Canadian-born comedian, Katherine Ryan, turns to family research in search of an ancestral connection to the country she now calls home – England. Ancestry ProGenealogist, Joe Buggy explores her journey and the resources she used along the way. 

On this week’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, Canadian comedian Catherine Ryan was determined to find English ancestors so she could say, ‘I’m a little bit English, like you!’ to her English-born daughter. Knowing her Ryan ancestors from County Tipperary, Ireland were most certainly not English, the episode kicked off by following her maternal ancestors, focusing on her grandmother, with who she had a close bond growing up.

We can often find parallels from our lives in those of our ancestors and it did not take long for Catherine to find a performer in the form of the wonderfully named James Arminius Richey. Her 3x great-grandfather, a teenager with a penchant for the theatrics, tells his mother, Louisa M. (Nichols) Richey, in a letter that he wants to go to war and will not visit her before he goes as he does not feel loved. Parents the world over can relate to that, no doubt.

However, all is well just a few years later when we find out that James, by now in his early 20s, did not go to war and published a poem about Louisa, titled To My Mother. Poetry as a genealogical source is a rare find and Catherine then gets to see more unusual source material in the form of a portrait of Louisa and her husband Matthew Richey, who was also a Methodist minister. Frustratingly, for Catharine, the title of Louisa’s portrait is Mrs. Matthew Richey, D.D.; something all genealogists who trace female ancestors will be familiar with.

Catherine heads off to Nova Scotia Archives in Halifax to learn more about Matthew and Louisa. Matthew was a ‘saddlebag’ Methodist preacher, travelling on horseback to preach to those on his circuit. Louisa and Matthew sent letters to each other when he travelled and a 19th century scrap book of these letters is shown. The thoughts, feeling and emotions that our ancestors experienced can be some of the most difficult aspects to document. Through the letters, we get an insight into the love and passion that Matthew and Louisa had for each other and how they longed for their separations to end. So much so, that Louisa intimates that one letter she sent should be destroyed, mostly likely because of its amorous content. Catherine is surprised by this but learns that the same feelings and desires have been evident throughout history, and have just not been documented that well because of women’s marginalisation from the historical record. Ultimately, more frustration ensues for Catherine as her Richey line is also traced back to Ireland.

The search for elusive English ancestors continues with research moving to the small fishing town of Bonavista, Nova Scotia. Here, we learn about Giles Hosier and Grace Newell. Her female ancestors are once again to the fore as we find out about the Newell fish room, a curing business that Giles married into. Sadly, a terrible tragedy struck the Hosier family as Giles and two of his sons died within a couple of months of each other. Catherine is clearly moved by these events. In his death, though, Giles, provides what Catherine set out to find – his newspaper death notice outlines he was from Poole in Dorset.

In Dorset, we learn about her Hosier and Cobb ancestors’ involvement with a castle, a pub, and slandering local magistrates. Arguably, the most poignant moment of the episode comes at the end when Catherine tells us about speaking on the phone as a teenager to her dying grandmother and saying, “I love you, Dolly Lou”.

Her journey from Toronto to Dorset—via Newfoundland and Nova Scotia— to find an English ancestor through her grandmother is now compete.

Do you have a connection to Canada that you’d like to explore? Here are five helpful tips for finding relatives in the Great White North using Canadian and English resources.

• Nova Scotia birth, marriage and death records are available on Ancestry, via our partnership with Nova Scotia Archives.

• Research in Newfoundland can be very difficult as there are very few census records before 1921. The Newfoundland Grand Banks website is a great starting point when researching before this year.

• Local newspapers can be a fantastic resource for family history research, as seen with the Giles Hosier death notice informing Catherine he was from Poole, Dorset. If you cannot find relevant newspapers online, contact the local library in the area you are researching as they will likely have original or microfilm editions.

• Tracing female ancestors is more difficult due to marital name changes and historical legal and economic exclusion. ‘How To’ books, such as Tracing Your Female Ancestors: A Guide for Family Historians can be a really useful stepping stone to finding elusive information about them.

• Ancestry has a great collection of records from Dorset, including parish registers beginning in 1538.

Kristen Hyde

Kristen is Ancestry's Social Media Manager for the United Kingdom.

12 Comments

  1. JaneFranee

    Knowing your roots gives confidence and pride. My mother has been teaching me this since childhood. However, before you remember the past, you need to be able to remember your present. We have a big family and once we all got a set of collectible custome family socks as a gift. In my set there were prints of my uncles and aunts) That was cute) Such trifles allow you not to forget that your family loves you. Do you make memorable gifts for relatives?

Join the Discussion

We really do appreciate your feedback, and ask that you please be respectful to other commenters and authors. Any abusive comments may be moderated. For help with a specific problem, please contact customer service.