Monday, 23 December 2013

Merry Christmas

Season's Greetings from Deepest Devon

Looking down our track...
(not looking quite so seasonal at the moment!)

A Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all.

Thanks to all who dropped in for our Midwinter Blog Hop. Hope to see you again after the holidays.
Here's to some fruitful and inspirational family history research for 2014!

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Mystery of birth and death

A birth in the family a couple of weeks ago, when the phrase "mother and baby are doing well" is almost taken for granted, prompted me to think of times past when, for our ancestors, childbirth was considerably more hazardous than it is today.

In  late 17th century London, and the larger towns, 1 in 40 births resulted in the mother's death. (Today the UK wide figure is 8.6 per 100,000.) The diaries of the Reverend Oliver Heywood (1630-1702) give us a personal insight into the bald statistics of church records: "On Saturday night Isaac Sargent's daughter...dyed of childbearing after intollerable pains."

Women would go into labour encouraged to prepare themselves for pain and possible death which, at this time, was inextricably linked with the religious belief that they were carrying out God's first commandment of producing children, while suffering for "the sins of Eve".

It was this attitude which caused the clergy in 1847 to challenge Dr James Young Simpson's "dubious" practice of giving chloroform as a general anesthesia during childbirth, by suggesting such drugs to be the work of Satan.

When Queen Victoria famously chose to receive chloroform while giving birth to Prince Leopold in 1853, she declared the effects to be "soothing, quieting, and delightful beyond measure", and thereby paved the way for acceptance of the practice in society. 

Nevertheless it would be many years before better training and improved standards of hygiene would see any significant reduction in infant and maternal mortality.

When I found my "long lost" Great-great grandmother Emma Wenlock on the death indexes, I assumed she'd died in childbirth, as in the same district, in the same quarter was listed a Wenlock 'male' (unnamed), aged 0 years. 

Death certificate of Emma Wenlock, aged 45, February 1886

On receipt of her death certificate, however, miscarriage was written under cause of death and the words, phlegmonous erysipelas of leg and thigh; gangrene of foot and peritonitis.

Phlegmonous erysipelas is an infection of the skin causing reddening and blistering, and research suggests that, although the skin can become infected by a cut, scratch or insect bite, the condition was often associated with childbirth. So did Emma develop the infection as a result of a miscarriage or was the miscarriage caused by the infection? Yet another secret to unravel. 

Friday, 29 November 2013

Ancestors in the Spotlight

Welcome to the Midwinter Blog Hop!
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Follow the links below this post to hop to other intriguing blogs.

Ancestors in the Spotlight

What better theme for a family historian than shedding light on something puzzling or unknown. All those dark family secrets, mysteries and unanswered questions, unravelling the who, what, where and why about our ancestors.

Little chinks of light are revealed as we discover who our ancestors were. The birth, marriage and death indexes tell us when key events happened in their lives and through the censuses we find out where they lived, with whom, and what were their occupations. But we have to search further into the dark and beyond, before the chinks of light grow together and slowly illuminate a bigger story.

Until recently, I had never managed to shine any light on my ancestor Edward Henry Coules Colley who vanished from the records after the 1881 census. No one in the family seemed to know what happened to him or was prepared to reveal the 'scandal' surrounding him.

Delving into the criminal records of 1892, I stumbled upon an Edward Colley, convicted of larceny, and imprisoned for 12 months. Could this be him?

Or what about the E Colley, in The Times of 2nd August 1888, a music and dramatic agent, who was listed as a bankrupt - "it had always been his habit to bet on the turf "Was this him? But without the all important full name, I couldn't be sure. At this point, I hit a brick wall. He didn't appear on the 1901 census, neither could I find a record of his death. I was plunged into darkness once more.

Then a couple of years later, while sorting through some old papers, I discovered a letter written by his son, in which he promised to reveal everything about his father.

I scanned it eagerly. He explained how his father's family enjoyed "nothing but high life and parties" and described his father as being "the playboy of them all".

But just as it was getting interesting he announced, "and this is where I close my book on him with no regret". And I was back in the dark.

In the case of another relative, Charles Gabriel Baker, on the other side of the family, the situation was reversed. I knew exactly what had happened to him due to the detailed information meticulously recorded on the Australian death certificate which I'd discovered in that most traditional of locations - the box in the attic.

The document shone like a spotlight on Charles's life. As well as the usual information - his name, age, place and cause of death - it listed his wife, when and where they'd been married, the number of children living and dead, and the name of his parents, including his mother's maiden name and his father's occupation.

