‘A Crysome child’

On 22nd August 1702 the child of one of my kinsmen was buried. The entry in the parish register reads ‘A Crysome child of George Lucas of Woodhouse Carr’. I imagined George going to the church and speaking to the vicar: ‘What is the child’s name, Mr Lucas?’ With a long sigh and a weary shake of the head, I could hear George replying: ‘Ayyy… it were a crysome child, ‘ardly drew breath before it were tekken…’ I took the entry on the register to mean that the baby had died even before George and his wife, Ann, had named him or her, and thought it a rather quirky find, that the vicar had recorded those words: a crysome child. I added the baby to my tree with the name A Crysome Child Lucas.

Well, I was partly right. And mostly wrong. It didn’t help that the entry was spelled ‘crysome’, which – look it up in any dictionary – means ‘characterised by crying or weeping; tearful; lamentful’. This was surely a frail, weak baby who was clearly in discomfort.

But it turns out that what the vicar should have written was ‘chrysom’ or maybe ‘chrisome’. The precise spelling varies, but the ‘h’ was important.

A chrysom (or chrisom) cloth was a white cloth or mantle. Symbolising purity, it was thrown over a child during baptism or christening. The cloth was annointed with ‘chrism’ – consecrated oil – and its practical purpose was to protect the oil from being accidentally rubbed off.

Part of a memorial monument showing three chrisom swaddled babies.

The image shows part of a monument to Thomas Selwyn 1546-1613, and his wife Elizabeth (Goring) of Friston Place. The full monument shows the two of them kneeling at a prayer desk, beneath which are three chrisom swaddled babies, all boys. Source: Wikipedia: Chrisom.

The baby’s family retained the chrisom cloth for one month after the baptism. This coincided with the mother’s return to society after giving birth. Today, the ‘churching’ of women is viewed as a thanksgiving and blessing for the delivery of the child and the mother’s survival, but until 1552 there was a purification element to this. Helen Osborne (Our Village Ancestors, p.30) writes that the baptised child would continue to be covered by the cloth until the mother was churched. For any baby dying during this period the chrisome cloth would be used as a shroud, and the baby would be termed ‘a Chrisome child’.

It follows from all of the above that a baptism was not the planned, family event into which it has since developed. Almost certainly, the mother would not have been present, since she would be temporarily away from society. Where the vicar also recorded the birthdate, it is clear that until the eighteenth century, babies were baptised as soon as possible. According to FamilySearch: Birth-Baptism Intervals, studies have shown that in the sixteenth century baptism was normally no more than a week after birth. However, from the mid-seventeenth-century onwards the interval gradually increased, one study for the period 1650-1700 indicating 14 days before 75% of children in the register were baptised. That said, I have several records from my own research clearly showing early 19th century babies being baptised on the day they were born. It was important, since tiny babies often died; and only a baptised child could enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

But back to 1702, and to George Lucas and his ‘crysome child’. Whilst preparing this post I googled the term with that exact spelling. One of the items returned was a Thoresby Society transcript of the Leeds Parish Registers, opened at page 180. That’s the parish where George buried his baby. On that page alone five ‘Crysome’ children were buried. Four more on page 179, five on page 178, and so on, all the way back to page 169 where the entry for George and his baby are to be found. That’s a lot of fathers to have the exact same conversation with the vicar about their own recently born, sickly, deceased child…

In fact the term ‘Chrisome’ (various spellings, but remember the ‘h’!) had come to be used for any baby dying before baptism. This puts a different spin on all those entries in the Leeds Parish Register. (None of this is restricted to Leeds, by the way; it’s just that this seems to be the only place where the ‘h’ is omitted in the records, resulting in ‘crysome’.) It made me think about the term ‘Christian name’, which was historically a religious personal name given on the occasion of a Christian baptism. Bearing in mind the church’s dual role in this respect – to baptise the child into the church and also to record the existence of an individual in accordance with the requirements of the state – there is the possibility of a punitive aspect to the recording of a child who has not been baptised, and therefore officially and religiously has no name, as merely ‘a Chrysome child’. We might assume any child so recorded is unbaptised, since a baptised child – even if a Chrysome child in the sense of dying within a month of baptism – would be recorded with his or her own Christian name. It seems comparable to the recording of a child born out of wedlock as ‘baseborn’ (or related terms). How much more difficult for the parents of this period to know that not only would their dead child never be allowed to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, but also he or she would forever remain nameless in the eyes of God.

In the midst of all this pondering I watched the Season 11 finale of Call the Midwife, in which it was revealed that even in 1967 it was common for premature babies to be buried with another deceased person, this being the only way to make sure they had a proper Christian burial and resting place. There is no doubt that George’s unbaptised ‘Crysome child’ was buried, but I wonder if, as an extra pain for the parents to bear, it had to be in an unconsecrated part of the burial ground.

By way of conclusion I’d like to make a few points. First, it’s important that we keep an open mind about our interpretation of records. Something new may come along to make us think ‘hold on… I wonder if….’; and if it does we should explore it. Second, we need to learn about the society in which our ancestors lived and worked. The vital importance of the baptism, as revealed above, just doesn’t translate to our own modern society, but in former centuries it was the equivalence of a birth certificate, a proof for inheritance, settlement rights, and the only way to the Kingdom of Heaven. And finally – if we think laterally, we will find information to help us progress our family research in the strangest of sources. Thank you, Call the Midwife! 🙂

*****

I’ll be taking a break for the rest of April. I’ll be back with my next post on 1st May.

Where there’s a Will there’s a way…

You might have noticed I’ve given a lot of thought on this blog to records related to our ancestors’ deaths. It started a couple of years ago when an increase in the cost of civil BMDs prompted me to write about what other kinds of records might be available that would give much of the same information – and sometimes more – thereby saving the cost of the death certificate.  Next came What Can Death Records Tell Us About Life? Death records have also featured here and there as evidence used in conjunction with other findings in my research to prove one hypothesis or another. The truth is I love a good death record. They can tell us SO much about a person, their life and family; and none more so than a Will.

The last two posts have focused on how to find Wills and Administration documents, both since 1858 and the far more cumbersome arrangements before the changes of that year. Today we’ll look at lots of ways we can use the Wills, particularly those from earlier centuries when there might be gaps in other record sets. They really are not just about how much money there was and who inherited it!

A Will can…

Substitute for a baptism
There was an example of this in a recent post when, finally, I found a father’s will in which he (Nathaniel) named and bequeathed land to my 6xG grandmother Jane, who I had long suspected was his daughter. Until this point I had built a good case but there was no definite evidence that they were father and daughter. Although, in the absence of a baptism record, I still have no definite birth year for Jane, the order in which Nathaniel refers to his two daughters indicates she is younger than her sister (baptised 1685), thereby supporting Jane’s own death record which suggests a birth year of 1687.

In another example, I suspected my 8xG grandfather, Thomas, was one of six siblings born to Christopher Simonson. I had baptisms for most of these siblings but not for Thomas, likely born during the Interregnum. In this example it was one of the brothers, Lister, baptised as son of Christopher in 1642, whose Will came to the rescue. In it, Lister specifically refers to ‘my brother, Thomas’. Thomas is a witness, scribe and co-executor to the Will, and by comparing handwriting to other known documents I can see this is definitely my Thomas.

Substitute for a marriage
Lister’s will worked overtime for me. In referencing his brother-in-law, Thomas Snell, he also made his will stand in for his own missing marriage record. Thomas Snell was his wife’s brother, therefore her maiden name was also Snell.

Substitute for a burial
It goes without saying that if Probate has been granted the testator has died! So even if we can’t find a burial record, we have a pretty good idea of the month and place of death. Sometimes the actual date of death is noted on the back of the bundle of papers.

Help you fill out the family of your ancestor
It may name sons, daughters, siblings, parents, cousins… There may also be people who seem to be family members but can’t yet be placed. All need to be noted and when possible can be inserted into your tree.

However, the absence of a child’s name does not imply a parting of the ways. Nor will the list of children necessarily include them all. A couple of years ago I wrote about my discovery that my 4xG grandfather John Wade’s Will made no reference at all to his daughters, leaving the family business and money only to his sons. The four sisters remained unmarried and lived together throughout their lives. It wasn’t until I obtained each of their Wills that I realised they had been well-cared for prior to their father’s death, in the form of railway stocks and shares. Father John’s arrangement ensured the daughters would retain their own money (and a level of independence) even if they married, while the family business would remain in the hands of his own sons.

