More than one Mary Ann

Thomas Francis Brannigan in 1953 aged 76 yrs 11 months


 by Anne Williams,
g-g-granddaughter of Mary Ann Sheppard (1842-1901)

It has long been an ambition of mine to research my family history. My mother, whose maiden name was Jones, is still very much alive. So, I decided to start with her. Now the name Jones is a bit of a challenge for a novice genealogist, so I was much more optimistic about my maternal Grandmother who was born a Branigan. That will be easier, I thought. I had no idea how complicated it would become.


1881 census return for 136 Clifton Road, Aston

I first found my Great Grandfather, Thomas Francis Branigan on the 1881 census, living in Aston, Birmingham with his mother, Mary Ann (widowed), his brothers and a lodger. Aston was an extremely industrial part of Birmingham, the city of a thousand trades. Many of these trades were in Aston. An old map reveals brass foundries, gun makers, drysalters, sharing space with hundreds of houses. It must have been a noisy, polluted place. People were poor, housing overcrowded, sanitation appalling and children played barefoot on the streets.

Now Mary Ann Branigan seemed like an unusual name to me. I thought that I was well on my way. I also saw that Mary Ann was born in Tingewick, a village I didn’t know but one that was to become very important to me in my research.

Marriage of Mary Ann Sheppard and Robert Walter Branigan, 18 July 1862


My next find was Mary’s marriage in London to Robert Walter Branigan, an apothecary in London. She was 20. He was 38. How exciting was that – a 19th century apothecary. The marriage certificate gave me Mary’s father as John Sheppard. This is going to be easy, I decided. I was so excited about this woman from Tingewick who married in London and was living widowed in Birmingham. What had happened to her? Well, quite a lot really.

Now the rather great thing about Tingewick is that there is a fantastic website. It didn’t take me long to do a search. I wanted to know where it was and what it was like. I didn’t anticipate finding that somebody wonderful had researched families from the village. I was able to see that my great, great grandmother, Mary Ann Branigan, then Sheppard was baptised in Tingewick in 1842. Her mother Mary Ann(2) Sheppard (nee Everett) was born in 1820 and her mother Catherine Packer was daughter and granddaughter to the John Packers who were watch and clock makers. It was thrilling to be able to go right back to the middle of the 18th century with very little effort on my part. I noted that there was a facility to contact Su ( which I did.

not-quite-marriage of Mary Ann Shepherd and Robert Brannigan, 16 July 1862

I had no idea where it would lead me. In fact, it took me right back to Mary Ann Branigan who was to prove a fascinating character. Su responded very quickly with a rather strange marriage certificate (above). The certificate is not signed and there is an objection on the bottom saying that Mary Ann is the daughter of the sister of Robert Walter Branigan’s late wife. But Robert then appears before the magistrate and declares that he has never been married. So, two days later on 18th July 1862, Mary Ann and Robert Walter (who now claims he is a bachelor and not a widower) are married.

There are at least three issues with all of this.

30 March 1851 census return for 10 Grove Terrace, Tower Hamlets

In 1851 my great, great grandmother, aged 8, is living with brother and their mother – also Mary Ann(2) Sheppard and apparently still married – in their grandparents’ house in Hackney.

17 April 1851 marriage of Marianne Sheppard (widow) to Robert Walter Brannigan

Less than three weeks later Mary Ann(2) married Robert Walter Branigan. Yes – the same man. Mary Ann(2) died in 1856. So, Robert Walter Branigan’s late wife was my great, great grandmother’s mother and not her aunt! There is definitely a marriage certificate so he was married. In addition, Mary Ann says that her father is John Sheppard which I, as a novice, had taken as gospel until Su put me straight. In fact, her father was Edward Sheppard. I have to assume that the couple lied in order to convince the authorities that Robert’s late wife was an aunt and not her mother.

Su, whose help and guidance have been invaluable in my research, has not yet been able to find a death record for Edward Sheppard so it is possible that Robert’s marriage to Mary Ann’s mother was bigamous, and hence invalid, so he might have been a bachelor but why all the initial lies?

14 Nov 1897 marriage of Thomas Francis Branigan and Eliza Cragg

Naïve as I am, I had assumed that Robert Walter was my great grandfather’s father but again Su helped me out. They did have children, Elizabeth, Richard and Robert but only Richard survived. In 1873, Robert Walter Branigan dies. Mary Ann is only 31. My great grandfather was born in 1876 and on his marriage certificate to my great grandmother, Eliza, he says that he was born in Southampton and that his father, also Thomas Francis, was a captain. Now, I have to admit that I thought this was a bit farfetched.

1871 census return for 46 Clifford Crescent, Southampton

I did find a Thomas Francis Branigan, a retired army officer, living in Southampton, on the 1871 census but, he was born in 1810 or 1814, depending on what you believe and he was already married to 62 year old Mary Ann(3) Branigan. Could he have been Robert Walter’s older brother? Having married her stepfather, had Mary Ann now had a child with her much older, step uncle?

Again, Su slotted another piece into the jigsaw puzzle. She found Thomas Francis’s (elder) earlier marriage. His father, like Robert Walter’s, who was born in Tipperary, Ireland, was a Richard Branigan. This suggests that they might indeed have been brothers and Mary Ann might have gone to seek help following the death of her husband. Even more fascinating, Thomas Francis’s (elder) first marriage to Mary Ann(3) Michell took place in Agra, Bengal, India where he was a soldier, initially for the East India Company. Mary Ann(3) died in December 1875 and, Su found that in March 1876 Thomas Francis (elder) Branigan married Mary Ann. Less than 6 months later, Thomas Francis Branigan, my great grandfather is born. I tend to feel that Thomas Francis (elder) is the biological father and that the marriage was rushed for obvious reasons.

In September 1877, less than one year later, Thomas Francis (elder) dies leaving effects under £300 to Mary Ann. This probably equates to somewhere between £16,000 and £24,000 today. Yet, four years later Mary Ann is in Birmingham with a lodger. She goes on to have at least two more sons. In 1891, she is working as a seamstress and has her four younger boys living with her.

1901 census return for Aston Union Workhouse

In 1901, Mary Ann is admitted to Aston Union Workhouse. She is 58. Two months later she is dead.

The girl from Tingewick lived a colourful life, one marked by death and loss. I have still so much to find out. Why did Mary Ann move to Birmingham? Why did she end up in the workhouse? What was life like for Thomas Francis in India? Can I find out anything about my Irish ancestors?

Genealogy is better than any whodunnit on television. These were real people whose genes I, my children and my grandchildren share. I am hooked and so grateful for the Tingewick connection.


My thanks to Su ( without whose help I would not have got nearly as far and I might have gone down the wrong path altogether. I was so glad of her experience and the time she spent on my behalf.