About English Ancestors

Genealogist.

Parish records

So far we’ve talked a lot about Civil BMDs – Birth, Marriages and Deaths – the registration system that came into operation in 1837.  But this wasn’t the first system for keeping track of the population.  A different system had been in operation since as early as 1538.

In that year, during the reign of Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell ordered that every baptism, marriage and burial in the land was to be recorded.  Although the order wasn’t immediately universally implemented, certainly by the end of the century all parishes would have been keeping records.  The focus, as you can see, was slightly different to the post-1837 civil system.  What was recorded were the religious rites rather than the biological events, so we have baptisms rather than births, and burials rather than deaths.  Or to put it another way, BMBs rather than BMDs.

The information recorded in early records was often minimal in the extreme.  Examples might be a burial of ‘Widow Smith’, with the date recorded; or perhaps a baptism of ‘John, son of Joseph Brown’.  No other identifying facts.  These are the types of records that tend to bring our research to a full stop, particularly if there are several John Browns being baptised in the same parish in a likely time period.  Others, however, are more helpful, perhaps including the mother’s name, or the ‘abode’ (road, area or outlying village) of the family.  (And don’t forget my hero, the wonderful vicar of Tadcaster mentioned in my last post!)

Of course, not all these early records have survived.  Inevitably, some were lost, some became so fragile or damaged as to be illegible, yet more will have been destroyed.  However, from 1598 a second copy of the records had to be made, for the information of the Bishop.  These are known as ‘Bishop’s Transcripts’.  Their use for us as genealogists is twofold.  Firstly, even if the parish records have been lost / damaged / destroyed, there’s a good chance that the Bishop’s Transcripts (BTs) will have survived (or vice versa).  Secondly, if the handwriting on one copy is illegible (or at least difficult to our modern eyes) we have the possibility of a second copy to compare it with.

It’s worth getting to know which of the subscription websites include parish registers or BTs (with images of the original documents) for areas of interest to your research.  For example, I know that Ancestry provide West Yorkshire parish registers, whereas FindMyPast provide the BTs for the whole of Yorkshire.  For my Norfolk ancestors, both of these sites include both parish registers and some BTs.  Of course, the originals will be found (plus micro-fiches of them) at the relevant county records office.

There are some important points to come out of all this:
First, unless you find you’re connected to a noble line, you’re unlikely to get your tree back any further than the commencement of parish recording of BMBs in 1538.  (And often, you won’t manage to get it even as far back as that.)

Second, the significant unit is the parish, which may not be the same as the town/village, etc.  Remember, too, that parishes could change as populations changed over time.

Third, this record-keeping role for the parishes points to an important fact.  Prior to the introduction of civil BMDs in 1837, the parish’s role was both spiritual and secular; it was the local administrative unit.  In addition to parish registers for BMBs, you’ll also find vestry minutes, parish accounts and records relating to administration of the Poor Law, settlement rights, apprenticeships and a whole range of other secular responsibilities.  Without the regular decennial census, which was not introduced until 1841, these are the types of records we need to draw upon as we start to research pre-1837/1841.  What happened in 1837 was the separation of the spiritual and the secular.  Of course people continued to marry, to baptise their children, and to be buried at the church, but the recording of these rites assumed less importance in daily life as the state assumed responsibility for keeping track of its population.

Look at the records!

Okay, hands up…. How many of you accept the transcription of a record without actually going to look at the image of the original?

I know I used to do this when I first started.  The error of my ways was pointed out to me by an experienced genealogist who was researching the same surname as me and thought we may have a connection.  We didn’t, but he spotted that my 4xG grandfather, Joseph, had married Anne Hobson and not, as I had recorded, Anne Stolson.  It was the correct record, but instead of going to look at the image – which was, after all, only a click away – I had accepted the transcriber’s deciphering of the old text.

So there’s the first reason why you should always view the original with your own eyes:
Transcriptions are not always correct
This isn’t a dig at transcribers.  Usually, they get it right.  And old handwriting can be hard to read.  Take this baptism entry, for example.  Can you make out where William, son of Joseph Armitage was born?

Text in secretary hand from an ancient baptism register

Surnames and place names can be particularly difficult to work out, since the word isn’t necessarily familiar to you, and all the more so if you’re not familiar with the geography of the place.

So have you worked it out yet…?
I couldn’t.  I had to ask for help on a genealogy forum.  I thought it said ‘Pols Parke’, but there was nothing on the modern day map that suggested such a place might have existed.
It’s Idle Parke.  As soon as it was pointed out to me I could see it.

