Tag Archives: Family History

Tracing your Tank Ancestors by Janice Tait and David Fletcher

Some books land on your doormat and you think ‘thank you!’. The Tracing your.. Ancestors series books are most definitely among them, and particularly anything of a military persuasion! This book is published in conjunction with, naturally enough, the Tank Museum in Bovington. The authors are Janice Tait and David Fletcher, resident Librarian and Historian at the Tank Museum respectively.

As we might expect, this book is very strong on the history of Tanks in the British Army.Right from the Corps beginning during the Second World War, its difficult experiences in the inter-war period and the mechanisation of the old Cavalry Regiments, the crucial armoured battles in the Second World War, the era of national service, and then the modern world of the Cold War and the British Army of the Rhine. The history is flawless, as is the coverage of technical issues, tank names and industrial aspects. It is also very good at covering those quirky little historical points that are unique to the British Army – namely the manner in which men consider themselves members of their Regiment rather than the Army as a whole, and the politics of mergers and inter-Corps rivalries.

Each chapter is structured chronologically, looking at the Tank history of a particular era. Then at the end the reader is given pointers towards where to research, be it institutions, documents, websites or books. Even though I consider myself an experience military historian, I learnt a few things here. Perhaps the family history aspect is slightly light compared to the general history, but then again, I’m not sure that there is much more than could be added. I would maybe have liked to have read more about what is held in the Tank Museum’s collections, perhaps some comprehensive listings rather than ‘here are some examples…’

One issue where I feel it does let down the reader, is when the authors allow themselves to become, dare I say it, slightly snobby about family history. Yes, for us experts, we can get frustrated at ‘amateurs’ getting things wrong. But it is their family history, more than it is ours. We shouldn’t expect every person to know the difference between the Tank Corps and the ROYAL Tank Corps. Or fussing over whether someone was actually a ‘Desert Rat’. Such points are not really that important to the reader, I feel. Thats exactly why we ask the experts.

But I applaud Pen and Sword for collaborating with the Tank Museum. It makes sense, in terms of accessing unparalleled expertise, and also gaining access to an unrivaled collection of photographs. This book will be of interest to all military historians, not just in terms of family history – I can imagine it coming in handy when researching any tank-servicemen. It’s going to stay on my bookshelf thats for sure.

Tracing your Tank Ancestors is published by Pen and Sword

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Filed under Army, Book of the Week, Family History, Uncategorized, western front, World War One, World War Two

Alan Cumming – Who Do You Think You Are?

The Battle of Kohima March - July 1944: View o...

Alan Cumming's Grandfather fought at the Battle of Kohima (Image via Wikipedia)

Tonight’s WDYTYA was possibly one of the best yet. And what’s more, this remarkable story focussed on just one ancestor. Alan Cumming (actor, x-men: I didn’t have a clue who he was!) knew that his grandfather had served in the Army during the war and had died suspiciously in Malaya, but very little apart from that.

Tom Darling joined the Cameron Highlanders – a Scottish Infantry Regiment – in the 1930’s. After a period as a cook at the Regimental Depot, he was assigned as a motorcycle despatch rider, and saw action in France in 1940. He was awarded the Military Medal for an action in May 1940 when he drove his motorbike between Headquarters and the Rifle Companies carrying ammunition, along an exposed road in full view of the enemy.

After being evacuated to Britain and promoted to Sergeant, Darling was sent to Burma in time to fight in the Battle of Kohima. He was wounded, probably by shrapnel. He was evacuated to a Hospital India. Then, his service record is mysteriously vacant. It appears that he spent time in hospital with battle-related mental illness, as he was in an institution  in India known for treating mental illness, and which gave its name to the term to ‘go dolally’. After recovering and seeing out his service with the Army, he was demobilised. His family did not see him again after 1945. Originally it was thought that he had simply been serving abroad.

After a year working as a sales clerk at a garage in St Albans. He obviously found civvy street not to his liking, for he soon applied to join the Malay Police Force. In his application, Alan Cumming found a shocking discovery – he listed his marital status as ‘separated’. That explains why his family did not see him again after the end of the war, and also why he possibly travelled to the other side of the world.

