Book Review: The Dead on Leave

I know where my mother was on 28th September 1936.  Aged only twelve, she had walked the short distance from her home to Holbeck Moor to watch as Oswald Mosley arrived, flanked by a thousand members of the British Union of Fascists (BUF).  The march commenced a mile or so away, at Calverley Street in the centre of Leeds, although the BUF had planned a longer route.  They had been forbidden by the authorities to march through the Leylands district, which for more than a century had been the ‘melting pot’ of Leeds, where newcomers, including Irish and Jewish immigrants, lived side by side with the working classes.  Even so, the night before the march, swastikas and slogans appeared throughout Leylands on shopfronts and businesses owned by Jewish residents.

By the time Mosley and his Blackshirts reached Holbeck Moor, 30,000 Leeds residents – most of them Communist Party members or Labour supporters – were waiting for them.  As Mosley took to the stage the crowd roared out The Red Flag.

I strongly suspect my grandparents didn’t know their daughter was there.  Decades later, she described the Blackshirts, hate written all over their faces, and expressed her pride for the men of Leeds who, having no time for fascism, threw stones in the direction of the stage.  She didn’t mention that Mosley was hit – I now know that the man who threw that particular stone was 19 year old John Hodgson from Leeds.  It’s astonishing what you can learn on the Internet!

By coincidence, exactly one week later, on Sunday 4th October, the far more famous Battle of Cable Street took place, as many thousands prevented Mosley from marching his Blackshirts through the East End.  My father in law, then a young man, was amongst those protestors.

It must have been about five years ago that I came across an article online about The Battle of Holbeck Moor.  I realised immediately this was the event my mother had told me about.  It was during an exchange of comments with the author of a similar article on the 28th September last year, commemorating 82 years since the event, that this novel, The Dead on Leave, was recommended to me.  It opens with events surrounding the Battle.

The 1930s was a difficult time for my mother’s family – an experience shared with many more throughout the land.  My granddad was out of work for several years, and it was perhaps from personal experience that on another occasion my mother made reference to the Means Test Investigators who would visit the homes of the unemployed.  ‘All of this would have had to go,’ she said, with an expansive sweep of her arm to indicate the china cabinet and its contents of treasures, almost all of sentimental rather than great financial value.  Again, the term ‘Means Test Investigator’ was not one she would have known.  So it was with interest that I learned a significant character in Chris Nickson’s novel was one of these Investigators.  Their powers were far greater than I had imagined, with authority to turn up unannounced, carry out thorough searches of the house and dock payments to the deemed value of any family ‘treasures’.

I didn’t expect to enjoy this novel; rather I was reading it to harvest facts about the period.  But I was immediately drawn in.  The characters were well-drawn, the sense of place spot-on, and the murder detective storyline gripping.  I got a real sense of Leeds as it was in the 1930s: the Depression, the ongoing tension between the Far Right and the Left, the rehousing of people from the old back-to-back housing to the local authority cottage estates with their spacious rooms and gardens, and even the high incidence of bronchial problems due to air pollution.  This was the ‘grim, industrial North’, after all; and my impression was that in the 1930s it was indeed grim.

I recommend this book to anyone with a historical interest in Leeds, the industrial North, the battle against fascism, or life in general during the 1930s Depression.  I’ve already found a whole series of police detective novels by the same author set in Victorian Leeds, and plan to start working my way through them too.

Click the image to find the book on Amazon (affiliate link).

Genealogy – why do it?

There must be as many combinations of reasons for doing genealogy as there are genealogists.  Here are mine.

Honouring my ancestors
I was always interested in history at school, but after discovering genealogy it struck me that what I learned back then was all about rich, important men, the decisions they made and only in the broadest terms the impact of those decisions on ordinary people.  I remember learning about famine in Ireland, for example; about the ‘Ten Hour Bill’; and about the gradual expansion of the electorate.  It never occurred to me that the Irish great grandmother I vaguely knew of might have had a connection to the famine – yet now I see the arrival of her parents in England did indeed coincide with those terrible events.  I’ve found records of various ancestors – male, of course – who voted in the early 18th century, and others who didn’t achieve that right until 1868.  And as for the ‘Ten-Hour Bill’, properly known as the Factories Act of 1847 – I see my ancestors leaving behind their cottage industry lifestyles and gradually homing in on Leeds as the Industrial Revolution kicks in.  I can only imagine their lives in those huge, noisy factories.  What I do see, however, is that prior to the Industrial Revolution, all my ancestors had respectable occupations – silk weaver, tailor, woollen weaver, yeoman, shopkeeper…  Each played an important part in their communities.  Many had undertaken apprenticeships and become masters of their crafts.  Their lives were self-determined.  And yet by the end of the Industrial Revolution most of them were described on records simply as ‘labourers’.  They had become anonymous cogs in a huge wheel driven by someone else.

History reflected in the people of one family
If I could sit down and have a cup of tea with my ancestors, the stories most would tell might seem small and mundane (although believe me, others have stories that would make your hair curl!)  But take a step back and the story they tell collectively is the history of the woollen industry in Leeds, the impact of the Industrial Revolution, Guild society in York, migration, military life, life and loss in wartime, the rise and decline of Nonconformity and so much more.  So much history just in the stories of one family – mine.  And no doubt many more in yours too.

Freeing my inner detective!
Researching a family tree is not just a matter of names, dates and places.  These are, of course, of vital importance – if you don’t get this right everything else will be wrong.  But I want more than this.  I want to know what their lives were like.  What happened locally that impacted upon my ancestors?  What were the conditions they lived in?  Even though most of their houses will no longer exist I enjoy walking the streets looking for old landmarks that they would have recognised, and looking at old photos of the area.  Speak to any genealogist and they will tell you of the pleasure in finally finding that long-sought-for missing piece of the jigsaw.

Whenever I delve into original records from my home town I come across surnames of people I used to know – children I was at school with, family friends, local businesses.  These are local surnames, not widely found elsewhere, and it’s strange to think that my ancestors and the ancestors of my contemporaries would have known each other three hundred years ago!  Some of those long-ago people whose surnames I recognise from school are in fact my ancestors, suggesting that some of my old friends were distant cousins.

Coincidences abound in family history.  I see from various records that my paternal great grandparents (dad’s dad’s parents) and my maternal great grandparents (mum’s mum’s parents) were all living in the same street, almost opposite each other, circa 1891-93.  They then went their separate ways, and it would be another sixty years before the families were united through the marriage of my parents.  I often wonder if they got on?!  What would they say if they knew their grandchildren would eventually marry?

Here’s a surprising figure: we each have 4096 10x great grandparents, and the number of direct ancestors we have between now and then totals 8190.  The further back we go the more people will share the same ancestors.  In other words – go far enough back and we are all one big family.  A sobering thought in these times of rising nationalism and ‘us’ against ‘them’.

Leaving something for my descendants
All of these people, and all of their experiences and decisions affected not only their own lives and the lives of their children, but ultimately resulted in me, my children and my descendants not yet born.  In choosing to honour the former I want to leave something for the latter.  I want to tell them the stories that lead from the past to them.


So these are my reasons for researching my family tree.  Have you thought about why you want to do it, and what you’d like to achieve?

So why ‘English’ Ancestors?

This is a blog about English Ancestors – mine, and perhaps yours too.

But why ‘English’ ancestors?  Why not ‘British’?

Well, for the simple reason that whilst the principles and practice of ancestry will be the same the world over, the records and sometimes the knowledge required even for researching the various parts of the United Kingdom can be quite different.  My area of expertise is with English records.  I know, and am constantly learning more about, which English records would likely provide the information I need to help me progress.

That isn’t to say that my ancestry is entirely English.

I have connections to the island of Ireland – North and Eire – and would love to be able to trace my Irish roots further back in time.  Alas, the records can differ quite considerably from English ones.  What’s more, many – but not all – were destroyed in a huge fire at the Public Records Office in Dublin in 1922.  There’s also the issue of surnames: the same name may have been recorded in English or Gaelic, and with various spellings.  And on top of all that, records may never have existed in the first place.  I haven’t given up on my Irish roots; learning more about Irish family research is on the ‘To Do List’, but all my Irish forebears pre-date 1830, and I’ve accepted, sadly, that I may never find them.

So what about other parts of Great Britain?  I haven’t had much need to delve into the records of these nations, although there are as yet unproven hints of Scottish and Welsh ancestry in my research.  Scottish records too, have some differences in comparison with the English, with some Scotland-specific websites, such as Scotland’s People.  Even researching distant Welsh ancestors requires certain specialist knowledge; while the wide usage of certain surnames brings its own problems.  (My probable Welsh connections, for example involve the surnames Thomas and Jones, which I have found is like seeking a needle in a haystack!)

Researching our ancestry gives us knowledge and reason to celebrate every part of our roots.  Our ancestors’ stories and experiences are the back-story to our own lives: they are part of who we are.  Anyone who considers themselves ‘British through and through’ will likely have a mosaic of cultures and heritage running through their past.  I’m proud of my mysterious great great grandfather who seems to have hailed from Prussia.  I’m intrigued by the 10x great grandfather who likely reached these shores after fleeing religious persecution in Flanders or the Netherlands.  And being from Yorkshire, I’m delighted at the hefty chunk of Scandinavian in my DNA – my thousand year-old Viking roots.

But the English records are where most of my ancestors are to be found for the past few hundred years, and this is where my expertise has developed.  Since in this blog I hope, amongst other things, to show you how you can research your own family history, it seems appropriate to limit it to what I know best.

I hope you’ll join me. 🙂


This is a new blog about remembering the past, honouring our ancestors and at times learning lessons from what has gone before.

It seems appropriate, then, to launch it on this Armistice Day of 2018, as we commemorate one hundred years since the end of the First World War. There are so many beautiful tributes to the young men – and women – who died during those four hellish years: national events like the torches at the Tower of London and local tributes up and down the country, many featuring hand-knitted and crocheted poppies.

In total, ten million military personnel plus seven million civilians from all sides lost their lives in The Great War,

This is my own tribute to them all, and in particular to two young men:

My great uncle Cyril Mann, killed at Passchendaele on 1st August 1917

Cyril Mann Inscription on Menin Gate

My great uncle Joseph Lucas, also killed at Passchendaele, on 9th October 1917.

Joseph Lucas grave at Poelcapelle

May they rest in peace, and may we and the politicians who represent us be ever mindful of the lessons of the past.

We have more in common than that which divides us
We are one human race