Family puzzle results in pilgrimage

HERM visitor Christine Duddy came to the island last summer on a pilgrimage to solve an old family mystery.

Christine Duddy, pictured, has visited Herm in an attempt to solve an old family mystery.
Christine Duddy, pictured, has visited Herm in an attempt to solve an old family mystery.

HERM visitor Christine Duddy came to the island last summer on a pilgrimage to solve an old family mystery.

While researching their extensive history, Christine discovered an interesting story about her ancestors, who lived on Herm 180 years ago.

Her great-great-grandfather, James Henry Oliver, was born on the island in 1840 and the mystery involves his parents, Robert Oliver and Ann Rule.

According to records in the Priaulx Library, Robert and Ann lived on Herm during the 1830s and 40s, and their many children were born and baptised in the island. There is evidence that not all of their children survived, and that one was buried in Herm in 1835 and another in 1844, although where is not specified.

Robert, who was possibly born in Cornwall, was a copper miner and is the only one listed with that occupation in the 1841 census. There were many other Olivers and Ollivers in the island, whose families were also associated with mining, so it seems the whole clan made the trip to the islands. There is also a Mary Oliver living with them, who was 15 and is not listed as one of their children.

They were seemingly close to a Le Maitre couple, Phillipe and Frances, who were godparents to several of their children.

Then, some time between 1844 and 1851, Robert and Ann disappear and their young children seem to have been split up between relatives.

‘By 1851 the family were no longer in Herm,’ said Christine. ‘What happened to Robert and Ann is still a mystery. The story in the family, which is unsubstantiated, is that Robert drowned.’

But this doesn’t explain why his wife Ann would also suddenly disappear from record.

One child, Isaac Oliver, was sent to live with an uncle in Jersey. Interestingly, also living with them was an elderly servant called Phillipe Le Maitre.

Could this be the same Phillipe that was Isaac’s godfather? If so, what happened to his own family?

Christine’s great-great-grandfather was sent to an uncle in Cornwall and eventually relocated to the north-east as a coalminer.

‘I think the Oliver family journey demonstrates the way the labour force moved to follow work and they adapted their skills to fit the changing workplace environment, whether copper mining in Herm, tin and

copper mining in Cornwall or coal mining in the north-east of England.’

The Oliver name continues today, but no one seems to be able to explain the mystery of their missing ancestors.

‘I really hope to come back some time,’ said Christine. ‘I haven’t finished looking at the Olivers and plan to return to Herm, and the Priaulx Library in Guernsey, in the hope of finding out what happened to Robert and Ann.’

Who knows – maybe there is someone in the Bailiwick today who can shed light on this mystery?