My Sankey Ancestors

The name Sankey first appears in history in the Testa de Nevill (1189-99) with a reference to a Gerard de Sanki 'the carpenter'. By the time of the inquests of 1212, Sankey Magna (Great Sankey) was a township in Lancashire, and Sankey Parva (Little Sankey) a hamlet in the adjacent township of Warrington, just to the east of Liverpool (map at right).

A Sankey genealogy, "A.D.1207-1880", was privately printed as Memorials of the Family of Sankey (Clement Sankey Best-Gardner of Eaglesbush, Neath, England, 1880). Its early sections are now known to bear no relation to reality. However, the Irish branch from "the time of Elizabeth I" to 1907 is reliably documented in the 1911 edition of "A Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Landed Gentry of Great Britain & Ireland" (Sir John Burke, London). Since my grandfather appears in Burke, family sources have been sufficient to complete these records to the present day.

Until the beginning of the 600's, the land of Sankey was held by essentially-unconquered Britons. By 675, the Angle kings of Northumbria had taken control of the area, then, about 920, localised invasions by Danes were followed by a takeover by the Anglo-Saxon Edward the Elder. The detailed roles of this area for the Domesday Book, taken in 1086, have not survived, but the summary role notes that "Walintune Hundred", which included Sankey township, was then organized in drengs, the Norse unit, and paid dues directly to King Edward. So, land ownership there, and hence land names, probably descended from pre-Conquest (1066) Norse forefathers. The area abounds in names of Norse origin: Aigburth, Bromborough, Crosby, Eastham, Ellesmere, Formby, Frodsham, Helsby, Kirkdale, Oglet, Widnes... And, the modern name Warrington may have derived from the Norse Vöring-tun, the place to moor the boats, although Anglo-Saxon Waering-tun, the town by the (salt-production) weir and Welsh Weryt-tun, the town by the river crossing, are also possibilities.

The role also notes that this Hundred was worth 15 pounds sterling per year to King Edward, mostly in revenue from salt production. Salt was being made by the broken pot method there as early as 600 BC. However, after the campaign of the Conqueror to subjugate Northumbria in 1069, it was worth only 4½. (cf. "The Victoria History of the Counties of England - Lancashire", University of London, 1906)

The name Sankey is thus probably of Norse origin, and the most likely etymology is from "sand-ey", a sand island. Sand bars and islands are a conspicuous feature of the north side of the Mersey, particularly at the entrance to Sankey Brook. The early spellings were Sanki, Sanchi, or Sonky; the name appears nowhere else except for various Sankeytown's named by people whose ancestors came originally from Lancashire. (Modern variants include Sainty.)

A history of the township of Sankey, with many meticulously referenced details of residents named Sankey, is provided by "A History of Sankey" (Wm.Beamont, Warrington, 1889).

So, from the history of the area, my ultimate ancestry might be ancient Briton, Angle, Norse or French. As you might expect, I've joined the Genographic project: my male chromosome has marker JN15, Viking, which traces to eastern Norway some 1400 years ago. Current distribution maps suggest that my ancestor arrived in 1066 with the Norman invasion of southern England. The only other Sankey participant who can trace his ancestry back 500 years to the area carries marker M242 which arose some 30,000 years ago. It's the most northern of all markers known to date, so his ancestors may have arrived around the north of Scotland two centuries prior to the Norman invasion. I've set up a center for Sankey DNA study at Family Tree DNA, which I invite you to join if you are a male Sankey.


The land of Sankey ca. 1212 AD


Sankey Brook today

While studying in Cambridge England in 1963, I met one Thomas Sankey, who drove around East Anglia in an ancient truck on which was painted the royal coat of arms, for he was Supplier of Flower Pots to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. (Cambridge was liberally supplied with ads for his patented no-down-draft chimney pots, so I never had to spell my name to anyone there. That was a valuable patent - most of Britain then kept warm with open fireplaces burning soft Channel coal, which provided as much soot and sulphur as warmth. A single downdraft left a house smelling for weeks.) Thomas said that the name Sankey came from an Edmund des Saintes Clefs, vassal of the Villiers family, who came from Breton in 1066, settled at Warrington, Lancashire, and built the first church at Warrington, which burned down late the 12th century and was replaced by his descendant Matthew. The historical evidence is that this is an unlikely origin of our name. But, it is probable that people who came with the Villiers adopted 'de Sankey' to indicate their new abode.

