Silby family genealogy

Silby origins

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For several generations before my father's time the Silbys lived and worked in a fairly small area of England. Mostly, they stayed around Bozeat in central Northamptonshire, in a corner where that county meets Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire. Within that small area they were born and baptised, went to school, married, and had their own families. Many of them started work at a young age, and I doubt they had much leisure time. Nearly all of the men were farm labourers or boot industry workers. Some of the women were lace workers and others, like the men, worked in the boot trade, but most seem to have been homemakers—no doubt kept busy looking after their large families.

I imagine they used their backyards or allotments to grow a lot of their own food, and bought locally what they didn't produce themselves. They probably travelled to nearby towns to shop or to visit relatives but I doubt they visited the big cities. Travel would have been slow and uncomfortable. Roads were poorly made and maintained and were muddy in winter and dusty in summer. The coming of the train in the 1800s would have made it easier to get around, but (despite a couple of attempts) no line ever made it to Bozeat. Bus services didn't begin until the 1920s. Trips out of the village may have been expensive, too. In the early 1800s a coach service ran both ways between Wellingborough and London three days a week, but the fare was expensive at about £1 each way, and the trip took 7¾ hours. The same journey today takes about 90 minutes. The London Road through Bozeat was a toll road: “The main road from Kettering to Newport Pagnell (now the A509) had been turnpiked by Act of Parliament in 1753...The rates which were at first levied were 3d [threepence] for a horse drawing a cart or carriage, 1d for animals not drawing vehicles, cattle herds at 10d per score [20], and hog and sheep flocks at 5d per score. These rates were later increased.”[1] Walking might have been the cheapest option!

Dad's family seems to have moved around a lot (I know of several places where they lived, including Northey Farm) but Kimbolton in Huntingdonshire, about 20km from Bozeat as the crow flies, seems to have been the most distant. One of Dad's aunts married a Londoner, a couple of other relatives ended up in London, and another aunt lived in Scotland, but most of the family seem to have stuck close to home.

Whether dad's generation was restless, or wanted a better life, or the upheaval wrought across Europe by the First World War (in which Dad's brother John was killed in action) changed their outlook, or military service broadened their horizons, or whether the huge social and political changes to come were already in the air, the family began to spread their wings.

Just before the war two of Dad's older brothers, Arthur and Bert, came to Australia. Dad (Ted) followed them in 1920 and his younger brother, Sid, a little later. Although Arthur later returned to England the other three remained here, married and raised families. The year Dad sailed for Australia, his older sister Edith and her husband, Harry Knutt, left for Canada where they raised a large family. I'm sure Grandma found that hard, especially having lost one son to the war. Her large family had suddenly all but disappeared. Dad and Sid were her youngest sons, and letters show that she worried about her "boys".

In these days of the global village, with its easy communication and fast air travel, international migration is fairly commonplace. For children born in the final years of the nineteenth century into a village family of unskilled workers who had lived in the same area for generations, however, it surely was a huge step to take. Although (at that time) Australia was very British, the differences between England and this country must have been remarkable. The climate was very different - hotter, drier and sometimes very harsh; our origins as a series of penal colonies had produced a larrikin, disrespectful streak in many of us; the distances were vast—little Britain would easily fit inside Victoria—and travel wasn't easy. I imagine that even our broad spoken accents took a bit of getting used to. All three brothers lived full and long lives here. I can't help wondering how they would have fared had they stayed in England. Would they have done as well as they did here? Having experienced homesickness when I travelled overseas, I'm sure they must have had moments when they questioned their decisions to come here. They had each other and little else to begin with, but they stayed, and the rest, as they say, is history. Only Bert ever returned to visit England, but Dad always referred to it as “over Home”.

The migratory path hasn't always been one-way, and the pattern of migration has continued into younger generations, too. One of my English cousins moved to South Africa with his wife and raised their family there, and one of my Canadian cousins came to Australia, married and settled here. My brother's oldest son went to England after he graduated from university and never came back, except to visit. He married and made his home there.

I've yet to find out how our surname originated. There are several very similar names—Silsby, Silvy, Selby, Sibly, Sibley, and Bilby, for example—and it's possible that one or more of those had the same root. I remember Dad telling the story of how someone suggested to him that somewhere in the past a family disagreement probably led to one branch changing the spelling of their name. It's a good story, and possibly contains a grain of truth. Whatever its origin, "Silby" is not a common name. There are still Silbys in England but only very few appear to be directly related to us. There are some in New Zealand and a few in Australia. The name also occurs in the United States, where it is used as a Christian name as well as a surname. I have no idea whether those in NZ and the USA are connected with us.


  1. Bligh, Philip. 2003. Bozeat 2000: The Story of a Northamptonshire Village, Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, W. D. Wharton, p260.


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