Opening of the Newsroom at the British Library

Newspapers are, of course, one of our most important sources for accessing death records such as obituaries and inquest records. On Monday I was lucky enough to attend the official opening of the British Library Newsroom at St Pancras. Officially opened by the new Secretary of State, Sajid Javid, the evening also included a tour of the new reading room given by Stewart Gillies, Head of British Library Newspaper Services and a short talk by the BBC’s economics editor Robert Peston.

The Newsroom replaces the previous newspaper library at Colindale in North London which closed in November. Facilities in the new reading room appear to be first class. All original newspapers are now stored safely in a purpose built storage facility in Boston Spa, Yorkshire in order to preserve their life. Newspapers were not designed to last forever and many times after reading an original paper at Colindale I noticed that flakes of paper would remain on the desk after the newspaper had been returned. Therefore access to a large proportion of historic national and local newspapers is now provided either digitally or via one of 40 state-of-the art microfilm readers in the Newsroom.IMG_0667 Many readers will be familiar with the British Newspaper Archive website which is also available on-line at home for those who subscribe and via findmypast. The site is freely available to use in the Newsroom and, although a growing database, already contains millions of pages of newspapers. Use of Optical Character Recognition software (OCR) in tandem with a search engine makes fishing trips for names, places and subjects now a viable possibility turning up items that would never have been found before because so few newspapers were indexed.
Those newspapers not available via the BNA can either be viewed via the new digital microfilm readers or ordered from cold storage in Boston Spa to view at St Pancras but only if the newspaper is fit to travel. 48 hours’ notice is required to do so. The new microfilm readers in the reading room are attached to computer screens which swivel and rotate to accommodate the size and shape of the page you are viewing. From these you can enlarge and print out any part of the page you are interested in and, if you have a lot of papers to study, then you can save all your print jobs to print off in one go at the end of your session.

The British Library is not only responsible for preserving historical newspapers and periodicals but also for capturing and preserving modern day news via websites. Leading into the main Newsroom is a lobby area where you can access some 4.8 million pages of such archived websites.

The Newsroom looks like a great place to research and is already proving extremely popular with a wide range of researchers. To use the Newsroom you will need a readers ticket and full details of how to obtain this can be found at http://www.bl.uk/reshelp/inrrooms/stp/register/stpregister.html

With thanks to Amelia Bennett for the photograph which comes from one of the historic newspaper pages displayed on the Newsroom wall.

Talks and book signings week beginning 16th June

This coming week I am giving two talks on the workhouse after which I will be selling and signing copies of my book. All are welcome to attend and further details are as follows:
Tuesday 18th June: The Workhouse and its Records. 8 pm. Surrey Family History Society, United Reformed Church Hall, Addiscombe Grove, Croydon, Surrey, CR0 5LP. Non members welcome

Thursday 20th June: My Workhouse Ancestor, 3.30 pm. The Florence Nightingale Museum, Southbank, London (located in the grounds of St Thomas’ Hospital). Booking is required and tickets cost £8. For tickets ring 020 7620 0374

Using Newspapers in Family History

The digitization of newspapers is rapidly changing the lives of many researchers today and the most useful database is without doubt the British Library’s British Newspaper Archive (BNA) at www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk   As digitization progresses I am finding out a variety of interesting facts about my ancestors. Some are fascinating tit bits which help flesh out what I already know about them. Such is the entry in the deaths column of the Worcester Herald for 18 July 1857 which I discovered today for my great great grandfather William Clement Heritage. I already knew that William had died aged 41 of  a kidney related disease but this short yet simple entry gives me a little bit more, stating that his death was ‘ deeply regretted his family and friends, and  [that he was] much respected.’

