Hannah Best –
Where it all began

Michelle Hunter

06 October 2019

We all have memories of pivotal moments in our lives: a ‘where were you when…?’ memory, a shock of bad news memory, a finding out you got the job/exam results/university place memory, marriage or birthday memories. A look back over our lives is usually punctuated by such little moments, preserved as stills in our minds. One of my frozen-in-time memories is a visit to my great-aunt Ivy when I was 12.

I wasn’t particularly enamoured with the thought of a visit to my Dad’s rather eccentric spinster aunt. She had the tendency to talk for hours and I always slightly freaked out by the hairs on her chin! On this occasion, though, she dropped a bombshell which was to impact the rest of my life (and later change my career!) Whilst sipping tea and eating slightly stale Nice biscuits, she brought up the ‘family rumour’ that we might be illegitimately descended from King Edward VII. My parents laughed indulgently, having heard this many times, but for me it was a revelation. Great Auntie Ivy was delighted to have a new willing audience and told me that she’d always believed her grandmother – Hannah Best – had had a liaison with the then Prince of Wales, the result of which was her father! I don’t remember her reasoning (how I wish I could go back to that moment now and ask again!) or any other details, I just recall not wanting to leave as I wanted to find out more!

When we got home, I was really keen to follow this up and I eventually persuaded my Dad to contact a professional genealogist to help us! No idea how my Dad found out about ‘Achievements’ (still going at the IHGS) – perhaps an advert in one of those odd little Reader’s Digest magazines or a recommendation of a friend (however did we manage before the internet!) but he wrote to them with the scant information we had. Here is a photo of their actual reply, which I miraculously kept, stored away in my family tree folder along with all my other notes and interviews from that time, written in my childish handwriting! They asked for more information, which we didn’t have, and explained how it was unlikely that would be able to identify the father, so we didn’t take it any further.

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 Fast forward through 30 years – university, teaching jobs, life – and those notes remained in the fading blue cardboard folder, just waiting to be brought out again and investigated once more. I got a teaching job in London in 2007 but unfortunately soon after, I was diagnosed with an odd chronic illness which forced me to take a term off work. Looking for pleasant, distracting things to do with this sudden freedom, I dug out the old folder from my parents’ loft on a visit back home and decided – being in London where Hannah Best lived – it was time to investigate the story. Thus, Pandora’s box was opened, and the genealogy bug leapt out and bit!

I joined Ancestry.co.uk and made many trips to Kew and the Metropolitan Archives, trying to piece together Hannah’s life. I asked my Dad for all he could remember and wrote to his older sister in Australia to found out if she could tell me anything about her late Aunt Ivy’s theory. Eventually I had a rough story!

As Hannah was the first ancestor I tracked though records from cradle to grave, I think I will always be especially fond of her. She is also the only one of my ancestors (that I know so far…) to live out her life in London; the rest were mainly agricultural labourers from rural habitats! This leant her an even greater air of mystery and learning that she was a barmaid, has always transformed her in my mind into a character like Nancy from Dickens’ Oliver Twist! Today whenever I think of Hannah, I picture the Nancy from the 1968 film Oliver!, swishing her skirts and singing Oom-Pah-Pah in a Cockney accent (19th century London stereotypes live on!)

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Images. Illustration. Nancy. C1871. J. Mahoney. The adventures of Oliver Twist. Scanned by Philip V. Allingham. http://www.victorianweb.org/art/illustration/mahoney/80.html accessed : 06 October 2019.

Images. Video. 1968. Oliver! Directed by Carol Reid. England. Colombia Pictures. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OlKccuS_ayk accessed 06 October 2019.

So here is a summary of the story of Hannah Best and how her life decisions had a lasting impact on her descendants – the Keen family.

In 1844, on a dry October day, the 12th of the month (same week as my birthday!), Hannah Best was born to Phyllis and Thomas Best in Limpsfield, Surrey. How do I know it was a dry day? I don’t for sure, but this fabulous little website tells you what the prevailing weather was in any year from 1700 to 1849!