Generally, though, wives and daughters will be named – offering us a rare sighting of the female family members in a time when documents usually omitted them completely.

Confirm family roots within a locality
Again, Lister gives value. In his Will he expresses his wish to be buried in the local churchyard, ‘as near to my Ancestors as possible’. This implies several previous generations in this parish. When I first read this I knew only of the father, and baptisms of the other siblings showed he had moved around the region. I now have two more generations before that, and ongoing wider research suggests a long association of this family with the area, although I’m yet to join the dots.

Suggest literacy levels
Although the shaky initials or ‘mark’ of the testator doesn’t necessarily mean they are unable to write (they may simply have been too weak to write at that precise time), certainly we can see which of the witnesses could write. Even official copies of Wills record who signed and who made marks. However originals provide additional clues: By comparing handwriting within the document and with others, you may even be able to work out if one of your ancestors wrote the document – even if maybe they could read and write in Latin.

Provide an insight into family relations
Generally, there is a sense of community at the time of writing and witnessing the Last Will and Testament of a sick relation. Death was part of life, and helping a family member or friend to put his affairs in order and ensure each other’s families were cared for was something done willingly. There is trust evident between the testator and those he chooses as his executors, or to assist a surviving spouse in the task. Occasionally, though, we might pick up on family tensions. In 1684 as my 8xG grandfather John Wilson divided up his lands and property between his five surviving sons, he included this final sentence: ‘And if any of my sayd sons their Executors or adm[inistrators] shall sue Molest or Trouble my sayd Executor for any greater Summe or Legacie then is given them by this my last Will and Testament that then the Legacie to them hereby given to bee voyd and noe more paid to them but Twelve pence.’  It seems John didn’t entirely trust his sons to behave well towards each other.

Hint at the testator’s religious views
Wills can, but do not necessarily reflect the testator’s religious views. They might instead reveal the scribe’s views. Alternatively, I have compared wills written within five years of each other but 40 miles apart, in which the similarity of overblown religious phrases in the opening lines suggests the two scribes were writing to an accepted formula.

Reveal how our ancestors lived
From 1530 to 1782 one of the probate/ administration requirements was that the executor should appoint three or four local men to value the deceased’s personal estate, and provide the probate court with a full ‘Inventory’: a detailed list of every single item of the deceased’s possessions, together with an assessed value for each. The Inventory relates only to the personal estate, i.e. it doesn’t include land and property; but since the list is generally organised room by room, including items found in outbuildings and barns, etc, it does indicate where the household included such buildings, how many living rooms and bedchambers and so on.

In the Will itself your ancestor may list houses, messuages, lands, etc. Comparison with contemporary maps may reveal exact locations of named holdings. He may also identify himself by occupation or standing. Not only does all this suggest a certain standard of living, but it may be compared with other record sets, such as occupations on baptisms or number of hearths listed on the Hearth Tax returns.

Show community networks
Occasionally we will find ourselves reading so many Wills from a small village that we recognise names of all those who regularly help out as scribes, witnesses, executors, takers of the inventories, and so on. We almost start to feel like we know all these 17th century inhabitants who were trusted community members and friends of our ancestors.

And finally… the bit we always expected the Will to be about:
Indicate how the land, property, goods and chattels were to be apportioned
Here we see how land was passed on according to the wishes of the testator and inheritance norms. We start to understand how, where the oldest son inherits the lion’s share, younger sons move progressively down the social hierarchy. There is also the possibility of bequests of small items treasured by the testator to a special person. (How wonderful would it be to recognise an item that your family still has!)

Alas…
Sadly, sometimes the bequests in the Will and the named beneficiaries prove you haven’t got the right person. I bought the Will of what I assumed was my 7xG grandfather Robert Lucas. He had a son named James in exactly the right place and at the right time to be my known 6xG grandfather, but when I read the Will there was no mention of James, just two daughters. It sent me back to the parish registers, and I found the little James I had assumed to be my ancestor had died not long after birth.

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Although most of the Wills are written in English, the further back you go, the more likely it is that you’ll need to be able to read old handwriting, but I think you’ll agree that with such riches available from scouring them, it’s worth the effort.

These are all examples of things I have learned from looking at Wills. Can you add anything more? Has something astonishing in an old Will ever helped you to break down a brick wall or make a great discovery?

Layers of evidence

This post focuses on two issues.

First, it concerns ancestors who lived and died before the census and before civil registration of births, marriages and deaths.  After 1841, these records work together as regular check-ins to see how our ancestors are progressing.  Before 1837-1841 we have to find different record sets to do the same job. In the description that follows you’ll see that I was looking for something to compensate for the fact that a key baptism was missing. This is one of the big step-ups as we progress to intermediate level genealogy and beyond. It’s complicated by the fact that often these records don’t have universal coverage, and even if particular record sets do survive for your area of interest, whether they are available online or not depends on arrangements between your local records office and one of the online subscription websites. All of the information I refer to in this post was available online with the exception of the probate and administration documents, which were listed online at FindMyPast but the actual documents had to be ordered and purchased.

Secondly, in this post you’ll see how I start out with what can only be a hypothesis – based on a coincidence of names, approximate years and places. I gradually add in more evidence until finally I am in no doubt that my original hunch is true. I say ‘gradually’. This has taken a few years, and was only proven to my complete satisfaction a few weeks ago.

The hypothesis
My starting point is a likely but not proven father/ daughter relationship. The two people in question are my 6xG grandmother, Jane Dracupp, who married my 6xG grandfather James Lucas in Leeds in 1710, and Nathaniel Dracupp who was in the right place at the right time to be her father.  The surname is unusual, and this made connecting them much easier. However, Nathaniel is not the only Dracupp of an age to father children; it’s just that he seems to be the only one to have left his parish of birth and moved to Leeds.

I have never found a baptism for Jane.  There is, however, a record for Mary, daughter of ‘Natha Draycupp’, who was baptised in Leeds in 1685.  Given Jane’s marriage in 1710, a baptism of circa 1685 is consistent with her likely birth year.  She might have been born in 1683, or 1687, perhaps.  The father’s given name is also significant, since Jane and her husband James will go on to name their second son Nathaniel.  (I’ve written a lot about traditional naming patterns and how they can be used to home in on likely parents/ grandparents. See e.g. [here] and [here].) It looks very much like Nathaniel Dracupp will be Jane’s father, and Mary her sister.  But other than the circumstances of birthplace and approximate year, and the fact of Jane naming her son Nathaniel, there is no actual evidence.

Evidence that Nathaniel, Mary and Jane live close by
I had noticed Nathaniel’s name on a couple of Overseers Rate Books for the years 1713 and 1726 but no specific abodes were included, and when I first found them I didn’t spot that Nathaniel’s entries were in the same part of the Manor of Leeds where I knew James Lucas (and therefore Jane after marriage) to be living.  When I realised this I went through these records thoroughly, looking for all references to Nathaniel.  I also looked for James Lucas and for Mary’s husband, whose name was Jeremiah Myers.  I found them all living very close together, with Jeremiah/Mary and James/Jane seemingly occupying adjacent plots of land.  This was slightly complicated by the fact that James was entered under the name ‘James Lukehouse’, which might have been a different person altogether.  However, in my head I could hear a local pronunciation of the word which would rhyme ‘house’ with the ‘as’ in Lucas.  Again, this tipped the scales a little more towards the likelihood of my hypothesis, but it wasn’t definite proof – and indeed might have been considered clutching at straws!

Evidence of a kinship or friendship connection between Jane and Mary’s husband
Although I hadn’t been able to find burial records for Jane or James, I now found letters of administration for a James Lucas who died in 1722.  The existence of letters of administration means James died without making a Will, suggesting an unexpected death.  Whereas a Will often names all children of the deceased, together with spouse, and possibly other family members who might be brought in as executors, trustees or witnesses, letters of administration will have none of these things.  However, there will be a sworn undertaking by the widow and possibly other family members to carry out faithfully the requirements of the probate court (an ‘Administration Bond’), and of course these people will be named.  Often, it is only when we read these names that we know for sure that the deceased is actually the person we think it might be.  I was in luck.  The document was signed by my 6xG grandmother Jane Lucas; and one of the other signatories was Jeremiah Myers, suggesting a good connection between the two.  It really is starting to look now like Jeremiah could be Jane’s brother in law – meaning Mary would be Jane’s sister and therefore Nathaniel Dracupp would be her father.

