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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 

25 Mar 2017

Persuasion in Family History

Probably my shining achievement in family history is when my Dad told me exactly how auntie E. answered the door in Salford in the 1950s.

Put into perspective, there were a tonne of family secrets which slipped out eventually, but this one was actually volunteered!

I also, at the age of 10, gave the floor to my elderly grandfather, hovering uncertainly on his stick in the centre of the room. He was given the opportunity to divulge his grandmother's name, and exactly how and why his uncle Philip ranaway to sea in the 1890s. Unfortunately, this gentleman failed to oblige and he never visited us ever again.

A few years ago I was pulled from my job as PA and put on stakeholder management duties. The reason? I was just too persuasive. The project manager's diary was being filled from early in the morning to late in the afternoon - only right and proper as they were on £xxx per day of taxpayers' money. To make matters worse, those at the venue assumed they would be meeting me, not my erstwhile boss. "I pulled people in", I learnt.

Not my grandfather, apparently.

We hear so much about how suspicious the British people are, with many poised at the net curtains, enjoying nimbyism, telling people not to park cycle or play ball and withholding internships to everyone except their tennis partner's son.

Oh no, friends, the British people are not suspicious, they are inordinately trusting. How else did they sleepwalk their way into zero-hours contracts, politician's charms and (for some) the cutesy notion that the govinmant has money to pay for everyone to be on benefits? Aaaah!

In truth we tend to trust people whose faces or identities we understand.

In the last ten years I have not snuck a single letter past an American, but the Brits love a letter. It's my most powerful tool, a warm sheet of introduction that just slips its way into a centrally heated home, and is safe enough to place with the breakfast papers while being slowly and pleasantly digested.

I was an awful letter writer, boring people with facts and questions. Exactly what they wanted to hear! A chance to talk. In 2005 or so everyone was still in love with their BlackBerry, and hated getting 'snailmail'. But with online shopping back, paper bills, statements and junk mail all easing off (reduced carbon initiatives and consumer watchdogs helping here) - your letter is now really welcome again just as in the days of Postman Pat.

"Knock. Ring. Letters through your door!"

I've sent out hundreds of these warm pieces of propaganda and they're a great way to learn more about your own puzzling family, if you're brave enough.

For the less pushy, you can still use persuasion to meet your archival needs. (For a bonus point, where is archiving on Maslow's hierarchy of needs? It's there, believe me.)

Setting up a web presence or tree on Ancestry, and subtly seizing the vacant position of family expert helps you claim more territory. When aunt Grenda dies, her children will ensure those nasty old photos (covered in dust) come naturally to you, rather than setting off everyone's asthma and clogging up the family's Feng shui.

I get a lot of eyeballs on my site and it's informative to get a handle on their research interests. Last month I pounced on Timmy in Canada who had submitted a query about my grandpa's third cousin Denis.  And soon I was enjoying a nice chat online with Denis's son across the water. (Yes the Canadians are much more open to persuasion.)

But not exclusively so. This week I was so delighted to finally make contact with the granddaughters of Auntie Bea, both in southern USA. It's the right time for everybody. I knew I had to share the stunning Twenties photograph of their mothers (sisters) bathing in the sea, and of course they responded well. So privileged to be in touch. I first saw that photo 20 years ago and knew I would one day share it.

I pulled a really fast move on my Irish cop cousins. I needed to meet them and laid a trail of cookies to get their undivided attention. Sure enough, screeching around the corner of my home-from-home, Boston youth hostel, was cousin Gerry in his police wagon. Out I stepped ready to glad-hand him as we greeted reach other warmly.

Behind the smiles and superb choreography lay a string of careful plans. The meat of the encounter, the bait, was the letter Gerry's grandfather wrote from wartime Ireland, six to ten pages, which they got to keep. I bet that was all he ever wrote in his life, at least in English. Assisting with the meet-up was tough substitute teacher Kimberly, Gerry's niece. She got him to check his phone, accept the message request, and bring a smile.

