Our female ancestors

Sometime in the early 1970s my mum decided she wanted a sewing machine.  I went with her to one of the big department stores, where a very knowledgeable woman showed us a few models and demonstrated the features.  Having decided on a particular machine, my mum went over to the cash desk.  She wanted to pay on HP (‘Hire Purchase’) over several months.  That was when the fun started.  My mum, aged fortysomething and in full-time employment, was not allowed to sign the HP contract.  Since she was married, only her husband could sign.  I was too young to understand the implications of all this, or of course to know the long history of women’s place in society, but I could tell from the combination of frustration, anger and embarrassment writ large across my mother’s features that it wasn’t a good thing.  There was nothing to be done though.  We had to go home, and my dad had to go into town later that afternoon to sign the documents and bring home the machine.

Yet only a hundred years earlier the lot of a married woman had been much worse.  It was only during the lifetime of my mother’s grandmother that women started to make gains.  Before the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870 married women were not allowed to keep their own earnings, while prior to the 1882 Married Women’s Property Act all of a woman’s property and possessions passed to her husband when she married.  Before the 1882 Act, the only way a woman could retain property and finances was to remain single or, after the death of her husband, to avoid remarriage.  Even then she didn’t necessarily have the final say in decisions relating to her children, and of course she didn’t have the right to vote.

I’ve traced approaching 240 direct ancestors in my family tree.  Almost half of these are women.  And yet I know far less about these grandmothers of mine than I do about their husbands.  Even if the mother is named on the baptism record, it’s the father’s occupation that is recorded, while census records list the occupation of most women as ‘Unpaid domestic duties’.

I’d been thinking about this for a while.  It seemed the only way I might ever know more about my female lines was to read about social history, and to apply what I learned to my ancestors, based on what I knew of the occupation and social status of their husbands.  So I was interested to find two books dedicated to female ancestors:
Margaret Ward’s The Female Line (2003) focuses on women’s lives 1800 to 1950.
Adèle Emm’s Tracing Your Female Ancestors (2019) deals with the period 1815 to 1914.

Both, then, cover the perfect period for the genealogist who has used census and civil registration records to trace their ancestors back to the beginning of the 19th century, and would now like to get to know these ancestors a bit better, before perhaps taking the plunge and learning about the earlier records needed for the Georgian period and beyond.

The Female Line has information arranged over eight chapters, each ending with a ‘finding out more’ section with ideas for further research, including the whereabouts of records, further reading and other ideas.  Chapters include photographs and fashion; marriage; widowhood and remaining single; politics and the vote; charitable work; crime; work and war.

Tracing Your Female Ancestors has information arranged over six chapters, including birth, marriage and death; education (for all classes of society); crime; daily life (including housing, recreation, illness); work and emancipation (including the general opening up of options for women).  Links to various sources are found throughout the text, and each chapter ends with a bibliography.

Both books end with a very useful timeline of key events impacting on women’s lives.

Clearly there’s a lot of overlap in topics covered, and inevitably much of what is written is about the generalities.  For example regarding fashion and dress, even without photos of your ancestor you can still get an idea of what a woman of her time, class and occupation might have worn by looking at books and photos.  Similarly, unless your ancestor’s marital relations were recorded in newspapers, court records and the like, then the best you can hope for is an understanding of what being married meant for her in terms of autonomy, finances, etc.

There is also the issue that ‘woman’ is not, and never was, a homogenous group.  There was a world of difference between the life and expectations of a wealthy woman, a middle class woman, the wife/daughter of a skilled tradesman and a pauper.  Equally, some of the facts of a woman’s life applied equally to her husband, father and male children – living accommodation, the penal process, Education Acts and Factory Acts, for example.  So what both writers try to do is to highlight the issues and then to draw out of these the particular impact upon women and their daughters.  Some crimes, for example, are more likely to be committed by a woman, whilst others that are more likely to be committed by a man will nevertheless impact greatly on his wife and family if he is imprisoned or transported.

Regarding work, the point is made by both authors that our female ancestors were unlikely to be described in the censuses with reference to any paid employment, even if they were enormously successful, or if the household depended on their contribution.  A gentleman ought to be able to provide for his wife and family.  Hence Elizabeth Gaskell, by then a successful and accomplished author for two decades, was described in the 1861 census as ‘Wife’.  Lower down the social scale, our foremothers may have been written off on successive censuses with the term ‘Unpaid domestic duties’, but unless she was middle class or had a private income, chances are that she would have done some work alongside that, either full or part time, and either within or outside the home.  Prior to the industrial revolution, women and children would all have a part to play in supporting the husband-father in his cottage trade.  A husband might be a fully trained weaver but his children might card the fleece, and his wife might spin the yarn.  Later, women might be employed in the local mill or factory – so location will be an important factor – cotton mills in Lancashire, lace in Nottingham, mining in Wakefield, agricultural work in rural areas, and so on.  And of course there is always cleaning to be done in a wealthier person’s house.  Sometimes wives whose husbands had a family business, like a draper’s shop or a grocers would be listed on the census as Assistants or ‘Helps out in family business’.  Women might take years out to raise children, or work fewer hours when the children went on to school, but the idea that our great grandmothers only ever took care of home and family in the form of ‘Unpaid domestic duties’ is inaccurate.  Whatever they did, though, they would never earn as much as men doing the same work.  These are the kinds of issues raised in the chapters of these two books.