Evidence indicating Jane’s approximate birth year
The death of my 6xG grandfather James at a comparatively young age suggested Jane might have remarried.  I found a likely marriage seven years later, in 1729: Jane Lucas and a John Smith.  I did think at this point that my luck had run out!  John Smith and Jane Smith?!  I would never be able to narrow them down!  However, trying to confirm all this I went back to the Overseers Rate Books and found John Smith listed on that same plot of land, adjacent to Jeremiah Myers.  (John and Jeremiah would continue to be listed as landholders at the same properties for some decades.) I also found a burial for Jane Smith in 1757.  The record gave Jane’s husband’s name (John Smith), the abode just as I expected it to be, and also an age at death of 70, which indicates a birth year of 1687 – just two years after the baptism of Mary Dracupp.  Further, the burial was recorded in Nonconformist records at the chapel where I knew the next generation of the family now worshipped. This was definitely my Jane.

To be honest by this stage I was happy to accept that all these happy coincidences pointed to Nathaniel being Jane’s father.

Evidence flowing from Nathaniel’s death
The Overseers Rate Books continue until 1809. However, after 1726 there is a gap in the records until 1741, and Nathaniel Dracupp is not seen again.  Did this suggest Nathaniel died between 1726 and 1741 – either way a good long life for a man born in 1657. Although a burial record for Nathaniel has not been found, there was a probate record that had intrigued me for some time: In 1741, probate was granted for a Nathaniel Dracupp in Wakefield. Wakefield is about 13 miles (20 km) from Leeds, and it hadn’t seemed likely that this was the same person. As mentioned above, although Nathaniel Dracupp is an unusual name, this man I now strongly suspected was my 7xG grandfather is not the only Nathaniel in the Dracupp family. Given that a 1741 death indicated Nathaniel would have been 84, I thought it likely that this Nathaniel might be another family member from the next generation. However, knowing now that Nathaniel was living in 1726 and no longer listed in the Rate Books from 1741, I felt confident to purchase the probate documents. I probably wouldn’t have done this without the knowledge from the previous step.

It was him! Nathaniel names his daughter Mary and son in law Jeremiah Myers. He also names their one child – which indicates that the other three I knew about must have died before he made his will in 1737. Next he names his daughter Jane and her husband John Smith. Finally!!! I have my proof! The order in which he names (and bequeathes property) is significant, in that it indicates Mary is older than Jane – so the birth year of 1687 suggested by Jane’s 1757 burial record is almost certainly accurate. Jane’s children are not named individually, but they are referred to as those who will inherit after John and Jane’s natural lives – an important point since otherwise the land could pass into John Smith’s family and leave Jane’s children without. Also named is Nathaniel’s second wife, of whom I had no previous knowledge. I suspect she might be the reason he moved to Wakefield – perhaps she had land there – but no marriage record has been found.

*****

I hope you’ve found this useful. As you can see, it was only Nathaniel’s will that proved beyond doubt that he was Jane’s father. Although even before finding it I felt there was a good case and was happy to consider him as such, the difference is that without that final piece of evidence we always have to be flexible, be prepared to have an open mind should new evidence come to light that points to a different father. I no longer have to do that. This case is closed. 🙂

The Menin Gate and Last Post Ceremony

Menin Gate, Memorial to the Missing, at Ypres, Belgium
Ypres Menin Gate

Two or three minutes walk from the central Market Place in Ypres, stands the magnificent Menin Gate, Memorial to the Missing. It honours all the British and Commonwealth soldiers whose bodies were never found or remained unidentified in and around Ypres after the First World War. 

My first glimpse of the Menin Gate was a black-and-white postcard brought back by my great uncle who went there before I was born to remember his older brother, Cyril. Cyril is one of the 54,896 men – from the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, India, South Africa and the West Indies – whose names are engraved on the Portland Stone panels. I now have that postcard, along with some photos and one of the death notices my great grandparents sent out to family and friends.

In April 1914, as the centenary of the Great War approached, I spent a few days in Ypres, learning about the final days not only of Cyril but of another great uncle too: Joseph. Like Cyril, Joseph lost his life in the Third Battle of Ypres, also known as Passchendaele. His remains lie in Poelcapelle Cemetery.

The Menin Gate, or in Flemish Menenpoort, was historically the eastern gate opening from the walled town of Ypres (Flemish: Ieper) in the direction of the town of Menin (Flemish: Menen). The grand archway now marking the road to Menen bears no resemblance whatsoever to the original gate – as the pre-1914 contemporary photograph below shows. In fact, the whole of Ypres had to be completely rebuilt after the war.

The two stone lions guarding the entrance to the town were removed during the war to prevent damage. They were presented to the Australian nation in 1936, in honour of the more than 36,000 Australian soldiers killed or wounded on the battlefields of the Ypres Salient.  They stand now at the entrance to the Australian War Memorial museum in Canberra.

Menin Gate, or Menenpoort, as it was before World War 1.
The Menin Gate (Menenpoort) before World War 1

The new gate and memorial was unveiled on 24th July 1927.  It was designed in classical style by Sir Reginald Blomfield, and features a central Hall of Memory (which is also the road), loggias on the north and south sides of the building, and staircases linking the two levels.

And yet the Menin Gate is not a sad, dusty old memorial.  It remains very much a part of daily life in Ypres.  Since 2nd July 1928 The Last Post Association has overseen a daily act of homage to those who fell in defence of the town.  Between 7.30pm and 8.30pm every evening, the road through the archway is closed, and as many as several hundred people gather.

At 8pm promptly, wearing the uniform of the local voluntary Fire Brigade, the buglers of The Last Post Association sound the Last Post – the tune used to commemorate the war dead in Britain and in Commonwealth countries.

Four buglers sounding The Last Post at the Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate, Ypres.
Buglers at The Last Post Ceremony at Ypres

Marching bands, visiting dignitaries and delegations from organisations throughout the world come to Ypres to take part, and to lay wreaths. But even if not one single visitor attends, the ceremony still goes ahead.

Its significance to the people of Ypres is illustrated by the fact that this daily act of hommage was interrupted only during the years of German occupation during World War II, and was resumed on the very evening the town was liberated in 1944.  Today, on 11th November 2021, the 31,317th ceremony will take place.

These last two photos are from the 29,545th ceremony on 11th April 2014.

If only the world could reflect upon such bloodshed, loss of life and destruction; and resolve henceforth that hatred, violence and war will never be the answer.

Crowd gathered in the street at Ypres
Crowd gathered in the street at the Menin Gate, Ypres

Case study: Two ancestral lines, different naming patterns

In theory, we should be able to follow our paternal line with the same surname back through the generations, certain that it will continue beyond the earliest parish registers. If you (or a direct male descendant from your paternal line if you’re female) were to take a Y DNA test, then again in theory – provided there are no unexpected paternity events – you should even find the Y DNA haplogroup keeps step with the surname, right back through history. Our paternal line, though, does not comprise only endless lines of grandfathers. There is an equal number of grandmothers, and in just the same way that our foremothers married into the male surname and refreshed the gene pool, so too she refreshed the family’s traditions, recipes, ways of keeping house and, significantly for the topic of this post, the names given to children.

I wrote in two previous posts about naming patterns: the tradition of naming children in a specific order based on the names of their grandparents, parents and other significant family members. You’ll find those previous posts here (Irish) and here (English)

My last two posts have demonstrated that historically, women are significantly less likely to appear in official records. Their role was within the home, and in general the home was not a matter for public record. As we have seen, we have to get in the habit of reading between the lines regarding information about our female ancestors. For all these reasons their importance within society as a whole can easily be overlooked. Nevertheless they did have influence, even though their primary sphere of influence was domestic.

Today’s post will draw together all these topics. It’s a case study of a puzzle solved by focusing on traditional English naming patterns, and it highlights the importance and potential benefits for us as researchers of the merging of the women into the family.

