Historian Russell Newton has spent much of his life researching the life Sir Isaac Newton. Here are his top tips on how to approach the question of whether you are related to the great man …
Isaac Newton had an extended family of half-siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, distant cousins, nephews and nieces, and even great uncles. Many of them carried the surname Newton but there were other surnames too – as a result of marriages. His relations down the generations since the seventeenth century (Isaac was born in 1642, and his father in 1606) have in some cases been recorded very carefully. Other family lines are sketchy, and some known relations have no recorded descendants and are just dead ends, as far as we know.
Many people have come to Isaac’s ancestral manor (owned and run by the National Trust at Woolsthorpe, near Grantham) over the years and asked if there is any genealogical evidence for their family story that they are related to Isaac’s family. They are frequently referred to me to see if I can help. It is clear that a lot of people have such stories. Often people write to me with the apparent hope that there is an easy answer to their question “is our story right?”. I have to disappoint them – there is usually no easy answer! If you think you’re related to Isaac’s family there are a few things you can do, but remember, it won’t be easy and it will take time and effort – unless you are the one in a million.
1. Ask your grannie Newton. The source of most of these stories is almost always the older generation. The story is passed from one generation to the next, and often gets worn away or altered with each retelling. This is inevitable and can’t be changed, so don’t worry about it. Talk to the person who told you about the story, ask them for everything they can remember – that means everything. There is no detail which is too small. Every clue, however small can reduce the infinity of possibilities to something more manageable. You are probably looking for a needle in a field of haystacks, so narrowing the search to just one haystack is a good start!
2. Work backward and confirm your own descendants first. From the oldest members of your family you can also get a start (if you don’t have a few generations already) on your own great grandfather, his father and grandfather. Most families have short memories for this detail, even if they are sure they are related to someone 12 generations earlier. The internet has made this much easier than before, and there has been a huge increase in interest in family history, which has made large amount of genealogical data available, and importantly searchable, online. Births, marriages, deaths and census returns back to 1861 through to 1901 and 1911 have enough information to get back to your early and mid-Victorian Newton ancestors. You could try Genealogy-links for Lincolnshire, UK-BMD has links to many other sites offering searchable records. There are some good commercial websites offering searchable databases and a small payment to view individual records. After the the first few generations it becomes much harder, but don’t lose heart.
3. Work from the past forward. A lot of genealogical information has been put together by families who are, or who claim to be, connected to Isaac’s Lincolnshire family. Sadly some of these are unproven, many are cited without any evidence, lists of sources, or any detail; and some are plainly impossible. The National Trust held an open day in 1999 and invited Newtons from all over to submit their family trees, and the volunteers put together an enormous family tree called The Descendants of Simon Newton of Westby including the ‘Father of Modern Science’ Sir Isaac Newton. The family trees submitted and other papers were retained at the manor house for a time. After a few years they were given to me for safekeeping and I deposited them at the Society of Genealogists in London, where they can be viewed with permission. There are also several boxes of material arranged into county order. There are family trees of Isaac’s family on the internet, mainly based on the work done by the National Trust, but beware, there are some false leads and unproven links to his family. There has been a proposal to use social media as a project to put the known, documented, family on the internet, with the expectation of improving its quality and depth with contributions from the public community of related families.
4. Avoid making common genealogical mistakes. I have seen many examples of families who provide a long list of names, each representing another generation, starting with a known Isaac relation and ending with their father or mother. This list seems to satisfy them as enough proof, but it doesn’t satisfy the genealogist. Family trees need evidence, they need traceable sources. Check other people’s work. If you have a family tree prepared by an earlier generation – check it. If not you may be inadvertently perpetuating an error, however it was made. When you do your work, keep a note of your reasoning (if it is needed) and your sources, even better – take a digital copy. Don’t reason that two people with the same name in the same parish at the same time are the same person. Don’t assume that the same name a decade or so apart in the same place is the same person or the next generation. Father and sons and mothers and daughters with the same name was the rule rather than the exception until the 1900s. Not only that but there are fairly frequent cases of two siblings with the same name. It is a piece of evidence, but inconclusive, you need more!
5. Take your time. Genealogy is a very slow, but very rewarding process. Don’t be fooled by the program “Who do you think you are?” – the hard work to find the detail of those celebrities families is done behind the scenes! But if you find, as I did, that genealogy (and history generally) becomes something of a bug, you will find other sources to look through, and places to visit, which will begin to bring the whole world of your ancestors alive. You will begin to learn not only about the world that your ancestors lived in, but everyone else’s as well. You will want to find out what they wore, how they spoke, what money they spent, how much things cost, what occupations they had, where and how they travelled, what they ate, how they socialised and much more.
6. Don’t give up. If you don’t find a link to one of the known lines from Lincolnshire – don’t despair! There are still some people in Isaac’s family tree who we know nothing about – what I call “hanging chads”. No one yet knows what happened to them or whether they have family living. At the same time there are Newtons who Isaac met or who lived after he died in 1727 who claimed to be cousins, but today we cannot tell how they were related. So there is scope for you to find a connection with Isaac’s family even if it is not documented yet.
Russell will be sharing his unique research on Newton’s family history at the Gravity Fields Festival on Wednesday 24th September at Culverthorpe Hall and Sunday 28th September at the Newton Tree Party, full details on the festival website: