Posts Tagged ‘genealogy’

After sixteen years researching my families on three sides – mother, father and stepfather – there’s no doubt the folk I enjoy discovering the most are the naughty ones. Those who broke society’s rules, willingly or not.

Many of my researcher friends say the same, but there are plenty of others who find ancestral transgressions hard to think about. It’s interesting to consider why there’s such a need for rosey specs when we build the lives and characters of our relatives beyond the bare bones of BMDs.

I guess we all prefer to feel proud of our kin and often that means being able to tell positive stories of work success, personal achievement, happy marriages, warm homes and plenty to eat, much like the Christmas Round Robin.

For people my age, born in the fifties, and particularly for the next generation back, there’s still a powerful fear of social shame even though society has changed so much since our childhoods. The old stigmas that tainted so many lives in the past can still hold sway: being ‘illegitimate’, an unmarried mother, divorcee, deserted wife, on the dole – or simply poor. Not to mention gay. Or criminal – lugged to court or serving time. Women who ‘slept around’ or left their husbands were scandalous, even when escaping violence (which of course was never spoken of).

All these pulls of shame can still operate when we discover an ancestor was one of the above – there can be an anxious urge to tug a curtain over vintage shame. But I’ve found myself becoming increasingly proud and happy with my family transgressors. Maybe that’s because I’ve found so many of them, especially on my father’s side. First in the league is my great-granny Isabella Clavering, whose life was so eventful I’m currently writing a novel based on her life.

As a taster (far from the complete story), I now know that Isabella’s second husband, William Danforth (a south Yorkshire steelworker) married her bigamously, that his first wife Elizabeth Ellen had run off with another man, steelworker Richard Price, and lived with him ‘as married’ until his death. I’ve found that Isabella’s sister Dora ran off to Scotland with another steelworker, Charles White and also lived with him ‘as married’ until her death, while he stayed in contact with his legal wife and three children in Sheffield.

Effectively triple bigamy in one family. Maybe it was part of a steelworker’s job description.

To add to that, Elizabeth Ellen returned with ‘husband’ Richard to her birthplace Hoyland Nether in Yorkshire, and he died there (what?). Her legal husband Bigamous Bill Danforth returned there too from Glasgow after Isabella’s death, to live with his son from his first marriage (what?). For the last few years of his life, Bill and Ellen were living within a few doors of each other in Hoyland (what?). As for Charlie White, after Dora died, he married twice more in Glasgow, the last one, Annie, being only 22 when he was 62. And Annie went to visit Charlie’s Sheffield family in the 1930s, probably at the time of his death in 1938 (what?).

All those whats relate to the fact that bigamists and family-deserters never normally returned to their old haunts or kept contact with those left behind. My family seem to have made a habit of it.

I’m delighting in all this non-conformity, and it certainly makes for good plot-lines in the novel, but I do wonder how other descendants of Bella, Bill, Richard, Ellen, Dora and Charlie might feel about their ancestors’ transgressions being laid bare with scant rosiness applied. It comes down to a question all family researchers have to face – how much truth to tell.



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I have just rediscovered a piece I wrote in 2012 and completely forgotten about. I hope it will bring a smile, much-needed in our troubled times perhaps.  Imagine a small, community evening class of family history beginners, and a well-intentioned tutor…

Right class, so where do we always start in genealogy?
Not with a G, Kenneth – oh, Ken, sorry – and no, not with a J either.  Anyone else?

No, Lisa, ha ha, we don’t start with William the Conqueror!!
What’s that?  Your 4th cousin twice removed in America has got your surname going back all the way to the Conk?  Oh, to Charlemagne, indeed, well, we’ll see…

Maisie?  I know, they’re being a bit loud aren’t they?  You’ll have to speak up!
Class!  Would everyone take a breath please, you’ll all have a chance to tell your stories.

OK Maisie?
Well, dear, gooseberry bushes have gone a bit out of fashion, wouldn’t you say?  Oh, your mum always said it’s where you came from………….