Whilst in Malaya, Tom Darling was part of a police force that was involved in a bitter counter-insurgency campaign against communist guerillas. Darling’s job, as a Police Lieutenant, was to guard villages against insurgents. Other police units were tasked to go out into the countryside and capture and kill communists, whose bodies were then brought back to the villages for identification and display. Darling was evidently well thought of, as the locals state when Cumming visits the area.

The circumstances of Darling’s death turned out to be even more shocking than feared. It transpires that he was playing Russian Roulette with a revolver, and either his luck ran out, or he misjudged it, or both. He was killed by a gunshot wound behind his ear. Apparently he would regularly play Russian Roulette, and the local people would bet on the outcome. Such a tragic end for a very brave and distinguished man. Its difficult not to imagine how a man who had been through traumatic experiences, was wounded in battle, had experienced combat stress and who had separated from his family possibly felt nothing to lose by playing Russian Roulette.

For me this was one of the best WDYTA episodes ever. Focussing in detail on the story of one man, it was excellently researched, across some difficult subjects and  locations. Not only that, but it gave us some idea of the human toll of war, something that we very rarely get to hear about.

Alan Cumming’s Who Do You Think You Are? is available to view on BBC iplayer until Monday 20 September 2010

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Hugh Quarshie – Who Do You Think You Are?

Finally, a WDYTYA episode that one, has an imperial twist, and two, doesnt try to make us all feel guilty for the British Empire! Actor Hugh Quarshie (Ric in Holby City) is of Ghanaian ancestry. The first part of the programme shows Hugh travelling to Ghana to trace that side of his family tree.

Interestingly, the programme sheds light on the fact that Ghana – known as the Gold Coast – had imperial masters before the British, in the shape of the Portuguese, and then the Dutch. And Quarshie’s family had Dutch blood, in the shape of a Dutch imperial civil servant who married a Ghanaian woman and had children with her. The Dutchman, Peter Kamerling, founded the village where Hugh’s ancestors lived. And when he visits the village, we get a surprise – none of present day inhabitants are bothered about the imperial past. In fact, he is greeted as minor royalty, and other villages who have links with the Kamerlings are very proud of their heritage. Kinda throws new light on the liberal assumption that Empire is terrible and that the natives are always hard done by.

Then Hugh travels to Holland, and manages to trace more records about the Dutch side of his family. And, incredibly, he meets a Dutch descendant of the Kamerlings, who has researched his family tree. Although Kamerling has apparently deserted his Ghanaian family to return to Holland, Hugh finds that his will made provisions for all of his children in Ghana, and he even included their birth certificates in his will in order to prove that they were his children. Although he had left them, he had not forgotten them.

The Dutch Empire of the 17th Century is all but forgotten in the race to lay on the guilt over the British Empire. The Dutch built an impressive trading network, covering parts of North America, the west coast of Africa and the East Indies. The Dutch were methodical record keepers, which helped Hugh trace that part of his family history. But they were also ruthless. I have read an account from modern day Indonesia, where Dutch merchants caught an English rival trading in one of their ports. They chased him, and when they caught him he was cut, and ‘washed in salt and vinegar’. Lovely!

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Who Do You Think You Are? – Rupert Penry-Jones

Its not really a secret that I am not the biggest fan of WDYTYA. All too often it makes it look too easy, when in reality genealogy can be – for us mere mortals, anyway – bloody hard work. And after five series, they’re starting to run out of decent celebrities to research. But tonight’s episode was pretty damm interesting. And funnily enough, I hadn’t even heard of Rupert Penry-Jones before watching it! (he’s an actor, apparently…)

His Grandfather was a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Indian Army Medical Service, and commanded a Field Ambulance in the Eighth Army from 1943 until the end of the war, including at Monte Cassino. Penry-Jones travelled to Italy and met with a veteran of Monte Cassino to talk about the battle.

As we might expext from someone called Rupert who has a double-barrelled-shotgun surname, his family were very much ‘of the Raj’. One ancestor was responsible for the ceremonial events in Dehli in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, including the incredible 1911 Dehli Coronation Durbar.

Going back even further, another ancestor was serving as an officer in the British Army in India during the Indian Mutiny of 1857. Penry-Jones managed to track down letters that his ancestor sent his wife while taking part in the crushing of the rebellion, before he died of Cholera whilst marching to Lucknow.

