Thursday 31 March 2011

More cotton

Spinning mules                
My visit to Manchester and Cheshire last week renewed my interest in the cotton industry in which so many  of my ancestors - and other people's - were employed. The Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester is one of my favourites, and I particularly enjoy visiting the textiles gallery. This time I was lucky enough to arrive in good time for a demonstration of some of the machines, illustrating the processing of raw cotton into thread for weaving. They even gave out samples of cotton at various stages.

Raw cotton, sliver and spun yarn
The basic principle behind turning raw cotton into thread is actually quite simple, and at Quarry Bank Mill you can see demonstrations of all these processes being carried out by hand, as it was in the days when weaving was done by hand-loom weavers working at home. First the raw cotton was carded, or combed to get the fibres to lie in the same direction. Quite young children were capable of doing this work. The fibres would be twisted together to make thread, originally by hand, but then on spinning wheels, and the resulting thread was woven into cloth.

The work would be put out to the weavers, but hand-loom weaving on a domestic scale had its drawbacks, one of which was speed. Even with a spinning wheel a spinner could only spin one thread at a time, and a hand-operated loom could only work as fast as the human operator. And the width of the material woven was limited by the reach of the weaver, who had to propel the shuttle back and forth across the loom.

Spinning and weaving moved from the home to the factory when machines powered first by water, and later by steam, were invented that could work much faster. The carding and spinning machines could handle much larger quantities of cotton than a weaver's family could process by hand, but the principle was still the same; fibres were twisted together and drawn out to make thread that was wound onto bobbins. The difference was that of a single process from carded cotton to thread, the cotton went through a series of machines, becoming thinner and stronger at every stage. The resulting thread was of a more consistent quality than a hand-spinner could produce, and of course there was much more of it.

The raw cotton was carded by machine to produce a roll called a lap, which looks an awful lot like the kind of polyester wadding that quilters use today.  This was then fed through a succession of machines to produce a thick soft rope-like substance called sliver, and eventually spun into thread that was strong enough for weaving, though not for sewing, which would have required some further spinning. The factory floor would be filled with as many machines as could be packed into the space, and because they were water- or steam-powered, the people had to keep up with the machines, and not the other way round.

The same went for the looms, and they no longer required the skills of the old hand-loom weavers. Each operative would look after a set of looms, and had to keep them supplied with yarn, which had to be threaded into the shuttles. They were called 'kissing shuttles' because they did this by sucking the thread through, a very hazardous practice. Sucking in cotton fibres mixed with machine oil gave many of these women lung diseases, and they had to work very fast, so a moment's inattention could mean that they knocked out their teeth with the metal ends of the shuttles.

Some of the worst jobs were done by children, who were small ans nimble enough to get under the machines while they were running, to clean away the accumulation of grease and cotton dust.  If they were not fast enough, they could lose fingers, limbs, or even their lives. Many of the children were orphans, and their survival rate was not good.

Although the factory system was bad news for most hand-loom weavers, they did not disappear altogether. There was still a demand for some kinds of fancy cottons that required their skills, but many skilled men had no work, while their wives and daughters found lower-paid jobs in the factories.


Tuesday 29 March 2011

Mappy Monday - with extra detail

This is one of the maps in 'Philips Handy Volume Atlas of London' which has no publication date, but a hand-written inscription in the front is dated 1922. The pages are not very big - as you'd expect for a 'handy' volume, but they are beautifully detailed, and in colour, too. It has some of the usual maps that you sometimes find in London atlases, like railway maps, small scale maps of London environs and birds-eye views. This is one of the ordinary pages, showing part of the City of London, including St Paul's Cathedral, and part of Southwark, on the south bank of the Thames.

But this atlas also has some extra detail, which you do not find in most street atlas volumes; it has ground plans of London's two great cathedrals, St Paul's and Westminster Abbey. They also qualify as maps, because they show the surrounding streets too. Here is the plan of St Paul's to complement the map above.


Sunday 27 March 2011

Census day - has it really been 10 years?

Yes, of course I have completed my census form, but to be honest, I am much more at home with the Victorian and early 20th Census than with the ones where I am enumerated. So anyone looking to me for pearls of wisdom on the subject will be disappointed (and just a little desperate, I think). However if you really want to know more about the current census and future ones, if any, there is an interesting article at the Warwick Knowledge Centre

I was particularly interested in the last census, in 2001, because I was engaged by the Office For National Statistics (ONS) as their official historian. Not as grand as it sounds, but great fun all the same. much of what I had to do was to find interesting examples, with a good geographical spread, and I had a pretty free hand with this. There were a few specific individuals and buildings whose census returns I was asked for, but most of the Census Area Managers (CAMs) had no special requests, so I could do what I liked. Some of those who did make requests had an imperfect grasp of history and time-scales. I'm pretty good at this game, but I wasn't able to come up with a census return for John Milton, for example! I worked with the some people in the ONS public relations department, and was asked to do some press, radio and TV interviews. I like to think that I contributed some ideas, too. I suggested that it might help to get coverage in some long-established local newspapers if I could find their founders in the census. I have no idea if this worked, but I still think it was a good idea!

