Monday 20 December 2010

Mappy Monday - London, a birds-eye view

This map comes from the Pocket Atlas of London 1896, one of the many old books lining the walls of my house (and very good insulation they are, too). I published a reprinted version of this atlas some years ago, but because of the cost, it was in black and white. The level of detail is amazing, considering that the original is only about 12cm high and 18cm wide. It does look better in colour, though.

This is an enlarged view of the centre part of the map showing, among other famous landmarks, Somerset House. This was the home of various public offices over the years, but is probably best known as the home of the General Register Office, which left there in 1974. Today it houses a museum, and the unlovely car park in the courtyard has been replaced by fountains in summer, and an ice rink in winter

Somerset House in 2010

Sunday 19 December 2010

Shopping Saturday - a little bit piece of Christmas 1905

Boots the Chemist is one of the most familiar names on the high streets of Britain. It began as John Boot's herbalist store in Nottingham in 1849, and became a large and successful company under the management of his son Jesse. Jesse Boot and his wife took a keen personal interest in the company and its employees, and the scroll pictured here is actually a keepsake given to Boots employees for Christmas 1905. 

The poem 'The lesson of the Water Mill' is based on a proverb 'The mill cannot grind with the water that is past' - I'd never heard of it, but apparently it dates back to the 17th century. Unfortunately the scroll does not belong to me, but the owner kindly lent it to me to photograph. I wonder how many more of these are still around? 

Friday 17 December 2010

Advent Calendar - Moving house

Have you ever moved house just before Christmas? I have. Twice.
The first time was a very long time ago, when I was 7. We were living temporarily in a very small flat, but with the promise of a larger flat as soon as one became available. I remember being very excited at being allowed to decorate the Christmas tree for the first time. I was not impressed when someone brought us the good news just after I had finished my great work of art! On the plus side, this is where we moved to:

It was still a flat though, and not the whole house.

Nearly 25 years later, I moved house on 20 December, and this time I had a lot more to worry about than a Christmas tree. By now I was married with two children, and had accumulated a house full of stuff. We moved on the very last working day before Christmas, and the people buying our old house had hired themselves a solicitor from 'Nitwits'R'Us', so it took nearly all day to complete, and it was nearly dark before we could actually move in, and of course it was freezing cold too. But we made it, and we were very happy in that house for many years.

And when we had been in the house for five days, it was Christmas, and the whole family came to stay. We had hardly started to unpack, but I still managed to produce a full Christmas dinner for 10 people. It was a lot of fun, because no-one could expect it to be perfect under the circumstances, so anything short of total disaster would have been considered a success, and everyone seemed to have a good time, including me. All the same, if I ever move house again I'll avoid December if I can. 

Advent Calendar - Christmas at school

Until I came to write this post I had forgotten how much I enjoyChristmas when I was at school. The school I attended the longest was Chatham Grammar School, where they put up with me for over 7 years. The bit I liked best were the plays or revue that the sixth form put on for the rest of the school; it was always good to see the older girls, and better still the teachers who joined in, making fools of themselves for the amusement of the rest of us. And when you got to that year yourself, it was almost as much fun putting on the show yourselves.

But the show I remember best was one that I never saw. When Iwas in the second year (girls aged 12-13), the Powers That Be decided that we were too young and impressionable to be exposed to one of the performances. Indignation all round, but they were implacable, and we didn't get to see it. We found out later that it was all because of a rhyming couplet in a sketch, apparently some kind of skit on nursery rhymes:
'And where is the boy who looks after the sheep?...
... he's under a haystack with Little Bo Peep'
Do you think I would have remembered that line if we had actually seen the show? Neither do I. I'm really not sure what the moral of that is, but it's funny how some things stick in your mind, isn't it?

Silliness apart, there were some school Christmas traditions that I really treasure. The Mayor used to host a Christmas dinner for old people in our school hall, and we would put on a variety show to entertain them afterwards - we had some very good musicians in the school, although I certainly wasn't one of them. I did take part in a dance routine once, though, to 'I got rhythm'. Trust me, I looked a lot more presentable in a leotard then than I would now, if I were so foolish as to wear one.

