Essential Reading

'I have been a family historian for more than 40 years, and a professional historian for over 30, but as I read it, I was constantly encountering new ways of looking at my family history....Essential reading I would say!' Alan Crosby, WDYTYA Magazine

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Hidden Mothers in Victorian Photographs

Great-Aunt Alice's Family History Website of the Week
Hidden Mothers in Victorian Photographs

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Great-Aunt Alice's Family History Website of the Week
Historic Hospital Admissions Record Project
View Your Ancestors' Hospital Records

Thursday, 11 October 2012


Great-Aunt Alice's Family History Website of the Week
Mugshots of Criminals from the Tyne and Wear area in the 1930s

Friday, 21 September 2012

Great-Aunt Alice's Family History Website of the Week
Two centuries of women's costume history and women's fashion history.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Family History and Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee

Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee

Read articles on Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee by Ruth A. Symes in June 2012's edition of Family Tree Magazine (UK); the special Jubilee edition of Scotland Magazine and June 2012's edition of Scottish Heritage Magazine.

For women's history and social history books - competitive prices and a great service - visit:

Keywords: Europe, European ancestry, ancestors, Scotland, Scottish, English, British, genealogy, Diamond Jubilee

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Our Ancestors and the Diamond Jubilee

How They Celebrated the Diamond Jubilee

In 1897, our ancestors up and down Britain celebrated the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria with a burst of patriotic fervour. Schoolchildren marched through the streets, bands played, races and parades were held, the poor received food and bonfires and fireworks lit up the night sky.

To find out exactly what your family got up to locally on Tuesday 22nd June 1897 (or possibly on the previous Sunday, 20th June) take a look at the British Newspaper Archive now online at This includes scanned searchable copies of newspapers from many localities and can be searched under date and topic.  If your ancestors decorated their business premises, hosted parties or attended banquets, you may find that they are actually mentioned by name in the papers!

For more on how your ancestors may have celebrated Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee see my article 'God Save the Queen' in this month (June 12)'s Family Tree Magazine.

TheRoyal Number’ of a popular magazine issued to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. The lead article  features a photograph of her great-grandchildren (the future kings Edward VIII and George VI) and the words of a specially written patriotic song.
Home Words for Heart and Hearth, ed by Rev. Charles Bullock, Home Words Publishing Office, 1897

Keywords: Europe, European, ancestors, ancestry, genealogy, family history. Diamond Jubilee, Queen Victoria

Monday, 14 May 2012

Manchester School Records

School Log Books Online

It’s becoming quicker and easier to search for the school records of our ancestors online. ‘The Manchester Collection’ at is an exciting new resource. Admission registers of the city’s elementary schools (from 1870 to 1916) and its industrial schools (1866-1912) are now searchable simply by entering your ancestor’s name and (if known) his or her likely dates of attendance.

For women's history and social history books - competitive prices and a great service - visit:

Keywords: European, Europe, genealogy, family history, ancestors, ancestry, education

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Ancestors Literate or Not?

He Couldn't Sign His Name

The likelihood that some of your nineteenth-century working-class ancestors couldn’t sign the marriage registers because they were illiterate is pretty high. Although literacy rates for both men and women rose throughout the eighteenth century, by the 1780s, it is estimated that only 68 % of men and 39 % of women in England could sign their names.

Industrialisation (1780-1850) did not necessarily bring greater degrees of literacy. Most of the manual jobs in a textile factory did not require the ability to read or write, for example. Before 1830, it is generally believed that the literacy rates for both men and women fell in many industrialising areas, particularly Lancashire. Indeed, between 1810 and 1820 literacy rates for women in Manchester may have been as low as 19 per cent.

Key words: European, Europe, ancestors, ancestry, genealogy, family history, England

Friday, 11 May 2012

Miner Ancestors

Some Resources on Mining Ancestors

David Tonks, My Ancestor was a Coalminer, Society of Genealogists’ Enterprises Ltd, 2003 ISBN: 1903462711

Coal Mining Records in the National Archives

Among other matters, this includes records of Mines Inspectorates, Labour Relations and Disputes, Health and Safety, Accidents, and Miners’ Welfare. Information about individual collieries and mining companies are more likely to be found in Local Record offices than the National Archives

National Coal Mining Museum for England, Caphouse Colliery, New Road, Overton, Wakefield, WF4  4RH Website: Click on ‘Museum Collection’ and then ‘Library.’ Over 5,000 books on mining history are collected here.

British Mining Database, Among other facilities this lists mining societies, mining museums and ‘where to look for documents’. There is also a Mining History Noticeboard where you can post queries about mines.

Scottish Mining Museum,  Lady Victoria Colliery, Newtongrange, Midlothian, EH22 4QN

Big Pit: National Mining Museum of Wales, Blaenafon, Torfaen, Newport, NP4 9XP

Durham Mining Museum,, This provides some general information for family historians wishing to trace ancestors who were miners.

Coal Mining History Resource Centre, This includes the National Database of Mining Deaths and Injuries

Search My Ancestry Translated

If you would find it easier to read Search My Ancestry in another language, simply choose a language from the Translate menu in the right hand margin and click on the word 'Translate' beneath it.

Keywords: Europe, European, ancestry, genealogy, family history, ancestors, French, German, Polish, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Norwegian, Swedish, Russian, Welsh, Yiddish, Icelandic, Danish, Japanese

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Become a Follower

If you have enjoyed the Search My Ancestry blog, why not become a follower? Just click on the icon 'Join This Site' in the right hand margin.

Postmortem photographs

Deathly Looks

If you notice something particularly odd about the eyes of an ancestor in a photograph – either the eyes being closed or a vacant expression -  consider that this might be because it was taken after he or she had died!

The Victorians were fond of post-mortem photographs (an example of ‘momento mori’) as reminders or memories of the dead. In these pictures, the recently deceased were often propped up and dressed as if alive. Their eyes might be artificially held open, or, even more bizarrely, painted in (on the eyelid) after the photograph was printed.

