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.