But the climax of the Christmas term was of course the very last day of term, when we did no work at all. I seem to remember that they would show us a film for part of the morning, and we could bring in board games, or even records, if we were lucky, to play for the rest of the time. In the afternoon we had final assembly, which was a carol concert. We had singing practice for weeks beforehand in preparation for this, which was a real yawn, but I have to admit it was worth it, because the end result sounded fantastic. some carols were sung by the whole school, with the choir singing descant. They performed some on their own, which sounded even better, and there were songs in all the foreign languages taught in the school, including Latin. We always finished by singing 'The holly and the ivy', as we filed out of the hall to our classrooms, so the whole building was full of the sound of the singing. I had completely forgotten about this last bit until I was halfway through writing this post, and it's been lovely remembering it all. I wonder if they still do that at the school now? I wouldn't be surprised if they do.

Who do you think you are? Live 2011

The programme of talks, or 'workshops', has just been released for the event next February. The full details are not on the site yet, but there are pdf files to download for each of the three days with information about most of the sessions. There are a few gaps, including the details of the four talks that will be delivered by speakers from The National Archives. I can exclusively reveal (it's not at all exciting, I've just always wanted to say it!) that I will be talking on 'How to use The National Archives; online and onsite' in the 10:00-10:45am slot on Saturday 26 February. The other speakers' details will be added very soon, and I can promise that they are all very good.

Looking at the rest of the programme, there are a few other talks that I hope I'll be able to get to. I have to declare an interest here, because some of the speakers are my friends, notably Maggie Loughran who will be giving two talks about Irish records and Paul Blake, talking about South London research in one session, and Gibraltar in another. Bruce Durie's two sessions on Scottish records will be well worth attending (disclaimer - not only a friend, but course director of Genealogical Studies at the University of Strathclyde where I am currently one of his students!).

There is a good overseas contingent, with a considerable American element. I'm delighted to see that Laura Prescott, Joshua Taylor, Maureen Taylor and Darris Williams are all speaking, and I want to hear as many of their talks as I can. Eileen O'Duill, another great speaker, is coming from Ireland.

You can keep up with news of the show as it is released over the next few weeks by bookmarking the website See you in February!

Wednesday 15 December 2010

Warlike Wednesday: determined to join up

There are lots of family stories about young men lying about their age to join the army, and I have the proof of one right here. James Calderhead tried harder than most. He is not my ancestor, but he is part of a family closely connected with mine.

Almost as soon as was was declared in 1914, he signed up for three years' service in the Scottish Rifles, claiming to be 19 years old. Note the statement 'You are hereby warned that if after enlistment it is found that you gave a wilfully false answer to any of the following seven questions, you will be liable to a punishment of two years' imprisonment with hard labour'. So the army specifically did not threaten this as a punishment for giving a false age, one of the question before the warning.

The National Archives ref: WO 364/592
A few months later, he was discharged 'having made a misstatement as to age on enlistment' and a further note says 'Date of birth according to birth certificate 25th March 1901', which made him 13 when he tried to enlist. This is a clerical error, because I have a copy of his birth certificate, and he was actually  born on 25th March 1900. But 14 is a bit on the young side too, I think!

The National Archives ref: WO 364/592
In the autumn of 1915 he had another go, this time he joined the Royal Marines

The National Archives ref: ADM 159/162
The physical description part of this form (not illustrated) shows that he had grown 2 inches taller in the intervening year, but the Royal Marines took less than a month to rumble him, and he was discharged again for 'Mis-statement as to age' on 7th October. Undeterred by this, he decided to give the army another try, and less than two weeks after his discharge from the Royal Marines, he signed up for the duration in the Lovat Scouts

The National Archives ref: WO 364/592
This time he managed to serve 59 days before being found out, so he was back on Civvy Street before Christmas 1915.

The National Archives ref: WO 364/592
But did he give up? Of course not. Less than three months later, and about three weeks before his 16th birthday he joined the Royal Navy. He claimed to be nearly twenty years old, and this time he got away with it. His record shows that he served for the remainder of the war as an Ordinary Seaman, and was finally discharged in January 1919.

The National Archives ref: ADM 188/748
That is probably the end of the story, but on the birth certificate of one of his 14 children his occupation is given as 'Merchant seaman', so perhaps he had found life at sea appealed to him. However, I haven't found any evidence of this in the merchant navy records we have at The National Archives...yet.

Tuesday 14 December 2010

Randy Seaver is my hero...

...for today at least. Let me explain.

This afternoon I was talking to other members of the Family History team at The National Archives about the imminent change from the old, familiar FamilySearch to the all-singing, all-dancing version as on the Beta site. As far as I knew this was going to happen quite soon, and warned them that we should familiarise ourselves with the way the new site works, so that we would be prepared when our regular users went to the site and got a surprise.