When I was very young a fairly close member of my family married a lady with the same surname as his own. In more recent decades, as I progressed my genealogical research I found that this surname line on our side could be traced, still in Leeds, all the way back to the 17th century. I wondered if the same would be true for the paternal line of that lady marrying into my family, and if we would turn out to be distant cousins. Since this person is living I have changed the names. I shall refer to her as ‘Rose’, and to the surname we share as ‘Beccles’. Apart from these false names, all other information is accurate.

It was about ten years ago that I first started to work back ‘Rose’s’ paternal line. I knew her father’s name and was able to place him with his family in the 1911 census. From there, the preceding four generations were quite straightforward:

  • His father, Frank, residing with him in that 1911 census, was also located as a child in 1891;
  • Frank’s father, Samuel, residing with him in the 1891 census, was located with his own birth family in 1851-71.
  • Samuel’s father, Francis, was to be found with his birth family including father Samuel in 1841, and a baptism for Francis, son of Samuel was found in Leeds.
  • Samuel’s marriage a couple of years before that was also located, and his own baptism was in 1795. His father was Thomas.

I had now traced ‘Rose’s’ paternal line back to at least 1795, and I had the name of his father, Thomas. There was so far no connection between this and my own ‘Beccles’ line, but certainly both families were still in Leeds. I now needed a baptism for Thomas, probably around 1770; and this was where my research came to an end: there were too many Thomas ‘Beccles’ baptised in Leeds within a reasonable timeframe for me to be able to decide with certainty which was the correct one.

The solution came from an unexpected source. About five years later I discovered a new record set on Ancestry: the Leeds Township Overseers Records Apprenticeship Register. It seemed to start around 1740 and to continue until the end of the 18th century. I carefully searched the register, looking for any of my ancestors or their siblings, and found two of my ‘Beccles’ boys: my 4x great grandfather and his brother Nathaniel. It was Nathaniel’s entry that intrigued me: he was apprenticed to a master tailor by the name of Francis ‘Beccles’. I immediately started to wonder if there was some family connection between my Beccles line, known to be clothworkers, and this Francis.

Then I had my brainwave: ‘Rose’s’ ancestral ‘Beccles’ line and my own line had completely different forenames. Whereas the boys’ names repeatedly handed down in my line, prior to the 20th century, were Joseph, Nathaniel, Leonard and Benjamin, in ‘Rose’s’ line the naming tradition so far featured Samuel, Thomas and, significantly here, Francis. Could this master tailor, Francis ‘Beccles’, to whom my Nathaniel was apprenticed, be part of ‘Rose’s’ direct line?

I then started to wonder why this situation of two lines with completely different naming traditions might have come about, and the answer, when you think about it, is obvious. A surname is static. What gives it life is those who join it – in other words, the women who come into the family as wives. If we go back to the traditional naming patterns: the first son will take the name of the maternal or paternal grandfather; the second son will take the name of the other grandfather, and so on. What changes is that every wife at each new generation brings into the mix the name of her own father, her own mother and her own name. In my ‘Beccles’ line I knew who brought in Nathaniel, and I knew who brought in Leonard. These were the fathers’ names of my 6 x great grandmother and my 4x great grandmother. So now I needed to see if I could do the same for ‘Rose’s’ line, and if I could use this to help me find the correct baptisms for each generation further back. This would involve:

  • identifying all potential baptisms for Thomas ‘Beccles’, including the name and abode of the father;
  • guided by fathers’ names, abodes and dates, identifying baptisms of all other children born to these same men;
  • placing the children in age order so as to identify first-born and second-born sons (normally named for maternal and paternal grandfathers);
  • checking also the names of third-born sons (which should be the same as the father’s name, unless that name has already been used);
  • based on all this, identifying any family/families with strong similarities in children’s names with those given by Thomas and his wife to their children. i.e. In addition to the baptism for Thomas, was there also a Samuel, a Francis, and perhaps also daughters with names Thomas and his wife passed on;
  • homing in on the most likely family/families, using the date of the first-born child to identify a marriage, likely within two years previously. This would provide Thomas’s mother’s name;
  • and finally, looking for the baptisms of Thomas’s mother and father to ascertain their own fathers’ names.
  • And repeat, back through the generations.

Remember here that what we’re looking for is adherence to the traditional naming pattern. It may not hold good, but if it does it’s an extra bit of ‘evidence’ indicating your decisions so far have been valid. Remember also the extra value of finding the mother who brings a new name into the family, particularly if it’s an unusual name. It’s strong evidence that your research is correct.

For the avoidance of doubt, let me tell you – you really have to be ‘in the zone’ to do this!

But I did it! I found Thomas’s baptism. He was the first-born son of Samuel, the name given to Thomas’s own first-born son. Thomas himself was named for his maternal grandfather, Thomas. The master tailor Francis, whose name had started the alarm bells ringing turned out to be the nephew of this Samuel – son of his older brother George. So – our first identifiable ‘connection’ is that my 5x great uncle Nathaniel was apprenticed in 1789 to ‘Rose’s’ 1C6R (first cousin six times removed). I still haven’t found our common ancestor, but I’m working on it.

Using this method I managed to get ‘Rose’s’ paternal line back to the marriage of her 9xG grandparents in Leeds in the year 1627. When I passed all this information to ‘Rose’ she was astonished to see that two significant names still in her family – Frank (originally Francis) and George – had been handed down in her paternal line for several centuries. How amazing is that?!

Maiden names: a handy code breaker!

Today’s post follows on from the last, in that the focus is on women. However, here we’re looking at the presence or absence of maiden names in official documentation, and their inclusion within naming patterns. (I’ve previously written more fully about Irish and English naming patterns, and these will also feature in my next post.)

Inclusion or absence of maiden names on civil birth certificates
Less experienced family historians often need help with understanding precisely what is meant by maiden name entries on civil birth registers and certificates, so we’ll start with this.

Without even buying a birth certificate there’s a lot of information freely available on the General Register Office Online Index, if you know how to decipher it. Here’s a classic entry to start with: the inclusion of Frances Mann’s mother’s maiden name (MMN) on the following entry tells us not only that her maiden name is Sword, but by extension also indicates that the former Miss Sword is now married to Mr Mann, and that he is the father.

MANN, FRANCES    SWORD  
GRO Reference: 1846  S Quarter in HUNSLET  Volume 23  Page 287
Copyright GRO: Online Birth Index

Compare with this next entry. The absence of MMN (the ‘ – ‘) tells us that Albert Robinson was born out of wedlock. In other words, the MMN is the same as the child’s surname because the mother is not married.

ROBINSON, ALBERT      
GRO Reference: 1879  S Quarter in LEEDS  Volume 09B  Page 471
Copyright GRO: Online Birth Index

What about this one?

TAYLOR, ALBERT    TAYLOR  
GRO Reference: 1877  J Quarter in HUDDERSFIELD  Volume 09A  Page 386
Copyright GRO: Online Birth Index

Here we see that a MMN is given, but that it is the same as the child’s surname. This could mean two things: either the child is born out of wedlock, and the MMN is stated even though it is the same as the child’s surname; or the parents both had the same surname before marriage. In such a situation we would need to see the actual birth certificate (or marriage certificate) to be sure. If the parents are married the birth certificate would probably give the ‘Name, surname and maiden surname of mother’ as ‘[forename] Taylor, formerly Taylor‘; and the father’s details will of course be included.

Here’s another type of entry that less experienced researchers often have difficulty with: Under ‘Name, surname and maiden surname of mother’ you might see something like the following: ‘Margaret Robinson formerly Macanerny previously Baxter‘. This means the mother, Margaret Robinson, now married to Mr Robinson, was previously married to a Mr Macanerny. Before that, her maiden name was Baxter. It is the name Baxter that will be indicated online on the GRO Index, but to get that additional information you have to see the actual certificate:

ROBINSON, JANE    BAXTER  
GRO Reference: 1857  D Quarter in LEEDS  Volume 09B  Page 351
Copyright GRO: Online Birth Index

Understanding all of the above is great because it directs us to other life events and documents, or indeed indicates that such documents will not be found. Be aware though that an official document is only as true as the information provided by the informant. In the last example, the marriage between Margaret Baxter and Mr Macanerny was never dissolved, and twenty years of searching suggests she never actually ‘married’ Mr Robinson.

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We can now turn to ways in which people chose to include mothers’ maiden names when naming their children or indeed as a later choice of the individual him/herself.