And, the name Sankey is connected very early on to the Villiers. The second Sankey found in historical records is Geoffrey de Sankey of Sankey (Magna and Parva), who held "a carucate of land" (as much as could be ploughed per year with a plough and team of oxen, about 100 acres of good land) in 1207 by military service to Paganus de Vylers, 1st Baron of Warrington. In the church at Warrington at the time of Geoffrey was a tomb of Sankey of Sankey bearing arms "party per pale, argent and sable, three martlets in pale counterchanged" - a shield with left half white and right half black, with three birds black on the left half of the shield and white on the right half.

Beamont suggests that the Gerard of the Testa de Nevill could well have been a boat builder - vessels came from the Mersey river up Sankey Brook to Warrington for customs clearance as late as 1722 and by 1757 the brook was so busy it was deepened over its first mile as a canal. Sankey Brook was, and still is, famous for its eels, a typical mention from 1548 being that one Thomas Sankey took a lease of the Sankey Mills from Sir Thomas le Boteler (a descendant of Paganus de Vylers) for a money rent and "three hundred styke eles in season at gettynge tyme of the yeare to be delyvered yearely betweene the nativitye of the Virgin and all saints". (A 'stick' held 25 eels.)

A Radulf de Sanchi became a cleric, as we know from a charter of the Priory of Thurgarton:

Be it known unto all persons, both present and to come, that we, Mathew de Vylars and his brothers William, Alan, and Thomas, have granted and by this charter have confirmed to God and the Church of St.Peter at Thurgarton, with Richard their brother, all their land in Lound, in wood and in plain, with the service of Radulf de Sanchi and the Church at Warrington, and the Church of Titheby, and the Chapel of Crophill; and Thomas his brother hath granted the Church of Owthorp and the Lord Mathew hath granted them the skins of the lambs of his house.

The name Jordan de Sankey, cleric, appears as a witness on several charters during the 13th and 14th century. The earliest, about 1250, was a grant from William le Boteler to Henry son of Henry de Sonky; it was witnessed by Jordan and no fewer than eleven others. William had good reason to be cautious when dealing with the Sankeys, it seems, for in 1294 one Robert de Sankey actually sued him and won, nominally over a patch of land barely large enough for a radish patch. Something much larger must have actually been at stake, for, as Beamont puts it, it was a bold thing in that age for a small man to sue a great one at law.

By the 1500's, the Sankey arms were emblazoned in stained glass at Warrington Church - the 1st and 4th quarters were "argent on a bend sable three salmon of the field" - three white fish on a black diagonal band on a white shield. About this time, one Peter Sankey lived in Leebotwold Shropshire and came into a good deal of land, most likely through inheritance from a grandmother Eynes. He obtained a B.A. from Oxford in 1570, became an M.A. in 1574 and later a Fellow of All Souls. He married Elizabeth Eaton (there are many Sankey-Eaton marriages in Daresbury Cheshire and neighbouring parishes), and was vicar of Baschurch and of Wem, Shropshire. To go with his new-found status, Peter began using arms differenced (modified slightly to denote a branch of the family) from those in Warrington, "or a bend sable three salmon" - three fish of natural colour on a black band on a yellow shield. If he officially registered them, the records have been lost. However his will and that of his wife still exist, although despite all my efforts I've been unable to obtain a copy or transcript of them.

Peter's son Richard became rector of Hodnet Shropshire in 1615 and Richard's son Jerome (also known by the Latin forms Hieronymus and Hierome), was also a Fellow of All Soul's, Oxford, a proctor of the University, later MP for Tipperary, then Marlborough, and finally Woodstock, and was knighted by Cromwell for slaughtering the Irish and collecting taxes from the survivors. (The History of the Down Survey 1656-1666 notes: "Sir Hierome Sankey, who having been lately knighted, they knew longed for some adventure to goe uppon." There is a fascinating view of his relationship with Cromwell in A History of the County of Dublin, F.E.Ball, 1920, under The Parish of Finglas.) By this time, the Warrington arms had lapsed with no heir, so Sir Jerome obtained an official grant of them. It was common in early times for coats of arms to be a word play on the owner's name, and this tradition is upheld nobly with the bilingual pun "sancta clavis coeli fides" - the holy key to heaven is faith. This may be the origin of the ridiculous conceit claimed by Best-Gardner, that the family descends from St.Peter to whom Jesus gave the holy keys of His Church.

