Monday, 26 November 2007

Names and games

I sent this mail to the Eayrs mailing list in reply to a query: my correspondent (Barbara Eyre) suggested I post this as a blog entry as others might be interested. I do so below in minimally edited form: experienced family historians may want to give this post a miss!

Barbara had asked:

Got me thinking ... is it true that all the name variations for Eyre/Ayre come from one source ... or is that an urban legend of sorts? Just wondering if that means that all of us can claim an Ayr, or an Eayre, or an Eayrs at one point or another. Makes it difficult when looking through records. We might come across someone will similar information, but that last name is spelled differently ... is he truly one of mine or just someone with a similar name? That sort of thing.

I replied:

To be helpful, Barbara, we have to have evidence at every stage of the way. It is true that before the 18th century spelling could be arbitrary, and often affected by such facts as the presence or absence of aspiration in a local dialect ('Hairs' or 'Eayrs' depended on how you spoke). The 's' on the end was a common denominator of a son, so 'Eayrs' could well be 'Eyre's son'. Or not. And people changed their names for other reasons: to start a new life, to escape the law, because immigration officials wrote down what they heard or, in some cases, what they felt like, etc.

So, Barbara, the only way we can progress is often painstakingly slowly. I once spent four days in the Lincolnshire Records Office, ruining my eyesight with roll after roll of semi-legible microfilm, comparing Parish and Bishop's transcripts, and finally got the single one word clue that led me to the Parish I wanted. Similarly, I once got a family vault opened in a privately owned cemetery to check whether the person buried as Edward might actually have been the Edmund I was looking for (the copper plate on the coffin showed that he was - correcting an expensively incised tomb stone was clearly felt not worth it).

So, to answer your question shortly, we can 'claim' what we want and put the information in our trees, but unless the data is sourced it is just anecdotal. No harm in that, I suppose, but I at least make a clear difference between what I can attest through documentation (which can also be erroneous, by the way) and what comes through hearsay. Fortunately most modern genealogical software allows you to source all your data, so this is not a major problem.

It has always been said that my mother's family descend from the famous explorer Captain Cook, - so much so that everyone in the family swears by it. I have spent some time looking at the known descent of Cook as well as my mother's ascent, and have not even found a regional connection, let alone one of name or blood. Will this shake the belief of my relatives? Not one jot, but then again they are not attempting a family history study.

And in that last word, 'study'. lies the key. Family history research, if done properly, requires academic rigour. We need to apply the same principles of research methodology as if we were conducting a scientific experiment.I was lucky: my father was a research scientist and taught me good principles, and as I teach study skills at university myself I have a good grasp of the discipline required. And practice makes perfect.

So, Barbara - the best advice I can give is not to start with preconceived ideas unless the evidence is strong; to work one step at a time; to accept that surname spelling is often arbitrary; not to speculate overmuch about whole swathes of surnames (look at the surname distribution lists and you will be surprised how well these map into different areas) and to forgive me for writing such a long post early on a Monday morning.

Best wishes

Martin Eayrs
Lancaster, UK

Sunday, 25 November 2007

Smugglers and rebels

I have long been thrilled by the story of George Washington Eayrs, a man of good Boston family who in the early C18th, in the face of Spanish law, set himself up as a buccaneer and smuggled otter skins and the like between Alaska, Shanghai and California. His end was tragic – some of the tale is told at, but for the full version you need to get hold of the biography called  A Yankee Smuggler on the Spanish California Coast: George Washington Eayrs and the Ship Mercury, by Robert Ryan Miller (details from

Anyway, checking through my database for loose ends today I finally made a connection to his family’s origin.  I shall put this up on the website in due time, but very briefly he goes back to a Simon Aires, born in Lavenham, Suffolk, in 1557.

This Simon had a number of children, and one of these, also called Simon (Ayres) and born at the time of the Armada in nearby Bury St Edmunds, sailed in April 1635 with his wife Dorothy (née Payne) from London on ‘The Increase”, disembarking in Masschusetts Bay.

Come 1745, give or take a year,  one Thomas and four Moses later, George Washington Eayrs was born in Boston, Suffolk, Massachusetts – his story is well worth reading.

Nothing remarkable here perhaps, no major breakthrough, but it’s always good to make a connection, and this one felt good.

And now there’s another challenge.  Perhaps the best documented Eayrs immigration into the US has been that of William Eayres, b. abt 1670, somewhere in England. He is said to have married a Margaret in Ireland  – certainly his first son William was born in Ulster about 1670.  Young William married a Jenette Caldwell (spellings differ) in Clough Parish, County Antrim, Ireland in about 1698 and in 1718 set off with his new family as part of a group of settlers who set up home in New Hampshire at a place they called Londonderry. This William’s older son Joseph participated in the Boston Massacre and the famous Tea Party raid, and got his name on the London Enemies List. Most of the descent of this line is now well worked out, but does the George Washington line connect?

Another Eayres around in the New World at this time, and at present unconnected to either of the above lines,  was a certain Thomas Stevens Eayrs, a silversmith born abt 1760, This Thomas married Frances, daughter of the revered Paul Revere (he who sped through the night), and their children eventually took over the Revere bell foundry. This has resonance (I couldn’t resist the pun) as there were so many Eayres involved in Bell making in Cambridge and Northants at the time.

So, three lines which may well be interconnected:  however, I have the feeling that much work will be needed to prove the connection. Perhaps one of our US cousins can help out here? As for me, right now I have some marking to do.


Getting started

Today is Sunday, 25 November and I am sitting at my computer in Galgate, a small village to the south of Lancaster. My name is Martin Eayrs, and since my father’s death in August 2001 I have become increasingly interested in the history of my family.

I am not in any way a Lancastrian – I simply happen to be working at Lancaster University. My family roots, to my current knowledge at least, lie in Northants and southern Lincolnshire.

This week I have been accepted by the Guild of One-Name Studies as ‘custodian’ of the Eayrs* family name worldwide. My membership number is 4821. My intention is to collate information about Eayrs family members wherever and whenever I come across them. I will share whatever information I have at any time, except insofar it relates to data that comes under the terms of the (UK) Data Protection Act 1998.

So I have started this blog, which joins other ventures of mine: an Eayrs Family website, an Eayrs family group on Facebook, and an Eayrs family electronic discussion group. All are different, and all are open to all.

Eayrs often seems a hard name to spell and folks were not so literate a few hundred years ago, so the Eayrs family name has a number of variants: ‘Hairs’, ‘Hare’, ‘Eyre’. ‘Eyres’, ‘Eayers’, … well you get the idea. As long as we can prove the connection, we welcome them in.

At the time of this first post I have no idea how this blog will develop. Time will tell, and I hope that others will join me here from time to time. Faults and errors in my posts are mine and comments and corrections will be welcomed, publicly or privately.

Martin Eayrs