So that leads us nicely onto a second reason for looking at the originals:
It will help you to get used to reading old handwriting
You can start by using the transcription as a ‘parallel text’, helping you to compare the antiquated letters – but always remembering that what’s transcribed may not be correct, of course.

Sometimes transcriptions are spectacularly wrong
According to record sets on both Ancestry and FindMyPast, my 5xG grandfather and all his siblings were baptised simultaneously at St James Pockthorpe in Norwich and at Necton in north west Norfolk.  This confused me greatly.  Eventually, I asked on a Norfolk genealogy forum – it seemed unlikely, but was Necton by any chance a chapelry of St James Pockthorpe?  With help from a genealogist with local knowledge I realised that the ‘Necton’ records – a transcript-only set, i.e. there was no image for me to see – were the work of one organisation and the entire parish register had been mis-attributed to Necton. The baptisms had all taken place at St James Pockthorpe, and this had been correctly attributed in a different set that luckily included images.

If it doesn’t feel right, stop, think, ask for help.

Even if the transcription is absolutely accurate…
There may be far more information on the document than the transcriber had ‘fields’ to write it in
The transcript of the Tadcaster baptismal register in the Yorkshire Baptisms record set circa 1780s at FindMyPast records the names of the child and parents, the date of birth and baptism, the denomination and the parish.  Click on the image, however, and a double page spread of the original register reveals:

  • The father’s name and occupation; his own father’s name, occupation and parish; also his mother, with the name, occupation and parish of her father.
  • The mother’s name; her father’s name, occupation and parish; and the name of her own mother, along with her mother’s father’s name, occupation and parish.
  • The date and day of the week of the birth.
  • The date and day of the week of the baptism.

This is highly unusual.  Most of my baptisms from this period don’t even give the mother’s name.  (I am just a little bit in love with that old vicar of Tadcaster! :D)

Then, following on from my last post
You may be able to step back from the record, to look for the bigger picture
The transcript of my 7xG grandfather’s baptism in the Yorkshire Bishop’s Transcript of Baptisms record set at FindMyPast includes his name, the name of his father (Thomas), the date of the baptism and the parish.  On the face of it, that’s exactly what the original image says too, although it’s in Latin.  However, there is something important hiding in full view: a list of churchwardens, along with their signatures.  One of them is Thomas, and I can see by comparing his signature with the rest of the page (particularly the formation of the letters of his son’s surname in the baptism record) that the whole page is in Thomas’s hand.  My 8xG grandfather, born around 1648, wrote not only English but also Latin!  (I’ve since confirmed this by comparing with the handwriting on another longer document.)  There is no transcription that will tell you that!

All that – just a click away!
Familiarise yourself with the record sets that include images of the originals, and those that are just transcripts.  For example, I know that the West Yorkshire, Church of England set on Ancestry always includes the image, whereas the England, Select Marriages set, while providing the same basic information, includes no images.  Certain record sets don’t even include the dates and places – simply the names of key people.  These are of no use whatsoever.

Always choose the images collection where it’s available, and look at the record.  Check the information for yourself.  It’s daft not to. 🙂

What can death records tell us about life?

In a previous post about Death Certificates I talked about a whole range of alternative records that could provide sufficient information about a person’s death to make purchasing the official certificate unnecessary. Today I want to return to this topic but with a different focus: to consider how these same records, purportedly confirming a person’s death, might tell us a great deal more about their life.

We know that after 1837 Death Certificates record specific information: the deceased’s name, age, place and cause of death, occupation (husband’s occupation if a married woman or widow) plus description/relationship and residence of informant.

Yet these facts of the deceased’s death start to give us clues about how they lived.  Did they live to a ripe old age or die young?  Does the cause of death suggest anything other than natural causes, e.g. an occupation-related disease, an accident, a suicide?  Was the informant a close relative?  If not the spouse or adult son/daughter, was it a sibling, indicating that the family remained close both geographically and in kinship?  If we then also add in some of the alternative sources of information about deaths (I listed them in that previous post), we might find we can learn a surprising amount of additional information.  Here are four quite different examples from my own research:

Coroner’s Reports
On 17th March 1898 my 2xG grandfather, Edward, took his own life.  The death of a person in unexpected, unexplained or violent circumstances triggers a Coroner’s hearing.  Where records of these survive they will be at the local Archives/ Record Office.  Sometimes they are quite brief, but Edward’s isn’t.

The Coroner interviewed four people: the bridge turner who was the last person to see Edward alive: the coal boat master who found his body in the water; and the woman who strip-washed and laid him out.  The principle interviewee was Edward’s daughter, my great grandmother, Jane.  Between the four of them they provide information about what happened that day.