Long exposure times meant that images of the living (and moving) were often blurred. So, if the image of one person in a photograph is unusually clear (whilst those around him are blurred), it’s a possibility that this is, in fact, a corpse!

Keywords: Europe, European, ancestors, ancestry, genealogy, family history, England

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

How to conduct an oral history interview

Ten Top Tips for Interviewing Relatives

[This article first appeared in the now obsolete Discover My Past Scotland 2008]

Chatting to as many relatives as possible – and as many times as possible - when you are doing family history research really can pay off. Remember that in an oral interview, only 10% of the talking time should be taken up by you, the interviewer; the other 90% should be time for the interviewee to talk.

At ease. Make sure your interviewee is as relaxed as possible and use prompts to jog his or her memory.

There is always the chance that an odd detail will emerge from an oral interview that could lead you into new realms of investigation in the archives, or by way of censuses and certificates. But remember also, that family history is not simply about coming up with a list of dates and facts to add to your family tree diagram. It is also about getting a feel for the way in which your family lived in the past, and finding out about the kind of people they were. Once you know your characters, their setting, their education and places of work you will more easily be able to understand why they made the life decisions they did.

To put your interviewee at ease and to maximise the likelihood of new information emerging, try the ten strategies below:

1. Prepare your questions in advance. Don’t read a list of questions from a card or paper as this can be offputting to the interviewee, but do have some idea of what you want to find out.
      2. Use prompts – items that you can hold and examine such as commemorative tankards and photographs can provide great talking points.

    1. Always ask single questions. Don’t confuse the interviewee by asking two questions at once.

    1. Don’t ask leading questions (i..e. questions that make assumptions). Don’t say ‘He must have felt terribly poor growing up in such a small house,’ Say ‘How do you think he felt growing up in that house?’

    1. Ask open rather than closed questions. A closed question might be ‘Was Uncle Charlie happy about the birth of so many children?’ This might elicit a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ type answer. Ask instead, ‘How do you think Uncle Charlie felt about the birth of so many children?’ Such open questions allow people to talk freely and this is when unexpected information may slip out. Also, put the questions in different ways on different occasions. For example, to ascertain when certain events happened, rather than asking for specific information with a question such as ‘Which year was that?’ ask for the same information in a roundabout way with a question such as ‘Was Aunty Grace born at that time?’

    1. But don’t make your questions too open. Asking an interviewee what they remember about work in a particular factory or shipyard, for example, might throw them into a panic. Ask instead what they remember about their first day in the job, or how they spent their first pay packet.

    1. Look out for the silences. There may be significant reasons why your interviewees don’t mention particular relatives or particular times. Illegitimacy, divorce and periods in prison are just some of the secrets that members of the older generation may be unwilling to discuss. Be sensitive to these awkward moments and make a mental note to check up on them later.

    1. Make sure you double check when accounts given by relations seem to be contradicting each other. Incorrect memories can be as interesting as correct ones. There may be a significant reason for them.

    1. Always ask – on the off chance – whether there is anything in print (or written down) about the story you are discussing. Relatives often have newspaper clippings, diaries, old school magazines, autograph books (and many other items that they assume will not be of any interest to anyone) tucked away. You can nearly always learn something from these.

    Is it in writing? This diary that my father kept as a boy during the Second World War substantiates his oral account of the same period.
    10. Think about how you will record the answers to your questions. You could get the interviewee to write their own responses, or tape what they are saying. The best way is probably to jot down rough notes as they are talking and write these up as soon as possible after the interview.

    Keywords: family history, European ancestors, oral history, interviews, England

    Wednesday, 18 April 2012

    Tatties and Neeps - Scottish ancestors and their food

    Tatties and Neeps

    Click here for more on books by Ruth A. Symes

    What Scottish recipes can tell you about your family history

    [This article was first published in the now obsolete Discover My Past Scotland 2008] 

    If your family hails from Scotland, you may have inherited a taste for Scotch eggs, haggis, broth, scotch pancakes or shortbread. Even when other ‘more important’ clues to family history such as wills, family bibles, and birth and death certificates are lost, family recipes have often been passed down unchanged from generation to generation and they can tell us quite a lot about our families in the past.  

    Dishes inherited from your Scottish forebears may tell you something about what foodstuffs were available in their locality in the past - their proximity to the sea, and their access to fresh (as opposed to preserved) food. More importantly, they may provide you with more exact information about where your family came from, their income level and class status, the size and composition of their families, the way they celebrated important events and even their religious beliefs.  

    Many traditional Scottish dishes include seafood from the country’s extensive coastline – a natural larder.

    In general, Scottish food over the centuries had a homely and ‘cold weather’ feel. Oats and barley were the main staple and could soon be made into porridge or oatcakes. Spices - expensive to import - do not feature much.  Some foodstuffs, of course, originated in particular regions and towns in Scotland and may provide evidence as to where exactly your family came from. Arran potato salad, for example, comes from the Firth of Clyde; Haddock Skink is a thick fishy soup from Cullen in Morayshire;  Clapshot – a vegetable dish consisting mainly of potatoes and turnip and often eaten with haggis - comes from the Orkneys, and brown trout bake, as well as many dishes based on oily fish such as herring and mackerel were favourites with the Highlanders.

    Particular methods of food preparation may also help you pinpoint your family origins. In Aberdeenshire, for example, it was common to prepare grouse by wiping it inside and out with a damp cloth and removing the kidneys. The bird would then be stuffed with mushrooms, fried in butter and covered in cream. To find out more about the provenance of your family recipes take a look at a specialist book on Scottish cookery such as Catherine Brown, Scottish Regional Recipes (Chambers 1993). See also list below. A useful website showing where different Scottish foodstuffs originate is Alternatively, just google the name of your dish and discover its geographical history.