I did come up with one practical solution to a problem, though. They wanted to get colour scans, ie images from the original documents and not from the black and white film. These were to be printed and sent to the appropriate areas. Unfortunately there were far more images required than the image library at the (then) Public Record Office could supply in the time available. So I suggested that I  should obtain the best quality prints from the films, and the they could superimpose the images on a coloured background that looked like an old document. This worked remarkably well, and I still have a few copies. They are very convincing, but if you look closely, no matter what page and what census year you are looking at, the background is exactly the same colour, with exactly the same flaws round the edges.

I particularly enjoyed finding the odd and the quirky entries, the unusual occupations and the funny remarks in the census returns. I looked into the background, too, and found out a lot about how the census was organized, and how it was received by the population at large. There are some really interesting letters and editorial matter in the newspapers. Lots of newspapers have been digitized online now, so it is quite easy to search in them using 'census' as a key word, and find some real gems.This is a good reminder of just how much has changed in the relatively short time since I did my research ten years ago. There is so much that we can do online now, that it is easy to forget that searching the census then meant using microfilm, with a few surname indexes, if you were lucky.

Just for fun, you might like to read one of the items put out by ONS at the time, in the form of an 'interview' with me and my friend and former colleague, Dave Annal. It never actually took place, of course, but was put together from some of the notes we made an conversations we had with ONS back then. It is still out there on the internet, if you know where to look, and is called 'The Phantoms of the Forms - by Dusty Graves, census publicist'

Happy Census Day

Tuesday 22 March 2011

Cotton, lots of it

I have spent the last few days in Lancashire and Cheshire, and in particular places to do with the cotton industry. I have no direct ancestral interest in this part of the country, but many of my ancestors were spinners, spoolers, weavers or otherwise involved in the textile trade in Glasgow and the surrounding area. So I always feel an affinity with these places - Lancashire, Lanarkshire, they even sound similar.

On Sunday I visited Quarry Bank Mill in Styal, Cheshire, my favourite National Trust property. I often visit if I am in the area, and I have lost count of the number of times I have been there in the last 25 years or so. There is always something new to see, and the things you've seen before are worth seeing again. It is an 18th century cotton mill on the River Bollin, in the Cheshire countryside, dating from the time when mills were powered by water, not steam. Later steam-powered mills were in towns, and Quarry Bank Mill itself was later converted to steam power. It was a working mill until as recently as 1959. Both the spinning and weaving of cotton were carried out there, and now it is a museum to the cotton industry.

It is interesting to visit for a number of reasons. You can see demonstrations of cotton production through the ages, including hand-spinning and hand-loom weaving, that were never carried out in the mill itself but in the weavers' homes, before power-looms, water frames, mules and the other technological innovations that led to large scale cotton production under a single roof.

But of course it is the people who lived and worked there that are particularly fascinating to the genealogist, and the community at Styal is very well recorded.

Throughout its entire working history this mill was in the control of a single family, the Gregs. The founder was Samuel Greg 1758-1834 and I bought a copy of 'From smuggling to cotton kings - the Greg story' by Michael Janes, a Greg descendant. I'm looking forward to reading that.

But it is not just the Greg family who are well-recorded. The mill kept detailed records of the workers there, and in particular the child apprentices who lived in the Apprentice House. Detailed records were kept of the children, their daily routine (long and arduous), their education and health care, the accidents they had and punishments administered for . It's not a life you would want to live, or have your children live, and this is bearing in mind that the Gregs were among the more enlightened employers. Conditions for children and adults in most mills were much worse. I was also able to buy a book 'What Became of the Quarry Bank Mill Apprentices?' by the mill's interpretation manager, Keith Robinson. He consulted parish registers, census, birth and marriage certificates, the mill's own archives, but mainly the Greg Collection, now at Greater Manchester Record Office (with Manchester Archives).

For me the most evocative part of the visit is walking through the floors when the machines are running. There are only a few of them, but the noise is deafening - quite literally. The guides who work there have ear defenders, and visitors only spend a short time there, but for the mill workers of a century or two ago there was no protection, and they often lost their hearing. There is also space between the machines these days, but in a working mill they would be much closer together, like the power-looms in the picture at the top. This maximised production, but was very dangerous for the workers.

I know this before, but there's nothing quite like seeing and hearing the machines to bring home to you what the working lives of your ancestors in the textile mills must have been like. So the next time I see the occupation of 'cotton operative' 'cotton piecer' 'bobbin-winder' or a host of others, I will stop and think for a minute about just what that meant.


Tuesday's Tip - using The National Archives online Catalogue

The Catalogue search page
It would take an awfully long time to describe the Catalogue of The National Archives in detail, and how to get the most out of it. I'm not going to attempt to give a comprehensive description of the Catalogue, you'll be relieved to know, but here are a couple of tips that I hope you'll find helpful. The first thing to remember is that it's completely free to access whether you are on-site at Kew or at home using your own computer.