George!  Where do you think we should start?
In bed? Ha ha, that’s one way of looking at it.
Or in your case on the wrong side of the blanket?
Now now, everyone, this is a serious point actually… these days we’re a bit more polite, we say “out-of-wedlock” instead… no, not illegit…. not bast…!
Not spawn of Satan either…

Rosemary, I can see you’re waving a piece of paper there, is it something you want to share?  It says your Scottish grandmother was born in fornication… yes, well, that’s the Scots for you…
Hang on, don’t start shouting, I CAN say that, I’m half-Scottish!

Which brings me back to my first question – how do I KNOW I’m half Scottish?
Thank you Henry, not because one leg is shorter than the other and I run round hills.
No Sophie, I don’t start fights in pubs and eat chips every night
[Only every other night, hehe…]

I’ll give you a clue.

When you’re starting out in family history, you always begin with [pointing] ……


You start by writing down everything you know about yourself.
And then your parents….

Sorry, Maggie, say that again?  Ah, you were an orphan.  And Bob?  Adopted.  Well those are two very good reasons for wanting to find out…..  yes, I understand, I do, here’s a tissue, don’t upset yourself dear, we’ll see what we can do…

Tom – what’s that?  Your dad was a sailor… OK?  A wife in every port, I see

Deirdre… Your mum loved cooking?  That’s good… ah, gas oven… her head, well let’s not go too far down…

Class!  Time’s up for today.  I think we can safely say there are two things to remember when we start genealogy … don’t believe anything you hear (not unless you have three lots of documentation to back it up) – and always expect the unexpected!


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In my last article, I described my new hunt for the family roots of Edward Starbuck, first of the name in America. A few weeks ago, I took a trip to the Starbucky area of Derbys-Notts-Leics where he probably lived before departing these shores about 1635. I walked around Draycott then drove one of the little lanes alongside the Derwent, imagining Edward fishing or ferrying there. Suddenly, without warning this church appeared in front of me…DSCF8394

In the middle of nowhere, the ancient church of St Chad in Church Wilne. A Saxon church was here first. The present one has parts built in the 13th century! I explored all round in the sunshine, sad but not surprised that I couldn’t go inside. If you fancy knowing more about it, try this link.

St Chad’s parish registers start in 1540 and in that year Agnes Starbuck was baptised. So there were probably Starbucks already there in Medieval times and they continued to appear in the register until the 1590s. Just one or two families who I could easily imagine walking the paths across the river plain from Draycott and Breaston a mile or so away, sometimes with a small baby for baptism, sometimes a happy procession for marriage, or a sad one bearing a coffin.

Luckily there was a car park opposite the church and I read signs telling me that just beyond some trees was a nature reserve, a former gravel pit, called St Chad’s Water, with walking paths all round. I took my lunch with me to a seat in the sun looking out at this prospect.DSCF8411

Perhaps if you zoom the picture, you can see a small white dot in the far distance (right up against the trees)? That is a swan and it clearly thought the whole of St Chad’s water was its job to police, even against a solitary human half a mile distant from its brood of smaller white dots which I saw darting about. That swan set off in a straight line towards me as I munched. I munched faster as it got closer. It never veered from its line, directly towards me. It was ten yards out when I got truly spooked. I’d heard of what swans could do. Grabbing my things, I ran up the path. Turning round briefly, I saw it, standing tall with its wings spread in the classic aggressive pose, right next to the bench where I’d been sitting.

Of course, it might just have wanted a share of my sandwich but I was taking no chances. Fearing it might follow me up the path I ran to my car and sat inside with a racing heart, before I began to laugh.

Now, encouraged by my Starbuck-descendant friend Keri-Lynn, I thought I ought to warn unsuspecting genealogists… there are more unlikely dangers out there in heaven and earth than we dream of.Image result for swan with wings spread

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An American colleague and I were agreeing the other day that some of the most exciting finds in our years of ancestor-chasing were discovered when we wandered off the straight and narrow road of research. Instead of just looking at the most logical locations and sources for ancestors, it was often fun to mosey down side roads and muddy paths – in defiance of logic, and the rules we’d been taught. Just because… because it felt like fun, a vague hunch took us there, an unusual occupation turned up, or no apparent reason at all. With the internet, of course, this ‘stream of consciousness’ kind of research has become far easier to do than when it was all paper and pencil in actual archives.

