Category Archives: Family History Tips

Book Review: Our Village Ancestors, A Genealogist’s Guide to Understanding England’s Rural Past – Helen Osborn

Helen Osborn’s Genealogy: Essential Research Methods is a key book for many family historians. Her latest book, Our Village Ancestors: A Genealogist’s Guide to Understanding England’s Rural Past, is certain to form another important element in the family history researcher’s toolkit.

Focussing on village life from the mid-sixteenth to the turn of the twentieth century, the book is aimed at those who want to fill in the details of the lives of their ancestors, and want to open up – and make best use of – the wealth of records out there to achieve this. Even those at an early stage of their family history journey will benefit from the information it contains.

Placing these records in their geographic and historic context is a theme which runs throughout the book, because as the book explains:

…in order to gather truly the evidence that we need to reconstruct families into genealogical trees, we should understand both the historical and local context as well as have a good understanding of the documents used.

Farming communities and countryside life is integral to the research of most family historians, with up until the nineteenth century the majority of people living a rural existence. As the book says:

Almost everybody with English roots will have an ancestor who lived in a village…

The book covers records applicable to a full range of village ancestors from the humble agricultural labourer to farmer ancestors, those in supporting village industries and crafts, right through to the more affluent landowners.

It contains eight chapters covering a multiplicity of these genealogical records, all of which combine to help build a picture of our village ancestors’ lives. The chapters are:

  • The Rural Past;
  • Parish and Family;
  • The Land and the Farmer;
  • The Church and the Tithe;
  • Supporting the Poor;
  • Work and School in the Countryside;
  • The Whole Community: Lists of Villagers and the Victorian Census; and
  • Leaving the Village.

There is also an appendix containing a handy list of dates of interest.

Each chapter introduces a series of key records, explaining the background to their creation, the information they contain, any particular issues or pitfalls associated with them, and how to interpret and locate them. This information is interspersed with examples of these records from across the country. Accompanying this information are fascinating facts, and tips, which aid family historians and provide food for thought in applying to research. There are also pointers as to how indirect evidence can be extracted from records, even when ancestors are not specifically mentioned. The individual chapters conclude with a Starting Points for the Researcher section which neatly summarises the records discussed in the preceding pages.

Through combining information from these sources, pictures of the lives of even quite ordinary ancestors can be built up. The book includes examples of such record-combining to reconstruct a person’s life, including a 19th century agricultural labourer and the harrowing story of the Eaves family.

The book is packed with information, and there are far too many records and information sources for me to mention. But they include parish registers and how to unpick information from them; manorial records; enclosure details; probate inventories; tithe maps and apportionments; glebe terriers; churchwardens’ accounts; vestry minutes; Quarter Sessions; various records relating to the old and new Poor Law; hearth tax; rate books; newspapers; and early censuses. Note, if you are looking for information about records created by Victorian national administrations, such as civil registration from 1837, these are not covered.

In addition to the records, I found the individual topics covered fascinating. From the social status of the farmer, the farm and its work, alongside wages and conditions, to tips on matching tithe maps with older records and using the early census to discover whole communities. And how many of us have ancestors who appear and disappear? The Leaving the Village chapter is full of strategies and tips for filling these gaps.

It is an immensely readable book (I completed it over a weekend). It is also one which will act as a reference, and refresher, to a series of genealogically valuable records for anyone researching their family history, running a one-place or one-name study, or with an interest in local history generally. And, although the focus is on village life, there is a cross-over in terms of many records to our more urban ancestors.

In conclusion, this is a worthy addition to any family historian’s bookshelf.

Our Village Ancestors: A Genealogist’s Guide to Understanding England’s Rural Past – Helen Osborn
Publication date: 28 June 2021
Publisher: Robert Hale
ISBN 9780719814167
Hardback £15.99

Belladonna and a Research Rabbit Hole: Avoiding Assumptions in Family History.

Whilst reading a newspaper from July 1915, my attention was caught by an attempted suicide in Dewsbury. It read:

GIRL DRINKS BELLADONNA.
Thornhill Lees Servant Upset By
Brother Being At The War.

Clara Stead (17), domestic servant, of Pontefract, was summoned for attempting to commit suicide by drinking a quantity of belladonna liniment at Dewsbury on the 15th inst.

Hetty Armitage, who employed the girl at the Perseverance Inn, Thornhill Lees, explained that on Thursday last week Stead was in the kitchen black-leading, but she went to a bathroom and afterwards accused called for witness and said, “Mrs. Armitage, do you know what I have done?” Later she added, “I have taken poison.” Asked where she had got it from, she replied, “From the bathroom,” and asked why she had done it she answered, “I don’t know.” Witness’ husband gave the girl milk and water, and she was afterwards taken to the Infirmary,

In answer to a question in Court, as to the reason for her act, Jones, [sic] who appeared greatly distressed, said, “I have a brother at the war.”

The Chairman: That ought not to have depressed you like that. You are young to do a thing like this.

The girl’s mother preferred to take her daughter back home and look after her.

The Chief Constable thereupon asked for the case to be withdrawn, and the Magistrates agreed.1

That was it. I had to find out more. Who was the girl? What became of her? Did her story have a happy ending? Who was her brother? What happened to him?

And so I disappeared down a research rabbit hole for the rest of the evening. The results reinforced once more that you should check multiple sources even for the same event; and never make assumptions when researching family history.

The first thing was to compare the Batley News report with that of the Dewsbury Reporter to see if that added anything.2 It did. The three main extras were:

  • Clara had worked at the pub since June;
  • Fred Armitage was the pub licensee; and
  • In a difference to the Batley News, Fred gave her hot water and salt, not milk and water.

Next I looked at the locality. Thornhill Lees is now a suburb of Dewsbury, lying around one mile south of the town centre between Savile Town and Thornhill. Back then it was a village. Near the river Calder, it had a station on the Yorkshire and Lancashire railway. Its chief employment industries were the collieries and glass bottle works. If you watched the Jeremy Clarkson episode of Who Do You Think You Are? you will have seen the Kilner Brothers glass bottle manufacturers. The Perseverance Inn, at Forge Lane, Thornhill Lees stood by the Calder and Hebble Navigation Canal. Ironically it had seen its fair share of inquests over the years on those successful in ending their lives, particularly by drowning in the waterway. Although the building still stands today, it is no longer a pub.

Map showing the location of the Perseverance Inn, Ordnance Survey Maps – 25-inch England and Wales, 1841-1952, Yorkshire CCXLVII.7 (Dewsbury) Revised: 1914 to 1915, Published: 1922 – National Library of Scotland, under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC-BY-NC-SA) licence

So who was Clara Stead? She was born on 2 December 1897 at Streethouse, near Pontefract, the daughter of William Stead and his wife Kezia (née Cooper). Her baptism took place on 23 December 1897 at Normanton All Saints, alongside that of her siblings William (born according to the baptism register on 16 July 1890, and was he really called William Stead as declared in the register? But more of that later);3 and Emma (born 16 September 1895).4 The couple’s other children were Minnie, born 14 January 1893;5 Colin, born on 13 December 1900;6 Richard, born 10 February 1903;7 and Lena, born in 1906. Note, other than Clara and William’s birth dates, I’ve not corroborated the remaining children’s births against any other sources.

The Stead family lived in the Streethouse part of Snydale-with-Streethouse, in both the 19018 and 19119 censuses. Pontefract lies around four miles to the north east of the village. Coal mining was the principal occupation, and Drighlington-born William was no exception, working as a hewer.

He married Kezia Cooper at Normanton parish church on 18 April 1892. At 26, she was four years William’s senior. The parish register entry records her as the daughter of Benjamin Cooper, and a widow – though this marital status is scored out.10 Unusually (but not impossible) the implication is her deceased husband was also named Cooper. But it is worth paying attention to such anomalies as the scoring out and name. The other thing to note about the marriage is it post-dates their son William’s birth by almost two years.

William’s birth certificate confirms this.11 He is registered as William Kirk. The certificate states he was born on 29 August 1890 at Ferry Fryston, although his birth was not registered until 5 November 1890 – way outside the 42-day limit. Also note this is some six weeks later than the birth date given in the baptism register. No father’s details are entered. But the certificate gives his mother’s name as Kezia Kirk, formerly Cooper. Like Kezia’s marriage to William Stead, this record has more question marks which need following up.

Kezia Cooper’s first marriage was the obvious next step. This was also at Normanton All Saints parish church on 2 January 1882, to John Kirk, a 21-year-old miner from Streethouse.12 The couple had three children – Jane Ann born on 15 October 1882 and who died on her second birthday; Maria born on 15 January 1886 and who died on the 23 January 1889; and another Jane Ann born on 21 July 1888 and who died less than one month later.

