. I got a phone call from the BBC's Making History programme, more than a year after my email. They are running with my query! On Friday lunchtime I record my slightly revised version. I omit most of the details I have discovered in the meantime, because I want the listeners to know about Sable Island and the strange community there. They leave me and go to a woman in Canada who has written a book about the place, promising to ring back, let me hear the interview and get my reaction. About 6 o’clock I get a call explaining that they are still editing, but promise to send a CD with the interview by post. They do without the “reaction” bit.
Tuesday arrives – transmission day. I nip home during the morning and collect the CD from my letterbox. Back in the office I listen. Author Sheila Hirtle has not met any Fentons in her research, but does mention that Edward Hodgson was the second Superintendent of the Sable Island Lifesaving Establishment. Benjamin married the boss’s daughter!
Time to hit the internet again. The FIG Tree News pops up, with a series of articles explaining the descendents of Jacob Fenton, a United Empire Loyalist, who was granted land in Country Harbour, Nova Scotia. There, in black and white, was the line:-
II-10 A girl who went to England and married Mr. Pickering.
I’ve since visited Nova Scotia, though not Sable Island. Everyone you speak to there knows about Sable, whereas only one person I’ve met in the UK has. He sailed on a tall ship from Halifax, and spent a whole day passing it.
A day in the Nova Scotia records office found me many records, including a copy of “Homeland: Country Harbour” from which the FIG Tree News articles were taken. I found the baptism, marriages and burials for many Fentons and Hodgsons, including a newspaper report of Benjamin Fenton's marriage to Mary Ann Hodgson. Eliza's nephew James Hodgson was 14 when he was baptised, along with five younger siblings, on his first trip to Halifax in 1840. Imagine being in a building which could seat hundreds of people when the most you had ever seen in one place in your whole life was a few dozen!
The impeccably-kept cemeteries around Country Harbour were full of Fentons. There is even a John Fenton Road. A half-hour walk from the main road took me to a cabin by the waterside, a recreation of one of the buildings built by the original settlers of 1783. Placards alongside explain the history. They also show a map of the area, with the original settlers’ names against each lot. I now know exactly where Jacob Fenton lived.
Telling the story to a retired nurse who ran a B&B near Antigonish on the north coast, she told us that she had worked with two Fentons, who came from Goshen about 12 miles from Country Harbour. There are still descendants of Jacob Fenton of the King’s Carolina Rangers.
Sable Island in Google Maps.
Cabin by the waterside in Google Maps.
Making History - Interview with Sheila Hirtle (MP3 format)