But Jane also talks about how Edward was in life.  She paints a picture of him in the days and weeks leading up to his death.  He smoked his tobacco but had a serious, ongoing bronchitis condition (they probably hadn’t worked out the connection by then); he received 3 shillings a week from the Poor Law Guardians; he had a life insurance policy with the Prudential (I wonder if they paid out for suicides).  She visited him daily, and had seen a change in his behaviour – he had become very ‘irritable and childish’ during the past 3-4 weeks.

I learned that Edward lived in a ‘yard’, above a stable.  He had given notice but had not yet left.  A few days before Edward’s suicide, the occupier of the stable below had ‘insulted him’, causing him to fear that the stable occupier would return on St Patrick’s Day to break all his windows.  Whatever happened, and whatever was at the root of the animosity, it was clearly weighing heavily on Edward’s mind.

The reference to St Patrick’s Day is intriguing.  What was the significance?  Edward’s first wife was Irish, but she was long dead; and although I’ve never found Edward’s baptism, family legend has it that ‘he went back to the place where he was born to drown himself’.  Have I been looking in the wrong place: could Edward have been Irish?  Edward is the enigma that keeps on giving.

Obituaries
If your ancestor was particularly grand or achieved something noteworthy in their life, you may find an obituary in the local/ national newspaper or other publication.

My 4xG uncle Edwin Wade, was Lord Mayor of York in 1864-65.  A successful surgeon-dentist, he was active for many years in local politics, a ‘mover and shaker’ in many public bodies, and an early investor in the railway company.  I hadn’t appreciated just how much of a pillar of the community he had been until I read his obituary in the York Herald, 13th December, 1889.  (FindMyPast newspaper search.)  There, I learned that Edwin was also senior Justice of the Peace and associated with public bodies such as the Lunatic Asylum, School for the Blind, York Tourists’ Society, York Savings Bank and the Merchant Taylor’s Company.

Edwin’s funeral was a huge event.  As the cortège passed through the streets of York, the whole city came to a standstill.  Blinds were drawn on the Mansion House and other public as well as residential buildings; shutters were closed on local businesses.  A comprehensive list is given of the York great and good who attended, and also all family members.  This helped me to track down a number of marriages and other connections.

Wills
For any ancestors who died since 1858, you can search the government’s wills and probate website to see if they left a will.  Be sure to enter your search (surname and exact year of probate – which may be after the year of death) in the correct section: 1858-1996; 1996 to present; or soldier’s wills.  Once you’ve identified the correct person on the ‘Probate Calendar’ you can order a digital copy of the actual will (cost £10) which will be emailed to you.

Wills can tell us a huge amount about our ancestors and their families, and I’ve ordered quite a few over the years.  However, in the example that follows, just the information on the Probate Calendar was enough to solve my current problem:

I had traced one of my lines back to a William Wade in York, and I knew his wife (my 3xG grandmother) was Jane, but wasn’t yet sure either of Jane’s maiden name or of William’s parents.  One of the possible marriages was to a Jane Cass in Huntington, daughter of Thomas, an innkeeper.  Possible parents for William were John Wade and Sarah; and if this was correct, I had found baptisms for all of William’s siblings.  I entered all this on my tree, noting that it was not yet proven.  Some time later I found a likely death for Thomas Cass, and then an entry on the Probate Calendar:

Entry on UK Probate Calendar, 1860

I could have ordered the actual will and I’m sure I will, eventually.  However, although this short entry told me only one thing I didn’t know about Thomas (he left ‘Effects under £300’), it proved without doubt that all parts of my hypothesis about this line were correct.  It linked my known 3xG grandfather William Wade to Thomas Cass, and even included William’s older brother, Edwin.  Strange I thought at the time, to name the  brother of your son-in-law as the chief executor…  Of course, that was before I knew that Edwin Wade was your all-singing all-dancing politician, board member, soon to be Lord Mayor of York, and in general the man to trust if you wanted something done!

Monuments, epitaphs, etc, in churches
For reasons that deserve a separate post it’s not always clear if our ancestors were Nonconformists.  For years I couldn’t find a baptism record for my 3xG grandfather, John Ingham.  Eventually a possible emerged.  Everything made sense: the location (Morley), the year, even the names of the parents and siblings which I could see repeated in his own children.  The only problem was that adult John seemed to be Church of England.  He married Betty in her C of E parish church (Calverley), and all their children were baptised accordingly.  But this baptism was in an Independent chapel.  I dithered for a long time over whether to accept this record as John’s.  In the meantime, continuing to research other lines, I gradually realised that a lot of my other ancestors came from Calverley and adjacent villages – and they were all Nonconformists.  There seems to have been large communities of different Nonconformist congregations in a triangle taking in Calverley, Pudsey (Betty’s actual birthplace) and another village called Idle. Might there also have been some sort of connection between these congregations and that of Morley, where the possible baptism for John took place?