    There were variations in the Scottish diet according to class status and economic circumstances and, from your family fare, you should be able to hazard a guess as to whether your ancestors lived at subsistence level or at a level of luxury. For many Scots in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, meat was too expensive to eat regularly. Game, dairy produce, fish, fruit and vegetables were all more common on the Scottish table than animal flesh and main meals tended to centre on soup. There were many variations including Scotch broth, Partan bree (made from crab and chicken stock and a favourite in North-Eastern Scotland) , Cullen Skink, Cock-a-Leekie, and Hairst Bree (sometimes known as Hotchpotch). These soups were generally prepared using a potage of vegetables, herbs and roots with perhaps a little meat stock.

    In a frugal economy, it was customary to make sure that no part of an animal went to waste. For those in the middle of the social scale there was Howtowdie (roast chicken stuffed with oats), Potted hough (a kind of paste made using the gelatine from animal bones) and mince.  Also popular were black, red and white puddings (made from animal blood). Offal, or low-quality meat could easily be carried in a pig’s stomach – hence the genesis of the dish that has become a national symbol - haggis. Your wealthier Scottish relatives, on the other hand, may have feasted on grouse, haunch of venison or roast Aberdeen Angus beef with side dishes of curly kail, neeps and tatties (swede and potatoes) and colcannon or rumbledethumps (mashed potato).

    More popular than meat on many a Scottish table in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was seafood particularly shellfish including lobster, crab and many varieties of fish much of which was preserved by smoking.  The presence of some dishes in your family tradition may tell a sorry story. A dish called ‘Crappit heid,’ for example,  was eaten by poor fishermen in North Eastern Scotland. Having sold the body of the cod they caught, they would keep the head and stuff it with oats, onions, beef fat and white pepper.  Other typical Scottish fish dishes are Arbroath Smokies, Cabbie Claw (or Cabelew), Ceann Cropaig, Eyemouth Pales, Finnan Haddie and kippers.

    The Language of Scottish Food

    Your family today may use words to describe certain foodstuffs which betray your Scottish heritage. A ‘cloutie’ or ‘clootie dumpling,’for example, was named after the cloth or cloutie in which it was wrapped. Some culinary terms have been inherited from the Scotland’s cultural exchange with France (especially during the reign of Mary Queen of Scots). These include ‘collop’ from ‘escalope,’ gigot for a leg of mutton and ‘howtowdie’ derived from ‘Hetoudeau’ for a boiling fowl.

    Whilst savoury food in nineteenth and early twentieth century Scotland tended to be plain, baking was traditionally more adventurous. You may have inherited recipes for dumplings, pastries, shortbreads, scones, pancakes and small fancies. Such delights were consumed by the better off in the famous tearooms of the Scottish cities. Indeed, the very notion of ‘high tea’ derives in part from Scotland. There are a whole range of traditional Scotch puddings with fantastic names such as ‘Burnt Cream,’ ‘Apple Frushie,’ ‘Blaeberry Pie’, ‘Carrageen Moss,’ ‘Cranachan,’ ‘Stapag’ and ‘Tipsy Laird.’  Sweets were also popular and included Edinburgh rock, macaroons, Moffat toffee and a kind of fudge known as ‘tablet’.

    Food and Health

    You may have noticed some odd causes of death on your family certificates. These can attest to a lack of food or food of poor quality in your family household in the past. ‘Marasmus’ – a wasting of the flesh - was commonly cited in the deaths of young children who were deprived of calories and protein. ‘Teething’ – an odd but commonly given cause of death – may suggest a contamination of milk or other foodstuffs, and the dreaded ‘cholera’ was spread by infected water and food.

    Cookery Books

    Family cookery books can give a useful insight into your ancestors’ probable diet. If you have inherited a published Scottish cookery book, you can assume that whichever of your ancestors first used it had a reasonable income and a certain level of literacy. Scotland had her own range of cookery writers before Mrs Beeton appeared on the scene in the nineteenth century. These included, Mrs Dalgain  (The Practice of Cookery Edinburgh, 1734), and Mrs Maciver (Cookery and Pastry as Taught and Practised by Mrs Maciver, teacher of those arts in Edinburgh, 1789). But, be careful not to make too many assumptions from these published books about the way your family ate in the past. They will probably tell you more about how your ancestors aspired to eat rather than what they actually ate. Andrew Stewart’s The Scottish Cookery Book Containing Guid plain Rules for Makin’ Guid Plain Meats; Suitable for Sma’ Purses, Big Families and Scotch Stamachs, (J. Menzie’s, 1878) might offer a more representative picture.

    Handwritten cookery books are also probably a more accurate record of what actually appeared on your ancestors’ plates. Look out for memorandum written down the side of recipes which can tell you how different generations of mothers and daughters adapted dishes to suit their own tastes, budgets and family size. But remember that even those recipes written down in cookery books do not necessarily reflect what your ancestors ate every day. Rather, they probably record the dishes eaten on special occasions such as Christmas, Easter, Hogmanay and Burns night. Recipes for shortbread, which tended to be eaten as a treat at weddings, Christmas and New Year, are a case in point. In Shetland it was customary to break shortbread over the bride’s head as she entered her new home. Likewise, ale-crowdie (consisting of ale, treacle and whisky) would only be served at Scottish weddings. Whoever found the ring inside it would, supposedly, be the next to marry.

    If you do come across a handwritten cookery book, it is worth having a go at sourcing the ingredients and making some of the dishes. There is nothing quite like the sense of connection with your ancestors that you feel when taking your first mouthful of food from a recipe once cooked by your great-grandmother. And if you haven’t inherited any recipes, don’t despair. Take a look at some of your more colourful family anecdotes. These often involve information about food and its preparation. That story about Great-Uncle Stuart being kicked by a cow may well have occurred as he milked it in order to make ‘Hatted Kit’ – a sweet dish favoured by crofters that depended on fresh warm milk.