These are not intended to be books that will answer all our questions.  As family researchers, we might find some of the topics irrelevant to our own research.  However, both books are a good introduction to a lot of topics, and packed with ideas for general reading and sourcing original documents.  Both provide an overview of the various topics, including the kind of records you might want to explore, where to find them, and further reading.  It may still be that you won’t find any specific records naming your female ancestors, but you will have a lot more idea about how she lived.  In my own case, I have both found and better understood some records as a direct result of reading these two books.

So which of these books might be best for you?  In what ways do they differ?

The most obvious differences are in dates of publication, size and price.  With a publication date of 2003, Margaret Ward’s book could be considered out of date.  Of course, the records and events haven’t changed since then, but certainly the online availability of records has.  Published in 2019, Adèle Emm’s work is bang up to date.  (In fact it was published as I was reading Margaret Ward’s.)  It’s also much longer, with 220 pages including index, as opposed to 112.  On the other hand, it costs almost twice as much, with a RRP of £14.99 as compared with £7.95.  As a result it contains much more information, both in terms of scope and also in the inclusion of far more examples taken from actual records in various parts of the country.

My recommendation is that, despite the comparative age of The Female Line, if you’re still very much a beginner at family history, you might prefer her shorter, gentler book.  If you are confident and enjoy social history then like me, you’ll get a lot more out of Tracing Your Female Ancestors.

Click on either image to find that book on Amazon.co.uk.
(Affiliate link)

The Acts of Enclosure

THE GOOSE AND THE COMMON

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from off the goose

The law demands that we atone
When we take things we do not own
But leaves the lords and ladies fine
Who take things that are yours and mine

The poor and wretched don’t escape
If they conspire the law to break
This must be so but they endure
Those who conspire to make the law

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
And geese will still a common lack
Till they go and steal it back

Authors unknown, circa 1700s

The first two verses of this rhyme popped up in my newsfeed on Facebook recently.  It was being circulated as a commentary on certain present-day events, but I recognised immediately its original meaning.

This is a seventeenth protest rhyme against enclosure of land in the English countryside.  A little googling resulted in this fuller version, although as with any such rhyme passed on by word of mouth, a number of versions have survived.

Although this ryhyme is thought to date from the 18th century, the process of enclosure started in England as long ago as the 13th century. The term ‘enclosure’ (or, to use the archaic spelling, ‘inclosure’) refers to two distinct practices: firstly, the consolidation of smallholdings into larger farms, and secondly, the fencing off of formerly ‘common land’, which would from that time be owned privately.  The rhyme refers to the latter.

The point about ‘common land’ is that it is for the use of all local folk.  They could perhaps graze animals there, or hunt the odd rabbit or goose as an addition to whatever they could grow on their own small plot of land.  Enclosure of the land meant all hunting, grazing, fishing and other rights would now be for the amusement and benefit of the landowner.  Henceforth, the shooting of a wild animal on that private land by someone whose ancestors had been doing this for centuries as a perfectly respectable way of supplementing mealtimes would be ‘poaching’, punishable by the law, and resulting in imprisonment or even transportation.  What land did remain for the common good was often of poor quality and unsuitable for grazing.

During the Georgian era this process of enclosure speeded up, and from 1773 enclosure was by Act of Parliament.

The process of enclosure had several consequences, not only for our countryside but also for the development of English society as a whole.  Understandably, the process of enclosure itself was met with resistance, resulting in bloodshed and criminalisation of individuals.  Larger farms opened the way for more efficient farming practices, resulting in a surplus of labour.  Life became harder and families became hungrier in the rural areas at exactly the same time as the great industrial northern towns and cities were starting to boom.  In this way we can see that enclosure contributed to the ‘push’ factors away from the rural lands at exactly the same time as the industrial revolution created the ‘pull’ factors.  This certainly is borne out by my own family history.

