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, 10 April 2012

By Word of Mouth - How Your Ancestors Spoke

By Word of Mouth

[First published online in the now obsolete Discover My Past England] 

How do your family refer to death? As somebody ‘kneeling at the big gates,’ somebody ‘called to higher service,’ or somebody ‘crossing the bar’?  From whatever terms in which the information is expressed, you may learn something about your family history. The first is a likely indication of a Catholic inheritance, the second an expression commonly used by members of the Salvation Army, the third derives from a Victorian poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson indicating, perhaps, that the speaker (or those from whom he learnt the expression) has benefited from a good education.

Many proverbs and euphemisms are known by just about everybody in Britain, but there may be some that you have only heard within your own family. If these sayings are not common in the local area, you should consider them as all the more interesting. There are  a few topic areas in which regional differences of language are particularly apparent. Think about the words your family uses to describe emotions, (e.g. happy, angry, moody, grumpy, pleased, annoyed, jealous), personal appearances, food, getting drunk, going to the toilet, having sex, the devil, the police, and swearing.

Clues to your family history may also occur in songs and rhymes, or even in isolated phrases and words that have been passed down from one generation to another. When you speak to any member of the older generation, listen carefully to the way they speak. Traces of accents, odd words for common objects, riddles, limericks, tales and ditties may all betray aspects of their past. 

Language may say a great deal about your ancestors including:

·       Which Country They Came From

Individual words, proverbs and sayings can help you to trace your ancestors’ roots if they came to Britain from other countries. Nineteenth-century Irish immigrants to Liverpool and the West of Britain brought with them such colourful phrases as ‘Don’t give cherries to pigs or advice to fools, ’ and ‘A dimple in the chin; a devil within.’

If your ancestors came from other non-English speaking countries, they may have brought with them proverbs and sayings which when translated into English sounded more than a little odd. For example Italians brought the phrase, ‘When the wine is in, the wit is out’ and people of Czech origin are said to be responsible for the expression ‘He who cannot cut the bread evenly cannot get on with people!’

·       Which Region of Britain They Came From

Language may also betray which part of Britain your family originally came from. A relative may be talking in Standard English and then suddenly drop in a word such as ‘glee-eyed’ (meaning ‘cross-eyed’) suggesting that they (or their ancestors) must have been Geordies. A noticeable regional accent on certain words is also a dead giveaway to places of origin. In Lancashire, for example, ‘poached’ was traditionally been pronounced as ‘porched;’ book as ‘bouk;’ tea as ‘tay.’ In Somerset, warm was pronounced ‘wearm’ and wasp, ‘wopse.’

Grammatical constructions can be different in areas of the country located a long way from the seats of power. In Somerset and Devon, for instance, it is still common to hear the verb ‘to be’ conjugated as follows: ‘I be,’ ‘Thee bist,’ ‘He be,’ ‘We be,’ ‘Thee ‘rt,’ ‘They be.’ Some of these grammatical deviations from Standard English date back centuries and remind us of the longer history of Britain (in this case of the Saxon invasion of the West Country).

·       Their Religion and/or Culture

Language can contain clues to your family’s traditional religious and cultural beliefs. Catholics – even no longer devout branches of the family -  may refer to ‘the bell, book and candle.’ A Jewish inheritance may be apparent in the occasional use of untranslated words from Hebrew, Yiddish or German such as ‘chutzpah’ (meaning ‘cheek’) or  ‘schlep’ (meaning ‘drag’).

·       Their Level of Education

Regular recourse to quotations from Shakespeare or other ‘great’ authors may suggest ancestors who had a good (and perhaps a private or grammar school) education.

·       Their Occupations

Ancestors who worked on farms may have left a colourful legacy of rural expressions. ‘She’s ugly enough to wean a foal and ‘He’s as sulky as a bull’ are two delightful examples from Cheshire. Some occupations went even further. The miners of the North-East (Northumberland and Durham) coalfields had their own language known as Pitmatic. This differed from traditional Geordie in a number of ways not least in the large numbers of words it included associated with life in the mines. Other occupations such as maritime, medical, military, and legal professions may be reflected in the language your family still uses.

  • The Lives Of Their Womenfolk
Women, especially working-class ones have left little mark on the written record of previous centuries. But their presence can often be felt through inherited oral culture including rhymes, poems, stories and songs. My great-grandmother Mary Wilkinson worked in domestic service as a single woman and on her marriage took in washing as means of earning a living. The following ditty may not have originated with her, but its survival in my family is one means by which her hard toil is till remembered:

When you’re married and in the tub

Think of me between every rub

Be the soapsuds ever so hot

Lather away and forget-me-not.

