Saturday 31 December 2011

2011 - it's been quite a year

I've had a pretty busy year, genealogically speaking, and had a lot of fun in the process. I have travelled a lot, even by my standards, caught up with old friends and made new ones. I knew that it was going to be a busy year from the outset, and I was determined to enjoy it to the full. I did.

It started in January when I spent a morning filming with Andrew Marr for a TV documentary about the census, shown just before census day in March, 2011 being  census year in the UK. During the year I also spoke at two day conferences devoted to the census, at the Institute of Family and Local History in Preston and on my home turf at The National Archives. I also contributed to a census exhibition at the British Library and spoke at an evening event in the Conference Centre there.

Flip-Pal scanner
Census apart, I attended and spoke at a number of conferences and events, starting with the first Rootstech conference in February. I wasn't a speaker there, but I gave a couple of talks at the Family History Library while I was in Salt Lake City, where the staff on the British and Irish floor were very welcoming and hospitable, as ever. The conference itself, of course, was a great success and I enjoyed it very much, not just for the lectures and exhibits but for the chance to meet in person a number of people I already knew, but only online, notably some of the official bloggers. I bought myself a Flip-Pal Scanner, and right at the end of the conference my name was drawn as one of the lucky door-prize winners - I got a voucher for a 7-night stay at the Salt Lake Plaza!

When I arrived back home in the UK after Rootstech, it was only a short time until Who Do You Think You Are? Live at Olympia in London. I was there for all three days, two of them as part of my job, representing The National Archives, but on Sunday I went again just for the fun of it, and did a stint helping out on the APG stand, who were exhibiting there for the first time.

In March I completed my census schedule online, and kept the paper copy for posterity, just in case posterity is at all interested. Still kicking myself for being in the US last year, and flying home 5 hours before census day - if I had only thought it out properly in advance I could have come home a day later. Doh! This month was, not surprisingly, the peak of the census-related activity for the year.

April saw the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, and I have to say that my American friends were more interested in it than I was, but we got a day off work and it was fun to watch it on TV. The highlight of the day, though, was taking part in a special British episode of Geneabloggers Radio. No webcam was involved, so doing it in my jammies was just fine.

The Plantation Singers at Charleston
I was off on my travels again in May, when I had the privilege of being a FamilySearch sponsored speaker at the NGSS Conference in  Charleston SC, another very enjoyable occasion, with lots of time to catch  up with friends and meet some key figures in the family history world. I was flattered to be invited to speak on this year's Wholly Genes cruise, a whole new experience for me. Of course I accepted!

As part of the Family History team at The National Archives, my job involves attending family history fairs around the country, and this year I and two colleagues took our stand to the York Family History Fair. Unfortunately the internet access that we had paid for was a resounding failure, but luckily I had my new smartphone with me, which we were able to use as a portable wi-fi hotspot for two of our laptops. Just as well, because we had a very busy day, and it would have been pretty tricky trying answer ALL of the questions without being able to go online - my memory is pretty good, but it can only retain so much...

July and August were quiet by comparison, when I buckled down to work on the manuscript of a book I was co-writing. Actually, I didn't buckle down as much as I should have done, resulting in an intense period of activity towards the September deadline! I did spend another morning filming, this time for the 'red button' interactive part of Who Do You Think You Are? for the BBC, with one of this year's subjects, the actor Larry Lamb.

September, on the other hand, was a very busy month indeed. I travelled once more to the US for yet another conference, this time the FGS conference in Springfield IL. I usually submit proposals for talks at FGS and NGS events, but I'm not usually successful; this time, to my surprise, I was! It was just coincidence that it happened to be in the same year where I was also going to be at NGS too. Better yet, I was able to make the relatively short trip to Ottawa to speak at the British Isles Family History Society of Greater Ottawa  conference the following week. I had been to Canada once before, but that was in 1986, and I was keen to see it again,particularly Toronto, the site of my previous visit. And I got the chance to do this because an evening speaking engagement was arranged for me at the Toronto branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society. 

No sooner was I back home than it was time for the Celebrating the Census day conference that we had been planning for months, and which took place on 1 October. To my great satisfaction (and relief, it had been my idea in the first place!). Some of the sessions were recorded, and the podcasts are in the process of being uploaded to  The National Archives website.

