How do you reconstruct a community’s history from a list of names?
This is the question I’ve been working through this year as I strive to turn a spreadsheet of several thousand names into a viable basis for understanding the story and legacy of London’s 19th-century Hispanic residents. In order to build up a detailed picture of the community as it developed across time, I’ve adapted the genealogist’s strategy of putting together a ‘quick and dirty’ biography based on a rapid search of archival records. My objective is to generate fully-documented individual microhistories as fixed points for tracking the constantly-shifting networks of 19th-century Hispanic London.
Want to see an example? Of course you do! But rather than one of the big-name merchants who left a sizeable archival, political and economic trail, let’s start with a regular immigrant in an ordinary job: the Catalan cabinet maker Honorato Vert. Honorato is a great case study, because he actually appeared on all three censuses in the pilot study (1851, 1861 and 1871), so I knew he had been in London for at least 20 years. Unsurprisingly, the longer someone stays in one place, the more likely it is they will come into contact with different authorities and leave an archival trail – and so it proved with Honorato.
The Basics: Digitized Records and Online Archives
When putting together a ‘quick and dirty’ biography, my first port of call is to run name searches on the two major subscription genealogy sites, www.ancestry.co.uk and www.findmypast.co.uk, and the free index site www.familysearch.com. Between them, these sites host a huge range of indexed and (often) digitized civil, church, migration, trade and professional records in partnership with national and local archives around the UK (and the world). As this is a ‘quick and dirty’ search, my priority is to establish the basic parameters of a life: 1) when/where were they born? 2) when are they first recorded in the UK? 3) where did they live/work? 4) when did they leave/die? At this stage, anything else is a bonus.
The second stage, depending on what the genealogy sites turn up, is to follow up with searches in more specific archives. This might include a name search in the UK National Archives catalogue, or a name/address search in the British Newspaper Archive (£). Sometimes, as in Honorato’s case, it’s also worth trying Spanish digital archives. While many census entries for foreign-born residents simply note the country of birth, on the 1851 census, Honorato had noted his birthplace as ‘Bisbal, Spain’ – and Bisbal is in the Diocese of Girona, which luckily for us is one of just a handful of Spanish dioceses to have digitized its parish records.
I might have made the search process sound very simple. Remember, though, that on many of these sites, the search indexes are based on transcriptions, which you must navigate to get to the digitised original documents. Transcriptions of any kind have a high level of error (it’s hard to decipher other people’s handwriting at the best of times…), but the level is even higher when we’re dealing with unfamiliar or foreign names and places. Spanish personal and place names are often misspelled or part-Anglicised in original documents, and then mangled further through indexisation. For example, I’ve found Honorato indexed as Honoratio, Honorata, Honerato, Honorate, Honoreto, Honorah, Honora, and Honorats, so search wildcards are definitely your friends here!
Honorato Vert (La Bisbal, Spain, 1809 – St Pancras, 1880)
Honorato Narciso Domingo Vert i Vilanova was born on 3 August 1809 at Bisbal in Catalunya to Narcis Vert, carpenter, and Teresa Vilanova, and baptised the following day at the parish church of Santa Maria de la Bisbal (right). We don’t know much about his first thirty years, although he may well have learned his trade alongside his father. At the age of 29, he emigrated to London, arriving at London Docks on 9 August 1838 aboard the Batavia from Rotterdam. The official customs book of entries records him as ‘Honorato Vert, cabinet maker, native of Spain,’ and the customs officer notes that it is his first arrival in the UK.
The UK census of 6 June 1841, records an ‘Honora Vert, 30, born in foreign parts’ as a ‘bule worker’ living at Avery Row in the London parish of St George Hanover Square. Although ‘Honora’ is recorded as female, this is most likely our Honorato and ‘bule’ a misspelling of ‘buhl’ – the generic name for a material used by marquetry cutters to make a pattern for inlaying furniture. While the 1841 census does not give details about the relationships between people in a household, Honorato appears to be lodging in the household of a carpenter and his wife. However, he had already met Norfolk-born Henrietta Edwards, who would become his wife*; their first child, Honorato Jose Enrique, was born at the end of 1841, and his birth registered in St George Hanover Square.
Ten years later, by census night on 30 March 1851, Honorato (now described as an ‘artist’s inlayer and marquetterie cutter’) and Henrietta had moved to 214 Tottenham Court Road, an address they shared with at least four other households, including another ‘marquetterie cutter’, French-born Felix Riel and his milliner wife Julie Chanol. Honorato and Henrietta had lost their eldest son Honorato in 1844 at the age of three, but now had three more children: Narciso (b. 1845 and named for his paternal grandfather), Henrietta (b. 1847) and ‘Raymon’ (b. 1849, also known as Ramon or Raimondo). Seven years later, the St George Hanover Square Electoral Register for 1858 shows that the family had moved from busy Tottenham Court Road to a house in newly-built Pulford St, close to the Pimlico Gas Works (judging by the children’s birthplaces, they lived in Pimlico between 1854-1859).
By the time of the 7 April 1861 census, Honorato (now simply a ‘marqueterie cutter’) and Henrietta were back in Marylebone, a couple of blocks from Tottenham Court Road at 33 Newman St. Narciso, Henrietta and Ramon had been joined by five more children: Theresa (b. 1853), Manuela (b. 1854), twins Honorato and Alonzo (b. 1856) and Pedro (b. 1858), whose twin Juan Mariano had died in infancy. The couple’s eleventh and youngest child, Fernando, would be born the following year. Although Honorato and Henrietta seem not to have baptised any of their children as babies, at least three of them were baptised during the 1860s: Honorato and Pedro on 21 May 1866 at Holy Trinity Marylebone Road, when the family gave their address as 320 Euston Road, and Theresa on 23 February 1869 at St Marylebone, giving her address as 314 Euston Road.
The family seem to have settled in Euston Road during the 1860s, and were still there, at 402 Euston Road, on the night of the 2 April 1871 census. Professionally, things were not going well for Honorato, who, like 22-year-old son Ramon is recorded as a ‘marquetic cutter, out of employ’. However, eldest surviving son Narciso, now 26, has the rather exotic occupation of ‘musical agent’ – and indeed, during the next forty years, Narciso, along with his brothers Honorato jr., Pedro and Fernando, brother-in-law John Hudson Tillott, and nephews Pedro and John Tillott, would all become well known London musical impresarios.**
Honorato Vert is last recorded in London in 1880. The Post Office 1880 London Directory records him at 35 Fitzroy Road, which is in Primrose Hill, a few steps from Regent’s Park. Honorato died in London aged 72 and was buried on 24 March 1880 at Highgate Cemetery.
Honorato’s archival trail is not an unusual one: like many ordinary Londoners, the most reliable sources for his life are the decennial censuses, civil records (births, marriages, deaths), electoral registers and trade directories, and parish records, although he appears less often in the last three categories than many of his peers. At least on an initial search, he doesn’t appear in newspapers or in national and regional archive catalogues, and he doesn’t seem to have left a will. However, the fact that he was a skilled craftsman gives us further possibilities – have any of his works survived? Diana Davies notes mention of a ‘Mr Vert’ in correspondence between the antiquary William Twopeny and Lady Percy of Alnwick Castle, regarding a marquetry table made for the castle between 1854 and 1865 by Blakes & Co of Tottenham Court Road, and still on display today. Given that Vert lived in and around Tottenham Court Road at the time, it is very possible that he was working for Blake, and it’s lovely to think that some of his works are still out there to be discovered.***
*I haven’t yet located a marriage record for Honorato and Henrietta, but they lived as a married couple from 1841 until Honorato’s death in 1880.
**For more information, see Christopher Fifield’s excellent book Ibbs and Tillett: the Rise and Fall of a Musical Empire. Taylor & Francis, 2017.
*** See The Tastemakers: British Dealers and the Anglo-Gallic Interior, 1785-1865. Getty Research Institute, 2020: 172, 187.
- ‘Weekly market on Plaça Major, with the Santa Maria church.’ By Vincent van Zeijst – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16714916
- Table of walnut and ebony with marquetry; made by George Blake & Co for Corsham Court, British about 1845. Victoria & Albert Museum W.20-1995. https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O127642/table-blake-george-henry/