No death for John prior to Kezia’s second marriage to William Stead could be traced. The censuses indicated he was still alive, living with his father and step-mother at Streethouse in 1891 (and showing as married).13 Meanwhile in the same census, also in Streethouse, Kezia Kirk (married) and 8-month old William Kirk are living with her parents.14 Skip forward to 1901 and John Kirk is still alive and in Streethouse, but now married to Mary, and with daughter Mary Kirk and sons John Parkes and Charles Kirk.15 The marriage between John Kirk and Mary Parkes took place on 4 June 1892 at Holy Trinity church, Kimberley, Nottinghamshire.16

The assumption might be this marriage, and Kezia’s to William Stead a couple of months earlier, were bigamous. After all, as The National Archives guide states in this period “All divorce suits took place in London, thus restricting divorce to wealthier couples. Divorce did not really open up for all classes until the 1920s with the extension of legal aid and the provision of some local facilities.” 17 John Kirk was a coal miner living in a small Yorkshire village, as was Kezia’s father and new partner. None would seemingly fit the social status of those able to afford all the costs a divorce might entail.

However, Rebecca Probert whilst acknowledging that “the social profile of litigants remained definitely skewed towards the middle and upper classes” also points out that “there were plenty of examples of working-class petitioners” though “Those members of the working class who did petition for divorce tended to be drawn from the ranks of artisans rather than unskilled labourers.18

The inference to be made from this is just because a couple may not fit the accepted social profile for divorcees in this period, do not rule it out. And so it proved for John and Kezia Kirk.

John filed a divorce petition on 19 March 1891, a little over two weeks before the 1891 census date. The decree nisi was granted on 11 August 1891, and the decree absolute formally ending the marriage was issued on 23 February 1892.19

The grounds for the uncontested divorce were Kezia’s adultery with William Stead. Kezia left John for William on 15 October 1889, and on 18 July 1890 gave birth to William’s child. Note this is yet another date of birth for William Kirk – we now have 16 July 1890, 18 July 1890 and 29 August 1890 depending on record. Normally, considering the relative value of these sources, the birth certificate would carry more weight. But this is not always the case. And may not be in this instance.

So why was Kezia’s real marital status not declared when she married William Stead? Under the 1857 Act, no Church of England clergyman could be compelled to solemnise the marriage of a person who had been divorced because of their adultery. However, any other clergyman entitled to officiate within the diocese could conduct the marriage.20 A church marriage was therefore permissible. However perhaps Kezia stated she was widowed, and also used her maiden name, to try to avoid any difficult questions or judgement. But her second marriage took place in the same church as her first, and the rarity divorce in this community, with hers being finalised only a couple of months earlier and fresh in minds, must have been the talk of the neighbourhood. Also the vicar conducting the ceremony was not one brought in from elsewhere. The fact widowed is scored out indicates there was some background knowledge or question mark. But it all goes to show the Stead family background was more complex than initial appearances.

Glass bottle used for tincture of belladonna, England, 1880-. Credit: Science Museum, London. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Now back to Clara and her attempted suicide. What was it that she drank? Belladonna, known also as Deadly Nightshade, is, as its name suggests, a poisonous plant. However its roots and leaves have medicinal properties. Frequently advertised in the late 19th/early 20th century newspapers, it was a popular medicine-store cupboard standby. Its multiple uses included from insomnia relief, to as a diuretic and a muscle relaxant. It was also used as a pain reliever, with belladonna liniment recommended for such things as muscular aches, sprains, and rheumatic pains. Even chilblains and boils were treated with it. But it was also misused, with the newspapers full of poisoning cases and suicides. Then there were accidents, like a Birmingham family who mistakenly used it as a condiment in their stew. Or the Glasgow child who, imitating her sister drinking, took a swig out of a bottle containing belladonna liniment. Luckily Clara survived, unlike many others.

A huge positive about her court case is the compassionate attitude of the Chief Constable and the magistrates. On receiving assurances that Clara’s mother wanted to take her back home and care for her, they all agreed to drop the charges. Whilst this humane course of action is far from unique in this period, especially where there were promises not to do it again and where families were prepared to look after those charged, it could have been all too different. Lots of factors came into play, but I’ve looked at some other cases in the same period for girls of a similar age which had a range of far worse outcomes.

  • A 17-year-old domestic servant, who attempted to strangle herself on a footpath between Yeadon and Guisely in January 1915, was detained at an asylum;
  • In August 1915 the Vicar of Mapperley wrote suggesting to the court that a 15-year-old girl who jumped into a pond should be sent away, as it was not advisable to let her return home. The advice was taken and she was sent to a home for two years;
  • In June 1916 a 17-year-old Northampton girl was remanded to a workhouse for a week after throwing herself into the River Nene; and
  • Others were bound over, placed in the care of probation officers, or in the care of organisations such as the Salvation Army;

Did this tale have a happy ending? In part ‘yes’. Clara married a local coal miner in Pontefract Register Office on 6 March 1916. Her husband served for seven months with the Coldstream Guards in England towards the end of the war, and survived. The couple raised a family and Clara lived to a ripe old age.

But her fears for her brother, identified as William, turned out to be well-founded.

William Kirk married Heckmondwike girl Lily Victoria Andsley at Normanton All Saints on 16 December 1911.21 The couple had two girls, Dorothy born on 20 September 1912, and Edna born on 29 April 1914.22 William served with the 10th Battalion of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (KOYLI) during the war, going overseas on 11 September 1915. This means at the point of Clara’s attempted suicide, her brother, though in the Army, was still in England.

William died on 9 July 1916 as a result of wounds suffered in the initial days of the Battle of the Somme. He is buried at Heilly Station Cemetery, Mreicourt-L’Abbe, France, a cemetery used by medical units from the 36th and 38th Casualty Clearing Station during this period. The additional information provided by the CWGC is that he was the husband of Lily Victoria Stead (formerly Kirk), of 43, Belmont St., Streethouse, Pontefract, Yorks.

I did a double take at her new surname of Stead. It did fleetingly cross my mind that she had adopted the surname of William’s family. However the implication by the use of ‘formerly’ was a remarriage. And this proved to be the case.

William Kirk’s pension card notes his widow married miner Samuel Stead on 9 March 1918.22 The marriage took place once more at Normanton All Saints.23

So ended my rabbit hole exploration.

However the real take away point from this is not Clara’s story. It is far more basic, and to do with research. It is primarily not to accept things at face value and not to make assumptions when investigating family history. Do not try to make facts fit your theories. Approach research with an open mind. Always dig deeper to locate as many sources as possible to corroborate findings. Weigh up and evaluate the relative merit of evidence sources. And make sure you have a wide range of evidence to support your conclusions.

In the case of Clara and her family:

  • There are discrepancies in the newspapers, including one huge typographical error when Clara in one section of one newspaper report is called Jones. Newspapers aren’t gospel;
  • Clara’s mother Kezia was not widowed when she married William Stead – she was divorced;
  • Working class people should not be ruled out from obtaining divorces in this period;
  • The treatment by courts of those who attempted suicide did vary;
  • Try to seek as many sources as possible to corroborate information – which can vary from record to record, for example something as straightforward as William Kirk’s birthdate;
  • Do not make assumptions on surnames. From the parish register entry for her second marriage, it might have appeared Kezia’s ‘deceased’ husband’s surname was Cooper; from the census and his baptism, William seemed to be called William Stead, when in fact he was officially William Kirk; and when William Kirk’s wife was listed as Lily Victoria Stead on the CWGC records, this was no connection whatsoever to the Stead surname of her deceased husband’s family, and a name he had possibly used. She had in fact remarried and her second husband was called Stead;
  • people do not change. They do not always tell the truth today, and neither did the past confer magical, unwavering truth-telling behaviours on our ancestors, even given the more deferential, religious society in which they lived. It may be some details and events they were genuinely hazy on. But for others they did deliberately lie. And this applies even on official documents; and
  • read all documents carefully and critically for the clues they offer, either by phraseology, omissions or anomalies.

