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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Learning. Linked to the above two, connecting and collaborating can lead to improving your family history research skills.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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:
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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-vaccinator”11 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
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
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.
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.
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 LibraryImages (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
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:
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.
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.
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.
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;
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!
I love Call the Midwife. A recent episode, set in 1965, about illegitimacy and the pressure on single women to give up their baby (or marry) really does give pause for thought about attitudes towards women in society generally, even within living memory.
It got me thinking wider about beliefs about the role of women in the middle part of the 20th century, particularly married working women. Certain jobs today are perceived as traditionally female occupations. As a former civil servant, I have an interest in this work area. Civil Service jobs, particularly junior administrative and clerical roles, may fall within this traditionally ‘female’ category. But perhaps that impression may not be quite as it seems.
Today 53.9% of the UK Civil Service are women, of all relationship statuses. However, in the not-so-distant past, this was not the case. Until the Great War, it was a male-dominated profession. Yes, the labour vacuum created by the two wars did result in the influx of female workers. But the position was far more nuanced – particularly with regard to marital status. The way the Civil Service was structured and operated in the mid 20th century was transformed totally by the end of the century.
One key factor influencing Civil Service employment in the early and middle part of the 20th century, which may not be obvious today, was the distinction between established and unestablished Civil Servants. Linked to this was a marriage bar for established female Civil Servants, a ban imposed by the government.
It meant married women couldn’t become established (permanent, pensionable) Civil Servants , and single women who were in the established cadre had to resign when they did marry, unless granted a waiver to continue. This waiver was an exceptional occurrence, with only eight of these granted between 1934 and 1938. In effect, married women were second-class citizens.
The Civil Service position regarding married women working in permanent roles was not unique. Similar restrictions on the employment of married women applied for a wide range of professions, some of these also traditionally viewed as suited to women. These included the post office (part of the Civil Service until the 1960s), banking, teaching and nursing.
The reasons for having this restriction included the view that it was the woman’s responsibility after marriage to look after her husband. Marriage was, in fact, a career in its own right – albeit unpaid! In 1944, when the marriage bar issue was under discussion by the Union of Post Office Workers, one representative argued:
In this country we have always held that a woman’s place is in the home.
This from someone in an organisation championing worker’s rights!
It was also perceived that women became less efficient employees once married, as their minds were no longer wholly on their job. They also needed time off to have children, and were unpunctual or absent because of their family responsibilities. Linked to this was the belief that it was the fundamental right of a man to be the provider in his own home. Working wives somehow shifted this balance, emasculating their husbands. Furthermore, married working women reduced employment opportunities for men, and this contributed to male unemployment. These women also took jobs and promotion opportunities away from single women, who needed work more than their married (and supposedly financially supported) sisters. And perhaps I’m being cynical here, but it also saved money. Pay was linked to time-served progression. Forcing women out on marriage meant their progression up the pay scale was curtailed.
But attitudes slowly shifted as the Second World War drew to a close, and practicalities were weighed up. Banishing a whole section of the female population to the kitchen again, and denying them rights to a full working life, was becoming an increasingly difficult line to hold. Once more, women needed to plug wartime labour market gaps, and stepped up to the plate effectively. There was also a growing realisation that the experience, ideas and contributions of a whole section of society was being denied. Female university graduates were put off from applying for jobs with no long-term prospects. Arguments were put forward that married female employment was not a cause of male unemployment, and pulling a whole section of women out of the workforce was not the answer. The push for equality, and freedom of choice, therefore gained traction, despite ingrained prejudices. And, ironically, labour-saving devices around the home helped too, freeing time and opening up the world of work to more women.
The marriage bar was gradually removed from 1944 onwards (this was the date the wider teaching profession lifted the restriction). The Civil Service was only slightly behind the pace – it was becoming increasingly untenable for government to continue with the policy. For well over a decade, the restriction on married women working in the established Civil Service had been under discussion. It had a Marriage Bar Committee investigating various aspects associated with the policy, both pros and cons. There was even a National Whitley Council report on the subject. The decision could no longer be kicked into the long grass.
The marriage bar was finally abolished in October 1946 for the Home Civil Service, and 1973 for Foreign Service employment. More details about this are at here.
In his explanatory parliamentary statement on 15 October 1946, Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer, Edward Hugh John Neale Dalton, said:
In future, married women will not be ineligible by reason of their marriage for appointment to established posts in the Home Civil Service, and women who remain in the Service will be required to comply with the normal conditions and practices of their employment, including regular attendance, the working of overtime when necessary and the acceptance of the liability to transfer within the United Kingdom and outside it. Those who, on account of domestic responsibilities or otherwise, are unable to comply with these conditions will not be retained in Service. The abolition of the marriage bar will take effect today. It will not give any right of reinstatement to women who in the past have been required to resign from the Civil Service on marriage. Marriage gratuities will be paid , as hitherto, to women who voluntarily resign from established Civil Service posts on marriage.
