Ms McPherson no more

Caroline Penn

Let me introduce you to my 2 x great-grandmother, “a woman of bad character” according to the Oxford Chronicle and Reading Gazette of 4th July 1857. The Oxford Journal of 2nd May, reporting Caroline’s arrest for the same incident, didn’t mince its words, describing her simply as “a prostitute”. One way and another, Caroline has had a profound impact on my family history (as well as providing me with great childhood teasing ammo after my parents named my younger sister Caroline too).


Caroline was born around 1833 in Bloxham, a small village near the town of Banbury, in Oxfordshire. She was the 3rd daughter given that name by her parents, Isaac Penn, an illegitimate earthenware hawker, and his wife Anne Duckett, a woman of likely Romany origins, who he married when she was heavily pregnant by an unknown solider. That baby died young, as did at least six of the eleven children Isaac and Anne had together. They were even fined 20 shillings after the death of the second daughter named Caroline, after she sadly suffocated in their bed.


At the age of 18, Caroline had her first son James in the local workhouse. Despite her profession, Caroline avoided having any more known children until Clara in 1867, Thomas in 1869 and Dinah in 1871. Thomas was my great-grandfather. When my parents were first married, they began researching our family history and the discovery that Thomas was illegitimate was such an unpleasant shock to his son, my Grandpops, that they stopped researching there and then. For me, this was fortunate, as when I first graduated and was struggling to find a job, it gave me something to pick up and continue with, sparking my life-long love of genealogy, which culminated in making it my career. That illegitimacy is the simple reason we are still Penns today.

Who’s the Daddy?

For a long time, we suspected that a man named Thomas Taplin, whom Caroline married in 1876, but had banns read for in 1870, was the father of at least Thomas and Dinah, an possibly Clara. Both Clara and Dinah named him as their father on their marriage certificates, but he was another person of questionable character, in and out of prison, so there was always some doubt. Plus Thomas Jr. did not name him on his marriage record.

DNA Tests

Then came DNA testing. Thomas Taplin came from a large family with deep roots in Oxfordshire and yet my father had no Taplin matches. Moreover, he had 11% Scots heritage, with no known Scottish ancestors at all. Intrigued, I asked Dad to take a Y-DNA test. He has one solitary match at 67 and 37 markers, a Mr McPherson, whose earliest paternal ancestor was named as Thomas McPherson, born 1813 in Northern Ireland. I was thrilled, all my research to date suggested I only had English and Welsh heritage, so I was chuffed to bits to find a teeny bit more diversity. Based on traditional research and these results, everything pointed to Thomas’s biological father being the source of this heritage and I confidently ruled Thomas Taplin out of my direct line and wondered how different my sense of identity and holiday destinations would have been, if we had always had a Celtic surname.

Ethnicity Estimates

But Northern Ireland is not Scotland, I hear you say. No it certainly is not, but historically there has been so much migration between the two countries that their genetic footprints are very difficult to distinguish from one another. Every time Ancestry released an update to their ethnicity estimates (which get more and more accurate, as they are drawn from an ever increasing evidence base) there was a slight variation in the amount and origin of this portion of my father’s heritage, for a period it was all Irish, but at the moment, we are back to 10% Scottish.


Then came Ancestry’s sideview. This allows the ethnicity estimates to be broken down to which of the tester’s parents contributed to them. Sideview has been much discussed online recently, as this is one of the features that can no longer be accessed without an Ancestry membership. For those of us working in genetic genealogy, it is an essential tool and something we will look at very early on, to see if it gives us clues to work with when searching for an unknown parent. However, I am highlighting it here, as even if you think you know your family history, it can be enormously helpful and stop you going down the wrong track.

Who’s the English Daddy?

Dad’s sideview shows that most of his Scottish heritage comes from his mother’s side, with only 3% coming from his paternal Penn line. His paternal line is overwhelmingly English. Thomas Taplin could be back in the frame. After all, when it comes to matches, we are all at the mercy of who has tested and who has not. Any day, a match may appear who confirms that I do have a Taplin line after all, or that leads me down another avenue to another Englishman. But, I have to stop kidding myself that in another life I could have been Jo McPherson!

More Mysteries

Instead, sideview has given me other mysteries to unravel. On paper, my Dad should have no Scottish ancestry at all and around 25% Welsh on his mother’s side. In fact, he has 7% Scots heritage and 43% Welsh coming from her. It just goes to show, we can’t always trust the paper trail, and DNA always has something to tell us.

Caroline Newspaper