Monday, 28 May 2018

A religious gene? Your Family Tree Magazine July 2007 Father John Twisleton traces his family tree and asks whether you can get religion in the blood.

During the course of my family research, religion has cropped up quite a bit, and some of the interesting characters and stories I’ve come up with have given me food for thought. Is religion in my family’s genes? Could it be that my own Christian faith is made easier by my history?

I started my family research in Giggleswick Vicarage in around 1970. I was a friend of the Vicar’s son and through this friendship I got to know his dad, who told me how the Mormons (better known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) were a bit of a pest for Anglican clergy as they were busy copying parish records. Of course, this is something everyone is grateful for today! The idea dawned that with a local name like Twisleton I might find it interesting to look in local parish records, which I did. I have a faded exercise book from those days full of Twisleton records.

Thirty years on I’ve come back to family research, and I’ve since been a custodian of parish records myself as a priest. In my present work as mission and renewal adviser in Chichester diocese, I am aware of how our parish records help people in Sussex to discover their history, and asa a family historian, I’m pleased to see how our priests and churchwardens take the time and trouble to help researchers.

I live in Haywards Heath, some way from my roots in the Craven Peak District. Fortunately for me, it’s only a short trip to the Family Record Centre in Islington or The National Archives at Kew, where I have been greatly helped in my research. I’ve been able to look through census records from 1841 and civil records of births, marriages and deaths from 1837.  Personally, I find looking through registers by hand more appealing than an internet search. Another useful addition to my research tools is the program Family Tree Maker.

Poets and Preachers

Tracing my ancestors to the Craven Peak District, I was delighted to find the details for my 2x great-grandfather Thomas Twistleton. I also found that in addition to my great-grandfather (Gregory Twisleton), he had anothe son, Francis. With a little more research I discovered another generation, and I became the proud owner of the birth certificate for Thomas Twistleton, born September 4th 1845 at Winskill, Settle, York West Riding, registered by his father, Francis Twistleton, farmer. Winskill Farm, Tom’s birthplace, still stands above the village of Langcliffe on the road to Malham.

These men witness form a large part of my religious pedigree. Thomas (1845-1917) is famed in Settle to this day for his Poems in the Craven Dialect with Christian insight. Tom Twisleton’s poems can still be found in second-hand bookshops and include much witty reflection on life and criticism of religious hypocrisy as in Church Gangin’ and The Church in Danger which shows sympathy for the free churches then arising in Craven. Tom’s brother Henry Lea (1847-1905) who emigrated to New Zealand also published poems.

Tom’s father, Francis (1812-1858), nicknamed “The Craven Giant” was a Temperance campaigner. I found out about his ministry through a press cutting in my family deed box – an excellent first resort for researchers if possible – published in a journal named The British Workman in 1861:

In the earlier years of his life, when a working man, he was accustomed, like many of his comrades, to drink freely, believing that hard work could not be performed without the aid of stimulating drinks. He was, however, induced to abandon both the pot and the pipe, and by God’s blessing on his sobriety and industry, he has risen, step by step, from the ranks of the labouring classes… Mr. Frank Twistleton [sic] of Horton-in-Ribblesdale…is constantly attending cattle markets in the North of England, and seeking, by the distribution of tracts, and conversations with his fellow farmers and cattle-dealers, to induce them to follow his example. We have reason to believe that hundreds of persons have been induced by the example and entreaties of Mr. Twistleton [sic], to abandon their habits of intemperance, and are now sober fathers, and good husbands.

Who knows what good influence comes to me from my great great uncle? His tombstone still stands in St. Peter’s churchyard in the village of Stainforth in Ribblesdale with this inscription: ‘In affectionate remembrance of Francis Twisleton (late of Winskill) who died Sep 19th 1875 Aged 63 years. Also of Mary his wife who died April 8th 1887 Aged 70 years’.

Research before 1837

My work had already turned up two extremely prominent religious forebears. However, I didn’t feel that this was enough to prove a genetic link. I therefore set about delving further into my family’s past.