It's big. REALLY big
Hardly surprising, with more than 900 years of documents to cope with. At the last count there were more than 11 million catalogued items, and more than 100 miles of shelving. If you are accustomed to using sites like Ancestry, Findmypast , FamilySearch or even Google, you might put a name or keyword in the search box and expect to get a result. But an archive catalogue isn't like that. It is only in recent years that archives have attempted to index what is written on all the paper and parchment documents; and where this kind of detailed cataloguing has been done, it only applies to a small proportion of the holdings. Most catalogue descriptions are fairly brief, and although there are lots of projects going on, with a few centuries' backlog, it'll take a while.  This is one of my favourites - I photographed the cover of the document just to prove it

Catalogue description for NDO 3/49
Downloading your search results
If you search the Catalogue and get a list of results, you might want to note them down for reference. This is easy enough if there are only two or three, you can make notes in pencil, or print out the results page. But if there are dozens of them that's not so easy, and wastes a lot of paper and printer ink. There is a better way. When you have a page of results you will see a button 'download results'. Hit this and you will be given a choice of HTML or CSV, depending on whether you want to print out your results or save them. In either case you will get all of the results, not just the ones you can see on the screen at once.

The HTML option is useful - it effectively gives you the printer-friendly version - but I use the CSV option much more. Provided you are using a computer where you can save files, you can save your download as a spreadsheet, and then do what you like with it. You can re-sort the results, delete the ones you don't want, and even combine several sets of downloaded search results. I sometimes add another column, or highlight particular entries to indicate the documents I have looked at, or that I wish to flag up for future use. There are many possibilities, it's up to you to come up with your own ideas.  

It is possible to do quite advanced and sophisticated searches, and if you want to learn how to do this, the little '? Help' in the top right corner of any Catalogue page links to lots of detailed information.

There are some changes coming to the Catalogue, which should make it easier to use, and more closely integrated with other elements of the website, such as DocumentsOnline. Happy searching.


Death and the Working Class - an exhibition

Only a genealogist would see that a museum has an exhibition about death, and instantly think 'That's where I want to spend the afternoon while I'm holiday.' Since many of readers of this blog are probably similarly afflicted, I suppose I'm in the right place if I need to form a support group.

The exhibition in question is 'Death and the Working Class' at the Peoples History Museum in Manchester, and it runs until 2 May 2011. If you are in the Manchester area it's well worth a visit (and it's free, though donations are appreciated).

The exhibits were a mixture of documents, artefacts, film and audio clips. some of my favourites were the newspaper clippings, many of them concerned with scandals involving contractors short-changing poor law authorities on pauper funerals - which were bargain basement at the best of times- and other abuses. There was also a section on burial societies, where poor people could pay a small insurance premium so that those who had very little in life could at least have a dignified funeral.

The artefacts included embroidered samplers, made by young girls in memory of their dead siblings, all the more affecting for the less than perfect spelling. There were some examples of mourning wear, including undertakers' garb, and something I had never seen or heard of before, a Bakelite coffin.

If you were poor in Victorian Britain, your life expectancy was lower than the middle and upper classes. Although some diseases were no respecter of persons, if you lived in dirty, overcrowded conditions in city slums you were more vulnerable to the contagious diseases that were endemic there, because you had nowhere to escape to. And then there were the occupational diseases you were susceptible to if you worked in a cotton mill, for example, which many of Manchester's population did. This is not counting the many industrial accidents that occurred in an age before any health and safety measures. Factory conditions were bad enough if you were alert, but at the end of a long working day a lapse of concentration by an exhausted worker could cost them their life.

All this was fascinating, if sobering, but of course the things that really make the genealogist's pulse race are documents. The ones that caught my eye here were the sextons' registers. We are accustomed to looking for death certificates, obituaries, gravestone inscriptions, probate records and of course burial registers, but sextons' registers are not quite the same. They are closely related to burial registers, but while burial registers record the burials (obviously) in a prescribed format since 1813, for the Church of England at least, the sextons' registers record the opening of the graves. Those on display here records the causes of death, which you would not normally find in a burial register. Manchester seems to very well served in this regard, but I have to confess it's not an area I have ever looked at very closely in the past. Perhaps I should.


Saturday 19 March 2011

52 Weeks of Personal Genealogy and History - Movies

The first time I remember being taken to the cinema as a child was a double bill (yes, you used to get two films). My mother thought I'd enjoy the cartoon 'Hoppity Goes to Town', but I hated it. I have no idea why. But the other film was 'Tom Thumb' with Russ Tamblyn, and I loved that one.

When I was older, about 8, I think, I was allowed to go to that great British institution 'the Saturday morning pictures' at Gillingham Odeon. It cost sixpence for a seat in the stalls and ninepence for the balcony. The great advantage of the ninepenny seats was that you could throw your sweet wrappers, lolly sticks and other confectionery detritus onto the peasants in the cheap seats below. To be honest, I remember more about the sweets than any of the films, and every kid in the place seemed to have handfuls of them In retrospect, the only job in the cinema worse than working on the confectionery stand must have been cleaning up the mess ready for the respectable paying customers on Saturday afternoon.

The only film I remember was a black-and-white serial called 'The Valley of the Vanishing Men', and all I remember about that was the opening credits, which featured men, presumably of the vanishing variety, toiling round a capstan, in a cave, to music that I later discovered was The Ride of the Valkyries'. To this day I can't hear it without conjuring up the same image. What would Wagner think?

At the end of each Saturday's show the Odeon would unleash hundreds of excitable children, hyped-up on sugar and pretending to be cowboys, spacemen or whatever onto the High Street. The cinema was just off the High Street, and while we could have walked (or run) the short distance down the street and around the corner, it was much more fun to take the short cut through Lefevres department store. Every week the staff tried to intercept the swarm of miniature delinquents, and every week they failed. My cousin Ron was particularly good at this, being small, fast, and lippy with it.

