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Kimberly Powell

The Real French Ancestry of J.K. Rowling

By July 20, 2011

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When I initially researched the French ancestry of author J.K. Rowling, I began with the man that she identified as her maternal great-grandfather, Louis Volant, a Legion d'honneur recipient. This World War One hero was also discussed in depth in this UK Telegraph article in February 2009. While family members and J.K. Rowling's publicist cannot confirm the exact source of this information, it appears to have been a story passed down through the family, and I had no reason to doubt it (my first mistake!).

As I began to write up my research last week for my blog post on J.K. Rowling's French Ancestry, however, the genealogist in me kicked in. The facts, once I had them down in black and white, just didn't quite add up....

Note: To avoid confusion between the two men named Louis Volant, I identify the Legion d'honneur recipient, who appears to have been mis-identified as J.K. Rowling's great-grandfather, by his full name -- Louis François Alexandre Volant.

1. The marriage record of Louis Volant, the confirmed great-grandfather of J.K. Rowling, to Eliza Mary Ann Smith in Gorleston, Suffolk, England on 22 January 1900 lists his father as Louis Pierre Volant, tailor. The father of Legion d'honneur recipient Louis François Alexandre Volant, apparently mis-identified by the Telegraph as J.K. Rowling's great-grandfather, was named Louis, but the additional name Pierre does not appear in any located records, and his occupation was documented as instituteur (teacher), not 'tailor,' throughout his life.

2. The Telegraph article mentions letters in Louis François Alexandre Volant's military file in which he describes himself as a "lay schoolteacher," yet records stretching from 1900 through at least 1921 identify J.K. Rowling's great-grandfather as a waiter. It's possible that the authors confused the occupation of Louis François Alexandre Volant with that of his father, but it is still another unexplained discrepancy.

3. Banns were posted for the marriage of Louis Volant to Elisa Marie Anne Smith in Paris in December 1899, and they were married in Gorleston, Suffolk, in January 1900. Louis also appears with his wife and child in London in the census of 1901, and fathered two children born in England in 1901 and 1903, respectively. Yet the military conscription records of Louis François Alexandre Volant of Ordonnaz, Ain, France, have him enlisting in the 23rd Infantry Regiment in Ordonnaz, almost 415 kilometers (258 miles) away on 14 November 1899, less than a week after his marriage banns were being published in Paris. From November 1899 to October 1902 Louis served out his time in the active French Army, including promotions to Corporal in March 1901 and Sergent in August 1902 -- all while somehow living and raising a family in England. British genealogist Roy Stockdill also raised doubts about this apparent conflict, questioning the presence in England, via an email, of the "other" Louis Volant while he was supposedly serving in the French Army.

4. The military conscription records of Louis François Alexandre Volant in Ordonnaz also include his address of residence for 28 February 1903 (Rue des Fontaine, Amplepuis, Ain, France) and 18 December 1904 (11 Rue de Tarere, Villefranche, Ain, France). He was still living in Villefranche on 30 June 1910.

5. In addition, military records of Louis François Alexandre Volant detail the injuries he suffered during WWI, including blurred vision, many facial scars, and a prosthetic jawbone. Yet J.K. Rowling's Louis Volant was still working as a head waiter at the London Savoy in 1921 - a career that seems a little unlikely for someone so greviously injured and disfigured. Possible, of course, but unlikely considering the prestige of the Savoy. The Telegraph article also states that the family said Louis Volant never returned to England after the Armistice (1918), yet he was still working as a waiter in London at the Savoy three years later. This isn't a huge discrepancy, but does support the possibility of other inconsistencies in the article.

6. Given the above discrepancies I returned to the blurry, hard-to-read, digitized copy I have of the birth record of Louis François Alexandre Volant. The margin notes I skimmed over as unreadable the first time, assuming that they referred to his marriage to Eliza Mary Ann Smith, actually indicate marriage to a woman named Marie Rosalie Chetail in 1901, just a little over a year after the marriage of Louis Volant and Eliza Smith in England. The census of 1906 enumerates Louis François Alexandre Volant and Marie Chetail living together as man and wife at 11 Rue Tarere in Villefranche, just where his military records indicated he was living from 1904 through at least 1910. Despite the fact that many other details of this Louis François Alexandre Volant fit with the Louis Volant in J.K. Rowling's family tree, it seems implausible that he was really getting around that much.

