Talks at WDYTYA 2014

The Who Do You Think You Are? Live family history show at Olympia is just under a month away. Now’s a good time to make sure you have bought your tickets, not just for the show as a whole, but also to reserve a place in any Society of Genealogist talks you especially wish to attend – places sell out fast so its worth spending a couple of pounds reserving a place!

Each day at 10.30 and 12.45 I will be giving talks at The Genealogist’s stand  (number 910) – there are no ticket reservations for these talks so turn up early to get a seat! I will be talking about a variety of exciting different sources and how you can use them to advance your research. On Thursday afternoon at 4.45 pm I am in the SOG Celebrity Theatre/SOG 1 to talk about Newspapers in Family History and on Saturday at 2.45, again in the same place, I will be giving my new talk entitled ‘Wills: not just a source for your better off ancestor’.

Further details of the show are at http://www.whodoyouthinkyouarelive.com/

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A Spooky Tale

Christmas is traditionally a time for the telling of a good ghost story and so here I set down details of something that happened to me a few years ago. You may not consider it to be sensational in nature but I believe it shows that we should all keep an open mind about ghostly matters, especially those relating to our family!

If you read my first post on this blog a year ago you may remember I recounted details of the stories my Mum used to tell me about my family and how it was these that initiated my love of family history.  My Mum and I were very close and it was a tragedy for me that she died when I was in my late 20s. We had often debated whether or not there was life after death and I had half-jokingly suggested that if there were she should return to let me know!

On several occasions for  six months or so after she died I experienced a strange but comforting feeling  that she was inside me looking out of my eyes and I have always felt that she is close, but never did she actually ‘return’ in the way I had asked.

You may have noticed a passing reference to my love of opera in my first blog post. As a teenager I had discovered  an old 45 RPM record of the famous tenor  Beniamino  Gigli in my parents’ attic and this sparked my love of singing and opera, leading me to take up singing lessons (yet another tale). Mum shared my love of music and especially Italian opera. When I was 20 we spent a wonderful holiday in Italy culminating in a trip to the opera at Verona while one of our favourite songs was Gigli’s rendition of ‘Mamma’ by the Italian songwriter Cesare Bixio .

One evening many years after Mum had died my husband and I were watching television. We were watching ‘Francesco’s Italy’ in which native Italian Francesca da Mosta travels the length and breadth of Italy exploring the countryside and meeting its people. It was the last program in the series and in it Francesco finishes by meeting up with his family – including his  beloved ‘Mamma’. As he does so music starts playing and that music was none other than Bixio’s  ‘Mamma’  and it was sung by  Beniamino Gigli!

As the music began to play I thought ‘This is our song’. No sooner did I think that than my old musical sewing box that sat in the corner of the room suddenly began to play. My husband and I both looked at each other and froze. The box had not been wound for years!

‘It’s my Mum’ I said half-jokingly. ‘She wants me to open the box’. I moved over to the music box and opened it.  My sewing threads and needles rested as usual on the velvet covered insert inside the box. I knew I had to lift out the insert and as I did so staring up at me was a photograph of Gigli the same man who was still singing away on the TV.

There may be scientific reasons why the music box suddenly started playing of its accord and I remember that I placed that picture there together with other operatic mementos years before but I had forgotten all about them.

What no one can explain is why the music box started playing at that particular moment in time. It has never played before or since of its own accord.

The incident left me with a warm and euphoric feeling that I have never forgotten. My Mum had managed to reach out to me even after all those years.

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.