Like many people growing up in the TV age, I first saw many of my favourite movies on TV. I recall laughing until it hurt one Christmas the first time I saw 'Some Like It Hot', and no matter how often I see it, it still cracks me up. I was still taken to the movies as a treat occasionally, the best of which was when my mother took me to see 'A Hard Day's Night' the day I sat my 11-plus exam.

Now I am much more likely to buy a DVD than to go to the cinema, although getting round to watching them is another matter. I tend to watch films on long plane journeys - I see that 'The King's Speech' is now on the Virgin Atlantic in-flight programme, so that's my next flight sorted!

Shopping Saturday - High Wycombe Market Place

I have lots of old books with engraved illustrations, and by 'old' I mean a hundred years old or more. I have scanned some of the illustrations, which are often only about 4 or 5 inches across, and I am amazed at the level of detail you can see when you zoom in. In fact, there are details that you can't really see WITHOUT zooming in.

This picture shows the Market Place in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, and if you zoom in you can see that the name over the shop next to the Market Hall is 'D L Smith'. Like many of the images I have scanned, this one is undated - the date of the book is not always helpful, because the engravings are often older. This one is late 19th Century, and the 1891 census shows Daniel L Smith, grocer, in High Wycombe Corn Market. He was a single man, aged 42, with his 40-year-old sister Sarah, an apprentice and two assistants one of whom was their nephew Percy, aged 25. Ten years later in 1901 Daniel has married, and only his wife, Alice, and a servant are in the household. Daniel is still described as an employer, so any assistants or apprentices he employed must have lived elsewhere by then.

Daniel and his sister came from Hemel Hempstead, in Hertfordshire, a neighbouring county, but he did not go directly from Hemel to Wycombe, because the 1871 census finds him in Kent, working as a wholesale grocer's clerk in Canterbury, presumably learning his trade. His full name was Daniel Liberty Smith, according to his birth entry in the September quarter of 1847 in Hemel Hempstead registration district.

I haven't done exhaustive research on this person; all I have done is a few quick online searches, but it just shows how a book illustration and a little idle curiosity can uncover some family history. In this case the intriguing detail is Daniel's middle name of Liberty. Liberty is a surname associated with Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire, and in particular with Arthur Lazenby Liberty, founder of the famous London department store, and who was born in Chesham (where I live), not far from Hemel and Wycombe. Now I wonder...

Thursday 17 March 2011

One Lovely Blog award

I was surprised and very flattered to receive this award from Yvonne at The Mashburn Collection, Lisa at The Faces of My Family,  Polly at Pollyblog and Valerie at Family Cherished.

Blog stats tell you that people are reading, and comments on your posts show that they are interested, but it means a lot when people take the trouble to show their recognition in this way.

The rules of acceptance are :

1. Accept the award, post it on your blog together with the name of the person who granted the award and their blog link.

2. Pass the award on to 15 other blogs that you've newly discovered or just love so much.

3. Remember to contact the bloggers to let them know they have been chosen for this award.

These are the ones I have chosen, in no particular order. I have chosen to send them to blogs that are the work of an individual, rather than an organization, but that's not in the rules, that's just me. Now this award has a very feminine look about it, so some of the men on this list may not want to adorn their sites with it. Regardless of gender, not everyone wants to participate in this kind of activity. So if anyone I have chosen doesn't want to join in, that's fine, but at least it is an opportunity to draw attention to some of my favourite blogs, and maybe someone reading this might find a new blog they wouldn't have found otherwise.

The Ancestry Insider

Dear Myrtle's Genealogy Blog

Anglo-Celtic Connections


Paula's Genealogical Eclectica

Marian's Roots and Rambles

Scottish Genealogy News and Events (SGNE)

Ancestral Wormhole


London Roots Research

The We Tree Genealogy Blog

Luxegen Genealogy and Family History

Kith and Kin Research

No more wriggling out of writing woman...

Diary of an Urban Genealogist

Thanks again to Yvonne, Lisa, Polly and Valerie


For St Patrick's Day - some little-known Irish sources

Quay Street, Galway
A lot of Irish sources are being flagged up today, Paddy's Day. There is the promise of a new site to come soon, and additions and updates to records on existing sites. and that's not counting all the events and special offers. I was at the Society of Genealogists last Saturday running a workshop on Tracing your Irish Ancestors in The National Archives - in England which seemed to go very well. This a particular hobby-horse of mine, because for much of its history Ireland has been part of the United Kingdom, or at least subject to the British Crown. So a lot of records about Ireland and the Irish are held in The National Archives of the UK. I have hawked this around as a talk in Ireland, England, and the USA (Boston - where else?) and written about it in Irish Roots magazine. My deathless prose on the subject will appear in another publication later this year, and a version of my talk was podcast in 2007, although this is now a little out of date, since more records have been put online since then. You can't say I'm not trying to get the point across!

So as my contribution to St Patrick's Day, here is a source that many people won't have thought of looking at for their Irish ancestors, but which includes some indexed, digitized records, and it's FREE. It's not a genealogical site as such, which is why you could easily miss it. It's called Moving Here and is about the immigrant experience in England of four separate groups, Irish, Jewish, Caribbean and South Asian. The Irish sections in Migration histories and Tracing your roots are particularly useful; the site hasn't been actively maintained for a while, so some of the web links are out of date, but the background information is wonderful.