Footnotes:
1. Batley News, 24 July 1915;
2. Dewsbury Reporter, 24 July 1915;
3. Baptism and birth date details from Normanton, All Saints, Baptism Register, West Yorkshire Archive Service, Reference Number: WDP151/1/2/5;
4. Ibid;
5. 1939 Register, Ref: RG101/3772E/004/17 Letter Code: KRDD;
6. Baptism 3 January 1901, Normanton, All Saints, Baptism Register, West Yorkshire Archive Service, Reference Number: WDP151/1/2/6;
7. 1939 Register, Ref: RG101/3641G/012/2 Letter Code: KMWM;
8. 1901 Census, Ref: RG13/4296/28/18;
9. 1911 Census, Ref: RG14/27482;
10. Normanton All Saints Marriage Register, West Yorkshire Archive Service, Reference Number: WDP151/1/3/6;
11. William Kirk Birth Registration, GRO Ref: Pontefract, December Quarter 1890, Volume 9C, Page 81;
12. Normanton All Saints Marriage Register, West Yorkshire Archive Service, Reference Number: WDP151/1/3/4
13. 1891 Census, Ref: RG12/4588/28/14
14. 1891 Census, Ref: RG12/3759/36/34
15. 1901 Census, Ref: RG13/4296/30/21
16. Nottinghamshire Family History Society Marriage Indexes
17. TNA Research Guide: Divorce – https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/help-with-your-research/research-guides/divorce/
18. Probert, Rebecca. Divorced, Bigamist, Bereaved?: the Family Historian’s Guide to Marital Breakdown, Separation, Widowhood, and Remarriage: from 1600 to the 1970s. Kenilworth England: Takeaway, 2015.
19. Divorce and Matrimonial Cause Files, Divorce Court File: 4262. Appellant: John Kirk. Respondent: Kezia Kirk. Co-respondent: William Stead. Type: Husband’s petition for divorce [hd]., 1891, Ref: J77/468/4262
20. Probert, Rebecca. Divorced, Bigamist, Bereaved?….
21. Normanton All Saints Marriage Register, West Yorkshire Archive Service, Reference Number: WDP151/1/3/9
22. Western Front Association; London, England; WWI Pension Record Cards and Ledgers; Reference: 114/0536/KIR-KIR
23. Normanton All Saints Marriage Register, West Yorkshire Archive Service, Reference Number: WDP151/1/3/10

A Very British Obsession: The Weather (and Some Ideas for Sources to Use for Family History Research)

Like many other Brits, I can be ever so slightly obsessed with the weather. In fact a Bristol Airport commissioned poll back in 2018 suggested the average British person spends the equivalent of four and a half months of their life talking about the weather. Nearly 50 per cent of those 2,000 adults surveyed said chatting about temperature, sunshine or rain is their go-to subject when making small talk.

Winter Landscape, George Morland – Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain Image

But unlike many of my nationality, I go way beyond the current forecast. I even seek out historical information. There’s a particular reason for my historical weather curiosity though – it adds context, colour and background to my family history research.

My historical weather digging is varied. There are the mundane, everyday issues, like finding out what it was like on various ancestral wedding days. Or whether a significant local weather event provide a talking point in the communities of my ancestors. For example the 1916 lightning strike which destroyed St Paul’s Church, Hanging Heaton (no fatalities, including parish registers, thankfully).

But weather could be extraordinary, and a genuine matter of life and death. An increase in mortality rates in the parish register? Was it the result of a particular illness outbreak like smallpox or measles? Or perhaps harsh winter weather was the primary driver?

And on a more basic everyday level, in the agriculturally-dominated society of bygone years, the changing seasons and weather patterns dictated the rhythm and structure of the lives of our ancestors. Any untoward variation from the expected cycle could have a critical impact. An unusual weather event could mean the difference between a bumper harvest, available work and plentiful food; or delayed sowing, a badly reduced – or even ruined – crop, limited employment, squeezed food supplies, high prices and hunger. It could extend beyond food crops. Livestock might perish and their fodder be in short supply. Weather could therefore have a devastating impact. Drought and crop failure could change the course of lives, potentially even driving migration.

So where to find this information? Here are a few ideas to get you started.


Newspapers are an obvious source. But think beyond their weather forecasts and weather event reports. Even something as simple as a football or rugby match report, a mundane summer fete article, or the circumstances of an accident, may refer to the weather conditions. It’s a case of thinking outside the box even in an obvious source.


When thinking of weather today, the Met Office might be your go-to source. They also retain historic station data, with monthly data made available online for a selection of these long-running historic stations. The series typically range from 50 to more than 100 years in length. The 37 stations cover the length and breadth of Britain, including Armagh, Durham, Bradford, Lowestoft, Southampton, Stornaway Airport and Valley. The relevant website link can be found here.


There are several other weather-related websites. One outstanding example is Martin Rowley’s Booty Meteorological Website. This brought together historical information about the weather in Britain using multiple sources. The site no longer exists. But fear not. It has been archived, via the UK Web Archive, and is still accessible here.

There is a time-slice menu starting at 4000-100 BC and going up to 2000-2049, although the last entry is for 2012 (the site’s last update being February 2013). The information is colour key coded denoting the type of event/year, be it hot or cold, wet or dry, or stormy. There is also a companion historical menu too, which enables you to put climatological events into a historical context.

Examples of the type of entry include:

1768 (February)
Snow-melt & rain event overtopped banks (of the River Aire) in Leeds (W. Yorkshire)….I think we can assume that snowfall during January around and above Leeds (across the Pennine headwaters of the Aire) must have been considerable. [The year 1768 is the second-wettest year in the EWP series].1

And:

1859 (October)
THE “ROYAL CHARTER” STORM
.

The gale of 25th / 26th October 1859, which wrecked the fully rigged ship “Royal Charter” on the coast of Anglesey, drowning about 500 people (and loss of gold bullion), led to the introduction of gale warnings (in 1861) by means of hoisting of signals around the British & Irish coastlines (‘hoist North Cones’!). The ship was only one of over 200 vessels wrecked between the 21st October and 2nd November, with the loss of around 800 lives – most of these losses occurred in the ‘Royal Charter Storm’.

The Website of Pascale Bonenfant has a page on British Weather from 1700 to 1849, drawing on Martin Rowley’s information. So if you are struggling to access the Booty Meteorological Website you can see an extracted portion of it here.


The Tempest Database of Extreme Weather in the UK is a project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Spanning five centuries, this contains historical accounts of weather drawn from archival materials including diaries, letters, church records, school log-books, newspaper cuttings and photographs. The research was focused on five case-study regions – Central England, Southwest England, East Anglia, Wales and Northwest Scotland, though entries do relate to places across the UK (check out the “other” locations in the place/location selector box). Even if your location is not covered, the sources do give some good ideas for ones to check out in your area of interest.

The search is flexible. Options include by case study region, place, date, document type, repository etc. Specific weather events can be searched – and this is extremely wide-ranging from the expected snow, flood, gale and heatwave events, to rainbows, comets and earthquakes. So not only do you get the famous Youlgreave weather of 1615 with its terrible and long-lasting snows, including the memorable sentence “Uppon May day in the Morning, instead of fetching in flowers, the youths brought in flakes of snow which lay about a foot deep upon the Moors and Moutaunes…” you also get the notes of the Rector of Thorpe Malsor, Northamptonshire, on the earthquake in the early hours of 6 October 1863.

Results give those all-important source reference numbers so you can check original entires rather than relying on transcripts. And the results can even be mapped.

The website can be found here.


My final suggestion is the humble parish register, but you could easily extend this to wider parish records. As seen in the Tempest Database of Extreme Weather, parish records were one of the primary sources it drew upon when gathering information.

Several people sent me some wonderful examples when I asked on Twitter, (I’ve included the link so you can read the full range).

Amongst them is a particularly memorable line summing up the bitter cold at Whittington, Shropshire in February 1776, as submitted by One-Namer and One-Placer Steve Jackson. The entry describes how “The wings of small Birds were so frozen that they fell to the ground.

Three more from Yorkshire and one from Derbyshire show some further examples of the type of entry. I’ve illustrated the first with some follow-up research.

My ancestor Esther Hallas was buried on 13 July 1817. The parish register of Kirkburton All Hallows notes she was killed by lightning. There are no other details. But that entry led to a newspaper report with more details. The Leeds Mercury of Saturday, 19 July 1817 had the following snippet:

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

In another example, the Almondbury parish has an original entry in Latin, and alongside it a loose later English translation. Essentially it reads along the lines of:

In this year, 1614, so great a fall of snow as was not known in the memory of any living, far exceeding that in 1540 in magnitude and duration, in which many travellers as well as inhabitants of Saddleworth perished.

The entry is dated 28 January 1614/15. Investigating further, this fits in with the timing of the Youlgreave extreme weather entries of early 1615. A check of the Booty Meteorological Website shows the “Great Snow” of the winter and early spring of 1614/15 affected various parts of the country.

In another snow event, North Yorkshire County Council Record Office sent in this entry from the parish register of Thornton in Lonsdale:

March 16th 1719 is memorable for a prodigious quantity of snow falling… the storm went so high that door neighbours could not visit one another without difficulty of danger…

The final example is from Janet Braund Few, with a 1 February 1715/16 entry from Chapel-en-le-Frith, Derbyshire. This shows the further potential consequences of bad weather:

On that day there was an extreme wind. It blew the weathercock off the steeple and brake it in pieces, and a great Ash down in the Church- yard; with vast great loss to most people in their houses, some being blown downe.


