Planning trip to possible ancestral town in SW England, but what to do?
January 21, 2014 3:21 PM   Subscribe

My extremely-uncommon and forever-mispelled last name—Huxham—happens to also be the name of a tiny village right outside of Exeter in SW England. My ancestors left Britain from the port of Plymouth on the other side of Devonshire, so I feel fairly confident this might be where my last name comes from. However, even though I have the means and the desire to visit this hamlet…what do I do there? Just start knocking on doors? Should I contact the parish priest and/or tourism board?

So, my last name is Huxham, an extremely-uncommon surname of English extraction related to the names Huxtable and Huxley. From the little genealogical work that I’ve done, my paternal ancestors left Britain for America sometime in the late 1800s from the port of Plymouth, England—one of the biggest cities in Devonshire. I did some digging around and found that there happens to exist an extremely tiny village/hamlet/settlement called “Huxham” right outside of Exeter on the other side of the county. It first appeared in the 1086 CE Domesday Book as “Hochesham,” but I know almost nothing else about this place except that my last name almost certainly comes from here.

I’m planning a trip to the county of Devon during the week before Easter this year—going to hit up Exeter city, maybe the Dartmoor national park, and probably Plymouth, too. Huxham seems to be accessible via public transportation from Exeter, although from Google Maps there doesn’t seem to be much to the village…at all…besides a few houses and farms and an old parish church with a old cemetery and ancient yew tree.

What I’m wondering is this: how should I go about visiting this village? Should I plan to just hop off the bus and start knocking on doors to see if any long-lost cousins want to chit-chat? Should I contact the parish priest associated with the local chapel/church? Would Exeter’s or even Devonshire’s tourism board be able to help me out? Should I try and get in contact with The Locals, and if so, how? Do rural Brits take kindly to (American) foreigners blithely wandering around village roads? Would I be seen as naïve for making a “back to the motherland” journey to this small town?

Thanks so much for any insight y’all might have.
posted by huxham to Travel & Transportation around Exeter, England (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
My Mum has done a lot of work on our family genealogy and she spends a lot of time on forums and boards where people ask questions like this, "I am doing some research on x family name - does anybody have any information". She has been contacted several times by long-distant cousins doing similar research so you may wish to start there. The Parish Church is also a good source of info - you may well find Huxham graves in the graveyard.

It would be very unlikely, but not impossible, that any Huxhams still live in the village, but if it has a pub (this one in Stoke Canon looks to be the closest - Huxham itself looks little more than a farm) you could do worse than going in and asking if anybody knows who you could talk to. I wouldn't just knock on doors, but meeting people in a pub would be a lot easier and more likely to get results.

As of April I'll be living in the neighbouring county of Dorset so if you need anything else, feel free to MeMail me.
posted by jontyjago at 3:33 PM on January 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

What's the nearest town with a library that will contain local archives? I'd aim to start there -- you'll almost certainly find someone with a broader knowledge of local history, especially stuff that hasn't been digitized yet.

And there's no harm in trying to visit the local churches or pubs, for that matter. See if the local vicar has email and let them know in advance that you're coming.

I've known quite a few Americans who have gone back to their ancestral homelands in England and Ireland, and it's always gone well.
posted by vickyverky at 3:35 PM on January 21, 2014

Here's the Exeter Local Historical Society, with some more links to explore. (Apologies if you've already found this.)
posted by vickyverky at 3:36 PM on January 21, 2014

You can find out if there are still Huxham's living locally by visiting Exeter's civic centre and asking to see the electoral register.
posted by biffa at 3:49 PM on January 21, 2014

Best answer: If you're going purely because you think it's your ancestral homeland, some genealogical research might be a good thing to do first, to find out if there actually were ever any Huxhams living in the village, or if it's just coincidence (my surname is like a slightly misspelled version of the name of a Scottish village, but my family has zero connection with it - I don't know that the two necessarily follow).
Contacting the Devon Records Office for advice and doing a search of the census records would be a good place to start.