Hannah was baptised in Limpsfield on December 8th 1845, so almost two months later. Were they not in any hurry to baptise? Perhaps Thomas Walpole the rector had to chivvy them along a bit!

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Baptisms (PR) England. Limpsfield, Surrey. 08 December 1844. BEST, Hannah. Collection: London, England, Births and Baptisms, 1813-1906. www.ancestry.co.uk : accessed 06 October 2019.

Hannah was one of 11 children born to Thomas and Philly (as she is known on a number of records) – Fanny, Thomas, John, Reuben, William, George, Mary Ann, Jane, Morgan, Elizabeth and James.

It seems like a big family for Thomas and Phyllis to handle, but tragically Fanny, William, Jane, Morgan and Elizabeth all died at less than a year old. I don’t know about you, but when I find records of infants who didn’t survive, I always feel it’s so important to note their names down. I get a poignant pleasure adding them to my tree, thus immortalizing them in some odd way. They mattered to Phyllis and Thomas. They matter to me.

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None of the remaining Best children lived to a ripe old age like their parents Thomas and Phyllis, who lived to the grand ages of 76 and 85. It’s highly likely that Thomas and Phyllis were first cousins, but that’s at a ‘still to prove’ stage, so I can’t say for sure. Whilst it is not uncommon at all for families to lose several children in infancy (and often within weeks of one another in the case of contagious illnesses), all these babies just failed to thrive and died at a few weeks or months old. A controversial theory (for another day..) – could a first cousin consanguineous marriage have led to possible congenital problems?

Anyway, back to our strapping healthy Hannah. At the age of 16 or earlier, Hannah went into service as a house servant at Halliloo Farm. The 1861 census lists her as being 18. Was this a guess by the family or did Hannah inflate her age to get the job!? Halliloo Farm was on the edge of Warlingham in Surrey. Woldingham Golf Club House has now been built on the site of the old farmhouse, which is a pity as I’d love to have seen the original building.

Woldingham Golf Clubhouse on the site of Haliloo farm house.


Images. Photograph. Woldingham Golf Club. 2009. Woldingham, Surrey. Malc McDonald, photographer. https://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/2677110 : accessed 06 October 2019.

I didn’t pick Hannah up again until the 1871 census, where she was still working as a servant, but this time in a pub – the Old Surrey Hounds, in Caterham. This establishment is still running, though has very recently been taken over by the Greene King pub franchise and is now called the William Garland. It appears to have had a dubious reputation in recent years. Was this true of the 19th century too? The pub landlord in 1871, a ‘licenced victualler’ was called Henry Morris and his wife, Sarah, was 20 years his junior, with three children from her previous marriage. Sarah, interestingly, was from Lincolnshire. I’ve often found myself wondering whether Hannah had heard stories of Lincolnshire, which she later passed on to her children, resulting in my great-grandfather eventually moving up here.

Images. Photograph. The Old Surrey Hounds. 2010. Caterham, Surrey. Stacey Harris, photographer. https://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/1799133 : accessed 06 October 2019.

By 1881, Hannah had moved to the St Pancras area of London and was lodging at 3 Ferdinand Street, with 18 people (5 other families or households). Bizarrely she is listed as married, and yet she still has her maiden name Best (and is the sole person in her ‘household’, or room, presumably) So has she kept it in the family like Phyllis Best who married a Best, or is this an assumption on the part of the enumerator, or has she said she was married in order to seem more respectable. I’m inclined to think the latter.

I knew from my Auntie Sheila that Hannah had had three children. Two girls – Kate and Emily – and Edward, my great-grandfather. Auntie Sheila recalled visiting these spinster great-aunts in London when she was a child. So perhaps there was a marriage for Hannah to be found somewhere.