This is by no means an exhaustive list of historical weather sources for family history. But hopefully these six examples give you some ideas to aid your research, providing context, colour and background to it.

Notes:
1. England and Wales Precipitation series (Met Office / Hadley Centre)

Photo Trickery Tool – Reanimate Your Ancestors

Family history research company MyHeritage – whose suite of genealogical tools include record datasets, family tree building capabilities, and DNA testing – have launched a groundbreaking piece of photo animation kit, called Deep Nostalgia™.

Building on it’s photo colourisation and enhancing tools, you can now animate your family history photos, bringing movement, smiles and blinks to the faces of your ancestors. There are several different animation sequences to chose from.

As for cost, you can animate an unlimited number of photos if you have a Complete MyHeritage subscription. Non-subscribers can animate a limited number of photos for free.

It’s a clever piece of wizardry, and really does bring your still images to life in a weirdly compelling way. It is easy to use and the results are shareable. Here are a couple I’ve done. The first is of Jesse Hill, taken in around late 1914/early 1915, who I wrote about here and here.

The still enhanced image is below.

Jesse Hill, MyHeritage

The animation can be viewed by clicking this link.

The second is my nana, taken in around 1916. Again the still enhanced image is below, and the animation can be viewed by clicking this link.

Pauline Rhodes – MyHeritage

For more information see the MyHeritage blog

And whilst some will love this new feature, there are concerns around potential misuse, with the creation of so-called “deepfake videos.” Some of these fears are discussed here by the BBC.

Personally I’m in the undecided camp over this. It does feel a little disturbing when I view the results. My husband’s reaction was “Wow!” A case of make your own mind up and treat with caution.

The Wonder of Maps – Virtual Family History Travel

One of my genealogy pleasures is maps. From working out various boundaries, to identifying streets where ancestors lived, the schools and churches they attended, and the places they worked; From finding and calculating distances between locations, to mapping out transport routes to plot migration patterns. Maps are integral to family history research.

There are so many posts I could write on the topic. This introductory post on the subject covers one suggested use, primarily based on the more modern 19th and 20th century maps.

Maps are brilliant for undertaking virtual, as well as physical, walks. So if you are restricted to home, or if the locations are too far to travel to, why not take a virtual ancestral tour instead?

Using the online censuses, or 1939 Register, and the accompanying enumerators’ books, find out where your ancestors lived. Then utilise various maps to pinpoint the exact locations. And don’t forget to compare a time series of maps. From these you can build up a picture of the changes ancestors may have experienced over decades. Some online sites have overlay facilities, enabling comparison against modern maps to work out where long-gone streets once stood.

My go-to online map site is the National Library of Scotland, here. Don’t be misled – it covers far more than Scotland. And it’s free to use.

Screenshot of the National Library of Scotland Website

There are a host of others though, a mixture of free and chargeable. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Archaeological & Historic Sites Index (ARCHI) has a selection of maps, here.
  • The Genealogist, a family history dataset provider, has its Map Explorer facility.
  • Old Maps UK, which can be found here.
  • For a more global option try Old Maps Online.

Taking the visual view one step further, how about trying the free Britain from Above website? With its aerial photographs dating from 1919 to 2006 it really does take you to the locations of your 20th century ancestors in a unique way. You may even be lucky enough to see images of the mills and factories where they worked, seeing them and the surrounding streets through their eyes.

A Selection of Physical Maps – Photo by Jane Roberts

For those who prefer a physical map, Alan Godfrey’s reprints of old OS maps are ideal. Details about available maps, prices and ordering are here.

Or, if you have a Yorkshire interest, you could try Old Yorkshire Maps with its particular local focus.

And if you can visit the locations, the maps really do add to the experience. As part of my lockdown daily exercise, I walk locally discovering the forgotten network of footpaths my ancestors trod. It made me realise how efficient these routes were, providing shortcut connections to the locations key to my forebears. I was then able to go back to the period maps and link them to these trails.

So do make use of old maps. They really do give an invaluable new dimension to your research.

Public or Private Family Tree?

This is a perennial question for many people researching their family history. Whether or not to have a public family tree available online. And it is a dilemma which can arise fairly early on in the research path. Sometimes though it is not even considered, and for some the consequences of a decision to go public emerge too late.

Image by Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay

Before I go any further I want to make it clear there’s no right or wrong answer. It really is a purely personal decision, one with which you need to be comfortable.

However, here are some considerations which I’m sharing to provoke a deeper examination of, and debate about, the implications. It’s not intended to be an exhaustive list, more a thought trigger. I’ve split them into pros and cons.

First the advantages of a public online tree.

  1. Connecting. It goes without saying, but a public online tree allows other researchers with the same family history interests to easily find and contact you. This enables you to connect with distant cousins, compare research, potentially plug gaps and share photos.
  2. Collaborating. Following on from this, once connections have been made this can lead to collaborative working on trees, pooling research, and the possibility to discuss findings and theories with someone who has a mutual family history connection.
  3. Learning. Linked to the above two, connecting and collaborating can lead to improving your family history research skills.
  4. Expanding. By having an online presence you may be able to expand your tree, pushing back lines and breaking down brick walls. All at a far quicker pace than solo research offers. Though a word of caution. Do not accept the research of others at face value. Always do your own work to check and verify.
  5. DNA. If you have undertaken a DNA test in order to further your family history research, a linked public tree is an important corollary to that test. I realise this may not always be possible. But if it is an option, there are clear advantages. A tree is one of the first things your DNA matches will look at to identify potential links. And it does encourage contacts. Ask yourself if, amongst a plethora of DNA matches, are you more likely to initially investigate and contact the treeless or those with trees? Personally, I find one of the most frustrating things about DNA testing is to see a possible match, but for that match to have no tree.
  6. Tree Purpose. Is your tree family history, pure and simple? Or is it something along the lines of a one-name or one-place study? The latter two may have a lesser emotional/personal attachment, and also a need for a far broader range of collaboration/connection networks than your own family tree.
  7. Family History Community Spirit. Having an online tree may fosters for you a feeling of really contributing and sharing to further the research of others.
  8. Legacy. You may be the only one in your family interested in family history. There may be no-one to bequeath the family history baton to, no subsequent generations willing to take on your work. You may be wondering how to ensure your research is preserved for the long-term. Putting it online is one option.
  9. Unexpected heirlooms. Recently a story made the news about the love letters written by a soldier, killed during the First World War Battle of the Somme, to his wife. They turned up in a sewing box donated to a charity shop. An appeal was put out, and within hours searches by members of the public on an ancestry site resulted in the tracing of family descendants, which will result in the letters being reunited. More details here. This is a rare, potential unexpected bonus of having a public tree.

Turning to the disadvantages of having your tree publicly available.

  1. Information control. Obvious really, but once your tree is out there publicly available to all, you have no control who can access it and how it is used. Be prepared for it being copied wholesale by multiple people without them even contacting you, and without them even referencing the person behind the original research. Is this something which would bother you? If it is, think of other options.
  2. Reduced Contacts. Linked to this, your tree’s proliferation may even reduce the chances of you being contacted. Unless yours is stand-out, it may be lost amongst a forest of other similar trees. Of course though this does not reduce your opportunities to contact others.
  3. Photos. This is a particularly sensitive subject. You may have ancestral photos linked to your tree. You may also have document images, such as civil registration certificates or probate records. Whilst you might be happy to have the basic tree information copied, you may find the copying of photographs in particular, and them popping up on scores of trees, a bridge too far. Several bridges if the photo is misattributed – great aunt Jane labelled as someone entirely different.
  4. Copyright. This is a topic in its own right, so I’m only putting some initial thoughts out there. Your own private tree for your personal use only is one thing. But where do you stand if you link photos, copyright document images etc to a public tree for all to see, copy and share? What about your own linked notes and analysis? And is that going to create a whole new set of potential issues?
  5. Errors. What if you include something in a public tree which you later wish to correct or amend? You may find the horse has already bolted, with your early research replicated across many other online trees.
  6. Privacy Concerns. Whilst living relatives should not be on a public tree, something to bear in mind is how traceable ultimately you (or your family’s) details potentially may be even if the living are unnamed. It might not be the first thing you think of when constructing a public online tree, and it may only be a very minimal risk, but you should be aware of the possibilities for abuse. As an aside, while online trees hosted by genealogy providers do anonymise the living, I’ve come across trees on personal websites where details of the living have been included.
  7. Etiquette. Essentially by openly sharing your tree you are entrusting your work to others. Do not assume all online will have the same courtesy standards regarding information sharing, use and acknowledging.

And finally, in the interest of openness, here’s how I handle the dilemma.

