A man of information

The forged baptismal record for John Shipway in Charfield.

On 31 May 1619 John Shipway, the son of John Shipway, was baptized in Charfield in  Gloucestershire.[1] Or so it the record shows. However, in 1897, this record was found to be part of an elaborate fraud which ultimately resulted in the desecration of several historical relics, one unfortunate death, and a three-year prison sentence for its perpetrator.

In November 1895, Lieutenant Colonel R.W. Shipway became interested in the history of his family, as many of us have.[2] Shipway knew very little aside from the fact that his grandfather came from Gloucestershire. According to one account of the notorious Shipway pedigree forgery in which he was soon to become ensnared, R. W. Shipway “made no pretense to coats of arms, nor was he seeking to recover some mythical funds in Chancery.”[3] With his curiosity piqued, Shipway contracted a man who presented himself as ‘Dr. H. Davies, B.A., Oxford,’ a twenty-two-year-old former school-teacher and medical student. While Davies once studied medicine in Heidelberg, he never completed his degree, although he was later found to be in possession of a falsified diploma.[4]

R. W. Shipway “made no pretense to coats of arms, nor was he seeking to recover some mythical funds in Chancery.”

Upon being paid a salary of £1 16s. a week, Davies then traced R. W. Shipway’s ancestry to John Shipway, a yeoman who resided at Beverston Castle. It was soon after this initial work that Davies began finding relics and information which R. W. Shipway, eager to discover interesting elements of his family history, quickly accepted. These discoveries would later come into question. It was later found that Davies had purchased the seal which he passed off as belonging to the Shipway family from a 95-year old villager from Mangotsfield.[5] Davies then determined that the John Shipway of Beverston Castle was the son of a John Shipway buried at Mangotsfield, Gloucestershire in 1625. The John Shipway of Beverston Castle was said to have been born in 1593 to John Shipway (d. 1625) and Margaret Sandows, who were married in 1591.[6]

Davies would then go on to claim that he had the authority, granted by the Home Secretary, to conduct an excavation in Mangotsfield churchyard, whereupon he disinterred a lead coffin which photographs later showed bore the Shipway family arms and the words “John Shipway, 1628.”[7]  In the process of removing the coffin, a laborer named Frederick Webster, aged 64, was crushed by a stone weighing more than half a ton, an accident which would claim his life shortly thereafter.[8] Even in the article announcing Webster’s death, the reporter noted that “just before the accident the men, under the direction of Dr. Howard Davies, had discovered the object of their quest, and it is stated to be one of the most interesting genealogical researches made in the West of England for many years.”[9]

During his trial, it came to light that although Davies was given £10 to provide to the widow of Frederick Webster, she only received £4, a fact to which she testified during the proceedings.[10] Amazingly, Davies also claimed to have located “John Shipway, 1541” carved into a beam in the church at Mangotsfield. This was later explained by the fact that Davies was found to have been left alone in the belfry of the church and he had previously borrowed a hammer and chisel.[11]

After failing to locate older wills in Gloucester, Davies then took it upon himself to forge a will for a John Shipway dated 1547 which mentions Shipway as a ‘man of arms.’[12] For nearly a year, Davies continued his fraud, even having some registries supply him with copies of wills which he had forged. It was not until W.P.W. Phillimore, a well-known and respected genealogist, began investigating Davies’ claims that the imposture was discovered.

Colonel Shipway, an acquaintance of Phillimore, shared Davies’ findings, which Phillimore viewed with skepticism. Upon examining the wills Davies ‘uncovered,’ Phillimore found them to be “clumsy forgeries,” noting the “phraseology, the spelling and the extraordinary contents of each of these documents.”[13] While Davies’ deception was described as “one of the most ingenious and successful frauds,” minor errors and unusual techniques proved Davies’ undoing. One such instance was the manner in which the death of John Shipway was fraudulently recorded in 1625.  Davies recorded the death as “John Shipway, late of this parish. Sigillum Leo telo manus.”  Genealogical researchers of the time knew that recording that a deceased man had a crest was quite unusual.[14]

Phillimore found them to be “clumsy forgeries,” noting the “phraseology, the spelling and the extraordinary contents of each of these documents.”

Davies’ trickery was finally undone when on 11 May 1897, Mr. Phillimore presented his findings to Sir Francis Jeune, the President of the Probate Division. A lengthy investigation was undertaken by “the highest authorities on the matter in question.” Upon completion of this investigation, Davies, who at the time was serving as an unqualified surgeon, was arrested and put to a trial which lasted from 17 September until 10 November 1897. Altogether Davies was said to have been paid a total of £683[15] (equivalent to over £82,000 in 2016).[16] In the end, Davies plead guilty and was sentenced to three years of hard labor.[17]

The case of ‘Dr.’ Davies serves as a lesson to all: even the most detailed attempts at crafting a fraudulent story will be unraveled by well-trained researchers.

Notes

[1] Gloucestershire Archives, Gloucester, England: Gloucestershire Anglican Parish Registers, Reference Number: P74 IN 1/5, p. 4, Ancestry.com.

[2] “Tracing a Family Pedigree,” Gloucester Citizen, 24 September 1898, p. 3.

[3] W.P.W. Phillimore, “The Principal Genealogical Specialist” or Regina v. Davies and the Shipway Genealogy (London, 1899), p. 3.

[4] Ibid., p. 4.

[5] “Tracing a Family Pedigree,” Gloucester Citizen, 24 September 1898, p. 3.

[6] Phillimore, “The Principal Genealogical Specialist,” p. 5.

[7] Ibid.

[8] “The Mangotsfield Churchyard Accident: Death of the Victim,” Gloucester Journal, 14 November 1896, p. 8.

[9] Ibid.

[10] “Tracing a Family Pedigree,” Gloucester Citizen, 24 September 1898, p. 3.

[11] Phillimore, “The Principal Genealogical Specialist,” p. 56.

[12] Ibid., p. 7.

[13] Ibid., p. 10.

[14] “Tracing a Family Pedigree,” Gloucester Citizen, 24 September 1898, p. 3.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Bank of England Inflation Calculator, http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/education/Pages/resources/inflationtools/calculator/default.aspx.

[17] Phillimore, “The Principal Genealogical Specialist,” p. 15.

About Zachary Garceau

Zack Garceau is a Researcher at the New England Historic Genealogical Society. He joined the research staff after receiving a Masters Degree in Historical Studies with a concentration in Public History from the University of Maryland-Baltimore County and a BA in history from the University of Rhode Island. He specializes in French-Canadian Genealogy and Sports History.

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