Travel

Pretty English village of Bloxham

A sign welcomes visitors to Bloxham in Oxfordshire, where Jim Eagles' ancestors hail from.
A sign welcomes visitors to Bloxham in Oxfordshire, where Jim Eagles' ancestors hail from. Alison Smith

THERE'S an atmosphere of tranquillity in the centuries-old church of St Mary's Bloxham, in the English County of Oxfordshire, and I can easily imagine my great-grandfather, Francis Eagles, coming here in 1873 to pray for guidance over his fateful decision to emigrate to New Zealand.

Even though the colonial government of Sir Julius Vogel was offering free passage for workers, and it was a harsh time for agricultural labourers, Francis must surely have been deeply torn by the idea of taking his wife Sarah and four young children from their rural home to an unknown land on the other side of the world.

Bloxham was where he was born, and his father and grandfather and great-grandfather before him. There are records of Eagles living in this rural corner of England for at least 300 years.

Near the entrance to the church is a 15th century font where I envisage his eldest son James William - my grandfather - being baptised on August 3, 1868. Outside are heavily weathered gravestones marking the passing of generations of Eagles.

Family, friends and everything Francis knew were in this ancient village. It was his world. But in the end he and Sarah turned their backs on that world and joined 400 other migrants packed into the sailing ship Ocean Mail for the difficult, dangerous, 79-day voyage to New Zealand.

The gamble paid off and they and their descendants prospered. But the journey was even crueller than they could possibly have feared. Baby Samuel was one of five children to die of scarlet fever during the voyage and two-year-old Elizabeth died shortly after arriving in Wellington. And there was no going back.

As far as I know I'm the first New Zealand Eagles in the 138 years since to renew ties with the Bloxham branch of the family.

* * *

Being here is the culmination of a personal journey, my own version of the TV programme Who Do You Think You Are?

So who did I think I was? I did know about some ancestors, including an Oliver shipwrecked in New Zealand in 1840 and an Adams who was a pioneering missionary in the West Indies. But of the Eagles I knew almost nothing.

I once looked up the surname, read it came from Richer d'Aquila, lord of Laigle in Normandy, who came to England with William the Conqueror in 1066... thought that sounded pretty cool and did nothing more about it.

Fortunately, there's a vast amount of genealogical information available on the web, so having decided to find out about the Eagles it was fairly easy to discover that grandfather James and great-grandfather Francis were born in Bloxham.

More importantly, I came across a posting from Nick Eagles, a retired history teacher from Leicester, whose great-great-great-grandfather George was my great-great-grandfather, and who has collected a huge amount of information about our family tree.

Nick's data showed that the Bloxham Eagles were not Norman aristocrats - damn - but agricultural labourers. Britain's 10-yearly censuses showed them constantly moving around the district, apparently because there was an annual fair which served as an employment exchange between farmers and workers, and the accommodation usually went with the job.

This prompted further research into the name which revealed that as well as the Lords of Laigles it was also applied to persons with a lordly appearance, keen eyesight or a large beak. Hmm. My dad had a famously big nose. Maybe...

Nick was also able to put me in touch with the last member of our branch of the Eagles still living in Bloxham, Alison Smith. Being able to exchange emails with her seemed somehow to re-establish the old family connection with the village and I longed to see it.

My wife Chris and I had been planning a visit to Britain so we arranged to go to Bloxham and meet Nick and Alison. And it wasn't hard to decide where. The Joiners Arms in Bloxham is not only a grand old hostelery but has a cottage attached to the main pub building where, according to the 1881 census, great-great-grandfather George lived out his declining years with his son George junior and family.

These days the cottage is the pub restaurant so we decided to meet there mid-morning for a coffee.

* * *

Our 25,000km journey around the world was a great deal quicker and more comfortable than Francis and Sarah had to endure but inevitably we were still tired when we reached London-Heathrow, collected our rental car and headed northwest to Oxfordshire.

Nevertheless, as we left the London sprawl and moved through the countryside, getting closer to Bloxham, my exhaustion fell away. As we approached the village for the first time I started feeling nervous. Would it be the sort of place I wanted to come from? How would I get on with my English cousins?

But as we drove into the village that was replaced by a feeling of exhilaration. There on the right was the elegant Church of St Mary's, its 60m high spire the tallest in Oxfordshire; straight ahead was a bridge over the Sor Brook, alongside which a Saxon called Blocc established his Ham some 1500 years ago; on the right was the Joiners Arms, and I could see a section that was obviously once a separate cottage.

It was quite moving to go into the pub and, while Chris ordered a couple of coffees, I nipped down the stairs into the restaurant where great-great-grandfather George once lived, apparently when the pub was owned by a farmer for whom the family worked.

It was a nice little dining area - it also serves excellent food - and by the standards of the time fairly roomy for the old man, middle-aged couple and 14-year-old boy the census recorded living there 130 years ago.

As we sat sipping our coffee I kept looking anxiously at anyone who came into the pub. A dour elderly couple stomped in, plonked themselves down and grumpily ordered coffees. Surely they weren't Eagles. No, they weren't.

