Monthly Archives: April 2015

Family History Fair Tips for Beginners

I attended “Who Do You Think You Are? Live 2015” staged this year at the NEC in Birmingham. It was my first ever visit to this annual event, although I have been to a number of local family history fairs in the past. Although it probably does not suit all, for me the new location was far more easily accessible than London, the previous venue. I had a fantastic time. It was a lovely, relaxed atmosphere. I met lots of fabulous people. And I came away with a wealth of new information and tips which hopefully will lead to the demolition of some of those family tree “brick walls”.  I also seem to have committed to researching my husband’s tree too as a result of my visit, from a geographical area outside my sphere of knowledge. So I made new contacts to facilitate that.

With lots of family history fairs and events coming up in the next few weeks such as the “Family History Fair and Lecture Day” at Pudsey on 25 April 2015 and the “Yorkshire Family History Fair” in York on 27 June 2015, I thought I would share my 10 tips for those new to going to such events. These are aimed at beginners, they are not exhaustive and some may be more applicable than others, depending on the type of event.

Tip 1: Before the event familiarise yourself with the exhibitors. For big events such as “Who Do You Think You Are? Live” and the “Yorkshire Family History Fair” the cast list can be overwhelming. I make a list of those stands and tables I definitely want to visit as, on the day, it can be all too easy to get caught up in the atmosphere and miss out someone, only realise too late when you are on your way home. I also take a map with those tables highlighted. Nevertheless the joy of these events is the opportunity to browse and see what is available. You never know what you might stumble across which may prove relevant/interesting for your research. For me this time the unexpected interest was DNA, which seems to be the latest big thing in genealogy.

Who Do You Think You Are? Live 2015

Who Do You Think You Are? Live 2015

Tip 2: Make a note of the workshops you are interested in and, if possible, pre-book them. This was my failing at “Who Do You Think You Are? Live”.  When I finally got round to checking I discovered the workshops I really wanted to attend were all booked up at least the week before the event. So if you are really keen on a particular talk book it as early as possible. All was not lost for me as there was the opportunity to hover on the periphery of the unenclosed workshops. But it was not quite the same as having a seat in the designated area.

Irish Catholic Records Workshop

Irish Catholic Records Workshop

Tip 3: Take plenty of pens and a notebook. Invaluable for making notes of key workshop points as well as any general tips or contact details you pick up whilst there.

Tip 4: Take your ancestor details with you. It is all too easy on the day to forget exact dates and locations for them. I have my full tree available on a Phone App. But I make sure I have a hard paper copy too, in case reception is dodgy or my battery dies and there are no charging facilities. A number of Family History Societies have A4 printed family tree “Ancestral File” books available to purchase where you can record your research. These are perfect not only for Family History Fairs but also for record office visits.

Tip 5: Keep a list of books you own and take it with you. I have a bookcase full of genealogy reference and general interest books, so it is all too easy to forget what exactly I have on those creaking shelves.  To counteract this I also have a small pocket book listing in alphabetical author order all my books. That way when I go to one of these events and see a book I think looks interesting I can check to make sure it is not one I already own. It does take organisation and discipline in remembering to add each new purchase to the list but it can end up saving a lot of money in the long run on duplicates! This extends to Family History Society publications such as parish register indexes, MIs and even the Alan Godfrey Map Series. Make sure you know what you already own to avoid spur of the moment duplicate buys.

Tip 6: If you have hit any ancestral “brick walls” take what information you have with you. There are lots of experts on hand to help. Some of these may be drop-in sessions; others you may have to pre-book a slot. But it is well worth getting advice which may help you progress your research. I tend to take photocopies of certificates etc just in case I end up losing them. But for photographs it is always best to take the original.

Tip 7: Talk to people. It is amazing how friendly and knowledgeable everyone is and how much you can learn. It is the joy of this type of event.