Jerome had no children, and upon his death his estate passed to his nephew Richard, Governor of the Isle of Man, my direct ancestor. From then until 1878, my Sankey ancestors resided in Ireland. The Irish family seat from 1723 to 1920 was called Coolmore; it was near Fethard Tipperary. In the Irish tradition, arms are a symbol (trademark, if you will) of a family, not just of an individual - Burke's "General Armory" (1984) notes use in Brookeborough Fermanagh (my great-grand-parents), Sankeystown and Newtown in King's Co. (Offaly today), St.Johnstown and Coolmore Tipperary, Oaklands Wexford, Tenelick Longford, and Dublin. So, any male-line descendant of Richard named Sankey may continue this tradition, as I do. (It may not have been historically restricted to male-line either: Ann Shaw, the sister of Jerome, used them.)

Matthew Henry Sankey was probably born at Modeshill Tipperary. Along with his three brothers he joined the army, but was apparently invalided out (two of his brothers became lt.generals, the other a major). Joining the service of Lord Brooke at Colebrooke Fermanagh, Matthew became agent for an absentee landlord and justice of the peace. There were, therefore, two possible reasons why he was shot in 1876 while walking up his garden path. Threats were also made by the group that killed him against his wife Mehetabel and their children. She fled to Kingstown (near Dublin) with the family silver, most of her children, and a bodyguard. However, my grandfather Charles, 13 at the time, was taken under the wing of his uncle William Sankey, a general then serving in Darmstadt, Germany. It was with his uncle that grandfather decided to become a merchant seaman; he trained at the H.M.S.Conway at Rock Ferry on the Mersey and earned his certificate for Navigation and Seamanship.

My aunt Mabel found the baptism records of my grandfather and all his siblings in the 300-year-old registers of the parish of Aghavea. The only public memorial to my great-grandfather, however, is located on the Colebrooke estate - a 2500 kg bell for the church there, which my parents and I saw in 1965. In the entry is a plaque which reads:


The bell in this Church was
Presented by the Colebrooke & Ashbrooke Families
in affectionate remembrance of their deeply lamented friend
Matthew H.Sankey Esq
who was for upwards of 20 years agent to the
Colebrooke Estate
Died 18th February, 1876.

The bell itself is inscribed :

J. MURPHY FOUNDER DUBLIN 1877
IN MEMORY OF MATHEW H.SANKEY DIED FEB.1876.

Great-grandmother Mehetabel left Kingstown in 1878 for Toronto, via New York, and was involved somehow with property on Toronto Island which was sold at considerable profit. By the April 1881 census she, and all her children except Henry and my grandfather, were living at 71 Wellington Place. The 1882 and 1883 Toronto City Directories record a move to 107 Baldwin St. Her sons Richard and Edward had built a house near Turtle Mountain, in what was then called the South Western Extension of Manitoba, and are also listed there in the census. Mehetabel joined them in 1883, travelling by train via Chicago and Minnesota to Winnipeg, thence by wagon to Turtle Mountain. (The CPR did not reach the area until 1899.) Great-uncle Villiers, who had qualified as an Ontario surveyor, remained in Toronto; Henry seems to have gone to California from New York. Great aunt May must have met William Ponton before the census, for their first child was born in Belleville, September 1881.

