Friday, August 9, 2013

Lillies of the Sea, Part the Second

I started to tell the story in my last post of our paternal grandmother’s ancestors, the Lillies. 

Before I go on with it, I want to blather for a second about the male-line bias in genealogical research, the instinct to only pay close attention to ancestors with the same surname as yours. I suppose this is a carry-over from a time when only males had legal succession rights in a family, and when the culture was generally more patriarchal.  

But genealogy isn’t really about legalities anymore, is it? It’s just about finding out where you came from, for interest’s sake. And if you ignore the female lines, you ignore half the gene pool, half the social historical background, and possibly miss finding out about some illustrious, interesting or infamous forebears. Vera changed her name to Blackwell when she married Matthew in 1916, but her Lillies ancestors are just as much our ancestors as the Blackwells are.

All of which might be blindingly obvious, but you never know, maybe not to everyone. 

Where was I? Oh yes, the Lillies.

George, the naval surgeon I wrote about in the last post, who was born in 1778 in Kenton, Devon (near Exeter) and died there in 1844, is the earliest we know for sure. 

Tracing the line further back is complicated by uncertainty about spellings. Our particular spelling is fairly unusual, but is close to Lillie, which according to several online sources is the same name, or perhaps more accurately, could be the same, name as Lilie, Lilley or Lilly, the latter in particular being more common, and distinguished. And some sources pluralize Lilly as Lillies, which might be the origin of our spelling.

The Lilly name is very old, dating back, in England, according to some sources, to well before the Norman Conquest. But there is also a Lilly line, with branches in North American, descended from Swedes. So not every Lilly/Lillie/Lilley/Lilie is necessarily a long lost cousin. There are Lillies, with our unusual spelling, very near us in Ontario, by the way. (Note to self: explore.)

Explanations about the name's origins are all over the map. It’s a diminutive of the forename Elizabeth, meaning my God is my oath. It’s a reference to fair-haired people. It derives from place names, including the French city of Lille, Lilley in Hertfordshire and Lilly in Berkshire. There was even, according to House of, a noble Lilly family in Worcestershire, from very ancient times.”

Wow! So our noble lineage may not just be moderately or slightly ancient, but very ancient. 

None of this helps us move back in time past our naval sawbones, though. We can rewind another two generations in the family tree of George's bride, Fanny Collyns, who is of course also an ancestor. According to personal family trees published by subscribers at, Fanny's Mum and Dad were born in the 1760s, and their parents in the early 1720s. But this is uncorroborated information for now. 

1797 print showing instruments that George Lillies might have used

So I’ll concentrate on George, and move forward to Australia and the inevitable intersection of the Blackwell and Lillies gene pools. Except, oops, my time is up. More GL next post.

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