It told me Charles was a professor of music, he'd travelled to Australia in 1867 and died within 6 months of his arrival. It recorded where he'd lived, where he was buried, and even the names of the doctor who'd treated him, the funeral director and the minister who'd carried out the service!

What remained in the dark, though, was the reason for his journey to Australia, how he'd got there and the whereabouts of the rest of his family.

Census records, passenger lists and a notice in The Times, threw some light on Charles's story, though they didn't explain everything.

According to the census returns, Charles was a pupil teacher in London Colney in 1851 and at the time of his marriage in 1856, he was living and teaching in St Mary's, Lambeth. 1858 was the year of The Great Stink, when the authorities could no longer ignore the stench radiating from the Thames, used as a dumping ground for waste and sewage over centuries. It would be around this time that Charles and his wife Susan would lose a son and a daughter. Was it this tragedy which drove them out of the city?

Perhaps. Though not yet to Australia, as two of their children's birth certificates revealed that Charles was teaching music in Stevenage, Hertfordshire in 1863 and 1865.

Stevenage would have been a rural idyll in comparison to the crowded streets of Lambeth. In 1861, Dickens described it as being a village with "the quietest little dwellings". So having escaped the smog and dirt of London, what made them turn their sights to Australia?

In 1867, a notice in The Times announced that The Paramatta, would be sailing to Sydney, Australia, in August. It seems Charles and Susan booked their passage on this ship, leaving their children - 4 boys -  in the care of Charles's sister. One can only presume that the plan was to send for the children at some point in the future, perhaps when their parents were settled in the new colony.

Sadly, it was not to be. In May 1868 Charles died from a chronic disease of the lungs, from which he'd apparently been suffering for 2 years. Was this the clue? Had it been their intention to start a new life in a better, healthier climate in the hope that Charles would recover from his illness?

Following her husband's death, Susan returned to England. But without the financial support of a husband, the family were forced apart. The youngest boy, aged 3, stayed with his mother but his elder brothers, aged 9, 6 and 5, would spend their childhood in separate schools and orphanages.

But what of my other relative, that elusive black sheep, Edward Henry Coules Colley? Any glimmer of light there?

Not until a few weeks ago, when quite by chance I came across an elderly woman's burial record of 1962, in Perth, Western Australia. Her father was recorded as Edward Henry Coules Colley, born in England. It had to be my missing ancestor, surely?

Perhaps it had been the ignominy of bankruptcy or imprisonment (or both, or neither!), which drove him out of England to try his luck down-under.

Records showed that he'd married  in 1906 (bigamously, obviously!) and died in 1916. I wonder if he continued with his "high life and parties"? Still a few more dark corners in which to shine a light, I suspect.

How intriguing that of these two trails, one should begin in Australia and the other end there.

It was interesting to note that amongst the information on Edward Henry Coules Colley's life in Perth, there was a record of his occupation. Apparently he'd an estate agent.

Do join the Blog Hop and visit the authors below to discover their different takes on the theme of 
Casting Light on the Darkness!

Happy Hopping!

1.      Helen Hollick : A little light relief concerning those dark reviews! Plus a Giveaway Prize!
2.      Prue Batten : Casting Light....
3.      Alison Morton  Shedding light on the Roman dusk – Plus a Giveaway Prize!
4.      Anna Belfrage  Let there be light!
5.      Beth Elliott : Steering by the Stars. Stratford Canning in Constantinople, 1810/12
6.      Melanie Spiller : Lux Aeterna, the chant of eternal light
7.      Janet Reedman   The Winter Solstice Monuments
8.      Petrea Burchard  : Darkness - how did people of the past cope with the darkPlus a Giveaway Prize!
9.      Richard Denning The Darkest Years of the Dark Ages: what do we really know? Plus a Giveaway Prize! 
10.  Pauline Barclay  : Shedding Light on a Traditional Pie
11.  David Ebsworth : Propaganda in the Spanish Civil War
12.  David Pilling  :  Greek Fire – Plus a Giveaway Prize!
13.  Debbie Young : Fear of the Dark
14.  Derek Birks  : Lies, Damned Lies and … Chronicles
15.  Mark Patton : Casting Light on Saturnalia
16.  Tim Hodkinson : Soltice@Newgrange
17.  Wendy Percival  : Ancestors in the Spotlight
18.  Judy Ridgley : Santa and his elves  Plus a Giveaway Prize
19.  Suzanne McLeod  : The Dark of the Moon
20.  Katherine Bone   : Admiral Nelson, A Light in Dark Times
21.  Christina Courtenay : The Darkest Night of the Year
22.  Edward James  : The secret life of Christopher Columbus; Which Way to Paradise?
23.  Janis Pegrum Smith  : Into The Light - A Short Story
24.  Julian Stockwin  : Ghost Ships - Plus a Giveaway Present
25.  Manda Scott : Dark into Light - Mithras, and the older gods
26.  Pat Bracewell Anglo-Saxon Art: Splendor in the Dark
27.  LucienneBoyce : We will have a fire - 18th Century protests against enclosure
28.  Nicole Evelina What Lurks Beneath Glastonbury Abbey? 
29.  Sky Purington  :  How the Celts Cast Light on Current American Christmas Traditions
30.  Stuart MacAllister (Sir Read A Lot) : The Darkness of Depression