Maiden names as middle names
It seems to have been during Victorian times that the fashion really developed for including the MMN as a child’s middle name. It did happen before this period, but seems to have increased in popularity amongst the middling and working classes at this time. Some families seem to have given the MMN only to the oldest son or possibly the oldest daughter; others gave the MMN as a middle name to all their children. It has nothing to do with legitimacy or otherwise of the child. In examples in my own tree, marriage dates clearly evidence that this was not in question. It is of course a bonus for the family historian, since it links without a shadow of a doubt the child to the mother’s lineage, and it’s particularly useful if the child was born prior to the introduction of civil registration in 1837. I have a 4x great aunt, for example, baptised in 1812 with the name Maria Thompson Wade, Thompson being the MMN. This is all the more helpful because the only record so far found for this baptism is a transcript, giving only the father’s name.

There are a few caveats to making use of this practice in our research though:

  • On occasion the name passed down, although originating as a mother’s maiden name, may not be this specific mother’s maiden name. It may have been handed down by tradition in the male family, possibly originating some generations back, e.g. with a great grandmother. I have a possible example of this in one of my lines, and it’s a mystery I’ve not yet been able to solve: a child baptised in 1737 with the name George Chilvers Christian yet definitely the son of Christopher Christian and Barbara née Aylmer.
  • The middle name may be mistranscribed as double-barrelled. A hyphen may even be adopted by choice of the individual in later life. So Thomas Beecroft Mann, surname Mann and MMN Beecroft, may possibly be indexed under the surname Mann or Beecroft-Mann, even though he considered his surname to be Mann.
  • Here’s a tricky one that took me a while to work out: my 2x great aunt married a man named Allen Whitworth Schofield. As far as I can see, all of their children were registered with one or two forenames followed by Whitworth Schofield. Some of the children (the ones who emigrated to the US) adopted this as a double-barrelled name in adulthood. Others didn’t but transcribers often assume this to be the case. In fact the origin in this case does indeed stem from illegitimacy. Allen was registered in 1843 with the surname Schofield, and the absence of MMN on the GRO index indicates that his mother was unmarried. Four years later his mother marries Mr Whitworth and from that time Allen is recorded on censuses with the surname Whitworth. Although Allen eventually marries with the surname Schofield he continues to use Whitworth as a middle name, and to honour his stepfather he gives this as a middle name to his children.

Maiden names as first names
The use of a MMN as a first name may continue for several generations. When eventually we find the origin it’s a real bonus, confirming our research back to this point. The aforementioned Thomas Beecroft Mann named one of his sons ‘Beecroft’. I have also come across a Horner Ingham, also his uncle Horner Ingham, their name originating with the marriage of their grandmother/mother Ann Horner to James Ingham.

Maiden name as surname with father’s name as middle name
In contrast with the use of the mother’s maiden name as a middle name, when these names are reversed this always indicates illegitimacy. (Please note that I’m referring here to the historic situation, and not to present day surname naming practices which may be quite different.) Historically, a child born out of marriage was baptised with the surname of the mother. If, shortly after that, the parents marry it is quite normal for the father’s name to be inserted as a middle name. Although this is what happened in the Whitworth Schofield example above, the gap between Allen’s birth and his mother’s marriage (four years) suggests her new husband is stepfather rather than biological father to Allen. However, when my 3xG grandmother, Annabella, was baptised in 1816, the parish register recorded her parentage as ‘Martha Walker, a single woman of Micklefield‘. Four months later, Martha married James Noble, and in all documentation after that the child was known as Annabella Noble Walker. It is the short gap between baptism and marriage that indicates James is more likely in this case to be the actual father. In fact I can’t understand why he just didn’t step up a few months earlier! DNA matches have now confirmed he is definitely my ancestor.

I have seen one early 20th century example of this in which for delicate reasons I won’t go into the mother and father were not able to marry. The child was given the mother’s surname and had no contact with or knowledge of the father who did nevertheless, we think, pay for the child’s upkeep. However, the inclusion of the father’s surname as a middle name was part of the little paper trail that was left for some genealogist (Me!) to track him down more than 100 years later and permit an acknowledgement of him as biological father.

Formalising a middle MMN as a double barrelled surname for reasons of family pride
And finally, I have one example in my tree of the mother’s maiden name being adopted as a double-barrelled surname for reasons of pride in that individual’s notable maternal ancestry. In that example the person clearly wished to emphasise his connection to his maternal grandfather and also to his mother’s brother, a rather dashing and highly accomplished uncle, whose biography the nephew went on to write.

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Have you come across any other unusual uses of maiden names? Have you been able to draw upon a historic maiden name to verify your research? If you can add anything to the above please do share in the comments.

Presenting a visual legacy

Black and white photo of group British Army National Service recruits

One of the young men in this photo is my Dad. It was taken in 1946 during his initial National Service training in Aberdeen. When I look at it I think of an amusing story he told me about his time there.

One of the other recruits was from the Western Isles. A Gaelic speaker, it soon became clear he didn’t understand English. The NCOs persevered, doing their best to make clear what they required, but eventually it was accepted it just wasn’t going to work. The decision was taken to release the Gaelic speaking man from National Service. Assuming he wouldn’t be able to navigate the route to the railway station and make himself understood when buying a ticket for the journey back to the Islands, they asked my Dad to accompany him, buy his ticket and see him safely onto the right train. This my Dad did, and as they were parting the young man who spoke only Gaelic turned to him, shook him warmly by the hand and said in perfect Scottish-accented English: ‘Well thank you very much. You’ve been very helpful.’ And with that he jumped on his train and escaped National Service.

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Starting with more recent generations is more likely to create interest
My personal observation is that even people with no interest in family history will nevertheless enjoy stories about people they knew. I’ve often made the mistake of thinking a distant cousin might share my fascination with our shared line back to the 17th century, only to find what they’re really interested in is the life of their grandparents. As luck would have it, those more recent generations are the ones we have photos for. It follows then that old family photos are a great place to start in encouraging younger generations to take an interest in their wider family history.

In my last post I wrote about my dawning realisation that unless I make my family photographs more accessible, they could easily be lost forever when I’m no longer around, and I outlined what I’ve been doing to organise my files. This time I’m focusing on using and presenting those images. The emphasis here remains on digital images. But as is clear from the above example, this doesn’t exclude the beautiful monochrome photos we inherited from our parents and grandparents. I wrote previously about archiving the originals and how, for safety, these old photos should be scanned and digitised too, before the originals are safely stored. My own digitisation of all the old photos I inherited is about halfway complete. So now – old photos or modern – I’m ready to turn to what we can do once they are safely stored in our digital archives.

We need to provide context
A Facebook Family History group I’m a member of often has requests from people working through old family photos but with no idea who the subjects are. It takes a group effort with people contributing knowledge about changing fashions, estimating ages and the like, so that the original poster can try to work out who the subjects might be. I’ve also participated in ‘spot the unusual earlobe’ type discussions in which we’re asked if two photos might be of the same person, thirty years apart.

At the very least, then, what we need is to provide future generations with notes about who and when. If possible what, where and why would also be great. I like to take it a stage further if I can, using the photo as a starting point for a story, just like the one at the top of this post. I know from experience that this can help draw people in, but I need a way of presenting them alongside the images for family members to keep. What follows considers physical creations using images you print off yourself; and digital creations, in which you create the entire thing at your computer and then share the file/ link or a print of that end product.

Physical creations
Photo albums and scrapbooking are tactile and can be beautiful. I used to love arranging photos, and adding notes and other memorabilia. However, they take up a lot of space, and it’s now widely known that many albums actually harm our photos. Even if I took swift action to replace those first albums with sticky pages covered with film bought for about 99 pence each in my early teens, I know that none of my later albums, despite being much better quality, are actually ‘archival’. What we need is acid/ lignin/ PVC-free archival quality albums; and these come at a cost. It turns out albums with black pages are a no-no too; I have two of these. What’s known these days as ‘scrapbooking’ (and has little to do with what used to be called ‘scrapbooks’!) is probably safer for the photographs, since those who enjoy this craft are more likely to be aware of archival issues; and archival quality scrapbook papers, adhesives and the like are widely available. Having given much thought to this whole issue I’ve come to the conclusion that provided I don’t use treasured originals of monochrome photos, and provided I have a digital back-up of any images used, albums and scrapbooking are fine. I’ve removed all the old monochrome photos taken by my Dad from the cheap album I put them in when I was 13, and will be keeping them in an archival quality box from now on, but as long as any prints used can be replaced, I’m happy to have my photos in albums and scrapbooking albums.