I’m convinced that a willingness to follow a hunch and wander about for no definite reason only develops with experience. When we’re newbies, most often we think in straight lines, chasing single surnames, and the next ancestor up the tree. In those days, the discovery moments, when we find out who each of our great-greats were, these are moments of glory, air-punching excitement, and we don’t feel a need to stop and look round corners. Once we’ve filled a lot of our tree however, those triumphs are sadly rare – unless we look further afield.

Our ancestors were human after all. Just like us now, they often acted unpredictably. We can’t expect their lives to have been lived entirely on the straight and narrow, even if the superficial neat-and-tidiness of birth, marriage and death registrations, parish registers and census records give us that impression. We can rediscover that old, breath-taking excitement of discovery, when we look for and find them in unlikely places.

Recently, after discovering that a couple of my Danforth cousins had emigrated in the 19th century, I decided to do a search for any other British Danforths in foreign records. As far as I knew, no-one in my dad’s immediate family, other than my lost aunt Christina, had jumped any ponds. So here was a muddy path I decided to mosey along, just on a whim.

To my absolute astonishment, I found a passenger list of 1929, for the ship Doric, sailing from Greenock to Montreal that included my Scottish uncle Ernest Clavering Danforth (born Clydebank in 1908), my dad’s carrot-haired brother, my uncle Ernie. Who had lived all his life in Scotland – hadn’t he?

The details in the passenger list suggested he was aiming to settle in Canada, farming in Winnipeg, where his aunt Susan had already made a home some years previously. This was information that had never been mentioned in my family before, so I now have more side roads to look down in Canada.

Ernest & Nan (Wren) Danforth on bench1a

Ernie & Nan Danforth

Ernie didn’t stay there though, he was home by 1942 when he married aunt Nan, back in Scotland, where they both died. But this trip to Canada may explain where he was in otherwise lost years between 1929 and 1942.

So my advice to newbies and oldies in family research: get the boots on and start walking down the muddy paths, check unlikely sources and places, take time to ‘smell the roses’ too. By that I mean, stopping to look again at what you’ve already found: what IS this record I’m viewing? what else does it tell me, other than names and dates? who’s living next door? what was going on, locally and nationally, at that time? why was that person a witness? any question you can think of.

It’s amazing how much more we can find out about our relatives when we get off the main roads, look for more than names and dates, chase the unexpected – and it’s much more fun than sticking to the ‘rules and regs’ of family research.

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Today I watched a TED talk given by A J Jacobs about the importance of genealogy, one of the most entertaining presentations I’ve ever seen. It lasts a matter of minutes, definitely a coffee-break choice. I agree 100% with his wonderment and enthusiasm for the fact that we are all related!

You can find the talk here and also see his plans for the biggest ever family reunion. Sounds like great fun, and I hope he’s organising a virtual event too for those of us who can’t get to New York next year (though how I wish I could!).

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One of the best moments in family research is to discover an address where ancestors  lived, perhaps from census entries or a Will.  It can be fun to make a pilgrimage there – but also very disappointing if we find that the old place has been cleared away during the intervening years, with only modern roads or buildings to see now.

But, as I’ve discovered in Newcastle-Gateshead, there can still be hope of priceless, detailed information, even when the home itself has gone.

The majority of us in the UK are descendants of industrial and agricultural workers who had little choice in where they lived – usually somewhere cheap and small, in walking distance of work.  As a result most were crowded into the jerry-built back-to-backs and tenements of Victorian cities or equally unsanitary cottages and hovels in the countryside.  As well as overcrowding, levels of pollution and dirt were appalling.  For many working people this remained the only choice of housing well into the 20th century.  However, as that century progressed, so too did efforts around the country to clear slums and improve amenities.  As a result, detailed official records do exist including maps, plans and photographs, of the houses and streets that were cleared away.