Tip 8: Have a set budget. There are so many tempting things on offer at these events it can be all too easy to get carried away. Products range from books to CDs, joining societies, magazine subscriptions, software, genealogy supplies, courses and even DNA tests. I have a set budget before I go, a mixture of cash and card. I try to stick to it…..although it can be difficult!

Tip 9:  Pace yourself. It is all too tempting to rush round all day trying to cram in as much as possible, resulting in information overload, headache and exhaustion. Take time out for a coffee and a bite to eat, a chance to chat to people, re-group, evaluate what you have learned and still have left to do and importantly re-charge those batteries (and I’m not talking my phone here). The day will be an all the better experience for it.

Find My Past 1939 Team Rooms

Find My Past 1939 Team Rooms

Tip 10: Finally take a lightweight bag and wear a pair of comfortable shoes – you will certainly cover some ground during the course of the day, especially at the bigger events!  And you will come away with far more leaflets, books etc than you started the day with.

I hope this is helpful to those new to Family History Fairs. Any other tips please feel free to share.

A useful events list can be found at


A Census “In-Betweener” – The Story of Thomas Gavan

This tale focuses on a very brief six month period following the birth of a teenager’s child which, but for the opportunity to see the original parish registers, may have been overlooked. When I did my research into this family the registers of St Mary of the Angels RC church, Batley were held by the parish. No copy existed in any archives although I understand that they may now be stored in those of the Leeds Diocese.

Bridget Gavan was the daughter of William and Bridget Gavan (nee Knavesey[1]).  The Gavan’s were originally from County Mayo, Ireland but arrived in England at around the time of the Great Famine. They are recorded at separate addresses in Blackwell Street, Kidderminster in the 1851 census and married in the town’s Roman Catholic Chapel on 25 January 1852.

The couple moved to Batley, West Yorkshire in around the spring of 1860.  Although I cannot be sure the precise impetus behind this move, it was probably a combination of work availability and County Mayo friendship networks. By early 1855 Kidderminster was suffering a decline in employment. Billing’s 1855 Worcestershire Directory and Gazetteer described trade in the town as in a depressed state with shop closures.

In contrast Batley was booming. Its shoddy industry had stimulated the town’s rapid growth. Mill jobs were available for men and women; and the development of the town with its associated infrastructure, housing and public building works generated employment for many including stone mason’s labourers, the craft William was engaged in. There was also a significant and growing Irish population, predominantly from the County Mayo area, the region from which the Gavan’s hailed. This included the Fitzpatrick’s, a family it appears William lodged with back in Kidderminster in 1851.

Bridget was born in Batley in 1869, the eighth of the Gavan’s nine children. As yet I have not traced her birth certificate. However in the early days of General Registration, a proportion of births simply slipped the net. In the period 1837-1875 in some areas of England it is estimated that up to 15 per cent of births were unregistered[2]. It appears that Bridget’s may possibly be one of these. However the parish register helpfully records she was baptised at St Mary’s on 23 May 1869 and the entry also indicates a date of birth of 2 May 1869. So the parish register proved invaluable even during the period of civil registration. Especially so given that in later years Bridget displayed some judicious flexibility with her age when she married a younger man.

However it is in 1889 that the parish register proves worth the genealogical equivalent of its weight in gold.  Without it I possibly may not have traced the birth of 19 year old unmarried Bridget’s first child.  Her marital status combined with the spelling of the infant’s surname as “Gaven” in the GRO indexes and the fact that the child died before the 1891 census all would have conspired to present a type of brick wall, albeit one of which I was unaware existed.

Amidst the 138 baptisms that took place in the parish in 1889 there is an entry for the baptism of a Thomas Gavan, son of Bridget, on 21 April 1889. From this I was able to locate the birth certificate which showed the child was born on 6 April 1889 at New Street, Batley. This may have been at her sister Mary’s house as she lived in this area at roughly this time.   Bridget’s mother died in 1884. Thereafter, despite her father still being alive, Bridget apparently lodged with various family members.

