Real people: Real lives

When you spend hours delving into census records or looking at parish registers of births, marriages and deaths, it's easy to forget that family history is just about dates and names. It's about people.

The stories below illustrate that behind all those records lie real people living real lives. They were not necessarily born great. Nor did they all achieve greatness. And, as far as I can tell, none of them had greatness thrust upon them.

In fact many of them were rather ordinary. One Heenan did become a Cardinal; several were priests but the rest were mainly coal miners and farmers; engineers and sailors; servants and factory workers. No less important and no less deserving of their moment in the spotlight.

Robert Heenan, engineer who built India’s rail network during the time of the British Raj: abt 1828-1873

Born in Parsonstown, Ireland, the son of a doctor, Robert Heenan went to India at the age of 24. He managed projects to build railways for the East India railway company in the north of the country.  Read his full story here

His three nephews followed in his footsteps. Read about these men who put India on track in this article


James Heenan: tobacconist and cigar merchant: abt 1811-1874

Born in Middlesex, England as the son of a tailor, James Heenan became a wealthy tobacconist and cigar merchant with premises in London’s highly desirable Regent Street, London. Read his full story here.


Blackpool Tower, Lancashire, England

Blackpool Tower, Lancashire, England

Richard Hammersley Heenan: engineer and industrial magnate 1842-1920

Born in County Offaly, Ireland in 1847, Richard Hammersley Heenan went to India at the age of seventeen to work as an engineer on state owned railways and other public projects. Returning to the UK around 1880 he bought the works of Woodhouse & Co in Manchester. This was the foundation of what became Heenan and Froude, a company specialising in construction of bridges and towers including Blackpool Tower.

Download the PDF Richard Hammersley Heenan – profile to learn more

Read about other family members here 

View his family tree  here:Heenan family tree 127

The Benicia Boy

The Benicia Boy

John Camel Heenan, (the “Benicia Boy”) 1834-1873

The son of an immigrant Irish family from County Tipperary, John Carmel Heenan grew up in New York state, North America. As a bare-knuckle prize fighter he was highly regarded, though he had only three formal fights in his career, losing two and drawing one. His second fight, in England in 1860, ended in chaos when spectators broke into the ring. The contest lasted more than 40 rounds with both fighters badly injured. The result was the introduction of the Queensbury Rules – a code of conduct which governs the sport today. See John Carmel’s story here on the website

Bobby "the Brain" Heenan

Bobby "the Brain" Heenan

Bobby the Brain (Bobby Heenan), American professional wrestler 1944-2017

Born in Chicago, Illinois as Raymond Louis Heenan  in 1944 he was a fan of wrestling from an early age. He adopted the nickname “The Brain” at his first appearance for the American Wrestling Association in 1974. After a second career as a manager and broadcaster he was inducted into the Hall of Fame of World Wrestling in 2004.

Cardinal John Heenan

Cardinal John Heenan

John Carmel Heenan: prelate of Roman Catholic Church 1905-1975

Born in 1905 in Ilford, Essex, England, the youngest son of Irish parents James Carmel Heenan (a civil servant) and Anne Pilkington. He was ordained as a priest in 1930. As Superior of the Catholic Missionary Society of England and Wales. he criticised the United States for being too concerned about communism and not enough about spiritual matters. He served as Archbishop of Westminster from 1963 until his death in 1975. He was elevated to the cardinalate in 1965. He is commemorated in Westminster Abbey.

He is documented in family group number 171 – the family tree can be viewed via this link