However, the opposition to the removal of the marriage bar in the Civil Service and elsewhere continued to be aired well into the 1950s. For example, at the Civil Service Conference of 1950, a motion to re-introduce it was defeated by 7,348 votes to 5,454.
The arguments for its re-imposition focused around easing the redundancy threat facing established officers, particularly married men. Questions were also raised about the future shape of the Civil Service. The implication being this was a step on the slippery slope to employing married women with children. It raised the question:
What kind of Civil Service are we building up? Next we’ll be asking to requisition playpens so they can bring their children into the office.
There were even cartoons depicting the chaos of infants in the office.
And some were unhappy at the potential job competition faced by single women from their married counterparts. Men clearly had an ulterior motive for espousing this view, although some single women did put it forward too.
An illustration of the denial of jobs for unmarried women argument was seen at the Union of Post Office Workers Annual Conference of 1953. This was a union which had campaigned for the removal of the marriage bar in the Civil Service. Yet at their 1953 Conference, attempts were made to seek reimposition of the ban on married women in the Post Office. Those in favour here claimed it was unfair that single women who had dependents were being denied an income, whilst married women were able to afford TV sets and washing machines from their dual family income. The Conference contained the immortal lines of one speaker:
Do not let us have girls standing in unemployment queues while their married colleagues are going about looking like bookies wives.
However, the situation of married women working did gradually become tolerated and accepted.
By 15 September 1958, The Times, in a feature on Whitehall Women, focusing on Administrative Class (senior hierarchy) rather than the more junior Executive, Clerical and other Officer Classes, was extolling the opportunities in the Home Civil Service for suitably qualified women, stating that:
…the State is an enlightened employer recognising by generous maternity leave that a married woman may have children in the course of her career and arrange her life so she can have the best of these two worlds.
It went on to cover advantages such as annual leave, a five-day week, the prospect of travel to places such as Paris, Bonn, Geneva and Washington, and, from 1961, equal pay with male colleagues. This was all aimed at enticing more female university graduates to apply for a Civil Service career.
Yet even in this article there was the whiff of sexism, with lines such as:
If they are attractive, as well as having good brains, “they are most useful” to quote an official “in swaying meetings.”
Despite the example set by government for Home Service Civil Servants, the marriage bar continued formally and informally in the private sector even beyond the 1950s. For example, Barclays Bank did not abolish it until 1961. And there was still a bar in place for Foreign Service Civil Servants into the early 1970s.
So it is well worth considering this specific restriction on the employment of women when investigating the occupations of your female ancestors. Did such a restriction play a part in their career choices, even the choices for university graduates? And did it also play a part in prematurely ending their working lives, effectively forcing them to leave their jobs and work colleagues? And imagine how that felt, cut adrift from the familiar routine of their lives, their friends and daily interactions, let alone the monetary impact.
It also is worth considering that the Civil Service wasn’t structured as now – it contained two classes of workers: established (which is probably what we regard today as the Civil Service) and unestablished. And very different terms and conditions of employment existed when compared to today. Even if jobs and professions continue today, do investigate the terms and conditions which existed for your ancestors. You may be surprised.
Finally, the marriage bar and societal attitudes towards it, provides yet another fascinating insight into the lives of our female ancestors, and the job choices they had. And it is another example of the pitfall of using 21st century eyes to view the lives of our ancestors, and their work (and life) options. Many did not choose to give up work, they were in effect forced out because they married and their job did not permit them to continue under these circumstances.
Notes:  The Civil Service structure, and its strict recruitment and promotion procedures, was a complex system. In addition to established permanent Civil Servants, there existed another tier of unestablished employees. The unestablished Civil Service were essentially supposed to be non-permanent staff, not subject to the superannuation act. They were meant to plug gaps such as those created during wartime, or through seasonal fluctuations. They could be easily dispensed with when conditions changed, thus protecting established staff from the threat of redundancy. Recruitment of these temporary staff tended to be on a Departmental level and not as a result of stringent centrally imposed examinations. It was therefore a concern that if these unestablished workers did gain entry to the established ranks (which could happen) they would not match the rigorous intellectual standards attained by examination entrant Civil Servants. Nevertheless there was some blurring, with an increasing tendency for unestablished posts to become temporary in name only without the benefits of permanency. This in itself resulted in pressure for change. However, even as late as 1 January 1965 there were approximately 159,000 temporary non-industrial civil servants.  These length of service based gratuities were paid upon marriage to permanent female civil servants who had worked a minimum of six (established) years.
