I received an email from the ancestry website recently informing me that my annual subscription was due for renewal at the end of the month.
I logged into the site to check that my payment method was up-to-date and was amazed to see that I've been subscribing to the site since the year 2000.
I started researching my family history in the late 1990s. I was learning to explore the Internet as part of my IT up-skilling as a primary school headteacher. In the process I stumbled upon a database of the 1881 census maintained by the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints.
I was stunned when I began to find records that were definitely my ancestors. Finding the names of great grandparents was very exciting.
I was soon looking for more ancestors.
Then I found ancestry.co.uk;
signed up for a seven day free trial;
found the records of lots more ancestors;
and was hooked!
Over the years I've explored the main branches of my family tree right to the most distant twiglet.
And the same for my husband's family tree; and my brother-in-law's; and cousin-in-law's; and even helped a close friend to track down his birth mother and sister.
I subscribed to Find My Past for the release of the 1911 census and the 1939 Register. And I've ordered over fifty Birth, Marriage and Death certificates from the Government Record Office.
By 2012 I'd run out of new explorations and was becoming increasingly frustrated with banging my head against the ancestry "brick walls". But the British Newspaper Archive was live and so I subscribed to that too.
Great! I searched every name in my family tree in the BNA database and although the majority of my ancestors hadn't done anything newsworthy, a couple of my great grandparents had. And I've collected some fantastic stories about them which have helped me build up a greatly enhanced knowledge of the lives of each great grandfather and their families.
One of the best things about the British Newspaper Archive is it keeps adding pages to newspapers already included in the digital records; and new titles are added from time to time as well.
I was delighted when the BNA added the Barnsley Chronicle to the archive and I rushed to re-search my great grandfather, John Henry Buckle. I'd already found reports about him several times in a different local paper such as his involvement with a coal miners' charitable fund. He appears to have had a well developed sense of civic pride and community responsibility.
Searching the Barnsley Chronicle I was thrilled to find a photograph which included my great grandfather at a presentation for a war hero in the local village during WW1. He is in the centre of the photo and although the image is rather blurry, it still gives a good idea of what my great grandfather looked like.
But after you've done the research and collected all the available information about your ancestors, hatches, matches, dispatches, occupations and places of residence in particular, you might want to search more broadly to fill out the details of their lives. To try and get to know your ancestors and the places and times in which they lived. And some of these websites will help you to do just that.
Surnames of England and Wales
If you want to find out how many people share your surname check out this site.
Based on National Office of Statistics data you can find out how many other people have the same surname as yourself. The data is from 2002 so it's a bit out of date but it gives a general idea. My surname is rather commonplace (102 in the rankings) but my "maiden" name was more unusual being 1401 in the rankings.
My grandmother was a Smith which is number 1 in the rankings with 652,563 people sharing that surname.
The website displays some topical surnames, currently
there are 105 people called JANUARY.
Et il y a 91 appelée JANVIER aussi.
And there are a massive 18440 WINTERs, which probably says something about the British climate
Sun and found that 1003 people have that surname.
304 people are called Rain and 124 people are named Thunder.
Seriously, the website is useful for family historians but it's good fun too.
If you want to know what a location in your UK family history is like today, then the Geograph website is for you.
The website is a marvellous repository of photos taken by enthusiasts from all over the UK of the many places where they live or enjoy visiting.
The site is particularly useful if you want to visit a church that is connected to your family history without actually going there on a visit.
I don't know if the project has managed to cover every inch of the British Isles yet but I shouldn't think there are many places that haven't been captured.
This is my favourite Geograph image.
The photo was taken at Beaumont cum Moze in Essex.
Our Starling ancestors originated in Beaumont cum Moze and emigrated to London in the nineteenth century.
I think the remains of the Thames sailing barge in this photo are so evocative and we often speculate that it was on a boat like this that the family made their move from Essex to London's East End.
Dictionary of Old Occupations
If you enjoy family history but are sometimes perplexed by an ancestor's occupation, here's the solution.
Dictionary of Old Occupations: A-Z Index
This has to be one of the most useful websites for family historians available free on the Internet.
The Dictionary of Old Occupations contains over two thousand entries so if you're puzzled by the work undertaken by a Buddleboy you can easily find out that it was the person responsible for the upkeep of vats used to wash ore in the tin (or possibly lead) mining industry. Or how about a Cupel Maker which turns out to be a thrower in the pottery industry who made crucibles. Or was someone in your family a fripperer? Which means that they sold second hand clothes.
This really is one of the most fascinating and useful on-line dictionaries I've ever come across for both general interest and family history researching.
My husband's great, great grandfather was a coal whipper in the 1870s and I used the Dictionary Of Old Occupations to help find out more about the job.
The job of the coal whippers was to get the coal off the ships when it was delivered to the London Docks.
Coal was brought to the capital from the coal fields of the north and by the end of the nineteenth century over three million tons of coal were being transported by ship each year. It was the job of the coal whippers to get the coal out of the hold of the collier (ship used for transporting coal), into sacks and shifted on their backs onto the coal merchants' lighters (smaller vessels) for onward transport. It was hard, heavy, labour-intensive work which took its toll on the life expectancy of those involved.
I copied this fascinating account of the life of a coal whipper a few years ago. It's from The Mysteries of London by G.W.M. Reynolds. This was published in 1846 in weekly episodes. It was a "penny blood": one of the mass produced, cheap, sensationalist serials that were so popular in that era.
One of the characters in the story is a coal whipper and here he is describing his life to other drinkers in a pub, The Dark House.
He explains that the coal whipper works for a local publican who acts as middle-man between the captain of the collier and the coal merchant. The publican contracts to move the coal and hires the whippers and pays them directly; what is extra shocking is the fact that out of his meagre wages the coal whipper had to pay substantial amounts to the publican for beer in order to be sure of getting a job!!!
This is what he said:
"My father was a coal whipper, and had three sons. He brought us all up to be coal whippers also. My eldest brother was drownded in the pool (Pool of London) one night when he was drunk, after only drinking about two pots of the publicans' beer: my other brother died of hunger in Cold-Bath Fields prison, where he was sent for three months for taking home a bit of coal one night to his family when he couldn't get his wages paid him by the publican that hired the gang in which he worked. My father died when he was forty - and any one to have seen him would have fancied he was sixty-five at least - so broke down was he with hard work and drinking. But no coal whipper lives to an old age: they all die off at about forty-old men in the wery prime of life….
….He doesn't get paid for his labour in a proper way. Wapping swarms with low public-houses, the landlords of which act as middle-men between the owners of the colliers and the men that a hired to unload 'em. A coal whipper can't get employment direct from the captain of the collier: the working of the collier is farmed by them landlords I speak of; and the whipper must apply at their houses. Those whippers as drinks the most always gets employment first; and whether a whipper chooses to drink beer or not, it's always sent three times a-day on board the colliers for the gangs. And, my eye! what stuff it is! Often and often have we throwed it away, 'cos we could'nt possibly drink it - and it must be queer liquor that a coal whipper won't drink!
Well, I used to earn from fifteen to eighteen shillings a-week; and out of that, eight was always stopped for the beer; and if I didn't spend another or two on Saturday night when I received the balance, the landlord set me down as a stingy feller and put a cross agin my name in his book….
….not give me any more work till he was either forced to do so for want of hands, or I made it up with him by standing a crown bowl of punch. So what with one thing and another, I had to keep myself, my wife, and three children, on about seven or eight shillings a-week - after working from light to dark."
Our ancestor was Mark Starling (1827 - 1894) who stopped working as a coal whipper and lived on into his seventies, although unfortunately he eventually died in the workhouse.
Did your ancestor leave a will and is it recorded at the Probate Office? If so you'll no doubt want to know how much cash your ancestor left to their nearest and dearest in today's money. This is where the National Archives Currency Convertor comes in. Select the amount of cash and the year you're interested in. Click enter and, hey presto, the National Archives will tell you what the purchasing power of your ancestors legacy would be today. Or you can enter the amount you received for pocket money or your paper round and see what you'd be able to buy today. Probably more then than now!
If your ancestor left a Last Will and Testament there's a good chance it will have been registered by a solicitor or the executors with the government Probate Office. These records are included in the subscription to Ancestry but are easily searchable for free as well. Just go to the UK government website and fill out surname of the deceased and the year of death. If you wish to order the whole Will there's the possibility of getting it as PDF for a fee. I've paid for several Wills but haven't found them to offer a great deal of additional information to what is in the public record.
If you find that one of your ancestors has a rather obscure nickname this List of Traditional Nicknames in Historic Documents could be helpful.
Scanning the list, these caught my eye.
Babe = Mary (or used as a name for the baby of the family)
Butch = (Butch is a common nickname used to separate "Sr" from "Jr" mainly in cultures with German backgrounds. Typically the father (Sr) goes by his first name, while the son (Jr) will be referred to as "Butch" by family and friends.)
Doc = name given to 7th child
Heinz = Heinrich
Iggy = Ignatius
Kissy = Calista
Kit = Christopher
Mimi = Wilhelmina
Norm = Norman
Rita = Margaret
Sadie = Sarah
Telly = Aristotle
And it occurs to me that the list might also be useful for fiction writers looking for something slightly unusual for their characters.
If you think your ancestor might have been involved in a railway accident there may be some information at the Railway Archives website.
In 1947, my mother kept a diary and one day she recorded: “Mr Eaton was killed today on the Railway”. Her father worked on the railway so Mr Eaton’s death must have been particularly significant. The Railways Archive website has 32 accidents listed for 1947 but none of them seem as though they would have involved the Mr. Eaton mentioned in Doreen's diary. Further scrutiny of the accidents recorded for 1947 show there were a staggering 111 fatalities and over 800 injuries. The worst accidents of 1947 were at Gidea Park (7 fatalities and 45 injured); Doncaster (18 fatalities and 118 injured); Burton Agnes (12 fatalities and 32 injured); South Croydon (32 fatalities and 183 injured); and Goswick (28 fatalities and 90 injured).
The causes of these terrible railway disasters were:
Goswick: excessive speed and human error resulting in derailment and the train splitting
South Croydon: signaller error resulting in derailment
Burton Agnes: collision with a road vehicle
Doncaster: signaller error resulting in rear collision and derailment
Gidea Park: fog, excessive speed and human error resulting in rear collision and derailment.
Reading these appalling statistics made me re-appraise what might have happened to Mr Eaton. I'd assumed he'd been killed while working for the Railway: now I'm not so sure.
Interestingly, sixty years later, in 2007, 54 accidents were reported on the railway in which there were 6 fatalities (5 were caused by collision with a road vehicle) and in the majority of cases there were no injuries at all.
The Railways Archive is easily and freely searchable and might provide you with interesting background for your family's story.
The History of the Workhouse
Probably most family history researchers have found one or more of their ancestors ending their days in the workhouse. To find out more about life in the workhouse then a visit to The Workhouse - the story of an institution is a must.
It's a massive website filled with information about every conceivable aspect of workhouse life but I've found that the most useful part is the directory of workhouse addresses with links to the pages of individual workhouses.
This is the link to the directory part of the site: http://www.workhouses.org.uk/addresses/then just use the A-Z to search for the town you want and click its link.
Charles Booth's London
If you're researching London ancestors, this website is very interesting and useful for expanding your family story.
Charles James Booth (1840-1916) was an English philanthropist and social researcher. He is most renowned for his innovative work documenting working class life in London at the end of the 19th century. You might have seen the BBC2 series The Secret History of Our Streets which referred to the Charles Booth Poverty Maps throughout the series.
This link will take you to The Poverty Maps and they are fascinating.
The population is categorised from the lowest class (Vicious, semi-criminal) through Poor (18s to 21s a week for a moderate family) to the top of the scale Upper middle and Upper (Wealthy). Click on "Legend" on the left of the map to see the categories in more detail and to understand the colour coding of the streets and their associated poverty levels.
You can zoom in and out of the map and if you're interested in particular streets then use the search box top left.
And not to mention the notebooks! You could spend weeks reading these fascinating documents.
Some of our London ancestors lived in the St-George-in-the-East, Watney Street, Commercial Road area of the East End which is categorised variously from "Lowest class. Vicious, Semi criminal" to "Fairly comfortable. Good ordinary earnings".
From about 1910 to 1940, Michael's mother, Rose Murray, lived with her parents and sister in Planet Street in the centre of this zone. In the nineteenth century, Planet Street was known as Star Street and there was a pub of that name in the vicinity.
In 1898 when Charles Booth visited Star Street as part of his mapping exercise he categorised the street as "Very poor. Casual. Chronic want" so life in Star Street was tough.
Later on, life in Planet Street was still tough.
Rose used to tell this tale from the late 1920s:
I'd gone out dancing with some friends and we'd met some boys who walked us home. At the top of Planet Street, my friend Phoebe said to the boys, "Come and have a drink with us at home."
One of these boys said, "What in Hammer and Chopper Street? No thanks. Good Night," and off they went.
Despite it's apparent reputation, Rose always had fond memories of the time she lived in Planet Street.
If you've ancestors who lived in London during the Victorian era, Charles Booth's London is a gold mine of information.
Hansard is the edited verbatim report of the proceedings of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords in the British Parliament. It is a fantastic resource for adding detail to your family story. When I was researching the background to I Think I Prefer the Tinned Variety: The Diary of a Petty Officer in the Fleet Air Arm during World War II I was trying to find out about the Mobile Naval Air Bases (MONABs) that were set up to provide back-up for the British Pacific Fleet in 1945 and I found a fascinating reference in Hansard.
I also found a report in Hansard about a school that features in my family story which was most interesting.
Go to the Historic Hansard search page and enter the person or place you're interested in. You'll go to a page where you can narrow your search down or follow up on some of the suggestions. Well worth a visit!
Thanks for reading my blog today and hope you find some of these websites useful.
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A Single To Filey by Michael Murray
For over thirty years Cathy Murray worked in British primary education as a class teacher and then as head teacher of four different schools.