My fourth and final transatlantic trip was in November, to Fort Lauderdale to board the ship for the Wholly Genes cruise. Those Virgin Atlantic frequent flier miles are stacking up very nicely now, thank you. This was a whole new experience for me, and I had a great time, taking care to keep out of the sun as far as possible. This amuses my friends and family greatly, but I really am not good with heat. On board ship, of course, there is lots of lovely air-conditioning, so I managed just fine, and I enjoyed the company of the many genealogists on board.

Now it's December, at least for a couple more hours, and time to look forward as much as back. I doubt I will ever have another year quite like this one, but who knows? It has been the first full calendar year for this blog, and I've had more than twice as many hits this December as in December 2010.

I have studiously avoided mentioning any names in this post apart from Andrew Marr and Larry Lamb whom I classify as public figures for this purpose, since they're not people that I actually know. For the record, though, they were both a delight to work with. There are so many people I could thank for their kindness, hospitality and friendship this year that I would be mortified if I left anyone out. 

So happy new year to all, and remember you don't have to make new year resolutions unless you want to.


Wednesday 21 December 2011

What's going on at the GRO?

GRO clerk 1899
The General Register Office for England and Wales (GRO) has featured in a number of blog posts recently, and in Peter Calver's excellent Lost Cousins Newsletter. Peter gives a detailed and comprehensive account of his correspondence with the GRO, including his recent Freedom of Information request regarding the number of certificates produced before and after the price increase of April 2010. I won't try to summarise everything he says, instead I'd encourage you to read it for yourself. The main point, however, is that the demand for certificates has dropped, which is what you'd expect following a price rise amounting to of 32% for most users. The drop is serious enough for the GRO to announce the shedding of 27 posts in the Certificate Production operation at Smedley Hydro in Southport. Chris Paton provides a link to the story in the local newspaper the Southport Visiter in his blog British GENES.

This follows several years of steadily increasing demand for certificates, during which staff were recruited first for evening and then overnight shifts on certificate production. Prices have increased before without a great drop in applications, although admittedly it is some time since the last one, and the increase is bigger. But on its own, this latest price increase may not be the only reason for the drop in applications.

I don't know if the reply that Peter received from the GRO included a breakdown of certificate applications by type, but I strongly suspect that it is the applications for marriage certificates that have dropped the most. Unlike births and deaths, which are only available in the form of certified copies, there has always been an alternative source for marriages, the marriage registers of the  Church of England which are mostly deposited in county record offices. The great majority of marriages in England and Wales took place in the Church of England until well into the 20th century, so these registers have always been a very useful source, provided you knew which register to look at.

But now many of the post-1837 marriage registers in record offices have been digitised and published online, and, crucially, they are indexed. When the registers from the London Metropolitan Archives were released on I wondered what the effect would be on applications to the GRO for marriage certificates. And that was just the beginning; they have now released registers for Liverpool, West Yorkshire, Dorset and Warwickshire. now has digitised and indexed images of post-1837 marriages from Cheshire and Devon. These are not the only online sources of images and transcripts, but they are the most accessible.
So it may or may not be coincidental that within the last few months a number of record offices have received letters from the GRO, enquiring about their arrangements for access to church registers:

"We are not clear as to the variety and detail of access arrangements in place across the country for those who seek access to register information via record offices. As a result we intend to carry out a short fact-finding exercise over the next two weeks whereby we aim to speak to record / archive offices to seek information on the access arrangements they offer for these records.

Once we have more information we will review the position and decide what further action, if any, may be appropriate."
Some offices were contacted by telephone, and asked a number of questions regarding the number of (post-1837) marriage registers held, access and copying arrangements, and whether any copies or transcripts were published anywhere. I have no inside knowledge regarding the current actions of the GRO (although I know an awful lot about what went on there in the 19th and early 20th centuries!), but as an outsider it looks to me like one way of trying to find out where some of their expected certificate applications have gone. Just a thought.