It was a memorial inscription that made everything fall into place, erected in 1880 to the memory of Betty’s brother Abraham Gamble, by his wife Elizabeth.

How on earth could this have helped?  Well, it’s to be found in Pudsey (Betty’s birthplace), on the wall of the Wesleyan Methodist Church, thereby confirming Nonconformity in Betty’s wider family.  It followed that my 3xG gradparents Betty and John might have met on social events between their respective congregations, and therefore the unexpected Nonconformist baptism record for John could be correct.  Together with all the other information, I was now happy to accept the John on the baptism record as my John.  It may seem tenuous, but afterwards, I did find that Betty and Abraham’s mother, Hannah, had also been baptised in the Morley chapel, moving to Pudsey after marriage.  The connection between the two families was an old one; but it was that memorial inscription that tipped the balance of probabilities for me.

As I hope these examples illustrate, we can look upon these death-related records as simply a confirmation of names, dates and places.  Or we can really look at them, wringing out every last clue to better understand our ancestors’ lives.

Do you have any similar examples?  Or are there perhaps as yet unseen clues lurking in the death records on your tree?

The Real Oliver Twist

After finding my orphaned great grandfather and his brother in the local workhouse I wanted to learn more about how life was for them.  I remembered from ‘A’ level history the distinction between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor; and it seemed that a six-year-old orphan could not in any scenario be painted as ‘undeserving’.  But did they know kindness?  Were they well-clothed and properly fed?  Was life constrained on all sides by rules?

Think of a small boy in a Victorian workhouse, and chances are you’ll end up with Oliver Twist.  This, then, was my first port of call.  But it wasn’t much help: of the 53 chapters in Dickens’s novel only six deal with his time in the workhouse, after which he sets off to London to find himself in the care of Fagin, Artful et. al.  (If you’ve not read it, I can tell you they’re all significantly less cuddly than they seem in Lionel Bart’s musical.)

More recently I came across John Waller’s book, The Real Oliver Twist, and felt sure this would provide me with the information I wanted.  Reviewed in The Guardian as ‘a compelling history of the lives of workhouse children in the industrial revolution’, I assumed it would be a collection of testimonies by former workhouse children, inspectors, etc., looking at different aspects of life inside the system.  But no.  It is in fact, the astonishing, heart-breaking but ultimately inspiring story of the actual, real Oliver Twist – the boy whose story is thought to have inspired Charles Dickens to write his novel.

His name was Robert Blincoe, and he was born around 1792, probably out of wedlock, in St Pancras, at that time a rural parish just outside London.  For some reason, he believed himself to be the illegitimate son of a vicar, and found comfort in that.  John Waller sets out his story in six parts, the first of which does deal with Robert’s workhouse years.  It helps to understand that the Poor Law system at this time was based upon each parish looking after their own.  The workhouse was legally obliged to feed, clothe and house workhouse inmates, but life was dictated by rules, and there was no room for the tenderness and kindness that would help a child to thrive.  Records show that the St Pancras workhouse, designed to accommodate about 50, in fact had 450 inmates by 1787, and half of these were children.  It was dirty, smelly, a breeding ground for disease, and shortly after Robert’s departure the buildings were declared unfit and perilous.  Nevertheless, Robert was adequately dressed and fed, receiving a pint of milk porridge for breakfast, bread and cheese for supper and a hot lunch which included meat four times a week – a far better diet than many struggling families outside the workhouse.  He was also taught basic literacy skills.

St Pancras, like every other parish, would do whatever required to offload paupers to other parishes.  In the case of pauper children they did this by way of apprenticeship.  This was not the fine apprenticeship system that resulted in a young man skilled in the ‘Art and Mystery’ of Tailoring, Carpentry, Physick, or other trade.  ‘Parish apprentices’, as the workhouse children were known, were offloaded to employers requiring their nimble fingers and little bodies to do whatever couldn’t be done by an adult.  The fact that often, their employment didn’t prepare them for meaningful work in adulthood was neither here nor there.  Chimney sweeping was a prime example, and the smaller the boy the better.  However, chimney sweeps were notorious for cruelty towards their young charges.  It was normal for a sweep’s boy to sleep on the floor of his master’s cellar, with only his tattered clothing and soot bag for warmth.  Often they would go barefoot, with bent legs, respiratory conditions; and one particularly horrific occupational hazard was scrotal cancer.  Six-year-old Robert was so desperate to leave the workhouse that when news broke of the impending visit of a group of master sweeps, he managed to sneak in alongside the selected group of slightly taller boys, hoping to be chosen.  He wasn’t, and was as devastated to be left behind as the chosen ones were to leave.

