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

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Causes of Death: Ancestors who Died by Drowning

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A Watery Grave

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

When I first found out that three of my ancestors drowned – in separate incidents - in the same piece of water, the Leeds-Liverpool Canal in Wigan, Lancashire, I was rather shocked at the macabre coincidence and determined to find out more.

Commerical Inn and the Leeds Liverpool canal at Aspull, Wigan. Enoch Fletcher was drinking here on the night of his death and it is here that his body was brought for the inquest.

Unfortunately, it turns out that death by drowning was an all too common feature of life in industrial towns in the nineteenth century. Canals and rivers could be death traps in more ways than one. Towpaths, which ran beside pubs and hostelries, were often unpaved and slippery late at night; they provided a conveniently ill-lit venue for drunken fights, robberies and muggings. Local waterways also proved a popular repository for unwanted babies (some aborted, and some the victims of infanticide), and last but not least, there was a significant rise in the number of suicides by drowning in Britain in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

Charles Dickens’s novel, Our Mutual Friend (1865) famously opens with the unsavoury character, Gaffer Hexam, and his daughter ‘Lizzie,’ sculling along the dark river Thames in a small boat looking for the bodies of the dead. Hexam describes the results of his recent trawls dispassionately as a mixed bunch: a sailor with tattoos on his arm, a young woman in grey boots and wearing linen marked with a cross, a man with a nasty cut over his eye, two sisters who tied themselves together with a handkerchief, and a drunken old chap in a pair of slippers and a nightcap who had drowned because he had entered into a bet to ‘make a hole in the water for a quart of rum.’

I don’t know what my great-great-grandfather Enoch Fletcher was wearing when the Leeds-Liverpool canal claimed his life in February 1869. What I do know is that after a night out, the unfortunate fellow, was making his usual early morning trip home from the Commercial Inn at Top Lock, in the district of Aspull, when he, apparently, stumbled and fell into the water. His death certificate records ‘Drowning in the Leeds-Liverpool Canal. Fell in accidentally while intoxicated.’

Drowned bodies, in the first instance, I have discovered, drop to the bottom of canals. If the weather is cold, as I am sure it was in Wigan that February, they can remain below for sometime. From the date of Enoch’s death certificate, however (just a week later), it is obvious that his body was raised to the surface pretty quickly, probably with a ‘keb’  - or iron rake - normally used to retrieve coal and other articles from the canal bed. His swollen corpse would then have been brought back to the Commercial Inn for identification and for the inquest. Records of such inquests often turn up a few days after the date of death in local papers and I was satisfied to find a record of the inquest for Enoch on the relevant microfiche of The Wigan Observer and District Advertiser.

Wigan Observer and District Advertiser, Saturday February 20th 1869

CASE OF DROWNING An inquest was held at the house of Mr Nathan Tyrer, Commercial Inn, near Top Lock, Aspull on Tuesday last, by F. Price Esq., deputy coroner for the district, on the body of Enoch Fletcher, engine fitter, employed at the Wigan Coal and Iron Company’s Works. Deceased fell into the canal on Saturday evening, near the Top Lock, and was quite dead when taken out. He was 54 years of age, and leaves a wife and family. A verdict of ‘accidentally drowned while intoxicated’ was returned by the jury.

The drowning of Enoch led me to ask questions about the easy availability of alcohol in Wigan in the latter half of the nineteenth century. By 1889, the Commercial Inn was one of 139 public houses, 62 beer houses and eight breweries in the town. A lot of men (and women too) probably stumbled home dangerously drunk at around that time. Even today, approximately two thirds of all adult males found drowning have consumed alcohol, and safety advice in swimming pools and around lakes warns that alcohol impairs the judgement, balance and co-ordination that are essential for swimming well and for avoiding hazards in water.

By strange co-incidence, just over a decade after Enoch’s death, in 1881, another of my great –great – grandfathers, Lawrence Cooke, a 77 year old cotton spinner and journeyman, met his end in similar circumstances in the same canal. Lawrence drowned in the Westwood Park area of Wigan and the death certificate says simply, ‘Found Drowned.’ I don’t know the real reason why Lawrence died. Like all victims of drowning, he would have been lying face down in the water with his head hanging and it is likely that his corpse would have been bruised and discoloured. Nowadays, it is possible to tell from forensic tests whether a drowned person stopped breathing before or after they entered the water, but in the nineteenth century, it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to ascertain whether Lawrence’s injuries were the result of buffeting by the water, or by injuries sustained before death.

A recent study by the Economic and Social Research Council on Violence in the North West suggests that official homicide figures in the nineteenth century grossly underestimated the actual amount of murder, manslaughter and infanticide in the second half of the nineteenth century. The study suggests that open verdicts were often returned ‘in the case of adults who had died under suspicious circumstances, especially those fished out of canals or the River Mersey.’ The phrase ‘Found drowned’ on a nineteenth-century death certificate is really just a convenient catch-all for a multitude of possible circumstances of death -  it simply means that the body was found in water.

Providing the bodies of the drowned reached the hands of the Victorian police  quickly, the pockets of any clothing would be searched, and details of the contents would be recorded in the local newspaper account of the death. In the case of unidentified persons, significant aspects of appearance and a list of possessions would  be described on posters that would be put up around the town in the hope that these would provide clues to identification.

While searching the Wigan newspaper records, I came across the details of a case of drowning that occurred in 1860. On this occasion, William Smith, a farm servant (and thankfully no relation of mine), had fallen into the Leeds-Liverpool canal from a cart passing over Martland Mill Bridge. When his pockets were emptied, they revealed ‘one penny in copper and a pipe.’ As a family historian, there is nothing that gives you quite as much of a thrill as finding out what was in the pockets of your own ancestor on the night he or she died. I was, therefore, intrigued to discover that when great-great grandfather number two was pulled out of the canal, his pockets yielded two items:  ‘a knife and an apple,’ poignant reminders of a simple life suddenly curtailed. Of course, the fact that there was no money in Lawrence’s pockets allowed  me to speculate that he might have been robbed and then murdered in the park on his last journey home. Perhaps, I mused, he was unable to get to his knife in time….

The third member of my family to lose her life in the same great commercial waterway was my great-great aunt, Margaret Daniels, ‘a factory hand.’ Margaret drowned on 8th March 1874,  ‘above No. 8 Lock, Upper Ince’ at the tender age of just twelve. The Deputy Registrar for Wigan, William Henry Milligan, was obviously so fascinated by the detail of the Coroner’s Report of the drowning that he filled in the space accorded to ‘Cause of Death’ on Margaret’s death certificate, with far more detail than was customary. The record reads: ‘Drowned in canal. Passing along bank in evening carrying umbrella. Accident – in the water 2 days.’ I am still speculating about why a twelve-year-old girl ended up meeting her end in murky waters just a few hundred yards from her home, and particularly why she had such a tight grip on her umbrella that she was still clutching it when her body was recovered.

An apple, a knife and an umbrella - I count myself fortunate that I have had these clues to my ancestors last moments. Sometimes, of course, the victims of drowning were fleeced before they reached police hands by those passers by, or professional boatmen, who actually brought the bodies ashore. Dickens’s Gaffer Hexam unscrupulously ransacked of the pockets of those he pulled from the river. When questioned, he would insist, with mock innocence that it was probably the ‘wash of the tide’ that emptied pockets and turned them inside out!

Charles Dickens was not the only Victorian to be fascinated by the idea of drowning. Literature and art are littered with many examples, from the poignant double death of brother and sister Tom and Maggie Tulliver at the end of George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss (1860) to the iconic portrait of Shakespeare’s Ophelia by John Everett Millais (1851-2). For my ancestors, and their families, of course, the experience of asphyxiation by water would have been anything but poetic. But the records of their deaths did provide a prompt for my imagination, allowing me to catch glimpses here and there – like reflections on water - of the perilous industrial world they inhabited.

Click here for more on books by Ruth A. Symes

Useful websites and books  Website on history of Wigan

Web address for the paper ‘Violence in the North-West with Special Reference to Liverpool and Manchester, 1850-1914’ Economic and Social Research Council.   Website for Pennine Waterways (includes lots of photographs) - A brief history of English canals

Nicoletti, L.J., ‘Downward Mobility: Victorian Women, Suicide and London’s Bridge of Sighs,’ Literary London 2.1 March 2004

Keywords: European ancestors, ancestry, family history, genealogy, death, death certificates, England, English, drowning

Family Records: Autograph Books

‘Roses Are Red, Dilly Dilly’

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

Autograph books have been popular from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. At first, these leather-bound and pocket-sized accessories were the favourite possessions of young middle-class girls, but increasingly they were kept by young people of all classes. Such books can now delight family history researchers in that they are usually filled with the signatures (and other fascinating contributions) of the close and extended family and friends of the books’ owners. Autograph books can also prove to be real treasure troves of extra information relating to the family (including photographs, and enclosures such as marriage notices and obituaries about those who have signed them).

Your ancestor might not have kept an autograph book him or herself but he or she might well have signed one owned by someone else. You cannot, of course, search for that fragment of your ancestor’s autograph easily in the archives or online but, as the following case illustrates, some researchers have come across ancestors’ autographs by accident whilst searching archives for something else.

A family history researcher knew that his ancestor was wounded in the First World War and was sent to recuperate at Derby Royal Infirmary. He searched the National Archives Website ( under the name of the hospital and discovered that Derbyshire Record Office holds the autograph book of a young nurse, Millicent Jackson, who collected contributions from many of the soldiers (and staff) at the hospital between 1915 and 1918. After viewing the autograph book in the archives, the researcher was delighted to find that there – alongside many other contributions - was his ancestor’s signature, a poem (possibly original) together with a tiny photograph pasted into the book by Nurse Jackson. The book also included newspaper cuttings about the deaths of particular soldiers who had contributed autographs. Many autograph books like this one have been donated to archives across the country as part of larger collections of papers.

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Five Things to Consider in Your Ancestor’s Autograph Book

If you do come across an autograph book owned by an ancestor, it may help your family history research in a number of different ways.

1. The most obviously useful entries will be contributions made by family members that record a name, relationship, and the date and place where the entry was made. An entry signed ‘Great-aunt Johnson, Wigan, June 1918’ for example can alert you to the fact that this relation was still alive and in this location at this particular time.

2. The entries in autograph books nearly always tell you something about the historical situations and social circles in which your ancestor lived and moved. There may be contributions from other members of a household or family, neighbours, school friends, work colleagues or military regiments. The autograph book of Mrs G. B. Stammer of Brighton (kept in the Bury St Edmund’s Branch of Suffolk Record Office), for example, contains the names of the men of The Suffolk Regiment (1915-1918) ninth Battalion, C Company.

Sometimes you will be able to cross-reference names in autograph books with other documentary sources. The autograph book of boarding-school girl Nellie McCarthy, for instance, includes the names of many of her classmates. The 1901 census shows confirms that girls with these names were indeed at school with her in Ipswich in 1901.

3. An autograph book can tell you something about the interests and aspirations of the person who owned it. There may, for example, be entries from famous people with whom your ancestor was enamoured or from particular sporting or artistic groups or societies with which the owner of the book was associated, for example, members of the local football team or amateur dramatics society.

4. Exactly how a person chose to make his contribution to an autograph book can be an important indicator of what he or she was like. Graphology – a popular pseudo-science since the end of the nineteenth century can help you analyse handwriting, for example. In 1899, the Sunlight Year book described graphology as ‘the science which seeks to discern the character of a man from his handwriting, governed by rules and [] acquired by practice and observation.’ It’s possible that your autograph-hunter ancestor might have used graphology to analyse his own collection. Here are some examples of what aspects of your ancestor’s handwriting might tell you about his or her psychology:

  • Ascending signature  - ardour, success and ambition.
  • Descending signature  - lack of confidence in oneself and melancholy.
  • Straight signature - firmness of nature or honesty.
  • Undulating or wavy signature - subtleness of nature, falsehood.
  • Large capitals at the beginning of the Christian name and surname - boasting, imagination and frankness.
  • Short final letters on words – economy, reserve and a critical mind.
And longer contributions in an autograph book can provide material with which to analyse such subtleties as the spaces between words and lines, the connections between letters, the symmetry of the writing and the pressure applied at different points in the entry! For more on how to analyse your ancestor’s handwriting see: Site promoting the science of graphology.

Contributors to autograph books betray their personalities in ways other than their handwriting as well. Consider the creative ways in which they have used the pages, turning them upside down, for example, or writing in their corners, folding the pages, or cutting holes in them. The occasion of writing an autograph also gives an opportunity for a contributor to exercise other talents peculiar to himself – sketching and designing word puzzles (such as anagrams and acrostics) being the two most obvious.

5. The choice of verse or ditty may also tell you something about the relationship between the contributor and the owner of the book. Thus my wise but wary grandmother once wrote in the autograph book that I kept in my teens: ‘Love all/Trust few/Learn to paddle your own canoe.’  Another entry by my serious but witty father in the same book commented wryly ‘Without me thou were nought!’

In the past, ‘visitor’ or ‘guest’ books in hotels or places of public interest could function as autograph books with contributors passing comment on what they had seen as well as recording their signatures and date of their visit. In such cases, the entries can create a striking picture of the world in which your ancestor once mixed. Dorothy Smith, the manageress of the Pump Room Teahouse in Bath the 1930s, for example, asked musicians and singers to sign a book after they had performed in the Pump Room’s Concert Hall (or even when they just came in for tea). Signatures included that of Paul Robeson (the influential singer and equalities campaigner), the soprano Dame Isabelle Baillie and the composer and conductor Rachmaninov. Alongside the contributions, Dorothy stuck newspaper articles and photographs – all of which make for a fascinating record of the ‘celebrity’ ambience of that particular place at that particular time. This autograph book can be viewed at Bath and North East Somerset Council’s Record Office.

If your ancestor collected famous signatures, his or her autograph book (or even individual pages of it) might be valuable. The professional business of collecting autographs is known as philography and the price an autograph can demand on the market depends upon:

  • who signed
  • exactly what they wrote
  • whether the signature was in ink or pencil (ink signatures are more valuable)
  • the overall condition of the autograph
And remember that if you do find an exciting saleable autograph, knowing something about how your ancestor acquired it – what is known in the trade as the ‘back story’ – can add to its value. Happy hunting!

Click here for more on books by Ruth A. Symes

Useful Books

Bingham, Eve, Simply Handwriting Analysis: Graphology Techniques Made Easy, Zambesi Publishing Ltd, 2007.

Branston, Barry. Graphology Explained: A Workbook. Red Wheel/Weiser, 1991.

Useful websites

Chat page from Good Housekeeping Magazine in which readers have contributed remembered verses and ditties from autograph books. For more information on philography. Detailed description of what makes an autograph valuable. Website of the British Institute of Graphologists.

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

Keywords: European ancestors, ancestry, family history, genealogy, autograph books, England, English, Europe

Family Records: Baby Books

A Mother’s Record

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

Baby books were often beautifully illustrated and contained additional features such as songs, poems and extracts from literature. From Eva Erleigh, The Little One’s Log: Baby’s Record, Illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard. Partridge, 2nd impress, 1929.

Filling in a Baby Book was primarily the task of a mother but other members of the family (including the child itself as it got older) might also have added details. The many hands at work within these books (sometimes retrospectively) may not always have been accurate, so be careful with the information you find. Eva Erleigh, The Little One’s Log: Baby’s Record, Illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard. Partridge, 2ndimpress, 1929.


Baby books were aimed at middle and upper class mothers who had the literacy skills and the time to fill them in. The Girl’s Own Paper October 2nd 1886, Vol VIII, No 353, The Leisure Hour Office, 1886.
 This book was designed and edited by Lady Utica Beecham in 1920. As well as serious advice on childrearing, the book includes many little poems as well as a number of frivolous snippets of information such as the flower, birthstone, colours and signs of the zodiac associated with each month. A nice extra touch is the inclusion of a baby song entitled ‘Sweet and Low,’ with printed music by Adrian Beecham (the editor’s 16 year old son) and words by Alfred Lord Tennyson. Lady Beecham, Our Baby: A Mother’s Companion and Record. London: Leopold E. Hill, 1920

Our Victorian and early twentieth-century ancestors, it would appear, had just the same desire to make memories concrete as we do today. Keeping records of a baby’s early life in the form of a baby book was one of many ways in which they set out to record, categorise and organise their world. Baby books may turn up among family papers or in second-hand bookstores.  Some may be advertised for sale on-line at bookstores and auction sites such as and And if you are lucky enough to come across such a book that relates directly to your family, it may provide you with a great deal of useful genealogical information and a lot of pleasure along the way.

Baby books first came into vogue at the end of the nineteenth century. Titles such as A. O. Kaplan’s Baby’s Biography (1891) and the Reverend Illingworth Woodhouse’s  Baby’s Record: Mother’s Notes About Her Baby (1895) comprised a list of blank forms in which mothers could record the important details about their child’s first years. In the 1920s, a number of prominent women produced a clutch of rather more sophisticated and detailed baby books aimed mainly at the upper classes. The Jewish child welfare reformer Eva Violet Isaacs (Marchioness of Reading) came up with The Little One’s Log (1927) which was published under her penname, Eva Erleigh. Lady Utica Beecham, the first wife of the composer Thomas Beecham (and from the same metropolitan social circle) designed Our Baby (1920).

All these writers used their Baby Books as an excuse to lecture mothers on all aspects of childcare or ‘mothercraft’ as it was sometimes known. Some hoped that their book would act as a medical reference for mothers, so that if a child developed an illness later in life, the mother could look back to their babyhood to trace why and when it had begun.

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What’s in a Baby Book?

Given the fact that baby books were not primarily designed with family historians in mind, it’s surprising just how much useful genealogical information they can contain. It’s relatively common, for example, to find the child’s name, the year, month and day of the week on which the child was born, the time of birth, the place of birth, father’s name, mother’s name, father’s occupation, father’s birthplace, mother’s birthplace, mother’s maiden name, names of siblings, and addresses of the family’s home or homes. Baby books may also include the names and addresses of schools attended by the child with dates of attendance and there were often spaces for the date of Holy Confirmation, the Date of Holy Communion and the date of matrimony (assuming that the family continued to keep a record of the child’s progress into his or her adulthood. 

Less interesting from a genealogical point of view might be the physician’s signature and address and the nurse’s signature and address as well as details of the child’s christening including the hour, day of the week, month and year that it took place, by whom the child was christened, and the place of christening. There were also places to record dates of weaning, immunisations and hospital stays.

Baby books usually provide the names of a child’s godparents. These might well have been direct relations of the child. It was common, for example, to ask grandparents to be sponsors. But even if they were not directly related, the names of godparents might help you to place a child socially. Godparents were usually chosen because of their friendship with the family, and their social and financial position was carefully considered. It was not ‘the done thing’ to choose godparents from a very much higher social rank than your own family, but on the other hand, it was certainly hoped that godparents might provide for a child  - in one way or another - later in life.

Baby books can also be helpful in solving the mysteries of where certain family heirlooms came from. It was common to give items made of silver, coral or mother of pearl such as cups or porringers, knife-fork-and-spoon sets, basins, napkin rings and ‘comfit implements’. These are often listed in baby books next to the name (and relationship) of the person who gave them.

Finally baby books allow you to flesh out your knowledge of the first years of a particular individual’s life in a way that no other record really can. Even early examples include spaces to record the dates of the baby’s first laugh, first step, first words, and ‘pretty sayings,’ his or her first illnesses and the presents he received on his first few birthdays. There may also be places in the book specifically in which to keep material reminders of the baby’s development: photographs, locks of hair and even baby teeth. Sometimes, tables provide the opportunity to keep a monthly record of the baby’s height and weight, and the appearance of teeth. Some books even have spaces for drawings of the shape of the baby’s head or tracings of his hands and feet.  In addition, Baby Books typically contain envelopes for the storage of cards, telegrams, letters and even valentines sent to the child: all of which may include further family history clues. 

Case Study: Baby Book of Felix Hope-Nicholson

This particular Baby Book evidently belonged to a rather well-to-do family. The child: ‘Charles Felix Otho Victor-Gabriel John Adrian Hope-Nicholson,’ was born on July 21st 1921 and was thankfully known to his family only as ‘Felix’. According to the details penned inside in black ink, Felix’s father, William Hedley Kenelm Hope-Nicholson, was a Barrister at Law at the Inner Temple and the family lived in Chelsea.

The book is reasonably well filled in with all the important details of the birth and christening recorded as well as some little gems such as (under a section headed ‘Journeys Made’) the information that baby Felix’s first trip abroad was ‘to Beaulieu in August 29th 1922 and thence back to London on October 14th.

The family were evidently prosperous and rather showy. Nowhere is this more evident than in the description of Felix’s place of birth which is described as ‘Mamma’s blue and gold bedroom at More House, 34 Tite Street, Chelsea.’ The romantic phraseology shows how Baby Books are, in some sense ‘idealised biographies’ – giving the rosy picture of the family that they wanted to present to the world.

As with all such records, some of the information in the book is frustratingly non-specific. Under the potentially exciting heading, ‘Those present at the christening,’ appears the lacklustre list: ‘His parents, Grandparents, 4 of his Godparents, 5 great Aunts, 4 cousins and 10 friends, besides, of course, Lauretta and Nannie.’

A simple search for the surname ‘Hope-Nicholson’ on Google turned up an online obituary in the Independent from February 18th 2005. This recorded the death of Lauretta Hugo nee Hope –Nicholson (artist and wife of the painter Jean Hugo who was the grandson of the famous French novelist Victor Hugo). This lady is evidently the very same Lauretta recorded as having attended the christening in the Baby Book. The obituary goes on to confirm that she was Felix’s older sister.

According to the obituary, the Hope-Nicholsons had a difficult childhood. Their parents separated in 1937 and whilst Felix stayed in England with his mother, the two sisters went to live in France (at Beaulieu) with their father. So much for the hectoring advice from the book’s editor Lady Beecham about the merits of a harmonious marriage!

Click here for more on books by Ruth A. Symes

Useful Websites On the etiquette of Victorian births and christenings.  and  Second-hand baby books may come up for sale here.

Useful Books

Lady Utica Beecham, Our Baby: A Mother’s Companion and Record. Leopold E. Hill, 1920.

Eva Erleigh. The Little One’s Log: Baby’s Record, Partridge, 1927.

Ginger S. Frost, Victorian Childhoods, Praeger Publishers, 2008.

A. J. Pierce and D. K. Pierce, Victorian and Edwardian Children from Old Photographs, Batsford, 1980.

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