Wednesday 14 December 2011

Workaday Wednesday - Engine drivers and their work

'There is perhaps no body of men to whom the public are so much indebted for their daily convenience as to the engine driver and his mate the fireman'

So begins an article in one of the earliest edition of the Strand magazine in 1894. The author, Alfred T Story, described the work and training of these men, and the jobs they would have done in order to progress to the status of engine driver. He then interviewed a number of drivers from three of the major railway companies; London and North Western, Great Western, and London, Midland and Scottish.

A boy might start work in his mid-teens helping with engine repairs, or perhaps as a call-lad, making sure the drivers were up and ready for work early in the morning:
'He must be a youth of nerve and courage. This appears to be especially the case in the neighbourhood of Willesden, where, notwithstanding the very matter-of-fact character of a large railway junction, ghosts have  been known to prowl, putting the call-boys into unseasonable frights'
Later he would gain a thorough knowledge of engines by cleaning them, first assisting a more experienced man, then having sole charge of an engine himself. The next stage was to move up through the ranks of fireman, finally sitting a test after which he would become a full fireman. Eventually he might progress to the sought-after rank of driver. A newly-qualified driver would turn and move engines in the shed yard, then he would pass on to a shunting engine, then local goods trains. He could progress to driving goods trains on main lines, then various passengers trains, and the elite drivers would take charge of better-class passenger trains, and, finally one of the great express trains.

One of the drivers interviewed was Jem Brown, pictured above with one of his engines. He began work as  and engine cleaner with the London and North Western in 1858, becoming a fireman in 1859 and a driver in 1864. In 1875 he was promoted to driving passenger trains. When he was interviewed in 1894 he had been the driver of the Scotch express for three years, and the train had recently been converted into what was called the Corridor Dining Train. It would leave London at 2pm and reach Crewe at 5:20pm. another driver would take it from there, and Brown would return to London with another express train at 7:32pm, arriving back in London at 10:45pm. He and another driver did this run on alternate days.


The Edible Archive...what's your story?

The Edible Archive is the Scottish Council on Archives' contribution to this year's Archives Awareness Campaign theme 'Culture and diversity - what's your story?' The Council has been collecting stories and recipes from Scotland, some dating back 300 years, and intends to publish an electronic cookbook based on the recipes collected.
'The food we eat is a reflection of who we are, where we’ve been, and where we live. The recipes we keep and use reveal aspects of our family and national history and culture. With your help, we aim to compile a collection of recipes spanning several centuries, ranging from the familiar to the bizarre.'
Some of the recipes were tried out on 26 November at Captain Taylor's Coffee House in Edinburgh as part of an event which involved demonstrations, talks and workshops. Participants could sample the delights of dishes such as locust bread and invalid fruit tart. If you are feeling adventurous and want to try some of the dishes for yourself, you can download a number of recipe cards from the SCA site.  I rather like the sound of Tweed Kettle, which I may try it out sometime - it's certainly more appealing than Sheep's head broth.

I'm fascinated by Scottish gastronomic heritage, but despite my Scottishness, I have very little experience of it myself. There are no treasured family recipes in my background; my mother is a wonderful woman with many admirable qualities, but, regrettably, they do not include culinary expertise (baking is a different matter, she's really good at that now, she just never got the hang of producing edible meals). It's not her fault, she learned everything she knew from her mother, and she was a REALLY bad cook. My dad used to say that you could sole your shoes with one of granny's pork chops - if only you could get a nail through it. He never said that in front of her, though, he was probably scared she might hit him with one of them.

You can contribute to the project too, and the What's your story? page tells how you can send in your own recipes if your family, unlike mine, has something worth passing on (sorry, Mum!)


Monday 12 December 2011

Mappy Monday - 'Locating London's Past' website

If you liked the Proceedings of the Old Bailey and London Lives then you'll just love Locating London's Past. By way of explanation I can't do any better than quote the introductory paragraph from the site's own homepage.
This website allows you to search a wide body of digital resources relating to early modern and eighteenth-century London, and to map the results on to a fully GIS compliant version of John Rocque's 1746 map.
 Rocque's wonderful 1746 set of maps is a pretty accurate survey of the metropolis at that time, but lacking the kind of technology we have today it's not going to be pinpoint accurate. The map was overlaid on a modern Ordnance survey map by 'pinning' them together at 48 fixed points on the Rocque map that are still in existence today, and adjusting the old map to fit the new one. If my low-tech explanation fails to satisfy, you can find out exactly how this was done on the Mapping Methodology page.

