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23 Jun 2017

Two Sides of Town

Picture the scene, a pretty town where a river runs through it.  Much bevisited by Americans keen to note down their heritage whilst swans and fresh cygnets queue up to enter.  A park, a castle, a group of youth; a theatre, some pubs, an ugly dual carriageway.  A reality star popping in to try some baby yoga.

In one corner of the town, up on the hill, is an ugly pub.  Squat, flat, squeezed into the estate, with cheap doubles whenever you want and locals escaping the grime for an hour or two's oblivion.  Karaoke blasts out across the estate as the bladdered locals slash up against the wall.  Gerald Phipps (not his real name) scratches a tattoo as he greets the new arrivals from behind the bar.

Let's go back down to the centre of town, and steeply ascend a hill facing the other way.  Broad open fields greet us and a happy cow winks approvingly at the cut of our jib.  Surprisingly quickly open country hits, and then a very posh school - fields and yawning tennis courts roll out in front of us.  Cynthia Claydon (almost her real name) rolls down her starched white tennis pleats and adjusts her ponytail as her friend Charlie's Merc peels off into the distance.  She finished her sixth-form here a few years ago, and is back, purely for artistic licence, and doesn't have anything to actually do, except look great.

As you've guessed, Gerald and Cynthia are cousins.  Well not exactly, Gerald just got one of Cynthia's 4th cousins pregnant, and is the babyfather.  The point is Cynthia descends from Miss Sophy Smith of South Lopham, Norfolk; whilst Gerald's pregnant ex-missus descends from Arthur Smith of South Lopham, Norfolk. They are both siblings of Miss Ellen Smith of South Lopham, Norfolk, who is my Granny's fearsome granny, Granny Smith.

Sophy quickly married in the upward direction, selecting a young accountant who rapidly turned his family into drapers, and the daughter was soon engaged to an auctioneer, and the next generation were farmers in Sussex and before you know it, it's time for a posh school for the daughter.

Arthur decides to head down the social ladder,  starting having a lot of children before he is really ready, and the wedding bells ring midway through a pregnancy, and then he turns 21 as the next one arrives and then it's time to quit his job and act as a blackleg and remarry (not in that order) before finally at 50 he wraps it up and heads to Australia.  Leaving 3 generations in straightened circumstances.  His grandson kicks cans around the place in WW2 digging up scrap age 12 to help the family get by.  To be fair, the family did good, but they did end up on the other side of town in this case.  No question.

I'll stay in the middle.  I'm not climbing a hill to sing karaoke, and I have no idea what a tennis pleat is, or if it even exists.

Thank you Ellen for weaving a happy medium between Arthur's chaos and Sophy's money.  I'll take your side of town on this occasion.

22 Jun 2017

1940s Google Map

Introducing a Google Map to show where people lived at the time of their death in the 1930s and 40s - based on the probate index of England/Wales from this time period.  It does include addresses worldwide and is well worth a browse.

http://www.haine.org.uk/toms_wills/1940s_Google_Map.php

Questions, comments, via the homepage...

2 Jun 2017

Love is...

Love is... A Powerful Text Editor! When you have, as I do, 508 million wonderfully tender pieces of data, the laptop is going to cough and splutter a bit.

After a frustrating 24hrs where I couldn't get the data sorted at all, came salvation.

EditPadPro. This handy gadget was hastily downloaded at Swindon station before the WiFi conked out. It can insert carriage returns wherever you'd like in a long line of data. I wished this to occur every 30,000 characters in order to be re-imported into Excel cells, which have a maximum capacity.

Until I demo'd EditPad I'd not considered that my problem was essentially one of word wrapping. Word wrapping is fiendishly complex, similar to those bucket measuring or optimal grain storage problems from Egypt and Greece. Once you have too much text for a line, we automatically go on to the next line, making decisions about where the words should break. I needed the same approach for my string of values.

The data all lined itself up to be processed like innocent lambs through a sheep wash. It all trotted through and is back sitting pretty in my spreadsheet.

Very hairy moment successfully navigated. Will I finally get the wretched project up and running this weekend? We'll see.

