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Last week, it finally arrived, after nine horrendous months – the day I settled into my new home. I’ve made the tremendous leap north of twelve miles from Chesterfield to the leafy S11 area of Sheffield. I am extraordinarily happy to be in a city again, with all its buzz and opportunities, but especially THIS city.

Here’s why. Not just because it has the reputation as one of the safest cities in the country. Or because its residents are so friendly. And there’s real feminist activity going on (Feminists Over Fifty overflowing with members), and the independent cinema shows all the latest films WITH SUBTITLES every Monday…

For my research addiction, archives and local studies library are just a bus ride away. But most of all, I’m following my forefathers’ footsteps. Or more accurately, their short sojourn here, but it was a significant one. On 16 August 1878, my grandfather Ernest Danforth was born here, at 23 Sussex Street (in the south-east area of Darnall/Wicker near the present-day Cobweb Bridge). That was just seven months and a bit after the (bigamous) marriage of his parents William Danforth and Isabella Tamplin nee Clavering on 5 January 1878. We probably don’t need to ask why they married, in a Register Office, with unrelated witnesses.

The reason they were in Sheffield at all was only because Isabella, a Gateshead girl by birth, moved here from Manchester with first husband Joe Tamplin, an early Sheffield policeman. By the time she fell pregnant with grandad Ernest, Bella had lost Joe to TB only six months before, and all three of her previous children to scarlatina in 1875. A destitute widow, she brought in some pennies by running a little shop from her front room in Sussex Street. Perhaps Bill frequented her shop. As a steel puddler from Hoyland Nether just up t’road near Barnsley, he may have worked in the steelworks on Sussex Street (a decidedly industrial location) and called in to Mrs Tamplin’s shop for small purchases. More likely they met in the North Pole inn.

They didn’t stay long. By the 1881 census, they were in Brinsworth in Rotherham and Bill was a mill labourer, no longer using his muscles for steel-puddling. Local newspapers report devastating levels of poverty and destitution in Sheffield in the 1870s-80s as its steel manufacturers lost out to works in other parts of the country. The family’s further move to Glasgow a year or two later was probably a search for work (Bill had been there before in the 1860s with his first wife), although the long arm of the anti-bigamy law might have been a push factor too. As a result, grandad Ernest grew up a thoroughly east-Glasgow lad, reportedly with such a strong Glaswegian accent, no-one knew his Yorkshire roots. And for the rest of his life, his was the only Danforth family in Scotland.

In fact, the Danforth name is pretty rare in the UK generally. Thick on the ground in the USA because of two Danforth pilgrims from Framlingham in Suffolk who migrated in the early 17th century. But they are not related to my lot. In Thornhill, south Yorkshire, the name was first Dunforth, locational after a small habitation in that area, and probably pronounced in the local accent something like D’nf’d, so Dunford and Danford are regular variants, as well as many stranger ones.

Moving back to my Yorkshire roots at the start of the new-old year (March 25th) seems an appropriate time to launch a Yorkshire Danforth One Name Study. Well, more of a gentle push into the genealogical boating pond. Later I’ll set up an ONS website or blog but now is the start of data-gathering, and contacting potential Danforth matches via DNA test results (more about that to come).

Anyone reading this who is a Yorkshire Danforth, Danford or Dunford, please get in touch! Leave a comment below, or email me: celiarenshawATgmail.com.

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The Harpur-Crewe family who, amongst other things, were Baronets of Calke Abbey near Melbourne in Derbyshire do not speedily jump to mind as one of the county’s great families, but at one time they were second only to the Cavendishes, Dukes of Devonshire, in quantity of lands owned, spread mainly across Derbyshire, Staffordshire and Leicestershire.

I have to admit I have only just discovered the vast Harpur-Crewe archive collection at Derbyshire Record Office, and I suspect I am not alone.  Investigation of this collection, DRO ref. D2375, tells a story that is all too common in archives around the country.

Firstly, despite its size and importance to family and historical research, you won’t find any details of the D2375 collection online.  We await the arrival of a fresh clean copy of the existing catalogue currently being typed into spreadsheet by volunteers for the National Trust, which runs Calke Abbey, after which it will be put online.  Until then, the only way to access any information about D2375 is to consult the printed, on-the-shelf catalogue while visiting DRO, or to ask staff to do that for you.

Secondly, even when you can lay eyes on the print catalogue, you’ll be very lucky indeed if the details provided help you much in your research.  DRO staff generously provided me with a pdf copy of the printed catalogue : it is 570 pages long.  When you consider that, for most of the collection’s contents, only the barest minimum of catalogue description has been given, you start to get a picture of how huge this archive is.  The catalogue introduction explains how the collection arrived at DRO:

“The surviving Harpur Crewe papers comprise… estate, family and personal documents from the 16th to mid-20th centuries, with some medieval deeds.  On their transfer to DRO at various dates from 1988, many early documents were found to be irretrievably damaged by neglect and damp and a number of series were substantially fragmentary or discontinuous…  In 1996, these papers were… officially allocated to DRO.”

This acquisition of the collection created a formidable cataloguing and conservation task for DRO’s hard-pressed resources.  Consequently, only basic listings of most of the deposits have been possible since they arrived at DRO, and the print catalogue is full of entries like this:

D2375/27/1 : Breadsall Court Rolls about 14 items (but too frail to examine closely) incl. early 17th c. rentals and one court roll 1761.