Grandfather wrote of his travels in 1944 in a letter to his daughter Nora Zurcher. He stayed behind in Kingstown when his mother left, then in May 1879 joined the barque 'Fantasie' (originally the ship 'Eliza Shaw') at London, to take a load of goods to Sydney Australia, then coal to Shanghai China, rice to Canton, finally Cassia oil back to London. There, in May 1880, he joined the famous British ship the 'Cutty Sark' to take a load of Welsh coal to Japan. The life of a sailor on fast sailing ships was no picnic at the best of times, but the incredible events of grandfather's next two years occupy an entire chapter in "The Log of the Cutty Sark" (Basil Lubbock, 1924). His daughter Ethel Tillenius wrote it up for the official opening of the ship in her dry dock at Greenwich; it also formed the base of Joseph Conrad's "Lord Jim". A mate so brutal the London crew deserted at first port leaving only the bound apprentices; a superb captain who drove his ship just short of 2000 km in 72 hours, but committed suicide when the crew mutinied after he allowed the mate to escape after killing one of them; a stop in the shadow of Krakatoa only two years before it exploded; a replacement captain and mate who were each worse than the original mate even when sober; four months ashore at Calcutta over Christmas; cholera; a second mutiny in all but name; another murder by the new mate that also almost claimed the life of my grandfather; running out of provisions... Small wonder that my grandfather spent the rest of his life almost as far from salt water as one can get on this planet! (And, small wonder that all official British records of the voyage vanished. Lubbock's primary sources were my grandfather's personal diary and American court records of the time.)

Eventually the Cutty Sark ended up in a display dry dock at Greenwich England. There were several terrible decisions made at that time (the early 1950's). One was to remove all the special alloy sheathing that had served her so well for so many years and replace it with gleaming new copper, which is now badly corroded. Another was to cut gaping holes through her fine hull for access and ventilation; she can never sail again. A third was to not allow for the dry rot endemic to wood that has been long immersed in salt water and is then deprived of salt. As a result, by Y2K she was in distressing condition.

Anyway, my grandfather outlived all others who had sailed on her under the British flag. One of his memory wheels, cast from the original sheathing metal, was in a special display case just inside the entrance when I last visited as a student in 1965. I have the other.

There is a revealing historical sidelight concerning grandfather's service on the Cutty Sark. Ships outfitted for the tea trade, where long periods had to be spent in zones of light wind (the Doldrums of the equator), were fitted with huge areas of light canvas, whereas the best sail plan for the wool trade was small sails of the strongest possible material, to deal with the gales and high seas of the south circumpolar region. According to Lubbock, dockyard records show that the Cutty Sark's masts were shortened by 15%, and her spars by 9%, in March 1880, just before grandfather joined her. However, grandfather insisted throughout most of his life that the Cutty Sark was cut down only after he left her, and his copy of Lubbock's book (which I now have) contains an indignant correction to this effect. "Cutting down" a ship's rig was done in many cases simply to save money, and was considered an indignity by seamen. Lubbock assumed that this feeling had affected grandfather's recollections during the three decades that elapsed between the voyage and his research. However, there is another scenario not considered by Lubbock - that the Cutty Sark had her rig reduced twice, not once. A superb photograph exists of her a decade later, at anchor at Sydney Australia, which can be scaled to within a percent, except for the bowsprit which is shipped in and whose angle of view is less certain than that of the rest of the rig. This shows a substantial further reduction in sail plan from that specified in the dock order, specifically a shortening of all the wooden spars and of the bowsprit. Some of this (it would not have required dock facilities) may have been done by Captain Woodget, who brought her to a peak of performance that made her the fastest ship of her time on the Australian run, but it might well have been done in 1881 as grandfather said, as part of the repairs required after the neglect of his voyage.


detail of the sword of General Sir Richard Hieram Sankey 1829-1908


the memorial bell at Colebrooke


The only known photo of grandfather (at far right) during his sea career


Mehetabel Sankey ca. 1900


grandfather's memory wheel cast from the sheathing taken off the Cutty Sark in 1955


furling a sail

Anyway, grandfather left the Cutty Sark at New York, after visiting Toronto went west to join his brothers, and in 1884 obtained his own homestead. Leonard Thompson, Frank Thompson (who was to marry Ethel) and Fred Blankenbach (who was to marry Maude) had homesteads near by. Fred had been orphaned at 3 and brought up with Leonard and Frank by their father, the Rev.James Thompson. After completing an apprenticeship in a piano factory, he came west with Leonard.