There is no indication as to who Thomas’ father was in either the baptismal entry or on the birth certificate.

Sadly Thomas did not survive long. He died on 22 October 1889 age six months. The death certificate records that his passing was the subject of an inquest. This took place the day following his demise at “The Bath Hotel” in Batley.

Accounts of this inquest exist in the town’s two local newspapers at the time, “The Batley News and Yorkshire Woollen District Advertiser” and “The Batley Reporter and Guardian”.  Additionally West Yorkshire Archives hold HM Coroner, Wakefield records for the period. These records have been digitised on and they contain the Coroner, Thomas Taylor’s, notes on Thomas Gavan’s inquest. These notes include witness statements from Bridget, her sister Margaret Hannan, a neighbour Esther Elwood and Emma Hallas who laid out Thomas’ body. Yet again the spelling of the family name changes depending on which source is used – Gaven in the inquest notes, Gavan in the “Batley News” and Gowan in the “Batley Reporter”. Nevertheless from these records the events leading up to his death can be reconstructed.

Bridget was employed as a feeder of a carding machine at a woollen mill, an occupation also termed as a scribbler feeder. Described as the largest machine in the woollen industry, the carding engine comprised a series of large and small cylinders. These were covered in closely set wire spikes. The blended wool passed through the machine, enabling the revolving cylinders to reduce the entangled mass of fibres into a filmy web. Each set of carding engines consisted of up to four machines, the first of which was called the scribbler and it was in this process which Bridget earned her living.  Her job would be to spread a certain weight of wool onto each marked section of a continuous apron.  Once the wool had passed through the cylinders of the scribbler it would be disentangled. It was then drawn off in continuous threads or “slivers.”

Bridget began this work when Thomas was two weeks old, leaving him in the care of her married sister. Though she had three surviving older sisters the implication is this was Margaret Hannan, with whom Bridget moved in about two months before Thomas’ death.  Margaret and her coal mining husband, John, lived at 2 Bank Foot, Batley. This was the house in which Thomas died.

Bank Foot, Batley

Bank Foot, Batley

So began Bridget’s routine for the next six months: going to work in the mill early in the morning and returning home at mealtimes to feed her baby. The inquest revealed that she used a combination of breast milk, boiled milk and bread.

When Thomas was about four months old she also started giving him something she referred to in the inquest as “Infants Preservative”.  This was very probably “Atkinson and Barker’s Royal Infants’ Preservative”, a popular Victorian product for babies. Adverts played on the royal connection stating it was supplied to Her Majesty Queen Victoria. Promoted to be herbal, natural, narcotic-free, indeed the best and safest health tonic aimed at treating all manner of infant disorders ranging from teething and bowel problems to whooping cough and measles, what the adverts failed to mention was this medicine also in fact contained laudanum, an opiate.

Working mothers such as Bridget would believe they were doing the best for their children, giving them a good start to life warding off childhood illnesses and helping them flourish at a time of high infant mortality. At the same time the product may have had the seemingly added bonus of naturally calming the child whilst the mother worked long hours. And after all it was, according to the advertising, used by Royalty!

Interestingly it also claimed to give instant relief for convulsions which may also have been another factor in Bridget’s choice of product. For, on a Saturday afternoon about a month prior to his death, Thomas suffered a fit.  The Doctor was called and the child revived after being put into a bath of warm water. Despite suffering another fit about a week later he, in Bridget’s words, “continued lively”.

A few days before his death, Thomas was described as having a slight cough which affected his breathing. However by the Sunday and Monday he had seemingly recovered and there appeared to be no cause for concern.

On the morning of Tuesday 22 October Bridget arose and set off to work at 5.55am leaving Thomas in bed. However arriving at the mill “two or three minutes after the proper time” her employers sent her home. Back at the house she waited until 7am to wake Thomas and then brought him downstairs to feed him breast milk. There appeared to be no problem until 7.45am when she tried to take off his nightdress in order to wash him.  At this point he coughed and then suffered another convulsion.