Then I went on duty at our (shiny new) enquiry desk for the evening shift, 5-7pm. After we closed, I went back to my own desk to pack up and go home, and before I went I had a quick peek at Twitter. And there it was, Randy's tweet ' has changed'. He was the first with this important news to reach my corner of the Blogophere, Twitterverse or what you will. Not only that, he alerted us to the (not at all prominent) link at the bottom of the homepage in tiny writing to get you back to the old site.

Tomorrow is my day off, so I won't be there to help out with any queries, but I was able to send a quick message round the office to my colleagues to warn them of the change before I went home.  So thank you, Randy, for the heads-up; your quick action might just have saved readers, and possibly staff, at The National Archives from a fit of the vapours. Forewarned is forearmed.

 Round of applause, please, everyone for Randy and his Genea-musings blog!

2011 Best genealogy blogs

Today I was surprised and delighted to find that this blog has been nominated for the 2011 Best Genealogy Blogs by Family Tree magazine (the USA magazine, no connection with the British magazine of the same name). and it's only been going since October! Fair enough, it is in the 'New Blogs' category, but I'm very flattered just the same.

I'm in good company too, some of my favourite blogs have also been nominated: Roots and Rambles, Eastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter, Ancestry Insider,

Monday 13 December 2010

Mappy Monday - Poor Law Unions of Kent

This is one of my favourite maps, and one of the first antique maps I bought, about 20 years ago. I have a particular interest in Kent, and I also lived there from the ages of 8 to 18, so I know parts of the county very well.

The map is undated, and was engraved for Lewis's Topographical Dictionary, of which there were several editions. So I can't date it exactly, but it is 19th century, and has to be later than 1834, when Poor Law Unions were formed, each Union being a collection of parishes grouped together for Poor Law purposes. The key in the bottom left corner of the map gives a number for each Union, and the printed boundaries on the map have been hand-coloured, making it more attractive and easier to read.

For the genealogist, maps like this are particularly useful because Poor Law Unions almost always have the same boundaries as Registration Districts for births, marriages and deaths, established in 1837. Anyone who is familiar with the Phillimore Atlas and Index of Parish Registers will recognise the style of this map, as the Atlas has similar county topographical maps (but without the marked boundaries) opposite parish boundary maps. I have a well-thumbed old copy of the Phillimore Atlas, but I rarely use it now for English research, because the wonderful England 1851 Jurisdictions map, part of FamilySearch, does everything that the Atlas does, and more. And it's FREE! If you haven't already used this fantastic resource, try it out. I've used it quite a bit, but I only discovered yesterday that you can save and print from it too. 

Thursday 9 December 2010

1911 Census Enumerators Summary Books

Now that these are online at Ancestry as well as Findmypast, you can see them without looking at the household schedules first. If you've never seen these before, they are quite unlike the census returns you have seen for 1841 to 1901. For the first time the statistical abstracts were made mechanically, and this was done directly from the household schedules, so there was no need to have the enumerators copy the results into books, as they had done in previous years. But they still needed to keep a record of the households where they had delivered schedules, and of the uninhabited buildings in the district. They also needed to record the district descriptions and all the summaries and totals that appear in the preliminary pages of the old-style enumeration books.

So the 1911 Enumerators Summary Books are like a version of the old enumeration books, but with some (but not all) names included. The names listed are of heads of household only, but including lodgers where they completed their own schedules.

They are a wonderful resource, but there are a few things you need to know to get the best from them.

This is a page from the book of instructions to Enumerators, showing how the summary book should be filled in. They were told to list the householders, and the illustration shows them with titles - Mr, Miss, Rev, Captain and so on. So when you are searching this record set on Ancestry, it is best not to include a first name, because they rarely appear. There are also quite a number of people whose surname has been wrongly transcribed as 'Lodger', so if you can't find a family, it might be worth putting their surname in the first name field, just in case!

If you are browsing by place, there are a couple of features to note. As in other census years, you select a county, then the rather unhelpful division of 'Civil Parish', and then 'Sub-registration district' (it really should be 'Registration sub-district', and come after Registration District instead of Civil Parish, because that is the way the census is arranged, but never mind). As in previous census years, you see a list of Enumeration Districts. They are not in strict numerical order, but you can find what you need. They appear the way that numbers do in spreadsheet column if you set it as an alphabetic field instead of a numeric one, and then sort them, so it may be easy to fix. I noticed that only the first district in each list has a 'view description of enumeration district' hyperlink. In fact, there is no need for this at all, since the number links to exactly the same thing - the Enumerator's Summary Book, which includes the description pages.