Perhaps taphophilia and family history go hand in hand? I can spend ages wandering through a cemetery marvelling at the various headstone designs and reading the inscriptions. The architecture and symbolic imagery of some headstones is simply stunning. They contain so many stories, so much history and they silently speak volumes about attitudes towards death, culture, beliefs, religion, mourning and mortality over the ages.
Importantly, for family historians, they can contain clues about family sizes, family relationships, occupations, interests and causes of death. For example, Lottie Oddy’s headstone (above) in Batley Cemetery, details her unusual death cause – a tale I wrote about in an earlier blog. And only the other day in Masham I discovered several occupational graves, including that of Ralph Edon (below).
They may record deaths of family members buried elsewhere. For example, several headstones in Batley cemetery record deaths of Great War servicemen buried overseas, or with no known grave. On a personal level for my research, a Hallas headstone at Roberttown All Saints includes the name of a child buried at Mirfield St Mary’s.
Some clues may be very subtle. One headstone in Batley cemetery recorded death dates for all family members bar one. Further investigation revealed his body had been dumped on a doorstep, and the exact date of death was unknown.
And don’t forget to note wider details. The headstone, or burial location within the cemetery, could be an indication of the family’s wealth or standing in the community.
I’ve visited so many cemeteries over the years, hunting down the headstones of ancestors and those I’m researching. Here are five tips to get the most out of family history tombstone tourism.
Plan your visit. Make a note of names, dates and plot numbers. Check cemetery opening times – not all are open 24/7. There may be a useful cemetery website, a church or local authority contact point.
See if there’s a map of the cemetery showing plot sections and plot numbers. Are there separate sections for different religious denominations e.g. a consecrated section for Church of England burials, and an unconsecrated area for other denominations? Even within the unconsecrated sections, there may be a clear division between Catholic and nonconformist areas.
Some local authorities may, for a fee, be able to say who is buried in a particular plot and if there is a headstone. Many cemeteries have ‘Friends Of’ groups, or there may be a family history society who has made a note of Memorial Inscriptions. They too may have information databases.
Cemetery registers may be available. If possible, try to note details of other plots in the particular section you are seeking. Your plot of interest may not have a headstone, and grave markers can be obscured. But you may be able to pinpoint your ancestor’s unmarked burial place from the neighbouring headstones.
Another tip is to check sites such as Find A Grave or BillionGraves and download the Apps. Their images and GPS may help in pinpointing a specific grave.
When you get to the cemetery don’t rush in. Take a general look to get an overview, establish bearings and see if the cemetery has identifiable sections depending on burial time period.
Dress sensibly and come prepared. Cemeteries can be vast, and a visit can involve lots of walking. The ground is often uneven, and not all burial grounds are immaculately kept. They can be overgrown with long grass, thorns and tendrils whipping around your knee and ankles, all hiding lots of biting insects. In wet weather the long grass may soak through points of contact. So stout, comfortable walking shoes are the order of the day. No heels, canvas shoes or open toed-sandals. Long trousers too. If it’s hot weather slap on the sunscreen and fetch your water. Pack waterproofs in case of a sudden downpour. And take something to kneel on – your waterproofs (if you’re not using them!) Even something as simple as a plastic bag comes in handy here. Without an improvised kneeler, damp, muddy trouser knees can be an uncomfortable occupational hazard of headstone photography – I speak from experience!
Take a pencil and notebook to record findings (including negative) and to write out problematical inscriptions, indicating where the gaps or issues are. It’s like a transcription exercise! In fact it may be prudent to copy in full all important inscriptions in your notebook, in case there is a problem with photographs which goes unnoticed until your return home.
And, sad to say, do take sensible safety precautions. Cemeteries can be lonely places. So explore in daylight, accompanied if possible, and not carrying lots of expensive kit.
Photograph. I take multiple snaps on both my camera and phone camera. If there’s a sign indicating cemetery name, that’s the first image. It signposts where the subsequent headstone images were taken.
Next, I take images of the full headstone from various angles, followed by close-ups of the inscription. These close-ups can run into several images depending on the headstone size, and the number and length of inscriptions. I include images from both back, front and, if appropriate the sides of the headstone. And don’t ignore the base of the headstone, peaking out at ground level. All these areas may contain inscriptions or additional details. One good example of this was the headstone of the Hallas Family at Kirkburton All Hallows. The front of the grave includes details of my 5x great grandparents Amos and Ann Hallas. Low down it indicates the grave owner is George Hallas, my 4x great grandfather. The reverse of the headstone has a gem of an inscription about the bizarre and unexpected way their daughter Esther met her death in July 1817, which I wrote about in my first ever blog post.
