Who do you think you are?
Sheila Hancock

Sheila Hancock

Ever since her mother's death, Sheila Hancock had been in possession of an old, sepia-tinted photograph of a painting of an unknown woman.

Like many aspects of her family's past, Sheila knew few details. A distant relation was at least able to furnish the painting's handsome, rather exotic-looking subject with a suitably evocative name: Madam Zurhorst.

Beyond that, the woman remained a mystery.

Sheila guessed that the woman in the picture must be a relative of her maternal grandmother, known to her as Grandma Woodward. Through Grandma Woodward's marriage certificate, Sheila was able to discover the identity of her great-grandfather, James Joseph Allum.

At this point, the mystery apparently began to unravel. By hunting out Great-Grandfather James's marriage certificate, the maiden name of his wife came as a welcome surprise: Louisa Octavia Zurhorst. Case closed? Possibly.

But a niggling fact remained. Louisa would, of course, have become an Allum when she married James, while the middle-aged woman from the painting was clearly still a Zurhorst.

Sheila would need to go back a further generation, and James and Louisa's marriage certificate gave her the starting point she needed: Louisa's father, the wonderfully named Hamnet Pinkey Octavia Zurhorst. Surely his wife would be the elusive Madam Zurhorst?

Sheila's next port of call was the 1861 census, where she found Hamnet Zurhorst listed, along with his wife Louisa. Subsequent censuses offered snapshots of how the couple's lives had been played out over the following decades.

In 1871, Hamnet was an iron trimmer in an iron works. Ten years later, he appeared as a bookkeeper, while the record for 1891 shows him to be a retired foundry turner and bookkeeper living in 'Penn's Almshouses' - accommodation provided by the firm for any employees who had fallen on hard times.

Hamnet's apparently modest financial situation suggested Louisa was not Madam Zurhorst, since only a genuinely wealthy Victorian man would have had the means to commission an expensive portrait of his wife. The search for the real Madam Zurhorst continued, though Sheila knew she was on the right track.

An expert at Sotheby's estimated that the subject had been painted some time between 1830 and 1835. Could the woman be Hamnet Zurhorst's mother? Sheila logged onto the International Genealogical Index, where discovered that a certain Fredrick William Zurhorst was Hamnet's father (and therefore Sheila's great, great, great-grandfather) and that he had married one Ann-Judith Williams.

At the London Metropolitan Archive, Sheila tried to flesh out the lives of the Zurhorsts. Fredrick appeared in a trade directory as a shipping agent, and later as a broker, a member of one of the City's liveried companies, and a freeman of the City of London.

Among the documents confirming his status, a mention was made of Frederick's father Herman Zurhorst, 'a native of Rotterdam who came to Ireland' and eventually landed in London.

Other documents indicated that Fredrick was in business with his wife. The evidence suggested that the pair probably ran a linen warehouse on the banks of the Thames, a fact that resonated with Sheila, who lives beside the river and feels a strong affinity with it.

Through further research, Sheila found out that Fredrick and Ann-Judith had moved to Guernsey in their dotage. From records held there, she learned that Ann-Judith was a woman of independent means.

Here, as a wealthy woman of leisure, is where the portrait of Ann-Judith Zurhorst was almost certainly created. She died in 1850, aged 68, and rather fittingly Sheila was able to locate her grave, and pay her respects to the woman whose distinctive portrait had led to such an amazing journey.

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