By the 1891 census, the family had five homesteads in what had become the School District of Deloraine - Mehetabel, Gerald and Ethel in one, grandfather in a second, Richard and his family in a third, Edward in a fourth, Maude and her family in a fifth. The Sankeys shared what is now section 34 R21W in the regional municipality of Morton, on the south side of Highway 3; my grandfather had the SW quarter. None had the sod walls of so many of their neighbours, funds from the Toronto property and family silver, possibly added to by family still in Ireland as well, being sufficient for wood frame for all. A photograph of Mehetabel's home is on page 15 of "Beckoning Hills" (City of Boissevain, 1956). She was instrumental in the building of an Anglican church, All Saints, for her parish, donating the land and arranging for donations from Sankeys in Ireland; Fred Blankenbach bought, and played, the organ. (Later, in Victoria, he was lay secretary at Christ Church Cathedral for many years.) The All Saints graveyard, on the east bank of a creek 2 km east of section 34 on the north side of highway 3, still contains several tombstones, including one for 5-month-old Richard Henry Blankenbach of 1893.

In 1891, grandfather sold his farm and stock, to study at the Ontario Veterinary College, where he graduated with the medal for excellence. After three years inspecting cattle at Lowville, New York, he returned to Boissevain. That fall, he took his mother on the new CPR route through the mountains to the west coast, then south to Santa Barbara. The next spring, 1899, he joined a group of would-be gold miners, who needed a British subject in their party to be allowed to mine in Canada, travelling by steamer and rail through Skagway to White Pass, then pulling a hand sleigh overland to Atlin Lake. The brutal conditions under which miners moved and lived there are well described in many books, but to grandfather they didn't even merit a description after life on the Cutty Sark! He took out a claim on Spruce Lake, but returned to Victoria in the fall, then home to Boissevain.

Following the winter in Santa Barbara, Mehetabel went to Victoria to make her home with her youngest daughter, Maude. The house they then moved to, 3930 Telegraph Bay Road, Cadboro, still stands, and is designated a municipal heritage building. Mehetabel died there 1 November 1902, and is buried at St.Luke's, Victoria. My grandfather kept his photos of her, including one of her grave strewn with flowers, in his desk until the day he died.

The CPR was extending their line to Waskada, so grandfather walked the 20 miles there, to open a lumber business. He then built a home patterned after part of the Ponton home in Belleville, and called it Sidney Cottage. On 5 December 1901, the Belleville Intelligencer notes that his sister May's son Harry Ponton had just spent "some months" in Manitoba, and on 12 September 1902 that May herself, together with her daughter Eleanor, had visited Victoria and Vancouver for the summer. I presume that they made a side trip to Waskada, for, a month later, my grandfather made his last major trip, to Belleville to marry May's sister-in-law Josephine Ponton. Josephine died from an infection after my father's birth, in 1905. Grandfather later married Grace McConkey, the widow of Joseph McGill with daughter Mabel; they had three more children, Arthur, Ethel and Nora. At some point, probably before his second marriage, he renamed his house Coolmore, after the family seat in Ireland. It was still in use in 1994, when I last visited.
Sidney Cottage ca.1903

In grandfather's words, he turned his hand to many occupations in Waskada. Many were described in the letters he and his wife received on 29 October 1960, when they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, from Prince Philip (Patron, the Cutty Sark Society), John Diefenbaker (Prime Minister of Canada), Duff Roblin (Premier of the Province of Manitoba), and many other cabinet ministers and people prominent in public life. He was Secretary-Treasurer of Brenda, the municipality including Waskada, for 25 years, a school trustee for 35 (many as Secretary-Treasurer of the school district), and, in the words of the reeve, "took a keen interest in the Fairs, Victory Loan Campaigns, Red Cross Work, and many other community services - the greatest of which is perhaps the Waskada Community Park ... a memorial that we are all proud of." The park was 30 acres, and grandfather grew sufficient trees to surround it, all from cuttings and seeds, and nurtured them until they could withstand the harsh prairie droughts and winters. When I visited in 1994, there was still a man there who remembered him planting the trees, and what my grandfather said when, by mistake, some of them were mown down! Grandfather helped to build a number of schools - one being Strathallen school where his daughter Nora taught 1937-8; later she was principal of Waskada School. Many mementos of my grandfather, including the book where he kept track of all his students' achievements, are preserved in the Waskada museum, just east of his home.

Sankey of Ottawa
Ancestral Names
Sankey at Forebears
other notes on family history