Tag Archives: Family History Tips

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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

Examples of the type of entry include:

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

And:

1859 (October)
THE “ROYAL CHARTER” STORM
.

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

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


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

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

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

The website can be found here.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Photo Trickery Tool – Reanimate Your Ancestors

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

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

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

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

The still enhanced image is below.

Jesse Hill, MyHeritage

The animation can be viewed by clicking this link.

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

Pauline Rhodes – MyHeritage

For more information see the MyHeritage blog

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

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

The Wonder of Maps – Virtual Family History Travel

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

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

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

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

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

Screenshot of the National Library of Scotland Website

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

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

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

A Selection of Physical Maps – Photo by Jane Roberts

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

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

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

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

Public or Private Family Tree?

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

Image by Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay

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

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

First the advantages of a public online tree.

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

Turning to the disadvantages of having your tree publicly available.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keeping Your Family History Research On Track

Do these scenarios sound familiar?

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

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

Which is where a research log comes in.

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

In short a log keeps your research on track.

My seven key points for research logs are:

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

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

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

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

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

Will Your Family History Research Die With You?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three key points from the outset.

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

So what are the wider options?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Civil Service Marriage Bar – Attitudes to Women and Work in the Mid-20th Century

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.

A Day in the Life of a Wartime Housewife- Everyday Life in London, England, 1941, a ‘girl clerk in a war-time organisation’  – Wikimedia Commons – Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer [Public domain], http://media.iwm.org.uk/iwm/mediaLib//41/media-41026/large.jpg

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 [1], 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!

A Day in the Life of a Wartime Housewife- Everyday Life in London, England, 1941, ‘preparing the evening meal – Wikimedia Commons – Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer [Public domain], http://media.iwm.org.uk/iwm/mediaLib//41/media-41031/large.jpg

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 [2], 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:
[1] 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.
[2] These length of service based gratuities were paid upon marriage to permanent female civil servants who had worked a minimum of six (established) years.

Sources:

Five Tips for a Family History Cemetery Visit

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.

Lottie Oddy’s Batley Cemetery Headstone – “who met her death by the fall of the cliffs at Bridlington” – Photo by Jane Roberts

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).

Ralph Edon’s Headstone Inscription at Masham Giving Some Occupational Information (Late Surgeon, 35th Regiment) – Photo by Jane Roberts

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.

Front and Back of the Hallas Headstone at Kirkburton All Hallows – Photo by Jane Roberts

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!

Ten Things You Wish You’d Known Before Starting Your Family History

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.

A selection of my research record books (see Goal 6)
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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,
  9. 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.
  10. 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!

Yesterday is History: You ARE Family History

Often when researching family history one major component is missing. You.

As the saying goes ‘Yesterday is History.’ It’s something us family historians often overlook, we’re so focused on earlier generations.

So time to take a pause from all the research and write up your own life story. It is a legacy for future generations of family history researchers – your history, your recollections, and in your words. Your chance to say it as you remember, with all those unique snippets of information, stamped with your personality.Years ago I bought dad a memory journal to complete. He never did. It’s a thing a bitterly regret he never got round to doing. It would have been a precious legacy to all his descendants for ever more, now he’s no longer around to ask. It would have been a much-cherished connection to him and his life through his written words. As it is, I’m the family history recorder, so now his life is viewed through my memories, my prism. One step removed.

And for those with no direct-line descendants this might be even more important.

This is your opportunity to ensure a lasting footprint in your family’s history.

There are so many ways to do it. It’s not like in previous eras where education, cost and social status dictated, and restricted, opportunity.

There is the family history journal method which in theory is the easiest option with all its pre-printed prompts. But you could also write down your life story. There is no need to over-complicate it and create some massive opus, unless you really want to. Family Tree magazine set a challenge recently to write your family history in only 1,000 words. Those 1,000 words could prove of more value than money left in a will, no matter how rough and ready you may feel it is. That’s not the point. It’s the fact it’s down there for posterity.

There’s even the option to do a recording, so not only your words but your voice preserved for ever more (hopefully).

And when you do put pen to paper, finger to keyboard, or voice to recorder, make sure the finished product is passed on to your family or the wider family history community. It could be by ensuring relatives have copies in your lifetime. It could be a formal bequest via your will. But whatever and however: Just do it.