Most of us, I’m sure, will have agricultural labourers in our ancestry.  Some genealogists complain that ‘ag labs’, as they’re referred to, are pretty much all they have.  I can understand their frustration, because unless our ag labs had regular run-ins with the law there is often very little information to be found about them.  We might easily imagine they lived small, uninteresting lives.  But it’s little things like this rhyme that let us know this was not necessarily so.  Our ancestors were fully aware that their lands were being taken and their rights eroded.  They were aware of the unjustness of what was happening.  It might even be imagined that the chanting or singing of this rhyme would be considered seditious.  In any event, just this little bit of background information may help us to think differently about an ancestor with a history of poaching convictions.

Evidence: part 2

In my last post I wrote about different types of information that we might draw upon to build our family trees: original and derivative records, and primary and secondary sources.  If you haven’t read that post, you might want to read it now.  Today’s offering builds on it, by considering:

  • How can we use these types of evidence together to build a conclusive case?
  • When can we be sure we really have the right person and the facts straight?
  • How much evidence is enough?

There is no straightforward answer.  Some advise you should aim for three pieces of evidence.  I don’t agree.  Sometimes one piece of evidence is so conclusive it’s all we need.  Quality is more important than quantity.  Other times we find ourselves conducting an ongoing investigation that can take years.

What follows is two case studies that illustrate my own experience of building a hypothesis, finding possible answers, and eventually finding that one final, convincing piece of information.

Case study 1: Who are Joseph’s parents?
As an inexperienced genealogist I came to a brick wall with one of my lines.  My 3x great grandfather was Joseph Lucas, and census records indicated he was born around 1787.  Joseph’s baptism record provided his father’s name – also Joseph – and from there I was able to find Joseph senior’s marriage, his wife’s name (Anne) and the names of all their children.  Since Joseph senior died before censuses commenced I had no way of knowing his age.  Several Joseph Lucas’s were baptised in the parish, all within a few years, and any one of them could have been my Joseph.  With nothing to indicate the name of his father, how could I narrow them down?

One of the potential baptisms, in 1754, interested me because of the father’s name: Nathaniel. My 4xG grandparents, Joseph and Anne, had a son with the same name.  Checking all the children of this older Nathaniel and his wife Sarah, I found that alongside their son Joseph (potentially my 4xG grandfather) they too had named a son Nathaniel.  In fact, six of my Joseph’s twelve children shared names with the children of Nathaniel and Sarah.  Given the importance of naming traditions, I thought I was on to something.  But there was a catch.  That 1754 baptism was Nonconformist.  What’s more, Nathaniel’s family lived at the opposite side of Leeds from where I knew my Joseph raised his family.  Two far more experienced researchers insisted I was wrong, one on the grounds of the Nonconformity; the other citing geography: ‘These are the Woodhouse Lucas’s; ours are the Hunslet Lucas’s.’  Consulting online trees, I could see that this was a problem no one had solved.

This coincidence of names was too much for me to let it go, but it was only a hypothesis, requiring further proof that I didn’t have.  I did add Nathaniel, Sarah and all their children as the family of my 4xG grandfather Joseph, but knowing that others thought I was wrong, I didn’t want to take the line back any further.  I left it for several years.

By the time I came back to look at this line I was more experienced, knowledgeable and confident.  This is what happened next:

First, I found the baptism of Joseph’s wife, my 4xG grandmother, Anne.  Her father was called Leonard… the same name she and Joseph gave their first son.  So if they named their first son after Anne’s father, surely their second son, who was Nathaniel, was indeed named after Joseph’s father…?

Next, I found a record for Leonard senior on the Register of Duties Paid for Apprentices’ Indentures, 1710-1811.  Anne’s father Leonard, it turned out, was a master tailor… just like Joseph was.  Might Anne and Joseph have met as a result of Joseph learning his trade at the side of Anne’s father?  I’ve never found a record proving that Joseph was apprenticed to Leonard, but from wider reading I knew it was not uncommon for apprentices to marry the master’s daughter; and Joseph’s marriage to Anne is at exactly the right time to coincide with the end of Joseph’s apprenticeship.

Consulting a map of the period, I could see that Leonard’s home in Chapeltown was less than a mile from Woodhouse where Nathaniel and Sarah were raising their family – a reasonable distance for their son to walk daily during his apprenticeship.

Initially, the baptism records I used for Joseph and Ann’s children were transcripts, found on FamilySearch.  Now I found the originals on Ancestry.  Looking at each one, I now saw that the earlier children were born in Chapeltown, consistent with the couple living with Leonard while Joseph developed his skills following apprenticeship.  Using these same baptism records, I was able to work out exactly when Joseph and Anne moved from Chapeltown to Hunslet, which is where Joseph set up his own business, and where their descendants would remain for the next few generations.