Digital creations
Undoubtedly, digital creations have a lot of advantages. Whereas you would probably compile only one album or create only one scrapbook about an event or a special person’s life, a digital version of the same can be circulated amongst the extended family. This list has been compiled following a lot of online research and mulling it all over, a bit of talking to others, and some dabbling. It has enabled me to work out what options I’m going to use, and I hope it will help you too.

Creating Timelines
This idea turned out to be a lot more complicated than I expected. There are so many online applications and articles about creating timelines, that I had to keep reminding myself of what I was trying to achieve. What I want to be able to do is quite specific:

  • create a series of short timelines focusing on just one person or even just one part of that person’s life, for example my Dad’s time doing National Service, or my Granddad’s service with the Green Howards
  • build each timeline around my own family photographs
  • attach stories and significant local or world events as context
  • include maps
  • have it online, but private and password protected, so that I can invite family members but not overload them with info at any one time. This also means they could return to look any time they want without fear of losing, say, an email link or a document from me.

I narrowed the various options down to four online timeline websites.

Twile is online, free, private, password-protected and family members can be invited to view and collaborate. They provide the option to start by uploading a GEDCOM file, which I did. After a bit of exploration it seems easy to use. However, the skeleton timeline created by my GEDCOM goes back to the 1500s and this will seem cumbersome and off-putting to family members. So – just because I’ve already uploaded the entire GEDCOM – I’ve decided to use Twile for a different purpose: to create Timelines for more distant ancestors when I’m working on their life stories and researching/ recording context.

Timetoast appealed because it’s not linked to a family tree. You can create as many timelines as you like – so you can home in on a specific part of a person’s life and make another timeline for their full life if you wanted. Provided you’re happy with them all being public the account is free. There are two options for paid accounts, the more expensive Pro account providing an all-bells-and-whistles experience. My problem here is that I would want my recent generation timelines to be private but wouldn’t make so many timelines that it would be worth paying the full subscription. However, if you would make sufficient use of it this does seem like a good option.

HistoryLines also looks very good. They make it clear that what they’re about is the stories, and that’s just what I’m trying to achieve here. Their vehicle for telling these stories is your family tree and although you can start with a couple of stories for free, there is a subscription if you want to keep going. Their offering is different from the others in that they have gathered together a lot of contextual information that you can access and link directly to your timelines. This contextual information is arranged by State and, being a US-based company, my impression from the website was that you’d get more from what they have to offer if your ancestry is within the US. However, I wrote to ask a few questions and received very full and helpful responses to them all. Importantly, they tell me they do have a lot of contextual content for England, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland. You can also just input information and leave it to HistoryLines to auto-write the stories if you don’t feel confident about writing your own content.

Treelines is free but they do reserve the right to charge at some point in the future. They say ‘If ever we do start charging users, even if you decide not to pay for a subscription, we will not delete any data you’ve already added to the site.’ You have the option for uploading a GEDCOM, but for this website I’ve inputted manually myself, my parents, my grandparents and my great grandparents. I’ll gradually add siblings, etc, as I focus on the timeline for each of these people. Your tree is accessible only to the people you invite to it, although there is an option to make any timeline public. Importantly for my needs, there is the facility to add additional stories away from the main timeline for that person. This is the website I will use to share stories and timelines with my children, nephews and niece.

Books
Online self-publishing and marketing platforms like Blurb offer free book-making tools to help users design and publish books and ebooks. They also provide a platform for promoting and selling the product should you wish to do that. They offer a variety of book formats and quality papers, and a range of styles of book, including travelogues and family photo books.

My husband’s second cousin (also a genealogist; we worked together on their shared line) has been using Blurb for fourteen years. She tells me the company is helpful, the quality and colour of the printed books excellent, and they deal well with text passages alongside images. The maximum number of pages for the printed book is 240. She pays extra for premium lustre paper and image wrap onto the cover. The pdf file of a book costs about £3.80 and you can share it with no restriction, but the cost of printed books is high so she waits for special offers. I haven’t seen any of her actual printed books but I do have a copy of the pdf of her family history book, which is nothing short of a masterpiece. It seems to me that paying a lot for what is destined to be a family heirloom is money well spent. When I wrote to Blurb to ask a couple of questions they replied within 24 hours, answering fully. They advised that all of their papers are acid-free/archival quality, and that all their books, regardless of paper type, should last as long as a typical bookstore book with proper care and handling.

Photo printing Apps
A quick Google search indicates quite a few photo printing Apps are available. After downloading to your mobile device you can use them to create a range of books (hardback, softback, booklet), prints and other products. So this is a variation on Blurb, but only for your mobile phone/tablet photos, and great if your phone is your primary camera. This is not for me – I want to edit photos and add contextual information, spending time poring over it to get the wording just right – but it might suit you. My husband has used Popsa and tells me it’s very easy to use.

Digital scrapbooking
There are various options for digital scrapbooking, from a free basic online programme called Smilebook to highly customizable software costing around £60-100, and all levels in between. These are expensive to make if you intend to print off the pages, but for circulating as digital creations, once you’ve chosen your programme, the only cost is your time. Here’s a review of the best digital scrapbooking software for 2021. As a result of exploring all this I’ve bought some digital scrapbooking papers and embelllishments and have been creating digital scrapbook pages using the Photoshop Elements programme I already use for photo editing. The results have been quite impressive and – wait for it! – I’ve had interest in them and the stories behind them from two nephews!

DIY Options
To keep costs down, here are some ideas for creating something yourself on your home computer. If you’re going to circulate to family members via email or Dropbox there’s no need to print these off, so no additional ink costs.

Finding Guide
This first idea is simply administrative and I’ve already created my own. It includes a list of my digital folders, where they’re to be found (PC and remote storage), dates covered and some thumbnail examples of the photos in each. Having put so much effort into my digital photo archives I feel confident that the folders themselves won’t change much, so it’s simply a question of keeping them up to date and updating the finding guide as technology and remote storage changes. I don’t need this: I know my archives system inside out; but our grown-up children can access our remote storage. They will now be able to find old photos, including the monochrome ones but also their own childhood photos, any time they want to.

Stories with photos
You could create a series of stories and recollections in a Microsoft Word document, each page starting with an image and followed by the text, like I did above. Other than a single photo followed by a body of text though, Word isn’t ideal for lots of images and wrap-around text.

Creating a Timeline using Word
Here’s a ‘Quick and Easy How To Tutorial’ for creating a family history timeline using Microsoft Word. I haven’t put it to the test, but the instructions seems clear enough.

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Well, they are my ideas and I hope the above has provided some useful information for you. If you have any experience with any of these photo-plus-story presentation options please let us know about it in the comments. The process of working through all this has certainly helped me to plan my next stages, and I’ll be reporting back on some of these options when I’ve had a chance to really explore them.

A visual legacy for future generations

Small boy with camera, taking photograph

One of my many Lockdown goals (I wrote about it in April 2020) was to conserve, organise and digitise all my old monochrome family photos. In fact I’ve only recently started work on that. This is because, before scanning and creating digital copies of the old photos, I decided I needed to tidy up my existing digital photo archives.

We got our first digital camera around 2002, but it wasn’t until I bought my first digital SLR in 2007 that I got serious and set up my own digital archive system. All of the digital images from that initial five years have been safely stored by my husband. About ten years ago he also used a specialist negative scanner to convert the negatives of all our analogue photos to digital files. We do, however, have different approaches to naming and archiving these files, and our ‘systems’, shall we say… don’t dovetail!

My Dad was an accomplished old-school photographer and I’ve had a camera for as long as I can remember, including a pretty decent Pentax before we turned to digital. I used to lovingly create albums with the photos, including tickets, memorabilia and notes about the events and locations. And so we come to the first of the only two disadvantages of digital photography that I can think of – being that very few people these days actually print off their digital images. I’m ashamed to say that since we went digital, although we have printed off a few individual images I haven’t compiled a single photo album.