You can use information from a number of datasets to plot all kinds of things on either of the historic maps, a modern map, Google Maps satellite view or even a blank background. I can see all kinds of applications for this; one of my particular pet projects is to map the locations of the various taverns and coffee houses where the notorious 'Fleet' marriages took place, and this site should be a big help with that.

There are plans to add a citable search URL, map export function and citation generator. They also hope to add more maps and datasets in the future, which will make it even better. In the meantime there is plenty to explore, and there is a video walkthrough to help you find your way around. You can also send suggestions and feedback through the Contact Us page. I'm sure that people will come up with plenty of applications relevant to their own research.


Sunday 11 December 2011

Plenty of Tech, what about the Roots?

Rootstech 2012 is only a few weeks away, and I am one of (doubtless) thousands of people planning to attend. Rootstech 2011 was an amazing event, and expectations were running high for the next one, bu then came news of a bizarre decision by the organisers to exclude booksellers and other non-tech vendors from the exhibit hall.

I first became aware of this through a posting on Leland Meitzler's GenealogyBlog where he quotes from a message he received from the Exhibit Hall Co-ordinator:

RootsTech exhibit hall is for technically related products and services. We are purposefully not accepting applications from genealogical studies, book publishers, book resellers or arts and crafts dealers.
Please call to discuss if you like.
I am as puzzled as anyone at the reasoning behind this announcement. First of all, I'm not alone in believing that the point of Rootstech was to bring together genealogy and technology, so restricting the Exhibit Hall to technology exhibitors only is bizarre, to say the least.  There might be some justification if space were at a premium, but this is definitely not the case where the Salt Palace Convention Center is concerned. One of the ways to make an event successful is to have vendors that appeal to your attendees' demographic, even if their goods or services are not directly related to the event; for example, vendors at Who Do You Think You Are? Live have included conservation charities, travel agents and further education providers as well as family history organisations and vendors. Furthermore, it is a basic retail principle that half of the battle is getting people through the door in the first place; if you want to entice nervous or reluctant technology users to the shining path of the digital future, it's a good idea to lure them in with something from their comfort zone.

At the same time, the smart vendor will tailor their pitch to the expected audience so that those who only sells books will go heavy on technology-related titles, and those who also deal in gadgets and software will adjust their selection accordingly. Who knows, seeing at first hand the appetite for technology in the genealogy market might encourage encourage 'old-fashioned' booksellers to expand into e-publishing or software, for example. Win-win, surely?  

Then there is the matter of simple courtesy. If the Rootstech organisers want to exercise their undoubted right to exclude certain kinds of vendors (wrongly, in my opinion), then they have chosen the wrong way to go about it. You only have to look at Leland's blog and the comments posted on it to understand the unfairness of the short notice given to potential exhibitors, leaving aside any questions of tact and diplomacy. You have to plan a long way in advance to attend as a delegate, let alone a vendor. Hotels have to be booked well in advance and often pre-paid to get the best deals (the main Rootstech hotels sold out ages ago), and possibly and inventory needs to be ordered. Many vendors will have applied for their booths as soon as they could, and already invested time and money in preparation for the biggest genealogical gathering of the year. They stand to suffer real financial losses as a result of this high-handed pronouncement.

Two of the Rootstech Official Bloggers responded promptly to the news with a combination of disbelief and condemnation, Dear Myrtle and Genealogy's Star. Since I started writing this, I have seen further posts from  We Tree, Geneabloggers (two more of Rootstech's Official Bloggers) and Paula's Genealogical Eclectica, and doubtless other that I haven't picked up yet. The message is loud and clear - Think again, Rootstech. It seems that they have now undertaken to 'revisit the issue'. I should think so too.

I am saddened by this episode, since everything about Rootstech 2011 was so positive, and a sour note has now been injected into what should have been an even greater event. Still, there is time for Rootstech organisers to retrieve the situation. We all make mistakes, and shouldn't be ashamed to admit them and learn from them. I hope that in a couple of months we will look back on this as a temporary blip, or even better, have forgotten about it in the excitement of a second Rootstech even more successful than the first.

I am not one of the Official Bloggers, but as a Rootstech presenter I have received a complimentary registration for the event. I would have attended anyway, and I agree wholeheartedly with Paula
Stuart-Warren who entitled her blog post 'Don't boycott Rootstech 2012'. I hope we are participating in a practical demonstration of how massed ranks of genealogists can use social media to great effect. 'Occupy Rootstech', perhaps?

Saturday 10 December 2011

Shopping Saturday - 'Death in the pot'

We shop today in supermarkets, but many of us remember with fondness shopping from an earlier age; going to the local greengrocer, the butcher, the ironmonger and so on. Perhaps too much food now is processed and packaged. On reflection, drop the 'perhaps'. There is no doubt that much that is good has been lost as our shopping habits have changed. But the supposed good old days that our ancestors knew as they passed the time of day with cheery shopkeepers was not an entirely sunny picture.

Modern mass-produced processed food may be dull, but if you buy a packet of flour you can reasonably expect it to contain flour, not chalk, and that your tea will not be used leaves dried and re-sold as new. We take for granted all the consumer law that protects us from inferior or even harmful ingredients in our food, but this was not always so.

One of the first investigators to conduct a detailed study into the adulteration of food and drink was the chemist Friedrich Accum, who published ‘A Treatise on Adulterations of Food, and Culinary Poisons Exhibiting the Fraudulent Sophistications of Bread, Beer, Wine, Spiritous Liquors, Tea, Coffee, Cream, Confectionery, Vinegar, Mustard, Pepper, Cheese, Olive Oil, Pickles, and Other Articles Employed in Domestic Economy and methods of detecting them’ in 1820. Snappy title. Although these practices were widespread, they were hard to detect since techniques of chemical analysis were not sufficiently developed. The next really significant contribution was the work of Arthur Hill Hassall, whose research in the 1850s continued what Accum had begun, starting with an examination of coffee samples. He also showed that the microscope was a serious research tool, particularly useful in identifying foreign vegetable matter, and insects, living and dead. Where Accum had published the names of vendors who were prosecuted for selling adulterated goods, Hassall went one stage further and published the names of everyone from whom he had bought samples, and whether or not they proved to be contaminated. It is interesting to note that none of the offenders succeeded in suing him. 

As a result of Hassall’s work, a Parliamentary Commission of Enquiry was set up and the first Food Adulteration Act was passed in 1860. This was revised and greatly strengthened by a further Act in 1872. However, like Accum before him, Hassall did not have universal support; the publishers of ‘Enquire Within Upon Everything’ accused him of exaggerating and scaremongering, for example. Others agreed, and pointed out that most adulterants were not actually harmful in themselves, such as water and flour in milk. This is true enough, but the consequences could still be devastating if it was fed to babies. In 1856 Chambers’ Journal pointed out that some of the responsibility must lie with the consumer who demanded cheap and varied food, with no questions asked. In general, however, the tide of opinion was with him, and food became somewhat safer as a result. One of the best illustrations of this is that manufacturers began to appeal to the public desire for pure and wholesome food through their advertisements. Many claimed that their products were endorsed by Dr Hassall, which may or may not have been true, and emphasised the virtues of their uniform production and packaging, of the ‘None genuine without this signature’ variety.

There is a detailed article on the subject on the Royal Society of Chemistry site, and Accum's 1820 book can be downloaded from Google Books.


Friday 9 December 2011

Those places Thursday - Collins Illustrated Guide to London

This is one of my favourite books, and one of my best bargains - it cost me £4.50 more than ten years ago. It contains some good illustrations, which I always like to see, and some gems of information for the tourist in the 1890s (the book isn't dated, but from the contents I have inferred that it must have been published around then).

Descriptions of the main tourist attractions make up most of the book, but there are sections on transport, including fares, suggestions for daily itineraries, and numerous appendices. These list hotels, lodgings, restaurants, picture galleries, theatres, music halls, concert rooms, billiard rooms, chess rooms and other places of interest.