19 Apr 2017

Filthy Lucre

Strolling around Clerkenwell last week, I tsskd at the lack of bike lanes. Somewhere I still have the letter from Aviva Buses sharing their heartache at the way their driver knocked me off my bike there back in 2002. They also shared the driver's private address which was such a thoughtful touch.

Just cross the road and you can reprint yourself at the 3D printing shop (featured), so perhaps I was being fussy making a complaint.

When we hunt for Filthy Lucre, we are conducting a Lucre Search, and my cousin of this name lived at the gorgeous Redman Buildings on Clerkenwell Road. Well he was called Lucas Urch but he's known, by me at least, as Filthy Lucre.

It's entirely appropriate, that over a Dirty Burger and pint this evening, that I should have resolved my Lucre Search.

Eagle-eyed readers will recall that Miss Sophia Urch is to be found lingering around the premises of Mr J Lucas in the 1841 census for Cossington, Somerset.

I have today determined that coincidences like this don't really happen. I'm double the age I was when Lucre first emerged, alongside Sophia, and there's not a cat's chance that one of them 'just happens' to be living with a Lucas, when this was their mother's maiden name.

So, welcome to our fold, Miss Sarah Urch, star-crossed lover of Galway Town's most vociferous Catholic policeman. And your grandson who edited the Telegraph. And your niece Wilhelmina Margarina and nephew what had the big house outside of Dublin.

And of course 'filthy Lucre' himself, Lucas Urch of Clerkenwell.

14 Apr 2017

Determination in Family History

In this piece, we get determined.
Sorting the Surname soup
Something with the way the Cornish bred meant surnames ebbed and flowed in popularity, and my eager young self stumbled right into the mire.  Rodda - rare as hen's teeth, but back then, the most common name in the parish.  Jennings - not that numerous, but I faced multiple couples of the same name.  Three William Roddas with wife Elizabeth and two Ann Jennings with husband John.  I saw red and decided to log every single Rodda in Crowan here, which will now need an update from the excellent GRO site. The Jennings did not need such a blunderbuss, but finesse.  The tree all hinged on two Elizabeths.  To determine who they married, I squinted deeply at the age given on their death records. Ah, you belong to him and you to him, I said, firmly.  I could now parcel out their siblings. I felt I was picking sides at a school football match.

Taking the Path of least resistance
I wasn't that determined to find Eliza Ainsworth's family after 1900; I just followed the paths available at the time.  BMD records were laborious whereas finding Eliza's obituary (via CheshireBMD online, the probate index and then the newspaper library at Colindale) was a lot more informative. I then had to look for her granddaughter Miss S. Fox, who I happily found, and who was extremely informative about all the Ainsworths.

Pushing for the clinch
I've made headway with a number of Welsh lines thanks to this approach.  Elimination is a highly unsatisfactory method of identification as you never really know who the other eligible candidates are.  Keep going! And hope to find a clinching fact, one which locks in your supposition and confounds your suspicion.

Exhaust the avenues available
James Carline's missing baptism has had me routinely cussing him out, as the predecessors were sure to be of interest if we only knew who they were. His father was slapdash brother James Carline, while his wife's father was organised brother Joseph Carline. There is absolutely a gap in both the naming pattern and the chronology of James Carline's infants.  Other evidence, such as trades, familial locations, bears this out. What's lovely is to arrive after a hot afternoon's research, digging away, at Mary Ann Bird's cottage in Darley and realise she was both the sister of James and his immediate neighbour in 1851, a fact which had been long hid.

Make a nice diagonal itch
The area has been scratched from every direction, except diagonally.  Maybe that will solve things? For some reason I wasn't about to go plunging into guesswork to establish whose parents Ann Morgan, born 1762, might have been. It's tantalising to wonder how far I might have got without the death duty hint, Ann's sister and her will, and even whether I'd have got to see the will anyway, regardless of my lucky hit.  The diagonal direction was to look for something at the National Archives to bolster up a very soggy will.  Quite what good I thought a glance at the death duty registers could possibly do, we'll never know.  By rolling with the fresh direction, this time the scratch was successful: the writer, Elizabeth Morton, had a childless aunt from 40 years earlier who emerged in the paperwork.  Where she got her money, name, genes and executive habits were all laid out in the doc.  That area no longer itches but there's plenty new places in the body of research which would benefit from a scratch in a different direction.