There is, of course, a limit to what you can learn from the language and sayings that your family use. Many phrases that were once regional or perhaps appropriate to just one profession are now employed by just about everyone. People today, of course, move about more than they ever did (for schooling, work and leisure purposes) and they pick up vocabulary and mannerisms of speech from all sorts of places. Also, the mass media, provides us with regular examples of people speaking in other dialects -  and we inevitably incorporate some phrases learnt here (not least phrases from American and Australian English) into our own ways of speaking. At the same time, our education increasingly encourages us to abandon our dialects and adopt Standard English and Received Pronunciation. All these factors mean that it is becoming increasingly more difficult to place people (either geographically or in terms of class) from the way they speak.

Nevertheless, any aspect of language used by your family that strikes you as odd or unusual is worth scrutinising more carefully. You never know when a stray word or colourful expression may lead you unexpectedly back into the past.

Useful Books

Bill Griffiths, Pitmatic The Talk of the North-East Coalfield, Northumbria UP, 2007

Arthur Hughes, Peter Trudgill and Dominic Watts, English Accents and Dialects: An Introduction to Social and Regional Varieties of English in the British Isles. Hodder Arnold, revised edit., 2005.

James Jennings, The Dialect of the West of England Particularly Somerset, The Echo Library, 2005.

Diarmaid O’Muirithe, Irish Words and Phrases, Gill and Macmillan, 2002.

David Paynter, Clive Upton and J. D. A. Widdowson, Yorkshire Words Today: A Glossary of Regional Dialect, Yorkshire Dialect Society, 1994.

Julian Sinclair, Let’s Schmooze: Jewish Words Today, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2007.

Peter Wright, Lanky Twang: How it is Spoke, Dalesman Publishing, 1972.

Useful Websites British Library pages on regional dialects. The British Library Sound archive including collections of accents and dialects from around Britain.  The Oral History Society. Usefully lists quotations by topic giving some idea of their origins. Glossary of terms assimilated into English by virtue of British Imperial activity

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

Keywords: European ancestors, Europe, ancestry, family history, genealogy, oral history, England, English, language, immigrants, immigration, regions, regional, British Isles, UK, England, English, Irish, Jewish

Other Publications by Ruth A. Symes

Books and Articles by Ruth A. Symes

Ruth A. Symes and Trev Broughton (eds), The Governess: An Anthology, Sutton Press, 1997.

Ruth A. Symes and Peter Fjagesund, The Northern Utopia: British Perceptions of Norway in the Nineteenth Century, Rodopi, 2003

Ruth A. Symes, Stories from Your Family Tree: Researching Ancestors Within Living Memory, The History Press, 2008. Buy this book:

Ed. Ruth A. Symes, Walter Wright, From Corncrake to Combine: Memoirs of a Cheshire Farmer, Tempus, 2008.

I am/have been a frequent contributor to the following magazines: 

Who Do You Think You Are?

Family Tree Magazine

Practical Family History

Family History Monthly


Your Family Tree

Your Family History

Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader's Quarterly

Discover My Past Scotland (Online magazine)

Discover My Past England (Online magazine)

Scotland Magazine

Scottish Heritage

Keywords: European ancestors, Europe, ancestry, family history, genealogy, oral history, England, English, language, immigrants, immigration, regions, regional, British Isles, UK, England, English

Family History - The Ultimate Detox

Why the fashion for family history is replacing the need for the therapist’s couch

By Ruth A. Symes

There was a time - not that long ago - when family history was the preserve of a few old and fusty literary types with a great deal of time on their hands. There was a time indeed when you could visit a local record office and be reasonably assured of getting a seat. No more. Now, every library in the country, it seems, is heaving with a new breed of family history junkie – younger, more business-like - jostling for position over the few unwieldy microfiche readers, or fighting for a five-minute stint on one the myriad of online family history internet sites. Every archive from Land’s End to John O’Groats, it would appear, is brimming with would-be genealogists poring with born-again zeal over indexes of births, marriages and deaths, pencils at the ready (pens, be warned, are banned from these hallowed rooms), and murmuring with despair or joy at their findings.