The fund provided loans at interest to the industrious poor, who had to provide some form of security for the loan. Records of the local associations that administered the loans survive for counties Cork, Clare, Galway, Limerick, Mayo, Roscommon, Sligo and Tipperary. In addition to the notes of security (signed by the debtor and two guarantors), there are loan ledgers, repayment books and defaulters books. They show place of abode and occupation, and sometimes include details of the death or emigration of debtors. The documents that you can search on Moving Here are the returns to the Clerk of the Peace for the counties of Cork, Galway, Limerick, Mayo, Roscommon and Tipperary.

Select 'Yes - search for a person's name', limit your search to 'Documents', choose 'Irish community' from the drop-down menu and away you go. And may the luck of the Irish go with you!

T 91/187c

You might find something like this example, from the townland of Cloonkehanne, Co Mayo, dated 8 June 1852, which shows that Pat Barnicle and Thomas Boland emigrated 'to America about 4 years since', and that more recently two of their neighbours, Michael Rowley and Luke Monaghan, had gone to England.


Wednesday 16 March 2011

Findmypast - improved overseas birth and marriage indexes

Unlike births, marriages and deaths in England and Wales, the indexes to the General Register Office's Miscellaneous Overseas Collection are not widely available online. They are available free of charge on, but you have to browse, page by page, through a wide variety of indexes, in a variety of formats. As someone who used to arrive at St Catherine's House at the crack of dawn, way back in the 1980s, to look at the indexes, I'm still quite impressed that I can now do this at home at all. Still, it's good when someone makes your life a bit easier.

This is what have now done with this collection. This is very good news for a number of reasons; obviously it's nice to have a name index where none existed before, but the fact that you can search over several indexes at once is an added bonus. There is also another advantage, which is to do with the nature of these particular records; it has never been compulsory for overseas events to be notified to the Registrar General, and when they are notified, the same time limits for registration do not apply. So an event can be registered a long time, sometimes years, after the event, and you might miss an entry because it is not where you expect it to be. The improved search means that this is less likely to happen. The amount of detail in the index varies quite a lot, but some of the modern indexes include the year or date of birth, and this information has been captured by Findmypast.

There are some other things that are worth knowing about these indexes. Although there is a collection of indexes of armed forces events from the 18th century to the 21st, the main 'British Overseas' indexes also include armed services entries for some periods. And although they have always been grouped together with various overseas births, marriages and deaths, the Armed Forces indexes, especially the births, contain many entries that actually took place in the UK (including Ireland).

Finally, useful as these indexes are, they are not always the best way to get the details of an overseas event. There is another collection of overseas registrations, once in the custody of the Registrar General, but now in one of The National Archives' miscellaneous overseas collections. These are in record series RG 32 to RG 36 and digitised images are indexed online at Many events are unique to one or other of these collections, but there is also some overlap, so it is always worth checking both sets of indexes. If an entry appears in both, it is cheaper to view the online image on BMDregisters than to order a certificate from the General Register Office.

Happy searching


Tuesday 15 March 2011

Census, census and more census

Census Calendar 1911 RG 27/8
I spend a lot of time in among the census returns, to the extent that I often feel more at home in the nineteenth century than the twenty-first. And if that was true before, for the next couple of weeks you can double that.

I have already done a couple of radio interviews, and responded to some press enquiries. And as of today I have started a round of live speaking engagements. Tonight I was one of three speakers at an evening event at the British Library, to a large and appreciative audience. I had a very enjoyable evening anyway, and I was very impressed with the smoothness of the BL's organization. The pre-show tea and biscuits were exceptionally good, too.

On Saturday I am the first speaker at a Census day conference at the Institute of Local and Family History at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston. After a short break in sunny (?) Manchester, on my first day back at work at The National Archives I give the Thursday afternoon talk on...the census. I have also just been informed that the transmission date of a BBC 2 programme 'This is Britain' with Andrew Marr will be next week, Friday 25 March. I shall be watching from behind the sofa, so that I can avoid the bits where I might be on-screen. I had a lot of fun doing the filming, and Andrew Marr was very nice, but the less I appear on screen the better, so I can enjoy the rest of the show. The filming took a morning, which in my limited experience means a few minutes of actual TV. It will make my mother happy, though.

This is all part of the lead in to the real thing, the 2011 Census on Sunday 27 March. Everything you want to know about this year's census, and probably quite a lot that you don't, is on the Office for National Statistics site, but David Schneider provides some more interesting answers. Alternatively, if you want to read an opinion piece of the census, try Charles Moore in the Daily Telegraph, described by the Press Association as 'irreverent', but it seems more like just plain old grumpy to me. 


Sunday 13 March 2011

Not just Chelsea Pensioners

The results of a recent Friends of The National Archives project has been added to the online Catalogue. This is good news for the genealogist, as the project was the indexing of the discharge documents of more than 20,000 soldiers, held at Kilmainham Hospital in Dublin (series WO 119). Kilmainham administered the records of these out-pensioners until 1822, after which they became the responsibility of the better-known Chelsea Hospital. Many of the men are Irish, or from Irish regiments, but you will find plenty who had no obvious connection with Ireland.

