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

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

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[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

Family Records : Family Bibles

Testament to a Family

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

Gladwin Family Bible - Courtesy of Mr Tim New

Many of our ancestors shared our desire to keep a record of their families through time – but, for them, there was no slow and costly piecing together of census returns and birth, marriage and death certificates. Rather, they would simply turn to that most prized of Victorian possessions - the family Bible – and examine what their forefathers had written there. When babies were born, siblings married or parents died, they would mark the occasion by adding their own entries. When they themselves died, the book would be passed on to a member of the next generation whom it was hoped would keep up the tradition.

Bibles had a multiple function in the nineteenth-century family home, providing spiritual comfort; entertainment; and education. If they were wealthy, your family may have possessed a heavy, leather-bound and (by the end of the nineteenth century) richly illustrated edition. From 1804 onwards, the British and Foreign Bible Society made cheaper editions of the Bible increasingly available to the poor.

Gladwin Family Bible - Courtesy of Mr Tim New

What am I likely to find out from a family Bible?

Entries written in a family Bible can vary from the frustratingly useless, ‘Father died yesterday,’ to the very helpful, ‘John Gates died at Bath February 4th 1789.’ Occasionally you will come across a gem in which far more information is conveyed. Imagine the American Sisson family’s delight to find this entry in their family Bible published in 1790:

My mother Elizabeth Sisson died in Lyons, March 8, 1826, aged 62 years 11 months & 7 days, & her remains were interred in the cemetery of the Presbyterian church, in the Village of Lyons, Wayne County, N.Y. March 10, 1826. On her coffin was a silver plate with this inscription engraven thereon:

‘Mrs. E. Sisson, died March 8, 1826. Aged 62 years’

Her funeral sermon was preached by the Rev. Lucas Hubbell from 12 Chap.
Ecclesiastes, latter part of Verse 5 ‘because man goeth to his long home,
and the mourners go about the streets.’

Whatever depth of information your ancestor chose to record, it will usually be found on  the inside of the front cover of the Bible and on its flyleaf . Sometimes a ‘Register’ (a single page with ruled lines) was printed inside the Bible specifically to allow the recording of family tree information. Occasionally the information is to be found on the blank pages between the Old and New Testaments, and you should also check for handwriting behind loose pictures in the Bible, and in the margins of the text.

Finding a Bible can save weeks of work by providing you with information about many generations and various branches of your family all at once. Bible records that combine names and dates with places where events took place can significantly help speed up searches for certificates at record offices.

Bible entries may include:

·       dates of births, marriages, deaths

·       dates of christenings and burials

·       the places in which births, marriages and deaths, christenings and burials  took place

·       causes of death

·       dates of when family members enlisted in the army

·       the maiden names of women marrying into the family

·       records of church membership or membership of other organisations

·       the names of godparents

·       an indication of which parts of the Bible were read out at births, marriages and deaths

Bible Box: Image courtesy of Mrs Jane Devonald

How accurate is the information likely to be?

Although you may be tempted to think otherwise, even the information recorded in a Bible can be incorrect. Make sure that you check the Bible’s date of publication. Sometimes this can be difficult as title pages may be missing or torn. If the title page of the Old Testament is missing, check to see if there is a title page for the New Testament. Then compare the date of publication of the Bible with the date of the first entry made by your ancestor. Was the family tree started when the Bible was bought, or was much of the information written in retrospect? If the latter is the case, the entries (since they would have been made from memory) are less likely to be accurate.

If the entries were written one by one as the events occurred, then it is likely that they are fairly accurate. But, if a lot of entries appear to have been made by the same hand and at the same time, this can indicate that some of the information was transcribed from another source and you need to be aware that mistakes may have been made. Compare the person’s handwriting with other examples of family handwriting that you may have to help you decide whether or not the same person did indeed make all the entries. Be careful with ballpoint pen entries. Such pens were not in common use until World War Two.

Ask yourself whether the person who made the entries was actually in attendance at the event recorded – this is particularly important if the event occurred in another country. Entries that have been made out of chronological sequence or squeezed in between others to force them into sequence may also be inaccurate.

Try to look at the actual pages of your family bible yourself or at a digitised image of those pages. Don’t rely on the transcriptions of another member of the family, as these may be inaccurate.

To be absolutely sure of the information written in a family Bible, you really need to corroborate it with information from birth, marriage and death certificates, parish registers and other records.

What else to look for?

Bibles may indicate the religious denomination to which your ancestor belonged – Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian etc. Many were acquired as Sunday School prizes and these may include bookplates with useful references to the churches or chapels attended by your ancestors.

Your Bible may exhibit signs of heavy use, (indicating that the family were fairly devout) and certain biblical passages may be marked as special by underscorings in the text. Other Bibles may have marginal notes which indicate which passages were repeatedly read out at family occasions such as funerals or christenings.  

The Bible’s thick pages may have provided a ready-made flat storage area for other family documents such as obituaries from the local newspaper, letters, photographs, deeds, congratulations cards, handwritten speeches from important family occasions, details of life insurance payments, and copies of wills. Some lucky family historians have even chanced across bracelets made from locks of the family’s hair and pieces of dresses worn at family occasions between the pages of a Family Bible!

How might I find my family Bible?

If your family Bible isn’t lurking in the attic or in a box in the garage, there are a number of different ways you might find it:

  • contact as many different branches of your family as possible and ask whether or not they remember the existence of a Bible and if so, what its whereabouts might be
  • try the churches, libraries, historical or genealogical societies local to the area in which your family lived
  • search online. In America, Bible preservation is big business and there are many websites ( for example, where the information in family Bibles has been scanned and then transcribed so that it is available to all interested parties. The British website aims to do the same.
  • Buy it on the auction site, Ebay, ( This always has a number of family Bibles up for sale
Of course, you may never find your family Bible. It’s possible that your ancestors didn’t have the means to afford a holy book of their own, or the literacy to write in it even if they did. If their children moved out of an area, the Bible may have been lost or damaged, or may have fallen into the possession of a relation who didn’t care about its contents. Also, it’s sadly true that over the years many nineteenth-century family bibles have turned up in the hands of booksellers or auction houses who – not being able to sell them on the basis of their genealogical content – often threw them away.  

Even if you don’t find your own family Bible, there is, of course, one thing that you really should do. Make sure that you start one of your own. Modern day bibles often have special pages set aside for recording family trees. If bibles don’t appeal, you can alternatively record your tree in some other book, or in some other way. There is no doubt that your descendents will thank you for it one day.

Useful Websites  Lists details of family Bibles sold on Ebay. American website dedicated to transcribing and digitising the genealogical records written in family Bibles and other documents from 1500 onwards. British Family Bibles site set up to save old bibles from destruction. You can search for your family surname at this site and there are images of some family bibles. Gives list of other sites (including some commercial ones) through which you can search for your family bible

Keywords: European ancestors, family history, Bible, Family Bible, genealogy