D2375/189/6 : Bundle 1. Bundle of leases for Alstonfield, Quarnford, Warslow, Heathilee and Hollinsclough (not examined)

D2375/277/2 : Account book of Richard ROUGHLEY for rents collected and payments made… on behalf of the guardians of Sir John HARPUR incl. Arleston and Sinfin, Repton, Milton, Alvaston and Boulton, the manor of Alstonfield… (fragile & damaged), 1681-2.

Cataloguing and conservation have been ongoing at DRO but nowhere near the amount necessary to open up one of their biggest archive collections to all levels of research.

If you think there might be such a thing as a surname index, dream on.  At best, there is a  broad-brush subject and location index, currently only accessible on the shelf.  Once the new spreadsheet version of the old catalogue is uploaded online, it will be possible to search that, much better than nothing, but there are far more people mentioned in the documents than get noted in the catalogue entries.  I’m told that DRO hope to find  funding soon to properly catalogue the collection, but with so many uncatalogued archive collections around the country, competition is fierce, so there are no guarantees.

By now you may be bored into snooziness, wondering what interest the dry and dusty tale of a forgotten family’s papers can supply.  The fact is that the historical papers of the big landed families, who were the employers and landlords of most of our ancestors, are often the only available source of historical information about them, particularly in the centuries before civil registration and censuses.  The fact that our archives are traditionally starved of skilled and expensive cataloguing and indexing/digitisation resources makes us all the poorer, fenced out of our own history as much now as when their bailiffs and gamekeepers watched the boundaries.  The problem is not faced by DRO alone but by all archives nationally, whether state, county or private.  For example, the Devonshire collections still held at Chatsworth also lack complete catalogues and indexes.  They cannot even put online those they do have because, though their staff are immensely helpful, there are not enough of them to respond to higher levels of enquiries.

So, if you think an ancestor of yours might be hidden within D2375, what can you do?  At present, about the only option is to contact DRO and ask them to check the Harpur-Crewe subject index for any surname, topic or location you can provide.  If they locate anything of interest, it’s virtually certain you’ll need to visit personally to view original documents or pay for research to be done on your behalf.

You can also sign up to the DRO blog where information about progress on indexing and cataloguing D2375 is bound to be posted in future.

And never ever imagine that any archive’s online catalogue is “comprehensive” – it will be a very long time before that becomes universally true.  And vastly longer before  record office holdings round the country have been widely digitised and made available online.

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It strikes me that genealogy is just like love.  At the start, there’s the all-consuming excitement of first discoveries, complete preoccupation with the newly-found ancestors and their lives, resentment towards anything that gets between you and the chase – work, partners, shopping, garden, sex, food, sleep – nothing else matters.  It feels like love, it’s as good as sex and it transforms your life in the same way.  Once the genealogy bug has bitten, nothing is the same again.  This relationship is set to run, and run, and run…

Later of course, as with any loved one, the clay feet, little annoyances and boring bits start to make themselves felt, the moments of sheer excitement become rare jewels.  You settle in to a steady companionship instead, valuable for its familiarity, a comfort blanket of research skills acquired and pedigree charts produced, much more than a roller-coaster ride.

These thoughts struck me today after helping a friend begin the hunt for her mother’s family, introducing her to free online resources such as Family Search and FreeBMD and subscription sites like Ancestry and Findmypast.  She didn’t know much about her mother’s roots and we quickly found a whole new batch of first cousins and a line back to previously unknown grandparents and great-grandparents.  My friend’s wide-eyed, bouncing excitement and cries of joy as stones turned to reveal new facts reminded me of my own start ten years ago.  I’m not ashamed to admit I envied the years of passionate exploration she has ahead and wished I could experience that myself all over again.

This also got me thinking about the guidance that’s available for newbies to genealogy and whether anyone, caught up in the new passion of the hunt, will ever sit down to study well-meaning books and articles as they start out.  I know I didn’t.  But ten years ago, there was nowhere near as much advice around and the internet had barely begun as a research tool.  For me, it was more experienced researchers online, in mailing lists and forums, and not reference books, who held my hand, answered my questions, steered me from danger and illuminated my uncertain path.

I know now that I was lucky.  It is clear that lots of newbies never have these benefits and many of the trees published online leave me weeping in despair.  We see children born after their parents are long dead, mothers giving birth in their 80s, people even born after their own death dates!  Families linked up simply because they have the same surname and no other reason.  Birth, marriage and death locations assigned to the wrong counties, or even countries.  Well, the moan and grump list would stretch to pages if I let it.  As a result, I have sometimes considered writing quick and easy guides to starting family research, but, after sharing the start of the journey with my friend, I’m inclined to feel there is no real substitute for just doing it, learning as you go, getting help from people who are further down the path.  Opinions on this from other genealogy ‘oldies’ will be very welcome, including links to any good start-out guides that exist.

Meanwhile I feel that the best I can do for UK researchers is to help them find those who are lost and gone astray, the ancestors who left their birthplaces, went away to marry, work or explore and left no forwarding address.  Keep calling back to Morganhold for more about lost ancestors and press the ‘subscribe’ to receive new articles when they are posted.

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