It’s entirely possible that, if you can identify the specific location of your ancestors’ lost home in the first half of the 20th century, you can find precious details about it in slum clearance and redevelopment records of the local authority, usually held at the relevant record office.  I discovered this when looking for information about Oakwellgate and Cannon Street in Gateshead where my Corbett and Clavering ancestors lived in the 19th century.

Cannon street date unknown

On the left is a view of Cannon Street, taken from the churchyard  of neighbouring St Mary’s.   Below is how it looks today.

Cannon Street 2013

Turn 180 degrees from where the second photo was taken and you’ll see
the view in the third photo – the dramatic Sage Centre has been built where
the gas works, railway lines and factory works once dominated the area
my folks lived in.
Sage Centre & Millennium Bridge 2013

But these are only the most recent of the redevelopments in Gateshead.  From the 1910s, overcrowding surveys were undertaken and as late as 1936 it was found that Gateshead was the second most overcrowded county borough in the country.  Conditions were notoriously awful, but it wasn’t until the 1930s that slum clearance began in earnest with further waves in the 1950s/60s, as well as recent years.

To give you an idea of records you might find in clearance and redevelopment records, the following details come from a page in Gateshead Council’s Register of houses declared unfit 1910-35, for a tenement in Oakwellgate (Tyne & Wear Archives ref. CB.GA/PH/4/2/1):

Inspected: 7 Mar 1912
Dwelling-house: 47 & 49 (Easton Bank), Oakwellgate
Description: Tenements.  No. 47 down.  No. 49 upstairs
Owner: Miss Eleanor Pearson, 40 Bewick Road, Gateshead (now 9 LynnholmeGardens)
Name of occupier: Four [note that names of occupiers are given on most of the survey cards, but not this one]
Number of rooms: 6, on ground floor 3, on first floor 3 (two empty)
Number of inhabitants: 8 Adults and 5 children under 13 years (in 4 rooms)
Water-supply: Town supply.  Tap in entrance to 47.
Closet accommodation: None.  Fallen down.  Using Public accommodation opposite.
Drainage: One gully
Light: Bad.  None at back & building shut in at front
Free circulation of air: Moderate
Dampness: Walls & ceilings damp
Cleanliness: Fair to bad
Paving, Draining & Sanitary condition of any yard or outhouses: No yard or outhouses
Arrangements for refuse & ashes: Tenants own pails, removed daily
Other matters: This house is one of most ancient in Oakwellgate, reputed to be the former town residence of the Bishop, & known as “BishopsPalace”.  Stone built, dilapidated & porous joints.  Roof tiled & very dilapidated.  Spouting very defective.  Internal walls, ceilings, stairs very defective & broken.  Wood floors defective & one bricked & in very bad order.
Remedies suggested: To close & demolish.
Demolished: 8 Jan 1930 [18 years after the survey!]

1934 Plan Dun Cow Yard area  It’s hard to believe people were living in these conditions as late as the 1930s.

Once you get into Slum Clearance and Compulsory Purchase files, you may also be lucky enough to find photographs and detailed plans,like the one on the left for Oakwellgate and Dun Cow Yard drawn in 1934 (Tyne & Wear Archives ref. CB.GA/PH/5/2).  A 1930 photo of the view also exists:

Duncow Yard between high street and oakwellgate 1930

It may be sad and disappointing to be unable to see the actual place where our ancestors lived, but slum clearance and redevelopment records can be a gift of detailed descriptions and photographs, maybe taking us closer to the truth of our ancestors’ living conditions than a still-standing but modernised and transformed building can do.

With thanks to staff of Tyne & Wear Archives for help with research into the Gateshead slum clearance and overcrowding files.  Old photos of Gateshead have been supplied by Gateshead Central Library and reproduced with the kind permission of Gateshead Council.  Modern photos taken by myself in June 2013.

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The Manor and its customs dictated the lives of our ancestors for centuries, yet we don’t often talk about this part of our national history in the online genealogy world.  It is only in the last year that I have started to explore “manorial documents” myself.  I have discovered that, though difficult in many ways, they can sometimes be goldmines of family information, particularly when looking for people in the 18th century and earlier, sometimes very much earlier.  Many manor records are Medieval in date.