The Chelsea Pensioners' Records (series WO 97) have already been digitised and indexed on and eventually these Kilmainham records will be onlinethere too. In the meantime this major addition to the Catalogue will make it much easier to track down some of our soldier ancestors.

It is worth noting that there are other sources for soldiers beyond the wonderful online Chelsea Pensioners' records; they will soon be joined by a series of attestation records for the militia 1806-1915 (series WO 96). There is also another set of discharge documents of Chelsea Pensioners (series WO 121), much of which has also been indexed in the Catalogue, again by the Friends of The National Archives, and the records are on microfilm at Kew. This is well worth a look if you fail to find someone in the WO 97 records. This is where I found one of my own ancestors, William Charlton, who fought in the Peninsular War. He was a private in the 74th (Highland) Regiment of Foot and was pensioned following the battle of Fuentes D'Onoro in 1811, where he received a gunshot wound to the jaw. If, like me, you are a fan of Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe books, Sharpe's Battle is the one that describes this particularly bloody episode.

WO 121/126
These early records don't give as much information as some later ones, but I was still able to find out quite a bit about him. The document itself told me his age and birthplace, that his former trade was labourer, and gave a physical description; he had black hair, dark eyes. and I was surprised to find how tall he was, 5 feet 11 inches. Once I had found him in the pension records, knowing his regiment and dates of service meant that I could look in the regimental muster book for December 1806 when he joined the regiment. This gave me his exact date of birth, 2 November 1786, and showed that he had enlisted at Dumbarton. The muster also showed the height of all the recruits, and of the 35 men on the page, only two men were taller than William.

So thanks to these military records I know that my Irish ancestor from two centuries ago arrived in Scotland, where he spent his life after the army, before he joined up. I have some idea what he looked like, and I even know his exact date and place of birth, where the parish records didn't start  until much later. Not a bad result for an Irishman.


Friday 11 March 2011

Fearless Females: tragic deaths

The more I study my family history, the more I find women making their way in the world without men. Some of them were widows for a number of years - not all that surprising, since women generally live longer than men. Some of them had husbands who must have been around at the conception of their children, but don't seem to be around for much of the rest of the time, and a couple never married but produced children anyway. But the one that touched me most when I found out about her was my great-great grandmother, Jane Hanavan.

She came from Ireland, and she married twice. Her first husband, Michael McDonough, was a soldier, in the 3rd Regiment of Foot, the East Kent Regiment, known as the Buffs. He was also Irish, possibly from County Clare. During this first marriage, Jane followed her husband's regiment and gave birth to their four children in County Clare, Dover, Limerick and 'England' in that order. When her youngest child was only two years old, Michael died, not heroically in battle, but, like many soldiers, of the entirely unglamorous cause of dysentery. I have yet to work out how she made her way to Dublin where she married her second husband, my great-great grandfather Thomas Cross less than a year later, presumably with the four young children in tow.

Thomas was from County Tyrone, but the family settled in Glasgow, where Jane gave birth to four more children. She would have been on her own with the children for much of the time, since Thomas was a merchant seaman, and was away a great deal. He certainly was never at home with them in any census - although I am now counting the days until the Scottish 1911 Census is released to see if he was at home then. Poor Jane gave birth to her seventh child, a son called Thomas, in 1889, but the poor little mite died of acute bronchitis when he was only nine days old. She registered both the birth and the death herself, so it is possible that Thomas never even saw the son who was named after him.  A year later she had another son, William, who died of scarlatina when he was four. By now Jane was in her forties (I don't know her exact age) and had suffered the loss of a husband and two sons. You'd think this was enough tragedy for one person, but fate hadn't finished with her yet.

Navy Memorial at Plymouth Hoe.
Thomas Cross is commemorated there
Widowhood might be considered an occupational hazard when you are married to a soldier, but when you are in your 60s and married to a civilian, you do not expect to become a war widow. But this is just what happened to Jane. During the First World War, Thomas was among the crew of a merchant ship, the Ermine, that was commandeered by the Royal Navy as a fleet messenger, and in 1917 the ship was torpedoed and sank, with the loss of most of the crew, including Thomas. He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Jane died two years later, of a cerebral haemorrhage, but the family said she died of a broken heart. This last bereavement must have been just too much for her. Her granddaughter, who is still alive, never knew her, but was told by her mother that Jane was never the same after Thomas' death. She said that they had to watch her carefully at night, otherwise she would go and stand at the street corner in her nightdress, waiting for her Tommy to come home.  


Thursday 10 March 2011

Census anniversary - today

On this day in 1801 the first British census was taken. Although it wasn't the snapshot in time that the census became from 1841 onwards, so the actual day wasn't all that significant. Still, everyone needs a birthday, even a census. The picture above is from a religious magazine 'The Fireside' in 1901, to illustrate an article marking the census centenary. Unfortunately the artist seemed to be under the impression that householders filled in schedules in 1801, which they didn't, but it's quite a sweet picture all the same.

Moving swiftly on to the present day, the Census is in the news and in the media. The Guardian published a short feature this week on William Farr as part of the coverage of a new exhibition at the British Library Census and Society: why everyone counts. The exhibition runs until the end of May, and is worth a look if you are near the Library (and it's FREE). There is an evening event on Monday 14 March in the British Library Conference Centre 'Broken down by Age Sex and Religion: the History of the Census in Britain' where I will be one of the speakers. Despite that, they tell me that ticket sales have been very good.