I jumped on to 1891 and found Hannah still in St Pancras and voila! living with children Edward, Emily and Kate. So there’s no doubting this was the right person. But what’s this? Her surname was now Keen. My maiden name. The name she passed on to Edward and the other two girls.

The obvious next step is to find a Keen/Best marriage. Simples.

Except…Oh…perhaps not. In fact, no such marriage appears to exist. For a Hannah/Anna Best – Keen/Kean/Keane/Keene anywhere in England or Wales between 1871 and 1891.

Perhaps the birth certificates of the children would shed some light. And this is where I realised that Hannah was one rather inventive lady! After some searching and ordering of false certificates, I eventually found them:

Kate Elizabeth Best, born 13th March 1877 at Marylebone Workhouse, no father, mother Hannah Best, servant, 15 New Street Mews, Dorset Square, Marylebone.

Edward Newman Best, born 12th September 1881, at 196 Arlington Road, no father, mother Hannah Best, barmaid (oom pah pah!).

Emily Newman Best, born 5th April 1883, at 39 Frederick Street, father Henry Thomas Best, a housepainter, mother Hannah Best, formerly Keene [sic].

What? How? Who is Henry Thomas Best?! So many questions!

– Was Hannah a Best, who married a Keen/e, and then remarried a Best? There is no documentary evidence to support any of this.
– Why do both Edward and Emily have Newman as a middle name? It wasn’t uncommon for illegitimate children to be given the father’s name as a middle name, especially if he was already married. So this might suggest a Mr Newman was their father, but then why was Emily’s father named as Henry Best?
– And where the heck was Kate in 1881, if she was born 4 years before the census in which Hannah is a sole householder?

Kate I found, in 1881, living in Surrey with grandparents Thomas and Phyllis (bless their hearts!). But she too has mysteriously acquired the surname Keen, despite being Best on her birth certificate and there not being evidence of a marriage of Hannah to a Keen. I went to the London Metropolitan Archives and found the workhouse records for Hannah’s stay there for Kate’s birth, but sadly there was no extra information, not even an address where she was released to.

Images. Photograph. People queuing at St Marylebone workhouse. c1900. Unknown photographer. Wellcome library, London. https://wellcomecollection.org/works/xtevmfsg : accessed 06 October 2019.

Hoping to find answers later, I moved on to 1901. But oh dear. There’s Edward, boarding with and working for a cheesemonger’s family in Lambeth. Emily was living with and working for a draper in St Pancras. Kate was in service in Clapham. No sign of Hannah at all. This doesn’t bode well.

Sure enough, there’s one death registered for a Hannah Keen in 1896, in St Pancras. I sent for the certificate.

On May 13th 1896, Hannah Keen died at 121 Whitfield Street, aged 51. Widow of Henry Keen, licenced victualler. Cause of death – synergie disease of heart, lung and liver, accelerated by concussion of brain.
Fall out of bed.

I may be doing the poor woman a disservice, but my first thought was that she was probably drunk. I felt desperately sad for her. There was an inquest, but unfortunately, I was told by LMA that the coroner’s records for this period had been destroyed. I’m planning a trip to Camden record centre at some point to check the newspapers for that time in case there was mention of it.

I have no idea who this Henry might have been. Was he a painter? Was he a pub landlord? A fictitious person based on Hannah’s employer at the Old Surrey Hounds? I’ve looked at many Henry (Thomas) Best/Keens over the years. Sent for certificates. Edward’s marriage certificate lists his father as Henry Keen, deceased. No occupation. Kate and Emily did not marry. Edward’s baptism record says the father is Henry Best, a traveller. Kate’s baptism does not state a father. I have not yet found a baptism for Emily.

