My curiously close-to-home great-great-grandfather

A story of where I’m from – or, perhaps, not…

I came to Cambridge as a student in 1987, our family’s first known connection with the city. My brother came for similar reasons a few years later. We both stayed. I mined the rich seam of nerdy software companies. He, more classically, became a Professor. Our four children were all born in the local Rosie Maternity hospital. If you ask me where home is now, after more than 30 years, I might just say “Cambridge”.

After retiring from teaching, Dad started researching the family tree. It’s a tree firmly planted in the silty clay soils of the north of Ireland, where he and I and his parents were all born. He also explored Mum’s family. She, too, is from Ulster, though her father was raised in Cork and her mother’s roots were in the Inner Hebrides. A firmly celtic pedigree, then. Dad did find that his paternal grandparents had been born in the north of England, over a hundred years before he and Mum moved back across the Irish Sea. But, even among this first English connection, the surnames – Tierney, Rankin, Cassidy – spoke of Scottish and Irish immigrant communities. Except for “Warde”. Where did that come from?

It came, it turned out, from John Ward (his son Thomas added the “e” later, perhaps because he thought it gave the name a more elevated ring, maybe to disguise his debts). John and his wife, Mary Cassidy, were my great-great-grandfather and grandmother. He was born in 1834.

And he was born in Cambridge.

We found this coincidence rather remarkable. More so, because John is the start of the Ward(e) story – at least, he is as far as we will be able to take it. He was born to Elizabeth Smith, his father “unknown”. He spent some of his childhood in the Cambridge Union Workhouse, just ten minutes walk from where, 170 years later, I’ve spent the last decade-and-a-half of my somewhat less onerous working life. It’s possible our name was simply a generic label for some fatherless children in the care of the Workhouse – its wards. Today, that Workhouse is a rather attractive-looking Victorian building providing sheltered accommodation at Ditchburn Place on Mill Road.

Ditchburn Place
Ditchburn Place today – image from N Chadwick used under Creative Commons license

Then, it would have been at the cutting-edge of society’s welfare provision under the poor laws (introduced in the year of John Ward’s birth). It would also have been, by our standards, a hell hole. Accommodation was far from sheltered. It was a place designed, deliberately, to shame the “inmates”. For adults, a ten hour working day might start at 5am. Children worked from the age of seven, although they were given 3 hours of schooling per day. Perhaps that helped John to find a way out, to the army, to India and back (what on earth did the Cambridge “slumdog” make of that?), to Mary Cassidy, and to start a family that would return to his home town in very different circumstances.

We don’t know much else about John. We would say he died young, at 42, although that was around average life expectancy for a child born in the 1830s. If you were lucky enough to get to the age of ten (and, doubtless, many Workhouse children did not) you could expect to live into your mid-fifties.

So what do I draw from this rather slim story?

That none of us really knows where we come from. Few of us in reality have a simple identity, and so we should be careful of narratives that claim we do. From the tale told here, I have the threads to weave any number of alternative stories for myself: that I am a member of the so-called Oxbridge elite, or the descendent of a Workhouse whelp; that I am a johnny-come-lately-blow-in to my Cambridgeshire village, or that I’m a fourth-generation fen-dweller; that I’m from a line of comfortable, bourgeois professionals, or that I’m the offspring of economic migrants; that I’m Irish, British, Northern Irish, even, heaven fore-fend, a little bit English.

I am all of these things. And I am none of them alone. I am myself. You are yourself. The chances are that, like mine, some of your ancestors would have been regarded as “low-skilled”, or seen for a while as a “burden on society”, or would have moved on somewhere where they were “not from round here.” Because my family story is, in fact, a rather ordinary story of these islands, despite the curious coincidence that it starts and ends in the same place. When we hear people being spoken about in these terms today we should remember: they are us.


Because welfare provision still doesn’t always do the job 170 years on: The Trussel Trust, Emmaus.

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