Margaret now took charge, looking after Thomas whilst Bridget was sent to fetch a neighbour, Esther Elwood, and the doctor.  Within 10 minutes of Mrs Elwood’s arrival Thomas died very quietly in his cradle.  It was 8am. Bridget had not made it back in time. Although the Coroner’s notes make no reference to the arrival of the doctor the newspapers state that Dr Lauder turned up at about 8.30am but would not give a certificate, hence the inquest.

Thomas’ body was described as “very well nourished and free from any sign of disease and injury” by Emma Hallas, who undressed and washed him after his death.

The inquest returned a verdict of death from natural causes. Thomas’ death certificate records the cause of death as “probably pneumonia; convulsions 10 minutes”.

Bridget had taken insurance out with the Royal Liver Friendly Society for Thomas’ life within a short time of his birth. However even with this insurance, providing it was actually paid out, Bridget was still unable to afford a burial plot for her son. He was buried in a common grave in Batley Cemetery on 24 October. The burial register has yet another variation of the surname – this time Gavin.

By the time of the 1891 census Bridget was no longer with Margaret and John. Instead she was lodging with her sister Mary and family who now resided East Street in Batley. She was still employed as a scribbler feeder. She did not marry until 1897.

Without the parish register I may never have known about the inter-census birth and death of her first child, Thomas.

Bridget Gavan is my great grandmother.


[1] There are multiple variants of the surname Knavesey, but this is the one used on the marriage certificate

[2]Ancestral Trails” – Mark Herber

Death by Lightning

I always remember as a child my parents would insist on having both the front and back doors open during a thunderstorm just in case a lightning bolt came down the chimney. I am not sure how common the open-door policy was in other households, but I assume it was adopted so that the bolt could exit the house.

To be honest I have never been too keen on lightning myself. And I remember the inconvenience once when both my modem and computer were rendered beyond economic repair following a lightning strike. Perhaps my mistake was to keep the doors shut!

But this was a minor nuisance in comparison to the tale I discovered in my family tree.

My five times great-grandfather was Amos Hallas. Born in the West Riding village of Lepton, near Huddersfield, in around 1754 he was baptised at St John the Baptist, Kirkheaton later that year. He married Ann (Nanny) Armitage in the neighbouring parish of Kirkburton in August 1780 and the couple set up home at Highburton, a hamlet within the parish and township of Kirkburton. This is around five miles from Huddersfield.

The predominant industry of this region was woollen textile manufacture, and Amos was described a fancy weaver. The area around Kirkburton was known for its fancy woven waistcoat fabrics so it is likely that Amos was engaged in this skilled occupation.

These were difficult times for the textile workers as the period marked the early stages of the transition from domestic to factory-based operations, with 1776 marking the introduction of the first spinning jenny locally in the Holmfirth district. This was closely followed by the first scribbling engine being set up in around 1780 at Ing Nook Mill.[1] By the end of the eighteenth century with the abundance of coal in the West Riding and the introduction of steam power the stage was well and truly set for the transformation of the area’s textile industries.

At the same time this was the period of economic hardship with Britain at war with France almost continuously from 1793 until Napoleon’s defeat by the Duke of Wellington in the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

Alongside the threat of invasion, the French sealed off British exports to continental Europe, a campaign designed to cripple the economy. It nearly succeeded, British exports slumped with handloom weavers, such as Amos, the first to be affected. Unemployment and food prices soared.

This toxic twin cocktail of industrialisation and economic distress was the fuel for the rise of the Luddites. From 1811-1816 these well organised gangs, smashed the new machines and burned down mills in an attempt to protect jobs. In 1812, the same year as Prime Minister, Spencer Percival, was shot dead by a ruined businessman a Marsden mill owner William Horsfall, known locally for his anti-Luddite stance, was also murdered. This event took place only around 11 miles away from Kirkburton/Highburton.