Finally, I take wider shots to include neighbouring headstones. These too may have a connection, as family headstones may be grouped together.
Once back home I can play about with image settings and use various photo editor apps and programmes. Manipulating the images may help overcome inscription legibility issues.
Don’t be tempted to clean the headstone unless you know exactly what you’re doing, and you have permission. It can be frustrating if an inscription is obscured by algae or lichen, or if weathering has faded lettering. But irreparable damage can be done to the headstone by trying to clean it using inappropriate methods and products, or using remedies such as flour or shaving foam to make the engraving legible. And do remember some plants are actually protected by law. I personally stick to nothing more than a light dousing with water to see if that removes headstone dirt or improves legibility. For me, going beyond that is simply not worth the risk.
Record findings and check information. Do this as soon as possible after your trip, and include the visit date. Graveyards and headstones change over the years. It’s easy to put this mundane chore off, so it becomes caught up in a huge work backlog. Then you forget what you’ve done and where you’ve saved the information. It may even get damaged, erased or permanently lost. All of which could create more work in the long run – through trying to find your original photographs and notes, or even duplicating the work through unnecessary repeat visits.
Also, do not automatically accept any inscription as gospel. Headstones are not official records, and even official records are not immune from errors! Headstones may post-date an individual’s death by some years, and details may be mis-remembered. As a result, ages, dates and information may be incorrect. I’ve seen countless examples of this. As with any other source, headstone inscriptions should be not used in isolation. Their accuracy should be weighed up against other sources.
Hopefully these tips will help you plan your next family history cemetery expedition.
Footnote: Another trick is using a reflective surface, or torch, to light inscriptions from different angles, which can help deciphering them. With thanks to Sue Adams of Family Folk
It has also been suggested don’t take your children with you. After the initial spurt of enthusiasm they can easily get bored!
Many will be starting their family history research in the New Year. That’s the time of year I embarked on my quest many moons ago, when my brother bought me some books as a Christmas present.
The other day I got to thinking about the mistakes I made in those early days, and the advice I wish I’d been given at the outset. Here are 10 tips I wish my younger genie had been given.
Talk to relatives…but only if they want to. Don’t push it. Not all relatives will be comfortable with this, particularly if there are skeletons in the family history cupboard. If they do agree to talk, bear in mind the memory isn’t infallible. Names, dates and events may not be recalled with total accuracy. And there may be some air-brushing to glass over uncomfortable truths.
Make a note of all the sources and references for your findings. That includes the document description, location and reference number. If it was accessed via an online search, note the website address, document dataset and search date. Basically anything and everything you will need to locate it again.
Make a note of all searches – negative as well as positive. It avoids unnecessary repeat searches. Note the search date. This helps with online searches. You only need to repeat when the dataset is updated.
Tempting as it is, avoid the scattergun approach. Plan your research strategy. If you plan, you focus. Don’t try do everything in one go. Concentrate on one person, issue, family at a time. Define the problem, and look at which records may help. Work through methodically.
Don’t accept online family trees as gospel. It’s all too easy if you’re new to family history to accept the research of others without question. Do so at your peril – you could find yourself barking up the wrong tree. Do your own research.
Record your findings as soon as possible. Don’t build up a backlog. I started with a card index system which I still continue. I also now record on a family history software programme. But it could also as easily be an ancestral notebook, or downloading forms such as those available on the FamilySearch Wiki. It’s whatever works for you. The key point is you do it, so your research is up to date. you can quickly evaluate it and spot the gaps.
Don’t get hung up on spellings. Literacy levels and accents all impacted. Be open-minded. Some of my family surnames have upwards of 20 spelling variations. Even Christian names could vary.
By the same token be aware that your ancestors were not necessarily consistent with facts. They may have not known their exact birthday. They may have wished to bend the truth. My great grandmother lied about her age to make it appear she was closer to the age of her husband. She and my great grandfather lied in the 1911 census about the number of years they had been married, to cover illegitimacy of children. Your ancestors were human. And humans don’t always tell the truth. So when searching, build up in parameters either side of dates. Question, question, question. And refer back constantly to previous findings,
Join a family history society. Consider courses. Read to expand your knowledge. Ask if you’re not sure. And accept help. We’ve all been there. And genealogists are a friendly bunch.
Finally be aware – family history research could end up taking over your life. You’re never finished.
I do hope these tips help you start your research on the right track!