Well over a decade ago I did have a bad experience regarding someone copying my once online tree, including notes and other elements, and it didn’t sit right with me. However, I can see the benefits of information sharing to mutually further research. I now have a threefold tree strategy. This is:

  • A full tree which is on Family Historian and it is entirely private;
  • A private tree on a commercial website shared with a couple of trusted people – a very much pared down version of the Family Historian tree, minus any images or photographs. Only very basic information, with no source links or citations. I’ve not updated it for quite a while, but it is useful to consult when I’m out and about (family history events, archives visits etc.); and
  • An online publicly available skeleton tree, with basic direct line information only, linked to my DNA research. No photos. No documents. No comments. No analysis. It is there primarily for DNA purposes. That way I have a way of connecting with other DNA researchers. And I can then share selected relevant information, rather than my full tree.

I realise it does limit my opportunities for connection and collaboration because of its reduced public visibility. However, that hybrid approach is a decision I am most comfortable with. But it may not necessarily be the right one for you.

The bottom line is make sure you define your reasons for putting your tree online in advance of doing so. Ensure you know the full range of privacy settings on whatever online medium you decide to use for a family tree (if indeed you decide to go down that route). Think about what would work best for you and what you would be comfortable with. And go into it with your eyes wide open.

Keeping Your Family History Research On Track

Do these scenarios sound familiar?

  • Halfway through a piece of research, do you realise you’ve done it before?
  • Do you get broken off from your research, or shelve it, then pick up the problem months later – but can’t recall what you’d done or where you’d got to?
  • Are you a scatter-gun researcher, flitting from one unplanned search to another, and at the end of a couple of hours you have no idea what records you’ve checked. Then go round in circles once more, repeating the same searches?

You’re not alone. But it means you’re wasting research time; you’re potentially overlooking key pieces of information; you are duplicating your efforts; and your research is unfocused. 

Which is where a research log comes in.

A log makes for efficient research, with no wasted time or duplicated effort. You can pick up a piece of research months later and know exactly what steps have previously been taken. It also means you can more easily identify gaps in your research.

In short a log keeps your research on track.

My seven key points for research logs are:

  1. Define the research objective: Set out clearly the problem, e.g. finding out the date of birth of an ancestor, or who their parents were. Include what you know through evidence, and any assumptions or conflicting information. This enables identification of issues, leading on to potential sources and search strategies
  1. Identify possible records and sources (e.g censuses, parish registers, probate records, books): These must be fully detailed including description, location(s) and type e.g. original documents, indexes, transcripts, digitised images etc.
  1. Date of the search: Archives add to their acquisitions. Records are continually being digitised and appearing online, and this includes updates to ones already online (think 1939 Register, or the GRO Indexes). So a search conducted 12 months ago may not have the same outcomes if conducted today. A date helps you decide if it’s worth repeating the search.
  1. Set out fully the search parameters: What spelling variants did you use? How many years either side of a specific date did you search? Which locations/parishes did you use? Did you rely on a data provider’s online search? Did you visually confirm results? Did you go through the record (and all the years) yourself? If a book, did you rely on the index or read the entire chapter or book? Some datasets (e.g. censuses) are on multiple websites – did you search just one? The same search on another website may have a different result. This enables you to see exactly what has been done and identify other possible areas of research.
  1. Record in detail the results – including negative ones: Fully record search results along with your analysis, conclusions and any discrepancies. This includes problems with the records, e.g. were there any gaps or record damage which might affect the result? Do ensure that the explanation is clear because it might be a while before you revisit it. And do include negative searches.
  1. Full source citations: Note where the original document can be found. Include full document reference, with page number. For website searches also include URL, description and date accessed. Give as much information as possible to enable you to find the document again. Do not assume it will always be online! 
  1. Next steps: Review your log. Identify follow-up searches. 

Your log could be electronic (do remember to back it up). Or it could be paper-based.

There are lots of pro-formas online. I have included my example above. Or perhaps you might prefer to design your own bespoke log.

And do not be put off by the thought of the time taken to keep a research log. It is minimal when compared with the time you will save in the long run from trying to remember exactly what you’ve done before, reducing the number of repeat searches and pinpointing what you have not tried.

Whatever method you use, online or paper-based, your research will benefit.

The Anti-Vaccinator Kids

As you go through yet another family in your tree with children named John, Mary, George, Sarah, William and Ann, it can be all too easy to disregard the clues names may give. These can range from an unusual family name passed down through generations or the use of a mother’s maiden name, to the use of traditional naming patterns. They can hint at significant events personal to that family, from place of conception to wider historical events. They can also indicate social interests, political persuasion and even involvement in campaigning movements.

This piece is an extreme, and topical, example of the latter. A couple so vehemently opposed to compulsory vaccination, they felt compelled to signify their opposition not only in words and deeds, but through the names they gave their children.

But first, to set the scene.

Thanks to vaccination, smallpox has been eradicated worldwide. But, for our ancestors, it was a highly contagious, killer disease. It was arguably the most lethal disease in 18th-century Britain. Even after vaccination was introduced, at the peak of the last pandemic to strike England and Wales (in the early 1870s), 7,720 fatal cases were registered in the first quarter of 1872.1 It will therefore feature as a cause of death in most family trees – mine is no exception.

There was no cure, although newspapers contained adverts for purported remedies such as Holloway’s Pills,2 Dr Lockock’s Powders,3 Lamplough’s Pyretic Saline,4 and preventatives like the Sulphur Bath a la Turkey.5 The majority of those who did survive were left with permanent scarring (again big business was to be made supplying products to try disguise these blemishes); or deformities such as loss of lip, nose or ear tissue. Blindness was another legacy of the disease.

Gloucester smallpox epidemic, 1896: Mary Wicklin, aged 4 years, as a smallpox patient, a few days before her death. Photograph by H.C.F., 1896.. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

In 1717, whilst in Constantinople (Istanbul) Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, writer, socialite, smallpox survivor and the wife of British Ambassador Edward Wortley Montagu, learned of a technique practiced in the Ottoman Empire whereby live smallpox virus was inserted into healthy individuals, in order to confer immunity to the disease. Before returning to England she had her young son inoculated.

By 1720 she was back home where, in the face of opposition from the medical establishment, she championed the practice of inoculation. The turning point in her campaign came in 1721. Whilst yet another smallpox epidemic raged, Lady Mary arranged for her young daughter to undergo the procedure – the first time it had been performed in Britain, thus pioneering the way for others (including royalty) to follow suit. An obelisk, erected in 1750, stands in Wentworth Castle Gardens, near Barnsley. It is dedicated to Lady Mary’s efforts.

Obelisk Dedicated to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Wentworth Castle Gardens – Photos by Jane Roberts

But the variolation process, inserting live smallpox to inoculate people, was not without its risks. Some did contract the disease as a result, with its consequences of death, disfigurement, or danger of sparking a wider outbreak.

The game-changer came towards the end of the 18th century with Edward Jenner’s experiments using infectious, but far milder, cowpox materials to confer immunity. This technique was known as vaccination, and eliminated the risk of contracting smallpox from the procedure. Though not without opposition, this did provide the impetus for more widespread vaccination. Set against the backdrop of Victorian Britain’s emerging public health policy, it ultimately lead to a series of vaccination legislation in an attempt to reduce smallpox deaths and associated health consequences.

In 1840 the Vaccination Act provided free smallpox vaccination via the Poor Law Guardians in England and Wales. It also banned the risky variolation inoculation process. An 1841 amendment extended the principle of free vaccination to those not in receipt of Poor Law relief. But vaccination levels still proved unsatisfactory, and the government determined to increase the uptake against a disease described by Viscount Palmerston as ‘…undoubtedly one of the greatest scourges that afflicted the human race…6

The resulting 1853 Act made it compulsory to vaccinate children in the first three months after their birth. Those parents who defaulted were liable to a fine or imprisonment. The 1867 Act extended the age of compulsory vaccination to 14, with cumulative penalties for those refusing to comply.

Edward Jenner vaccinating patients in the Smallpox and Inoculation Hospital at St. Pancras: the patients develop features of cows. Coloured etching, 1803, after J. Gillray, 1802.
Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Opposition to vaccination was not new, as is shown by the early 19th- century etching above. It now coalesced, drawing in men and women from all classes, with objections coming from a variety of angles. The element of compulsion, which was seen as a major infringement on personal liberty, freedom of choice and the rights of parents, galvanised many. Others distrusted science, and claimed vaccination was unsafe, or unnecessary. Alternative medicine practitioners opposed it – perhaps I’m being cynical in wondering if the potential financial hit they would take from smallpox prevention helped sway them? Christians and vegetarians objected to the use of material from animals, with harvesting lymph material from calves, as opposed to humans, being one source of vaccine. Their arguments ranged from interfering with the Will of God and the corruption of the soul, to blood purity and animal treatment.