I’ve been thinking about all this while reorganising my digital photo files. My archive system is good. Individual image files are stored in named folders, and since I upload them from my camera via my main processing software (Photoshop Elements), they are also visible in the Elements ‘media browser’ in date and time order. So they’re searchable by date in the media browser, by category (folder) in my digital archives, and also by keyword search in Elements. In theory it can take seconds to find the exact image I’m after. However, it isn’t always this straightforward. I might have returned home from a holiday in Sicily and taken a few photos of my children in the garden the following morning before uploading the entire batch with the filename ‘Sicily’ and storing them in a folder called ‘Sicily’. On my Photoshop media browser I can see the children’s images, and they will appear in date order, quite clearly taken the day after our return from Sicily. But if I want to find those images of the children in the garden in my digital archives, I probably won’t remember they are in the Sicily folder. This happens a lot, and that was why I needed to sort them all out. If I can lose images in my own pretty well-organised files, then how will my children and future generations fare? How will they even know what photos exist? And here’s the second disadvantage of digital photography: it’s so cheap and so accessible that we take many photos and often place little value on them. I’m horrified to note that having reached this stage of organising my folders, deleting quite a lot of images, copying the ones my husband had stored and renaming/incorporating them into my own system… I have just under 21,000 images in my Photoshop media browser. Many of them will be of no interest to anyone else (but they are to me) and although at least now my folders are meticulously organised and the folder names self-explanatory, it doesn’t seem such a loving legacy to expect my kids to go rooting about on my computer after my demise to rescue digital photos of their childhood days.

So it occurs to me that despite the ease of digital photography we’re in danger of having even fewer photographs to hand on to future generations than our grandparents and great grandparents left for us. Yet while there may be far more of these photos than the ones we inherited from our grandparents, these too are important. They are a visual legacy that we can pass on, alongside those old black and white images, to future generations – but only if we organise them so that they can be found and accessed. My reorganisation is now complete, and I’ve moved on to photographing and uploading the old monochrome photos, which are also being stored and categorised within my existing system. So with all this fresh in my mind, here’s my advice:

  • The first step is to organise them well, in a consistent manner that’s meaningful to you and hopefully also to others who you want to use them. Some digital photographers advise naming folders with the date. So the batch in this folder was taken on 2020 12 04 and in that folder on 2121 03 16. It’s very neat and easy to find the folders on the computer, but it’s not for me. My memories are linked to people, places and events, not to what I was doing on April 7th in any given year. So I have folders that reflect this: ‘York’, ‘Honfleur’, ‘Embroidery Projects’, a folder for each of my children for activities and friends as they were growing up, ‘home’ folders where family life is recorded, and so on. When I upload new batches my default settings are that each image is named with the date it was taken, followed by custom name, and then the number of the image from the memory card. All I have to do is decide what the custom name should be and in which folder the batch should be stored. Even if all your photography is on your phone (where custom names is not an option) you could still make images easier to find by organising them into albums.
  • Make multiple back-ups. I learned the hard way how important this is back in 2010 when my hard drive corrupted and I lost several months’ photos. I had them backed up to what I thought was two drives, but somehow backing up from there to remote storage kept getting put off and when the hard drive burned out I lost the lot. The advice is to save to three places, at least one of which is remote.
  • Keep the best, delete the rest! Once you have the equipment, whether that be a phone or a top-notch camera with digital darkroom software, actually taking the photos costs nothing, so we might take a LOT of photos. Part of my reorganisation has been to delete the excess or poor quality photos. There’s more to do, but it will have to be a work in progress.
  • Metadata. Every digital image file has text information embedded into it. Some of this data is generated automatically by the camera or phone. It includes date and time taken, possibly the precise GPS location, and the size of the file in terms of megabytes and pixels/dimensions. If the photo was taken with a camera rather than phone some technical details about the exposure will be included. If, like we did for our pre-digital photos, you create a digital file by scanning the negative, or indeed by scanning the original photo, the metadata will relate to the creation of this new file and not to when the photo was actually taken. Since it’s the metadata information that dictates where the image ends up in my media browser, I’ve had to go through and manually change the date metadata for every single scanned file. (Oh what fun that was!) However, there is other metadata that we can add manually that will really help in retrieving a file quickly when we want it. This includes the filename given to the image at the time of uploading (or as amended afterwards). It also includes tagging people who are in the image, and any keywords we add – I often use keywords when a person’s face is not fully visible and the software won’t permit me to ‘tag’.

Apart from all that, there’s the possibility of adding administrative data, including image owner and restrictions on use. I won’t go into that here since it’s not the sort of condition we would impose on our families and descendants. But if you have the right software and can make use of all these tools, it will really help you to find photos more quickly.

  • Be mindful of changes in technology. Goodness knows what the technology will look like in the future! All we can do is be mindful, and try to do what we must to ensure our images are still accessible.

There’s no underestimating the time consuming hard work that has to go into retrospectively organising the above, but it’s lovely to find photos you had forgotten about – and once it’s done you can start to have fun with your images, use them in creative ways and add context that will be meaningful to future generations. That’s what we’ll move on to in my next post. In the meantime, if you have any advice about how you’re building an accessible photographic legacy for your own future generations, please share.

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Note: The image above is a digital scan of the negative of a photo taken in the summer of 1998 when we watched the final stage of the Tour de France from les Tuileries. Since it was a scan the metadata embedded into the file had a date of 2010. Using Google I’ve been able to date that stage, and therefore this photo, to 2nd August 1998. I changed the metadata on the file manually so it’s now named 1998 08 02_Paris_0039.jpg and is stored in a folder called Paris August 1998. Since it’s a scan of a pre-digital image there is no other metadata, other than the size of the file. Plus I have tagged it with my son’s name. The original photo is in a little scrapbook he and I made together about our trip to Paris. I still plan to experiment to see how these scans of the negatives compare to scans of the actual photo.

Leaving a family history legacy for future generations

I’ve been thinking about what we can do to plan for passing on our research, photos and family history legacy to future generations – whether this means to our own families or to others interested more generally in our findings. All this has been weighing on my mind for two reasons. First, I’ve spent a lot of time recently reorganising and refining my photographic archives. More about that in the next two posts. Second… well, to be honest, my grown-up children are not particularly interested in their ancestry, and I suspect this is the reality for many keen genealogists. I have even featured in a video sketch made by one of their friends, in which I turn every topic into an ancestral story… In the video my leaping off point was an onion! It’s perfectly understandable really: I wasn’t interested in my Dad’s stamp collection, and I have no right to expect my family to be fascinated by the events surrounding 3xG Uncle Anthony’s transportation to Australia. I just wish they were – it’s a truly fascinating story! 😀

So this post is written from the personal starting point of trying to work out what we can do to interest family members in our research… The next two posts will be about organising digital photos and making them more accessible and interesting, but in this first post we’ll look at ‘genealogy wills’ and a few other ideas for trying to engage our children, grandchildren, nephews, nieces…. anyone! – in their family legacy.

Make a ‘Genealogy Will’
First, the serious stuff… The idea is that you leave a genealogy-specific Will along with your regular one to be dealt with by your executors. The aim is to do what we can to ensure our research doesn’t just get wiped or go in the bin when we’re no longer around. RootsWeb published an outline ‘Genealogy Will’ that you can download and fill in the gaps or use as the basis for writing your own. It includes listing people who might be interested in taking custody of and responsibility for maintaining your work, and failing that, organisations you think might be interested in receiving it. FamilyTree.com write about how you might plan for this in their blogpost Create a Genealogical Will, although it’s aimed at readers in the United States. It makes sense, if possible, that rather than leave this to our executors, we identify for ourselves a family member who is prepared to be the custodian of our work, and show them the ropes. I hope all this is well into the future for us all, and I don’t feel inclined to write one just yet. For a start, absolutely no one springs to mind who would want to take it on. And who knows what the technology will look like by then or what online companies and local history societies will have survived? But when I do write it I intend to include websites and passwords, and to review it from time to time.

Creative ideas for passing on a family history legacy
There are lots of articles online that focus on leaving a family history legacy for your family. Obviously, different ideas will appeal to different people. Mostly, they involve creative activity, either for you alone, or with children. Some of them are about treasuring memories made together and having them to pass on, rather than specifically about our ancestry.