See: faith in family history, luck in family history, persuasion in family history, inspiration in family history  

12 Apr 2017

More Persuasion in Family History

My biggest act of persuasion of all demands you to believe in the power of Stone Age Fiction's anthropologist, Jean Auel and her creations.  They see deep into their past through an extended part of their brain.  How else can I explain how my grandfather reached far back inside his memory and found me a gem from the 1850s, right before he died? Amid those Christmas teatime tables, I too found the room leaving us, hurtling us back to the pub in Camborne.  My grandfather was still opposite me, but in front of us was the table he was describing.  Sadly no-one else was there.  That was the closest I could ever come to the 1851 census of Camborne, which had so absorbed me that lately.  It shows gt-gt-gt-grandpa Hunter with his new wife and widowed sister Eliza caught like butterflies on the page.  Eliza had pushed aside four oceans to be there.  I tried to share my close encounter with Brad, Eliza's 4xgreat-grandson storming in from Australia via business class.  He couldn't see it. But sometimes I revisit that stolen glimpse of the 1850s kitchen and hope that Eliza will reveal something more of her own stay there, than just her name and place.  I'd need a good deal more #persuasion, for sure.

This story describes: Eliza Hunter born 1827 at Redruth, Cornwall.  Dies 1913 Victoria, Australia.  A hundred years after, her great-great-nephew remembers something which skewers the whole family to the page around the time the 1851 census hit Tuckingmill.  He dies weeks later.

10 Apr 2017

Hands across the Bristol channel

Entropy is the enemy.  If you don't rise up, there'll be tumbleweed growing all over your tree.  Grandpa had given me a shopping list of relatives to find - well they were part of his past, but I intended to resuscitate them and find their living corporeal forms, if possible.

I knew that doing nothing was not going to get me to Elaine Harris (b. 1916), quite the opposite. Hers and Grandpa's lives had moved in opposite directions aside of the Bristol Channel since the 1940s, so if I wanted to find her we'd need to retrace our steps to that time.  Grandpa went on to tell me a little more: Elaine's aunt had married a W. J. Hockey, who had earlier boarded with our family, and one of their girls was Gertie. I quickly found W. J. H.'s death in 1962 with his daughter named as executrix, and because 1962 is the equivalent of 1985 now, it wasn't hard to leap those few years forward and arrive at a current phone book entry for Gertie, still in Barry, Wales.  She was great on the phone and soon sorted me with her cousin Elaine's address in Morriston, from which so many wonderful fruit grew.

Imagine a world where the internet has gone down, permanently.  That was how I had to carry out my research as a boy in the 1990s.  Years later, doing my first acrobatics class in the old Shoreditch electricity station, with its fifty-foot high brick walls and gasp of space, I could hear the trapeze instructions 'backwards to go forwards, forwards to go backwards'.  I'd gone way back to the closeness of the 1940s, only two generations I suppose, no time but a long time, to emerge forwards again by the sunny streets of my 4th cousins' homes, in Wales, by letter.  So thanks Gertie and others for the hands across the Bristol channel all those years ago.

Postscript: Little did I know, I wasn't the first in the family to arrive in Barry looking for family.  My great-grandmother lived there in the 1960s and who should arrive windswept and sunbeat by ferry across the channel but her beautiful cousin Bea, and young granddaughter - who told me this anecdote only last month.