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Secrets behind pub names

On a beautiful, albeit chilly day, yesterday, I was unchained from my writing desk to go for a walk on Dartmoor. After a bracing few miles, we adjourned to the pub - The Elephant's Nest. Naturally, the question was raised about the unusual name, especially as the Ordnance Survey map recorded it as The New Inn. 

The story goes, that in the 1950s, the landlord at the time, a particularly large individual had a habit of sitting on a stool behind the bar and 'swivelling' to pull a pint or dispense an optic. One day a local said to him that he looked like an elephant sitting on a nest. The landlord was amused by the comment and the new name was adopted, as you can see from the sign hanging outside when you approach the pub. 

It was 1393 when the law was passed that drinking establishments should hang a sign outside their premises. Useful for those looking for refreshment but even more useful for the royal ale-tasters to test the brew and - surprise, surprise - demand payment of the relevant taxes. 

The Elephant's Nest is a relatively new pub name but of course, many traditional names go back centuries. Many a noble family's coat of arms would inspire the name of the local, such as The Red Lion or The White Hart. With the turmoil of Henry VIII turning his back on Catholicism, many pubs were quick to change their name from one which might be misconstrued as 'popish', to something altogether more loyal sounding, such as The Kings Arms. Other pubs have been named after famous people in history - The Lord Nelson, The Duke of York, The Duke of Wellington.

But what of those weird and wonderful names such as The Elephant and Castle, The Goat and Compass or The Flying Bedstead? Albert Jack's book, The Old Dog and Duck - The secret meanings of pub names - reveals the fascinating stories behind more than 120 pub names. 

The Prospect of Whitby, the well known pub in Wapping, which I know, was originally known as the Devil's Tavern, due to its reputation as a den of thieves and smugglers. The notorious 'Hanging' Judge Jeffreys (1645-89), who acquired his 'title' during the trials associated with the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685, would allegedly stand on the balcony of the pub overlooking Execution Dock and watch the hangings. The bodies would be left on the gibbet for the tide to wash over them (usually three times) before being removed. It was customary at that time, to allow condemned prisoners to drink a quart of ale at a public house on the way to the gallows, so the Devil's Tavern was ideally located for the purpose. 

The pub burned down in the late 18th or early 19th century and when it was rebuilt, it was named after a three-masted ship which regularly moored nearby on the banks of the Thames. Perhaps the landlord thought a new name would better for business.

We have only come across one publican so far amongst our ancestors. James Sawyer was recorded on the marriage certificate of his daughter Susannah, as an Inn Keeper, in Danbury in Essex.

If you have any landlords in your family, the Pub History website had a wealth of information where you can search by county.


Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Secrets revealed...

One of the things I love about family history research is visiting the places where our ancestors lived and I've been fortunate in being able to research in some beautiful locations.

None more so than Lavenham in Suffolk, often said to be the "finest medieval town in England".

The Guildhall, Lavenham

But if it hadn't been for the foresight of Francis Lingard Ranson, the village tailor, Lavenham and its wealth of historic buildings would not have survived. 

Ranson, (1880-1950) a keen historian and photographer, captured images of Lavenham during a period when its buildings were in serious decline and threatened with demolition. He used his photographs to raise money for restoration work as well as raising awareness of the imminent loss of our valuable heritage. 

In 1944 he helped form the Lavenham Preservation Society which campaigned to save the village from what would have been almost complete destruction.

Little Hall, Lavenham. Museum and home to the Suffolk Preservation Society.

We stayed in Lavenham in a holiday cottage some years ago while undertaking family history research into my husband's ancestry, the Long family. While we were there, we bought two books, Lingard's Lavenham and Lavenham Panorama, (now, sadly, out of print) containing a collection of Ranson's photographs, compiled by his daughter, Kitty. 