By the first decade of the 19th century, with the Industrial Revolution well under way, a new method of offloading workhouse children was found.  Parish apprentices would be carted off to work in the northern mills.  This was eventually how Robert left St Pancras, in the company of 31 other boys and girls.  What followed is dealt with in parts two and three of Waller’s book, when Robert and the other children were sent first to Lowdham Mill near Nottingham, and then to Litton Mill in Tideswell, Derbyshire.

There is only one way to describe the use of pauper children in the textile mills.  It was slave labour.  The children were forced to work up to sixteen hours a day, and sometimes all night.  There was no pay, except occasionally a penny for working even longer hours when deadlines required.  They were housed in an adjacent apprentices’ house, where they would return, exhausted, at the end of the day, often too tired to eat their woefully inadequate diet – porridge made with milk, or often with just water, and stale rye bread or oatcakes.  Barefoot, and wearing the coarsest of dusty, greasy clothing, the smallest children were forced to work as ‘scavengers’, picking up any loose cotton that fell to the floor below the fast-moving machines.  It goes without saying that this was dangerous work.  Yet all this was justified by the moneyed classes who seem genuinely to have believed that pauper workers were a race apart, unable even to feel physical pain as they themselves would.  One incident stands out:  One of the St Pancras girls, Mary Richards, got her apron caught in the loom shaft:

[Robert] saw her whirled round and round with the shaft – he heard the bones of her arms, legs, thighs, etc. successively snap asunder, crushed, seemingly, to atoms, as the machinery whirled her around and drew tighter and tighter her body within the works, her blood was scattered over the frame and streamed upon the floor, her head appeared dashed to pieces – at last, her mangled body was jammed in so fast, between the shafts and the floor, that the water being low and the wheels off the gear, it stopped the main shaft.  When she was extricated, every bone was found broken – her head dreadfully crushed – her clothes and mangled flesh were, apparently, inextricably mixed together, and she was carried off quite lifeless.

(from John Brown: A Memoir of Robert Blincoe, page 26)

Amazingly, Mary survived, but would remain severely disabled and unemployable for the rest of her life.  There was no compensation for workplace accidents; Mary was thrown on the scrap heap and would have to depend on payouts from the people of Lowdham parish.

Incidents of this kind were not uncommon.  Children might lose fingers or even arms in the machinery.  Even if they didn’t, they were subjected to severe beatings from the overlookers.  Robert’s entire body was almost permanently covered in bruises.  He was made to stand outside, naked, in the cold; was hung from a low beam over moving machinery; and had heavy hand vices and pincers hung from his ears.  By the age of 21, when he was released from his ‘apprenticeship’ he was knock-kneed, his lower legs splaying out to the sides.  Walking would be increasingly difficult as his life progressed. He was also small, with a body disproportionate to the size of his head; and his ears would forever bear the scars of the vices and pincers.

The difference between Robert and perhaps most parish apprentices is that he instinctively knew all this was wrong.  Throughout his fourteen years’ servitude he tried several times to escape and to alert the authorities to the sadistic torture and working conditions endured by the children.  Often, this resulted in even worse treatment for himself, yet he continued.  In fact Acts of Parliament did set down minimum conditions in the mills, but the mill owners were powerful: the country was becoming rich by their efforts, and so the means by which they achieved their output was respectfully overlooked.  Upon his release, Robert worked for short spells in several mills, always moving on because conditions were not to his liking.  Eventually, in his mid-twenties and now in Manchester, he decided the only way to take control of his life was to save every penny he earned, and set up his own waste cotton business.

So how do we know all this about Robert Blincoe?
Somehow his story reached John Brown, a writer of apparent independent means yet suffered from severe ‘melancholy’ and identified with the underdog.  After meeting Robert in 1822 he knew that here, in this small, twisted and scarred yet temperate rather than bitter man, he had found the ideal ‘poster boy’ for the ‘short time’ cause – the struggle to reduce the hours worked in factories and mills from 15 or 16 hours per day to twelve or even ten.  It’s to this nationwide campaign that Waller’s story – parts 4 and 5 – now moves.  Having interviewed Robert and worked his notes into a Memoir, John Brown passed his manuscript to Radical London publisher Richard Carlile.  By the time it was published in 1828 in Carlile’s Radical newspaper The Lion, John Brown had taken his own life.

