Chasing clouds: tracing the Wordsworth connection

My efforts to pin down the family connection to the poet William Wordsworth have been like the clouds that float high above the hills and vales of the Lake District which inspired him. They’re real but constantly moving; they seem sometimes to come together, then they change direction and are off again. Like family history research, they are quite unpredictable.

William and his talented sister Dorothy gloried in the everchanging vistas of the skies over Grasmere and Rydal Water as the clouds and the mist came and went. They walked miles from home exploring the beauty in every direction . And for a time, Dorothy diligently recorded what she noticed in her journal.

Unfortunately, a disciplined and methodical approach is not my natural style, so there’s no careful record of each detail I uncovered as I researched my family history. I wish I had; it would have saved me hours of back-tracking and rechecking.

As children, we’d been told there was a family connection to William Wordsworth. But I took no real interest until I was reading the memoirs of my great-great-grandmother Clara Wordsworth Sargood who puzzled over the relationship herself. Her memoir contained tantalising clues and raised questions for which, surely, answers were to be found on the internet. And so I signed up to ancestry.com.

The task was to figure out the relationship between Mary Ann Wordworth who was Clara’s great-grandmother, and the famous poet. They were almost contemporaries, William living from 1770 to 1850, Mary Ann from 1795 to 1835. Clara and her sister both remembered their mother telling them that William was a great or great-great-uncle, and seeing a photo of him. “We used to have an old photo in one of the albums, which Mother used to tell us was our great (great) Uncle Wordsworth,” Clara wrote. And an elderly cousin of their mothers in England was found to have photos and various belongings of William and his wife Mary, and spoke of them as a handsome couple.

But no relationship as straighfoward as a great-great-uncle was evident. And once the search started, it was addictive. I discovered that geneological research is like an ongoing riddle where one clue leads to another; one question answered raises another. Like working out the solution to a cryptic crossword clue, each answer is a minor epiphany.

Online resources make the search much easier than in Clara’s lifetime, but it’s time-consuming. And my method was haphazard: making assumptions, testing hypotheses, following red herrings and wrong trails. I didn’t always keep a record of where I got information from. I’ve spent hours at it and why? What it is that keeps me willing to put in many hours on a laptop despite false leads and dead ends in a needle-in-a-haystack search for answers. Proving a connection is not going to make me a better writer. I could name-drop and bask in reflected glory, but who am I trying to impress? So I put it on hold for a while, but still I want to know, to hold that nugget of knowledge in my hands and turn it over and over to examine it from every side.

So far, I’ve worked out who Mary Ann’s parents and siblings were. I’ve learnt that we almost certainly share a common ancestor from Yorkshire, if we trace far enough back. But finding a close relationship between William and Mary Ann Wordsworth has eluded me. On his side, there are a host of Richards, Williams, and Johns; on her side, generation after generation of Elias’s, Josias, Samuels, and Johns, as well as a multiplicity of Marys, Anns, Elizabeths and Sarahs. That makes it confusing, and so far there’s no match that bridges the gap between the two sides of the family.

Except, perhaps, intriguingly, could it be that the missing link is not through the male line as you’d think, but through the Sarah Wordsworth who married Elias Wordsworth, brother of Samuel?

And so the quest continues.


Extracts from Clara’s and Julie’s letters

These extracts of letters between Clara and her younger sister Julie were included in Clara’s 1948 memoir.

From Clara to Julie

“Exactly what our connection with Wordsworth is, I am not quite sure – but I think he was our great uncle – or was it great, great, uncle. He died in 1850, the same year as our Grandmother Rolfe. The whole question lies on that relationship, for they were not brother and sister. We used to have an old photo in one of the albums, which Mother used to tell us was our great (great) Uncle Wordsworth. I do not know where it is now. I think, too I can remember the photo Uncle George speaks of.”

From Julie to Clara

“Like you I have always considered Wordsworth was a great great Uncle. I can remember Father telling me that and I also remember the coloured photograph of Wordsworth in one of the old albums. I am thinking of writing to someone in Rydal to see if I can get in touch with any of the Wordsworth family, for I believe there is a branch living there still in a large house, on the south side of Dove Cottage.

“Did you ever hear of a Miss Kate Turner – a cousin of our mother? Mary Rolfe told me that Uncle George gave her Miss Turner’s address, and Mary went to see her, when she was in England years ago and said she was a charming old lady and she had photos of the Wordsworths and various belongings of theirs and spoke of them as being such a handsome couple. “


Wordsworth lineage from circa 1600

Here’s a working hypothesis of our likely lineage. But it’s not guaranteed completely accurate and hasn’t solved the riddle! If you’d like to view more details at ancestry.com, please contact me.

Francisci Wordsworth m. ???

Radulphus (Ralph) Wordsworth m. Elizabeth Micklethwaite

Josias Wordsworth m. Sarah Beaumomt

Elias Wordsworth m Ruth Bayes

Elias Wordsworth m. ???

Samuel Wordsworth m. ???

Samuel Wordsworth m. Sarah Hill

Mary Ann Wordsworth m. William Kerville

Marion Wordsworth Kerville m. George Rolfe

Marion Australia Rolfe m. Frederick Thomas Sargood

Clara Wordsworth Sargood m. Henry Bunting Webster

Henry Norman Webster m. Linda Ethel Koch
(my grandparents)

Joan Elizabeth Webster m. John Eglesfield Wylde
(my parents)


3 thoughts on “Chasing clouds: tracing the Wordsworth connection

  1. OMG what a pickle. I marvel at those who enjoy hunting up their ancestry and am grateful that one of our family has nobly undertaken that role. And now I discover that you have got the bug! I can understand the fascination with a Wordsworth connection but console myself with the theory that we’re all descended from Adam and Eve and a king or queen. Are you a Wordsworth fan? Dorothy was quite something.

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  2. Dorothy was certainly undervalued, and underestimated her own talent and worth. I suspect her story contributed to Virginia Woolf’s riff on if Shakespeare had a sister, though Dorothy didn’t end up selling herself on the streets of London!

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