Indeed, Nick and his partner Tina, Alison and her husband Martin, were charming people. We drank coffee and exchanged stories, had lunch and exchanged a few more. Then Alison took us on a family tour of the village.

We explored the church with its Norman arch, originally part of a chapel built by King Stephen; admired the medieval wall paintings and stained glass windows; and with the aid of a map found several Eagles' headstones in the cemetery.

We wandered the narrow streets looking at quaint old houses, many with thatched roofs and windows glazed with thick antique glass, the most delightful for me being in the former Back Lane - now King's Rd - where several of the old censuses showed Eagles living from time to time. Alison was able to point out a particularly attractive cottage which her father had recalled visiting to get vegetables from his grandad George.

She had even managed to get the Bloxham Museum opened specially for us. We had a grand time exploring its displays of village life through the centuries and even discovered an old photo of the village band including four Eagles.

It was all so idyllic that you'd have to wonder why Francis and Sarah wanted to leave.

I had to remind myself that, charming though Bloxham might be now, 138 years ago agricultural work was scarce, transitory and badly paid, the welfare system was brutal and opportunities for improvement were rare.

Thanks to their courage our family prospered ... I'm hugely grateful.

* * *

So, after all that, who do I think I am? Over a farewell pint of ale I asked Nick if any of his family had big noses.

"No," he replied, looking puzzled. I explained about the various origins of our surname.

"Ah," he said with unexpected enthusiasm, "I can tell you about that."

A year or so back in the course of his genealogical work Nick had been offered a free DNA test.

"The DNA report showed that our ancestors came from Normandy about a thousand years ago," he said.

"Before that they were Vikings from somewhere in Finland and about 30,000 years back they came from India."

Norman, eh. Well, I never. Perhaps I am who I thought I was after all.

HOW I FOUND WHO I WAS

Thanks to all the genealogical information available online it's now surprisingly easy to find out who you are.

My starting point was that my father's name was Ralph Oliver Eagles and he had been born in Devonport, while his father, who died in 1944 shortly before I was born, was James William Eagles and came from Wellington.

Through the online Births, Marriages and Deaths service I was able to order grandad Jim's death certificate.

From that I learned that he had actually been born in Bloxham, Oxfordshire, England - I thought he was born here - but had lived in New Zealand for 70 of his 75 years. I was also able to get the death certificate of his father, Francis, also born in Bloxham.

Then, thanks to a fantastic new joint venture between Archives NZ and the Utah-based FamilySearch organisation, which puts online immigration records from 1855 to 1973, I discovered that Francis, listed as a farm labourer from Oxfordshire, arrived in Wellington with his family on the Ocean Mail on February 2, 1874.

I was even able to download a copy of the ship's register listing the names of Francis, his wife Sarah and children James, Lucy, Elizabeth and Samuel, and to note that their passage, at £50 15s, was paid for by the Government.

Later I visited the Archives NZ national office in Wellington where it was simple to register and then use the card index to look for Francis Eagles (he wasn't mentioned) and the Ocean Mail (for which there were several references).

Researcher Fiona Clark, on hand to help novice genealogists, guided me through the process of ordering a couple of the records and going into the reading room to study them.

Much of the material consisted of newspaper clippings about the assisted immigration scheme, including copies of advertisements placed in British newspapers (among them the Oxford Journal) offering free passage to New Zealand for agricultural labourers.

But the jewel in the collection was the handwritten report on the Ocean Mail's voyage by its surgeon superintendent Dr TB Hay.

This revealed the ship was supposed to leave London on November 6, 1873, but was unseaworthy. When it did set sail two days later, he wrote, "she was by no means ready for sea".

No surprise that the report reveals a troubled voyage, including an outbreak of scarlet fever which killed five of the 130 children on board, including young Samuel Eagles.

When the ship finally reached Wellington on February 2, 1874, the poor migrants were quarantined on board and had all their clothing and belongings disinfected before being allowed to start their new lives.

Tracing the family's history before the voyage was equally straightforward. From the myriad websites available I again used FamilySearch, partly because it's one of the few that is free, but also because I found it very user-friendly.

There I found records of James' birth, the marriage of his parents, the birth of Francis in Bloxham in 1844, from that the names of his parents, and so on back eight generations, as far as - though there is a question mark over this - Ezra Eagles and Elizabeth Richardson, who were married in 1701 and came from the nearby village of Cropredy. I've not been able to find anything beyond Ezra but I'm still looking.

Nick Eagles, our English family historian, says he mainly uses ancestry.com and genesreunited.co.uk to which you have to pay a subscription.

There have been no kings or murderers yet - though I did find an Eagles who was in prison when the census was done 160 years ago - just good, solid, agricultural workers who for countless generations tilled the soil of Oxfordshire until one of them was bold enough to leave for a new life at the end of the world.

Jim Eagles visited Bloxham with help from Emirates and Visit Britain.

>> Read more travel stories.

Topics:  bloxham, england, travel, travelling


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