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According to the GRO indices, since 1837 there have been ten boys registered with the forenames, Napoleon Bonaparte.

Emma Jolly, in the article NAMING NAPOLEON: how exploring first names can give an insight into Victorian world history.

Emma Jolly writer, historian, genealogist
  1. Book Review: Tracing Your Pre-Victorian Ancestors

    Tracing Your Pre-Victorian Ancestors: A Guide to Research Methods for Family Historians by John Wintrip (Pen & Sword, 2017)

    Last week I was sent a copy of a new handbook from Pen & Sword publishing. This new guide to researching ancestors before 1837 is aimed at advanced researchers and is the first book by John Wintrip, an established professional genealogist, AGRA member, and holder of the Diploma in Genealogy from the Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies (IHGS).

    Although few at the time may have realized, 1837 would become a key year in the research of family history. Not only was it the year that Victoria became Queen, but it also saw the beginning of civil registration in England and Wales. Four years later, the first national census to record full names, occupations and ages took place.  Throughout the Victorian period, administrators in hospitals, schools, businesses, politics and social policy created and carefully stored records that genealogists use in their research today. Many documents from this period have now been digitised and can be searched easily online.

    Before the Victorian era, however, records were often produced and stored in a less efficient manner and usually on a regional, rather than national, basis. This can lead to researchers finding pre-1837 research more challenging. As a result, Wintrip was inspired to write this guide to meet the challenges and complexity presented by pre-Victorian research. He emphasizes that, “Although sound genealogical research is more demanding than many people realize, it can be made slightly easier with appropriate guidance.”

    In Tracing Your Pre-Victorian Ancestors, Wintrip breaks down the advice into fourteen detailed chapters, covering:

    • challenges of research
    • knowledge and skills
    • sources
    • names
    • social status
    • religion and occupation
    • relocation
    • searching for information
    • archives and libraries
    • evidence and proof
    • family reconstitution
    • missing ancestors
    • mistaken identity
    • help from others.

    Among the strengths of the guide is its focus on methods as well as sources. It does not simply present a list of specific records, but instead focuses on understanding sources better in order to use them correctly. Throughout, Wintrip emphasizes historical context and its importance in family history research of all forms. I also liked the way he identifies why a search may have failed, using case studies, and his explanations on how to improve search methods, indicating practical steps with online services, archives and their catalogues.

    Overall, I am pleased to welcome this book to my family history shelves. Even the most experienced genealogist should agree that in his new work, Wintrip proffers valuable advice for all of us in breaking down our pre-Victorian brickwalls.

     

  2. Guest Review by Barry Jolly of The Lost Story of the William and Mary

    The Lost Story of the William and Mary: The Cowardice of Captain Stinson by Gill Hoffs (Pen & Sword History, 2016)

    Gill Hoffs book on a nineteenth century maritime disaster has received a number of favourable reviews. This is understandable as it uses contemporary sources to develop the drama as the ship, and its benighted passengers, moved inexorably closer to their doom.

    As an historian of modest claims myself, I welcome the use of resources that modern technology makes available. Books published in earlier times are increasingly being digitised, bringing new – or recovered – insights into otherwise lost events. Similarly, the ever expanding newspaper libraries now coming on stream enable the historian to follow events as they unfolded in the reporting of the day.

    Both sources, of course, are no more certain than books and newspapers of today, and a healthy scepticism, with the realisation that the reports of the day are often incomplete or partial, remain essential elements in the historian’s tool locker.

    At the same time, the expense involved in travelling to dusty archives can be daunting to the professional historian let alone the amateur. Gill Hoffs has made extensive use of the internet to contact descendants of those who survived, and thus access family records and reminiscences, as well as newspapers of the time and a fair range of modern texts mostly of a fairly general nature.

    The story commences with the passengers themselves, as they were leaving various parts of the United Kingdom, especially famine racked Ireland, and the Netherlands. Their travails in the unique culture of the port of Liverpool are followed by details of the only too obvious deficiencies of the ships – British and American – being used to convey, in dreadful conditions, people with hopes of a new life. Conditions for sea-going passengers in the nineteenth century were all too often uncomfortable in inevitably hazardous circumstances, but these ship-owners appear to have been at best thoughtless, at worst utterly heartless, in the paltry arrangements for their human cargoes.

    In a nutshell, the William and Mary was a toxic mix of Roman Catholic Irish and Dutch Protestant emigrants, a crew ill at ease with each other and an incompetent captain, all in a dangerously over-loaded ship. Some childbirths added to the unhealthy conditions, exacerbated by poor rations, lack of privacy and insanitary accommodation.

    As the unhappy ship approached American waters, the captain decided upon an unsafe route through dangerous channels, and the William and Mary paid the almost inevitable price. The real horror of this already alarming story lies in the subsequent events. The captain and the crew, almost to a man, not only abandoned their ship and its passengers to their fate, but also declared on arrival in the United States that the ship had gone down. Newspaper editors wondered how so many of the crew and so few of the passengers had survived, and in due course the dreadful truth emerged. The ship had foundered, but not before many of the passengers had been rescued.

    Gill Hoffs succeeds in developing the dramatic events in breathtaking style, quoting extensively from newspapers of the period. One negative point is that the majority of the reports do not relate directly to the William and Mary. Many indeed pre-date this ill-fated voyage.

    One or two other doubts persist, particularly in relation to context. The Great Famine in Ireland of 1845-8 is well documented, but not well explained here. This concern extends also to the circumstances of sea travel in the nineteenth century, and the specific losses in coffin ships, as they became known, carrying – and losing – vast numbers of destitute and starving Irish peasants to the New World in the mid to late 1840s. Ultimately the problem of overloading ships was remedied by the introduction of the Plimsoll Line in 1876; the absence of adequate regulation is mentioned briefly but could well have been developed further.

    In fairness, these comments detract little from the telling of the story. For the general reader, this is a gripping and fascinating read.

    Barry Jolly is Publications Editor for Milford-on-Sea Historical Record Society, but writes here in a personal capacity.

  3. Review of Amelia Dyer and the Baby Farm Murders by Angela Buckley

    ameliadyer

    Angela Buckley is well-known among family historians as the Chair of the Society of Genealogists and for her work on true crime. Her first book, The Real Sherlock Holmes: The Hidden Story of Jerome Caminada (Pen & Sword, 2014) explored crime and criminals through the life of a 19th century Italian-Mancunian detective.

    This latest title is the first in Buckley’s historical true crime series, Victorian Supersleuth Investigates. Focusing on the crime (or in this case, crimes), Buckley carefully pieces together the facts using contemporary reports supported by her research into socio-historical sources.

    Buckley was inspired to explore the crimes of Amelia Dyer when she discovered she lived close to the Reading location where the baby farmer’s victims were found in the River Thames. The true number of Dyer’s victims will never be known, but the book names all those identified through Dyer’s trial, the police investigation, and the rather sensational newspaper reporting of the time. As such, this is a valuable resource for family and social historians. There are details, too, of those who found the victims, along with other witnesses and neighbours.

    One of the mysteries of this case for a modern reader is why did anyone hand over their infants to the murderous Dyer? Buckley provides the background to this, explaining the myriad difficulties in the late Victorian period for women who were unmarried or unable to care for their own children. In my view, the socio-historical detail is one of the book’s greatest strengths.

    Another strength is the lucid writing. Not only is the book easy to read, but the complexities of these crimes and the motivations of the rather puzzling Dyer are explained clearly. Although the subject matter is harrowing, criminal details are balanced against fascinating passages of social history. Despite being full of dates, names and times. the book is short and well-paced. As such it is suitable for anyone wanting to read a book on holiday or during a daily commute. It certainly transports the reader to another world.

  4. Books I Read 2015

    books 2015 blog

    This time last year my New Year’s resolution was to read more for pleasure. As a professional genealogist and writer, I constantly dip in and out of history books, articles, websites, databases, social media links, blogs and historic literature. This repeated skimming of words can become stressful over time. I was concerned my concentration was becoming affected and determined to take time out from snatched paragraphs and screen-reading. Outside work, I am a fan of the Slow Movement. I take long walks, eat organic food and avoid air travel where possible. In 2015, I decided to extend this to Slow Reading. This involved taking time to savour books that I fancied – avoiding those I felt I *should* read – and sitting (or lying) with a paper copy rather than a blue-lit screen.

    I began the year with a Christmas present volume of Ngaio Marsh’s Inspector Alleyn 3-Book Collection 2 including the novels, Death in Ecstasy (1936), Vintage Murder (1937), and Artists in Crime (1938), Australian genealogist Judy Webster recommended these to me as a preferred alternative to Agatha Christie for anyone interested in interwar crime fiction. Like Christie, Marsh focuses on upper-middle class life between the wars. Also like Christie, Marsh was prolific, completing 32 Inspector Alleyn novels. Her protagonist, Inspector Alleyn, is the younger son of a titled Buckinghamshire family.  Marsh’s theatrical background brings plausibility to the murder of a theatre manager in Vintage Murder, but there is an almost televisual eye for detail in each of the three novels. After enjoying all three of these novels, I was surprised not only that Ngaio Marsh isn’t better known but that none of her stories have been adapted in recent years for prime-time television.

    Suzie

    In February, I was delighted to welcome Suzie Grogan to my local Highgate Library for a talk on her latest book, Shell-Shocked Britain: The First World War’s Legacy for Britain’s Mental Health (Pen & Sword History, 2014). inspired by the impact on Grogan’s own family (by her shell-shocked great-uncle’s suicide and murder of an ex-girlfriend in nearby Hornsey in 1922), Shell-Shocked goes further than previous histories in examining the wider impact of war on the mental health of shell-shocked veterans, their extended family, the next generation, and society at large. This enables even those with an extensive knowledge of the Great War to look at wartime experiences (and consequent interwar reactions) in a new light. An experienced writer on mental health issues, Grogan explores the effect of what is now recognised as post-traumatic stress disorder. For decades this was evident only in symptoms such as anxiety or alcoholism. Therapy was minimal: the quiet easing of nightmares and twitches as portrayed in J.  L. Carr‘s 1980 novella, A Month in the Country, remained far out of reach for most veterans. The book also touches on the mental health toll on civilians from new horrors, such as the Zeppelin air raids. The last chapter explores the legacy of shell-shock:

    This book has not set out to establish that war trauma has left an indelible legacy on all families, or on all aspects of modern society. It has sought to highlight, however, the stresses endured by our recent ancestors and to encourage us to examine how our views of their quiet acceptance, silence or reluctance to share may be misplaced.

    A few years ago, in a conversation on Twitter, Jen Newby,  the then editor of Family History Monthly, advised that as I enjoyed the BBC adaptation of Winifred Holtby’s South Riding, I should try the novel. I’ve been meaning to read it ever since. On finally settling down with a copy, I discovered how different it is from the televised version. The book is far more rewarding. Having previously read Testament of Youth, I knew how highly Vera Brittain respected her close friend. On reading South Riding, I discovered why. The novel was published in 1935, shortly after Holtby’s death from Bright’s Disease at the young age of 37. These dates and her young age were in the forefront of my mind as I noted Holtby’s strong empathy with characters from a broad social spectrum. Her remarks on Dachau concentration camp and local government cuts are startlingly prescient. Anyone interested in today’s 21st century socio-economic conditions is likely to be inspired, and perhaps frustrated, by Holtby’s sharp observations on the lives of those administering or affected by the local government institutions of a fictionalized South Yorkshire local authority.

    Both Winifred Holtby and Vera Brittain served in the First World War. Brittain was a nurse with the Voluntary Aid Detachment and Holtby enlisted in the Queen Mary’s Auxiliary Army Corps (QMAAC) in summer 1918. Brittain chronicled both of their services in articles and books. In her new book, Women Heroes of World War I: 16 Remarkable Resisters, Soldiers, Spies and Medics (Chicago Review Press, 2014), Kathryn J. Atwood looks at other notable women and their war experiences and service between 1914 and 1919. Atwood, a writer based near Chicago, explores the lives of 16 women from across Europe and the States, including Edith Cavell, Elsie Inglis, Maria Bochkavera and Flora Sandes, all of whom I touched upon in my latest family history guide, My Ancestor was a Woman at War (Society of Genealogists, 2013). Some of these names are well-known: the centenary of Edith Cavell’s execution, for example, was marked extensively in 2015. Atwood studies each in some detail. Among the portraits, I was struck particularly by the lives of Helena Gleichen and Nina Hollings, radiographers who were hired by Italy but who were shown little respect by their home country. At the time, the Duke of Aosta said:

    We are cleverer than the English then, because we employ who and what we can for our wounded, regardless whether they wear trousers or petticoats.

    Atwood explains further of how, despite Italian support, the women worked in difficult circumstances:

    The women were both given the rank of majors in the Italian army and initially traveled to 11 different field hospitals as well as multiple dressing stations. Their equipment was hooked to as power generator located in their car. They would use it to locate the bullets or pieces of shell that were embedded in the wounded men.

    After the war, Nina and Helena lived together in a large manor “in Great Britain”. They were both awarded the OBE and during the Second World War, Helena organised a Home Defence Corps. She died in 1947, just before her 74th birthday.

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    In October, I attended a talk on the history of swimming in London by Caitlin Davies and Jenny Landreth at a local literary festival, Archway With Words. Davies’ latest social history book, Downstream (Aurum, 2015) is a history and celebration of swimming the Thames. Although I am not a great lover of swimming, I am passionate about celebrating female achievement through history. On this note, I was pleased to discover the remarkable lives of Agnes Beckwith (who in 1875, aged 14, swam 5 miles to Greenwich), typist Mercedes Gleitze and Ivy Hawke. Despite being a celebrity in her lifetime, I was surprised that the feats of Thames swimmer Gleitze have been so quickly forgotten in popular culture. Her 1927 record as the first British woman to swim the Channel stands as testament to her achievements. Beyond swimming, she set up the Mercedes Gleitze Homes for the homeless in Leicestershire using sponsorship and her charity continues. Davies writes:

    Women  . . . were still seen as the weaker sex – physically and mentally – and yet here they were swimming for hours over long distances in the Thames.

    Now we have entered another new year, I have decided to continue with last year’s resolution. Slow reading is enjoyable, relaxing, healthy and educational. My new year’s book, In the Blood, has been recommended to me by numerous genealogists and a copy has been sitting on my shelf for months. A recent newsletter from Lost Cousins prompted me to dust it off, with blogger Peter Calver’s description of Steve Robinson as “one of my favourite authors of genealogical mysteries”. Apparently, Robinson has now sold over 100,00 copies of his debut. Having read the first few chapters I can see why. Fast-paced and with richly-drawn characters, In The Blood is enjoyable and easy to read. Although all genealogists are detectives up to a point, I’m thankful our work isn’t as dangerous as that of Robinson’s protagonist, Jefferson Tayte. The family history research is accurate to archives and sources, but the story is escapist enough to make this a book for leisure and help me maintain my commitment to reading for pleasure in 2016.

  5. Review: Tracing Your Black Country Ancestors by Michael Pearson

    The Black Country, black by day and red by night, cannot be matched for vast and varied production, by any other space of equal radius on the surface of the globe.” Elihu Burritt, American Consul in Birmingham 1868

    As roughly half my family is from the Black Country, I was very pleased to receive a copy of Tracing Your Black Country Ancestors by Michael Pearson. The latest in Pen and Sword’s Tracing Your . . . series, this book fills a gap in family history bibliography. The Black Country is a relatively small area, but its unique heritage, culture and dialect warrant further attention from historians. The region is geographical rather than administrative, which can prove nightmarish for the family historian with BC ancestors. We have to move around between four archives, three counties and four metropolitan boroughs, encompassing Wednesbury, Darlaston, Wednesfield, Bilston, Coseley, Tipton, Dudley, Brierley Hill, Halesowen. West Bromwich, Olbury and Smethwick. It must be noted, though, that the Black Country never includes Birmingham. Furthermore, the BC is within, but does not fully cover, the counties of Staffordshire, Worcestershire and Warwickshire. Confused? Thankfully, this new book benefits from a clear layout, with its chapter on archives and resources, and a detailed appendix on local government providing a comprehensive overview for researchers.

    Although Black Country people know where they’re from, as Pearson notes, there are no “officially defined borders” of the region, with its four archives lying in the boroughs of Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton. The origins of its name lie in the rich black coal seam of its lands. The book dedicates a full chapter to mining, including a useful list of mines in the region, clearly tabulated. In fact, the use of tables and charts throughout is one of the reasons for the book’s clarity. Other helpful details in this chapter are the definitions of jobs such as hewer, butty and bellman, and the dates of local mining accidents.

    edward-billingham-1930s

    My great grandfather, Edward Billingham (1874-1950), worked as a miner and lived in Coseley.

    The Black Country is renowned for its contribution to the Industrial Revolution. Pearson observes that “the wealth generated by industry meant people did not leave the region to work elsewhere”. My family lived in the area for centuries. Like many of them, most Black Country inhabitants worked in industrial jobs. My ancestors worked as miners, steel workers, iron puddlers, nail makers, hand loom weavers and brick makers. All of these areas are covered in detail, with the chapters on iron and steel, and industrial diversity. The latter is particularly useful, with details like the 21 out of 43 brickworks in the region being in Sedgley/Kingswinford. As my brick-making ancestors were women, I’m pleased that Pearson recognizes women’s contribution to the industrial revolution and to the growth and culture of the Black Country. He reveals, for example, that in 1883, 16,000 of the 20,000 area’s nail makers were women.

    1-noah-hingley-at-earl-st-wallbrook-home

    My great great grandfather, Noah Hingley (1848-1926), lived in Coseley and worked as an iron puddler.

    Other chapters examine transport, BC off-duty (an assessment of leisure, shops and so on), religion (non-conformism was very popular in the region) and Black Country life. This last chapter covers the remarkable local dialect. I have a particular interest in this as my great uncle Harry Harrison wrote fluently in the dialect, and kept the words and humour alive in regular talks and performances. He was one of the founders of the Black Country Nite Out Show. I can remember as a child finding one of his poetry books on my grandparents’ shelves. I couldn’t understand a word! Thankfully, Pearson provides a guide to some of the most commonly heard words and expressions. Some of them, like “yo’m” (“you’re”), recall the way my grandfather used to speak. To try and get an ear for the dialect, say aloud this line from my great uncle, still proudly displayed on the website of a Droitwich butcher, “Dunn’s mate is really great!”

    As a retired West Midlands Police Inspector, Michael Pearson is unsurprisingly strong in the Crime & Punishment chapter. Despite his non-genealogy background, Pearson’s extensive knowledge of the area is evident. He demonstrates personal insight and local knowledge throughout, from local foods like faggots and “greay pays” (maple peas simmered with bacon and served with bread) to the BC sense of identity (“those born and bred here . . .still see themselves as coming from their village”).

    The book is also well-illustrated, not least by the many images of the Black Country Living Museum, near Dudley, a must-visit for those with ancestors from the region. This open air museum, which opened thirty-four years ago, is spread over a twenty-six acre site with over sixty separate exhibits, such as a chainmaker’s forge and a school. All the historic buildings in the ‘living’ village have been moved brick by brick to be rebuilt exactly as they once stood.

    Racecourse Colliery at the Black Country Living Museum

    racecourse-colliery-at-the-black-country-living-museum

    Summary: this is a book that cannot fail to aid those researching ancestors from the Black Country.

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Member of The Association of Genealogists and Researchers in ArchivesGraduate of the Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies CanterburyMember of the Society of Genealogists