As well as images of buildings - from humble cottages to great halls - the photographs (most taken by her father Francis, but also by her brother Lingard and Joseph Hines Abbott) show the people of Lavenham, including shopkeepers, children playing in the street, the church choir, musicians, workers and village gatherings. On the cover of Lingard's Lavenham is the Ranson family standing outside their own tailor's shop.

Much later, as we pieced together our research on the Longs, we came across Susanna Ranson, daughter of Jeremiah Ranson, who had first opened the tailor's shop in the 1840s, in which his son, Francis, had plied his trade when he wasn't out and about in the village taking photographs. And Susanna, it transpired, was my husband's Great-great-grandmother! 

And what was even more amazing, though we hadn't realised at the time, was that the cottage where we'd  stayed was next door to the Ranson's tailor's shop. Had we known, we could have rented the actual former shop itself - Tailors Cottage!

Lavenham Cottages - Tailors Cottage is on the right


You can learn more about Lavenham on the 'Discover Lavenham' website or at Britain Express.

There are more photographs of its buildings in the Francis Frith Collection.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Lest we forget...

This weekend in hundreds of towns and villages across the country, people will have laid poppy wreaths at War Memorials in memory of those who gave their lives in combat.

But an interesting story reminds us also not to forget those who support those fighting in action. At an Antique Evening in our village (something akin to a poor man's Antique Roadshow) our expert was valuing a set of war medals from the Boer Wars. He told us of a war medal, awarded to a doctor for his work in a field hospital, recently sold at auction. It fetched much less than another medal awarded to a solider in battle. He poignantly remarked that it suggested that more credit is given for taking lives than saving them.

Next year sees the centenary of the WWI. Amongst our family photograph collection are several of those ancestors who served in the conflict.

I've done little research in this area, despite my best intentions, being usually more interested in civilian life than in battles and military campaigns.

So my pledge for 2014 is to find out more about these men and their contribution to that devastating war which was intended to end all wars. By Armistice Day next year, I hope to have uncovered some of their stories.

The final word on Remembrance Sunday goes to Harry Patch - The Last Fighting Tommy


Many genealogy sites have links to records about serving WWI ancestors. Here are a few.

Also December's issue of Family Tree Magazine has an article on POWs during WWI and Who Do You Think You Are magazine has a booklet on tracing your WWI ancestors.

Good luck!

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Book of Mysteries

It was a special moment when deep in the (previously mentioned!) box-in-the-attic, we found a large photograph album.

Better still, the photographs were named and dated, even with the birth date of the sitter recorded on the back. Hardly able to believe our luck we scoured the photos, matching them up with the information we had from gleaned from the censuses. The opening page showed photographs of four adults, taken in 1875.

First the grandparents...

Richard Mott Viner and Catherine Banner Viner (nee Evans)

Then the parents...

Walter Banner Viner and Mary Ann Viner (nee Pagdin)

And over the page, the girls...

Catherine Louisa born 1864, Lilian Mary born 1867, Florence Amy born 1871 and... er.. who's this? According to the census records, the Viners only had 3 daughters. Perhaps she was a cousin who came along to the exciting occasion of a visit to the photographer. A mystery yet to be solved...

Sadly, having been so lucky with names and dates on the first two pages, the remainder of the album mirrored the common frustration of so many family historians. A tantalising collection of photographs - but no names and no dates!

A Brief history of Family Photographs

It was in the 1830s that a way to combine chemistry and optics resulted in image reproduction.

In France, Louis Daguerre created the first permanent photographic image in 1837, known as the Daguerreotype. These first entered the British portrait market in 1841. Images were made directly on to silvered copper plate. As one-off pictures, they were expensive to produce - around £1 in the 1840s, the equivalent of a week's wages for a general worker.

The Ambrotype came into usage in 1851 - a glass plate from which prints could be made.

But it was the invention of the Cartes de Visite by Andre Disden in 1854 when photography really took off, albeit after a slow start. Diseri created a new type of portrait photography by using several small negatives on one large photographic plate. The resulting picture cards, of which most family historians are familiar, became common after 1861 and photographic studios opened up all over London and the provinces. In our album alone, I counted 18 different photographers' names.

Dating your photographs

There are several websites which will help you date your mystery photos.

Roger Vaughn's site gives examples of photographs from different decades to compare with your own images.

The Family Search  website gives technical tips for dating your photographs.