Kidderminster calling: stamp of approval

I'm in the middle of an emotional trip. Tumbling back, arms asplay to 1995, pre 9/11, pre-Blair, pre-Diana, I'd not sent a single email. Awkwardly arriving here with swollen rucksack and moaning joints, it's peculiar I raced through here at age 18 with barely a glance.  I'd been driving for a year and sure got some use out of the car. My mood, the crispy spring mornings, bouncy downs and the tunes of those eternal teenagers, Brown, Prince and Jackson (J), were sending me to an unforgettable experience, lambing in the Herefordshire hills, which then mutated into a slide through the Brecon Beacons finally in the footsteps of those letters to the front rooms of my new relatives in south Wales.  I had ignored Kidderminster at my peril. Today, 22 years later, I'm back.  I've spun Church Street around all 3 axes to wring every drip of history from it and accidentally seeing Rowland Hill's statue says it all, for he invented the postage stamp.  I never do there-and-back road trips, but without Rowland, my journey would have seen me retrace my steps at Kington, not qualified to pass the Welsh border posts.  The reason I'm back today is another letter, just one this time, posted with care in February 2016. Bearing in mind Kidderminster is 4 counties away from Swansea, I was a little shocked to run one of her daughters to ground in this town in the 1939 register. Success at last. I immediately got in touch, and contact was quickly established. Again from Kidderminster, came the call I thought might come, with a challenge I relished to take on. I'm back now in 2017 to reminisce on our successful challenge resolved and to go over the many exciting things which happened as a result. Thanks anew to Rowland Hill, his stamp and his home town.  You get my stamp of approval.

Faith in Family History

No faith.  It's sad when people write to say they've no idea who their grandparents were, particularly if I felt they should.  But I've got faith we'll find out more.

'I never knew anything about my mother Jean's family (1933-2000).  She died a number of years ago, and there aren't any photographs.'


If you're born at the tail end of a decade, like me, it's not that hard to look back.  We've been talking about the family pub in Cornwall forever and that was actually the 1850s.  Here we look at different times we've employed faith in family history.

Postal faith.  I made sure to tap the friendly red postbox on the head as I rounded the bend this morning.  When I finally put a letter in this box to find Eva Walker, I knew I'd get a phone call from her family in a day or two.  I did, and I'll see them again tomorrow as a direct consequence of this.

Finding Faith.  I waited 8 years from spying Louisa Smith's marriage in Castle Cary, Somerset, to finding her daughter, born 12000 miles away: her name, Faith.  So they did have children! And I went on to have elevenses with Faith's niece, in London, some years after that.

Exquisite faith.  Very rarely in my own family history is the hunt ever seriously 'on'.  From the moment I learnt about this baby girl born 1921 (no name given), I knew I was going to find her.

Undeniable faith. You have a woman born 1751, with 8 children or so, and one of them had a youngest child who continues her line until 1992.  It's implausible to deny that the original female will have family, somewhere.  Again, it's an eight-year wait, till I reach them in Knighton, East Wales.

Solid faith.  I have always adopted an indefatigable attitude regarding my Smiths.  Although there were 12 Ellen Smiths born in Norfolk 1853, I can spot mine a mile off.  Let's not even begin to think how many shared her brother's name, born two years earlier.  We needed another tactic. I tailed his movements in Norfolk closely, finding a marriage in Garboldisham, which fitted securely.  And my solid faith he would rejoin us brooked no doubts.  I would select and eliminate William Smiths in the USA, knowing he had a wife Anna.  Blind faith or cupidity took me straight to his door, always-open, in Jamestown, Western N.Y.  I was the only family member to visit him in 130 years.  No longer just a name: I had stayed solid, to find the man.

Hungry faith.  My appetite was unassuaged.  Three Dibben girls born 1790-1796 needed finding.  I focussed my attention on Rebecca. Whatever persuaded me to search for her marrying at age 40, I cannot now recall.  Ridiculous to imagine that having failed to find a first marriage, I'd lumber straight into a second.

In fact, this lucky find was Rebecca's fourth marriage!  The bridal marriages of all three Dibben girls are entirely missing and you can really only locate them in the census.   Once one had shown amid the undergrowth, my hunger spread to find the others.  So I ravenously entered all the Gunville, Dorset folk with 1790s births into Ancestry's census index and so chomped my way through to all the sisters and their seven marriages.

Family faith.  From the moment Mary Jenkins arrived in Tonypandy in 1881, she was somebody's sister, daughter and niece.  But who's to say she was our Mary? Ah, but we're reckoning without the family, who knew about the Williams and Price marriages in subsequent generations.  While Ennis and I sat waiting for Mary's birth record to finally arrive, we both already knew the outcome: Mary was ours, 100%.

