Tag Archives: Books

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

Book Review: Titanic Survivor – The Memoirs of Violet Jessop – Stewardess

Titanic Survivor – The Memoirs of Violet Jessop are the recollections of the life of a stewardess who survived the sinking of both the Titanic and Britannic (‘sister ship’ of the Titanic). This written narrative is interspersed with commentary and explanations by editor John Maxtone-Graham.

Whilst not a literary masterpiece, Violet’s memoirs have a charming appeal, and capture an era of ocean travel from the perspective of a working-class woman on board a ship – a voice that is not often heard. For anyone with ancestors employed in a ship’s victualling department in the first part of the 20th century, particularly as a first class cabin steward, these memoirs give an authentic insight into their life and work.

Violet, born in Buenos Aires on 2 October 1887, was the daughter of Irish immigrants William Katherine Jessop (née Kelly). Suffering serious bouts of ill-health in childhood, in 1903 following the death of her father, she came to England with her mother, brothers and sister.

In October 1908 she made her first sailing as a stewardess with the Royal Mail on the West Indies route, the start of her 42-year career at sea. Her final sailing, in 1950, was in the employ of the same company she started with.

In between, she had employment with White Star (a company she only joined with reluctance), P&O (very briefly) and Red Star. As well as working as a stewardess for first class passengers on transatlantic crossings with the White Star Line, she undertook World Cruises, hedonistic “booze cruises” during the US prohibition era, and had a stint as a VAD nurse in World War One on board the Britannic, which was converted to a hospital ship. All this was punctuated by periods on shore undertaking a variety of clerical work. The Titanic and Britannic therefore only formed a short period in what was a career spanning decades.

So do not expect a book purely focused on Titanic.

In fact the Titanic forms only three of the 34 chapters. And many of the names of crew and passengers are disguised, perhaps with the discretion of an employee still working on ships (the memoir dates from the mid-1930s whilst Violet was still working). Of those identified and identifiable, she does mention ship designer Thomas Andrews, and clearly had great affection for him. And violinist Jock Hulme is also referred to by name, one of the bandmen who also perished in the early hours of 15 April 1912.

Her Great War VAD experience on board the Britannic, which struck a mine on 21 November 1916 and sank off the coast of the Greek island of Kea, fills another three chapters. These also cover her repatriation as a Distressed British Seaman. From her Titanic shipwreck experience she made sure she abandoned the Britannic with her toothbrush!

And there are intriguing gaps too. Although her White Star Line career included time on the Olympic starting from its maiden voyage in June 1911, it also covered the ship’s fifth voyage when she collided with British warship HMS Hawke. This event is not mentioned. Again it illustrates that there is so much which Violet’s memoirs have skimmed over or omitted – events which would have interested readers.

That being said, Violet’s memoirs are well worth reading for the additional first hand perspective she gives of historic events.

More that this, her memoirs give a broader insight into the work of life with a ships’s victualling department generally, and the lot of cabin stewards in particular, in that golden era of sea travel of the early 20th century. They give a flavour of difficulties of a young girl getting such work in the first place (it was normally a job for more mature women), the job insecurity, the hard work, long hours, short breaks, and the difficult conditions under which they lived on board. There are anecdotes about the foibles and demands of passengers, the job offers, and the marriage proposals. Violet frequently analyses the character and behaviours of those serving alongside her in a ship’s victualling department – from their tippling, to the drive to earn tips to supplement their meagre wages.

And, on a human level, there are the tantalising snippets leaving you wondering who she was referring to – for example on the Titanic; what became of Ned – the love of her life; who was the man she had a brief and unsuccessful marriage with – never referred to in her memoirs; and what was in, and became of, the missing chapter.

To conclude, I really enjoyed this easy to read, conversational-style book. A perfect weekend indulgence.

How to Pick a Baby’s Name – Enid Blyton Inspiration

This post is prompted by my daughter’s birthday and a Twitter thread about name inspirations.

Way before the resurgence in popularity of Amelia as a name in England, we chose it for our daughter. She was named after my all-time favourite childhood book character – Enid Blyton’s Naughty Amelia Jane.

As a child I spent lengthy periods in hospital. One of my earliest memories is one of the nurses in the now long-since closed Batley Hospital reading me a chapter from an Amelia Jane book before bedtime. Incidentally it is in the grounds of this hospital that my grandad died whilst building an air raid shelter.

batley hospital

It also brings to mind my two cousins and I (separated by only three months in birth and five minute’s walking distance as children) swapping Enid Blyton books in school holidays.