Credit: Ampoule of smallpox vaccine in original carton, England. Credit: Science Museum, London. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

This opposition led to the founding of anti-vaccination organisations, such as the early Anti-Vaccination Leagues of the 1850s, leading onto Richard Butler Gibb’s Anti-Compulsory Vaccination League in 1866, which then evolved into the National Anti-Compulsory Vaccination League founded by husband and wife, Rev. William and Mary Hume-Rothery in the mid-1870s.

It was during this period of more organised opposition that 23-year-old Samuel Joseph West married Katelena7 Allison on 16 October 1872 at St Nicholas Church in Rochester, Kent.8 Samuel, described as a dealer, was from the town, the son of Joseph and Caroline West. His father was a herbalist, which may have shaped Samuel’s views on vaccination. Herbalists practiced alternative medicine, using plant materials and extracts to naturally treat ailments. Herbalists, with their views on non-poisonous, natural remedies, often clashed with orthodox medicine. One area of dispute was vaccination. Injecting disease into the body was anathema to a herbalist’s natural, therapeutic principles. In fact the 1860s Anti-compulsory Vaccination League included herbalists amongst its officers.

Katelena’s background was not quite as portrayed in the marriage register. This names her father as Charles Allison, a farmer. In actuality she was born in Bridlington in 1853, the daughter of Agnes Allison. By the 1861 census Agnes and Katelena were in Rochester, with Agnes now the wife of police constable John Thompson.9

The GRO Indexes of births reveal nine children born to Samuel and Katelena. And a reminder, do bear in mind the various GRO Index sources are exactly that – an index. They do not routinely include all given names on a certificate. Neither are all indexes consistent in details they do provide. I’ve not obtained the birth certificates to check out the full registered names of these children, but the indexes combined with other sources such as censuses, parish registers etc go some way towards filling in gaps.

Agnes Caroline West was born on 19 April 1874, and baptised at Rochester St Nicholas. The baptism pinpoints that Samuel Joseph worked as a marine store dealer. No unusual naming features apparent – she appears to have been named after both grandmothers.

The second child does signal the couple’s vaccination views. Kattelina Antivaccinater (this is the GRO Index spelling, other sources have Antivaccinator, or similar variations) West was born on 17 April 1875. It appears Samuel’s refusal to vaccinate his daughter landed him in prison. Despite the slight name discrepancy, the 20 September 1875 entry in the diary of Prison Governor James William Newham seems to refer to this child. It reads:

A man (general dealer) committed to Maidstone Gaol for 21 days in default of paying a fine of £1 and costs. He is a member of an anti-vaccination league and refused to have his child, whom he named Catalina Anti-Vaccinator, vaccinated. His name is Joseph West, a Wesleyan, and he had been several times imprisoned for the same cause.10

There was no need to pursue Mr West for long in regard to this child. Her burial is detailed in the Rochester St Nicholas Register on 14 May 1876.

The birth of Sidney Joseph Antivaccinator West (the GRO website only states Sidney Joseph Ante V West) was registered in Medway in the June quarter of 1876. His burial, age seven months, is recorded in the Rochester St Nicholas burial register on 28 January 1877. Years after his death his name made headlines. For example the Warminster and Westbury Journal of 11 February 1882 hoped:

…that in sheer revenge, if he grows up to be a man at all, he will be a prosecuting vaccinator, should he ever get the chance.

Ernest Samuel Joseph Antivaccinator West came next. Born on 21 September 1877, his parents still held firm in their opposition to vaccination. In late March 1878 his father, described as “an incorrigible anti-vaccinator11 was a central figure in an anti-vaccination demonstration in Maidstone, which featured in several papers. The Thanet Advertiser of 30 March 1878 described the circumstances.

ROCHESTER. – ANTI-VACCINATOR. – On Saturday afternoon last, Samuel Joseph West, of 115, Eastgate, Rochester, was released from Maidstone gaol, where he has undergone a term of imprisonment in the cause of vaccination. He was triumphantly conveyed in an open carriage drawn by four grey horses through the principal streets. In the carriage was a friend of Mr. West’s, and also two females, each of whom carried a baby. A cornopean player on the box gave vent to the trains of “They all do it,” which may have been a lament for the errors of that majority of the population which believes in vaccination. The “martyr,” having been thus exhibited before the public….proceeded to the Fair-meadow, where several of the men…harangued a small mob, which of course vociferously applauded the diatribes launched against vaccination. The Maidstone demonstration, which, so far as it’s effect in exciting public sympathy is concerned, was a miserable failure….

It’s not stated if Sidney was one of the babe’s in arms in the carriage. But he was another West child who failed to thrive. His burial is recorded in the Rochester St Nicholas register on 1 June 1879.

Samuel Joseph and Katelena’s next child, Clifton Antivaccinator West was born on 24 August 1879. Named in honor of Lord Clifton, a strong opponent of the vaccination laws, once more Samuel appeared at Rochester police court in April 1880 having neglected to have his infant son vaccinated. Samuel was described as a prominent member of the National Anti-Vaccination League12 who had frequent convictions for infringing the vaccination laws. Samuel argued vaccination increased the risk of smallpox and refused to pay the fine. The upshot was another one month committal to prison, to which Samuel replied:

…that he could “do” it as easy as a fortnight, and then wished the magistrates “good morning”.13

The proceedings attracted wider attention, even featuring in The Sportsman on 19 April 1880. In discussing the case of this “curiously-bedubbed infant” they summed it up succinctly when writing:

If Mr West had only himself to consider in the matter he would have our keenest sympathies; but as his refusal to vaccinate his child affects the health and interests of the whole population, we can but regret that his prejudice overrun his judgment.

Even Lord Clifton weighed in. In his letter, published in the Kent and Sussex Courrier on 5 May 1880, he called it a “senseless and useless prosecution…

One wonders what his father thought when attesting in the Army Service Corps in 1897 Clifton West stated he was willing to be vaccinated!14 Clifton served for 12 years, including in South Africa during the Second Boer War. Afterwards he was a Lieutenant in the Legion of Frontiersmen, a patriotic organisation formed at the turn of the 20th century to watch over and protect the boundaries of the Empire. He also patented inventions, as varied as a perambulator brake, a game, a firearm magazine and projectiles. During World War One he was involved in a dispute over one of his inventions, an aerial torpedo, which he claimed had been stolen. He also claimed he had been granted an exemption from military service because of his experiments in this area.15 At a City (of London) Military Service Tribunal in 1917 he claimed to hold 150 patents, including several adopted for military purposes.16

But back to his parents. It would be wrong to claim that the Wests’ opposition to compulsory vaccination was purely down to Samuel. Or that Katelena was a meek and mild Victorian wife. Katelena shared her husband’s anti-vaccination zeal. In January 1880, only months after Clifton’s birth, she was amongst the candidates standing for election to the Rochester School Board. This was one arena where women could take a role, and it provided an opportunity for strong feminist women to show they were capable of public administration. Elected by ratepayers, the Board examined provision of elementary education in the area, and if there was insufficient provision they had the power to build and run schools. Put forward as an opponent of vaccination in Board Schools, she was duly elected.17

In January 1882, as a mark of her work on the Rochester School Board, the Rochester Independent Working Men’s Committee presented her with a cross ornament for “the conquering in Kent of the prejudice against females serving in municipal offices.” Inscriptions included “Just, yet merciful always,” and, with possibly a nod towards vaccination legislation, “Persuasion better than compulsion.18

By the time of the 1881 census the family were in Gravesend. The boundary of the port of London, for many it marked the start of a new life: emigrants departing to carve out new opportunities overseas; and immigrants lured by the prospects of a better life, and fleeing famine or persecution. Samuel appears to have a change in occupation too. The census records him working as a bottle merchant, whilst Katelena continued as a member of a School Board. The household also included a general servant.19 By the end of the following year Samuel was the proprietor of the town’s Port of London Temperance Hotel.

Within months of the 1881 census the Wests had a new addition to their family – born back in Rochester. And their anti-vaccination associations once more translated into the naming of this son William Hume Rothery West – I had to compare several sources to get to this one – the GRO Website had him as William Hurne Rothery West, whilst Findmypast had William Hume R West. The 1891 census has him down as William H. R. A. West.20 What’s the betting the A stands for something along the lines of Antivaccinator?