The Paris marriage banns I mentioned earlier actually came into play at this point. I initially researched the marriage of Louis Volant and Eliza Mary Ann Smith back in 2007 and already had a copy of their marriage certificate in my files, so I hadn't yet searched the recently added collection of Paris, France & Vicinity Marriage Banns, 1860-1902 at Ancestry.com. This new search turned up a marriage bann for Louis Volant to "Elisa Mary Anne Smith" dated 3 December 1899 in the 9th arrondissement. His residence is listed as 31 Rue Milton, Paris (the same residence given on his marriage record in Gorleston) and his father is named as Pierre Volant which also correlates (the father is identified as Louis Pierre Volant on the England marriage record). Eliza's residence is given as Gorleston and her parents as Henri and Elisabeth Smith. This is more than enough information to confirm this couple as the same individuals who married in Gorleston the following month. Yet Louis Volant's mother is listed as Salomé Schuch, not Marie Alexandrine Fodéré, mother of the Legion d'honneur Louis François Alexandre Volant.

Of course, it could all just be a simple mixup -- perhaps there were two Legion d'honneur recipients named Louis Volant? This does not appear to be the case, however, as no other men with that name (or the name Louis Schuch) appear in the list of Legion d'honneur award recipients.

Despite the fact that these two men were born within a year of one another with the fairly uncommon name of Louis Volant, both served in the French Army during WWI, and both died in France in 1949, they are undoubtably two different men -- and somehow J.K. Rowling ended up attached to the wrong one. I'm betting the upcoming showing of Who Do You Think You Are? on BBC will have it all straightened out and I look forward to learning what caused the confusion in the first place.

More: The Real French Ancestors in J. K. Rowling's Family Tree

Comments
July 25, 2011 at 11:29 am
(1) Ros Bott - Tracing Ancestors in the UK says:

This is a very interesting post and just goes to prove just how careful you have to be when researching ancestry. Tempting though it may be, one should NEVER make assumptions about family relationships without finding evidence to back it up.

Looking forward to seeing the J.K.Rowling episode of WDYTYA!

Ros Bott

July 26, 2011 at 12:43 pm
(2) Patcle says:

Wow! What a great job. The documents were not the cause of the confusion but the translation and how the facts were put together to form a definitive answer. You can have access all kinds of official and secondary sources but the true mark of a professional is being able to step back and see the whole picture. You allowed us to see your picture. Thank you.

July 27, 2011 at 11:08 pm
(3) Gai Segol says:

I too have ancestors in France. Several of whom were names Louis eg. father, son, grandson, great grandson.
I had to be very careful and only rely on their second and sometimes third names to actually be able to tell them apart. Reading french documents is also difficult as I only have a passing relationship with schoolgirl french.
When I finally found a living relative in France I was able to obtain quite a lot of information as he is my cousin. He has some english but he has a daughter who has done a lot of translating of the original french documents as well as sending me copies of the originals.

July 31, 2011 at 8:34 am
(4) Roy Stockdill says:

The story has been picked up by the Sunday Times of London and published today on page 5. Both Kimberly and I are credited for our work on it.

The producer of Who Do You Think You Are? said in an interview with the Daily Mail’s Weekend TV listings magazine yesterday that the revelation that she had got the wrong man had shocked J K Rowling “to the core”. “It was a massive surprise she wasn’t prepared for, but she handles it with incredibly dignity,” he added.

July 31, 2011 at 11:21 am
(5) Kimberly says:

Congrats Roy! Thanks for letting me know :)

August 7, 2011 at 4:44 pm
(6) Rosemary Morgan says:

I see the Sunday Times picked up on your recent discovery, Kim. I also see that Roy Stockdill worked with you on this.

I am intrigued to know whether the WDYTYA producers ad already sorted this out for themselves, or did they have to hurriedly “retake” all the scenes.

Anyway, it makes a great story.

It is all too easy (or it was, before the Internet) to know that you have a certain person in your family tree and assume it was the famous one. I have a similar example in my own tree.

Rosemary

August 7, 2011 at 7:33 pm
(7) Kimberly says:

Rosemary,

I’m confident that the genealogists and producers of Who Do You Think You Are? had the story correct from the beginning. Once I started to dig into the French side of the family it was fairly straight-forward research. The birth certificate of Louis Francois Alexandre Volant has him marrying a different woman – that’s one big red flag. I certainly don’t mean to imply in any way or want anyone to think that I felt the WDYTYA? wouldn’t have this wonderful story researched correctly. I just dug into J.K. Rowling’s past because I love French research and it was a good example for people wanting to research their own French ancestors. I’ve been writing about it to share the importance of: 1) not assuming that family stories are always true; 2) that it is very easy to confuse two men of the same name (especially when it is a seemingly uncommon name); and 3) how important it is for genealogists to truly analyze and understand each and every record that they use. It can be very easy to interpret information from a record incorrectly if you don’t read every last word, if you don’t put it into historical context, etc.

Roy Stockdill did email me with some questions regarding the timing of Louis’s presence in France while he was supposed to be in England. Conflicts I agreed were pertinent and which I was already researching. I also shared some of my English research with him. The research I’ve posted here on my site was 100% mine.

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