  • If you enjoy doing crafty things with the children or grandchildren, working together on a family scrapbook might appeal.
  • A Google search for ‘children’s family tree book’ turns up lots of books to get children interested: some stories, some for recording information.
  • Older children or teenagers with an interest might like to help collate and chronicle old family records, letters and heirlooms.
  • Keen cooks might enjoy writing up a collection of family recipes to be passed on. I like the idea of that, but to be honest my Mum viewed cooking as a chore and I only have two genuine heirloom family recipes, which is a bit limited as the basis for a family recipe book. Even this lack of recipes could reflect social history: I remember watching a TV history programme in which it was suggested that girls growing up during the war, particularly in cities, didn’t learn to cook from their mothers because their mothers were just making do with what they could get. I know, for example, that my Grandma stopped making bread and all they had was the ‘utility loaf‘.
  • If your kids have so far resisted the call of family history but you fancy enlisting the grandchildren by stealth, a shelf of family treasures is suggested, the idea being that you use them as visual aids while you tell stories about who they belonged to.
  • Needleworkers might enjoy putting together a quilt using fabric pieces from old clothes. I enjoy embroidery and have made a number of items for family members, such as Christmas stockings, each dedicated to the recipient. I know these are/will be treasured and passed on as heirlooms, but that’s a story that starts with them and me. It doesn’t bring in the older family legacy.
  • Making a video or audio recording, perhaps at a family gathering, might be more your thing. StoryCorps, whose mission is ‘to preserve the stories of our time in America’ have published lists of starter questions to get people talking.
  • If you’re a musical family you might like to make a recording of a song or musical piece. We produced a ‘singing Christmas card’ in 2002 – a CD of us singing ‘Rocking Around the Christmas Tree’. Obviously we didn’t send it to everyone on our list, but those who got it appreciated it; and I still enjoy it every year at Christmas.
  • If you always wondered if you had a book inside you, you might try your hand at an autobiography or even a larger history of the family based on your research. In her video How to Write and Self Publish Your Family History Book, Lisa Louise Cooke interviews J.M. Phillips, self-published author of Lamlash Street: A Portrait of 1960’s Post-War London Through One Family’s Story. In the video the author shares her story together with some hints at getting started and seeing it through to the end. Of course, you don’t have to publish your work; you might just write down memories and stories in an exercise book. I was passed just such a personal account by a distant cousin, and it provided a rather gossipy insight into the family life of my great grandfather.
  • Another idea I’ve seen is to bury a time capsule. I find it quite difficult to think through the logistics of that, unless you have a settled country pile that’s likely to remain in the family – but if you have such a residence then this might be the idea for you! Safe.co.uk published How to do your own time capsule and keep your memories safe, aimed broadly at people with our interests. Another blogpost aimed more at getting children to bury time capsules was published by the Museum of Wales: Bury a Time Capsule. You can even buy special time capsules guaranteed to keep the contents safe for a certain number of years.

Perhaps there’s something there to interest you. If you have any other ideas, or if you’ve already managed to interest family members in your family history, please do share the secrets of your success in the comments. In the next post we’ll move onto photographs.

Edward’s last journey

Family stories are not always true, but often there is truth in them.

I wrote in my last post about my elusive GG grandfather Edward Robinson. Last month, after a 25-year search, I was finally able to place him with his birth family. Throughout the search there had always been at the back of my mind my mother’s story – which must have had its origins with her own grandmother, Edward’s daughter Jane. The story was that when Jane’s mother died, after spending all his money on women and drink Edward went back to The Crooked Billet where he was born, and threw himself in the river. I knew The Crooked Billet, still a pub until fairly recently, and although I never went inside, whenever I drove past I would think of its connection to my family history.

Even with a one-line story such as this there may be several elements. I had long ago found evidence to show that my GG grandmother, did indeed die long before Edward – thirty years earlier to be precise. I had also found several drunk and disorderly charges, each resulting in several nights in Wakefield prison. What surprised me when I first researched Edward was that there was another long-term partner after my GG grandmother. Edward was with Hannah at least seventeen years, from before the 1881 census until his death in 1898. This was never passed down in the story. And finally, Edward’s act of suicide and the location is evidenced by his death certificate and the Coroner’s notes.

Only one element of this story remained to be proven: that Edward was born close by The Crooked Billet inn in Hunslet. Throughout the years of my search for Edward’s birth family I remained guided by this, but always open to the possibility it might not be accurate.

I now know that on his father’s side Edward is descended from generations of Edward and John Robinsons, all living in Hunslet in Meadow Lane, just across the river from Leeds township and marked on the map below with a blue dot. Edward’s family lived here at the time of his sister Elizabeth’s baptism 1822. They also, it turns out, had an older son, John, baptised in 1818, Meadow Lane being the place of residence given here too. At some point between sister Elizabeth’s birth in 1822 and brother John’s death in 1834 Edward sr. broke with tradition and moved with his family to Pottery Fields, marked on the map with a pink dot. The Crooked Billet inn was more than a mile away in Thwaite Gate, indicated with a red dot, right on the border with the parish of Rothwell. It isn’t looking like Edward would have been born there.

Map of Hunslet dated 1846-47. Note: This was a time of enormous and rapid industrial and housing development in the area. Even 20-30 years earlier it would have been more rural in character.

It is in fact Edward’s mother, Elizabeth Clarebrough’s family that is key to this puzzle. I’ve now traced her line back to my 11xG grandparents in the sixteenth century. The Clarebroughs are a long-established Rothwell family, located mainly in the Oulton and Woodlesford area. Elizabeth and her twin sister were eighth and ninth of thirteen children, although at least three of them did not survive to adulthood. Baptism and burial records indicate that the family relocated from Oulton between January and August 1791. The place they moved to was… Thwaite Gate in Hunslet, the exact location of The Crooked Billet. They were still there in 1805 when Elizabeth’s father was buried, and although by the time of Elizabeth’s mother’s death in 1830 she was living in Woodhouse Hill (indicated on the map with a green dot), she would seem to have remained close by the area around Thwaite. Even if a baptism record does somewhere exist for my GG grandfather Edward, the abode given will be the usual residence – Meadow Lane or Pottery Fields – and yet it is entirely reasonable to consider that his mother Elizabeth might have gone to stay with her own mother for the period of her confinement, and that he really was born right next to or at least close by The Crooked Billet.

Thinking more widely than this story for a moment – I wonder if this might sometimes be the key to locating missing baptisms? What if our ‘baptism-less’ ancestors who insist on census records that they were born in place X really were born there, because the mother had gone to be with her own mother for the birth, even though a baptism record will be found in place Y…? After all, the parish register records the name and abode of the father, not the actual place of birth. Quite apart from a truthful response to the question of the father’s own abode, it was in any case important for proof of settlement for a child to be registered in the correct parish.

Back to Edward, we can now fast forward to March 1898 when, the story goes, he left his home in Leeds township (marked orange on the map below) and drowned himself in the water by The Crooked Billet (red dot). In fact, thanks to several witnesses whose words are recorded in the Coroner’s notebooks, we can be more precise than that. South of Leeds the river Aire, being not fully navigable, is accompanied on its way to the Humber by the Aire & Calder Navigation canal. The Coroner’s notes, written the day after Edward’s death, evidence that Edward had walked along the water from Thwaite Gate in Hunslet and thrown himself in the canal close to Rothwell Haigh, at roughly the spot marked by the blue dot. Knowing what I know now about his mother’s origins, just a little further along the river, in and around Woodlesford and Oulton (green dot), knowing that as a twin her family’s connection to her sister and her children might have been particularly close, and knowing through burial records that the older generation retained a strong connection to the parish of Rothwell even after moving to Hunslet, I can imagine happy childhood days playing by the water, or walking the three miles or so along the water to visit family.

Edward’s Last Walk: Map of Leeds and Rothwell dated 1900

Of all my ancestors, Edward has been the hardest to love. Finally, working through his story with the additional information, and re-reading the Coroner’s notes, has helped me to make my peace with him. My impression of Edward was that he didn’t have a good life. He didn’t settle to a trade, and the deaths of two significant women in his life – his mother and his first wife, seem to have sent him off on self-destructive behaviour. My mother’s story, suggesting that in his despair, Edward was returning to his own roots to drown himself, was certainly true, but I now believe the attraction was not The Crooked Billet inn itself, but happy childhood memories with his mother and family by the water on the way to Rothwell.

*****

I’ll be taking a break from the blog for a few weeks. My next post will publish on 15th July.