And it was the refusal to vaccinate this latest child which brought Samuel before the Rochester magistrates once again at the end of January 1882 – his 13th appearance in court. A false rumour circulated that Lord Clifton would appear for the defence. In his circuitous guilty plea Samuel referred to vaccination as a “beastly operation”, and that he had a “reasonable excuse” for non-compliance as in innumerable cases vaccination caused disease and death. Inevitably though he was found guilty.21

Credit: Spratley-type vaccinator, York, England, 1820-1910. Credit: Science Museum, London. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Katelena was clearly a feisty woman. A wife and mother, undertaking a prominent public role, she too was not afraid to challenge the authorities. And, within a year of her husband’s 13th encounter with the judiciary, a pregnant Katelena too made a series of appearances before the Gravesend police court in a bizarre, and widely covered, assault case. It all stemmed from her involvement in the arrest of a drunken man, Edward Lambourn, late at night on 2 December 1882. During the course of the arrest Katelena apparently dragged police constable Stanley off Lambourn. She appeared in the initial case as a witness in defence of Lambourn, accusing PC Stanley of being drunk. The case escalated. She issued a summons against PC Stanley for assault. This was rejected. Instead a police summons was granted against Katelena who was charged with assaulting a police officer and obstructing him in the course of his duty. In her final court appearance on 15 December she withdrew her allegations of police drunkenness. In turn Mr Sharland, representing the police, stated there were no allegations against her personal character. She was, however, convicted of the assault and obstruction charges and fined 20s and costs.22

When naming their next child, a girl, there could be only one name which could follow William Hume Rothery. This infant was registered Mary Hume Antivaccinator West, honouring the other National Anti-Compulsory Vaccination League founder. Although born in Gravesend, her burial is recorded at Rochester St Nicholas on 12 September 1883, age five months.

Lillieon (Lillian) Allison Anti-vaccinator West was born in 1884, baptised at St Andrew’s Waterside Mission, Gravesend on 21 September 1884.23 Charles Dickens was one of the donors who contributed to the building of this church, which served the bustling Gravesend waterside community, teeming with sailors, fishermen and emigrants. The church saw the baptism of hundreds of emigrants heading for new lives to Australia, New Zealand and the Americas.

On 25 August 1886 the church was the location for the final baptism of a child of Samuel and Katelena West.24 GRO records name him Samuel Joseph A West. An educated guess can be made at what the letter ‘A’ stands for. In less than 14 years of marriage this was the Wests’ ninth child.

But it was not Katelena’s final pregnancy. The Gravesend and Dartford Reporter of 5 November 1887 carried the announcement of the death on 3 November of both Katelena West and a newborn boy. She was 34. Like four of her children her burial, on 8 November 1887, is recorded in the register of Rochester St Nicholas. Her headstone inscription reads:

IN LOVING MEMORY
OF
OUR DEAR MOTHER
KATELENA WEST
WIFE OF
SAMUEL JOSEPH WEST
WHOM GOD CALLED HOME
ON THE 3rd NOVEMBER 1887
AT THE AGE OF 3425

A little over a year later Samuel married Susannah Emma Stephens.26 The couple were living in Portsmouth with Samuel’s five children by 1891, with Samuel now working as an insurance agent.27 This period, the 1890s, saw another change in smallpox vaccination legislation.

In 1889 a Royal Commission was appointed to investigate the issue, looking at the grievances of anti-vaccinators, as well as the evidence for the need for vaccination. It reported in 1896, concluding vaccination did protect against smallpox. It also recommended the abolition of cumulative penalties and the use of perceived safer calf lymph harvested vaccine. Interestingly, and of relevance in today’s COVID-19 world, the rush for a vaccine and discussions around length of immunity, there was a recognition that the protection conferred by the smallpox vaccine:

….though lasting for some time, is gradually lost, so that there comes a period when the protection is very slight indeed. Re-vaccination is naturally the first remedy….28

Credit: Death as a skeletal figure wielding a scythe: representing fears concerning the Act of 1898 which made vaccination against smallpox compulsory. Wood engraving by Sir E.L. Sambourne, 1898. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

These recommendations were incorporated into the 1898 Act, which also included a conscience clause. This meant parents could obtain a certificate of exemption if they satisfied two magistrates of their conscientious objections to vaccination on grounds of its efficacy or safety. This exemption certificate had to be obtained before the infant was four months old.

Credit: ‘The Public Vaccinator’ by Lance Calkin, circa 1901. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

In practice, though, it proved difficult to obtain an exemption in the prescribed timeframe, with many magistrates refusing to be satisfied. As a result a further Act in 1907 simplified the process. This meant a parent could make a Statutory Declaration within four months of the birth of their child stating their belief that vaccination would adversely affect its health, and Magistrates had to sign such Declarations.

It was against the backdrop of these changes that Samuel’s final three children were born. And again it’s a case of checking a number of sources for their names. The birth of Charlotte Kate West was registered in the Portsea Island registration district in 1892; Susannah Kate Anti Vaccinator West (only one birth index out of three versions checked includes the name Anti Vaccinator) was registered in 1894 at Romsey: and Daisy Matilda West was registered in Poole district in 1896.

Skip forward to the 1911 census though, when the family were living in East Grinstead, Sussex. On this record all three girls have Anti Vaccinist as part of their suite of Christian names.29 The fact that Samuel West (or Joe as he signed himself) even signalled his opposition to vaccination on this post 1907 Act census shows how strongly he continued to feel about the issue. And a further name confirmation comes in the National Probate Calendar, when Charlotte Kate Antivaccinist West is one of those granted probate when mother Susannah died on 3 March 1921.

By the time the West family resided at East Grinstead in 1911, Samuel’s occupation had changed yet again. A land agent living in Ludgershall, Wiltshire in 1901, he had now morphed to become a small freehold developer with the East Grinstead Estate Company. This was the principal landholder in Felbridge, Surrey. The 1913 Kelly’s Directory for Surrey shows he was their land salesman, and now had moved to Felbridge, living at Invicta Lodge. This was on the London Road, known today as Ebor Lodge. Both he and wife Susannah were very much into property dealing, and this was the case at the time of Susannah’s death in 1921 when the National Probate Calendar entry records Samuel Joseph’s occupation as ‘Estate Agent’. Samuel’s death, as recorded in the National Probate Calendar, took place on 27 August 1927. And in another name twist here Charlotte’s name is given as Charlotte Katelena West – indicating the possibility that his firstborn daughter from his second marriage was named in an affectionate remembrance of his first wife.

I am extremely grateful to Noland West, the great grandson of Samuel Joseph West, who contacted me after reading this blog post. He gave me permission to use the West family photograph (below). It depicts Samuel Joseph West with two of his sons, including Clifton Antivaccinator West – who had an incredibly varied life himself. It is always wonderful to see photographs rather than relying on a narrative. It really does add another dimension to their family history, a human face to it all. An ordinary English family whose lives spanned the 19th and 20th centuries, and who had their own unique place in the history of Britain.

Samuel Joseph West (centre) along with son Clifton Antivaccinator West in the uniform of a Lieutenant in the Legion of Frontiersmen (right) and his wife and children. Left is either William or Samuel West.30

I’ll end with some points to take away from this tale:

  • Do not ignore clues offered by names;
  • If you find an unusual name, it’s always worth following it up. There may be a reason for the choice which will provide enriching family history insights;
  • Do not assume that all GRO Indexes contain the same information and, if possible, don’t rely on just one version of the indexes. Beyond that, it pays to check several record sources;
  • Do not assume the GRO Indexes detail all the names on the registration – and that can apply to someone with only a couple of given names as much as to someone with 26 given names; and
  • Anti-vaxxers are not a new phenomena. The reasons for their opposition in the 19th century are pretty much the same reasons trotted out by current crop of anti-vaxxers. And, as in the past, their decisions affect not only themselves and their children, they endanger the health and lives of the wider population.

