Descendants of an 18th century ship builder from Holy Island have travelled from across the globe to meet at a special ‘homecoming’ event.
Thirty people from the UK, the US, Canada, Germany and Australia – all descendants of John Brigham, a ship captain who settled on Holy Island in the early 1700s – came together at the place their ancestors called home for hundreds of years.
The special homecoming event was the culmination of years of research by London-based Rob Liddle, who explains: “If your surname is Brigham, and your family comes from Northumberland or Durham, then the chances are that you share a common ancestor with me.
“He is Captain John Brigham, merchant and ship’s master, a Yorkshireman who sailed the seas and settled on Holy Island in the early part of the 18th century.”
John Brigham’s origins are obscure, but his living descendants are scattered across the globe, from Europe to Australia to North America.
“By 1841, there were 21 people with the surname Brigham living on Holy Island out of a population of 297,” Rob says. The 1881 census reveals 39 direct descendants of John Brigham, with the surname, living in Berwick, Holy Island and Kyloe. Many others had married into local families.
In the 1890s, three of the pubs on Holy Island – the Iron Rails Inn, the Castle Inn and the Crown and Anchor – were run by Brighams.
“I’ve been researching my family for quite a long time and have been in contact with a few people over the years through internet forums and things,” Rob says. “One lady who got in touch was Marina Beacock, the instigator of the event that brought us all together.”
Marina, who lives in Ontario, Canada, explains: “The Brigham get-together has been named the Holy Island Homecoming as we were all coming to the place our ancestors called home for hundreds of years.”
Marina’s great, great grandfather, John Simpson Sr, was born on Holy Island in 1813. He married Isabella Brigham, the older sister of Rob Liddle’s ancestor William Brigham.
“Mom’s grandfather was John Simpson Jr, born 1846 in Norham, probably on Ebenezar Black’s farm in Grindon, as his father John Sr was the farm steward there,” Marina says. “John Jr became a civil engineer, and some time in the 1860s or early 1870s he was contracted by the then Russian Czar to design the tributaries to the main Russian railway lines.”
After the contract was complete, John Jr stayed on in Russia and married a woman from Leeds, Anne Whittaker, who had left England to visit her mother’s sister who was living in St. Petersburg.
John and Anne married through the British Chaplaincy in St Petersburg, Russia, in the mid 1870s, and later settled in nearby Novgorod, where most if not all of their 13 children were born.
Marina explains: “My grandmother, Valerie Simpson, was one of these children, a British subject, with a British passport, but never in her life was she able to travel to England.”
John Simpson died in 1899 in Estonia. Five years later Anne died in Novgorod, Russia, so Valerie and her siblings were left orphaned in Russia.
“Valerie was nine when her father died, and 14 when her mother died, but there were still several younger siblings,” Marina says. “Their grandmother Isabella Brigham was still alive when the kids were orphaned, and we can’t figure out why they were not sent to England to live with her. Instead they were all farmed out to different foster homes in Russia and Estonia.
“My grandmother Valerie Simpson died in the late 1960s, and the second time she came to Canada she flew over the north east corner of England and Scotland, and she said that she felt like she was coming home, feeling a sense of belonging and a draw to the lands down below. I can only imagine that she flew over Holy Island, but never knew her ancestors were from there.
“This is just a little piece of my family’s ancestral connection with Holy Island, but everyone who came had an interesting story to share, as did those who remain on the island, and live nearby or in other places in Britain,” Marina adds.
At their special homecoming reunion on the island last month, the Brigham descendants shared information and swapped stories, and on the Sunday morning there was a special ‘homecoming’ service in the parish church.
“It was a magnificent effort on Marina’s part, organising the event,” insists Rob. “I travelled up from London with members of my family, but there were Brigham descendants there from the US, Australia and Germany.
“We had a connection that wasn’t obvious at first glance, but through research we knew we were all connected to a ship captain who settled on Holy Island.
“It was great to see all those people and to hear their stories.”
l For more information on the Brigham family history, go to Rob’s website www.borderbrighams.weebly.com