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!