Jels – where on earth is that?

The Guild of One-Name Studies has suggested the topic of “House and Home” for its April blog challenge.  That prompted me to relate the story of my search for the home of my CLOSE ancestors in Swaledale, North Yorkshire.

My 3g-grandfather James CLOSE married Ann HARKER at St Andrew, Grinton, on 5 April 1790.  They settled in the Wigan, Lancashire, area, as evidenced by their children’s christening records, of which those from All Saints, Wigan, helpfully name not only the mother’s name but also the names of her parents, Simon and Ann (Nanny) HARKER.

Unfortunately, James’ burial record at St Wilfrid, Standish, does not give an age, which left me with several James CLOSEs from the Grinton area as a possible husband of Ann HARKER.  Having eliminated some of the other James CLOSE baptisms which matched Grinton burials and/or memorial inscriptions with recorded ages, I became more and more convinced that the likeliest James was the one christened at Grinton on 15 December 1754, and transcribed in the printed register copy reproduced on as:

    James ye son of Geo: Close of Jels Melbecks

When I was able to access an image of the original register on it only served to confirm that the transcription was accurate (although ‘ye’ should be transcribed as ‘the’, of course!):

James CLOSE baptism Grinton 15 Dec 1754

According to the Genuki Gazetteer, Melbecks was at that time a township in Grinton parish (which later became a parish in its own right, situated to the west of Reeth) – but “Jels” was a complete mystery.  Scouring modern and old maps of Swaledale failed to identify any such place-name.

A search for possible siblings of James in the Grinton registers came up with a potential family group:

Baptisms at St Andrew, Grinton:

1749, Jul. 3 Thomas son of George Close of Lawraw
1752, Sep. 17 Edward the son of Geo: Close Law Raw
1754, Dec. 15 James the son of Geo: Close of Jels, Melbecks
1759, May 6 Geo: son of Geo: Close of Iles near Law Raw

The last of these baptisms particularly caught my attention: 

George CLOSE baptism Grinton 6 May 1759
Compared to the handwriting in the earlier James CLOSE baptism, the location would seem to be “Jles”, but it became clear that the capitals “J” and “I” were written in the same way, so that the transcription “Iles” clearly made more sense.  So maybe the James baptism should be transcribed as “Iels”?

Two further baptisms with a father George CLOSE were identified at Low Row Independent Chapel, formerly Smarber Hall: 

October 26th 1766 Baptised Jane Daughter of George & Jane Close of Iles Miner. Pd £0-0-6. 
April 8th 1770 Baptised Richard Son of George & Jane Close of the Iles, Miner.

One may wonder whether these last two children belonged to the same George CLOSE, since they were baptised in the independent chapel.  However, records show that Low Row baptisms only started in 1766, so for the older children this chapel – more local than Grinton parish church – would not have been available.

The provision of the mother’s name on the Low Row baptisms would suggest that the parents were the couple married at St Andrew Grinton on 8 February 1748: “George CLOSE and Jane TURNER both of this parish”.

So now, since “Jels” has become “Iles”, a further scouring of the modern ordnance survey map of the Melbecks/Low Row area reveals the most likely solution.  A location (just a few houses by the look of it) very close to Low Row is labelled “Isles” – here annotated on a Google map: 

Google map of Low Row area with annotations

A search of census records reveals the cottages variously described as:

1841: Isles, Melbecks (4 households)
1851: Isles, Melbecks, Lowrow (5 households)
1861: Isles, Lowrow, Melbecks (4 households + 1 unoccupied)
1871: Isles Houses, Low Row, Melbecks (5 households)
1881: Low Row (Isles), Melbecks (5 households)
1891: Isles, Low Row, Melbecks (3 households + 2 unoccupied)
1901: Isles, Melbecks, Low Row (3 households)
1911: Isles, Low Row, Richmond, YKS (1 household)
1939 register: Isles Cottages, Reeth RD (1 household, 3 unoccupied)

The 1891 and 1901 census records for Isles were of particular interest to me, since one of the cottages was occupied by a Simon HARKER and his wife Ann.  Could it be just a coincidence that they had the same names as my 4g-grandparents whose daughter, another Ann, married James CLOSE who had lived at Isles around 130 years previously?  HARKER, like CLOSE, is a common surname in that area, but nevertheless this newly-discovered Isles family has been added to my long ‘to do’ list for further investigation.

Electoral registers between 2002 and 2020 seem to indicate the houses are currently known as “Isles Cottages” numbered 1 to 5, with a postcode DL11 6NG.  And thanks to Google Street View, here they are:

Isles Cottages – courtesy of Google Street View

What is the origin of the “Isles” name?  The nearby bridge over the river Swale appears on the Ordnance Survey map as “Isles Bridge”, and the Swaledale Museum Newsletter of Autumn 2014 says, “We’re pretty sure that the name comes from the islands in the river at that point”.  That seems logical to me!

My “Road to the Isles” proved to be a fascinating journey, ending with the satisfaction of solving the mystery of “Jels” and the delight of discovering that there are still cottages at the spot where my 4g-grandparents and their family once lived – even if I may never know exactly which one was their home.


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