Once you open one of these to have a look, it may appear a little odd. The pages are not in order, but seem to jump about, and you can only see half of the description, because it is spread over two pages, and only one is visible. This is because the books were dis-bound to be scanned as double-page spreads. So the only two pages you will see together in the correct order are the two in the middle of the book. So look at the page numbers in the corner, and it will start to make sense. Honestly.

Finally, the source infromation provided by Ancestry is a little confusing. Although it contains some infromation specific to 1911, some of it is only applicable to earlier censuses, such as folio numbers, which do not appear at all in 1911. So you read it carefully and it doesn't seem to make sense, don't worry, it doesn't; it's not you. But you can still get a lot from it by just looking closely. Have fun. They have the books for England, Wales, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. The Scottish 1911 census will be released in April 2011, but will not have Enumerators' Summary Books.

Punch card as used to tabulate the 1911 Census for England and Wales (RG 27/8)

Wednesday 8 December 2010

Two new enquiry desks at The National Archives

Not an exclusive this time, because it has been open to the public since yesterday, but here it is anyway. The two new desks are not just new (and bigger), they are in new positions.

This is the larger of the two, which can can have up to 4 staff on duty at the busiest times. Most family history enquiries will be dealt with at this desk. There is a decent amount of space between the enquiry points, as you can see from the distance between the two computers shown here. On the right of the picture you can see a recessed area so that wheelchair users can get close to the desk without having to turn sideways.

Another improvement that might not be apparent to the public, but will be of benefit to the staff, is the increased amount of bookshelf space behind the desk. We keep reference books there to help with answering enquiries, but it used to be a bit crowded, and consequently hard to find the right book quickly. Now there is enough space to keep the categories separate, which should help.

The second desk is smaller, for two members of staff, and it too has wheelchair access. This is the place to go for help with general historical research; although most of our users are doing family or military research, we also have lots of graduate students and other researchers, and the single biggest record series that we hold is Foreign Office Correspondence.

One of the reasons for the current re-arrangement of the reading rooms is to make use of the extra space that we now have created. Now that we have far fewer microfilm cabinets and the microfilm readers that go with them, there is more room to consult the reference books that are in the open area, and in the Library itself.

There is still some way to go, with some more weekend moves and some painting and new signage to come. some parts of the room look decidely odd at the moment, which I haven't shown, but we're getting there. Watch this space.

Tuesday 7 December 2010

Advent Calendar - Father Christmas

This is a full-page advertisement from the Islington and Holloway Press, Saturday 17 December 1932. Jones Brothers was a department store in Holloway Road, north London. Assorted newspaper adverts show that it was quite a centre for the local community. In the summer there were flower shows and other activities, but the Christmas events must have been the highlight of the year.

There was a children's party, and of course they could visit Santa in his grotto and get a Sixpenny Surprise Parcel. The grotto for 1932 offered
'the Wonderide... undoubtedly the greatest attraction of its kind ever staged in North London. Nearly 5,500 people have journeyed on it already'
Or there was the Teddy Bear's Wedding
'This delightful show-piece with its dozens of moving figures is proving a centre of attraction to young and old. You certainly must not miss the amusing antics of Wally the Whale, and the unfortunate airman. See him on the Second Floor' 
This Christmas item has nothing to do with my family, but I worked at Jones Brothers from 1976 until 1990, when it closed, and I have many fond memories of my time there. Although the children's parties as advertised here had long gone before I worked there, the store laid on Christmas parties for the children of the staff; my two boys attended quite a few, and got their presents from Santa.

I remember that at some time in the 1980's some alterations were made to the store, and when some panelling was removed in the basement, the brick wall behind was found to be painted with with scenes from a Christmas grotto from years gone by.

Monday 6 December 2010

Mappy Monday - Air raid precautions

This map is a bit of an oddity, and not the sort of thing I usually collect; I'm not usually interested in anything less than a century old, but the street names caught my eye. The area shown is only a few hundred yards from where I used to live.

It dates from the Second World War, and it shows the homes of the ARP (Air Raid Precautions) Wardens and the fire hydrants, and there are other markings that I can't identify (cue historian's chant 'Sorry, not my period').

