Friday, 29 November 2013

Ancestors in the Spotlight

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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.