I like to think that Hannah did have a love of her life once. Perhaps he was a Mr Keen. She certainly liked this name so much, she gave it to her children, who retained it for the rest of their lives, despite all three birth certificates giving their surname as Best. Edward went on to pass it to his four children, of whom the son – my grandad – passed it to his three children; they in turn passed it on to me and three of my cousins.
I certainly don’t think it was Edward, then Prince of Wales (in fact, I’m sure he wasn’t Edward’s father as I did a yDNA test on my Dad and his haplogroup does not match the haplogroup of the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha!) Perhaps Henry was just a close friend who she roped in to stand with her during a baptism.

My last step then was to find Hannah’s resting place. I looked at churches close to where she died, and where the local dead might be lying in peace. My theory was probably St Pancras cemetery, so off I trotted to search their huge dusty burial record book. Just as I was about give up, I found her, listed at the back in the non-conformist section where the paupers were listed in their communal graves. The clerk on duty gave me a map of the cemetery and indicated roughly where these unmarked graves were. It was already dusk by this point and I didn’t fancy poking through the undergrowth in a graveyard in the dark, so I decided to return another day.

And so it was that on a very early date with my (thankfully now) husband, I persuaded him to come to St Pancras cemetery with me to search for Hannah. He should have realised then that he may have to spend the rest of his life poking around cemeteries with me and listening to me talk about dead ancestors, and escape while he could! But he dutifully came along and eventually, after climbing through some seriously thick bushes, we located the plot and lay some flowers.

mystery of genealogy
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Michelle Hunter professional genealogist

That was the story I planned to write as a blog, to honour my great-great-grandma Hannah, and the amazing job she did, in spite of a tough life, to keep her children with her. She could have left them all at the foundling hospital, but she didn’t. She got Kate back and raised the three of them, presumably on her own, in challenging circumstances. I applaud her for that.

However, it was while I was going over my records and evidence, in preparation for this blog (as I’m a much better genealogist now than when I set out to investigate Hannah over 10 years ago!) that I discovered something that knocked poor Hannah right off the pedestal.  Something that, bizarrely, even changed how I feel about her.

But that, dear readers, is for a future blog post!

To be continued…

References and sources

Births (CR) England & Wales. RD Godstone, Surrey. 12 October 1844. BEST, Hannah. Entry no. 80.

Births index (CR) England. https://www.gro.gov.uk/gro/content/certificates/indexes_search : accessed October 2019.

Births index (CR) England. https://www.freebmd.org.uk : accessed October 2019.

Baptisms (PR) England. Limpsfield Parishes, Surrey. 08 December 1844. BEST, Hannah. Bishop’s transcript. Collection: London, England, Births and Baptisms 1813 – 1906. https://www.ancestry.co.uk : accessed 06 October 2019.

Census records. England. Limpsfield, Surrey. 30 March 1851. BEST, Hannah. PN 1600. FL 213. SN 112. ED 8a. p. 26. https://www.ancestry.co.uk : accessed 06 October 2019.

Census records. England. Limpsfield, Surrey. 07 March 1861. BEST, Hannah. PN 445. FL 72. SN 63. ED 4. p. 15. https://www.ancestry.co.uk : accessed 06 October 2019.

Census records. England. Godstone, Surrey. 02 April 1871. BEST, Anna [sic]. PN 836. FL 85. SN 81. ED 4. p. 20. https://www.ancestry.co.uk : accessed 06 October 2019.

Census records. England. St Pancras, London. 03 April 1881. BEST, Hannah. PN 218. FL 104. ED 29. p. 27. https://www.ancestry.co.uk : accessed 06 October 2019.

Census records. England. Warlingham, Surrey. 03 April 1881. KEEN, Kate. E. PN 806. FL 11. ED 16. p. 15. https://www.ancestry.co.uk : accessed 06 October 2019.

Census records. England. St Pancras, London. 05 April 1891. BEST, Hannah (head). PN 127. FL 133. SN 9. https://www.ancestry.co.uk : accessed 06 October 2019.

Deaths (CR) England & Wales. RD Pancras, London. 13 May 1896. KEEN, Hannah. Entry no. 46.

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