Kenton is part of Harrow, which used to be surrounded by Middlesex countryside, but by the 1930s was an outer London suburb. As far as I know most of the houses and shops featured in the map were built in the 1920s and 1930s, and survived the bombing raids. It's part of the area immortalised by John Betjeman as Metroland. The house I lived is was built in 1936, and during the war years was occupied by a builder. He didn't think much of the government-issue Anderson shelters, so he got his men in to put a proper brick and concrete shelter under the garden. I know this because his daughter, a young child during the war, told me. Presumably it's still there, but it would need Time Team with their geo-phys and helicopters to pinpoint it. I made sure that the new owners knew about it when we sold the house.

Sunday 5 December 2010

Advent Calendar - Outdoor decorations

I wasn't going to post anything on today's Advent Calendar, because we didn't go in for outdoor decorations. And then I remembered something; when I was a student we put up some decorations that were designed to be SEEN from outside.

In my first year at university I lived on the third floor of a girls' hall of residence, and the rooms were in groups of four, with large square windows. Someone (and I genuinely can't remember which of us it was) thought it would be a good idea to spell out the words of a Christmas carol across the four windows

So we got some large sheets of shiny red paper, cut out the letters and stuck them in the windows.

Denise's window read:

Mine was:

Elaine hoped people wouldn't think her room was a toilet because her window said:

and finally, Lycia's window:


Shopping Saturday - Henry White & Sons, tailors and habit makers

I bought a new book yesterday (just for a change! It was a bargain, honestly) 'The design and printing of Ephemera in Britain and America 1720-1920' by Graham Hudson, London 2008. It is full of wondeful illustrations, including decorative billheads for shops and other businesses. I have always been fascinated by these, and I have acquired a number of them. This one is an interesting example from my collection.

The business of Henry White and Sons, Tailors and Habit Makers, Regimentals, Uniforms &C is listed in London directories from 1837 to 1913, first at 53 Great Marlborough Street, Westminster, then at number 58. Henry White and his family lived on the premises to start with, and 53 Great Marlborough Street is the address given on his will, proved 6 May 1873; he died there on 1 April 1873. The business passed to his sons, Henry Hart White and Thomas Thrush White, and by the time of the 1891 census they had moved to Wandsworth and Islington respectively. Henry Hart White died 28 October 1896 at his home in Granard Road, Wandsworth, and Thomas was his executor. Thomas Thrush White died in 1933, aged 84.

The bill itself is interesting, partly because it is a nice decorative example, but also for what it says. It details the kind of work undertaken by Henry White and Sons 'Liveries, hunting clothes, ladies jackets, clerical clothes', but the really interesting bit is the phrase '5 Per Cent charged after twelve months Credit'. It was common practice at the time for customers to purchase goods on credit, and tradesmen often had difficulty collecting the sums due; it was a matter of honour to pay one's gambling debts, but tailors' and other tradesmen's bills were another matter. Legal action was theoretically possible, but was likely to result in the loss of any further business not only from that customer, but from their friends and acquaintances. So shopkeepers often preferred to suffer in silence, in the hope of eventual payment.

Finally, the details of the transaction itself are a goldmine for the costume historian, although the finer points of Victorian tailoring are lost on me, I'm afraid.

Friday 3 December 2010

Follow Friday - HISTPOP

HISTPOP is one of my favourite sites, and at first glance seems to have to great appeal to genealogists; the home page even states ‘Note to genealogists and others tracing individuals: This site only contains a very small number of reproductions of original census enumerators' books for illustrative purposes.’ This is true, but of course a good genealogist is interested in more than just lists of names.

The site is provides background information on population statistics, through the work of the General Register Office. It includes the Annual Reports of the Registrar General for England and Wales, and the Census Reports up to 1931. There are scanned examples of documents held in The National Archives on census preparation, for example, and there is quite a lot of material for Scotland and Ireland too.

If you click on the 'Browse' tab there are several sections to choose from that explain what you can get from the site. The original source material is great, but I'd recommend that you look at the essays, written by Edward Higgs and Matthew who really know their stuff.

Or you can use the Search function to explore the site; try putting in the name of a disease or an unusual occupation and see how often it appears. Have fun

Advent Calendar - Holiday Foods

The first jobs I ever did were Saturday jobs while I was at school, first in a greengrocer's shop and then in a bakery. In the course of these two jobs I learnt something significant about Christmas food shopping; no matter how early you open the shop on Christmas Eve there will always be people waiting outside for you to unlock the doors; and no matter how late you close, someone will always come along and try the door after you have locked up.