Incredibly, Penry-Jones was also able to confirm a family rumour that they had Indian blood, by going back a full eight generations, to 1817. All those generations back one of his ancestor’s married a woman who was described as an ‘Indo-Britain’. Further research established that she was the product of an Anglo-Indian marriage.

Perhaps not the kind of story that most normal people will find themselves researching in their family history (and even if we did find it, who could afford to fly to India for a spot of genealogy?), but very interesting none the less. It would be even more watchable if Rupert didn’t insist on wearing an ethnic-style scarf whilst walking rould Allahabad!

WDYTYA with Rupert Penry-Jones can be watched on BBC iplayer until Monday 20 September 2010.

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Shedding light on Second Word War Servicemen

I’ve been spending years now researching Servicemen from the Second World War, whether it be my own family members, or the names from Portsmouth’s proposed War memorial. Sadly, its not as easy as it could be. And what makes it even sadder, is that its usually much easier to research a person who died than it is to find out about someone who survived.

For a start, if somebody died during the Second World War, their name will be on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s online roll of honour. Chances are they will appear on other memorials, and possibly in regimental rolls of honour or official histories. And if somebody died in action, there is a stronger possibility that they were awarded a medal. And if somebody died, there is a fair chance that there will be a picture of them in the local newspaper, along with perhaps a death notice and messages from friends and family, and possibly also a ‘thanks for sympathy’ message later. These often give you somebody’s address, and names of family members, and other details such as how they died. But its a case of trawling through newspapers, often on microfilm, around certain dates.

The problem is, even if you know when and where somebody was killed, you have no firm way of knowing what else else happened to them, unless somebody else has already researched them. If you’re not a next-of-kin then you cannot access service records, which give by far the most details. Service Records are made available to the next-of-kin under strict data protection rules, assuming that the person may still be alive. At some point in the future one imagines that these will become available to the public, but when that will be, who knows… for the forseable future we will have to do without them.

For the most part, Army war diaries, naval ships logs or air force operations books only record the general outline of what was happening with a unit and rarely mention names, particularly of men. For example, a parachute Battalion at Arnhem contained just over 500 men – which is a lot of blokes. And without knowing which Company a man served in, its difficult to pinpoint his movements very specifically.

Of course, if you’re researching somebody who fought in a well-known battle, then you will have a lot more to go on – when it came to researching my Grandad at Arnhem, it was a case of working out which of the books weren’t worth reading, as enough books have been written about Arnhem to clear Sherwood Forest. But if your man fought in a line infantry regiment, say in Normandy in July 1944, or Holland in the winter of 1944, you might not find as much printed material.

If a sailor served prior to 1928 – and many of the older, more experienced sailors from Portsmouth had done – then this is the genealogy equivalent of striking oil. Their service records are available from the National Archives online. With a list of ships and dates, you can get a perspective on a man’s career in the Navy. And of course, there are other nuggets of information, such as courses, assesments, and so on.

There is one way of finding out more about officers – the Navy, Army and Air Force lists. These list Each of the commissioned officers in each particular service, and what rank they held, where they were stationed, and a small amount of other information, such as if they had attended staff college. By trawling through each years volume, you can build up a picture of how an officers career progressed. This is particularly useful for pre-war Regular officers, but less so for the large number of officers who served only during wartime.

Another aspect that many people neglect is a serviceman’s background – when and where was he born? What kind of family did he come from? What about the people that he left behind? What job did he do before joining up? Where did he live? Very often these little details help you to build a picture of a man who otherwise would be just a name. To do this, is pretty much a case of working your way through street directories and electoral registers to find addresses, and register office indexes and certificates to pin down births, marriages and deaths.

A major gap in resources is the lack of any census after 1911 being available to the public. Freedom of Information challenges have all but shown the irrelevance of the 100 year rule when it comes to releasing censuses, and having information about who was living where – including younger people – would be an absolute godsend for historians. In particular, the so-called 1939 ‘war census’ – an emergency count of people in Britain just before the outbreak of war – would be invaluable.

Isn’t it ironically sad that its much easier to research people who were killed than it is to research people who survived?

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Filed under Army, debate, Family History, Navy, Royal Air Force, social history, World War Two

Tracing the Rifle Volunteers: A Guide for Military and Family Historians by Ray Westlake

It would probably be best to start off with describing what this book is not. Its definitely not a cover-to-cover bedtime read. Its more something for the military historian to keep on the shelf for reference, and that the family historian may wish to have a look at if they find a Rifle Volunteer ancestor.

The Rifle Volunteers were formed in 1859 as a form of part-time defence force for the United Kingdom. Although the Government was not overly keen on the concept of amateur soldiering, the War Office finally acquiesced on the grounds of national defence in the event of an invasion of British soil. They were, along with the older Militias, the forerunners of the modern Territorial Army.

From the start the Rifle Volunteers took on a strong local tone – they were originally raised by Lord Lieutenants of counties, and were formed around local companies and battalions. There was a degree of central organisation and direction, in the form of certain stipulations and directives from central Government, but on the whole the Volunteers were very much a local force. And only later in the 19th century did the Volunteers begin the long and drawn out process of building links with the regular army. The 1881 Army reforms saw the introduction of Country Regiments, which made local links with volunteer units much more likely.

Volunteer battalions were originally only to be mobilised for home defence. However in 1900 a Special Army Order called upon volunteer companies to fight in South Africa. The Volunteer Force finally ceased to exist in 1908, when it was subsumed into the new Territorial Force. Apparently this change was not popular with the volunteers themselves, as it involved a degree of re-organisation, and some disbandments.

Unfortunately, this book does not really show the reader how to research a volunteer. To do that you would expect to see some examples of documents, how and where to find them, and advice to set you on the road to find out more. However this information is limited to one page at the end of the book, covering Army Lists, Muster Rolls, Published Unit Records, Local Newspapers and the National Archives. The upshot is, sadly, that if you want to research a Rifles volunteer, there isn’t a whole lot to go on – and especially not it if they were not an officer.

Where this book does shine, however, is in the exhaustive list of every Volunteer Rifles Unit in Britain. For example, I can see that the 5th (Portsmouth) Corps of the Hampshire Rifles Volunteer Rifles formed on 16 August 1860. The Commandant was Captain George P. Vallaney, formerly of the Indian Army. In 1880 the 5th (Portsmouth) joined the new 3rd Corps, providing five companies from A to E. In September 1885 the 3rd Hampshire Corps was designated as the 3rd (The Duke of Connaught’s Own) Volunteer Battalion, and in 1908 the Battalion transferred to the Territorial Force as the 6th Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment. Interestingly, we also find out that their uniform was scarlet and yellow, later changing to scarlet and white.

More locally, the 23rd Corps of the Hampshire Rifles Volunteers formed at Cosham on 29 November 1860, with Lieutenant Edward Goble and Ensign Henry Monk as the first officers. The 23rd moved its Headquarters several miles west to Portchester in 1869, and became L Company of the new 3rd Corps in 1880.

Tracing the Rifle Volunteers: A Guide for Military and Family Historians is published by Pen and Sword

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Wiltshire and Berkshire Regiment WW1 War Diaries online

I’ve recently been helping a friend research an ancestor was killed at Galipoli in 1915. Almost by accident I found that the war diaries for 15 Battalions of the Wiltshire and Berkshire Regiments between 1914 and 1918 are available online at the Salisbury Rifles Museum website.

The War diaries cover the daily summary, normally written up by the Adjutant. The transcriptions on the Rifles Museum website do not include appendices, orders, reports or maps. Men are very rarely mentioned by name, but officers are.

For example, take a look at the entry for 10 August 1915, when my friend’s great-uncle was killed at Galipoli serving with the 5th Battalion of the Wiltshire Regiment. The war diary entry for that day shows that the Battalion suffered very heavy casualties fighting at ANZAC Bay.

War Diaries for the First and Second World Wars are also available to purchase from the Museum’s website.

Handy for researching family history, and much easier than going to Kew and leafing through and transcribing thousands of pages!

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Tracing Great War Ancestors – the DVD

DVD

I’m well into the swing of reviewing books now, having been working on my blog for almost 9 months. But it was a pleasant surprise to receive a copy of this brand new DVD from Pen and Sword. In fact, im surprised that its only now that this concept is taking off!

The DVD is broken down into three sections, and follows Richard Hone as he sets off on a journey of discovery, looking to find out more about his Uncle Bill who died in the First World War. In the first part genealogist Simon Fowler shows Richard how to get started. Armed with these details, in the second part Tim Saunders takes Richard to visit the Battlefields in France and Belgium where his Uncle Bill fought, from Loos, via the Somme and Passchendaele, to where he was killed in the Ypres Salient in 1918. Finally, medal expert Phil Mussell explains about First World War campaign medals.

There are also some pretty nifty extras, including a printable family tree planner, a full-colour magazine and book extracts. This aspect of the product is something that could be developed more in the future – would it be possible to include digital examples of documents, for instance? Maybe even film clips and/or music? I’m not sure how licensing would work, but its a thought…

It makes a very pleasant change indeed to be watching a DVD on family military history, rather than reading a book – it brings it to life so much more vividly. I can imagine it being a lot more friendly too if you want to research your family history but are not into reading. It is structured very well, with a nice gentle introduction. I am a big fan of getting out there to ‘smell the battlefield’, so it’s very pleasing to see that the viewer is encouraged to do just that. The use of a case study is a sound idea, and adds a nice personal touch. At the moment I am researching the men of Portsmouth who died in WW1 and watching this DVD has given me plenty of inspiration.

In some respects the presentation is rather rusty, however. Some of the editing is less than crisp in places, and we hear Tipperary and one other WW1 era song throughout. Also, it might make an interesting sideshow to run a sweepstake as to precisely which British Army regiment Tim Saunders was an officer in! But these are issues of style: the substance is all there.

I think we can expect to see a lot more DVD’s like this in the future. I must admit it has got me thinking too: how about some DVD’s in a similar vein, but aimed at younger people?

Tracing Great War Ancestors is available from Pen and Sword

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Guide to Your Ancestors Lives by Nick Barratt

Barratt

Family History is more popular now than it has ever been before. Along with the growth of genealogy websites, this explosion in interest has also been caused by the popular programme ‘Who do you think you are?’. Nick Barratt is the mastermind behind WDYTYA. A Doctor of History and a former employee of The National Archives, there are few people better placed to give us a guide to family history. But the bookshelf of family history is crowded one, so what makes this book different?

The clue is very much in the title. This is not just a guide to carrying out research and finding out dates and names, but a deeper look at the lives of our predecessors. I am a big fan of the more social history approach to genealogy. Why stop at just finding out their names, why not really get to grips with what their lives were like? There are some aspects where Barratt’s expertise really shines – in particular regarding legal documents, property history and the Industrial Revolution. Perhaps this book is not so strong on military history, but it would be pretty impossible for any family history book to be all things to all people.

I applaud that this book does not instantly point the reader towards family history websites. Whilst these can be useful, I do feel that they take away some of the fun of researching your family history. For me, part of the appeal is going to libraries and records offices and getting your hands dirty. I think is misleading to think that you can research your family tree just on Ancestry.

There are plenty of things in this book that were new even to myself, in particular a couple of websites that I have never see before – just goes to show there is always something new in the internet world. But the most interesting thing about this book – for me – is the suggestion that perhaps we should be thinking about archiving our lives now to help our descendants in the future. But with mobile phones, emails and social networking, will there be a lack of sources? This is were Arcalife comes in – a website that archives our activities across a range of media and, effectively, archives our lives.

There are some issues of presentation that I feel do let the book down. I’m exactly not sure why there has to be a full-sized picture of Barratt on the back cover. Also I think some more illustrations would help explain some of what he is trying to say. I’m not advocating dumbing down – after all most genealogy books are full of pictures anyway – but sometimes pictures or diagrams make more sense than words. This book, however, is probably most useful for people who already have a basic grasp of genealogy issues.

Guide to Your Ancestors Lives is published by Pen and Sword

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Genealogist requests release of 1939 ‘census’

A Genealogist and Freedom of Information campaigner has requested that the 1939 National Identification Survey be released under Freedom of Information laws, reports the BBC Website.

In September 1939 the Government conducted a an emergency, census-like survey of the country at the beginning of the war. This would provide invaluable help to researchers, historians and family history enthusiasts in unlocking the past.

Until recently each census was released 100 years later. However, Guy Etchells succesfully campaigned for the early release of the 1911 census, which became available online earlier this year. Professionals and enthusiasts alike will be hoping that the 1911 challenge proves to be a test case.

There is another census due for release, the 1921 census in 2022. The 1931 census was destroyed in a fire and there was no survey taken in 1941 because of the war. It may be more than 40 years until the 1951 details become public. This effectively leaves family historians with a dead end for some years to come.

None of the legislation forbids access to the records,” says Mr Etchells. “The records have been kept so that people can access them. They are not archived so that they can be hidden away. There’s no point in charging people thousands of pounds a year to keep them if you are not allowed to access them.”

The Information Commissioner has told the NHS Information Centre – which holds the 1939 details – that it should grant Mr Etchells’ request for access to a record, previously withheld on data protection grounds, where the circumstances relate to people now dead – a stipulation Mr Etchells may yet challenge further.

The National Registration survey led to the issuing of 46 milliona National Identity cards, Households were asked to provide information about the names, ages, sex, marital situation and jobs of those living there. During the war, and until 1952, every civilian had to carry their card as proof of identity and address. The registration was also used as the basis for the issue of ration books for food and clothing.

The 1939 survey would be a goldmine for researchers. In particular, it would help us unlock the secrets of most of the generation who fought in the second world war. For example, I could use the survey to cross reference against the list of portsmouth war dead, and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s roll of honour. It would make it so much easier for their stories to be told.

Personally, I think there is no sound reason for witholding such information for so long. There is surely no need for the NHS to keep such data locked away, there is nothing sensitive contained in the records. Even with the regular census, 50 year closure periods would be more appropriate. Lets hope that the authorities see sense and make the 1939 survey available.

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Filed under debate, Family History, Local History, News, social history, World War Two

Family History #11 – Wills

A Last Will and Testament

A Last Will and Testament

One of the first original documents that I examined was the will of George Stebbing, the Portsmouth instrument maker who died in 1847. Aside from the fact that it was handily available to download from the National Archives website – more of that later – it was a terrible copy, in almost illegible handwriting, and full of awful legal jargon. That said, it was invaluable in my research, and wills can still be very useful for researching your family history.

A will is exactly what it says on the tin – somebody’s last wishes. It gives you an idea about that persons family, their possessions, and their wealth. Also, you can tell a lot about someones social circle by the executors that they choose.

Prior to 1858, the National Archives has the wills from the senior ecclesiastical court, the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC), plus supporting records. Supporting records include court cases about disputed wills, inventories of goods, and accounts of executors. These wills are mainly from richer people in the South of England, people who died overseas, and very few married women. Search and download them here.

Wills after 1858 are held only at the Court of Probate in London. Click here for more details. There is a detailed index to wills, called the National Probate Calendar, up to the year 1943 which is more widely available. This gives the date and place of death, and usually more information as well, including the address fo the deceased and the value of the estate. It can be seen on microfiche or microfilm, at The National Archives, The Society of Genealogists and The Guildhall Library, London.

At The National Archives, there is a 7% sample of papers relating to cases of disputed probate – that is, the validity of the will or administration. These are listed by the full name of the testator whose will was being disputed, and the name of the suit.

Many people left estates which were liable for death duties. From 1858, there should be a death duty record for all estates worth more than £20. However, unless the assets were valued at £1,500 or more, the taxes were often not collected, and so the register entry was not filled in with all the details. Tax was payable on bequests to anyone other than the husband or wife. Take a look at the National Archives Research Guide here.

Some local records offices hold wills and probate inventories. For an example, look at what Hampshire Archives have here. And who knows, you might always find some at home, in a dusty box in the loft!

Reading through wills can be quite tedious. Lawyers were very often paid by the line, and took the approach of saying in a paragraph what most people would say in a line! But if you can sift through the jargon, then you might be able to find some pretty interesting information. For example, if you know that somebody had 5 children, but only left something to 4 of them, was there a family feud going on? With some detective work, and combining them with all the other sources that we’ve looked at, wills add yet another strand to your research.

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Family History #10 – Newspapers

A Newspaper cutting about rioting in Andover

While a lot of things have changed over time, some things change very little. Much as today, in bygone days you could read all about what was going on by picking up the Newspapers.

As such Newspapers are a great resource for family history. Birth, Marriage and Death announcements, court proceedings, news stories, and all the usual scandals and gossip can be found in old Newspapers. In fact, you can guarantee that when you are looking for something, you will come across wonderful accounts of murders and executions. And aside from being devilishly distracting, they give you a very good idea of contemporary society.

My local library in Portsmouth has copies of the Hampshire Telegraph from the 18th Century until the 1970’s, and the Evening News from its beginning until the present day, all on microfilm. Better still, these have been indexed by subject in a card index, so if you are looking for a particular person, road, business or event, you can go straight to it rather than sift through thousands of copies.

Further afield, the Times can be searched online, at timesonline. You can search for free, but to access the full articles you need to pay a fee. Also, some libraries have Palmers index to the times, which can also be accessed online.

On a slightly more official level, the official Government Newspapers, including the London Gazette, can also be accessed online here, completely free. These contain details of armed forces promotions, official announcements and awards and honours.

Finally, the British Library Newspaper Archive have made 49 local and national newspapers, from between 1800 and 1900, searchable online here. You can search for free, but need to pay to download any articles.

For more about the British Library’s collection of Newspapers, click here.

You never quite know what you are going to find. For example, if one of your ancestors had a business, you may find an advert placed by them. And even if you don’t find anything specifically about them, you can use Newspapers to give you a very good idea about what was going on at the time, what society was like and what public opinion was like. Try to think in bigger terms than just names and dates, but people, times and events.

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Family History #9 – Directories

an 1881 trade directory

an 1881 trade directory

One of the first real historical documents I used was the humble trade directory.

Before facebook, and before even phonebooks, the way to find out who lived where, and what businesses were in a town, you would get hold of the local directory. They were a kind of cross between the phonebook, yellow pages, and the tourist guide.

The early Directories were rather basic. Lets take the Portsmouth section of the Universal British Directory, 1792-98. It starts with a brief introduction to Portsmouth, covering the town’s history and a description of the area, including particular local customs and the overall character of the town. It also describes the local Mayor, the senior Aldermen and the Council. Market days are also covered. After this the directory then goes on to list local services, including Bankers, Post Offices, Stage coaches, Waggons and coastal shipping. The senior officers of the local naval and military establishments are listed, as well as the Dockyard and the Customs Officers. There then follows a list, in alphabetical order, of all of the local residents, together with their occupation. This includes mainly tradesmen and professionals. So if you found yourself in a strange town and needing to get a shoe repaired or to buy some provisions, you would know who to go to.

By the 1820’s things had progressed, as we see in the 1828 edition of Pigots Directory. The description of the town if far more detailed, and gives a really good impression of what the area was like. By 1828 the local traders were listed by occupation, from Academies to Wines and Spirits Merchants. But now we have their addresses too, so we canfind them easier!

Then by the turn of the century, Directories become really detailed. Practically every street and every person is listed, which means the directories contain the details of thousands of families. They now contain adverts, and an index at the back. If you want to get a contemporary idea about a town, directories are a great source of information.

By the 1950’s, however, when more and more people are routinely having telephones, the phone book replaced the directory. Most directories stopped printing in the 1970’s.

So if you’re looking for ancestors in the late 18th, 19th and early to mid 19th Centuries, directories can be very useful. They help you pin down a person or a family to an address, and can tell you about their job. They are especially useful if your ancestor ran a shop or some kind of business. They are also very useful for using alongside census returns and electoral registers. And by looking at each years edition, you can see when and where people move.

So where can you look at directories? many libraries with historical collections will have them, as well as local Records Offices. Alternatively, you can take a look at some directories on the Historical Directories website.

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Family History #8 – electoral registers

Since time immaterial, whenever there has been government, local or national, there has been two things: taxes, and elections. And with them, come a huge amount of bureaucracy. You need to know who has to pay taxes, and whether they have paid up, or whether they are entitled to vote.

In modern Britain, every year every household gets sent a voting register form, so any adult over the age of 18 can register to vote in local, national or european elections. Not only does this entitle you to have a say in which politician gets to shaft you, but it means that there is a nice handy list available of every single person, over the age of 18 and registered. So handy, in fact, apparently a lot of councils rather deviously sell these details to marketing firms… But you can have a look at them yourself, they are normally available to view at either the local council offices or the local library.

In my local library, they have the electoral roll for every year going back to 1932. The whole city of Portsmouth is separated by Parliamentary Constituency, then by council ward. Then, within each ward each street, and for each street you will find a list of every house in the street, even then odd, and next to each house number, the people living there who were registered to vote. They’re not indexed at all, so you need to have an idea of what house number, road or area you are looking for. Electoral Registers could even be useful if you wanted to find out the history of a house, for example who was living in it from one year to the next. But if you have no idea where in the city someone was living, you will either have to search through the whole lot – clear a few days in your diary – or try and use something else to help you narrow it down.

Like most sources for family history, the electoral roll is not a source to use on its own, but when you use it in conjunction with the census, certificates or street directories – more of them next week – you can add pieces to the puzzle. The electoral roll does not tell you about ages, relationships, occupations, ownership, or any children under 18. But it is useful because it is produced every year, unlike every 10 years like the census. Using all of these sources it should be too difficult to pinpoint where someone was living and when, down to the nearest year.

In earlier times, back in the 19th Century, the qualifications for being able to vote were more strict. To be able to vote, you had to own property. And be male, of course. If someone did own property, they would be recorded in a Poll Book. These are fascinating, as not only do they record the voters, but also how they voted, so you get an idea of their political leanings too. You can normally find these in the local records office.

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Family History #7 – Bricks and Mortar

Just bricks and mortar?

Just bricks and mortar?

We’re going to look at something slightly different this week. Of course, family history does seem to be about names, events, and dates. But it is also about places. And property. Property is one of the factors that really show somebody’s social status. You can learn an awful lot about your family from the houses that they lived in. You can find these out from census returns, or certificates. If you are looking at an address from 1911 or earlier, you can use census returns, like I described in an earlier article.

Another very useful resource is the street directory. These started out as an early form of Yellow Pages, back in the late 18th Century. By the 20th Century they listed every house in every street, and who lived in it, and sometimes their profession. This is especially useful if somebody was running a business. As you get later into the 20th Century you can also try looking at phone books. All of these can be found in either archives or libraries. This site is also worth a look.

You can also use electoral registers. These are mainly useful for if you know an address, you can then look it up and see what people of voting age lived in that house in a particular year. You can usually find them in coouncil offices, or libraries. I found this very useful for researching my family history during the second world war. I knew that my great-grandparents had a bed and breakfast at 66 High Street. I looked this address up in 1940, and they were there, and my grandad and his siblings. Also, interestingly, a couple of relatives and some others who i have no idea who they were! Then when the house was bombed out in the 10/11 January 1941 raid on Portsmouth they all moved to 68 Angerstein to live with some other relatives.

A very useful source, but quite unpredictable, is the title deed. Some of these are held by solicitors on behalf of clients, other people have them, and some have been deposited in archives. It really is pot luck. Im really lucky, as a few years ago my mum and dads mortgage company sent us a large brown envelope containing all of the title deeds for our house, as far back as 1936 when the builder bought the land from George Cooper, tjhe farmer who owned most of the land in Paulsgrove before it was built on. My road was one of the first roads built in Paulsgrove. I know all of the people who have owned and lived in the house until the present day, what it has been valued at. I even have some lovely diagrams of the area, from when G.A. Day the Builder purchased it from George Cooper. Not long before we moved in the old lady who lived here sold half of the back garden to a property developer. shame really, would have been a lovely big garden…

One thing I would stress… dont just look at the one address. Look at the neighbours, the whole street, the area. Think about the community, the people who live there. Are they all naval families, railway workers, miners? is it a poor area, or more upmarket? Is it in the inner city, or a leafy suburb? If you’re really lucky, you might be able to find out what rates they were paying, so this gives you an idea of the value of a house. And if your relatives owned a nice big house, chances are they were pretty well off!

With the advent of the interweb, now you can simply type an address into multimap and see exactly where it is. Something that I find really interesting is to go and have a walk round these houses, and look at them. Of course, it helps if they are still standing. Even if they’re not, local libraries, archives or even newspapers might just have photographs.

So next time you walk past a row of old houses, or even walk up the path to your own, think about the people that have lived there, the events, the memories. If only those bricks could talk…

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