Footnotes
1. Rolleston, J.D., The Smallpox Pandemic of 1870-1874, 24 November 1933, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/003591573302700245
2. The Leeds Intelligencer, 14 January 1860
3. Broadwater’s Buckinghamshire Advertiser and Uxbridge Journal, 16 May 1865
4. The Leeds Times, 22 November 1873
5. The Manchester Evening News, 26 April 1871
6. 1853 Vaccination Extension Bill debate, Hansard HC Deb 20 July 1853 vol 129 cc470-5
7. The spelling of Katelena does vary in records, but this is the most commonly used and the one on her headstone inscription at Rochester St Nicholas
8. Rochester St Nicholas marriage register, transcript accessed via Findmypast, Medway Archives Reference P306/1/22
9. 1861 Census, accessed via Ancestry, TNA Reference RG9/476/109/6
10. Newham, J. W., & Coltman, P. (1984). The diary of a prison governor: James William Newham: 1825-1890. Maidstone: Kent County Library, Kent County Council
11. Kent and Sussex Courier, 27 March 1878
12. Folkestone Express, 24 April 1880
13. East Kent Gazette, 24 April 1880
14. Royal Hospital Chelsea: Soldiers Service Documents, accessed via Findmypast, TNA Reference WO 97
15. Mills, S. (2019). DAWN OF THE DRONE: From the back room boys of the Royal Flying Corps
16. Pall Mall Gazette, 20 April 1917
17. Leamington Spa Courier, 3 January 1880 and The London Daily News, 7 January 1880
18. Folkestone Express, 21 January 1882
19. 1881 Census, accessed via Findmypast, TNA Reference RG11/887/21/9
20. 1891 Census, accessed via Findmypast, TNA Reference RG12/876/13/20
21. The Thanet Advertiser, 4 February 1882
22. Gravesend Reporter, 9 and 16 December 1882
23. St Andrew’s Waterside Mission 1865-1970 baptisms, accessed via Findmypast, transcription by Rob Cottrell, Trueflare Limited
24. Ibid
25. Rochester, St Nicholas Cemetery. (n.d.). Retrieved September 25, 2020, from https://kentarchaeology.org.uk/research/monumental-inscriptions/rochester-st-nicholas-cemetery
26. GRO Marriage Indexes, accessed via Findmypast, Reference March Quarter 1889, Gravesend, Volume 2a, Page 617
27. 1891 Census, accessed via Findmypast, TNA Reference RG12/876/13/20
28. The Report of the Royal Commission on Vaccination. Nature 55, 15–17 (1896). https://doi.org/10.1038/055015a0
29. 1911 Census, accessed via Findmypast, TNA Reference RG14/4980
30. With thanks to Noland West for permission to use this West family photo. This photograph is not to be reproduced without permission.

Miscellaneous Sources
•Brown, P.S, The Vicissitudes of Herbalism in Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century Britain, Downloaded from https://www.cambridge.org/core
Felbridge & District History Group. Accessed October 3, 2020. https://www.felbridge.org.uk/
•GRO Indexes, via the GRO Website, and the datasets on Findmypast and FreeBMD
National Probate Calendar, England and Wales
•Riedel, Stefan. Edward Jenner and the History of Smallpox and Vaccination, January 2005. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1200696/
Rochester St Nicholas parish register transcripts, accessed via Findmypast. Kent Archives References P306/1/11 (baptisms) and P306/1/32 (burials)
•Valentine, S. (2020, June 23). The Victorian vegetarians who led the revolt against the smallpox vaccine. Retrieved from https://reaction.life/the-victorian-vegetarians-who-led-the-revolt-against-the-smallpox-vaccine/
•Walter, M. P. (2015). The Rhetoric of Nineteenth Century British Anti- Vaccinators: An Interdisciplinary Movement of Medicine, Religion, Class, and Popular Culture [Scholarly project]
Wellcome Library Images (n.d.). Retrieved September 25, 2020, from https://wellcomelibrary.org/
•Wolfe, R.M., Sharpe, L.K. Anti-vaccinationists past and present. BMJ. 2002d;325:430-432

Talk: Researching Your Great War Army Ancestors. (Includes details of my other 2020 talks)

Heads up about my forthcoming talk on 4 March at Leeds Central Library.

Based on my groundbreaking book The Greatest Sacrifice: Fallen Heroes of the Northern Union about rugby league players who died in World War 1, the talk investigates the stories behind some of the men. It will also be packed with tips for researching your own Great War Army ancestors.

The book, co-authored with Rugby League writer Chris Roberts, has received widespread acclaim, locally and nationally, in print and on radio. The reviews include:

The talk will take place in the Leodis Room, starting at 1pm. It will last for one hour, with opportunity to ask questions. Tickets are free and available through Ticket Source. You can also contact the library direct on 0113 378 5005.

This is one of a series of talks I give. The others scheduled for 2020 are:

  • Blogging for Family and Local History; and
  • The Home Front: the White Lee Explosion of 1914

For more details about these talks please contact me at: pasttopresentgenealogy@btinternet.com

That’s also the contact if you would like to buy a copy of the book. The price, including p&p within the U.K., is £14.99. It is also available direct from the publisher, Scratching Shed Publishing Ltd. It is also stocked at independent Leeds bookshop, Philip Howard Books. And it’s also available from the normal retail outlets.

Will Your Family History Research Die With You?

What plans have you made to preserve for your family history research after your death? That’s a question I posed nearly two years ago. Dealing with life from cradle to grave and beyond, you’d think this would be something family historians, more than most groups, were on top of.

Wrong.  Almost half of those who responded said they had no plan in place. Reasons for this varied, including no-one in the family was interested; the researcher had no close relatives; or even simply a case that they had never given it a thought. Surprisingly, this latter response didn’t apply only to those new to family history. I guess we don’t like to think of a time when we’re not here!

What will become of my research is something I’ve considered ever since. Not least because I was one of the ‘no plan’ cohort. I guess I hoped it would all be OK. But, thinking about it, it isn’t fair to let my relatives and executors sort it out. In addition to their grief, they will have enough practical arrangements to deal with. And under those circumstances, there is a possibility it all may be thrown away as the easy option. So, I need to take responsibility and make things easier for them. It’s up to me to decide what I want to happen to my research…including if I’m happy for it to be destroyed.

The bottom line is I don’t want it to end up in the bin after I’m gone. And I expect many other family historians, one-name and one-place ‘studiers’ feel the same about their work. That means making plans now.

For some, the emotional and personal aspect of family history research means the ideal solution is to bequeath it to an immediate family member…assuming there is someone eager and able to take it on. Although conversely, does this ultimately rob them of the pleasure of research? That’s another dilemma.

In the case of a one-name study, there may be someone else willing to continue researching that name.

But beyond that, there are other alternatives. In this piece I’ve put forward some of these wider options.

Three key points from the outset.

  1. You need to check that the individual(s) and organisation(s) who you intend leaving your research to are happy to receive it. They simply might not have the space or resources to house it. If it’s an organisation, it may not be suitable for them. And, particularly if it is an organisation, it’s only fair to make sure your donation is going to be in a format acceptable to them. All this requires planning. Which leads on to the second point.
  2. If possible, do make sure you have properly organised and labelled your research. That’s one of the reasons for including in my 2020 New Year’s Resolutions the commitment to review all my research and ensure full source citations are included. Then I need to make sure it’s stored in an organised, logical manner. That means it’s far easier for it to be passed on, and those looking at it in later years can fully understand the sources used, any gaps with them, and the arguments underpinning the conclusions. And finally;
  3. Whatever you decide, do formalise it by including it in your will. In addition, do make sure several people know this is your wish. You don’t want it ending up in the skip before the will has been executed.

So what are the wider options?

Many family history societies have library sections which take donations. Some will have established formal donation policies. It’s worth making contact to see if your research is something they would be interested in, especially if it fits with the area they cover. 

Check out local history societies too. Again they may have a library section to accommodate research, or even an active website where they can share information about local families.

It may be worth contacting your local Council’s library department, particularly if there is a main local studies library, or if the various branch libraries specialise in local history themes. It is worth bearing in mind, though, the funding pressures facing libraries. Many have downsized or closed in recent years, with reference sections being particularly squeezed. 

Depending on the type of documents you have, would a local archive be interested?

Nationally, organisations such as the Society of Genealogists (SoG) take donations. Their collections policy states they welcome “original work and papers of genealogists and family historians as well as material primarily of genealogical interest which other archives are not interested in.” More details about donating to the SoG are here.

If you have a one-name study check out the Guild of One-Name Studies, and their page which explains more about preserving your study, including an example will codicil. 

Ultimately, it may be that your research covers a number of distinct areas, and is best split between multiple organisations. But, if so, even more reason for you to do the planning now. 

There are other things to consider when bequeathing your research, particularly to an organisation or repository. These include asking yourself if they are likely to be around long-term to ensure your work is preserved. With so many organisations struggling due to cut-backs or falling membership numbers, their future viability is a genuine factor. If so, can you include provisions for that eventuality? For example, will your donation be classed as a permanent gift, or is a loan possible?  If your aim is to ensure your research is made available to others after your death, will the recipient be able to deliver that level of accessibility? And would you want access to be free? Also, because there is a financial cost to the organisation in cataloguing, storing, conserving and making available your research, do consider making an accompanying monetary bequest.

Finally, there are some practical steps you can take to share and disseminate your work in your lifetime. These include blogging, creating a website, having a family history FaceBook Page, uploading a public version of your family tree (e.g. via Ancestry or GenesReunited), sharing information with relevant one-place or one-name studies, or even writing a family history book and distributing copies to relatives. But some of these may lead to whole new topics…not least around preserving your digital legacy! 

Hopefully this has given you some ideas. As for me, I’m leaving everything to an interested family member. I’ve also got my blog which includes some family history tales. And in 2014 I wrote and distributed my paternal family history book (which now needs updating). Which reminds me, I must do one for my mum’s side – something I’d overlooked until writing this post. Family history is never done!