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, 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

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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