As an example of an information goldmine I found recently, here is part of a record for the SOMERS family of Duffield in Derbyshire, taken from the Duffield Fee Court Books held at Derbys Record Office (the Fee was a number of manors in and around Duffield that were managed collectively like a single large manor):

At the Manor Court held on 21 May 1657, it was presented to the Court that a Robert SOMERS had died, who held a messuage and a couple of crofts in Duffield Manor “and that George SOMERS of the age of 16 yeares and upwards is the Kinsman and next heir of the said Robert SOMERS to witt the only Son of George SOMERS his father who was Sonn of Geo: his Grandfather who was Son of George his Great Grandfather who was Son of Thomas his Great Great Grandfather which Thomas was Eldest Brother of Bartholomew who was Father of Robert which Robert was Father of the said Robert SOMERS lately deceased, And the said George SOMERS the heir then being present in Court did then make choise of Henry NOTON his uncle to wit his Mother’s brother to be his Gardian dureing his minority”.  The entry goes on to say that a counter-claim to the holding was made by William SOMERS a brother of the lately deceased Robert by a different mother (his claim didn’t succeed).

 A record like that can suddenly take a family line back into Tudor or Medieval times.

In general, manor records don’t give as much detail for a family as this but even small nuggets can help when tracking people in early centuries.  In Duffield Fee, it certainly seems that some people used the ‘Surrender-Admission’ system of the manors for passing on property as a substitute for Wills and probate.

The biggest problems with manor records, and the reasons why they haven’t gone to the top of the hit parade of genealogical resources, are:

  • They can be hard to locate.  Manor records were private documents held by the Lord of the Manor, passed on (if we’re lucky) when manors were sold and inherited.  Many have not survived; many that do exist are held a long way from the manor itself, and may still be in private hands, unavailable to general researchers
  • Until 1733, like all other legal documents, they were written in Latin (except briefly between 1652 and 1660 when we had a Republic and English was its legal language)
  • The further back in date the records go, the harder they are to read.  They were often written, not just in Latin, but in heavily abbreviated Latin and, of course, old handwriting
  • Manors are a lost world to us now – for more than 1000 years they had their own customs and vocabulary which can be hard to understand today

However, I’ve found it worthwhile tackling these difficulties and great fun learning about the everyday lives of our ancestors recorded in these documents.  Here are some tips for making a start:

  • To locate manorial records, start with the National Archives’ Manorial Documents Register: www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/mdr.  This register is nowhere near complete but TNA are funding projects in additional counties to update and digitise their records, including one for Derbyshire that should start up in the summer 2013.  The next best port of call for locating manorial documents is the county record office
  • Check county library catalogues for published transcripts of manor records.  In Derbyshire, those available include Staveley and Eckington (http://www.thamesweb.co.uk/books/eckington.html).
  • To help you tackle the Latin, there is “A Latin Glossary for Family & Local Historians” by Janet Morris, and “Latin for Local History, An Introduction, 2nd ed” by Eileen A Gooder.  A Latin grammar/dictionary from the library or bookshop will also help.  If you begin research into manor records by reading (and copying out) entries after 1733 that are in English, you will have verbatim ‘cribs’ for how the earlier Latin entries were written.
  • Search about online for introductions to manorial history and customs.  Examples are at NottinghamUniversity: http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/ManuscriptsandSpecialCollections/ResearchGuidance/Manorial/Introduction.aspx and the National Archives: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/records/looking-for-place/manors.htm.  Eve McLoughlin’s introductory booklet “Manorial Records” is also an easy, informative and amusing read.  You will soon be able to impress others with your knowledge of essoins, amercements etc.

Life under the manors has largely been lost and so has our knowledge of its records, but I think it is worth tackling the difficulties in finding and reading the documents that do exist, often full of fascinating detail about the lives of our ordinary ancestors that we won’t find anywhere else.


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