    Of course, you must be careful not to read too much about family history into your eating habits. In recent years, we have all become much more wide-ranging in our  food tastes as food from all over the country and all over the world has become available to us at relatively cheap prices. Nevertheless, there is still something to be learned from certain family recipes, and it is certainly important to continue the traditions for our own children.

    Keywords: Food, European Ancestors

    Useful Books

    Brown, Catherine, Scottish Regional Recipes, Chambers, 1993.

    Dickson-Wright, Clarissa and Crichton-Stuart, Henry,  Hieland Foodie: A Scottish Culinary Voyage with Clarissa, NMSE 1999

    Fenton, Alexander, The Food of the Scots: A Compendium of Scottish Ethnology Vol 5, John Donald, 2007.

    Lawrence, Sue  A Cook’s Tour of Scotland: From Barra to Brora in 120 recipes, Headline, 2008.

    Mabey, David. Traditional Eating and Drinking in Britain, A Feast of Regional Foods. Macdonald and James, 1978.

    Richardson, Paul. Cornucopia: A Gastronomic Tour of Britain. Abacus 2002.

    Tannahill, Reay. Food in History, Eyre Methuen, 1973.

    Wilson, Carol and Trotter, Christopher, Scottish Traditional Recipes: A Celebration of the Authentic Food and Cooking of Scotland, Southwater, 2009

    Useful Websites Food history, news, features and temporary exhibits. Sections on regional cooking and eating history. Site showing where different Scottish recipes originate from. Information on food from the official site of Scotland’s official tourism organisation Scottish food and cuisine Site celebrating homecoming year.

    Family Records: Obituaries

    Lives After Death

    Click here for more on books by Ruth A. Symes

    [This article first appeared in the now obsolete Discover My Past England 2009]

    What could be more useful to a family historian than an obituary? Surely, no other source of information could beat a mini-biography of your ancestor finished off, perhaps, with an adroit assessment of his character, and with a couple of anecdotes about his life thrown in for good measure? Obituaries in the form we recognise them have been around since the late eighteenth century when they first replaced public death announcements in the Gentleman’s Magazine and they can certainly prove a goldmine for the family historian.

    Bear in mind that your ancestor does not need to have been particularly well- known to have had an obituary in more than one publication. My great-grandmother, Elizabeth Symes, – an ordinary working-class mother of six who had no major public achievements – had two obituaries following her death in March 1940: one in her local newspaper, the Stalybridge Reporter, and a shorter one in the Manchester Evening News. From these, I discovered that Elizabeth had been associated with two Methodist chapels, one in Ancoats, Manchester and the other in Stalybridge. She was apparently devoted to good works and highly regarded by the local community. Slowly a new picture of my great-grandmother started to emerge – a woman of practical skills and religious commitment. The obituary had brought her to life and given me several new research leads in a way that no other source other than oral memory might have done.

    Obituary of Elizabeth Symes, Stalybridge Reporter March 1940

    Obituaries, even in relatively modest publications, can include some or all of the following details:

    ·       name

    ·       occupation

    ·       date and cause of death

    ·       circumstances of death

    ·       birth date

    ·       birthplace

    ·       list of surviving relatives

    ·       mention of close relatives (such as a spouse) who have recently died

    ·       marriage information

    ·       membership of organizations

    ·       military service

    ·       education

         ·       employment history

    ·       outstanding achievements

    ·       offices held

    ·       hobbies and activities

          ·       funeral, memorial and burial arrangements

          ·       names of pallbearers

          ·       names of mourners

    ·       names of those who donated flowers.

    For ordinary people, local newspaper obituaries are likely to carry longer obituaries than city newspapers. Obituaries in journals again will be longer and fuller. All of these items, of course, provide the starting point for further investigation of certificates, graveyards and cemeteries, military and employment records, and greatly aid the search for surviving relatives.

    Where might I find my ancestor’s obituary?

    You may find obituaries of your ancestors in a number of different places.

    • Only the lives of very famous ancestors will have been described in the obituary columns of national newspapers. (for instance, obituaries published in the The Times from 1785-1985 can be searched by keyword and viewed at

    • Relatives of more ordinary ancestors may have paid to put short notices in local or regional newspapers. Bear in mind that your ancestor’s obituary is more likely to be found in a newspaper local to the place in which he lived for most of his life than in a paper local to the place where he died. In daily newspapers, obituaries tend to appear very soon (2-3 days) after the death of the subject. In the early twentieth century, obituaries may even have appeared in the evening edition of the paper on the day of death. Many obituaries include funeral arrangements, so they will appear during the week between the death and the funeral. If the local newspaper is a weekly one, however, make sure you look in the issues up to three weeks after the death. Remember also that if your ancestor died in particularly tragic or unusual circumstances, their obituary might be reported as a news item. Once you know exactly when your relative died, you should be able to search the relevant microfiche copies of the local newspaper in your local library. If the obituary doesn’t appear in the newspaper you are looking in, ask whether there was another local newspaper at the time. It’s possible that the library might have an on-line website with information about obituaries or even an obituary index
    • If your ancestor was a member of a church, society, organisation or club, an obituary might have been written about him or her in a church magazine, company or society newsletter, alumni magazine (of a college or university), or professional journal. Remember, these obituaries may not have been published until some time after the death. The British Medical Journal (BMJ) records the obituaries of over 400 doctors per year and asks that obituaries be submitted within three months of a death. But the obituaries themselves may not appear in the journal for another two months.

    • If your ancestor belonged to a particular trade, his obituary might appear in the relevant trade journal. Some of this information is now available online. For example, the names of watchmakers, chronometer makers, clock makers, and   jewellers whose obituaries appeared in the Horological Journal between 1862 and 2002 are online at At the same website is a list of obituaries that appeared in the Watch and Clockmaker Magazine between 1928 and 1939. Copies of the actual obituaries may be obtained for a fee via the website.
    • Some obituaries of the prominent members of various religious denominations have been collected together and published in book form. If your early nineteenth-ancestor was a Unitarian, for example, his death might appear in Unitarian Obituaries from Various Denominational Journals 1794-1850, (ed. Alan Ruston), Quakers from the South-East might appear in An Index to Surrey Quaker Obituaries, 1813-1892 In The Annual Monitor, (ed., Clifford Webb). To discover whether a relevant published collection of obituaries exists, visit the academic bibliographic website at This may be searched under keywords.
    Ten Top Tips for Reading Obituaries

    At first glance, obituaries can seem to be the answer to all a family historian’s prayers, but be cautious, they can also be full of traps.  You should look out for:

    1. Writer’s Bias. Obituaries may give the impression that they are totally impartial (few appear with an author’s name), but, of course, they have all been put together by someone. Some publications will have had standard obituary formats or will have provided guidelines on what a relative might write. If the obituary of your ancestor appears in a company newsletter, or professional journal, it may have been written by a friend, relative, colleague or employer who may have had his own agenda for presenting your ancestor in a certain way.

    2. Cost. Never forget the fact that relatives have probably paid a fee per line or per word for the obituary and, in such cases, the item may, by necessity, have stuck to a bare minimum of information which may result in misinterpretation.

    3. Bias of the Publication If your source is a church magazine, it is likely to play up the spiritual qualities of your ancestor. If it is a left-wing newspaper, it is likely to emphasise his more radical qualities. If it is right-wing, he may be presented as more conservative.

    1. Historical Bias. Think about the historical moment at which the obituary appeared.  An obituary written in the throes of the First World War, is likely to have a patriotic edge. Obituaries of women written before the last quarter of the twentieth century, are less likely to celebrate their working lives than their homemaking qualities..
    5. Obituaries Written in Advance. The obituaries of the famous may have been written a long time before the death of the person in question. The Times began its practice of preparing obituaries in advance under the editorship of John Thadeus Delane (1841-79) and currently has around 5,000 obituaries waiting in the wings.

    6. Inaccuracies and Omissions. Obituaries may be inadvertently inaccurate (in terms of names and dates perhaps), or they might very deliberately omit information. If someone has been married twice, for example, his or her first marriage may not be mentioned. Likewise, if the deceased person was separated from a spouse and living with a partner, it may be the wife and not the partner who gets a mention in the obituary – something that will totally skew your impression of your relative’s life.

    7. Missing causes of death. Causes of death may not be given if the deceased is over 70 years old and certainly, most twentieth-century obituaries do not glory in details of an ancestor’s last moments as Victorian obituaries tended to do.

    8. Large gaps in time that are not accounted for. Ask yourself whether this might be because the writer didn’t know anything about this part of the deceased’s life or whether it is because something happened, that is unfit for public mention.

    9. Euphemisms. These may have been used to cover up something unpleasant – a financial disaster or period in prison, for example.

    10. Clichés. Statements such as ‘Adored by all his colleagues’ or ‘We shall not see his like again’ may be the result of a lack of imagination on the part of the writer rather than any genuine exceptional qualities on the part of your ancestor. 

    Keywords: Obituaries, European ancestors, death, England

    Useful Books

    Alana Baranick, Jim Sheeler and Stephen Miller, Life on the Death Beat: A Handbook for Obituary Writers, Marion Street Press, 2005.

    Nigel Starck, Life after Death: A Celebration of the Obituary Art, Melbourne University Press, 2006.

    Ian Brunskill, ed., Great Lives: A Century in Obituaries, Times Books.

    Janice Simons, Marriage and Obituary Notices, Janice Simons, 1994

    Alan Ruston, ed, Unitarian Obituaries from Various Denominational Journals 1794-1850, Watford 1990.

    Clifford Webb, ed, An Index to Surrey Quaker Obituaries, 1813-1892 in the Annual Monitor, West Surrey Family History Society, Vol 11, 1990.

    Useful Websites Archive of The Times newspaper from 1785 and 1985 which can be searched for free. Archive of the Guardian (1821 onwards) and Observer (1791 onwards) newspapers. A fee is charged to search this service. The British Medical Journal archive (1840 onwards) which can be searched for free. = an academic website listing all books held in British libraries and easily searchable by keyword. -  A Virtual Memorial Garden where you can add your own obituaries of your deceased relatives.

    Antiques and Family History: Ornaments/Vases

    All in a Vase

     [This article first appeared in the now obsolete Practical Family History 2008]

    Our family history is all around us – present even in the innocent-looking objects that stand on our fireplaces and windowsills. Vases and picture frames, mirrors and jewellery boxes can certainly be the silent repositories of all sorts of information about the lives of our ancestors. As the nineteenth-century poet John Keats wrote of a  Grecian urn.‘When old age shall this generation waste/ Thou shalt remain.’ But how can we get these ‘foster-children of silence’ (as Keats described them) to tell their tales?

    Objects that look somehow incongruous in your family home – too exotic, too expensive, or too unattractive, perhaps, to be examples of the normal taste of your ancestors - really should be investigated. Items that prompt mystifying remarks or odd memories from the older generation might be the ones that first send you rushing to the library, or diving into the internet to see if you can find out more. The tangible presence of a vase or ornament may lead you on to more traditional family history sources such as censuses, certificates or passenger lists, and to the information you are looking for.  

    Two ornaments have been passed down through the family from my great-grandparents, Mary Wilkinson (1867-1939) and George Wilkinson (1867- 1939). It was always made clear to me as a child that though this couple were married for more than 40 years, one of these ornaments was associated very firmly with her and one with him. The first is a white bisque ornament portraying two figures playing a guitar – this I was told - belonged to Mary. The other is a tall black vase which, when held to the light, sparkles with colour as if it is covered in petrol or treacle. This, by all accounts, was George’s.

    As both Mary and George died long before I was born, the ornaments have somehow come to stand in for the two of them in my imagination. The family story has it that George was not kind to Mary and that he left her on several occasions with five children to bring up whilst he travelled to America to satisfy his wanderlust. The figurine is gentle, full of soft curves, and pleasing to the eye – and I can believe that my great-grandmother too was soft and vulnerable, generous to a fault. The black vase on the other hand seems mysterious, opaque, and difficult to understand – the very embodiment of the unpredictable George. But these, of course, are just the wanderings of my imagination. What is more to the point is that neither of these objects seemed to be typical acquisitions of a working-class Lancashire family. My great-grandmother, as far as I knew, had worked in a cotton factory before her marriage and my great-grandfather was a miner. How then, I wondered did they come to have two such unusual, and potentially valuable items on their mantelpiece?

    Vase 1 The Bisque Figurine

    Whilst visiting a distant relation a few years ago I was astounded to see an ornament, very similar to my own, on her shelf. When I asked her where it came from, she said that the two ornaments were a pair. Originally, they had stood side by side on her grandmother’s (my great-grandmother’s) sideboard, but, on her death, one had found its way to my side of the family and the other to hers.  Then she presented me with that crucial clue. Our mutual ancestor – Mary Wilkinson -  had, she believed, been given the ornaments when she left her job ‘in service.’

    This tale inspired me to check the certificates and censuses relating to my great-grandmother’s life again. Her birth certificate (1867) told me that she was the daughter of a small-time farmer, Richard Knowles, in Westhoughton near Bolton, Lancashire. But, according to the 1881 census, she started out in the world of work, not on her father’s four acres, but as a ‘knotter in a cotton factory.’ At this point, she was just fourteen. Twenty years later, in 1901, she is simply described as the wife of George Wilkinson. It was then that I realised that I had no information on Mary from the 1891 census which was taken just a few weeks before she married.

    After a search online for Mary under her maiden name (Knowles) and her age (24), I was surprised to find that  - though still unmarried –  she was no longer living at her father’s address. Rather, she was living at the rather grandly named ‘Laburnum Villa’, Pilkington Street, Hindley, Wigan. This was a far more elegant abode than I had expected. It appeared that my great-grandmother had left the mill and was now working as a ‘general servant’ and living in the home of a family named Lowe -  Thomas (63) – a retired grocer -, his wife Ellen (63), and their two grandchildren Ellen (13) and John  (11)).


    Thomas Lowe, my great-grandmother’s employer was a retired grocer – somewhat higher up the social scale than Mary. To be able to employ her, he probably had an annual income of something between £150 and £300. Had he been a professional man, earning up to £1,000 a year, he would have had at least three servants each with specialist tasks. As it was, Mary probably took on the duties of housemaid, parlourmaid, nursemaid, kitchenmaid, cook and laundrymaid. She was in good company. By the 1880s, around a third of all young women between the ages of 15 and 21 in Britain were likely to be in service. This corresponded with a sharp rise in the numbers of families able to afford resident domestic staff. A majority of three fifths of all servants were employed, like Mary, not as part of large retinues in big stately homes, but as ‘maids-of-all work’ in the homes of small tradesmen such as drapers, plumbers, and coal merchants.

    The Lowes could well afford a couple of ornaments such as those now in the possession of myself and my distant cousin. It is more than likely that Mary continued to help out at Laburnum Villa after her marriage – particularly if – as legend has it – husband George was often away. Such piecemeal work by women often went unrecorded on censuses. Perhaps the ornaments were originally possessions of the Lowe family and came to Mary at the death of the older generation as a reward for all her hard work. They certainly seem more in keeping with the ambience of a house named ‘Laburnum Villa’ than with Mary’s own small terrace.

    Vase 2 Carnival Glass

    George Wilkinson’s vase presents a rather more exciting story.  As a child, I would hold this up to the light and observe how its rainbow sheen shimmered in much the same way that petrol does on the surface of water. I remember being told that this vase was made of something called ‘carnival glass.’ The term set my imagination alight. My great-grandfather, I was told, had travelled to America in the early years of the twentieth century. I wondered whether he had won the vase at a fair and brought it home in his knapsack for his wife, Mary.

    The idea that the carnival glass vase might have come from the United States started me on a search to find out whether my great-grandfather actually did make a trip across the Atlantic. I set about investigating the online passenger lists available at http// and  http// and searched for men named George Wilkinson sailing from Liverpool to New York in the period that I had guessed he had travelled (i.e. the five years after his youngest child was born in 1904). To my delight, I quite quickly discovered a man of that name who travelled to America on a ship called the ‘Lucania’ in January 1909. The address he gave on the passenger list - Argyl Street, Hindley -  confirmed that I had the right man. 

    Transatlantic passenger lists are fascinating genealogical resources. At the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, more and more information was being required of passengers year by year. As I ran my eyes across the various columns of the Lucania’s passenger list, a picture of George Wilkinson started to emerge. I learned his height and weight, the colour of his eyes and the fact that he had a crooked jaw, for example, but more importantly, I discovered - from a quick scrawl in the hand of the shipping official - his destination in America: ‘Wash. Roslyn’. An internet search for Roslyn (at,Washington) showed it to be a remote mining town in Washington State on the eastern edge of the Cascade Mountains.

    I realised that George must have been was what is known as a ‘bird of passage.’ He was one of more than 20 million immigrants who arrived in the United States between 1880 and 1920 (the period before the Johnson -Reed Act of 1924 limited the number of immigrants allowed into the country). The passenger list suggests that he did not have a firm offer of work in America, but he most certainly expected to get it. Roslyn was a coalmining town founded in 1886 by the Northern Pacific Company (a subsidiary of the Northern Pacific Railroad) to support the building of the American railroad. The mining provided coal for engines fuelling up for the trip across the Cascade Mountains. After a strike by white American miners in 1888, the Roslyn mines recruited black miners from the east to replace them, and in the early twentieth century, miners from all over Europe came to work in Roslyn. Men like George were a crucial part of the U.S. economy.  

    So George had indeed been in America. He had not gone as some hair-brained adventurer, however, but as a hardworking miner. An internet search for ‘carnival glass’ (at gave me some scientific terms for describing George’s vase. It is, in fact, made from a pressed glass that has had an iridised surface treatment. Such glass, initially known as ‘Iridill’, ‘Rubi-glass,’ or ‘dope-glass,’ was first produced on a large scale by the Fenton Art Glass Company, of Williamstown, West Virginia, but was later made by several other companies across America. My  ornament is a ‘swung vase’ made by forming the vase in a small mould of 4-5 inches high and then swinging the molten glass piece around to stretch it, often to over 20 inches.

    I contacted the archivist at Ellensburg Public Library in Washington by email and mentioned my great-grandfather’s vase to him. He said that carnival glass was very popular in America between 1908 and 1918 – exactly the time period when George Wilkinson would have been there. More importantly, the archivist answered my one pressing question about how George had come to own the vase. Rather than winning it at the fair, he would probably have purchased the vase at a general store in Roslyn. Despite its remote location, such a shop would have carried glass souvenir items. It is local historical information like this – only to be acquired by actually asking an expert, that really makes family history come alive.

    Vases of Value

    It’s important to think twice before consigning ‘ugly’ family ornaments to a car boot sale or re-purposing them. In addition to the leads they might provide about your family history, these items may have real value. This year, a family in the West Country took a decorated porcelain vase -  brought back from the Far East by  their great-grandfather  - to be valued at the Dorchester Auction House. The item turned out to be around 250 years old and was from the reign of Chinese Emperor Quianlong (1735-1796). In good condition, this vase would have been worth somewhere in the region of  £250,000 (the price boosted by today’s strong Chinese economy). How annoyed with themselves that family must have felt when they realised that the hole they had bored into the foot of the vase (in order to turn it into a table lamp) had reduced its value to about £20,000!

    So next time you are arranging a bunch of flowers in that strange old vase, or standing your umbrella in that grotesque stand in the hall, do pause to ask yourself how these objects came to be in your possession. And ask as many questions as possible of the older generation about inherited heirlooms - especially where the objects seem to be out of place with other details of your family history. It might just be that a throwaway comment will lead you on from the porcelain or glass to other avenues of research and that they, in turn, will provide you with those all-important names and dates for your family tree.  

    Useful books

    Kathleen Cole, Head Vases:Identifications and Values, Collectors Books, 2nd edition, 2006

    Judith Miller, Antiques Detective: Tips and Tricks to Make You the Expert, Dorling Kindersley, 2007

    Judith Miller, The Antiques Roadshow A-Z of Antiques and Collectibles, Dorling Kindersley, 2008-12-15

    Peter Philip and Gillian Walking,  Antique Furniture Expert: How You Can Identify, Date and Authenticate, Tiger Books, 1995

    Useful Websites Information about carnival glass. If you are interested in appearing in one of the BBC’s antiques programmes eg Cash in The Attic, The Antiques Roadshow, Bargain Hunt, or Flog It. Antique dealers and customers online market place  Passenger lists for those sailing from England to America can be viewed here Passenger Lists for those sailing from England to America can be viewed here.

    Keywords: family history, European ancestors, America, emigration, ornaments, vases, antiques

    Family Records: Memoirs and Autobiographies

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    They Wrote Their Life Stories

    Click here for more on books by Ruth A. Symes

    [This article first appeared in the now obsolete Discover My Past England 2009]
    If your great-grandfather was a commander in the Royal Navy,  or your great-great  aunt was a suffragette, if he or she did anything noteworthy or of importance during their lifetimes, (and even sometimes when they didn’t) it’s just possible that they wrote and published a memoir or autobiography. Certainly, thousands of such books were produced  - and often by the most unlikely of people - in the late eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and many now lie forgotten on the shelves of libraries or second-hand book shops.

    Born Mary Anne Hearn (1834-1909), Farningham took the name of her local village. She was a Sunday school teacher, editor and journalist and published her autobiography in 1907.  From A Working Woman's Life: An Autobiography  Marianne Farningham, London: James Clarke, 1907

    Memoir or autobiography ? 
    Memoirs (from the Latin ‘memoria’ meaning ‘memories’) are characteristically fairly short and focus on part of a life – often the public part.

    Autobiographies (from the Greek autos 'self', bios, 'life' and graphein, 'write') tend to be long, well-structured and formal accounts of a whole life.

    Who wrote memoirs and autobiographies?

    Memoirs and autobiographies were written by all kinds of people from the early nineteenth century onwards. What they had in common was literacy, the time and inclination to write and access to a publisher. That said, some autobiographers were illiterate and dictated their experiences to others; and other books remained in manuscript form until they were discovered in family papers or archives and published posthumously by interested historians.

     ‘I like to write about myself; in fact, there are few things which I like better; it is so delightful to call up old reminiscences.’ James Hogg, ‘ Memoir of the Author’s Life,’ in The Mountain Bard (1807)

    Lords, ladies and bishops often wrote their life histories for publication. So too did politicians, ministers, missionaries, school inspectors and headmistresses, doctors, scientists and social reformers – people who felt that they had contributed something to public life or who had something interesting to say about one aspect of their experience. The novelist Winifred Peck stated in her autobiography, that ‘I have never travelled with rod or gun in the far reaches of the Amazon, nor hob-nobbed with head hunters or the vanished courts of the Continent.’ Nevertheless, she thought that readers might benefit from a description of her own schooling and university education and her book is entitled A Little Learning in recognition of that.

    And don’t assume that people further down the social scale didn’t write their autobiographies. There are examples by nurses, cabinet makers and railway signalmen - to name but a few. These were people who had - at some point or other – come to the attention of those in the publishing world. Newly literate working class people occasionally ended up practising their new skills by writing down the stories of their lives - sometimes with the help of a middle-class patron. In his book

    Bread, Knowledge and Freedom, the historian David Vincent looks at 142 working-class autobiographies written between 1790 and 1850. The majority of these were by men living in London or the Northern industrial towns, but there are also rural examples.

    Bear in mind too that some memoirs in the nineteenth-century were written by close relatives of the main subject. There are numerous examples of memoirs of daughters written by fathers and memoirs of wives written by husbands, for example.

    How can I find out if my ancestor published his/her life story?

    You can search for free through the titles of all the memoirs and autobiographies ever published in Britain at the website (the academic and national libraries’ catalogue). There are over 63,000 entries under the keyword ‘autobiography’! Many of them have titles which use the words ‘Recollections,’ ‘Reminiscences,’ ‘Adventures of..’ or ‘Life of…’ You can can narrow your search down by including the name of your ancestor. You just never know! This site will tell you which libraries in Britain have  a copy of the book in question. Alternatively, if you find something that interests you here, type the details into one of the commerical book sites such as or Cheap second-hand copies may then be ordered online.

    If your ancestor worked in a particular trade or profession it might be worth searching under those keywords to see if you can find an autobiography by someone else who worked in that profession at a similar time. John Smith’s The Autobiography of a Chimney Sweep Past and Present By One of the Trade (1877) and The Autobiography of William Farish: The Struggles of a Handloom Weaver (1890) are two such examples. The Copac website is so extensive that you are almost bound to find something relevant there. Such books can give you invaluable first-hand information about what working life was really like for your family member.

    The autobiography of James Chalmers (1841-1901), Scottish missionary and explorer of the Cook islands and New Guinea. Lovett, Richard, ed.James Chalmers: His Autobiography and Letters (The Religious Tract Society, fourth edit., 1903).

    Don’t forget that even if your ancestor didn’t publish his or her own life story, he or she might be mentioned in somebody else’s memoir. One of my great uncles, Dick Tyldesley (who was a pretty well-known cricketer playing for Lancashire and England until the 1940s), is mentioned in the autobiography of the journalist and cricket writer, Neville Cardus (Autobiography, 1947). Some nineteenth-century autobiographies mention the name of the town from which the writer came in the title, for example,. The Autobiography of Thomas Wright of Birkenshaw, in the County of York, 1736-1797 (1864). If you find such a volume with the name of your ancestral town – it’s worth having a look at it, just to see if your family is mentioned).

    Uses of Autobiography in your Family History Research

    ·       New information

    Memoirs and autobiographies may alert you to all sorts of other information about your family members, anything from the schools they attended to the names of their cousins and grandparents, from their yearly income to the property they owned, from their public duties to their personal prejudices.

    • Photographs, Sketches and Signatures
    The frontispieces of nineteenth- and early twentieth- century autobiographies often include a portrait photograph or drawing of the author and his or her signature.

    ·       Opening Pages

    Look closely at the opening pages of your family memoir or autobiography – this is usually the place to find the most cogent genealogical information. It was customary for authors to begin their life histories by describing where their own ancestors (on both sides) originated. This is how the nineteenth-century writer Harriet Martineau began her autobiography: 

    Our French name indicates our origins. The first Martineaus that we know of were expatriated Huguenots who came over from Normandy on the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes.

    This sort of information can be invaluable since it often involves a record of the distant movements of a family from one part of the country to another (or indeed – as here - from one country to another). Information from so far back in the family tree would be difficult to locate from any other source. Look carefully at the way in which the author tries to draw conclusions from these genealogical pathways. He will often tell you that the fact that his grandfather was Scottish, his great-grandmother a Catholic or his uncle a wayward soldier, has had a bearing on his own progress through life. 

    ·       Turning Points

    Autobiographies are often structured around one or two important moments in the writer’s life:  - the time when they fell in love, for example, or the sudden acquisition of a fortune or the death of another family member.  Of course, these are also the moments in which you -  as a family historian - are likely to be most interested. You may already have the date at which your ancestor emigrated to America or converted to Catholicism, but an autobiography can explain the reasons why your ancestors made these decisions and their consequences.

    But be careful….

    Try to take what you read in autobiographies and memoirs with a pinch of salt.

    Remember that

    • autobiographers may have a tendency to exaggerate and over-inflate their family connections. Claiming a relationship with royalty or the aristocracy was commonplace in nineteenth-century autobiographies.
    • the writer’s memory may be faulty
    • memoirists and autobiographers are not – on the whole - interested in drawing up comprehensive family trees, rather they like to give the reader a flavour of their family history by picking out significant ancestors in the past and extrapolating something significant. Their conclusions may not always be correct
    • writers may have deliberately chosen to gloss over episodes in their family life that are disagreeable or which show them in a bad light – failed marriages or periods in prison, for example 
    • the facts may be somewhat distorted.  Details of education, for example, may be described in such a way as to emphasise the writer’s social status, intellectual capacity or moral worth. In their memoirs, people try to make themselves look respectable and useful. Be careful of taking statements at face value
    • memoirs can be distorted because they are emotionally intense. They were often written as a method of consolation after the loss of a family member and had a therapeutic purpose 
    • All memoirs and autobiographies will have been edited before publication. Try to bear in mind what might have been left out or altered to suit the needs of the audience
    With these reservations in mind, enjoy your family autobiographies, they are the nearest you will ever get to knowing the whole story of your ancestors’ time here on earth.

    Useful Websites  The academic and national library catalogue - American second hand and antiquarian booksite - Online book site

    Useful Books

    John Burnett, ed Useful Toil: Autobiographies of Working People from the 1820s to the 1920s  (Penguin, 1974)

    Valerie Sanders, The Private Lives of Victorian Women: Autobiography in Nineteenth-Century England, Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989

    David Vincent, Bread, Knowledge and Freedom: A Study of Nineteenth-Century Working-Class Autobiography.  Methuen, rpt, 1982.

    Keywords: European ancestors, family history, memoir, autobiography