With more front than Selfridges, I treated myself to an afternoon at the Boston Athletics Club for a complimentary tour, stating that I was in fact, a resident, if just for one day. #Persuasion

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

19 Mar 2017

Travails of the great great greats

As a child you accept even the extraordinary as the ordinary. Stumbling on a letter from great great great Henry Lowry written in Jamaica, 1853, just felt like any other wet Sunday afternoon at the grandparents.

I was angry with H.L. as he didn't say more about all his relatives like the gospel according to Matthew. I glowered at his face as I crossed the landing to haul out my other childhood favourite, the black Imperial typewriter much favoured by lady Bond villains. Ripping the skin around your nails if you mistyped, it sure improved your typing speed. (I now have 112wpm and tough cuticles.)

Owing to the very unNewtonian way genealogy discoveries operate, where a new memory does not equally and oppositely destroy an existing memory, the learnings as an adult have only grown.

It is the generation of great great great grandparents where human memory begins to run out of road. Father Time's dark shadow wipes out a generation's loves, feelings, laughs and absurdity, leaving just one or two whose biographical detail survives intact.

In about 1960 it was the turn of my great great greats. Their grandchildren were dying and people who featured big were going to be obliterated by a long permanent shadow.

But not all... Here are a few who survived the chop, with my thoughts as to why:

1) Miriam Creed, born 1814. Last useful grandchild died 1982. Crossed the Atlantic as a young girl (source parish registers), experienced wild ocean weather (my conjecture), had a place reserved for her under the stairs at her youngest son's house in Dorset. Source here was the triple whammy of my nosiness, an older cousin's careful notes and Miriam's attentive young grandchild living to extreme old age (where she was interviewed by cousin Jimmy).

2) John and Jane Gibson, also born 1814. Last grandchild dies 1964. Looking at Jane, her life fell into two epochs, squeezed into a terrace house near the docks of South Shields with John, and after his early death, she becomes a farmer's wife with her childhood sweetheart in the heart of Northumberland at Allendale Old Town. For John we rely on a newspaper clipping from the 1840s, while for Jane we have two sources. Her great-granddaughter Cathie, who died in 1974 and remembered visiting 'Granny from Old Town', telling her daughters about it, who told their son, who told me. Secondly, the farmers at the property who knew that Jane's second husband was in actuality her true childhood sweetheart. Thirdly, this great photo: don't you think it has to be them? (copy to be inserted)

3) Blanch and Elizabeth Morton, the twins born 1811. By comparing their narratives, ages at death and in the census, their parents' marriage date, the pre-existence of twins, the family bible entry and by detailing their infant children, I conclude that my great great great Blanch and her sister are themselves twins. There have been no twins since! See the blog Twin of my Valley for more.

4) The Cornish lot. My grandfather's grandparents were Cornish cousins who married in Wales, 1879. There are plenty of uncles and aunts and these were the first generation to leave Cornwall during the tin and copper slump of the 1840s. Matthew Bowden was born 1814 and his exploits in Mexico are well documented by his descendant Gwen Broad. Next brother Edward worked on the Wheel at Laxey, according to his descendant Lylie. Jabez Hunter went out to Bogota, Colombia, according to family stories while his brother John is confirmed as dying there from the probate indexes. Eliza Hunter went out to Australia TWICE, and John Shugg, the deaf carpenter, also journeyed that way.

5) Benjamin Padfield, born 1808, was said to have been much kinder towards his grandchildren than his goodly wife Susannah. She disapproved of their receiving apples from the orchard. Not surprising it is Benjamin whose photo we have, with a grandchild on his knee, and no photo at all for matriarch Susannah despite her 50 grandchildren! That's 50 youngsters who didn't get an apple, the last of whom died 1979. Source: My madcap visit to Miss Nora James in Holcombe, 1994, and the unexpected gift in 2001, shortly before the owner's death, of all the Padfield family photographs.