Troops were stationed locally to deal with the marches, riots and machine-wrecking which had become a regular feature of British life. 12,000 were sent to Yorkshire in 1812 to stop this industrial sabotage. At its peak there were around 1,000 soldiers based in Huddersfield alone to deal with the threat.

Kirkburton too, unsurprisingly, had its Luddite contingent. At the end of September 1812 residents John Smith and David Moorhouse were committed to York Castle on charges of “burglary under the colour of Luddism” resulting from a robbery at gunpoint at the home of another Kirkburton resident, Mr Savage, on 13 June 1812[2].

So this tumultuous period is the backdrop to the life and times that Amos and Ann Hallas brought their family up in.

Between 1780-1802 the couple had 13 children. 12 of these baptisms are recorded in the Kirkburton All Hallows parish register. The youngest child, baptism unrecorded in the register, has been identified from her marriage certificate, on the occasion of her second nuptials.

My four times great grandfather, George Hallas, born in around 1794 was their 9th child. But it is their 12th child, Esther, who suffered an unusual fate.

According to the parish register Esther was born on 27 July 1800 and baptised in the local church on 5 October 1800. She died only days before her 17th birthday. It is her burial record on 13 July 1817 at the same church which contains the helpful and fascinating notation: “killed by lightning”.

More in hope than expectation, I followed up this discovery with a visit to Kirkburton All Hallows church. My family of coal miners and textile workers are not normally associated with headstones. At the time of my visit there was no churchyard guide so it was a case of wandering round on the off chance of spotting something. Imagine my surprise when I discovered a Hallas headstone – and what was more it proved to be a very unusual one.

The headstone owner was George Hallas, my four times great grandfather. Inscriptions to his parents Amos and Ann Hallas are on the front of the headstone; and on the reverse of the headstone, very weather-worn, and difficult to read is, as far as I can make out, the following inscription about his sister Esther:

lieth the Body of Esther
Daughter of Amos Hallas
of Highburton who was
Killed by A Thunder
Storm the 11th day of July
1817 aged 17 years.
Death little warning to me gave
And soon did take me to the grave
As I one day was set at meat
The lightening [sic] took me from my seat
To all who hear or may be told
both male and female young and old
May this my fate a warning be
Remember God, Remember me

So the epitaph makes cautionary, poetic reference to the manner of her death.

Since this initial visit the All Hallows Churchyard team have established a website with an inscription and location guide to the headstones[3] which is invaluable to those with Kirkburton ancestry.

Finally I looked to see if the events were covered in the newspapers at the time.  I did think this was a long shot given that they took place in 1817.  But I “struck” lucky with the “Leeds Mercury” of Saturday July 19 1817.  Obviously deaths by lightning strikes were as big news back then as they are today. The snippet is as follows:

“Yesterday se’nnight, a fatal accident took place at High Burton, near Huddersfield, during the thunder-storm on that day: The lightning struck the chimney of a house belonging to Mr Fitton, and having partially destroyed it, proceeded down the chimney, into the kitchen, and in its passage through which a servant girl was struck, and killed on the spot; the face of the clock was melted, and several panes in the window broken. Two men were also hurt by the lightning, but not dangerously”.

Esther was not named but I assume that she was the servant girl referred to. So a case of how an entry in a burial register, a headstone and a newspaper report came together to tell a story.

Esther’s father, Amos, died two years later in 1819 and her mother died in 1838, aged 82.

Reverse of Hallas headstone with Esther's inscription

Reverse of Hallas headstone with Esther’s inscription

Other Sources (not mentioned in main body):

[1] “The History and Topography of the Parish of Kirkburton and of the Graveship of Home, including Homfirth in the county of York” – Henry James Morehouse


[3] Kirkburton Churchyard  website: