Cod, Ships and Capable Women
Liz Davidson, formerly a primary school teacher who has been researching her family history forsome twenty years, was the speaker at our October meeting. Recognised by many attendees as part of an engaging ‘double act’ with her husband Peter, who had previously talked to the Group about Barnardo’s children in Suffolk, Liz now returned in her own right to share her findings about the WHITEWAY family of Devon, to whom she is related through her maternal line.
Liz has been interested in family history from an early age, the inspiration coming from tales told by her mother about the WHITEWAYs and their enduring connection with the sea. Hailing from Devon, Liz first discovered that three generations of her family had been Trinity Pilots, charged with navigating ships through the treacherous shallow waters leading in and out of Teignmouth harbour.
From here her research took her further afield, an interesting pattern of autumn baptisms and Christmas marriages leading to the revelation that earlier generations of WHITEWAYs had been involved with the ‘Newfoundland trade’. This involved fishing the cod-rich banks of Newfoundland discovered by John Cabot in 1497. The hardy crews would set sail from England in the early months of the year and not return to Devon with their catch until the autumn. While at sea in their wooden boats, the men would sleep on deck with their supplies stored below.
During the menfolk’s lengthy absence, their wives assumed full responsibility for running the household. This appears to account for an unusually high level of literacy among the WHITEWAY women, evidenced by elegant signatures in parish register entries.
Liz and her husband Peter have since travelled to Newfoundland, where they learned that one William Vallance WHITEWAY [central picture below], originally from Devon and a likely ancestor, was three times premier of the colony. A particular highlight of this trip was the chance discovery of a burial ground near the port of St. John’s, where they happened upon forty memorial headstones all bearing the WHITEWAY name.
Liz’s passion for learning still more about her family history then inspired her to start a one-name study, as a result of which she has confirmed the concentration of the WHITEWAYs in Devon, although with minor populations located in Wiltshire, London and some coastal ports such as Grimsby and Liverpool. During the course of her research, she has also encountered WHITEWAYs who were transported to Australia and Tasmania, for what nowadays would be viewed as petty crimes, and a possible family link with Whiteways Cyder of Devon, whose fruit wine can still be found in some supermarkets.
As for the origins of the name WHITEWAY, it is believed to derive from the ‘white way’ created by surplus salt being dropped during transportation from a salt house in the manor of Witwei, recorded in the Domesday Book of 1068. Witwei is thought to have become Whiteway Barton, near Kingsteighton, Devon, where the only remaining sign of habitation is a Grade-Two listed farmhouse.
At the start of her highly informative and entertaining talk, Liz had acknowledged that not everyone finds other people’s family history absorbing. She need not have worried because, like the fish that her ancestors set out to catch in the stormy North Atlantic seas, she had this audience ‘hooked’ from the start.