Publication brought Robert’s story to hundreds of textile workers, artisans, trades unionists and Radical politicians.  As it was told and retold, many corroborated not only his account, but also added their own experiences to the cause.  Significantly, the testimony of all who worked under him evidenced that he never resorted to the violence and cruelty that had been his lot during his formative years.  In April 1832, Manchester trades union leader John Doherty printed an extract from the Memoir in his Radical newspaper, and later that year published the whole thing in pamphlet form.  You can read A Memoir of Robert Blincoe, An Orphan Boy; Sent from the Workhouse of St Pancras, London, at seven years of age, to endure the Horrors of a Cotton Mill, through his infancy and youth, with a minute detail of his sufferings, being the first memoir of the kind published. By John Brown, in its entirety here.

Robert Blincoe was now the poster boy not only for the campaign highlighting working conditions for children, but also for factory reform and the short time cause.  Over the following years the tide started to turn against the cruellest excesses of capitalists and mill owners.  In April 1833, as part of the Commission for Inquiring into the Employment of Children in Factories, four teams of commissioners, each comprising two civil servants and a physician, were sent to the country’s main industrial cities.

Photo taken circa 1858 of man aged about 60.

One of these commissioners was Dr Bisset Hawkins; and it was in Manchester’s York Hotel that he sat with ‘small manufacturer’ Robert Blincoe to hear his story first-hand.  After learning so much of him through the over-blown language of John Brown, reading his own words for the first time, noting his gentle manner and ‘hearing’ his, by now, Lancashire accent, was like meeting an old friend.  It would not be until 8th June, 1847, though, that the Ten Hours Bill finally passed into law.  The photograph, left, was taken around 1858. Robert Blincoe died in 1860, having secured his children positions far exceeding the offspring of his former, cruel, and now bankrupt, employers.  (Yaay! Go Robert!)

Charles’s Dickens’s Oliver Twist; or, The Parish Boy’s Progress, was published in instalments in 1837-39.  Although there is no absolute proof that Dickens had read Robert Blincoe’s Memoir, it’s almost certain that he did.  There is the same gentle, innately good boy who rises from the workhouse to a better life, the same blood connection (never proven in Robert’s case) to a higher class of person (given the Victorian belief in the innate badness of paupers, this was the only believable explanation for Oliver’s goodness).  Also included is a narrow escape from a master sweep looking to take on an apprentice.  What is absolutely certain, however, is that Fanny Trollope’s The life and adventures of Michael Armstrong, the factory boy, penned after visiting the Manchester factories in 1832 and taking away a copy of the Memoir, was heavily based on Robert Blincoe’s life.

John Waller’s work is magnificent in its breadth of detail.  Using John Brown’s Memoir as his starting point, he is able to verify almost every statement using parish and other records, also corroborated by testimonies of other victims of the system.  Alongside Robert Blincoe’s biography, he also explores the life of John Brown and other key players in the Radical and factory movements.  As the story moves from the personal to the wider campaign for improvement of workers’ conditions, this, too, is fully discussed.  (I wish I could have read it all those years ago when I was doing my history ‘A’ level!)  The book will be of interest to anyone looking to understand more about the Poor Law system, parish apprentices, the Industrial Revolution, conditions in textile mills (one of my interests) and ultimately the success of the campaigns for improvement of working conditions.

It didn’t of course, give me the information I wanted about life as a workhouse orphan in the 1870s and 1880s.  The search for that continues!


Note: The book seems to be out of print, but very inexpensive copies are available second hand from Amazon Marketplace.  Click the image above.

Little Michael, Joseph and Richard

Memorial to the Great Hunger in Ennystimon, Ireland

Gentlemen,
There is a little boy named Michael Rice of Lahinch aged about four years, he is an orphan, his father having died last year, and his mother has expired on last Wednesday night who is now about being buried without a coffin!! unless ye make some provision for such. The child in question is now at the workhouse gate expecting to be admitted. If not it will starve.
Robs S. Constable

Part of memorial to the Great Famine of 1845-1850 showing small orphaned boy waiting at a door.

There weren’t many records online when I first started my family tree, so for the first ten years I worked on it in fits and starts.  Each time I came back to it there were more collections available, but without easy access to the various Records Offices, progress was limited.