It seems we can’t get enough of our forebears. In our search for that vital clue to where we originate, we leave no stone unturned. These days, archivists have hardly time to pause for breath between enquiries sent by e-mail, letter, telephone and in person. Old wills, court documents, newspapers and photographic records are all fair game for investigation. The first series of the TV programme Who Do You Think You Are was the highest-rating programme on BBC2 in 2004 and prompted the move of the third series to BBC1. ITV’s You Don’t Know You’re Born looks to be just as popular. A flurry of books on genealogical topics have appeared, and newsagents now boast a whole shelf of family history magazines - each one offering new tricks and techniques. For a few pounds, you can learn how to analyse family photographs, dissect a whole range of documents from passports to temperance certificates, gain a working knowledge of quite complex changes in the law regarding divorce, adoption and land ownership, and read the slightly sensationalised journeys of discovery made by other readers.

There’s no doubt about it, something strange and familial is gripping the nation. And there must be reasons why it’s happening now, early in this new millennium. Family history is a potentially infinite project. So where does that burning, never-satisfied desire come from to investigate branches of the family ever more distant from our own, and to discover generations even further back in time? What madness is it that sends us traipsing round graveyards desperate to find the last resting place of people we never even met? Why have otherwise unexcitable and reserved Britons (remember Paxman?) started breaking into tears upon discovering some incident in their family’s past? The answers are complex and have more to do, I believe, with the times in which we are living than with the past.

Make no mistake about it, we twenty-first century family tree enthusiasts are not so much interested in our ancestors as in ourselves. Whichever way you look these days, people are assessing and reinventing themselves in one way or another. Dissatisfied with who we are, we seek to change, but before we can do so, we must first understand how we came to reach this point. In the new crazy world of self-improvement, doing family history research has become a viable alternative to seeing a therapist, going on a diet or having plastic surgery. It’s cheaper and less intrusive than most of these, but ultimately it’s about the same questions: Who am I? Why am I the way I am? Am I pre-programmed to be this way? How can I get back to being what I should be? How can I become what I really am?  Viewed in this way, researching your bloodline is the ultimate detox, and better still, much of it can be undertaken with the aid of the internet from the comfort of your own home and without any real privation.

For most of us, going back just a few generations is enough. There’s a kind of thrill in finding out more about ancestors within living memory, those of whom we have photographs (perhaps we look like them?); those whose letters we’ve read (perhaps we sometimes feel like them?). The people who fire our imaginations are those about whom we have heard intriguing family anecdotes, and the ones about whom we have long had ‘hunches’ of one sort or another: these are the crucial people, because these are the ones who make us wonder about ourselves. The great-grandfather, for example, who came to England from Germany and set up a business in soap-making may be an inspiration to our own entrepreneurial ambition; his harried love life may explain our own unwillingness to settle down. For this reason, it is the Victorians and Edwardians to whom we primarily look back; seventeenth-century ancestors are too far in the past to be of any real relevance in our quest to examine our identity.

What really engross us are the tales of sorrow and joys that affected our ancestors, the experiences that may have left their mark in our long, collective family memories. Life events and their consequences are (at the moment at least) of far more interest than inherited genes – although these too play an ever-important part in genealogical research these days. What really excites us about family history is what our relatives made of their time here on earth, the key elements of their existence - where they lived, where they travelled, what they chose to do for a living, how many times they married and how many children they had – a straightforward list in some ways, but one with as many variations as there are people on the planet.

This fascination with the life choices of our ancestors emanates from something that has long been part of the British psyche - individual freedom. On the whole, our governments have kept out of our lives; the church too has kept a low profile – at least by comparison with how it influenced, and continues to influence, societies such as Italy and Ireland. Financial and geographical limitations aside, our forebears, like us, had some degree of liberty about what they did with their lives.  It is their autonomy that thrills us, and the idea that what they got up to was intimately bound up with their personalities rather than merely with their social circumstances.

And there in the records we glimpse them, the miscellaneous bunch of people whom we like to believe have shaped us for better or for worse: the poor girl who gave birth to an illegitimate son and died soon afterwards, the migrant who moved 300 miles for work during the Industrial Revolution, the ancestors who left for Canada during the influenza pandemic of 1919. In this new and supposedly democratic age, having a skeleton in the closet is a factor worthy of respect rather than the source of shame it might have been only thirty or forty years ago. Even ancestors who were convicts come in for some sort of adulation. And, of course, we can make these stories mean whatever we wish: we may construe that the forefather who was shipped to Australia for killing a cow set the tone of misfortune that has dogged the family ever since. Alternatively, perhaps it was his disgrace that gave later generations the impetus to improve.

Important to all this is the fact that we are a nation of storytellers and gossips, a culture for whom words – and increasingly in the twenty-first century soundbites  (headlines, song lyrics, advertising slogans)  -  matter.  Fragments of information in letters, diaries and on certificates are tantalising introductions to stories we wish we knew more about. My great –great aunt, Margaret Daniels drowned at the age of twelve on the 8th March 1874 in the Leeds-Liverpool canal. I was ghoulishly thrilled by an odd detail on her death certificate that told me that she was ‘carrying an umbrella’ at the time of her death. When I looked in the local paper for a record of the event, the plot thickened. The death notice stated that she had walked down the canal bank ‘behind two men,’ though it drew no conclusions from this. Such titbits send the imagination into orbit. Was Margaret murdered? Was she raped? Why was the umbrella considered significant enough to be mentioned?  From the records we obtain the opening moments of soap operas and police docu-dramas that we yearn to watch in their entirety. We scent the stories beyond the page and, when we can’t find out any more, we let our imaginations fill in the rest. 

The stories are not innocent, of course. We are adept at making them tell us what we want to hear. There’s the matter of status for example. Though we claim to enjoy living in a meritocracy, we are still a solidly class-bound nation. We look to our family in the past to measure how far we have come. If we can prove that they moved from rags to riches, or even from the labouring to the middle class, then we are filled with unreasonable pride. We never grow tired of narratives that illustrate the triumph of the common people over the aristocracy, and where the transition has come about by sheer hard work  - the labourer’s son who was apprenticed to a boot-maker and whose son in turn became a manager of Freeman, Hardy and Willis -  we are doubly satisfied. Centuries of Protestantism, it seems, have made us particularly attuned to the merits of the work ethic.

It is true to say that since the Noughties, we have become terrible inverted snobs. It’s fast becoming something of a status symbol in family history circles, for instance, to prove that your great-grandfather was ‘an Ag Lab’ (Agricultural Labourer). But our attitude to class is full of ironies. Our ancestors need to have moved up through the rankings at least three generations ago to allow us to mention it at dinner parties. And family history research can, of course, sometimes unearth a less inspiring trajectory  - a noble ancestor who gambled away the family fortune, for example, and relegated his offspring to the ranks of mere shopkeepers. Worse still, are those ancestors who went full circle  ‘from clogs to clogs in three generations’ – as the saying goes.’ Whatever the tale, however, you can be sure of one thing. In the telling of it, we will be sure to turn it to our advantage.

Tied up with our snobbishness is our very British attraction to property and possessions: the props that remind us the stories are true. We are a home-owning nation, lovers of property and land, arrogant show-offs about postcodes and addresses. As such we are obsessively interested in where our ancestors dwelt and what became of their capital; and we love to know who inhabited our homes before we did. Moreover, we are a nation of collectors. We all have garages and attics full of old rubbish inherited from our forebears. Doing family history gives us a reason for hanging on to the clutter; after all it acts as a salutary reminder of where we came from or alternatively allows us to indulge a fantasy in the future restoration of our former glory. In an increasingly secular world (we are now almost more likely to visit a church to look at the parish registers than to worship) the possibility of an afterlife is less certain. Perhaps we somehow believe that our only access to our ancestors  - our only chance of ever knowing them - lies in the objects they once owned and used. What better reason could there be for keeping hold of that old flat iron, those sequinned gloves and battered suitcases?

Creating a family tree also, of course, has something to do with our current profound uncertainty about our own national identity. Our worries about Brexit, our espousal of or resistance to  globalisation and multiculturalism - these matters have set many of us quaking in our boots. We hark back to the days of the Empire, when we knew who we were (or at least we think we did). Many people retreat to their family history as a means of affirming their own sense of British identity, hoping and believing that they will find that their roots stretch back unbroken to the Domesday Book. A very large number are surprised. People in the past moved about much more than we have assumed. Over the centuries, Britain has welcomed, among others, the Irish, Huguenots from France, Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe, Armenians from Turkey, and Asians from Uganda, not to mention those visitors from further back in time, Romans from all over the Roman Empire, Anglo-Saxons from Lowland Germany, Vikings from Scandinavia and William the Conqueror’s stock from Normandy. In Yorkshire, recently, several white men were surprised to discover that they have a common African ancestor who may have been a slave in a gentleman’s household in the eighteenth century, or who may date back even further to the soldiers who built Hadrian’s Wall. If we search long enough most of us will find that we have a forebear from another part of the world – certainly we will have ancestors from other parts of the country.

Of course, much of the information that we are now unearthing has been lying around in record offices ever since – well, ever since it became a record. The difference now is its accessibility. Technology means that with just a few clicks of a button, and for relatively little expense, you can search online all the censuses from 1841 right through to 1901, link up with distant relatives overseas on customised message boards, and find new electronic means of squeezing your increasingly unwieldy family tree diagram onto old-fashioned sheets of paper. This is the age of information and since family tree research is about anything and everything in the past, it is the ideal excuse for spending large amounts of time on the web. So, we scroll for hours through documents that might leave any other self-respecting internet user cold : obsolete maps, A-Zs of old occupations, telephone directories for defunct London boroughs, and lists of the symptoms and causes of diseases such as tuberculosis and cholera. 

Why do we do it? Researchers, of course, will rarely admit their self-interest; their desire to understand and re-orientate themselves. Rather they talk about the buzz and the adrenaline of family history. We live in a world of short-fire pleasures and everyone’s family tree is full of small surprises. What draws us on – what really engages us – is the unpredictability, the eccentricity and the crises of lives in the past. For the junkies, genealogy provides several different sorts of fix: discovering living relatives whom you previously knew nothing about; the odd tangential connections with fame (remember Barbara Windsor’s glee at finding out that she was very distantly related to the artist John Constable); and the indefinable thrill that arises from learning weird details such as the fact that your migrant ancestor had a crooked ‘jaw – left side,’ something I discovered from the ‘physical characteristics’ column of an old shipping list.

There is also the joy of disproving family rumours and turning some traditional family myths on their heads forever. Great-grandfather, you may discover, did not in fact leave his wife and children to pan for gold in the American West. He actually went to take up a sensible job in a mining town in the Cascade Mountains so that he could send money back to the said family. This version of events may not go down too well with members of the family who have a vested interest in great-grandfather having been a wastrel. There’s a frisson of excitement too at how different and how appalling everything was back then: the Victorian women who seem to have spent most of their lives bearing children; the old and infirm who were thrown into the workhouse. We revel in the good fortune of our lot before inevitably recognising the elements of similarity between then and now: the huge numbers of teenage pregnancies, for instance, the high levels of illiteracy and the bankruptcies that came alongside economic boom. We start by thinking that the past is another country and end by realising that it is – at least sometimes – no more than a mirror.

The cynical among us, may suggest that the current upsurge in family history has less to do with the British appetite for self-examination than with the commercial interests of certain organisations, websites and publishers. Indeed the industry is taking off in all sorts of directions. Across the country, local and regional family history societies flourish, and family history fairs promote all manner of genealogical tools and historical memorabilia. Family reunions - known for their preponderance of guests with the same surname  - are seen as good a reason as any for throwing a party. Genealogy tourism – holidaying in the towns from which your ancestors emanated with a view to soaking up the atmosphere and visiting the local record office - is becoming bigger business. Then there is the large number of genealogical websites, which – after giving a taste of what they have to offer for free – charge you to look at full records or original entries, or take a yearly subscription. And like all new industries, family history has its own set of groupies: people who will research your surname, photograph restoration experts, those who will value your heirloom, and those who will sell you acid-free boxes in which to store your family Bible. There are even ‘Obituary Look Up’ volunteers who will look for the death notices of your ancestors on micro-fiched copies of old newspapers in their local libraries without a fee.

But, I believe, that the family history industry is doing no more than rise to a challenge that comes from within the popular mindset - right here, right now. What this is all about is  - like those other methods of re-invention such as lifestyle coaching or hypnosis - is finding a way of making sense of our muddled lives and getting back to the essence of things, so that we can work out where we go from here. What really happened to our ancestors is irrelevant. It’s the stories we construct from our fragments of evidence, and the uses to which we put them that count.  Psychologists and psychoanalysts work on much the same principle: but perhaps we are somewhat less willing to bear our souls in public than we were even ten years ago. With family history research, we are in charge, we can unravel the threads we want to unravel, and leave them hanging if we don’t like what we find. At the end of the day, it is far easier – and we have far more control – if we examine our pasts as they are refracted through the lives of our ancestors than it is to unburden ourselves on the therapist’s couch.

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

Keywords: European ancestors, Europe, ancestry, family history, genealogy, oral history, England, English, language, immigrants, immigration, regions, regional, British Isles, UK, England, English

The Day Your Ancestor Was Born

Ten ways to find out more about the day of your ancestor's birth

Click here for more on books by Ruth A. Symes

[This article was first published in the now obsolete Discover My Past England 2010]

Alice Fletcher, my great-great aunt was born in Wigan, Lancashire on December 31st 1864. It was New Year’s Eve, so I can imagine straight away something of the atmosphere of that day. But to really understand your ancestor’s life, you should aim to find out much more about the world at the exact time at which he or she was born. With the aid of the internet, you can now do just that without moving from your chair.

1. Date of Conception
Some sites can tell you the likely date at which your ancestor was conceived. In the case of Alice Fletcher, the likely date of conception was  9th April 1864 – a Saturday. (See, for example, 

2. The Birth Itself
To find out more about the way in which your ancestor is likely to have been born visit This site discusses shows how the whole business of childbirth changed from century to century including such matters as who might have been present at the birth, the methods of delivery, types of pain relief available, the length of the lying –in period etc.

3. The Day of the Birth
Check out the archive of the Times newspaper details of events around Britain on the day that your ancestor was born. For local news contact your local library or record office where you are likely to find microfiches of the local papers. Bear in mind that there may have been many of these. Local websites such as can provide information on contemporary events.

3. Festivals
It may be of interest to you to know at what times of year, Easter, or other religious holidays fell in the year that your ancestor was born. Visit In 1864, Easter Sunday had fallen on March 27th, so Alice Fletcher was not the result of some overenthusiastic holidaymaking!

4. Prime Ministers and Monarchs

You can find out who was Prime Minister on the day your ancestor was born at On the day of Alice’s birth the Prime Minister was Viscount Palmerston of the Liberal Party. For a list of English monarchs see Alice’s monarch was Queen Victoria born on 24th May 1819. She came to the throne in 1837 and by 1864 was 45 years old and had been monarch for 27 years.

5. Famous Contemporaries.
You can check online to see if anyone famous was born on the same day, or in the same year. This can help you to place your ancestor historically. The site will give you the names of famous people who were born and who died on this date in this year (and in other years).

6. Compare dates with those of other famous people
It’s always useful to compare your ancestor’s dates with those of a very well known person. Other famous people whose lives may usefully be compared alongside your Victorian ancestor are Charles Dickens (1812-1870), Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and Florence Nightingale (1820-1910).

7. Great Events
Check to see what famous events, both in Britain and around the world, took place in the year your ancestor was born. See or The year of Alice Fletcher’s birth, 1864, saw a flood in Sheffield causing a reservoir to burst and resulting in 250 deaths.
8. Cultural Advances
The Library history timeline at allows you to see the key events in various categories ( Politics, Power and Rebellion, Literature Music and Entertainment; Everyday Life; Sacred Texts; Medicine Science and Technology) in each decade since the mediaeval period. This can help you to understand conditions at the time of your ancestor’s birth.

9. What Money Could Buy

Find out how much currency was worth at the time of your ancestor’s birth at which gives you the purchasing power of British pounds from 1264 to the present.

10. Other Useful Timelines
There are a number of other histories such as those of women’s rights, education or medicine that may be of interest to you as you start to understand your ancestor’s life paths. The history of women’s rights, for example, can be viewed at
A timeline of the history of education is at

Click here for more on books by Ruth A. Symes

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

Keywords: European ancestors, Europe, ancestry, family history, genealogy, oral history, England, English, language, immigrants, immigration, regions, regional, British Isles, UK, England, English

Ancestors' Occupations: Footwear Trades

They Pulled Themselves Up By Their Bootstraps

[This article was first published in the now obsolete Practical Family History]

When my father proposed to my mother in 1961, he told her that he would give her a diamond ring that he had kept in a shoebox at home. My mother was rather concerned about the shoebox, but she accepted anyway. For me, this story is as much about the shoebox as the ring it contained. It struck me that my father kept lots of things in shoeboxes; they made fine receptacles for anything from pens to cufflinks. Shoeboxes were his repository of choice because he was born and brought up above a shoe shop – a branch of Freeman, Hardy and Willis - in Walton, Liverpool where his father, William John (Jack) Symes, was the manager from the 1920s right through to the 1950s.

Jack Symes: The Bootseller’s Apprentice

I recently started to look further into my grandfather’s past. Born in 1894 in Ancoats, Manchester ( a place made famous by L. S. Lowry for the kids who had ‘nowt on their feet’), he was 21 in 1915 and joined up for the army, first in the Royal Cheshire regiment and then in the Tank Regiment. I found 30 pages of his army records at British Army World War I Service Records and was interested to see that on joining up, he gave his occupation as a ‘Boot Salesman’ in Doncaster, Yorkshire. An email from the archivist at Doncaster Record Office confirmed that there was a branch of Freeman, Hardy and Willis in the town at that time.

I worked back in time. On the 1911 census (now available to view online at, I discovered that Jack Symes (then aged 18) was living in Pontefract with his uncle, Charles Terrell. As Jack’s father had died when he was just twelve, it was natural that he should spend some time working for another elder male family member. Uncle Charles Terrell is described as ‘the manager of a bootshop’ in ‘Marketplace,’ Pontefract and Jack Symes as an ‘assistant bootseller.’ I contacted Wakefield Library and discovered that there was a branch of Freeman, Hardy and Willis in the Marketplace, Pontefract at that time. Evidently this was where my grandfather’s work among shoes and boots began.

Charles Terrell: The Bootmaker’s Apprentice

Charles Terrell, my great-great uncle, was as tough as old boots according to my   family folklore.   Among family papers, I have a letter from a great niece of his who described him as an almost fanatical Methodist: a believer in hard work, saving money and teetotalism. Family rumour has it that Charles saved his earnings from the shoe shop and invested any fifty-pound notes he acquired in shares in Cadbury’s, Rowntree’s and Lipton’s. Apparently, he hastily withdrew these shares when he suspected that Lipton’s had begun to sell wines and spirits!

But how (and indeed why) had Charles Terrell started out in his boot-selling career? Looking back in time again to the 1901 census, I discovered that he was already managing the Marketplace shop in Pontefract. Further back still, on the 1891 census, he was running what appears to have been an independent bootshop in another part of Pontefract - Mounthill. I doubted that the previous census (of 1881) would give me any further clues about how his career in footwear had started. After all, he would have been only fifteen at the time it was taken. I was wrong, this census was actually to lead me on to a great deal of interesting information.

In 1881, the young Charles Terrell was living in Sheffield and described as a ‘servant and a bootmaker’s apprentice.’ The ‘master bootmaker’ at this establishment was one William Rodgers and, according to the census, he employed four men. Charles was the only one of these who lived on the premises. I noted that the company were ‘bootmakers’ and not ‘bootsellers.’ The footwear trades were some of the last in Britain to be mechanised, much of the work was done by hand until well into the nineteenth century. Charles Terrell must have gained ‘hands-on’ expertise of his trade at William Rodgers’ establishment and later, this practical experience, must have made him a very appropriate choice of manager for Freeman, Hardy and Willis, a high street shoe retail company that would grow out of the boot and shoe manufacturing business.

Charles Terrell’s boss, William Rodgers, is listed as an independent bootmaker in the 1884 Whites Sheffield trade directory. As there is no reference in that directory to a Freeman, Hardy and Willis shop existing in the city, it seems safe to assume that Charles Terrell was probably apprenticed as a boy to a privately-owned business. It is possible that William Rodgers was later taken over by the company of Freeman Hardy and Willis, as subsequent trade directories show that he had ceased trading by 1900 and that there was, by that time a branch of the famous chain in Sheffield.

In all of the census records for Charles Terrell, there was a hint of a mystery that urged me on to further investigation. Whilst his employers, neighbours and (later his wife and daughter) gave their place of birth as other Yorkshire towns, Charles is recorded as hailing from a small village right at the other end of the country - Henstridge in Somersetshire. From his mid teens, the young bootmaker was an exceedingly long way from home. Why, I wondered, had he moved all the way from the South West to Yorkshire to take up a job making boots?

The obvious place to look for answers about Charles’s migration was yet further back in time in the 1871 census – when he was just six years old. It was soon apparent that he was one of a large and impoverished family of eight children. His father, William Terrell (spelt Terrel this time)  was an agricultural labourer. His mother, Phillis, and sisters, Anne and Jane, were glovers. The British History Online site (using information from the Victoria County Histories Publications ( records that in Henstridge. ‘Gloving had been established by 1841 and by 1851 there were 100 glovers, mainly female, probably outworkers to Milborne Port manufacturers. In 1871 there were a gloving agent, 152 female glovers, and 5 male glove cutters and finishers.’

Charles Terrell would have grown up watching his mothers and sisters making gloves at home.  His eldest sister Elizabeth (my great-grandmother)  - herself a former glover – was employed by cousins of the family as a servant in the nearby town of Street by the time of the 1871 census. Interestingly, this is where the Clarks brothers began manufacturing footwear in 1825. I am assuming, therefore, that the Terrell family were familiar with the processes of shoe production. The so-called ‘Brown Petersburg’ sheepskin slipper was made by hand in the cottages of the residents of Street. Later (in the 1860s) the Singer sewing machine would bring some mechanisation to the process. Clarks became the first footwear company that exactly matched shoes to the shape of the wearers’ feet. Since cladding the hands and cladding the feet were trades that were in the blood of the men and women of Somersetshire, I remain puzzled as to why the young Charles Terrell was sent as far away as Sheffield to learn his bootmaking trade.

Charles was, of course, among many thousands of young men who migrated to the industrial North of England to find work in the late nineteenth century. It was probably his youthful success as a bootseller and as a manager for Freeman, Hardy and Willis that tempted many of his sisters and brothers to move North too. Elizabeth, Anna and Jane came up to Manchester to work as a cook, undermaid and housemaid to three wealthy families, brother Joe worked as a packer for Westinghouse Gas Engines, and, another brother, Jim came to work for the Manchester Cleansing Department and was employed emptying privies onto wagons at night. None of these jobs could be considered glamorous by any stretch of the imagination.

In the eyes of these close relatives, shop managers Charles Terrell and Jack Symes would have been considered very successful. Adhering to the strict rules of Methodism that benefited so many businesses of the era – hard work, sobriety, careful spending and saving – they managed to leave behind poverty-stricken circumstances in rural Somerset and the slums of Manchester respectively. And the decades that they spent measuring and fitting the feet of the prospering businessmen of the North allowed them to pulled their own families up – as it were – by the bootstraps – into the realms of the lower middle class.

Freeman, Hardy and Willis: A Brief History

My ancestors Charles Terrell and Jack Symes became shop managers for one of Britain’s most famous and successful shoe retailers. Freeman Hardy and Willis began in Leicester in 1875 and was incorporated in 1876 (when future bootmaker Charles Terrell would have been just eleven years old). The founder of the company, Edward Wood, a boot and shoe manufacturer, named his new enterprise after three of the company’s employees: architect, Arthur Hardy,  factory manager, William Freeman, and traveller, Charles Willis. The first branch of the retail shoe business was opened in Wandsworth, London in 1877.

In the early years of the twentieth century, the company acquired the boot and shoe retailers, Rabbits and Sons Ltd (1903); and The Kettering Boot and Shoe Company Ltd (1913).  By the time Jack Symes, started work (just before the First World War), the chain was already well established. In 1921 (when Jack was demobbed from the Tank Corps and back in the boot trade), the company had 428 shops.

In 1925, Freeman, Hardy and Willis acquired the shoe capital of the Leicester firm Leavesley and North Ltd and by 1927, Jack Symes was manager of a branch of the shop in County Road, Walton, Liverpool. In 1929,  Freeman, Hardy and Willis was acquired by Sears of Northampton  (operating under the brand name of Trueform). The shops continued to operate under the Freeman, Hardy and Willis name.

The joint shoe business, (consisting by then of over 900 shops) was acquired in 1955 by the entrepreneur Charles Clore. He added many other businesses to his conglomerate including more shoe retailers (two of which were Manfield and Dolcis). The footwear side of the business became known as the British Shoe Corporation and, with 1,500 shops, soon had over one quarter of the British footwear market.

Archival papers relating to Freeman, Hardy and Willis (in its various incarnations) are described at  and available to view in the Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland Record Office

Useful Books

Fox, Alan, A History of the National Union of Boot and Shoe Operatives 1874-1957, Blackwell, 1954.

Hall, Joseph Sparkes The Book of the Feet: A History of Boots and Shoes, BiblioBazaar, 2009.

Lehane, Brendan, C and J Clark, 1825-1975, Street , 1975.

Reynolds, Helen, A Fashionable History of the Shoe, Heinemann Library, 2004.

Riello, Giorgio and McNeil, Peter, Shoes: A History from Sandals to Sneakers, Berg Publishers, 2006.

Click here for more on books by Ruth A. Symes

Useful Websites Military Records of Ancestors Who Fought in the First World War. The history of Clarks shoes.

This site gives an overview of the development of Sears PLC including its acquisition of Freeman, Hardy and Willis and other shoe retailers. British History Online Site, Victoria County Histories description of the village of Henstridge. History of the National Union of Boot and Shoe Operatives Website of the Wakefield District in words and pictures Description of archival papers relating to Freeman, Hardy and Willis. Clarks Village and shoe museum 

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Keywords: European ancestors, Europe, ancestry, family history, genealogy, oral history, England, English, British Isles, UK, England, English, shoes, footwear, Freeman, Hardy and Willis