Newspapers can be one of our most informative sources

Newspapers can be one of our most informative sources

Other finds are more significant – feeding me important facts that will help me break down some of my family history brick walls or providing me with graphic details of how a relative died. I have had two such important finds recently. The first concerned  another  William Heritage. This William had baptised all but one of his children in Ettington south of Stratford upon Avon and was last recorded there in 1798 when he contributed £5 towards the building of the new church. I had also found the draft for a lease on a mill at Whichford some 12 miles away dated 1799 that William was planning to take out jointly with his father-in-law Charles Chapman. Charles had died the same year, however, and there was no evidence that William had gone ahead and taken out the lease. The next known record for William was not until 1818 when he was buried in Haselor a village just north of Stratford.

The British Newspaper Archive revealed that William had indeed taken out the lease at Whichford but that he had not stayed there long, for in 1802 an auction notice  shows him putting the contents of his mill business at Whichford Mill up for sale on account of his leaving  the area. So another three years of his life have been accounted for but I still some way to go to finding out why and when he ended up at Haselor!

Secondly and more dramatically I found out more about my  Westwood family who are one of the case studies in my book (see page 25). I already knew that one of Joseph and Margaret Westwood’s three sons to die in his youth was Joseph aged 21  but up to now I only had the details on his death certificate. This  told me that he had been killed by lightning in fields near Cark-in-Cartmel in Lancashire in 1912.  A search on his name and the year of death across all newspapers in the BNA brought up two items of news concerning his death. As is often the case these were to be found in local newspapers based many miles from where he lived and died and goes to show that tragic deaths like this are newsworthy no matter where the newspaper is based – so it is wise to search across the whole database rather than restrict it to newspapers in the vicinity of the event.

Newspaper entry concerning Joseph's tragic death

Newspaper entry concerning Joseph’s tragic death

Both the Hull Daily Mail and The Lichfield Mercury gave details of how Joseph died and using both articles together I was able to get a good idea of what happened that day.  The thunderstorm had been brief but severe and had struck Joseph and two other men as they were cutting bracken.   What was very revealing for me was that Joseph’s younger brother Thomas aged 14 had been one of the other two men but had survived. The Lichfield Mercury describes how Joseph’s body was ‘burned from the right shoulder to the right foot’ while the Hull paper gave the following account:

Evidence at the inquest at Cark North Lancashire on Monday showed that after the lightning had struck the 3 men engaged in Bracken cutting at Holker Bank on Saturday afternoon Joseph Westwood Junior was left a dead in a sitting position with his eyes open. Only about six inches of his coat was torn but his body was badly marked by lightning. Thomas Westwood 14 was found in a delirious condition looking over a gate with his clothes badly torn and Thomas Sargent the other injured man had wanted some distance before collapsing.

New data is constantly being added to the BNA so don’t forget to re-run your searches at regular intervals. When the Westmorland Gazette and Lancaster Gazettes  for 1912 are added no doubt I will find further details about Joseph’s death.

You can find out more about Newspapers and Magazines and how to use them as sources for  family history in Chapter 5 of my book.

 

 

Just How Much a Will Can Tell You

When my 3x great grandfather Charles Chapman Heritage wrote his will in 1857  he  provided a clear picture of  life in the Heritage family for future generations to peruse.

Charles was a publican and grocer who lived in the village of Aston Cantlow near Stratford upon Avon in Warwickshire and his will details not only all the land and property he owned and leased, but also provides an insight into what it would have been like to step into the Heritage family home at this time. I also feel that it gives an indication of his character  too, as you shall see.

If you look on page 133 of Tracing Your Ancestors Through Death Records you will see an image of the entry that relates to his will in the National Probate Calendar. Here it refers to ‘The will as contained in Writings marked A and B of Charles Chapman Heritage’ and the ‘B’ referred to is an inventory of goods to be left to his widow. He was obviously a man who thought ahead and wanted to head off any problems before they occurred.

Charles had been married twice: by his first wife Elizabeth Clements, who died in 1822, he had had two surviving children William and Elizabeth and by Margaret (Elizabeth’s sister) he had had one son Charles. Although his son William had died intestate in 1857 (I wonder if this was what prompted Charles to write his own will) William had left five dependent children behind him and so potentially there were still four different parts of the family for Charles senior  to consider when dividing his estate – his widow, his daughter Elizabeth, his son Charles and the children of his son William.

His will is extremely detailed filling seven A4 pages s and in it he deals with every aspect of his estate and to whom it should be given. He was particularly concerned that Margaret should receive certain goods which, in the main, came from the family home. The wonderful thing for me is that he listed these items according to which room they were in, so not only do I learn discover just what Margaret and Charles had in their house but I also get a feel for the layout of the house. And the inventory, which I have transcribed below (updating some of the spelling where it is not obvious), is a good indicator of the comparative comfort in which this generation of the family lived. It also provides a useful picture of what was in a fairly typical middle class home at this time albeit bearing in mind that Charles  ran a pub with shops attached. I think the inventory makes fascinating reading and and, as usual, a document like this also produces further questions – not just as to what exactly some of the items were – but more importantly just where the ‘Famley Bible’ ,  went! If only I could trace that then I might be able to  confirm the identity Charles’ grandfather which has been my brick wall for twenty years now!

Extract from Charles' inventory

Extract from Charles’ inventory

Appendix B: The schedule of Household goods Furniture and Effects reffered to by my Will

2 small Barrells about 8 or 10 Gallons each

3 dozen sorted wines with bottles

1 brass Lock Tap

1 Plate Cover

2 small oval side covers

1 Copper Tun dish 6 cup  and jugs

6 small Goblett Glasses 6 Wine Glasses

1 pair small glass decanters

6 Julley cups and 6 Preserve Cups

1 Tea Tray and Waiter

2 small waiters

1 hand bell

1 oak round tea table

1 small Hand– to chose which she likes

1 pair brass candlesticks

1 pair iron Candlesticks

1 pair japanned chamber candlesticks

1 small mettle tea pot

half a dozen cups and saucers and slop basin

1 sugar basson [basin] cream jug and toasting fork

2 saucepans, 1 skimmer , 1 ladle

1 messelin kettle, 1 copper tea kettle

1 small Dutch oven, 1 dripping pan

1 toaster, 1 small cooking boiler, 1 small frying pan

2 basketts, 1 lantern, 2 good washing tubs

1 swilling tub, 1 bucket, 1 tin bucket

1 small hog tub, 1 coal riddle, 1 small spade

1 set of tea chainy,  the choice of all

1 pair British silver tablespoons

Half a dozen British silver teaspoons

1 set glass cruets and salts and spoons

2 egg cups, 3 common? Tablespoons

2 pairs of blue dishes, 2 dozen sorted blue plates

1 pair Butler Botes,  1 pair blue tureens

1 pair vegetable dishes, 1 pair desert dishes

Some common dishes and plates, basins etc

The Brasses in Quinton’s house to stand as a fixture therein

1 fender, the choice of all

1 set good fire irons

1 set common  irons

6 Windsor chairs, 1 elbow chair, hur [her] low chair

3 or 4 common chairs,

1 pair snuffers and tray

Half a dozen knives and forks, the middle quality

1 carving knife and fork and 1 steele

1 small close horse and 1 larger horse

4 flat irons, 1 attalion iron with 2 cutters

1 small mahogany

2 leaf Pemberock table

In my Bedroom

4 post bedsteads, Chinese furniture, mill flock mattress

1 feather bed, 2 bolsters, 2 pillows, 3 blankets, 1 quilt, 2 bedside carpets in the same room

1 small bedstead with the furniture

The feather bed mattress, blankets, sheets, bed quilt and all thereto belonging

1 night chair, 1 square wash hand stand

1 swing glass, 2 sets window curtains

1 linning [linen] chest, 2 chamber chairs

1 ovell Pear glass, 2 chambers vessels

Inn Room over Little Parlour

1chest of drawers

1 30 Hour clock bought at Jessons Sales

1 washhand hand jug and bassn

2 chamber vessels

The large Famley Bible with about half a dozen other books which she chooses

1 workbox, 1 umberella

1 tea chest that given to her by William Wheyham

1 yellow painted dressing table cloth and basin and jug

1 swing glass, bedside carpets

half a dozen napkins

2 small table cloths, 2 large tablecloths

2 white dimity curtains with the fringe

6 pairs Linning [linen] Sheets

2 bedquilts the choice of all

Also in the room over Little Parlour

1 tend bedstead and furniture, 1 feather bed and two bolster

2 pillow, 3 blankets one pair of sheets and a bed quilt

14th August 1857. Charles C Heritage

Witnesses John Newberry J.H. Whitaker

A Trip to the Graveyard

As a teenager my Mum and I spent many happy hours feverishly exploring churchyards, frequently in very cold or wet conditions. We were driven on by a determination, not just to find our ancestors’ resting place, but also the inevitable genealogical clues we knew their gravestones would contain if we could but find them; the age at death would help locate the baptism; details might be given of previously unknown family members; references might be found to where our family had actually lived – and the last would in turn give us houses to try and track down!

I can vividly remember the thrill I felt when we found the stone for John and Margaret Bowness. It was just outside the main door of the tiny church at Cartmel Fell. And after reading the stone I suddenly found myself regarding them as real people rather than just names on my family tree.

The gravestone of John and Margaret Bowness

The gravestone of John and Margaret Bowness

Two of their children, Barbara and James (whose baptisms I had found) had died as young adults while, although I knew that the  family lived at Poolgarth in Cartmel Fell, I had no idea that they later moved away to Hood Ridding at Old Hutton some fifteen miles away, returning to be buried at Cartmel Fell several years later. This led us on a trip to Old Hutton where we found another family grave and where it turned out my great great grandmother (their daughter) had worked as a servant in her late teens.

In those days there was nothing online and our successful finds were relatively few in proportion to the number of hours we spent in churchyards! These days you can make a much more ordered and thorough search to see if your ancestors’ gravestones survive and to learn what is written on them – all  without stirring out of your house. One of the things I stress in my book is the importance of using your various death records in tandem and making the most of all online databases. Today there are numerous websites offering transcriptions of monumental inscriptions and burials while some websites also offer images of gravestones. And, although I still wholeheartedly exhort you to get out and visit your ancestor’s parish and hopefully experience the thrill of finding their grave too, doing your homework before you go can save you many man hours on the ground and will give you extra time to explore the rest of the town or village too.

Family historians and antiquarians have been transcribing the information on gravestones for many years and these are often a useful short cut for locating the stones you want or finding out what was written on those that no longer survive. Many churchyard transcriptions carried out in the nineteenth century are now more precious than ever, including as they do so many stones that no longer survive. Such a transcription led me to discover vital information about my great great grandmother Elizabeth Heritage that would otherwise have been lost, while a surprising number of stones give information about causes of death and occupations and, if you actually get to see the gravestone itself, frequently the artwork is symbolic and of interest too.

A gravestone is not just a tablet upon which vital genealogical information is written however. A gravestone tells a story, whether it be the simple dates of a person unmarried and childless, or an epitaph to a loved one written by a spouse or children. Don’t forget to think about the effect your ancestor’s death would have had on any remaining family members. It’s very important to put your family history data into its ‘real life’ situation.

So next time you walk round a burial ground try to imagine the mourners for each burial clustered around each grave. If you do so the burial ground will suddenly become a very crowded place. Remember, too, that many graves will be unmarked by any stone. Then think about how the death of each person may have affected all those close family members and friends stood there before you. A death, no matter at what age, could have had repercussions for the rest of the family and sometimes serious ones. And now consider your ancestor’s grave. Who would have stood around it and how would do you think they have felt? Who did your ancestor leave to mourn and who would have been most affected? This is all food for thought and an important part of understanding your family history and getting under the skins of your ancestors.

I look at all aspects of gravestones and monumental inscriptions in Chapter 3 of the book, while in Chapter 8 I consider the repercussions of a death on the surviving family members.

Cartmel Fell church

Cartmel Fell church

The Author, the Book and its Background

And so, at last, my first book Tracing Your Ancestors Through Death Records is due to be published by Pen and Sword Books on 21 February 2013. It is culmination of seven months hard work and much research and also of an idea that came to me back in 2005 when I first started running my family history classes.

I began tracing my own family history when I was fifteen, my curiosity having been sparked by stories related to me by my Mum. She in turn had got many of them from her great uncle George Dickinson …… but more of that another time! And so began my passion for family history! After a fumbling start I soon learnt that my primary sources were the General Register Office index of births, marriage and deaths and the census returns. And thus my pedigree grew, on my Mother’s side at least. Dad’s side had to wait another few years until I plucked up courage to ask him. He was traditionally silent on any aspect relating to his family! After school I chose to study history at university and one of the primary reasons for choosing to go to college in London was easy access to both family history records (St Catherine’s House, Somerset House and the Society of Genealogists) and also the Royal Opera House! My two loves were equally shared at that time between family history and opera.

Shoot forward to 2005, by this time I had spent some sixteen years working as a Civil Servant (something as a child I always swore I would never be!). I now had an extensive family history and with it had come the realisation that, although I knew a lot about the subject, there was much more to know. Therefore I had begun the Higher Certificate in Genealogy course courtesy of the Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies a few years earlier – purely to improve my own knowledge. At this stage I certainly had no thoughts of genealogy as a career. Then one day Josie, one of my colleagues, came to me and asked me if I would start up some family history courses for those colleagues that were interested. Family history by this time was at the start of its tremendous rise in popularity partly due to the showing of the first series of Who Do You Think You Are? the previous year and, of course, the increasing amount of data becoming available via the internet.

I can remember my initial reply to Josie was something along the lines of ‘I don’t know that much really’ and her typically direct reaction was, ‘’Don’t be ridiculous! You know far more than we do!’ And so it began: by the following year I had opened my classes to the general public and was inundated with students and the same year I answered a job advert to work at the Institute for Heraldic and Genealogical Studies in Canterbury and to my surprise I was successful!

But it was while I was writing classes for my very first set of students at work that I decided instead of writing a traditional lesson about wills and probate records to follow on from sessions on BMDs, census records and parish registers, I would write a module that encompassed a much wider range of records – those records that were all either created at death or, like wills, activated at death.

A few years before I had had a wake-up call which showed me the importance of all types of death records. Quite by chance I had discovered that my great great grandfather Edwin Barnes had died unexpectedly and very suddenly in his thirties and that his death had had a devastating effect on his family.

I had not actively sought out his death record, having made the presumption that he and his wife had almost certainly carried on living the typical lives of the working-class Londoners of this time, probably dying some time in their 50s or 60s! If I had not stumbled across their young daughter in an orphanage in the 1891 census I would no doubt have carried on in my erroneous presumption and missed out on a wonderful pile of data about my family!

As I pondered more on my ‘lucky find’ I realised that it is death records that often tell us far more about our family than any of the record actually created during their lifetimes. It also struck me that if we don’t seek out our ancestor’s death records, in many cases we will fail to realise what their lives were like in their later days. An ancestor’s circumstances could change rapidly at any point in his or her life (for better or worse) but even more so in their later years as their ability to earn a living waned. There could be a very great difference between someone’s life at the time they were at their peak, working and raising a family, compared to life after the family had fled the nest. Failing to locate death records means you know nothing about an important section of their lives.

The most important death record in Edwin’s case was an inquest record. From it I learnt not only about how his tragic death occurred, but gained an understanding of the family’s life and the consequences that Edwin’s early death had for them; especially for his youngest child Mary Ann who was only six when he died. You can read the full story in Chapter 4 of the book.

For those ancestors who did not die a tragic and or sudden death and for whom, therefore, there will be no inquest records, there is still a rich seam of other death records which will tell you plenty about them and I will explore some of these in later blog posts.