Everything changed in 2010; and this memorial was the catalyst.  It’s to be found a mile outside Ennystimon, in County Clare, directly opposite the hospital which was itself built on the grounds of the former workhouse.  It commemorates those who suffered and perished during the great potato famine of 1845-1850, referred to in Ireland as The Great Hunger or An Gorta Mór.

The memorial text is based on an entry in the Minutes of the Meetings of the Boards of Guardians for Ennistymon Union.  It references actual events of the bitterly cold morning of 25 February 1848.

As soon as I saw this memorial my heart broke for little Michael Rice.  Immediately, I understood why my GG grandparents had left Ireland and come to Leeds.  I had learned about the Potato Blight at school, so I have no idea why the penny hadn’t dropped sooner, but there and then I resolved that as soon as I got home I would honour their memory by returning to my family research and learning more about them.  Well… if you have Irish ancestry you may already understand that I was on a hiding to nothing.  The records simply don’t exist.  In fact it’s only within the last month that, through DNA, testing I’ve made some headway with my Irish folks.  However, before long I made a different, quite shocking discovery

I was searching the 1881 census for my great grandfather Joseph (an English great grandfather, not the Irish line).  Locating a likely record, I opened it up and found him, not within a family group, but a ‘scholar’ within an establishment of some sort.  I still remember the horror as, clicking left to turn the pages until I reached the name and address of the establishment, I saw that Joseph, along with one of his brothers, was in the local workhouse.  Joseph was eleven; his brother Richard was twelve.  Further investigation showed that in 1875, when Joseph was just five years old, his mother died.  Within six months his father was dead too.  Joseph had been in the workhouse since the age of six.  He was my flesh and blood version of little Michael Rice.  I remember dissolving in floods of tears, because Joseph was not some distant, faceless ancestor.  He was my father’s granddad; and I had photos of him – photos suggesting that despite his own tragic start in life, he spoiled his grandson.

Since that day, Joseph has had a special place in my life.  He has, indeed, many stories to tell, and I feel a strong connection to him.  Also since that day, this beautiful yet tragic memorial just outside Ennystimon has taken on additional meaning for me.  It represents the suffering of the Irish people at the hands of mother nature, heartless landlords and the uncaring policies of a remote government in Westminster; it represents my own ancestors who fled County Mayo with the hope of making a better life in Leeds; but it also represents little Joseph and Richard, and their fear and misery as they realised that, having just lost their parents, this, now, was to be their home.

Recording Names: Part 2

Last week we looked at two types of name changes we all have in our trees: women upon marriage and changes from the days before our surnames had settled spellings.

This week I want to move on to deliberate changes of name by the individual.  Here are some examples from my own tree.  Perhaps you have something similar in your own.

Informal adoption
I mentioned a couple of posts back that my great grandfather was given by his mother to her sister in law, who brought him up as her own son.  Prior to The Adoption of Children Act, 1926, adoption was not a legal process, so these types of informal adoption were the norm.  I have no idea if my great grandfather knew that his ‘mother’ was in fact his aunt.  In one census she listed him with his birth name but certainly by adulthood my great grandfather had assumed his adoptive surname, and this was the name passed on to future generations.

Deed poll
A number of people in my extended family changed their name formally by deed poll.  Some changed their first names as well as the surname.

Informal use of a different name
Several people changed their surname without the formality of deed poll.  Some experimented with more than one surname before finally settling on the one they preferred.  Yet more changed names several times on immigration into the United States.  (These took a lot of detective work to find!)  There were a variety of reasons for this, and looking at their wider stories I can see why each of them did it.

How do we record such name changes on our trees?
What distinguishes all these examples from the convention of women changing name upon marriage and historic spelling changes is that here, someone has made a deliberate decision (or had a decision made for them by adoptive parents) regarding how they would like to be known, and our names are such an important part of our identity that I want to honour that decision.  But how do we do this whilst remaining true to the basic rule in genealogy that the name we put on our family tree is the one first recorded for that individual?

I spent some time trying to identify the ‘good practice’ for dealing with this.  It turned out there is no such recognised good practice. 😦

I also don’t think any of the online or software trees deal with it very well.  While all have the capacity to indicate a change of name within the facts timeline, only one name can be shown at the top of the person’s profile.  What do you choose?  Either James and Joanne Bloggs seem to have given birth to two Bloggs children plus another child whose surname is Jones, or we ignore the decision made by that third offspring to be known by another name.  We can of course make use of notes to explain what happened, but what I would like is for the change of name event to trigger a second ‘field’ on the person’s profile, so that it clearly indicates both names, in the format:
Name: John Bloggs
AKA: John Jones.

In the absence of this, my personal solution has been to include both names in the surname field, using the format John Bloggs / Jones.  It may mess up the search facility, but I feel happier with that compromise than with leaving out one of the names.

If you want to explore this further, here’s a useful online discussion on the topic.

And here’s a helpful video from Ancestry outlining reasons why people may have changed their name.  From around 13:15 it deals with different ways of recording those changes on your Ancestry tree.

*****

I’ll be taking a short blog break next week, but will be back as usual the following week.

Recording names: Part 1

Have you ever wondered how to record an ancestor’s name?

Here’s the basic rule:
Record the person’s name as it appears the first time it was registered
This will be the civil birth registration, or if the birth precedes the introduction of civil BMDs in 1837, then we record the name as it was written on the baptism register.

That’s quite straightforward, but this is an issue with a lot of twists in the plot!  Today I want to look at two of those twists that will affect all of us as we carry out our research.

Recording women’s surnames
Although traditionally the convention has been for the woman to take her husband’s name on marriage, the name we record on our family trees doesn’t change.  No matter how many times a woman marries in real life, it is her birth name that should remain on the family tree.

What if we don’t know her maiden name?
Since we work backwards in our genealogical research, we often come across a woman with her married name before we learn her birth name.  In the following census document, we see John S Pollitt, his wife Mary A Pollitt and their children Herbert and Marion.  If we agree that this is our family and we accept the record, Ancestry will add to our tree not only the record and source reference but also the family members.  Mary A will then appear on our tree as Mary A Pollitt.

Snippet from census form showing family group

But Pollitt is Mary A’s married name.  To find her maiden name we need to look for the marriage between John S Pollitt and Mary A.  Or we could look for the mother’s maiden name on the birth registrations of the children.  Any of these will show us that her birth name was Loversidge; and this is the name by which she should be shown on the family tree.

Recording a woman with an unknown maiden name
What if we can’t find any records to evidence a married woman’s birth name?  This isn’t uncommon, particularly for women in earlier centuries.  I have eight women in my own tree whose maiden names I haven’t been able to find.  So how do we deal with this?

Trust me – the following are NOT good solutions:

  • Leaving the surname blank
  • Writing Unknown, Unk, N/K or similar

The reason for this is that if you want to search for your ancestor Jane N/K, you may well find you have several of them, and can’t work out which is which.

When I was first trying to come up with a solution to this, I found this online discussion and the summary at the top of the page useful.  Drawing upon this, the method I now use is to type (___) m.Bloggs.  i.e. three underscores in parentheses, followed by m. and the surname of the husband.  Your ancestor might have this ‘surname solution’ just for a while, until you track down her maiden name, or she might stay that way for ever.  Decide what system appeals to you.  As long as it works and you’re consistent, then any system is as good as the next one.

Moving on…

Illiteracy, accents and surnames
Another issue we’ll all come across is changing spellings of surnames in the birth, baptism or other records.  Although by the end of the 19th century, literacy was widespread and spellings settled, prior to that the name was often recorded by a clerk who listened to the informant and wrote down what he thought he heard, using a spelling he thought made sense.

This can result in some unusual spellings, but we can always add explanatory notes.

Here are two quite different examples from my research:

  • My 10xG grandfather seems to have been a Flemish weaver who came to this country in the 16th century fleeing religious persecution.  In his marriage record his surname is Drakopp.  His son John’s baptism records the surname as Dracoppe.  For John’s son’s baptism (also John) the name recorded is Drackupp, and his son Nathaniel’s baptism has the spelling Draycupp.  His daughter Jane, my 6xG grandmother has the spelling Dracupp, and there this surname leaves my direct line.  The change of spelling at each generation isn’t a problem.  In fact it tells its own story, partly to do with accent and partly to do with a gradual anglicisation of the name.  It almost certainly indicates illiteracy, since if these people could have written they could have chosen to maintain a consistent spelling of their name.
  • A young lady in my tree was registered with the rather grand name Hinnis Amelia Virginia Lavyn.  When I first saw it I assumed Hinnis was a Germanic name, but then I noticed that the child’s grandmother was called Annis.  The birth was registered in Leeds in 1848 by a mother who was brought up in London, and the clerk, his ears attuned to the local Leeds accent, clearly wrote what he ‘heard’!  This is a strange case because the name is clearly a mistake.  Some of my distant cousins researching this line have changed the name to Annis or Annice.  I’ve chosen to record the name as it was registered but add (Annice) in brackets.  Perhaps all this confusion was why the little girl grew up using only her second name, Amelia.

So, there are some common issues around recording surnames.  Next week we’ll look at name changes of a more decisive nature, and how to deal with them.