6) Those Francis siblings from Marloes, south west Wales. I've not been here yet, and we know frustratingly little about their forebears, but this tribe of fisherman's children had more than the usual smarts. Somewhere I saw that their father was no ordinary labourer, but I'll need to examine this evidence again. He made the move to Merthyr Tydfil as the children hit their teens and twenties, and most worked with metal in the town. The family bible records that David and Martha left for New York. It also shows that John went up to county Durham, where his skills in iron would be valued. It makes no mention of sister Mary marrying a soldier and leaving for Australia, nor of William (born 1810) my ancestor joining his brother up in Durham county. Their were two more sisters who stayed in Merthyr. Source: family bible, rare write-up of Martha's brood in Brooklyn, New York (complete with photo).

7) Francis Harris, born 1818 in Cornwall. I had no idea where he went til a lucky hunt took me to Wisconsin, home of many a Cornish miner, where a Francis Harris of the right age 'born England' was living. That's not all, the newspapers of the 1950s show his grandson talking of that time and how Francis pushed his chances by heading overland through Nicaragua to and from the gold fields of California. He made it back as far as the big lake there drowning among his friends. One friend made sure his gold made its way back to the widow, Philippi, in Wisconsin. His niece, my grandfather's grandmother, would be sleeping safely in her bed in Wales when the news of wild uncle Francis's death reached home.





14 Mar 2017

Welcome to the world, baby Boyce!

Back in ???? 1995, I had never heard of Boyce.  (I would like to give you the exact date, but owing to lack of records on my part, see previous blog, I can't.)

I was getting somewhere with my two main names in Somerset, Creed and Haine, and was investigating a lead from Miss Pat Cotton at the old Somerset record office of Obridge, Taunton.  Pat had mentioned there were two James Scotts who died within days of each other at West Pennard in 1809 at around the same age.

I would rather catch a python bare-handed than drive up the M5 from Exeter, but curiosity got the better of me.  I wanted to know if either James Scott left a will, and if one of them might be the father of my Betty Scott (later Haine) or my Martha Scott (later Creed), two forebears of mine with unknown antecedents.  Somerset record office here we come.

The beige Fiesta pulled into the parking lot and out I stepped - at least I imagine I did.  Without records confirming this, it's hard to be sure.  You know it has to be either late December 1994, or April (Easter) 1995.  December was pretty action-packed as I'll get round to telling another time.  Although I was 17 and full of bounce, I imagine I stayed close to home that Christmas, so I'm going with April.

And here's what I found:
 James Scott left a will alright and there's Betty Haine listed as a daughter, yippee yippee yippee.  But who were those other women? (oh gosh those women's descendants could fill a book)  Martha Crud.  Brain not computing.  Forty seconds later, duh!!! That's my forebear Martha, the one who became Creed, what kind of historian was I?  At least I dang hope she is as I've made that assumption for the last 22 years and it's the only proof.  Maybe I should have been following the Crud line all this time....

OK, so that just really left Sarah Boyce as the only true fresh meat, already unpicked-over by that vulture of a historian, erm, me!   What's more, she had pushed herself to the front of the queue ahead of her erstwhile sisters by Naming the Baby after the Grandfather.  Works a charm and most tired old scrotes with constant gout and ulcers can turn that frown upside-down with this tactic.

It worked - and kerching kerching, pennies came raining in on the Boyces, or were they Royces, as we had a baby's name to play with, James Scott Boyce.
Whenever I next got back to the probate registry above the Next store in Exeter's attractive high street, I would be able to find this:
I was pretty excited: these were my first London relatives.  It was still 1995.  When the chance came for us agrics to go to London on a coach in June (??), we jumped at it.  Me particularly, as I did my homework and found I would have an hour to leave the Haymarket area and get to Chancery Lane, leg it to Guildhall library find a trade directory and leg it back.  Unbelievably I came away with an address for J. S. B., which was 20 Offord Road, Islington, with occupation given as meat salesman.  (Basing his whole adult life I would find, around Smithfield Meat Market.)