I have another two census-related speaking engagements this month; on Saturday 19 March I shall be at the Institute of Local and Family History day conference on the Census at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston, and back at base at The National Archives, I shall be giving the Thursday afternoon talk on 24 March. I know I'm a bit of a nerd on the subject of the census, but it's just fascinating, and there's always something new to find. I've been looking at the census almost on a daily basis for twenty-something years, and I have never tired of it. It's not just me, is it?


Monday 7 March 2011

Manorial Documents Register - Shropshire now online

Acton Burnell manor house, Shropshire      

Few people consider using manorial records while researching their English and Welsh ancestry, but you’d be surprised how useful they can be. One of the difficulties can be that they are not always easy to track down – they can be held a long way from the place they relate to, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find them, you just need to know how.

When I first began doing family history research, to track down manorial documents I had to go the National Register of Archives building, discreetly tucked away in Quality Court, Chancery Lane in London. This was the same street that housed part of the Public Record Office, but at that time there was no other connection between these two organisations. In 2003 they combined to form The National Archives, and both are now entirely based at Kew.

The first thing you had to do was identify the manor that you wanted, which might or might not have the same name as the parish where your ancestors lived. If it did have the same name, it didn’t have the same boundaries, and there might be a number of manors connected with the parish. You had to ask for the parish books, which were lovely chunky little volumes, arranged by county, that listed all the manors relating to each parish. Once you knew the manor or manors you were dealing with, you needed another set of books, the manor books, which told you what records survived for each manor, and where they were held. Some of them were roughly where you might expect them to be, and others were in places you might never think of looking. For example, most of the manorial records for Chesham, where I live, are in the Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies, or in record offices in the neighbouring counties of Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire. But if you are interested in Andover, Hampshire, you’ll find plenty of records in the Hampshire Archives, or Winchester College Archives, but also a sizeable number at Magdalen College, Oxford, which is not the first place you’d look for Hampshire records! There are even some documents here at The National Archives, and one set which isn’t in a record office at all, but is in private hands.

Nowadays this part of the process is a little easier, because the chunky little books have been microfilmed, and are on open access here in The National Archives, Kew. For some counties, including the whole of Wales, you can even do the search online, although for the really interesting bit, looking at the actual records, you still have to go to a record office in person. The latest county to be added to the online Manorial Documents Register is Shropshire, so this might open up some new possibilities for research if you have a connection with that county. I don’t, but I wish I did, because it’s a lovely place to visit.

If you want to know what you might find in manorial records, and why they might be useful to you, there is a useful Research Signpost on the subject, with links to more in-depth information.


Sunday 6 March 2011

Rootstech - the 'gamification' of genealogy

Over dinner one night during Rootstech, my companions and I were discussing the path that family history might take in the light of new developments in technology. Someone wondered if there was a way of finding a genealogical application for those Facebook games that seem so popular and so addictive.

The very next day as I was walking through the Expo Hall, I saw the familiar figure of Paul Allen (World Vital Records and Familylink) in the Demo area, announcing the launch of that very thing! In conjunction with Funium, the game of Family Village is now available on Facebook. It has a similar look and feel to games like Farmville, Cityville and so on.

I have to confess that I have no idea how these games work, but they are undeniably popular, and people get very absorbed in them. It will be interesting to see if this one takes off. I am definitely intrigued by the possibilities. Genealogy has made itself at home on TV, radio and online, so why not the world of gaming?


Rootstech - this is what it was like

Rootstech was all about using technology, and you might think that this would mean that no-one would need to meet in person any more. Well the 3000 people who attended last month thought it was worth the trip, and my journey from London wasn't the longest by any means. Some of the sessions were streamed live, but if you missed them, you can now catch up by viewing some of the recordings online, courtesy of the Middle Peninsula African-American Genealogical & Historical Society of Virginia. Handy for those of us who were there too, because there were lots of sessions to choose from, and the technology hasn't been developed yet that permits us to be in two places at once. It should give you some idea of what it was like to be there.

Another way to get a flavour of Rootstech is to listen to the latest Genealogy Guys podcast. While he was at Rootstech, Drew Smith recorded interviews with a few people there, and the first three of these have been released so far. These do come with a health warning, though, because I will be featured in a future edition. You have been warned.



Thursday 3 March 2011

Fearless Females: she's called ... what?

One of the joys, and sometimes one of the pitfalls, of family history research in Scotland is the traditional naming pattern. This can work to your advantage; if you know the names of a couple's children, you can make an educated guess as to their parents' names, especially if they helpfully include family surnames as middle names. The downside is that use of this pattern can result in several people with the same name, tricky for the genealogist. In real life, the bearers of these identical names, and their nearest and dearest, made extensive use of nicknames and diminutives, to avoid confusion. (Note to ancestors: it might have helped avoid confusion for you, but it does quite the opposite for us. If you are thinking of being an ancestor again, could you give some thought to this, please?).

