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.

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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.

Welcome to my Death Records Blog

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 My book Tracing Your Family History Through Death Records was published in February 2013. This accompanying blog gives you a taster of what to expect in the book, some  background about myself (the author) and  the writing of the book. I hope you enjoy reading it! ~ Celia Heritage

A  review of the book is available below.

Review in Who Do You Think You Are Magazine