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Although my great grandmother was not on the stage, our family knew that she had always worked in the theatre world. Her daughter, my grandmother, grew up around the theatre, and Lily’’s grandchildren were treated to notable performances at the London Palladium.

Emma Jolly, in the article The Obituary of Miss Lily Knight: 29 May 1952

Emma Jolly writer, historian, genealogist
  1. 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.

  2. Lessons in Nursing Care from the Early Years of the NHS

    The first series of Call The Midwife ended last night on BBC 1. The show was a huge ratings success, with its final episode being watched by 9 million viewers. Much of its appeal lies in the fairly accurate recreation of 1950s Poplar and of its realistic scenes of childbirth.

    Today, with UK healthcare under threat from the NHS bill, this portrayal of the Service’s successful early years may hold some clues as to how it could more simply be reformed. There have already been calls for the NHS to go ‘back to basics’, with the return of matrons and a focus on patients’ essential needs. Could a return to 1950s methods of nursing care, whilst retaining 21st century scientific and technological advancements, be the answer?

    Decades before the NHS was created the founder of modern nursing, Florence Nightingale, regarded open windows as the hallmark of a healthy hospital ward. Open windows were much in evidence on Call The Midwife, both in the hospital wards and in houses of the East End.

    This basic policy is supported by an article in today’s Independent, which reports on a microbiologist who believes air conditioning and an ultra-sterile environment are harming patients by contributing to infections. Jack Gilbert of Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago and head of the Earth Microbiome Project, explained the science behind his theory:

    Open windows let bacteria in from outside and you will either dilute out the pathogens, or you are not allowing the pathogens to establish themselves because there is too much competition for the nutrients and energy that the bacteria need to survive. . . There’s a good bacterial community living in hospitals and if you try to wipe out that good bacterial community with sterilisation agents and excessive antibiotic use, you actually lay waste to this green field of protective layer and these bad bacteria can just jump in and start causing hospital-borne infections.”

    Contemporary scientists are not alone in their praise of basic practice, as seen on Call The Midwife. My godmother, a retired chief midwife, was impressed by the authenticity of the breech birth scene in episode two. Mothers on the babycentre.co.uk webchat, agree. They believe that the 1950s method of covering the baby’s head with a towel, in order to keep it warm and prevent it taking a breath in the birth canal, was preferable to their experiences, which had resulted in lung pumps and incubators.

    Having been through childbirth twice, I agree that the birth scenes in this programme are the most realistic I’ve seen on any television drama. Happily, like mine, most of the births shown in the series ended successfully. However, one of the most tragic scenes was that in episode 4 where middle-aged headmaster David loses his beloved wife Margaret after she suffers eclampsia. Eclampsia and pre-eclampsia remain dangerous conditions. As now, good ante-natal care is key to identifying present and prospective complications. Sadly, Margaret was shown to have left her ante-natal appointment before being seen by the midwives.

    In the early 1970s, my mother saved the life of a farmer’s wife from a remote area who was admitted with pre-eclampsia:

    “We had to take her into a single room with the blinds down and keep her sedated. Suddenly she began fitting and her heart stopped. With no second to spare, I had to give heart massage until we felt a pulse. After this, she was given an emergency caesarean section, and both she and her premature baby survived.”

    mumnurse

    My mother, who began her training in 1963, warmly remembers the camaraderie of the early years:

    “There was much more of a family feel than there is in today’s nursing. There were many people aged 18, mostly young women, with very very few men in general nursing. We were all enthusiastic, really loved the patients and all the young ones felt we were in it together.”

    Like the midwives who lived together at Nonnatus House, my mother and her colleagues lived in a nurses’ home where hierarchy was much in evidence:

    “We were awe of the sisters, and the matron could sometimes be quite terrifying! We were issued with so many dresses, so many hats and so many aprons. There were the hospital laundries which did all the laundry and starched your hats. This helped keep infections down. The matron and sisters were very strict about hair being kept back, and absolutely no wearing of jewellery.”

    Community and personal relationships are seen as central to nursing care in the television series, and were very much key values for nurses of my mother’s generation:

    Everything was about caring for people, the care of the person. Especially as young nurses, we got to know the patients and their families. Great emphasis was put on nutrition – also the going out. The fluids in and the fluids out, as it were. Anyone who wasn’t up and about, we had their charts and went around making egg and milk drinks, making sure they were all well-nourished.

    I trained in a big hospital where we rarely saw the matron, but the assistant matrons did daily rounds. We had to make sure that we knew everything about our patients. The senior staff would walk round and ask any question at all. We had to be particularly alert with one, who asked the blood results of each patient, which we had to know without looking. Also, we looked after the whole ward so we knew every patient there.”

    This later changed, with nurses only being assigned a small number of patients on each ward.

    Some viewers have expressed relief that they do not have to give birth, drug-free, in a bug-infested slum in the bomb-shattered East End of post-war London. But many more are attracted to the positive experiences shown on Call The Midwife: the strong community, inexhaustible humour, and, above all, the patient-centred nursing care. On a day when so many are criticizing and heckling the Prime Minister and the Health Minister for their planned reforms, it seems appropriate to remember the value of high quality nursing in those early years of our National Health Service.

    The Guardian’s obituary of Jennifer Worth (Jenny Lee), who died shortly before the series was filmed, can be read at http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/jul/06/jennifer-worth-obituary

    For more on the local history aspect of Call The Midwife, see the The Sugar Girls’ blog: http://www.thesugargirls.com/call-the-midwife/ 

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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