Jayne Shrimpton is an internationally recognised 'photo detective' whose stand at the annual Who Do You Think You Are event is always popular. Her excellent book is a comprehensive guide to with family pictures of all kinds. You can find more about her book and how to buy a copy on the Society of Genealogist's website here.

There are also useful photography and genealogy links on Jayne's webpages, including photograph restoration and repair services.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

A Murder of Crows

Convict chain gang in New South Wales

A couple of generations ago, the discovery of a convict ancestor was considered a terrifying prospect which haunted any reputable Australian citizen. Robert Hughes, in his book The Fatal Shore, likened it to an individual "perched like a crow" on what might otherwise be a 'respectable' family tree.

In more enlightened times, the idea fascinates and intrigues us and we want to know more about the circumstances in which those ancestors found themselves.

The Percival 'crow' was called Moses, a ploughman with a wife and three children, born circa 1805 in Great Tey, Essex. In 1831, he was sentenced to 14 years exile in Van Dieman's Land - modern day Tasmania - for stealing a sack of barley.

Over 165,000 convicts were transported to Australia between 1789 and 1868 when transportation ceased. Moses fell victim to the Georgian perception of criminality, that society could rid itself of the 'criminal classes' by sending them off to some distant land.

Having lost America as a destination for its exiled convicts following the American War of  Independence, Parliament was under pressure to find an alternative destination. England's gaols and hulk ships - rotting decommissioned vessels used as extensions to the country's prisons - were full to overflowing and the situation was becoming dire. Inmates even rioted in protest at the intolerable conditions.

The hulk 'Discovery', at Deptford

Desperate for a way out of the crisis, the authorities finally allowed themselves to be swayed by favorable reports that Botany Bay satisfied their criteria of having fertile soil, a good climate, fresh water, pasture and an abundance of fish - an over optimistic assessment which the first settlers would learn to their cost. It would take years of hardship and near starvation before the colony learned how to tame the unfamiliar land and feed itself.

In the penal 'system', convicts served out their sentence providing free labour for landowners and other settlers in the colony. Well behaved prisoners would be given a 'ticket of leave' which allowed them certain freedoms, and once they'd served their time, a pardon would be issued and they would become free settlers. Those who were less cooperative suffered harsh treatments - the wearing of leg-iron, flogging or dispatch to one of the stricter penal colonies such as Norfolk Island which gained a brutal reputation for the way it treated its inmates.

Moses Percival's convict record noting his pardon in 1838.
An empty page suggests he was a model prisoner with no misdemeanours recorded!
(courtesy of Archive Office of Tasmania)

After gaining their freedom, prisoners often remained in the colony to make a new life for themselves and this appears to have happened to Moses Percival. He worked for Mr Andrew Tolnie for some years, receiving his Pardon in 1838, after serving only half of his 14 year sentence. But there is no record of him returning to England and in 1844 back in Essex his wife, Hannah, remarried.


If you want to find your own 'crows', there's a wealth of information on Australian convicts on the Internet.

A good place to start is Australia's convict records.

Jen Willets's website lists many convict ships, some with the names of the convicts on board, including in some cases, reports of life during the voyage to the colony recorded by the Ship's Surgeon, who was responsible for the welfare of the prisoners.

Convict Central has stories of individual prisoners, the plight of women convicts and a comprehensive list of links to other research sites. has a wide selection of criminal records to search, including a link to Bedfordshire & Luton Archives for the Bedfordshire Gaol Index which gives description detail about prisoners from 1770-1882.

If, like Moses, your felons ended up in Tasmania, their archive portal gives you access to records where you can also view digitized images of actual documents.

Happy hunting!

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Plebs to Plods

Officers of the Metropolitan Police appear more than once on our family tree, rising from rural beginnings to join the police force in the great metropolis.

A Victorian Police Officer, circa 1850

My ancestor Ernest ELLISDON, was born in 1846 in Moulsham, a hamlet on the outskirts of Chelmsford, Essex. By 1881, he is recorded on the census as a police sergeant, living in the High Street in Southwark, with his large family.

William PERCIVAL 1864 - 1892

William PERCIVAL, born in 1864 started life in rural Chappel. He left the world of the agricultural worker and joined the Met in 1883. He was 19 years old, though he must have lied about his age to the authorities! Recruitment was usually between 21 and 27 years.

William Percival, aged 7, on the 1871 census

But William's new life-style was to be short lived. After less than four years, he was forced to leave the Met in 1887 after being seriously injured while on duty and losing the sight in one eye. He was awarded a police pension which, ironically, would have been equivalent to the wage of an agricultural labourer. Sadly, his health deteriorated over the next few years - the assault possibly a contributory factor - and he died in 1892.

The Metropolitan Police force was set up in 1829 under Home Secretary, Sir Robert Peel, from where the nickname 'Bobbies' or 'Peelers' came. By 1899 there were 16,000 serving police officers.

That my two ancestors would have been eligible to join the force indicates that they'd been educated sufficiently to satisfy the necessary criteria. Applicants had to be able to read, write legibly and have a 'fair knowledge of spelling.' 

Many, like William, would come from an agricultural background, others might have a military background and most recruits were born outside London. All had to be in good health and not less than 5' 9" tall.

Unmarried officers lived in a section house and, like the military, would have to seek the permission of their senior officer to marry. Potential brides would often have to undergo an interview by an inspector or even the chief constable!


Useful sources in searching for information on police ancestors include The Metropolitan Police Heritage Centre and they will be attending WDYTYA Live at Olympia, London from 20-22nd February 2014.

The Essex Police Museum has lots of information on its website, including a search facility and another site full of fascinating facts, stories, books to read and images about policing in London is the wonderfully entitled History by the Yard.

Happy hunting!

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Strictly Music Hall

With everyone (well, nearly everyone) in 'Strictly' mode, it seemed appropriate to use this blog post to introduce a performer from my own ancestry.

Meet Winifred (Wyn) Griffiths, born in Wolverhampton in 1901, who began treading the boards at the age of nine when she first sung in public to an audience of 500.

By the age of 16, her talent had been recognised and she joined the Carl Rosa Opera Company - "For a girl of 16 years... she has a voice of considerable promise."

The company toured all over the country, but as 16 was considered too young an age to go alone, Wynn's elder sister, Clarrie, took a job as a secretary with the company to act as chaperon!

Playing the Doll in The Tales of Hoffmann
"Miss Winifred Griffiths made a captivating mechanical doll
and... earned the plaudits of the audience."

But opera singers were not well paid in the 1920s and 30s. A performer like Wyn could earn twice as much working in the more popular concert parties and pantomimes. 

So by 1923 when the above photograph was taken, she'd joined Jack Audley's Variety Group (second from left)...

...and in 1937 (below) she's performing in The Happy Valley, in Llandudno, with Charles Wadee's Concord Follies (Wyn's marked with a blue arrow - not by me, I hasted to add!)

When war broke out in 1939, everything changed. Wyn was working with a concert party in Whitley Bay, Northumberland at the time but decided to return to Wolverhampton. She began work in a steel tube factory, though she continued to sing periodically at charity events.

A good starting place to research your own theatrical ancestors is the excellent website, hosting thousands of images and pages of information on the history of Music Hall and Theatre. 

Also, the theatrical publication The Stage, in existence since 1880, has an online archive where you can register to make a free search, though you will have to pay to view or print any material.

Finally, The archive of theatrical scenery has a database of shows and theatres, including images of 6,000 programme fronts.

Happy searching!

Friday, 4 October 2013

Mystery of the lace lady

My visit to St Fagans, near Cardiff last weekend (see last blog post) set me thinking about Ag Labs, or agricultural labourers which many of us have on our family trees. To refresh my memory of ours, I dug out the 1871 census image for the Percivals, who lived in Chappel, Essex.

Browsing the entry for William Percival and his family, I noticed that his wife Eliza and two other women neighbours were listed as being (when I finally deciphered the handwriting) Tambour Workers.

Having no idea what a tambour worker was, I googled it and discovered it was a type of lace maker. The art of Tambour lace-making originated in the Far East and its name originated from the frame the workers used, shaped like a drum or tambour.

Tambour or Coggeshall lace

The craft was introduced into Coggeshall, less than 6 miles from Chappel, around 1812 by a Frenchman, Monsieur Drago. With the help of his two daughters, M. Drago taught a group of women and children in the village to make lace using a traditional tambour hook, which has a small barb on its shaft rather like a fish-hook, and it became known as Coggeshall lace.

With the Napoleonic wars causing a scarcity of Tambour lace, business blossomed and throughout the 19th century lace was made in homes and villages all around Coggeshall.

Inevitably, with war and then industrialization, the trade declined, though there was an attempt to revive it in the 1930s by promoting it to the Royals and three Coggeshall handkerchiefs were given to Princess Marina on the occasion of her marriage in 1934.

It was while browsing Coggelshall Museum's website and reading the history of  lace making that I spotted the lady in the photograph...

Mrs Percival...
with the tablemat she made as a wedding gift for a Royal lady-in-waiting in the 1930s

I wonder if anyone in Coggeshall knows which Mrs Percival she is and whether she's related to my husband!

Monday, 30 September 2013

Touching the past

A short questionnaire on a family history website recently asked researchers to identify their main purpose for their genealogical investigation. Was it to find people to compile a family tree? To discover something about the lives of their ancestors? As a way to learn social history?

Obviously all three are inextricably linked. Even if the initial intention is to construct a bare family tree, this naturally leads to discovering information about the people on that tree and, from there, something of the time in which they lived. 

My favourite way of learning more about our ancestors' lives is to visit one of the country's many open-air museums and yesterday I enjoyed a return visit to St Fagans, the Welsh National History Museum, near Cardiff. Researching my Shropshire heritage I have uncovered my own Welsh ancestry - and with surnames such as Roberts, Evans and Griffiths on my family tree, it would be surprising not to find my roots extending across the border into Wales!

17th century Gower farmhouse
This impressive museum was first opened in 1948 and with its treasure of over 40 re-erected historic buildings scattered throughout its 100-acre site, it shows how the people of Wales lived, worked and spent their leisure time over centuries.

A box-bed beside the fire - a common feature of Gower homes such as the farmhouse above.
Doors in the centre slide together to keep it draught-free and cosy inside... if a little claustrophobic!

18th century cottage from Carmarthenshire, built of compacted clay mixed with straw, known locally as 'clom'.
In Devon it's called cob.

A Tudor trader's house from Pembrokeshire - living accommodation above and storage below.
It is one of the museum's latest acquisitions, which you can read about here.

Whether you have any Welsh ancestry or not, I can thoroughly recommend a visit. As you walk around the site you discover reconstructed buildings from tiny cottages, a tannery, a Victorian farmhouse, shops (including a bakery where you can buy freshly bake bread), a school, barns and churches all set in dappled clearings amongst the trees.

Other similar sites elsewhere in the UK include:

 The Weald and Downland Museum, in West Sussex - 600 years of rural life told through more than 50 buildings on a 50 acre site, many furnished to recreate historic domestic interiors.

The Black Country Living Museum, in Dudley, West Midlands - this award winning museum telling the story of the industrial revolution, has an iron works, a complete Black Country village, trams, a traditional fairground, a canal, a colliery, a glass cutter's workshop and many other gems.

Blists Hill Victorian Town, part of the Ironbridge Museum, Shropshire, invites you to experience what life was like over 100 years ago through the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of this recreated Victorian town. The town's "inhabitants" wander through the town in character dress, giving visitors the sense of their daily life at work, in shops and in their homes. Watch them at work in the foundry, visit the fair and exchange your "new money" for old in the bank and spend it in the town

Billed as the living museum of the north, Beamish has a town, a railway, a colliery, pit village, 'Big House' and home farm amongst its many attractions and tells the story of life in North East England in Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian times.

The Chiltern Open Air Museum, in Buckinghamshire, cites its mission statement as "telling the story of the unique history of the Chilterns throuhg buildings, landscapes and culture for the endjoyment, inspiration and learning of present and future communities." The museum focuses on acquiring vernacular buildings that would otherwise be lost - houses and workplaces of ordinary people that are gradually disappearing from the landscape. Buildings on their site include a traditional farm, cottages on a village green, a barn, a toll house, a nissen hut and even a public convenience!

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Secrets below stairs

This weekend Downton Abbey returns to our screens, reminding me how many of us have ancestors who worked in domestic service. A century ago it was the country's biggest employer .

It was no different for my family. Everyone in the treasured photograph, below, worked at The Big House at some point in their lives.

In a large house such as depicted in Downton Abbey and in films such as Gosford Park, the staff hierarchy was well established, from the butler, cook and housekeeper at the head of the pecking order, down through valets, footmen, parlour maids, and 'tween maids' to the scullery maid. Everyone knew their place and their responsibilities.

But not every home was wealthy enough to employ a number of servants to share the workload.  For the lower middle-class keen to enhance their social status in having servant help of some sort, a maid-of-all-work would be employed. Not an enviable post - the greatest workload and the most poorly paid. According to Liza Picard in her book, Victorian Londona general live-in servant was paid around £16 per year where as a maid-of-all-works's annual wage could be as little as £6.

Thomas DIGGORY, his wife Eliza and children: Mary Ann the eldest at the back, Nellie beside her, Thomas behind his mother, twins Hannah & George, either side of their father, and little Edith, my grandmother, at her mother's knee.

At the time this photograph was taken, c. 1904, Thomas senior was a groom and coachman at Park Hall in Sedgley, Staffordshire. The family lived at the lodge. Eliza had worked as a cook before she was married, Thomas would go on to become a footman, George a groom, Nellie a parlour-maid and Edith a general servant.

What happened to Mary Ann, though, is uncertain. She left the family home 2 years after this photograph was taken, only re-establishing contact shortly before her death in 1982, at the age of 93.

Why did she leave? That mystery is yet to be solved...

Friday, 13 September 2013

A family of postmasters

This weekend The British Postal Museum and Archive will celebrate 'Mail Rail', the former Post Office's underground railway. One hundred years ago the 'Post Office (London) Railway Act' was passed enabling the building of this unique railway to ensure efficient delivery of mail to main post offices and railway stations, avoiding the congested streets of the capital. It remained in use until 2003.

I am indebted to Paul Townsend for this photograph of GPO inspectors in Bristol, taken around 1916.

There is more to learn about the history of our postal service on The British Postal Museum's website, including how to search the archives for information on any of your ancestors who worked for the Post Office.

My own postal ancestors were the ELLISDONS of Hadleigh in Suffolk. John Patmore ELLISDON became postmaster in 1839, just prior to the introduction of the postage stamp in 1840. In the 1841 census, aged 40, he is recorded as the 'post officer', living with his wife, Sarah and their eight children.

The Guildhall in Hadleigh.
John Patmore Ellisdon's grave stands in the far corner of the churchyard.

 When John dies in 1849, Sarah takes over as postmistress. By 1869, Miss Sarah Ann Ellisdon is postmistress and there is now a Post Office Savings Bank. Ten years later Thomas Alfred Ellisdon picks up the mantle until his death in 1894. From then until 1916 (the latest information I have) Kelly's trade directory records the postmistress as Miss Mary-Jane Ellisdon.

I look forward to visiting The British Postal Museum myself to find out the rest of the Ellisdon Post Office story.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Secret thoughts of women in war

This week saw the anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War, when thousands of families across the country huddled around their radios to hear Neville Chamberlain's speech announcing that Britain was now at war with Germany.

For those who had been following the situation for some time, it was the outcome they'd feared. For others who were ignorant of the politics and events abroad, it came as a complete shock.

In her excellent book, 'Millions Like Us', Virginia Nicholson charts the lives, experiences and private thoughts of women who lived through the war years and whose lives changed for ever, as a result.

Using personal journals, archive material and individual accounts, the author gives the reader an incite into the lives of  women from across a wide section of society, beginning from just before war broke out until 1949, four years after it ended. Read it and truly understand what it meant to be a woman at that time.

On the day war was declared, one young woman listened with a heavy heart to Chamberlain's broadcast, certain that it would herald the end of her promising singing career. Her name? Vera Welch. Better known as 'The Forces Sweetheart', Vera Lynn.

Friday, 30 August 2013

Mystery Wedding

"...either Lizzie & Jack or Arthur & Lillian..." said the ambiguous note accompanying this family wedding photograph.

But as I knew the surname of the Jack and Arthur in question, the surname of Lizzie and an approximate date based on their ages, a browse through the free data base of births, marriages and deaths gave me two possible dates, 9 years apart - 1894 for 'Lizzie & Jack' and 1903 for 'Arthur & Lilian'.

In the middle of the 19th century, wedding photographs were generally taken in studios, often with the bride and groom wearing smart every-day clothes rather than a specific outfit for the occasion. Only more affluent families could afford such indulgences as a special dress for the day. It wasn't
until the early 20th century that white weddings became customary throughout society.

By the 1880s brides were beginning to use ribbons and other accessories to decorate their wedding clothes, with flowers and a formal bouquet introduced towards the end of the decade.

This wedding photograph demonstrates the increasing popularity of outdoor photography from the late 1890s onwards, possibly outside the bride's parents' home.

As for whose wedding this is, I can't help being swayed by those wonderful wide-brimmed and feathered hats fashionable in the Edwardian era, which convince me that this is Arthur GRIFFITHS and Lily CLAY's big day in 1903.

In 'Ask the photo expert' on this month's blog of Find My Past, photo detective, Jayne Shrimpton, has dated a wedding photograph from the late Victorian period. There's also an invitation to submit your own photos for Jayne to date for you.