There is also a long list of public baths, and the addresses of the embassies and consulates of various foreign countries, and the rates of exchange between their currencies and the £ Sterling. A dollar was worth 4s 2d, the equivalent of nearly $5 to the £ (if only!). The dollar in question could be from the US, Canada, Cuba, Mexico, Chile, Peru or the West Indies, they were all worth the same.

The frontispiece is this general view of Westminster, showing the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey, but most of the illustrations inside are of individual buildings or monuments. Most of the attractions listed are still popular with visitors today, like the British Museum, Kew Gardens the National Gallery and the great cathedrals. Others have disappeared, notably the Crystal Palace at Sydenham, destroyed by fire in the 1930s, while others still exist, but no longer fulfil their original function, such as Covent Garden market and the Record Office. This last is one of two entries that may be of interest to the genealogist:

'The search rooms are open from 10 to 4, on Saturday from 10 to 2, every week-day, except Christmas-day to New Years-day inclusive, Good Friday and the following day, Easter Monday and Tuesday, Whit Monday and Tuesday, the Queen's Birthday and Coronation-day, and days appointed for public fasts and thanksgivings. Every visitor must write his name and address in a book kept for that purpose.'
The other place of interest is Somerset House:
'In Somerset House are several Government Offices, among which is the Registrar-General's department, where are recorded all the births, deaths and marriages that occur in the kingdom. These may be searched over any period not exceeding five years on payment of a fee of 1s, and a certified copy of any entry supplied for an extra fee of 2s 7d. The collection of wills has been removed hither from Doctors' Commons any one of which may be perused on payment of a fee of 1s.'
Smithfield Market


Saturday 3 December 2011

Shopping Saturday - an advent calendar

Just in case you don't have enough online advent calendars to play with already, here's another one, this time with a retail theme. It's from the House of Fraser archive at the University of Glasgow.

The archives will be launching a new online catalogue to the House of Fraser collection after Christmas, so we have a retail event to look forward to that doesn't involve either venturing to the shops or spending money. Can't be bad.


Cause papers 1300-1858: disputes in the north of England

Cause papers in the diocesan courts in the Archbishopric of York, 1300-1858 is a searchable catalogue of more than five centuries' worth of papers relating to cases in the church courts. The Advanced Search allows you to search by name, place, type of case, occupation and more. The cases dealt with in the church courts included matrimonial and testamentary disputes, defamation and matters of moral conduct. They also heard cases regarding church affairs such as tithes, church rights and benefices.

York Minster
The database includes the names of everyone involved in each case, witnesses, proctors (ecclesiastical lawyers) as well as the parties in dispute, and even the names of the testators in disputed will cases. Occupation or status is also given, and in the case of witnesses, their ages too. Sometimes there is a brief abstract of the case, or, even better, you can view and download scanned images of the papers themselves. If there are no images to download, you can order copies from the Borthwick Institute, where the records are held. you are also encouraged to contribute to this ongoing project by adding abstracts of the cases or by editing existing ones.

These records are a terrific source for family and local historians. not only are they full of names, they also give a glimpse into the daily lives of people who may be otherwise unrecorded beyond their baptisms, marriages and burials. Some of the cases involve large numbers of people, such as the 1753 case involving brawling in church at Newark on Trent, Nottinghamshire; Edward Grave, the churchwarden, brought the case against John Atkinson, a fellmonger, and no less than 17 witnesses were called. There are 43 pages of proceedings to download and read, which are fortunately very legible - some of the earlier ones present more of a challenge, but there is plenty of help to be had, such as The National Archives resources for Reading old documents.

All the places referred to in the cases are indexed, and they extend well beyond area over which the diocesan courts of the Archbishopric of York had jurisdiction. For example, the case of Edward Bailey, colonel in the West Middlesex Militia in 1812, includes many references to addresses in London. All places referred to in the cases are indexed, and they can be very detailed indeed, right down to street addresses in towns and field names in the countryside.

This is a site that is well worth exploring, especially if your ancestral interests lie in England's northern counties. Even if there are no cases of specific interest, it gives you an indication of just how detailed and interesting court records can be. They are largely unexplored because there are not many name indexes, without which you would have no inkling that an ancestor was ever involved in a court case.