In the early 1990’s my love for Amelia as a name was reinforced by my reading of William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. Whilst pregnant my initial favourite name for a girl was Alice. But in the final weeks I returned to a name which evoked happy childhood memories, combined with more recent literary reading.

As to family links, to put in perspective it’s family associations a decade or so ago I was inordinately happy to learn my 4x great aunt was an Amelia. That’s really the closest ties family history-wise.

I did baulk at a middle name of Jane. My daughter was unique and I’ve never been keen enough on my name, which has no real family history, to saddle my daughter with it. In fact I’ve no idea as to why I ended up with it as a name. Funnily enough some do think it is her middle name!

Amelia’s name origins continued to have relevance as she grew up, with me reading to her bedtime stories and tales of the naughtiest toy in the toy cupboard. I loved reading them to her, reliving my childhood in the process – though I do think she preferred The Faraway Tree (Silky was NOT a naming option.)

img_2469

And so I think about my ancestors and naming patterns. So many names are recycled across the generations. But that recycling is disappearing. Family sizes have diminished so there is less opportunity for generational-straddling family names. And in the last century or so name choices have widened. We have literary, musical and cinematography associated names. Travel horizons and migration have broadened, also correspondingly increasing choice. And have middle names also increased in usage? Also we are no longer bound by the same religious constraints with saints names.

In fact our naming choices are far less prescribed than in other countries. Responding to a FOI request in 2008, the General Register Office (GRO) stated:

Registrations of births in England and Wales are made under the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953 and the Registration of Births and Deaths Regulations 1987. The legislation does not set out any guidance on what parents may name their child.

Our advice to registrars is that a name should consist of a sequence of letters and that it should not be offensive. The reason for limiting the registration of names to a sequence of letters is that a name which includes a string of numbers or symbols etc. has no intrinsic sense of being a name, however the suffix ‘II’ or ‘III’ would be allowed.

The only restriction on the length of a name is that it must be able to fit in the space provided on the registration page. There are no leaflets or booklets available giving guidance on this matter.

Where the registrar has any concerns over a name they will discuss this with the parents and point out the problems the child may face as they grow up and try to get them to reconsider their choice.

For those name and stats geeks (like me) the most popular first names for baby boys and girls in 2017 using birth registration data can be found here. You’ll have to wait until September 2019 for the 2018 stats. The historical data for the top 100 names for baby boys and girls for 1904 to 1994 at 10-yearly intervals is here. Another ‘names through time’ using civil registration information which is great fun is here.

My family history also displays the vagaries of names. And this is something to consider when searching for ancestors in the GRO Indexes.

Dad was never known by his registered first name. My grandma registered it unbeknownst to my grandad who detested it. Hence my dad was always known by his middle name – the source of much official confusion. And payback for my grandma was her next son was born on the saint’s day my dad was registered under.

Another example is of a collateral ancestor known by a totally different name than the one registered. Anecdotally the parent registering apparently used the similar-sounding name of an old girlfriend.

And my 2x grandmother and great grandfather were both initially registered under different names, their parents changing their minds and exercising their option to amend, something I wrote about a while ago.

So for family history purpose do ask why your parents chose your name. Note to self: I need to ask mum why she and dad chose my name. I recall dad saying his choice was Michel(l)e. I reckon they were just popular names at the time.

And if my daughter ever asks, she owes her name primarily to Enid Blyton, and William Makepeace Thackeray was the deciding factor. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) didn’t quite match up.

Sources:

Published: The Greatest Sacrifice – Fallen Heroes of the Northern Union

On Saturday I saw my book for the first time. The finished product looks amazing.

As the publisher said:

What began as an idea in the press box at Huddersfield is now one of the definitive history books about rugby league. Scratching Shed Publishing is honoured to publish a tribute to the 69 men who fell in WWI by Chris & Jane Roberts….

Chris and I echo these sentiments. It has been a real privilege to be able to research the lives of these men.

The publishers have done a fantastic job, supporting us throughout the process of writing this long overdue and important rugby league history book. But above all this is more than a rugby league book, a sporting history book, or a World War One book. It is the story of the impact of war on individual men and their families from across Great Britain.

I hope we’ve done them justice.

The book is available from Scratching Shed Publishing at £14.99.

I also have copies for sale, which can be signed if required. I can also drop off locally. If so the cost is £13.50. Post within the UK increases the cost to £14.50. Payment can either be via cheque (UK) or bank transfer. My contact email is pasttopresentgenealogy@btinternet.com.

The book will also shortly be available from the usual book retailers.

If any family history, rugby league or local history groups would like Chris and I to do a talk, please contact me on the above email address.

Top Ten Genealogy/Family History Books by a Self-Confessed Bookworm

Tsundoku” – the Japanese word for buying books and letting them pile up unread. Yes I’m guilty of that. But I also have piles of read books because I don’t have enough bookshelf space, despite buying yet another one last year to accommodate my burgeoning genealogy and WW1 book collection. I return to these books time and time again for pleasure and my research (interchangeable, because I get enjoyment from research).   

Part of my Book Collection

 Trying to narrow it down to my top ten go-to books has been a really difficult decision because it depends on which aspect of research I’m concentrating. Some such as the handy little Gibson Guides covering topics from Militia Lists, to Hearth Tax and Probate Jurisdictions are invaluable but very specific. I wanted a broader range of topics in my selection.

So in the end I’ve gone for a mixture of general reference and more specialised books, including some tailored to my own family history interests. Here they are, in no particular order: 

  • Ancestral Trails: The Complete Guide to British Genealogy and Family History” – Mark Herber. Exactly as described in the title. It’s my definitive reference book, written in a easy-to-read style and jam-packed with information. A book I couldn’t do without.
  • The Dictionary of Genealogy” – Terrick V H FitzHugh. An alphabetical glossary of terms. A quick reference source to dip into.
  • Tracing your Ancestors in the National Archives: The Website and Beyond” – Amanda Bevan. An in-depth guide which clearly set outs and explains The National Archives series of records. It is indeed “the biggest and best guide to The National Archives”  
  • The Phillimore Atlas and Index of Parish Registers” – edited by Cecil R Humphrey-Smith. Although this might not be for everyone because the information is available on the Internet, I find it invaluable having everything about pre-1832 parishes at county-level in one place, juxtaposed with the topographical county map. There is a comprehensive index of the parishes complete with dates of registers. The Ecclesiastical and Peculiar Jurisdictions are also included. It covers England, Scotland and Wales. Though for those with poor eyesight, a magnifying glass to see the maps in detail is advisable!
  • UK Timeline for Family Historians” – Angela Smith & Neil Bertram. Provides a timeline for family historians setting genealogical events and resources into a wider historical context. It’s not exhaustive but it is a really useful quick, basic reference book.
  • Genealogy – Essential Research Methods” – Helen Osborn. This is a different type of book. It is a detailed, well laid out reference for problem-solving research strategies to help break down brick walls. Some excellent advice on research methodology.
  • Palaeography for Family and Local Historians” – Hilary Marshall. I think it is essential to have a book about palaeography, abbreviations and Latin to help with deciphering old handwriting and language. I have a number all of which I use to varying degrees, so it was difficult to chose one. But in the end I went for this comprehensive book. It has the standard characteristics of letters, abbreviations and a Latin vocabulary. But it also includes copies of original documents accompanied by the transcript, translation, a description and any notable features of the script. So everything in one book.  
  • Tracing your Mayo Ancestors” – Brian Smith. I have a significant contingent of Irish ancestors. I agonised about which Irish ancestry book to include in my list. I was torn between this and John Grenham’s “Tracing Your Irish Ancestors” covering the whole of the country. But as, so far, all my ancestors are from County Mayo I went for a book focusing purely on the records for this County. There are other County books in this series of Flyleaf Press publications.
  • My Ancestor was a Coalminer: A Guide to Coalminer Sources for Family Historians”  – David Tonks. I love the SoG “My Ancestor was A…..” series of books, alongside Pen & Sword’s “Tracing Your Ancestor” series. My ancestors were predominantly coalminers, so for me a coal-mining family history research book is essential. I’ve included this one for the comprehensive pointer to various coal-mining sources. But I could have equally chosen Pen & Sword’s very informative and generally more detailed “Tracing Your Coalmining Ancestors: A Guide for Family Historians” by Brian Elliott (I’ve cheated though and  included this book in my final picture). However the deciding factor was my final choice, another Pen & Sword publication.
  • Tracing Your First World War Ancestors” – Simon Fowler. First World War ancestry is another one of my particular interests, having researched the 76 men on my local church War Memorial, St Mary of the Angels RC Church, Batley. I have a number of books about military research. But this is a good basic introduction covering the full range of those involved in the conflict, including women and civilians at war.  

To keep a track of my books I keep a A-Z by author index of them all. I make sure I take to any family history fairs and events so, in theory, I won’t duplicate purchases; and even if I can’t immediately spot a book on my over-crowded bookshelves, I know it’s there somewhere!

If you have tips for essential family history books please feel free to share them. It’s great to hear about key books, whether you are beginner to family history research or more experienced.