I know what the current and recent versions are - my cousin Helen is always called Ellen, and my aunt of the same name was always Ella. For the generations beyond living memory you just have to keep an open mind. One of the most popular female names in Scottish families, including mine, is Isabel, and this occurs in all kinds of variations - Isa, Izzy, Belle, Bella and so on. Sometimes you will find them in the census, where pet names and nicknames are sometimes used, and where rest of the details are enough to confirm you have the right person. My favourite of these is the example above, the Black family at 32 Orr Street, Glasgow in 1861,  where the mother, Janet was the sister of my great-great grandmother. Their daughter's given name was Isabella, but she appears here as 'Ezybbean'. It could just be the result of poor handwriting, but I like to think that it was an affectionate nickname.

Another female, in a completely different branch of my family, is a good example of another Scottish naming habit, of which we Glaswegians are particularly fond. That is the practice of creating a female name by adding 'ina' to the end of a male name, so I have a second cousin called Williamina, known as Wilma, and a great-aunt Alexandrina, known as Ina. That's the problem; everyone in Glasgow has an aunt Ina, and unless you know whether this is preceded by Robert, Thomas, David, Hugh or whatever, she can be hard to find! Great aunt Alexandrina was the third and last child in her family, all daughters, and they may have known that this was going to be the last baby, we'll never know, and the last chance for great-grandpa Alexander to have a child named after him. His wife's uncle, Matthew Warnock, was also the father of daughters, but no sons, in his case 7 of them. And yes, you guessed it, his youngest daughter was named Matthewina after him.

It was a sad story, and this time his poor wife Susan certainly knew in advance that this would be their last child, because Matthew, a merchant seaman, was drowned at sea, just before Christmas 1894, when she was about 6 months pregnant. His ship, the SS Abydos, foundered off the Isle of Man, with the loss of all hands. I can't imagine how the poor woman must have felt, left on her own with six daughters, 3 of them under 10, and a baby on the way. She kept the family together, somehow, and in 1901 she, her widowed mother and the five younger daughters are all living together in Dorset Street, Glasgow. the little one, now aged 7, appears as Martha, and she seems to have used this name for the rest of her life. Can't say I blame her.


March - and census month is here!

Here we go again. It hardly seems like 10 years since the last one, but the 2011 Census will be taken on Sunday 27 March. Anyone remember 'Count Me In', and the enumerators' yellow satchels? I was a self-employed researcher then, and in 2000/2001 I was working on the  best freelance commission I ever had; the Office For National Statistics engaged me as their official historian for the Bi-centenary Census. It was a researcher's dream. When you are doing commissioned research you have to stick to the brief, even if it the line you are following is hard going or, even worse, dull. 

This was different. I needed to find interesting census examples with a good geographical spread throughout England and Wales. While a few of the Census Area Managers (CAMs) had made specific requests for people or buildings in their areas, most had not, so I pretty much had a free hand, and could follow up things that looked interesting, and drop the ones that didn't. The only other restriction was that ONS asked me to go easy on the examples of enumerators complaining about their pay and conditions, because they were still trying to recruit enumerators for 2001!

It really wasn't that long ago, but looking back, it's amazing how much has changed in the world of research in that time. For one thing, two more censuses have been released since then, owing to the early release of the 1911 census for England and Wales. For another, the only census that was fully indexed was 1881, so that accounted for quite a lot of my examples. There were no online census images - the 1901 project was still a work in progress, not released until January 2002.  

ONS wanted colour images to print out for publicity in the various areas, but it wasn't possible to get such a large number of original documents copied by the (then) Public Record Office in the time available, so I got the best quality prints I could from the films, and the images were superimposed on a coloured 'document' background. It worked just fine, and probably cost less too. 

As well as some of the most enjoyable research I ever had to do, I was interviewed for radio, TV and newspapers, and even appeared on BBC Breakfast News live (they send a car). I was also invited to the official launch party, where I got Ainsley Harriott's autograph and free cake. I owed all of this to Susan Lumas, author of 'Making use of the Census' who had been approached by ONS, but had recently retired  and did not want to take on the work, so she very kindly suggested me. Thanks again, Sue. Not that she'll read this - she doesn't do 'online'.


Wednesday 2 March 2011

Catching up - this could take some time

February was an unusually busy month for me, between Rootstech, WDYTYA-Live and, oh yes, the day job back at base at The National Archives! I have written up a few of my impressions of Rootstech, but none at all as yet of WDYTYA.

WDYTYA - Live at Olympia this year was very busy, as always. I usually try to be there on all three days if I can. Some of the time is official work time - this year I gave one of the workshop presentations and spent some time in the 'Ask the Experts' area. Fortunately my Expert/Speaker pass allows me entry on all days, so I can go on my day off too. It is always great fun, but exhausting, so I am always glad when it's over for another year.

Right now I am easing myself gently back to normal by catching up on episodes of the current series of Heir Hunters now showing on BBC One. This has been a surprise hit, taking the form of a fly-on-the-wall look at the work of a number of firms who seek out the heirs of people who die without leaving a will. It's now in its fifth series and is quite different from other TV genealogy shows like Who Do You Think You Are? When I was a researcher I didn't work in this part of the genealogical world, but I knew a lot of people who did, so Heir Hunters is full of familiar faces.

Until I get my rear in gear and write something properly for myself, you can see what other people thought of WDYTYA - Live, notably Chris Paton or Dick Eastman, or if you are among the Twitterati, search under the hashtag #wdytyalive.

Now, if you'll excuse me, a cup of tea is calling, and that TV isn't going to watch itself you know.