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The Ross Bird Mystery

It was conjected that one of William Bird of Newnham's sons had changed their surname to Ross but I was able to ascertain that this was not actually the case.

As mentioned elsewhere, my father’s brother, Tony Bird, wrote a semi auto-biography which has never been published called “A load of codswallop”. In it he included a sentence which had since led to confusion and intrigue but which I have now clarified :

“At the time of the marriage this Bird forebear changed his name to Ross and because of the Ross connection some of the children of this new Mr. Ross’s brothers, of whom my grandfather was one, were given ‘Ross’ as a second name.”

His grandfather was Henry Ross Bird (b. 1854) presumably named after Henry Ross and his deceased parents.

As mentioned in
William Bird of Newnham’s file, the oldest of William of Newnham’s surviving daughters was ANNE BIRD (born 22nd November 1803). She married FRANCIS ROSS who was “a clerk in the Excise office” in 1835, and they had a son, HENRY ROSS on 24th August 1838. Sadly, Francis Ross died before the birth of his son on 13th March 1838, aged just 37. His death certificate says his cause of death was “Decline” – which is possibly consumption or TB. Anne’s brother, George Bird, was present at the time of death. Anne had the baby at her parents house, 8 Clapham Road Place. In all likelihood, this was where Anne and her baby lived for the next couple of years.

Meanwhile, another of William of Newnham’s daughters, HARRIOTT BIRD (born 22nd January 1814) had met and married JOHN COVENEY, the son of a wealthy landowner (these were William COVENEY and his wife Sophia - more details still to be ascertained). They
married on 19th March 1840 in Kennington (possibly Kennington Chapel ?). At the time of the marriage, John was living in the Parish of Borden, Kent while Harriott was at her parents house in Clapham Road Place. As far as we know, they never had any children of their own.

When Harriott moved out of her parents house after she married, it seems Anne and her baby went to live with her and her new husband John Coveney (as per the 1841 census) at Key Street, Bobbing.

It is assumed, although not yet proven, that Anne Bird died leaving a young child, Henry Ross, without any living parents. He was ‘adopted’ (not in the legal sense) by John and Harriott Coveney. They are shown as living in Swanscombe on the 1851 census at unreadable House with Henry Ross (aged 12) shown as a visitor. John Coveney is described as a farmer of 500 acres employing 13 labourers.

By the time of the 1861 census, Henry Ross is still living with his adoptive parents plus John Coveney’s 75 year old mother, SOPHIA COVENEY. John Coveney now has 950 acres employing 25 labourers.

In 1866 Henry Ross loses his maternal grandmother, Sarah Elizabeth Bird, who dies aged 89 of “old age”.

Henry Ross was not living at his adoptive parents house in 1871. Can’t find him on the 1871 census ?

However, the 1878 Directory of Sussex shows John Coveney and Henry Ross living at Chestham Park (with Charles Wisden further down the list).

Before continuing with Henry Ross’ story :

ELIZA MARGARET BIRD, the eldest child of
George and Margaret BIRD of Chessington Court Farm was born on 21st November 1841 at 38 Manor Place in the Borough of St Mary Newington in the County of Surrey (I haven’t been to this street but a “Manor Place” still exists in that area). This was one of the properties built by William BIRD of Newnham.

The 1851 census has Eliza living in Swanscombe aged 9 (correct age) with her parents and siblings. They have two servants.

The 1861 census shows Eliza as 18 years old (actually 19) living at Chessington Court Farm with her parents and siblings (but not George Coveney Bird) plus a 23 year old “gentlemans servant”.

They are still at the Farm on the 1871 census when she is shown as being 26 (actually 29). She is living with her parents and all siblings plus 2 young domestic servants.

According to a transcription subsequently made by Henry Ross in the family Bible, her mother, Margaret, died at 7 o’clock in the morning of 6th December 1875 and was buried in Chessington Church Yard on 11th December. I have looked around the graveyard and was not able to find any sign of her grave or any other “Bird’s”. However, even the recent graves were not in a very good condition.

The mystery is solved

On 26th March 1878 first cousins, HENRY ROSS & ELIZA BIRD, marry at The Parish Church, Chessington, Surrey. He is 38 and she is shown as being 36 (which she is !). He was described as a batchelor and a Gentleman and she is a Spinster. His residence at the time of the marriage was said to be Swanscombe. John Coveney was a witness at the wedding. John Coveney must have died the year after because London Illustrated News reports on 22nd February 1879:

“Wills and Bequests includes Mr John Coveney formerly of Swanscombe and late of Chestham, Henfield Kent”. In findmypast it shows testator John Coveney of Henfield with executor Henry Ross in P.R. court folio 82. You can read
a copy of the Will.

By 1881 Eliza and Henry are living at CHESTHAM PARK in HENFIELD, Surrey. She is shown on the census as being 34 (actual 39). Henry is described as a farmer of 180 acres employing 8 men and 1 boy. They are living in the Manor House with a butler, a cook, a parlour maid, a housemaid and a kitchen maid.

The 1890 directory of Sussex still shows Henry Ross at Chestham Park.

Henry Ross FSA died on 18th August 1890 at the Bell Hotel, Gloucester suddenly “from disease of the heart” aged 50.

On the 1891 census, Eliza is now head of the household aged 44 (actual age 49). She is still at Chestham Park and living with her sister, Emily (who was married to a shipmaster, Captain Jorgen Wildfang, a German national) and her daughter. They still have a butler, a cook, a parlour maid, a housemaid and a kitchen maid.


By the time of the 1901 census Eliza is aged 54 (actual 59) and still at Chestham Park. Resident this time is her 17 year old nephew PERCY HYDE BIRD (see photo) plus all the same type of staff but NOT the butler !

I have a copy of
Eliza’s Will which was drawn up on 28th February 1903 and proved on 26th January 1904 – seven weeks before she dies on 19th March 1904. It is a complicated Will with various bequests to George Coveney Bird (brother), Henry Ross Bird (brother), Emily Wildfang (sister), Emily Bird (cousin), Percy Hyde Bird (nephew), Leslie Bird and their wives and descendants.

Tony’s auto-biography had said :

“Because of some domestic strife, later resolved, between his parents, my father was virtually adopted and brought up by his childless great-aunt, Mrs. Ross.”

WRONG - he was brought up by his childless aunt. Mrs Eliza Ross (nee Bird)


“When the pretty Kent village of Swanscombe was increasingly engulfed by London the Rosses moved to Chestham in Sussex, and it was at Chestham Park that my father spent most of his childhood.”

PROBABLY TRUE

“Whether or not it was ever implicitly or explicitly stated that he was to inherit the pleasant estate and the bulk of the Ross money I do not know, but when my mother married him she certainly believed it to be so and she and my father felt a grievance against life that he received only a small income from a trust fund and the bulk of the estate passed to some dim relations on the distaff side who bore the improbable name of Wildfang.”

Need details of who owned Swanscombe Manor in the early 19th century. Emily Wildfang was living at Chestham Park when Eliza died so probably continued to do so.


Linked toAnne Bird; Eliza Margaret Bird; Harriott Bird; John Coveney; Francis Ross; Henry Ross

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