There was no longer any doubt: my 4xG grandfather Joseph Lucas is the son of Nathaniel and Sarah Lucas, baptised in a Nonconformist chapel in 1754; and later abandoning that practice.  All of this was worked out using primary sources: the original records (baptism, marriage, apprenticeship) and the map.  Initially, the derivative records (transcripts of the baptism records) gave me sufficient information to develop my hypothesis, but had not provided the detail that enabled me to see where Joseph and Anne were living when each child was born.  That alone would have provided some important evidence (that Joseph was not originally from Hunslet) when I first started to formulate this hypothesis.  Wider reading, including an understanding of the apprenticeship system both generally and in Leeds (where the system was slightly different) enabled me to draw conclusions from the apprenticeship record.

One final piece of evidence has come to light recently: a DNA match with a distant cousin further back along the line from Nathaniel and Sarah.

Case study 2: The Symondsons of Starbotton
My 8x great grandfather is Thomas Symondson.  He married my 8x great grandmother Agnes at St Mary’s church in Kettlewell in Yorkshire’s Wharfedale on 19th February 1674/75, and their first child, my 7x great grandfather Lister Symondson, was baptised in the same church on 21st July 1678.

Thomas’s own baptism cannot be found.  Based on his marriage year of 1674/75, a birth year around 1645-1655 seems likely.

Looking at other online trees connected to Thomas and Lister, one tree in particular caught my attention.  It was compiled by someone with a wide interest not just in this family but in the whole of the area known as Wharfedale.  Over time, this person is working through every register from all parishes within Wharfedale, and transcribing them.  The result is not only an online tree at Ancestry, but also a dedicated (free to use) website including every person ever traced within Wharfedale (all 408,794 of them!) and a list of their key life events with dates.  A life’s work indeed, and of the highest quality.  In other words, everything on the tree and the website has been compiled from original records (primary sources), but what I was seeing was derivative.

On this tree and related website, Thomas is listed as one of five sons: Lawrence, born 1639 in Giggleswick; Christopher, born circa 1640 in Kettlewell; Lister, born 1641 in Gisburn; then Thomas himself, born circa 1649 in Kettlewell; and finally Anthony, born 1656 in Kettlewell.  Baptism records for Lawrence and Lister indicate that the father is Christopher Symondson.

From wider reading (secondary sources) I knew that the period in question was a turbulent one in English history.  Referred to as the Interregnum, it is the period commencing with the execution of Charles I in 1649 and ending with the Restoration of Charles II in 1660.  During these years responsibility for the registration of births, marriages and burials was removed from the clergy and given to a ‘Parish Register’.  With the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the clergy resumed their role in keeping the registers.  However, many of the registers of the Interregnum were not handed back to the incumbent or, regarded as invalid, they were destroyed.  The result is that although some of the records of the period survive, many do not.  This is almost certainly the reason for the missing records for this family, and if so they would never be found.

From the records that have survived we know that Lawrence and Lister are brothers, and their father is Christopher Symondson.  It is also clear from naming patterns that there is a family connection between this Christoper, Lawrence and Lister, and my 8xG grandfather Thomas, who would go on to name his own sons Lister and Christopher.  But is that relationship one of father/son/brother?  Or could it be a little more distant, for example cousins?  What I needed was some form of 17th century evidence that would magically link Thomas to any one of Christopher, Lawrence or Lister, as their son/brother.

Reader, I found it!  🙂

Lister left a will.  On 23rd February 1693/94 Lister willed his entire estate to his wife Mary, and after Mary’s death to their only daughter Barbary.  In the event of Barbary’s death without issue, the estate would pass (with some conditions attached) to ‘my brother Thomas Symondson and his heirs’.  The will was signed in the presence of three men, each of whom signed or left his mark.  These three men included Thomas Symondson.  (As a potential beneficiary of the will, today this would render the will invalid, but it seems in 1693/4 this rule had not yet come into being.)  As luck would have it, I already had a sample of my 8xG grandfather Thomas’s handwriting.  In 1678, at the time of his son Lister’s baptism, Thomas was churchwarden and it was he who prepared the Bishop’s Transcript of all baptisms, marriages and burials in the parish for that year.  I therefore have a whole page of his handwriting, together with two samples of him writing his own name – once to indicate the father (himself) of the baptised child Lister Symondson, and then to witness the truth and accuracy of the register.  By comparing the handwriting on these two original records I can see that the Thomas Symondson who witnessed his brother’s will and the one known to be my 8xG grandfather is the same man, and by extension, my 9xG grandfather is Christopher.

*****

One final note: I wouldn’t want to you to think all my genealogical problems are solved.  In these two examples – and many others – perseverance paid off.  But I do have many more examples of brick walls that have so far proven insurmountable.  Some of them will eventually be solved, I’m sure, but sometimes we do have to accept, finally, that the records no longer exist.