We’ve all heard the expression the black sheep of the family, but do we have any in our ancestry. The answer is probably yes depending on what you think of as a black sheep.
When someone says black sheep, what do they mean? Most probably think of the shadowy figure of mystery in the family who’s rarely mentioned and through time no one really knows what they actually did to earn the title of black sheep. But where they really a black sheep or did they in reality just not conform to what the family wanted.
Ok take for example someone who went to prison. Now I know when you say they went to prison, it’s usually because they did something bad, but surely they is a scale of bad. So killing someone is bad they really are black sheep. But others?
Let’s take the example of Peter Arnold Wardle (or 3 times Great Granddad as I call him) Peter was an auctioneer in Werneth, Cheshire. In 1890 he was a defendant in the trail of Wych v Higginbottom (what the trial was about I’ve never discovered). He did not deliver certain documents to the court so the judge sent him to prison for contempt of court. He spent 9 months in Knutsford Jail until he was released in May 1891 after he produced the documents to the court.
In some families this would make Peter a black sheep, but I don’t think he is. A bit silly for not producing the documents and going to prison leaving his wife and 4 children to fend for themselves, but not really a criminal. And in the end, did the punishment fit the crime. Peter died just over a year later of TB which he’d had for 6 months, which presumable could be linked to the conditions in jail.
Also on the prison front is the debtor’s jail. Were they really black sheep? In some cases yes they were. They borrowed money with no intention of paying it back. But others just were at a point where they had to borrow the money in order to survive or face the workhouse, and when they couldn’t pay, they went to jail where they had to pay for board and lodgings, which they couldn’t afford and so the vicious circle continued.
Some women have also been portrayed as a black sheep due to their lifestyle shall we say. It wasn’t uncommon for women who had illegitimate children to be classed as immoral and caste out of the family. They name may have been passed down the generations as a black sheep, when in reality they had done nothing wrong.
People can be classed as a black sheep due to choices they made in life. If someone left the UK to live abroad in the Victoria times they were usually classed as one of three things, a pioneer, someone looking for a better life or a black sheep running away. The family may have classed them as a black sheep just because they didn’t do what the family wanted. For example, which would you rather do stay in the UK and work on a farm, or travel to say the USA and try and find your fortune?
So it all boils down to this in the end are they really black sheep? Or were they just someone who was not conforming to what society at the time told them they should do. It’s up to you to decide, but remember no matter what they allegedly did they are your ancestors and without them you wouldn’t be reading this today.