Fearless faith.  With every year which passes, somebody dies.  Nowhere was that more true than with my father's Irish cousins.  We stutter from the pre-arithmetic progression of his 'one' first cousin, straight to 18 Irish second cousins, and that's just on his father's side.  Of the 18, eight were in America and at least half unaccounted for.  We had a bit of time as you can't hide three red-head Irish cop brothers well, and a great-uncle had made 92, so perhaps others might too?  I never thought for a second that I mightn't find them.  Reading cousin Babs's will and the names of her 8 children, who'd all left Ireland, I've harassed, stalked, jogged round peninsulas, got on planes and swam upstream to find them, and I'd say 17 out of the 18 have responded well.  I need to decide if the 18th has changed gender before writing my final letter.  I'm gonna reach them. I have faith.

See: luck in family history, persuasion in family history, determination in family history, inspiration in family history  

26 Mar 2017

Luck in Family History


I'll always remember the G. Ewart Evans quote to "let the horse have its head" when conducting oral history interviews. With family history who knows where the enquiry will end up. The researcher has his or her ideas, but they are not in overall control.  I have no problem with this. I'm hoping for an interesting journey, after all.

In the opener of an Albert Campion mystery the author drops many handwritten addresses around a lunchtime park. Albert just has to pick up one for the game to start, as it inevitably does.  It makes me wonder how many clues I spot versus how many I miss.  I consider myself fairly observant, who's kidding who here?

In this article, we'll see luck dished out by the census, the cousins,  and other miscellaneous sources.

The 1841 census has served up a few treats in its time. An entire world of Protestant Dubliners, Irish country houses, oyster farmers, Surrey drawing rooms and cross-partisan love springs from little Miss Sophia Urch sitting pretty at her grandfather's farmhouse in Cossington, Somerset, 1841 age 4.  Had I ignored her, not only would she have been angry and not sat on her tuffet, but she wouldn't have offered me the delicious Urches and whey above outlined.

Ten years later, the 1841 census struck again. This time she flagged up that my missing aunt, Betty, was very definitely Mrs Whitehead, an ostler's wife in Kendal, with 179 descendants to boot. All thanks to young niece Betty Barton, subject of the two-coffee problem, who happens to be visiting on census night.

Digging around another 1841 entry revealed who moved in months later, Miss Rebecca Cox. She simply had to be child of Miss R. Dibben whose first marriage to Mr Cox was missing. Proof comes in her fourth marriage when the clerk lists the bride's father.

I was very lucky when uncle William Smith elects to marry, in the anticipated registration district of Guiltcross, just months before he emigrates for good. He was guilty, but I wasn't cross.

I was similarly blessed with fortune when cousin G., just before his death, summons me to visit. We see the farm, the game birds, have a chat about silage, and then: "Would you like to take all my family photos off my hands, David? The children just aren't interested and won't keep them. I'd like you to have them." I think you can predict my answer to that question!

Relatives and goodly folk so often came to my rescue when I had the genealogical equivalent of a burst tyre. Malcolm patched up my Boyce tree and sent me on to the specialist, Celia. Mary pushed me back on the road and on to The Pines, Holcombe where I could receive more treatment (facts!). Sue F. flashed through her rolodex to Sue J. a third cousin who gave my Harris module a completely new engine with several extra gears (generations!). The postman deserves credit too for delivering letters to people who shouldn't have been so easy to find. Epic saleswoman Elizabeth who filled the dense brieze block she published (annually!) with so many names and addresses, it felt every page housed a relative. Occasionally I got through by accident to bleached-out Gold coasters who squinted at my aerogrammes and waved them on, but that was ok.

Other things I'm grateful for:
* that the journalist at the Derbyshire Telegraph printed a mangled version of Ranongga, the island in the Solomons where emigré Harold Beck had his cupra plantation (1920s)
* that a clued-up Robinson researcher from Sheffield came forward to firmly refute our 1808 Bagshaw - Robinson marriage, sending us forward into a Bagshaw - Gee marriage and to the peculiar territory there
* that the sisterly feud between Catherine and Florence Jones somehow held off exploding before 1939, meaning we could finally identify Catherine in the page of the 1939 register...

And enjoy the fruits of her labours, including great great grandson Joe Gill who I'm reliably informed is on the box as Emmerdale's Finn Barton.

Luck, you've been fairly even-handed, but right now it feels you're playing along nicely in the merry game of family history.

See: faith in family history, persuasion in family history, determination in family history, inspiration in family history