As other family historians will know, research before 1837 is inevitably constrained by the lack of civic records, although church records do come much into play. Fortunately, family history is full of helpful, enthusiastic people whose dedication to the subject is invaluable for all those researching their families.
My research in the Settle area was greatly assisted by Phil Hudson who operates the North Craven Historical Research Group ( The group has made a variety of documents available online, including some of the registers of the ancient parish of Giggleswick which I had searched manually 30 years before. Through writing an article on the local significance of the Twisleton family for the Settle and District Community News I was quickly in electronic contact with local history buffs. My research was also given a helping hand by the Stainforth History Group’s excellent local history Stainforth – Stepping Stones through History and by a chance visit to an open day at St. Peter’s Church in Stainforth.

Reverend forbear

In my 1970 exercise book there was one record that intrigued me. Giggleswick parish registers record the burial of Revd. William Twisleton of Sherwoodhouse on 27th February 1768.  Thomas Brayshaw’s history of Giggleswick speaks of Twisletons living at the same Sherwoodhouse before 1600.  I decided to pay a visit to this farm, which is now operated by the Metcalfe family. It stands outside Stainforth village on the road to Horton-in-Ribblesdale. When I arrived I was delighted to find “RAT 1703” inscribed over the front door. These letters, and the date almost certainly refer to Robert and Alice Twisleton whose marriage of ‘sexdecimo die Maii 1694’ is recorded in Giggleswick church registers. The Revd. William Twisleton would be their descendant and is most likely an uncle of my great-great uncle Francis, the preacher of temperance.

So how could I find out more about Reverend William Twisleton? For example was he Anglican or Dissenter? The National Archives at Kew have Nonconformist registers on microfilm which I searched for that part of Yorkshire but found no results.

A project to create a database of clergymen of the Church of England between 1540-1835 is underway ( which I will be following with interest, along with new church resources online that help those exploring family history via parish records.

Spreading the net

In the course of my research, and through contact with other branches of the family, I have come across clerical Twisletons across the land who cannot be directly linked to my own family tree. But family history is never finished, aand one day I hope to be able to prove a link to Bro John de Thytelton (Vicar of Sheffield 1307), Adam de Twyselton (Canon of Worksop Priory 1351), Thomas Twisleton (Curate of  Swillington near Leeds 1724), D Twisleton (Curate of East Ardsley 1755) or Revd Mr Twizleton(Vicar of Huddersfield 1734, 1739). I have also found a Frederick Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes who was Archdeacon of Hereford between 1799 and 1887, and was also related to Jane Austen. Plus there’s Revd Arthur Twistleton Polhill-Turner - one of the famous “Cambridge Seven” who went out as missionaries to China in 1885.

So religion is certainly in my family. But is it part of my genetic make-up? I’m certainly more open to this view following my family research. Whether there’s any true evidence to say that religion runs in your DNA, though, is doubtful. Looking back on what I can discern of my forbears’ lives, I am simply pleased to find in Tom Twisleton someone who praised religion that flows from the heart.

Dialect Poem - Church Gangin’

Written in local Craven dialect, the author’s feelings are clear. This poem by Tom Twisleton provides an insight into his views on religious hypocrisy.

Yan Sabbath day, I’ summer time,
When leaves were green an’ flowers smelt prime,
An lile birds raised a din,
I chanced to pass a house o’ prayer,
That rear’d its steeple in the air,
As fooaks were gangin’ in.

I stood an’ watch’d ’em walkin’ in,
To hear of future woe for sin,
An’ bliss for t’ just an’ wise;
An’ whal I gloor’d wi’ vacant stare,
An’ watch’d em enter t’house o’ prayer,
Strange thowts began to rise.

I ex’d mysel, “What is it brings
Yon mingled group of human things,
That fra their houses come?
Do they come here to sing an’ pray,
An’ to the priest attention pay?”
Answer says, “Nobbut some.”

An’ then, again, there’s some who gang,
Wi’ solemn looks an’ faaces lang,
    To sing the sang o’ praise;
Who wear religion as a clooak,
To hid fra unsuspectin’ fooak
Their cunnin’ roguish ways.

There’s some, na dout – but, ah! a few!
Who gang wi’ hearts sincere an’ trew,
    To worship heaven’s high King;
Who humbly kneel befoor the throne,
An’ in return for mercies shown,
Their heartfelt praises sing.
Fr. John Twisleton has served as a parish priest in Doncaster and Coventry, a missionary in Guyana and mission adviser in London and Chichester dioceses. Family history is his hobby along with writing and walking.

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