If you're going regardless of whether you've actually found a family connection, take a look at the village on Google street view first and get an idea what kind of place it is. Is there a church? (Which might have gravestones where you could look for Huxhams) or a pub/shop where you could stop for a chat? Are the houses in the village close enough together to make it feel like it is a distinct village, and for it to have pavements you could walk on, or is it just a string of houses along a main road with no pavement?

I think most people would be kind of nonplussed to find a random person knocking at their door expressing interest in the place - but maybe rural Devon is different. (It's called Devon, by the way, not Devonshire).

But (as others have said on preview) vicars and pubs are the way to go.
posted by penguin pie at 3:51 PM on January 21, 2014

Best answer: Speaking as a Devonshire lass, I would probably second not knocking on doors. Most people will likely, unfortunately, think you're a weirdo.

Pubs and churches are definitely fair game - the former rather than the latter perhaps, as many churches are empty for most of the day, but visit the churches anyway to read the gravestones and memorials if not to find someone to talk to.

If family is what you want to find then definitely do your research first, and do it thoroughly. But if you just want a good expedition then go there, get some photos of signs with your name on, explore the local area, and have a pint of ale in the pub.
posted by greenish at 4:03 PM on January 21, 2014

Best answer: Your lastname was likely fixed 600 years ago or more. Your family--and indeed anybody called Huxham--may have had little to do with that particular village for hundreds of years. It's tempting to get hung up the idea of "ancestral home" but English genealogy doesn't work like that. Romantic as it may be the connection between you and this village is thin. Besides, just because this is the only village called Huxham, it doesn't mean that other places, now lost, didn't bear the same name.

It's far more worthwhile to look for folk with the same name in the area where your forebears were living before they left England. The gap of 150 years is more likely to be yieldful, and connections still relatively easy to find. Huxhams were still being born in Devon at least as late as the 1970s!

Visit the village for a bit of "I've been there!", but do the research to see where exactly your family is from in modern times and what relatives might still be around. If you have the names and birthdates of your English forebears then this should be as easy as eating pie.

I can recommend Ancestry as nice and easy to use for beginners, and you may even find a relative already on there.
posted by Thing at 4:43 PM on January 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Nthing that you should do some research on your family tree on first. Once you work your way back to where you connect with other users' family trees, you'll likely find trip reports on their own visits to your common ancestors' town(s) of origins and that will give you ideas for your own trip. For example, my distant relatives had taken a bunch of pictures of gravesites and even interviewed some locals about the branch that had stayed behind.
posted by Jacqueline at 11:14 PM on January 21, 2014

Related to what Thing said above, the fact that your ancestors sailed from Plymouth does not mean they lived in Devon. Plymouth was a big port town, and people travelled from all around to sail from there (same as Southampton and Liverpool). I'd suggest a bit more groundwork with birth records and parish records. The census (which began in 1840) may be very helpful!
posted by tinwhiskers at 12:18 AM on January 22, 2014

What fun! Even though your connection to this town might be distant or non-existent, it sounds super fun to visit. (The small towns are where it's at when you're traveling, anyway!)

Contact the parish and the historical society prior to your trip, just inquiring about genealogical information. How much of your own family tree do you have?

From my travels as an American through some rural parts of the UK, I wouldn't say that The Locals took unkindly to one or two of us wandering down their lanes. But I would certainly say that broadcasting a motherland visit is likely to get you some eye-rolls. Approach the whole visit as some research -- just in case -- maybe -- there was a connection and take what information you have to try and connect any dots.

(There may be no connection at all. The paternal side of my family tree goes back to about 1670 in the US, coming also from Plymouth; however, the surname evolved through different spellings to what is now a very, very common Croatian name. Still, genealogy and history and traveling are fun, so go have a good time!)
posted by mibo at 2:32 AM on January 22, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks so much for all the replies, everyone. In the end I decided against making the trip to SW England this year because your suggestions made me realize I ought to do some serious genealogical research before I go there. I feel like I should look into my ancestry first so I can come prepared knowing where I should be looking/if I should check in to some libraries or record offices.

If/when I do go, I will definitely be contacting priests/members of the church as well as popping in to the local bars and restaurants.

posted by huxham at 3:42 AM on January 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

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