Time passes: I move to Berkshire.  Pretty sure, the autumn of 1995 got me to the Public Records Office in Chancery Lane.  Armed with the two addresses for J. S. B., I consult the heavy plastic books of addresses and up comes the following entry for Boyce in Offord Road.  Hurrah!  The feeling of exhilaration at having beaten the demons of time, space, forgetfulness, paper deterioration, entropy, malign forces, gravity.... would be even better if I had my original pencil notes.  Still, here's the record which saw me go up a level in Family Historian the Ultimate Challenge.

A longhand scrawl which hides a lot of facts.  You can see chancer James Westcott Broad the plasterer doing well and up from Torquay from a fishing family, settled in a very nice street with his wife's family.  It was obvious to me even then that 'visitor' meant family.  Richard J, by the way, ends up as a fireman in Shanghai, being someone's favourite great-uncle that they never knew.  Louisa E marries in Fleet in Hampshire in her thirties to a red-headed six-foot architect from Dorset, one of the Men of Marnhull, and I'll be meeting their granddaughter later on, in 1998.  It was lovely picking my way through Victorian London and its records to step out into a brand new play area.

The Broad family went on and on.  One of the girls married a gas lamp lighter.  The ones I can remember were Nellie, Sarah, Louisa, Alice, sisters of the Chinese fireman.  And here is a lovely entry to round it all off.  It's the wedding day for Nellie's daughter Ethel, off to Australia with her soldier husband and family putting brave face on it.  The church must be St Silas, Pentonville.

The Jenkins, Connor and Manley folk belong to the other sisters.  It's now 1919.

We've seen a hundred years roll around from that chance document of 1809 to pre-modern Britain.  The Boyces (not Royces) definitely made it through and out the other side.  Welcome to the world, baby Boyce!

Why why why, Delilah!

All I wanted to do was tell a simple coherent story of how I slipped away from my college trip to London age 18 and saw a copy of an 1868 directory for London in the Guildhall Library and made it back in time to buy a tawdry fake-chamois leather jacket from somewhere in Covent Garden, before getting the coach with the boys from Devon back home.

But nothing is dated!  I am desperately searching my hard-drive for material from 1995.  There is absolutely nothing.  I found this:
which I can tell by the handwriting has got to be 1995.  I was still doing greek E's in 1995.  It is notes taken from the old record office at Obridge, Taunton, written up the same evening or the next day.  I remembered that it had to be before the basement of the old PRO in Chancery Lane closed which was 1996.  It had to be after I passed my test, and I know that in December 1994, the furthest I had driven was Clayhidon and that was scary enough.  And I moved to Mortimer, Berkshire in late August 1995, so it must have been between the two.  I have found this snippet which tells me the letters I received in late 1995, so I can sort of piece more together.

It was definitely August 1996 that I first heard from the Boyce (not Royce) descendant Celia, as I have two pieces of documentary evidence for that - later than I thought.  She sadly died about a year ago after a battle with COPD.

Brainwave - bank statements!  But I had an infuriating habit of getting out £100 cash out at a time, and never using cashpoints, mostly because there weren't any.  So this bank statement doesn't help matters.  There's also a massive gap for the whole of March when I was in the Herefordshire hills in a caravan, lambing.


I still cannot remember what us Devon agricultural students were doing in London in (?) June of 1995.  Yes, I know that I was itching to escape to the Guildhall Library for half an hour, with its very profitable results (next blog post), but we weren't looking at the Smithfield meat markets despite the near perfect syllogies if we were.  As the Boyces I was hunting lived and breathed at Smithfield as meat salesmen and the records at Guildhall are just a sniff away.  Can't remember a thing about it, can't search my hard-drive for it.  It's 1995 for goodness' sake; and I can't remember when I visited the record office at Taunton (July 1995 would make sense).

Why didn't I put the wretched date on the documents that I was filling up with long-ago dates?  Why why why, delilah!