But as for the food itself, I don't really have any particular memories of childhood Christmas meals - we lived in Scotland until I was 7, where New Year was the bigger holiday. My food memories are much more recent, from the time when I was in charge of cooking Christmas dinner, sometimes for a dozen people or more. Everyone lends a hand, and if you're really smart you can delegate everrything, end up doing nothing at all yourself and taking all the credit. Christmas dinner was always the usual turkey, stuffing, roast potatoes, vegetables, gravy and cranberry sauce, followed by Christmas pudding (with sixpences of course, except that since we went decimal they have to be 5p pieces). And regardless of how much they had put away at lunchtime, everyone could find room later on for cheese, sausage rolls, fruit, chocolates and so on, but most especially my mother's mince pies. I always made Boxing Day dinner an antidote to the richness of Christmas dinner; poached salmon, boiled potatoes and salad, followed by ice cream.

My mother still makes her famous mince pies, in industrial quantities, owing to popular demand. Everyone in the family has their own supply to take home, and I always have a large box that I take into the office after Christmas. Certain people that I work with wait eagerly for them every year, and I can't put them all out at once, I have to operate a phased release policy to ensure fair shares.

Wednesday 1 December 2010

Warlike Wednesday: the War of 1812 - from the other side

I was lucky enough to be present when the Federation of Genealogical Societies Preserve the Pensions appeal was launched. These records are held at the National Archives in Washington DC, but there are two sides to any argument, and it set me thinking about any records from the British side that might be held in The National Archives in the UK.

Not surprisingly, there is quite a lot of material, and some of the records are full of the names of prisoners. Many prisoners were held on ships, and some of the most interesting records are the surgeons' journals kept by the Admiralty. They not only contain names, but give quite a lot more information besides. One of these is the surgeon's journal for the prison ship 'Bahama' carrying American and Danish prisoners.

The National Archives reference ADM 89/1

One of the volumes contains details of the illnesses and treatment of a number of men who were attended by the surgeon while the ship was at Chatham between 1812 and 1814. Some of the patients were sailors or marines, but most were prisoners. Some pages are just lists of names, but for a number of men ages are given, along with details of their illnesses, treatment, and whether they survived. Most of them did - there were only three deaths on board - but several of them, probably the sicker ones, were transferred to the hospital ship 'Trusty'.

The American prisoners whose ages and details appear were:

Alfred Leonard 39, Abnes Polland 41, Procter Symmonds 19, George Symington 48, George Brown 36, Adimus Bowen 44, Jeremiah Hill 46, Mr Lane (Mate) 48, Henry Shaw 32, Golding Spencer 30, Henry Scott 29, Capt Light 54, Francis Williams 28, Charlemagne 28

Medical details, but no ages, are given for:

James Head, Nicholas Noble, James Odihorne, Artimus Bowen, Jonathan Freeman.

All of these men either recovered or were transferred to the Trusty, except for Golding Spencer and Jonathan Freeman. Golding Spencer died of smallpox, and the unfortunate Jonathan Freeman died as the result of 'a singular kind of tumor in the groin' which was mis-diagnosed as a hernia by the first two surgeons who saw him. The third, James Brenan, took a great interest in this case, and wrote it up at great length. The abcess burst, and his symptoms were described in graphic detail. He succumbed to a fever as a result, was sent to the Trusty, but returned to the Bahama, apparently recovered, only to suffer a relapse that caused him to be sent back to the Trusty again, where he died.

Advent Calendar - the Christmas tree

I have an artificial tree now, but for some of my childhood Christmases we had a real tree. No matter how thorough the vacuuming, a small child will be able to find jagged little dried-up bits of pine needle for months afterwards - ah, those were the days!

But my overriding Christmas tree memory was not picking the needles out of my chubby little knees, or from the palms of my hands; it was the lights.

Modern lights are a joy, but the kind we had in the 50s and 60s were evil. They were put away carefully every year, but left unsupervised for 11 months they had plenty of time to get themselves into a tangle that would rival the Gordian Knot. That wasn't the worst of it, though; all the lights had to be in working order and properly connected to complete the circuit, otherwise none of them would work. It was a case of  'one out, all out', and every year there was always at least one faulty bulb or loose connection.

My father was a wonderfully laid-back, even-tempered, tolerant man. Except once a year when he was sorting out the Christmas tree lights. I think my mother used to grab the coats and take me out shopping until it was safe to go back! Once the lights were up and working, it was fun all the way, but Dad's annual grump had to be got out of the way first, a bit like having to eat up all your greens before you were allowed pudding, I suppose. Happy tree-lighting!