Everything you wanted to know about Doodson family history

The Grappenhall/Ardwick/Barrow and Thelwall/Denton/Lyiate trees

These trees are some of the more interesting on this site, and a little narrative might help to explain some of the oddities here. If you want to skip straight to the trees, click below:

    •    Grappenhall, Barrow and Ardwick UPDATED December 2012

    •    Thelwall, Lydiate and Denton UPDATED March 2016

Origins in Grappenhall

Needless to say tracing a family back is a tricky business when it comes to tying things together before the first census in England and Wales in 1841. Records before then are sketchy and either you have to go to local churches physically to check parish records or you have to rely on web sites like, which includes parish records transcribed by the Church of Latter-day Saints (better known as the Mormons). Some of the pre-1841 information on these trees comes from there, in particular the fact that Richard and Martha had the children listed (William, Thomas, Margaret and Richard). Richard is not recorded in the census records so presumably died by 1841. Martha lived until at least 1861 as she was recorded in the census of that year. 

But once you get to the 1841 census and later the threads can be followed, albeit with some diversions. The branch who ended up in Barrow-in-Furness became "Dudson" after 1861 - without being able to spot this happening it would have been impossible to trace the trees to the 1911 census and beyond. Normally my focus is only on people who retain the surname Doodson, but as this lot flipped between Doodson and Dudson for a while it seemed sensible to keep going for a few censuses, in case they flipped back. To modern eyes this must seem very odd - why change the spelling of your family surname? Chances are most of these folk couldn't read or write well, if at all, and as long as the name sounded right then what did it matter? And perhaps in Barrow the local accent didn't differentiate between Doodson and Dudson? I have always pronounced the "oo" as in the word "woo", but why not pronounce it as in "good"?

Anyway, the linking origin of this pair of trees is the area around Grappenhall in Cheshire. It was farming country and despite its proximity to Warrington and Runcorn the area still is mostly countryside. The villages of Grappenhall, Latchford, Appleton, Lymm and Thelwall (all within just a few miles of each other) all appear as birthplaces near the top of these two trees, and these proved key to building the links - even though the families of Richard and John haven't been linked together in my researches they must have been related - Grappenhall and Thelwall have always been small villages, and for two families called Doodson in such close proximity to be unrelated is inconceivable. At some point in the 1700s maybe their father moved there from the Farnworth area and produced Richard and John.

The influence of the railways

By the mid-1800s the railways were having a huge impact on Great Britain. The North West in particular, which had been dominated by canals until now was transformed. The cotton mills, which previously had been on rivers (for power) and then next to canals (which were used to deliver coal and raw cotton) were now supplied by rail. And the railways brought railway jobs. The "navvying" of the tracks was often done by Irish immigrant workers (just as the canals), but train driving and other ongoing engineering work were opportunities for locals. As well as jobs the railways made people more mobile and you can see families upping sticks and migrating far from their homelands.

On these trees you see many men becoming train drivers, and the migration of one branch from Cheshire to Barrow in Lancashire (where they changed surname from Doodson to Dudson). One fellow, Thomas (b1812), went all the way down from Grappenhall to Surrey and Hampshire with his wife Elizabeth and son Richard, had two more children, Elizabeth and Thomas, before moving all the way to the Barrow area. At some point his first wife died and he remarried to a local woman, who bore him nine more children. What took Thomas from farming in Cheshire to Surrey, then Hampshire, then all the way up to Barrow is unknown - but I bet without the new railways he would have stayed at home! But Thomas started the Doodson/Dudson dynasty in Barrow. The town must have had some attraction, since by 1871 Thomas' brother William and wife Elisabeth had moved from Grappenhall to Barrow, to live with Thomas and his family. In any case, without the early Victorian railways this sort of migration, both from North to South and back again and even relatively small distances like Grappenhall to Barrow (over 100 miles by road today) simply would not have happened. Thomas must have kept in touch with his brother by letter (no emails or text in this days!) saying how nice it was in Barrow, and when William came to retire he moved up there.

Spreading of the Doodson name

Of course, this mobility increased the geographic spread of the Doodson surname, to Gorton and Ardwick in Manchester, as well as Ormskirk and Formby north of Liverpool, this latter group again via jobs in the railways. Originally I'd thought the Ormskirk and Formby branches must have come from Liverpool Doodsons (see different family tree), but no, these originated south of the Mersey. 

On the other tree William (b1830) even went as far as Bishopwearmouth in County Durham (now an area in the middle of Sunderland)! It really is hard to imagine what motivated this, but go he did, and married a local girl, Jane, and had several children. Their move back to the Manchester area (they ended up in Denton) was equally mysterious - William lodged in Manchester for a while, leaving his wife and kids living with Jane's mother and brother in Bishopwearmouth. I had half expected to see a branch of Doodsons continuing in the North East, but the return to the Manchester area put paid to that idea.

Equally, I had expected that once there had been Doodsons in Barrow there would still be an enclave there, but the respelling of the surname stopped the line there too - any Dudsons there today are Doodsons really, of course, they probably just don't know it! 

Lessons for genealogists

As an example of how to use census returns for genealogy these trees are useful. It doesn't really matter where you start in a tree, though there are some merits in starting at the most recent sources, since it is often easier to track back to parents and grandparents that way. In this case I started pretty much at the top, since I knew there were Doodsons in Grappenhall from the 1841 census and I wanted to link them to other Doodsons if possible. Going back before then is difficult, but I think there are still possible avenues - finding out which Doodsons elsewhere were also farmers for example, and visiting the parish churches in Grappenhall and Thelwall.

The most important lesson from these trees is to try alternative surname spellings and use birth places and dates, as well as and parents' and siblings' names as checks. The keys in this case were links back to Thelwall and Grappenhall. Of course it helps that Doodson (and even Dudson) are relatively uncommon surnames... And use the occupation of both the father and the individual - it's amazing how many people in the Victoria era did just what their dads did - tailor, watchmaker, engineer, train driver etc. You should also use unusual first names to fill gaps - hard when most people were called Edward, Richard, Mary, Elizabeth, but occasionally you'll come across Blyth or Cicily or Edmund, and these are real gold when you're struggling to fill the gaps. 

Another tip: quite often people moved to live near or with their children when they retired. In this case all the way to Barrow, but this can be really handy to prove the William you've found really is the son of the Edward you found elsewhere. 

Finally, you can validate lots of information using online parish records - as well as the site many local family history groups have transcribed parish records. These can be great for working out when people got married - and although you do occasionally get people born "out of wedlock" as they used to say, it's pretty certain that marriages took place before the birth of a child, helping to eliminate or confirm parentage.